06 August 2018

Homily - 5 August 2018 - The Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

The Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Dear brothers and sisters,

By appealing to the authority of the Risen Lord, Saint Paul insists that we who have been baptized into Christ “must no longer live as the Gentiles do” (Ephesians 4:17). Given the particularities and standards of the society in which we live, these are timeless words and a command we cannot ignore. It is because “truth is in Christ” – indeed, because Christ is the truth (cf. John 14:6) – that we should “put away the old self of your former life,” that is, the way of those who are not in Christ, the way of those who do not think and act in the light of the Paschal Mystery (Ephesians 4:22).

It cannot be convincingly argued that we live in a true, Christian society today because too many Christians think of Christianity principally as a moral code or an ethical standard, a code and standard which they continually water down and do not follow. Christianity, of course, includes and requires a moral code and an ethical standard modeled on the life of Christ, but we often fail to remember that the heart of Christianity, “the center of existence — which is what gives meaning and certain hope in the all too often difficult journey of life — is faith in Jesus, it is the encounter with Christ.”[1] Indeed,

It is not a matter here of following an idea or a project, but of encountering Jesus as a living Person, of letting ourselves be totally involved by him and by his Gospel. Jesus invites us not to stop at the purely human horizon and to open ourselves to the horizon of God, to the horizon of faith. He demands a single act: to accept God’s plan, namely, to “believe in him whom he has sent” (John 6:29).[2]

To use Saint Paul’s phrase, Christianity is about learning Jesus Christ, a learning which culminates in his friendship and in the reception of his own Body and Blood that “gives life to the world” (cf. Ephesians 4:20; John 6:33).

I mention this because, just a few days ago, His Holiness Pope Francis altered the text of the Catechism of the Catholic Church referring to the death penalty. He did so to clarify the Church’s moral teaching in the modern world. Some have called the alteration of this text a change in the Church’s moral teaching; strictly speaking, this claim is untrue.

The Church has always recognized the need of governments to protect their citizens. It sometimes happens that the only way to protect civilians requires the government to take the life of a dangerous criminal. While the Church tolerated capital punishment in past centuries, in more recent times there has been a clear and gradual development of the Church’s teaching regarding the death penalty. Pope Saint John Paul II reminded us that “not even a murderer loses his personal dignity, and God himself pledges to guarantee this,” as we see with the mark of Cain, who killed his brother Abel (cf. Genesis 4:15).[3] He also noted that “modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform” and for this reason he continually appealed for the end of the death penalty, which he called “both cruel and unnecessary.”[4] Likewise, Pope Benedict XVI also called for the end of the death penalty.

Following in their footsteps, rather than changing the teaching of the Church, Pope Francis has furthered the development of this doctrine and, we might say, tightened it. The paragraph of the Catechism of the Catholic Church regarding the death penalty now reads as follows:

Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good.

Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state. Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption.

Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person”,[5] and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide (2267).

Judging the signs of the times, the Holy Father has judged the the death penalty is no longer necessary due to the advances in detention systems. He is calling us to no longer live as the Gentiles do, but to learn Jesus Christ, to learn his mercy and the futility of vengeance.

Many in these United States of America have sadly already rejected Pope Francis’ clarification of this teaching because they have forgotten that he speaks with the authority of the Risen Lord and has been entrusted with the power of the keys. Whenever I find myself discussing the death penalty with others, I cannot help but recall a passage from J.R.R. Tolkien’s, Lord of the Rings. Speaking of the creature Gollum, Frodo Baggins says to Gandalf, “He deserves death.” To this, the wizard responds, “Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”[6]

When Saint Augustine reflected on how unlike the Lord Jesus he was, he wrote in his Confessions that he “heard as it were [Jesus’] voice from on high: ‘I am the food of the fully grown; grow and you will feed on me. And you will not change me into you like the food your flesh eats, but you will be changed into me.’”[7] To be changed into Jesus Christ, to think and act according to his mind and heart, is the goal of every Christian. Let us pray, then, that we will learn Jesus Christ ever more closely and, receiving his own Body and Blood, will be changed into him. Amen.

[1] Pope Benedict XVI, Angelus Address, 5 August 2018.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Pope Saint John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, 9.
[4] Ibid., Homily in the Trans World Dome of St. Louis, 27 January 1999.
[5] Pope Francis, Address to Participants in the Meeting organized by the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, 11 October 2017.
[6] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring: Being the First Part of The Lord of the Rings (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994), 58.
[7] Saint Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, VII.10. Henry Chadwick, trans. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 124.

