26 June 2016

Homily - 26 June 2016

The Thirteenth Sunday of the Year (C)
26 June 2016
Dear brothers and sisters,

Says Elisha to the prophet Elijah, “Please, let me kiss my father and mother goodbye, and I will follow you” (I Kings 19:20).  Says an anonymous disciple to the Lord Jesus, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say farewell to my family at home” (Luke 9:61).  The requests are the same and both place a condition on discipleship, but the responses are quite different.

The prophet Elijah answered his future and chosen successor Elisha, saying, “Go back!” and Elisha kissed his parents goodbye before following the prophet (I Kings 19:20); Elijah seems to have reluctantly accepted Elisha’s condition. Jesus answered his would-be follower, saying, “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62); Jesus does not accept the man’s condition.

We see, then, that what Christ the Lord said elsewhere is true, “There is something greater than Jonah here” (Luke 11:32).  Jesus is indeed greater than the prophets, which is why he demands more than they demanded; he demands more because he has “the words of everlasting life” whereas the prophets only spoke on behalf of him who has these words (John 6:68).

There is yet another uneven parallel in the readings proclaimed to us today. When messengers from Ahaziah, King of Samaria, arrived where Elijah the Tishbite was staying, demanding he leave the hilltop upon which he sat, the prophet answered them, saying, “If I am a man of God, may fire come down from heaven and consume you” (II Kings 1:10). And so it happened. Twice. Today the Sons of Thunder, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, want to do the same to the Samaritan town that “would not welcome [Jesus] because the destination of his journey was Jerusalem” (Luke 9:53). The two Apostles said to the Master, “Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to consume them,” (Luke 9:54)? They know Jesus’ authority and his power. Jesus, however, shows his mercy to be greater than that of Elijah, to be greater than the devotion of James and John, when he rebuked them and “journeyed to another village” (Luke 9:56). The time of his judgment on the world had not yet come, though it one day will.

And whereas Elijah permitted Elisha to go back before following him, Jesus does not permit those whom he calls to return one last time, even for a worthy and noble task; looking back from a life of discipleship to the life before is the same as rejecting Christ. Saint Basil the Great put it this way: “A person who wishes to become the Lord’s disciple must repudiate a human obligation, however honorable it may appear, if it slows us ever so slightly in giving the wholehearted obedience we owe to God.”[1]

The follower to whom Jesus said, “Follow me,” requested, “Lord, let me go first and bury my father” (Luke 9:59). He wanted to postpone the Lord’s invitation because of an honorable duty. His request was to fulfill a corporal work of mercy, to honor his father, as the Lord commanded when he caused these words to be carved on the tablet of stone, “Honor your father and mother, that you may have a long life in the land which the Lord, your God, is giving you” (Exodus 20:12). Though Jesus knows this command is sacred, he also knows that it is secondary to the greatest of the commandments, the love of God; the duty of following Jesus in love and fidelity, without hestitation, is still more sacred than the love of neighbor.

The Lord Jesus demands great things of us. He demands that we look to him above all else and let nothing keep us from him. He demands that we focus so intently on following him that we do not even look back. He demands that we not reconsider our decision to follow him. Why?

To look back is a sign of a lack of trust. To look back is a sign of a lack of love. To look back implies that something more important has been left behind, but can there really be anything better, anything greater, anything more important than the Incarnate love of God?  Apart from the joy of loving Christ, what is there in this world worth possessing, for everything else will be consumed by fire (cf. Revelation 20:9)? Rightly do we sing today, “You are my inheritance, O Lord” (cf. Psalm 16:5). It is, then, only in following the Lord Jesus in this way, without counting the cost and without looking back, that we discover our true freedom and attain the “fullness of joys in [his] presence” (Psalm 16:11).

We could rightly say that the readings today invite us to reflect on the dynamic between freedom and following Christ who requires obedience of us. Saint Luke tells us, “When the days for Jesus’ being taken up were fulfilled” – think here of his Ascension to the right hand of the Father – “he resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51). It is in this phrase, “resolutely determined,” that we see his freedom and in which we can come to understand ours.

The Master and Teacher knows that his crucifixion awaits him in Jerusalem; nevertheless, in obedience to the Father’s will, Jesus resolutely determined to offer his life out of love for us. “It is in his very obedience to the Father that Jesus achieves his own freedom as a conscious decision motivated by love.”[2]  

Who is freer than the One who is the Almighty? He did not, however, live his freedom as an arbitrary power or as domination. He lived it as a service. In this way he “filled” freedom with content, which would otherwise have remained an “empty” possibility of doing or not doing something.

