30 June 2015

Homily - Funeral Mass

Dear brothers and sisters,

We were reminded this past Sunday of something we too often forget, namely, that “God did not make death, nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living” (Wisdom 1:13). But because we experience death each day in one way or another, we presume that death is a natural consequence of life; that we are born and die seems as normal as eating, drinking, and sleeping, but this does not make the experience of death any easier to bear.

From the beginning it was not so, “for God formed man to be imperishable” and only “by the envy of the devil [did] death enter the world” (Wisdom 2:23, 24). Death, then, is not natural, it was not part of the original plan of God, yet he has nonetheless brought it into the workings of his Providence. Indeed, death was first given as a divine punishment, but “a divine ‘punishment’ is also a divine ‘gift’, if accepted, since its object is ultimate blessing, and the supreme inventiveness of the Creator will make ‘punishments’ (that is changes of design) produce a good not otherwise to be attained.”[1]

Because God does not rejoice in the destruction of the living, he sent his Only Begotten Son among us. He willingly abandoned the glory of heaven and took on our frail humanity; he lived our life and he died our death, giving his life for us on the Cross. Yet his death was not to be the end. He was raised from the dead by the power of the Father and his Resurrection destroyed forever the bonds of death. This is why the hope of the souls of the just is “full of immortality” (Wisdom 3:4). The just look to the Risen Lord, confident that he will raise their mortal bodies from the dust, as well, that they will live with him forever.

Yet despite this hope, despite our confidence that “the faithful shall abide with him in love,” death still causes us great pain and anguish even as it raises many questions (Wisdom 3:4). Very rarely do we ask why we have to die; we have accepted it as a simple reality from which we cannot escape, and this is true, as far as it goes. We do ask, though, why our loved ones must suffer before death, especially if their suffering extended for a length of time, especially when their suffering extends for a span of several years. Why could they not simply have been given a quick and painless death, we ask; why must it have been drawn out?

This is a question, of course, without any obvious answer, but that does not mean we cannot say something about it. Certainly, it is never easy to watch a loved one suffer and it was not easy for you to watch Shirley suffer these past many years, but your love for her and her love for you kept you together and allowed you to suffer with and for each other. Was this suffering – her suffering and yours - meaningless, or might there have been an unseen purpose to it?

Before the Lord Jesus ascended the throne of his Cross, he said to those who would be his disciples, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). From this it follows that just as the Cross was the only means to the Resurrection, so, too, is the Cross – however it is presented to each of us – the means by which we will attain eternal life because our own crosses are a sharing in the Cross of Christ. This is why Saint Peter encourages us, saying,

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal which comes upon you to prove you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice in so far as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed (I Peter 4:12-13).

The suffering that Shirley endured was an invitation to share in the sufferings of Christ, to complete in her flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ for the sake of his body, the Church (see Colossians 1:24). If we seek to unite our sufferings together with the sufferings of Christ, our sufferings, like his, can be redemptive, both for us and for others; they can bring about a good unseen and even unlooked for.

This is why King Solomon wrote that “chastised a little, they shall be greatly blessed, because God tried them and found them worthy of himself” (Wisdom 3:5). We have gathered here today, the family and friends of Shirley, to pray for her, to implore the Lord Jesus to count her among his flock and to welcome her into his pastures. We have come to pray that, since Shirley was tried as gold in the furnace, that she may now know the fullness of the grace and mercy of God and dart about as sparks through stubble, that she may always be with the Lord (see Wisdom 3:6, 7, 9; I Thessalonians 4:17).

If we are honest, each one of us will recognize that we have a longing that extends beyond the realms of this world, a desire for something greater than this life can give; we have a yearning for life without end, but not simply an unending life as we know it now; such a life would be unbearable. We long, rather, to be with the Lord, to look upon the face of the Creator who alone can fulfill the deepest aspirations of the human heart.

In one of his letters to his son Michael, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote beautifully of this desire: “There is a place called 'heaven' where the good here unfinished is completed; and where the stories unwritten, and the hopes unfulfilled, are continued. We may laugh together yet...”[2] This is why we have come today to the altar of God, to pray that we may one day laugh with Shirley again, that our hopes may be fulfilled, our stories completed, and our good works finished. But how can this be?

Earlier we said that death, which was first a punishment brought about by the envy of the devil, is, paradoxically, also a gift that brings about something otherwise unattainable. What do we mean? The unexpected consequence of death – the unexpected gift of death – is heaven:

With this term "Heaven" we wish to say that God, the God who made himself close to us, does not abandon us in or after death but keeps a place for us and gives us eternity. We mean that in God there is room for us.[3]

Before our expulsion from Paradise, before we rebelled against God and set ourselves up as his equals and rivals, God walked with us in the garden in the cool of the evening (see Genesis 3:7). Now, though, through the death and Resurrection of Christ Jesus, God does not simply walk among us but has opened himself up to us; now we can live not simply with God, but in God. And because there is now room for us within the One who is Goodness, Beauty, and Truth, within the One who is Love, the deepest yearnings of our hearts can be satisfied and fulfilled; indeed, they will be satisfied if we die in friendship with him.