29 July 2018

Homily - 29 July 2018 - The Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

The Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Dear brothers and sisters,

Detail, The Feeding of the Multitude
Limbourg Brothers, Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry
That multitude of people that gathered around the Lord Jesus today did so in the hopes “that they were going to come and carry him off and make him king” (John 6:12). The end goal in the planned coronation, of course, was a military rebellion to overthrow the power of the Roman Empire and restore the Kingdom of David. In this way, it can be said that today the crowd and Jesus both turned their eyes toward the holy city of Jerusalem, but for very different reasons.

When you and I approach the Christ of God, what is it that we seek? What is it about him that draws us to him? The individual members of the crowd approached him because they saw in him “the new Moses, worthy of power, and in the new manna, the future guaranteed.”[1] They misinterpreted what he said and did and failed to recognize his true kingship and the way in which he came to fulfill the law.

The Mosaic background provides the context for the claim that Jesus makes. Moses struck the rock in the desert and out flowed water; Jesus promises the water of life… The great gift, though, which stood out in the people’s memory was the manna. Moses gave bread from heaven; God himself fed the wandering people of Israel with heavenly bread. For a people who often went hungry and struggled to earn their daily bread, this was the promise of promises, which somehow said everything there was to say: relief of every want – a gift that satisfied hunger for all and forever.[2]

Is this not the same reason so many people still approach the Lord Jesus today, perhaps even some here among us? “They saw the signs he was performing on the sick,” and so the crowd followed him in utility, as a means to an end; rather than seeking to befriend him, they wanted to make use of him (John 6:2). Do we not often do the same?

Reflecting on the situation described in the Gospel, Saint Augustine of Hippo noted that “the governance of the world is certainly a greater miracle than satisfying the hunger of five thousand with five loaves; and yet no one wonders at this.”[3] When was the last time we simply sat outside pondering and marveling at how this world continues in existence despite our best attempts to destroy so much beauty? Too rarely do we contemplate the merciful governance of God. Saint Augustine went on to ask, “For what could mere goodness do when there was not enough bread to feed the hungry crowd? If power had not accompanied goodness, the crowd would have remained fasting and hungry.”[4] For this reason we can rightly sing today, “The hand of the Lord feeds us; he answers all our needs” (cf. Psalm 145:16). But what does it mean to say the Lord answers all our needs?

There are those today who falsely claim that if we follow Jesus we will be both healthy and wealthy. This is what we call the Prosperity Gospel. To be sure, it is not found in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John, for it is the Lord Jesus himself who says to us, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). Saint Peter, too, says to us, “Beloved, do not surprised that a trial by fire is occurring among you, as if something strange were happening to you” (I Peter 4:12). According to worldly wisdom, to require self-denial and to promise sufferings is a rather foolish way to recruit new followers, yet both lie at the heart of the true Gospel. But then, as Bilbo Baggins said, "adventures are not all pony rides in May sunshine."[5] Why?

When Jesus praised the widow’s mite, he said of her, “I tell you truly, this poor widow put in more than all the rest; for those others have all made offerings from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has offered her whole livelihood” (Luke 21:3-4). Rather than promising to reward her with endless wealth, as some would have us understand the Lord to say through the words of the Psalmist, Jesus commends her for giving all she had; he praises her because she responded to the need of others in the same way he responded to our need.

When they attempted to carry Jesus off to make him their king, the crowd turned their eyes to Jerusalem from which they hoped Jesus would provide for their earthly wants. Jesus, however, turned his eyes to Jerusalem, “to the Cross, the gift of love, and to the Eucharist, the perpetuation of this gift: Christ makes himself the Bread of Life for humankind.”[6] Because the Lord Jesus does not want to leave us fasting and hungry, he joins his power to his goodness and he gives us something more than bread; seeing how desperate is our need, mired as we are in sin, he gives us himself, as we shall hear in the coming weeks, because he knows that “man hungers for more” than bread. In fact, he knows that man “needs more. The gift that feeds man as man must be greater, must be on a wholly different level.”[7]

For the Christian, the presence of bread naturally evokes the Eucharist, a connection which Saint John will make undeniably clear next week.