Like human life itself, freedom draws its meaning from love. Indeed, who is freest? Someone who selfishly keeps all possibilities open for fear of losing them, or someone who expends himself “firmly resolved” to serve and thereby finds himself full of life because of the love he has given and received?[3]

We often acknowledge that it is in giving that we receive, yet we hesitate to put these words into action with the totality of our lives. Jesus requires this totality of us every day, regardless of the circumstances; anything less is a failure to love.

The Apostle Paul reminds us today: “For you were called for freedom, brothers and sisters. But do not use this freedom,” he says, “as an opportunity for the flesh; rather, serve one another through love” (Galatians 5:13). To live according to the flesh is to live according to my own selfish desires, to give in to my sinful tendencies, to live a life of self-absorption that paves the way to an obsession with taking selfies. To live according to the Spirit “means allowing oneself to be guided in intentions and works by God’s love which Christ has given to us;” to live according to the Spirit is to live a life focused not on myself, but on God and on my neighbor.[4] 
It is quite clear, then, that Christian freedom – that is, true and authentic freedom – is not the use of some arbitrary decision; rather, freedom “consists in following Christ in the gift of self even to the sacrifice of the Cross.”[5] Let us, then, beg the Lord to strengthen his grace within us, that we might follow him unreservedly in every aspect of life, wherever he should lead, confident that he “will show [us] the path to life, [the] fullness of joys in [his] presence, the delights at [his] right hand forever” (Psalm 16:11). Amen.

[1] Saint Basil the Great, Commentary on Luke, Homily 58.  In Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament Vol. III: Luke, Arthur A. Just, Jr. et al, eds.  (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter Varsity Press, 2003, 169).
[2] Pope Benedict XVI, Angelus Address, 1 July 2007.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.

25 June 2016

An unexpected encounter in the cemetery

The timing of the Lord is often both particular and inscrutable, adding to its wonder, mystery, and beauty. I have spent a good part of yesterday working on plans for a commemoration of an important event in the life of the Servant of God Father Augustus Tolton in the near future.

As part of these plans, I decided to make a visit to the grave of Father Tolton to help both focus and direct my thoughts. As it seemed to me a spontaneous visit, you can imagine my surprise, then, when a woman - who had been sitting in her car apparently finishing a conversation of her telephone - called out to me, "Are you visiting?" Aside from one of the workers at the cemetery, I do not recall anyone ever being at the cemetery whenever I have visited his grave. Not quite understanding what she meant, I asked, "What?" She clarified her question this time, saying, "Are you visiting Father Tolton?" An affirmative answer led into a conversation between the two of us. She visits the grave frequently and often finds visitors looking for Father Tolton's grave. 

We quickly realized that the two of us had previously exchanged e-mails and had planned to meet during my brief stay in Quincy before my move to Springfield next week. She was Isabel Armengol, the painter of the excellent image of Father Tolton recently installed in the chapel of Quincy University, about him I told you a few weeks ago. After seeing photographs of the painting online and knowing I wanted a copy of it, I sent an e-mail to her asking if it were possible to obtain a print of the image. She said it was and was happy to give it to me when I was next in the Gem City.

We talked there in the cemetery for about thirty minutes about her devotion to Father Tolton and about the process of painting the four feet by six feet image on which she worked for a year. While it was a project of love, she is still hoping to raise $15,000 to compensate her time, efforts, and energy on such a worthy project. She, of course, is right to do so and the Code of Canon Law even states that "lay persons who permanently or temporarily devote themselves to special service of the Church ... have the right to decent remuneration appropriate to their condition so that they are able to provide decently for their own needs and those of their family" (c. 231 § 1, 2).

There was once a day when the Church sponsored artists and most of the great works of art - now sadly treasured in museums - were commissioned by bishops, cardinals, and others from noble and royal families to adorn the houses of God, to contribute to the majesty of his worship, and to aid the prayer of the faithful. I think Ms.Armengol's painting of Father Tolton during the celebration of his first Holy Mass is able to achieve each of these ends.