To understand this reality a little better let us look at our own lives. We all experience that when people die they continue to exist, in a certain way, in the memory and heart of those who knew and loved them.

We might say that a part of the person lives on in them but it resembles a "shadow" because this survival in the heart of their loved ones is destined to end.

God, on the contrary, never passes away and we all exist by virtue of his love. We exist because he loves us, because he conceived of us and called us to life. We exist in God's thoughts and in God's love. We exist in the whole of our reality, not only in our "shadow".

Our serenity, our hope and our peace are based precisely on this: in God, in his thoughts and in his love, it is not merely a "shadow" of ourselves that survives but rather we are preserved and ushered into eternity with the whole of our being in him, in his creator love.

It is his Love that triumphs over death and gives us eternity and it is this love that we call "Heaven": God is so great that he also makes room for us.[4]

The Saints live now in God and experience the fullness of his love. May Shirley be admitted this day to their company to know the fullness of happiness, joy, and peace for ever. Amen.

[1] J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 212.
[2] Ibid., Letter to Michael Tolkien, 9 June 1941.
[3] Pope Benedict XVI, Homily, 15 August 2010.
[4] Ibid.

29 June 2015

Saint Thomas More on the Holy Face

As part of my summer reading, I am working my way through Saint Thomas More's Dialogue Concerning Heresies (which is, I might say, a very good read).

Last evening I found myself reading through his refutation of the arguments against sacred images in which More brought up what is now known as the Veil of Manoppello. He said that Jesus
was pleased to leave the holy veronica, also an express image of his blessed face, as a keepsake to remain in honor among those who loved him, from the time of his bitter Passion to this day. Just as by the miracle of his blessed, holy hand it was imprinted and left on the sudarium [i.e., napkin; see John 20:7], so by a similar miracle has it been, in that thin, corruptible cloth, kept and preserved uncorrupted these fifteen hundred years, fresh and easy to make out, to the inward comfort, spiritual rejoicing, and greatly increased fervor and devotion of the hearts of good Christian people.
For the curious, and for those who know something of the history of the Veil of Manoppello, More wrote his Dialogue Concerning Heresies in 1528.

You can see for yourself just how fresh and easy to make out the face of the Lord is in that piece of byssus:

I have never met anyone who has looked upon the Holy Face who did not the Shrine of the Holy Face inwardly comforted, rejoicing in spirit, or with increased devotion.

27 June 2015

Homily - 28 June 2015

The Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Dear brothers and sisters,
Friday’s not unexpected decision of the Supreme Court Obergefell vs. Hodges stands as a stark reminder of why the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops chose the “Freedom to Bear Witness” as the theme for this year’s Fortnight for Freedom. In response to this decision which attempts to redefine the essential characteristics of marriage, Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz said,

Regardless of what a narrow majority of the Supreme Court may declare at this moment in history, the nature of the human person and marriage remains unchanged and unchangeable. Just as Roe v. Wade did not settle the question of abortion over forty years ago, Obergefell v. Hodges does not settle the question of marriage today. Neither decision is rooted in the truth, and as a result, both will eventually fail. Today the Court is wrong again. It is profoundly immoral and unjust for the government to declare that two people of the same sex can constitute a marriage.

The unique meaning of marriage as the union of one man and one woman is inscribed in our bodies as male and female. The protection of this meaning is a critical dimension of the “integral ecology” that Pope Francis has called us to promote. Mandating marriage redefinition across the country is a tragic error that harms the common good and most vulnerable among us, especially children. The law has a duty to support every child’s basic right to be raised, where possible, by his or her married mother and father in a stable home.

Jesus Christ, with great love, taught unambiguously that from the beginning marriage is the lifelong union of one man and one woman. As Catholic bishops, we follow our Lord and will continue to teach and to act according to this truth.[1]

Every moment of every day, our thoughts and our deeds demonstrate whom it is that we follow.

As those who bear the noble name of Christian, we claim to follow Christ Jesus, but would someone looking at our lives be able to know this? Would someone see in my actions the same yearning to draw close to Jesus, the same longing to experience his power, as we see in the woman afflicted with hemorrhages (see Mark 5:25-27)? Would someone reading my thoughts find the same confident trust in Jesus as we see in Jairus (see Mark 5:22-23)? At the end of the day, would someone see me with the majority of the crowd who once pressed in upon Jesus, but now stand apart from him, mocking and taunting him in rejection of his clear teachings, or would they find me gathered close to him? The manner in which we received Friday’s Supreme Court decision demonstrates whom it is that we follow. We cannot forget the words of Jesus himself that “he who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters” (Matthew 12:30).