What we call “bread” contains the mystery of the Passion. Before there can be bread, the seed – the grain of wheat – first has to be placed in the earth, it has to “die,” and then the new ear can grow out of this death. Earthly bread can become the bearer of Christ’s presence because it contains in itself the mystery of the Passion, because it unites in itself death and resurrection.[8]

Knowing we hunger for more than bread, Saint Augustine asked: “Who is the Bread of heaven, but Christ? But in order that man might eat Angels' Bread, the Lord of Angels was made Man. For if he had not been made Man, we should not have his Flesh; if we had not his Flesh, we should not eat the Bread of the Altar.”[9] And if we do not eat the Bread of the Altar, the Body and Blood of the Lord, we cannot be truly satisfied, nor can we unite our sufferings to his and share in his redemptive mission.

Why is it that we have come today? Have we come because we have were attracted to the healings and miracles Jesus performed and so expect him to give us some tangible benefit? Or have we come instead simply to ask his friendship to be renewed between us, to ask him simply for the gift of himself? If we have come here today to the altar of the Lord without the desire of receiving Jesus and his friendship, we have not come for the right reason. “Dear brothers and sisters, let us ask the Lord to enable us to rediscover the importance of feeding ourselves not only on bread but also on truth, on love, on Christ, on Christ’s Body, taking part faithfully and with profound awareness in the Eucharist so as to be ever more closely united with him.”[10] Amen.

[1] Pope Benedict XVI, Angelus Address, 29 July 2012.
[2] Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration. Adrian J. Walker, trans. (New York: Doubleday, 2007), 264-264.
[3] Saint Augustine of Hippo, Tractates on the Gospel of John, 24.2. In Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament Vol. Iva: John 1-10, Thomas C. Oden, et al, eds. (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter Varsity Press, 2006), 216.
[4] Saint Augustine of Hippo, Tractates on the Gospel of John, 24.3.
[5] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit: Or There and Back Again (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997), 31.
[6] Pope Benedict XVI, Angelus Address, 29 July 2012.
[7] Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, 267.
[8] Ibid., 271.
[9] Saint Augustine of Hippo, Sermon 130.2.
[10] Pope Benedict XVI, Angelus Address, 29 July 2012

11 July 2018

Islamic State in West Africa (formerly Boko Haram) Ongoing Updates - July 2018

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18 July 2018
17 July 2018
11 July 2018
10 July 2018

Ongoing Islamic State Updates - July 2018

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31 July 2018

30 July 2018

25 July 2018

23 July 2018

20 July 2018
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13 July 2018
11 July 2018
9 July 2018

04 July 2018

A new image of Father Tolton

Some days ago I stumbled upon the online store Portraits of Saints: Catholic Art and Gifts while looking for a holy card of a particular saint. As I browsed through the many selections, I was surprised - and pleased - to see several offerings of the Servant of God Father Augustus Tolton.

As an example of the artwork, here is the image of a laminated holy card:

I have ordered one and intend to use it as a bookmark (I find laminated holy cards are especially useful for this purpose).

03 July 2018

Another pilgrimage procession to Father Tolton's grave

When I was nearing the completion of my studies at the Pontifical Gregorian University two years ago, I realized that the date of my departure from the Eternal City and my return to the Gem City nearly coincided with the date of Father Tolton's return to Quincy from Rome, only 130 years later. So it was that I organized a small pilgrimage to his grave for the celebration of Vespers.

The group of pilgrims who braved the heat to honor our beloved Father Gus enjoyed the day evening so much that they asked for another pilgrimage the next year. Looking for another occasion to mark, we made the same pilgrimage last year in commemoration of the 120th anniversary of his death on July 9, 1897.

I have again been asked to lead a pilgrimage to his grave again this year to commemorate the anniversary of his death, which I am happy to do. Because July 9th falls on a Monday this year, we will have our pilgrimage procession on Sunday, July 8th. The details are as follows, as detailed in a press release:
PHOTO: Gretchen Mason
QUINCY - Area Catholics and others devoted to the Servant of God Father Augustus Tolton will commemorate the 121st anniversary of the death of Father Tolton with a pilgrimage procession on Sunday, July 8th. Father Tolton died in Chicago on July 9, 1897 and is interred in St. Peter Cemetery in Quincy, where he was raised and from which he left to study for the priesthood in Rome. He returned to Quincy as a priest in 1886 and ministered in the Gem City until he left for Chicago in 1889. Father Tolton has been proposed for sainthood and the Cause for his Canonization continues.
The pilgrimage procession will begin at 4:00 p.m. at the statue of Father Tolton outside St. Peter Catholic School at 2500 Maine Street. After a few words of welcome and explanation, followed by a prayer, the pilgrimage procession will process along the south side of Maine Street where it will cross onto the east side of South 33rd Street. It will then process along the east side of South 33rd Street until it reaches St. Peter Catholic Cemetery.
After entering the cemetery, the procession will stop at the grave of Father Tolton for the celebration of Evening Prayer at 4:30 p.m., which is composed of Psalms, a reading from Scripture, petitions, and song. After Evening Prayer, the pilgrims will pray for more priests through Father Tolton’s intercession and for his canonization as a saint.
The pilgrimage procession will conclude with the singing of “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name,” Father Tolton’s favorite song.
Those who wish to participate in the Evening Prayer but cannot walk in the procession are invited to park near the cemetery to meet the procession at the grave; because of the small size of the cemetery, no one should park in the cemetery itself.