Regrettably, today the Church is no longer such a patron of the arts, in no small part because most parishes and dioceses simply lack the necessary funds to support the work and livelihood of artists because we do not have noble and royal families who continue to support these works of art. Without such sponsorship, it sometimes becomes necessary to appeal to the generosity of all of the faithful to give proper remuneration to artists for their works, a sort of ecclesial crowd-funding, if you will. Such is the case with the painting of Father Tolton.

Until the funds are provided, the agreement between Ms. Armengol and Quincy University is that the painting will remain in the Q.U. chapel for three years, after which time the painting will return to the keeping of Ms. Armengol, who will seek the rest of the funding elsewhere. I hope it does not come to this. Though she did not have the chapel in mind when she began her work on the painting, it fits beautifully in the chapel and I think we should make a concerted effort to keep it there.

I have made a donation to this great project and I humbly ask you to consideration making a donation toward it, as well. If each of us contributes even a little something, we should be able to reach the goal without too much difficulty. I particularly appeal to my fellow Quincyans.

Just before Father Tolton left Quincy to take up his ministry in Chicago, he said, "Never will I forget the happy hours spent in the little St. Joseph church. I wish them ["the people of the Gem City"] all the blessings that can be bestowed upon them, for that charitable spirit that they have always shown toward me and the colored children." If Father Tolton promised not to forget us, let us not forget him.

For information about how or where to make a donation, please visit this page. Thank you! 

16 June 2016

The lifting high of the San Damiano crucifix

Some weeks ago I shared with the happy and unexpected news that the San Damiano crucifix, the one that spoke to Saint Francis of Assisi, would be returned - briefly - to the church of San Damiano just outside of Assisi where it was during Saint Francis' life. Not wanting to miss the opportunity to pray before this holy crucifix in its original location where the Lord Jesus used it to effect a spiritual renewal in the Church, I made a little pilgrimage yesterday to Assisi with Father Jeffrey Keyes, a priest of the diocese of Santa Rosa who blogs at Omnia Christus est Nobis.

We went up to my favorite city yesterday because I either misremembered the date of the crucifix's transfer or because I had my days confused. Whichever it was, we arrived at the church of San Damiano one hour before the scheduled arrival of the crucifix.

When we realized this, I asked Father Keyes if he wanted to stay for the arrival or head into the city and return this afternoon. Having grown quite of pushy and noisy crowds, I hoped he preferred the latter, but he wanted to stay and I'm glad we did.

This crowd in the City of Peace was not at all like the Roman crowds I am now used to. There was pushing. There was no surging. There was no shouting or yelling. Everyone was friendly, in good spirits, and even offered to let other people approach the barricades surrounding the narrow entrance to the church to take a photograph of the proceedings. The small crowd of about seventy people was simply a delight to part of and was a good reminder of why I love Assisi.

PHOTO: Jeffrey Keyes
It seems news of the transfer of the San Damiano crucifix did not spread very far at all, even among the Assisians. One of the shopkeepers I spoke with said he only learned of the transfer yesterday morning as he walked through the piazza of Santa Chiara. He saw the city police, the military police, and people in hazmat suits. Fearing some tragedy he asked what happened and then learned of the transfer.

At any rate, we waited outside the church of San Damiano for about forty-five minutes. The weather was most pleasant, about 76 degrees, under a partly cloudy sky and a welcome relief from the stifling heat and humidity of Rome. The scent of wild flowers and freshly cut grass filled the air and a gentle breeze was frequently felt on our faces.

When at last the white van arrived transporting the San Damiano crucifix a great but calm excitement was felt among the crowd, not least of all because we could not quite figure how or where the van would park to unload its treasure.

In the end, it turned round and backed up toward the door of the church, parking in the division of the crowd so that most of the crowd could no longer see anything:

Not unexpectedly, many of us in the crowd began shifting positions. Whereas we had been standing just one or two deep along the barriers, we began to stand four and five deep, but closer to the entrance of the church. Still, there was minimal pushing and no shouting and it all seemed to be done in rather a civilized fashion. I found a nice step to stand on to improve my view as the crate containing the San Damiano crucifix was slowly and carefully removed from the van and carried into the church:

Why did I spend all that time trying to learn Italian?

Once the crate was inside the church, the small crowd began readjusting itself again, as some took up positions directly behind the van but facing the door of the church. I followed the lead of an Italian scout leader and an Italian nun and climbed up inside the van, but then the workmen returned and politely asked us to step out of the van so they could remove a few pieces of lumber. It was a good plan we had, at least.