Even Justice Kennedy, who wrote the opinion of the Court on behalf of the simple majority, acknowledged that this decision does not, as Archbishop Kurtz said, settle the question of marriage. Indeed, Justice Kennedy, after explaining the rationale of the decision, gave an important reminder that will likely receive very little consideration in the press or in society as a whole. He said:

Finally, it must be emphasized that religions, and those who adhere to religious doctrines, may continue to advocate with utmost, sincere conviction that, by divine precepts, same-sex marriage should not be condoned. The First Amendment ensures that religious organizations and persons are given proper protection as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths, and to their own deep aspirations to continue the family structure they have long revered.[2]

This statement of the Supreme Court notwithstanding, we can surely expect those who rejoice in the decision of Obergefell vs. Hodges to attempt to silence us whenever we speak of the truth of marriage as created by God as a means for one man and one woman to grow in holiness together. Just as many seek to use the Supreme Court decision Roe vs. Wade to silence our voices when we speak of the beauty and dignity of life, many will likewise seek to use this decision to silence our voices when we speak of the beauty and dignity of marriage and of the high calling a husband and wife receive from God to reflect his love to the world.

Indeed, we have already experienced such a move to silence us not too long ago. When the so-called Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Union Act was being considered, we were assured it would in no way, shape, or form affect foster care and adoptions. Yet within six months of the bill being signed into law, the state of Illinois forced Catholic Charities out of foster care and adoption services. The next assault against the freedom of religion – the freedom to live out one’s faith in every aspect of life – will likely fall upon our schools because we cannot teach that so-called same-sex marriages are the same as marriages that adhere to the will of God. This will simply not be tolerated by those who oppose the Gospel.

What, then, are we to do? First, we must remember this advice of Saint Paul: “Have nothing to do with stupid, senseless controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kindly to every one, an apt teacher, forbearing, correcting his opponents with gentleness” (II Timothy 2:23-24). Second, we must proclaim the Gospel in its fullness and invite everyone to embrace it in full, beginning even with ourselves.

The voice of the Church, and of her members, cannot be silenced. We cannot allow ourselves to be pushed out of the public square and relegated only to our homes and church buildings. We have received the Great Commission from the Lord Jesus to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations … teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew  28:19). We cannot shy away from this command.

What, then, should our response be when others attempt to silence our voices, our voices raised only in genuine love and the desire for the true and lasting good of all? We must, as Saint Paul instructs us today, know and excel in “the gracious act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (II Corinthians 8:9). Through these poetic words, the Apostle alludes to the Incarnation by which the only Son of God abandoned the glory of heaven, taking our frail humanity upon himself, to suffer and die for us. His is the most gracious act there ever was and no act can ever be more gracious. Even so, we, as those who claim to follow him, as those who bear his name, must strive to make all of our actions resemble this supreme act of grace.

Jesus gave everything he had because “God did not make death, nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living” (Wisdom 1:13). As he ministered among us, he healed the sick and raised the dead to foreshadow the fruits of his own death on the Cross through which he destroyed the power of death and opened for us the way to life, to life without end! So it is that we can rightly sing, “O Lord, you brought me up from the netherworld; you preserved me from among those going down into the pit” (Psalm 30:3).

This life is promised us in Baptism, but we can reject this gift through a life lived in grave sin. The Church wants no one to lose this life and so calls everyone to follow Christ in fidelity, using his own words to do so: “Repent, and believe in the Gospel” (Mark 1:15).

The Church insists on having the freedom to bear witness to the truth because of her desire – a desire that comes first from Christ - that no one remain in death but that everyone hear the invitation to life unending. The truth, we know, is not a thing to be studied but a person to be known, loved, and followed; the truth is Jesus Christ – who is also the way and the life – and no one can go to the Father except through him (see John 14:6). The Church desires to help everyone draw near to Christ to experience the power of his healing touch, but she can only do so if she is free to bear witness to the truth.

The founding fathers of these United States of America sought to protect this liberty of the Church and of her members in the first amendment to the Constitution. The “free exercise of religion” is our first and most cherished liberty, yet it is increasingly under attack on a great many fronts today. The Bishops have called us to this Fortnight for Freedom to study the growing infringements on religious liberty, to advocate for the protection of the freedom of religion, and to implore the Lord that this most cherished liberty will be maintained and strengthened.

The Holy Father Pope Francis has called us to a renewed evangelical zeal, to a deeper commitment to follow Christ faithfully in all things:

We must not be afraid of being Christian and living as Christians! We must have this courage to go and proclaim the Risen Christ, for he is our peace; he made peace with his love, with his forgiveness, with his blood and with his mercy.[3]

Let us take up the call of Pope Francis to imitate the gracious act of Christ, to imitate his act calls all people from darkness to light. Let us, with humility and love, help others to draw close to Christ, to reach out and touch his hand, so that they might be saved from death. Let us strive to bring others with us on the way of Christ, the only way that leads to true and lasting happiness, joy, and peace. Amen.

[1] Statement of Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz, President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, June 26, 2015. Accessed June 26, 2015. Available at http://www.usccb.org/news/2015/15-103.cfm.
[2] Obergefell vs. Hodges, IV.
[3] Pope Francis, Regina Caeli Address, 7 April 2013.