Chairs and bottled water will be provided at the cemetery for those who wish to participate in the Evening Prayer.
Father Dominic Rankin has gratefully accepted an invitation to preach during the Evening Prayer. It seems this pilgrimage is likely to become an annual event, if it has not already become so.

I hope you will be able to join us for this pilgrimage procession. The forecast is already showing signs of improvement and has a of 85 degrees on Sunday. If that holds true, it should be a lovely afternoon!

23 June 2018

Homily - The "long defeat" and "a glorious failure" - The Nativity of Saint John the Baptist - 24 June 2018

The Solemnity of the Birth of Saint John the Baptist

Dear brothers and sisters,

Birthdays are, for many people, significant occasions on which to gather with their family and friends. Particularly for the young, birthdays are especially festive moments to play games, eat cake and ice cream, and receive gifts. Parents go to great lengths to ensure their children have an enjoyable birthday as they recall with gratitude the day they first heard the voice of their son or daughter. Holy Mother Church, on the other hand, only rarely celebrates the birthdays of her children, at least as we normally think of them.

Obviously, we celebrate the Nativity – the birth - of Christ Jesus on December 25th, but he is the Church’s founder, not one of her children. The Church celebrates the birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary on September 8th, but she is the image and model of the Church; indeed, she is the Mother of the Church, as the Holy Father Pope Francis recently reminded us. Today’s solemnity of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist is unique in the liturgical life of the Church; of all the saints, only birth is accorded the rank of a solemnity.

Saint Augustine of Hippo reminds us that “the Church observes the birth of John as in some way sacred; and you will not find any other of the great men of old whose birth we celebrate officially.”[1] Indeed, aside from the Lord Jesus and his Mother, the Church does not officially observe the birthdays of any other saint. This is not to say the Church does not celebrate the birthdays of her holy and faithful children. Take, for example, Saint Augustine. The Church celebrates his life on August 28th because it is the day of his death, his dies natale – his birthday, as the early Christians called it – into the glory of heaven. This is why Saint Augustine tells that today’s celebration of the birth of Saint John the Baptist “cannot be passed over in silence.”[2]

Recalling the full extent of Saint John’s life, one Scripture scholar has called him “a glorious failure,” a curious phrase to be sure, though not untrue.[3] After John was born, his mother’s “neighbors and relatives … rejoiced with her;” presumably his father’s relatives also rejoiced with him, but Luke does not give us this information (Luke 1:58). “Fear came upon all their neighbors” when Zechariah’s tongue was finally unleashed so he could bless God (Luke 1:65; cf. Luke 1:64). As the people considered the unusual – and miraculous – circumstances of John’s birth, they asked, “What, then, will this child be?” because they knew “the hand of the Lord was with him” (Luke 1:66).

Their wonder at the Baptist did not decrease with the passage of years. The crowds went out to see John from “all the country of Judea, and all the people of Jerusalem” (Mark 1:5). They went out to the river Jordan to hear his preaching, which consisted of two simple messages: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” and “He must increase, but I must decrease” (Luke 3:4 and John 3:30). A great many of the people heeded his preaching and “were baptized by him … confessing their sins” (Mark1:5). Yet others did not heed his preaching, like King Herod, who “was much perplexed” by John’s words, “yet he heard him gladly” (Mark 6:20).

Saint John taught them how to live a moral life and so to prepare themselves to welcome the Messiah, “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (cf. Luke 3:10-14; John 1:29). They liked what he said, but they would not follow it. For those caught in the mire of sin, the truth is both confusing and pleasurable. Herod liked listening to John because he knew he spoke the truth, even if Herod would not yet bring himself to turn from his sinful ways. It is not all that different in our own day.

