30 October 2022

Homily - On Climbing Foolish Trees


The Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Dear brothers and sisters,

Those who do not move along with the crowd are usually seen as outsiders. They are looked upon with contempt, with disgust, and with suspicion because they are seen to be subversive. In their unwillingness to do what everyone else is doing, they stand in contradiction to the crowd. Would that we had more such people today! Zacchaeus was such a man, a man who stood against the crowd in two particular ways.

The first is by the manner of his life; he “was a tax collector and also a wealthy man” because he made his riches by taking money from those in the crowd (Luke 19:2). As such, well known though he was, he was despised by the people, which partly explains why they refused to allow him to move to the front of the crowd when he “was seeking to see who Jesus was” (Luke 19:3). This leads us to the second way he stood against the crowd: “he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree in order to see Jesus;” he did what others were unwilling to do (Luke 19:4).

Reflecting on this passage, Saint Augustine of Hippo noticed Zacchaeus fleeing from the crowd, which stood as an obstacle to Jesus:

The crowd gets in the way and prevents Jesus from being seen. The crowd boasts and crows when it is able to get back what it owns. It blocks the sight of the one who said as he hung upon the cross, “Father, forgive them, because they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). [But Zacchaeus] ignored the crowd that was getting in his way.[1]

How often do we ignore the crowd? Are we willing to run ahead of the crowd to see Jesus? When Zacchaeus ran ahead of the crowd, did he remember the words of Sirach, “Take no pleasure in crowds, even if they are small” (Sirach 18:32)? Did he remember the words of Exodus, “You shall not follow a multitude to do evil” (Exodus 23:2)?

How many times does the crowd lead us to evil? How many times are we silent in the face of evil because of the opinion of the crowd? Christians are not called to be part of the crowd, but are called to step away from it to lead those in the crowd in another direction; we are called to stand as lights in the darkness, to bring evil into the light so the crowd may abandon its wickedness. We are called to do this at home, at school, at work; we are called to do this everywhere, even in the voting booth.

Returning to Zacchaeus, there is something important in the kind of tree that he climbed; that it was a sycamore is no mere coincidence, but, rather, a sign of Divine Providence. Saint Augustine calls it “a tree of ‘silly fruit’” and Saint Bonaventure calls it a “foolish fig tree.”[2] They call it this because, at its root, the word sycamore comes from two Greek words: syko, meaning fig tree, and moros, meaning foolish. It is the same word used in Genesis when Adam and Eve “sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons” (Genesis 3:7); in their foolishness, they attempted to hide from God. We do the same, do we not? But not Zacchaeus; he wanted to see Jesus, to place himself in his sight, and made himself a fool in the eyes of the crowd. In doing so, he showed himself to be not only an inquisitive man, but also a man of courage. Do we have the same courageous curiosity when it comes to God?

In some way, Zacchaeus, a grown man and a man of some importance as a servant of the Emperor, knew that “the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (I Corinthians 1:25). The crowd surely mocked him, as it often mocks those who intentionally follow Jesus even today, but their mockery does not seem to have concerned Zacchaeus.

“What sort of minds do you people have, who worship a crucified God?,” asks the crowd.[3] Our answer is simple:

They are certainly not your kind of mind. “The wisdom of this world is folly with God” (I Corinthians 3:19). No, we do not have your kind of mind. You call our minds foolish. Say what you like, but for our part, let us climb the sycamore tree and see Jesus. The reason you cannot see Jesus is that you are ashamed to climb the sycamore tree.[4]

Are we willing to stand against the foolishness of this world? Are we willing to stand against the consumeristic greed that promises happiness, but never delivers it? Are we willing to stand against the individualistic self-absorption that only leads to a spiral of despairing isolation? Are we willing to stand against the senseless rage that does not diminish? Or are we, like Zacchaeus, willing to be foolish in the sight of the crowd to look upon the wisdom of God, to look upon Jesus himself, and to welcome him into the homes of our lives (cf. I Corinthians 1:24; Luke 19:5)?

Saint Augustine urges each of us to abandon the crowd and to imitate that repentant extortioner:

Let Zacchaeus grasp the sycamore tree, and let the humble person climb the cross. That is little enough, merely to climb it. We must not be ashamed of the cross of Christ, but we must fix it on our foreheads, where the seat of shame is. Above where all our blushes show is the place we must firmly fix that for which we should never blush. As for you, I rather think you make fun of the sycamore, and yet that is what has enabled me to see Jesus. You make fun of the sycamore, because you are just a person, but “the foolishness of God is wiser than men.”[5]

If we wish to follow Jesus, if we wish him to change our lives and bring peace to our hearts, then we cannot blend in with the crowd; we must humbly stand out from the crowd and rise about it. “The person who wants to come to wisdom must condescend to faith in this foolishness” because “the foolishness of faith leads to the height of wisdom of Christ.”[6] Let us, then, not be ashamed to be fools in the eyes of the crowd so that we might know that “the Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and of great kindness” (Psalm 145:8). Amen.

[1] Saint Augustine of Hippo, Sermon 174.3.