Despite the narrow opening for photographs, we shifted from side to side to allow each other to get a few photographs of the crate lying on the floor of the church as the lid was removed and the friars gazed closely at the details of the image:

PHOTO: Jeffrey Keyes
Even some of the Poor Clares were present for the transfer of the crucifix before which Saint Clare prayed so frequently and fervently:

PHOTO: Jeffrey Keyes
After the friars and nuns finished looking upon the crucifix, the workmen began the process of lifting the crucifix into the brackets already mounted on the archway above the altar (I would have closed the doors to the church for this part of the day) and it was at this point that I watched the process unfold on an American woman's cell phone:

Father Keyes, however, was in a good position to see the installation of the crucifix, a process which must have filled the workmen with some trepidation:

PHOTO: Jeffrey Keyes

Once the workmen were confident the crucifix was secure in its new-old location, they began taking down the scaffold:

Since it was at this point a little after 1:00 p.m., Father Keyes and I decided to make our way to our favorite pizzeria, the Pizzeria Monaci, the best in Italy (their pizzas, in my mind, rank just after Chicago-style deep dish pizzas).

We then stopped by the tomb of Saint Francis which I picked up a few candles and touched them to his grave. Afterwards we stopped by a ceramics shop where I ordered a set of plates and bowls with a color combination that matches that of my coat of arms:

We then stopped by a couple of my favorite shops in Assisi and then returned to San Damiano for a good bit of time in prayer before returning to Rome. We found the small church already filling up at 4:30 p.m. for the 6:30 p.m. Mass. At one point, a good number of elderly Italian women arrived together, but the pews were all filled. I gave my spot to one of the women and found a nice spot on the floor:

When it was time for us to catch our train, we left the church, but not before taking a couple additional photographs from the entrance:

Though I had planned to arrive in Assisi the day after the transfer of the crucifix, I am very happy that arrived on the day of the transfer. It was a great and enjoyable grace to be part of that historic day.

The San Damiano crucifix will remain in the church of San Damiano through Sunday evening and will be returned to Santa Chiara on, I believe, Monday morning.

11 June 2016

Back in the Matrix?

Whenever one moves from one house to another, there are many tasks which require your attention, such as changing your mailing address with your subscriptions and packing up your books, which makes your rooms feel empty. The process of moving is always a bit daunting and especially so when moving across an ocean.

Most of my things are now packed into boxes which sit outside my two rooms here in Rome waiting to be shipped to Springfield where I will soon take up residence as the Parochial Vicar at St. Agnes Parish. While the packing of my things provided a happy distraction from studies, the prospect of arranging for the purchase of a new car from some 5,000 miles away was less than pleasant, especially as I will need a car shortly after returning home.

Just before I moved to Rome I sold my Toyota Matrix to two friends who were recently married and were looking for another vehicle. The Matrix had served me very well over the eight years that I owned it and made the sometimes tedious task of driving across central Illinois much more pleasant and enjoyable.

I had given a little thought to the purchase of a new vehicle last summer and considered buying a different model from Toyota until I borrowed my old Matrix for a few days. After only a few seconds in the driver's seat before I knew I wanted another Matrix because the car handles incredible well, provides a comfortable ride with seats that sit higher than those in most cars, and is simply fun to drive. It seemed I had forgotten how much I enjoyed driving the Matrix, so much so that I jokingly threatened last summer to keep the car.

With this memory in mind, I recently contacted the dealership from which I bought the Matrix only to learn the model had unfortunately been discontinued. The dealer looked for a used Matrix for me, but without success.

After learning this, I (somewhat in jest) sent a text message to the friends to whom I sold the car telling them the dealership was "having difficulty finding another Matrix." To my great surprise, they asked, "Wanna buy your [M]atrix back?" Naturally, I did, and after a few messages sent back and forth the offer was serious because, though they, too, enjoyed the Matrix, they were thinking of looking for a truck.

The car now has around 195,000 miles on it, but that shouldn't be any problem at all; it is, after all, a Toyota. In fact, there are several 2005 Matrices - such as this one - with more than 300,000 miles on them, though, because the odometer apparently stops at 299,999 miles, the owners aren't quite sure how many miles the Matrices have traveled.

I'm very excited that I'll be back in the Matrix in just over a week's time!