Even so, the glory of Saint John the Baptist is not to be found in the attraction of the crowds or of royalty. It is, rather, to be found in his unrelenting efforts in preparing the way for the Lord Jesus, even to the point of offending the ruling class of Judea because of his public and verbal witness to the truth and dignity of marriage.

As an authentic prophet, John bore witness to the truth without compromise. He denounced transgressions of God's commandments, even when it was the powerful who were responsible for them. Thus, when he accused Herod and Herodias of adultery, he paid with his life, sealing with martyrdom his service to Christ who is Truth in person.[4]

It is in the loss of his head that we see the glory of Saint John the Baptist and why we can say he is “a glorious failure.” In the eyes of this world, he failed because he did not convert the hearts of all who heard him; in the eyes of the Church, however, his life is glorious because he never shied away from leading them to Jesus, even at great cost to himself. John was not afraid to decrease so the glory of Jesus might be better known.

If Saint John the Baptist spoke out so clearly against adultery in defense of marriage, one can only guess what he would be crying out today along our rivers. He was not afraid to let his voice be used for testimony to the Truth, for testimony to Jesus Christ. For what do we use our voices?

If we are honest and set our politics aside and begin to look at each again his human beings made in the image and likeness of God, we will readily see a myriad of areas of our society that would lead Saint John to cry out, “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:10)! How many issues today – from adultery to false marriages to contraception to abortion to divorce to greed to inhospitality and fear of the stranger – to warn us of the Second Coming of the Messiah, crying out, “His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into his granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Luke 3:17).

In the face of such atrocities, you and I, dear brothers and sisters, cannot remain silent; we, too, must place our voices at the service of the truth and in the service of the love of God and of neighbor.

Like John, if we speak about God’s truth boldly and continue to point toward Jesus, we are going to provoke opposition in this world from those who don’t want to hear it because it doesn’t suit their agenda. It may mean the loss of income, employment, possession and life. We’ve got to maintain an eternal perspective: God has a plan for each of us that began before our birth and extends beyond our death. The goal is not visible success in this life. It’s covenant fidelity (hesed) toward the one who is greater than us, whose sandals we are not worthy to tie, but nonetheless promises to “raise us up on the last day” (John 6:40).[5]

Can there be any doubt that our society is in great need of conversion? Who will be its heralds if not you and me?

In 1956, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote a rather profound sentence: “Actually I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic,” he said, “so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but ‘a long defeat’ – though it contains … some samples or glimpses of final victory.”[6] In this, he echoes something he put on the lips of the Lady Galadriel: “… together through the ages of the world we have fought the long defeat.”[7]

The pages of history are filled with many examples of saints whose witness, courage, and love reshaped their societies. Yet its pages are also filled with many examples of saints whose witness, courage, and love did not reshape their societies, as seems to be the case in our day. Saint Augustine continued to call men and women to the truth even as the Roman Empire collapsed around him in the midst of glimpses of the final victory of Jesus Christ. Consequently, his life, too, might be said to have been a glorious defeat because his witness and wisdom continues to teach us today how to follow Christ faithfully and fully.

Like Saint John the Baptism, then, together with Saint Augustine and so many others, may we never be afraid to raise our voices in the face of seeming long defeat, but let us fight it together. Let us, rather, take comfort in the glimpses of Jesus’ victory he allows us to see and raise our voices loudly and clearly in the service of the truth and love. Let us take courage in the example of Saint John the Baptist and never fear our lives becoming glorious failures for Jesus Christ. Amen.

[1] Saint Augustine of Hippo, Sermon 293.1.
[2] Ibid.
[3] John Bergsma, “Birth of a Glorious Failure: The Nativity of John the Baptist,” The Sacred Page: A Blog on the Bible and Catholic Theology by Michael Barber, John Bergsma, Brant Pitre, and John Kincaid, 21 June 2018. Available at http://www.thesacredpage.com/2018/06/birth-of-glorious-failure-nativity-of.html#more. Accessed 22 June 2018.
[4] Pope Benedict XVI, Angelus Address, 24 June 2007.
[5] John Bergsma, “Birth of a Glorious Failure.”
[6] J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter to Amy Ronald, 15 December 1956.
[7] Ibid., The Fellowship of the Ring: Being the First Part of The Lord of the Rings (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994), 348.