[2] Saint Augustine of Hippo, Sermon 174.3. Saint Bonaventure, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, 19.7.

[3] Saint Augustine of Hippo, Sermon 174.3.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Saint Bonaventure, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, 19.7.

09 October 2022

Homily - 9 October 2022 - The Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Dear brothers and sisters,

The Psalmist today reminds us that “the Lord has made his salvation known: in the sight of the nations he has revealed his justice” (Psalm 98:2). There is, then, a connection between salvation and justice, but what is this connection? Perhaps more fundamentally, what do we mean when we speak of God’s salvation and of his justice?

The first thing we can say about God’s salvation is that it began, of course, with the people of Israel, which is why the Psalmist sings, “He has remembered his kindness and his faithfulness toward the house of Israel” (Psalm 98:3).

The second thing we can say about God’s salvation is that it is universal,

but it passes through a specific historical mediation, the mediation of the people of Israel, which goes on to become that of Jesus Christ and the Church. The door of life is open for everyone, but this is the point, it is a "door", that is, a definite and necessary passage. This is summed up in the Pauline formula we heard in the Second Letter to Timothy: "the salvation in Christ Jesus" (II Timothy 2:10)… God is love and wants all men to be part of His life; to carry out this plan He, who is Triune, creates in the world a mystery of a communion that is human and divine, historical and transcendent: He creates it with the method so to speak of the Covenant, tying himself to men with faithful and inexhaustible love, forming a holy people, that becomes a blessing for all the families of the earth (cf. Genesis 12:13).[1]

This is what we call the economy of salvation, the means throughout time by which God has chosen to redeem us, forgive us, and restore us to everlasting friendship in his presence.

The third thing we can say about the salvation of God is that it can be lost; God’s restorative and merciful forgiveness can be refused. We see an example of a rejection of the healing of God in Naaman’s initial refusal to follow the command of God given through his prophet Elisha (cf. II Kings 5:11).

What, then, can we say of God’s justice? The first thing we can say is what Saint Thomas Aquinas says, namely, that “in God, power, essence, will, intellect, wisdom, and justice are all identical.”[2] Indeed, whatever attribute we can find in the Godhead is identical with any other attribute we can find in the Trinity. His goodness is his beauty; his mercy is his justice.

The second thing we can say here is that God not only is justice, but that God creates justice, the virtue of giving to each person what is due to him or her. Just as our civil courts seek to do justice – at least in theory – to each person according to what he or she has done, so will God mete out justice to each of us at the end of our lives. We know that “faith in Christ has never looked merely backwards or merely upwards, but always also forwards to the hour of justice that the Lord repeatedly proclaimed.”[3]

The fact of the Last Judgment, in which the salvation of God is known in the demonstration of his mercy and his justice, makes clear that 


the way we live our lives is not immaterial, but our defilement does not stain us for ever if we have at least continued to reach out towards Christ, towards truth and towards love. Indeed, it has already been burned away through Christ's Passion. At the moment of judgment we experience and we absorb the overwhelming power of his love over all the evil in the world and in ourselves. The pain of love becomes our salvation and our joy.[4]

The mercy and justice of God are brought together in the Cross of Jesus Christ through which we receive the salvation of God. Please bear with me now for a few moments as I pivot my thoughts; I promise we will return to the question of God’s salvation and justice.

Last Sunday, as we entered into this Respect Life Month, I reminded you of the painfully sad statistic that in Illinois in 2020 the lives of 46,243 unborn babies were intentionally ended in their mothers’ wombs, in that very place which should be the safest place for any child on earth[5]. I reminded you that this number is very likely only to increase as neighboring states continue to either restrict or to ban abortion. Consequently, we must step up our efforts to end the barbaric and inhuman scourge of abortion in this Land of Lincoln.

I mention this again today because yesterday afternoon I saw something in my hometown that would have been inconceivable a few years ago and even last year: a group of about twenty women standing along the principle street protesting the recent Supreme Court decision Dobbs v. Jackson. With this decision, the Justices returned the question of the legality of abortion to the State legislatures, where, constitutionally, it should have remained all along. (Here we must remember not everything that is legal is moral.)

Many people do not understand what the Dobbs v. Jackson decision said, which is why those women were holding the usual lame euphemistic signs saying such laughable things as, “Keep your rosaries off my ovaries” and “Stay out of my womb.” I have never considered putting my rosary on any woman’s ovaries, and, frankly, I have no idea how I would do so even if I wanted to. The only womb I have ever been in is that of my mother (and that was forty-four years ago). Those women seemingly do not know what the law is in Illinois regarding abortion.

Putting humor aside, my heart broke for these women and tears filled my eyes as I drove past them because in their refusal to live in accordance with their bodies – in violation of the evident will of the Creator - they are placing their salvation at risk by challenging God’s justice for the innocent. Their hearts are filled with that “pride and selfishness that spawn indifference, hatred and violence in the human soul. No one, save God who is Love, can heal this leprosy of the spirit which scars the face of humanity.”[6]

For those who kill the innocent and for those who advocate the killing of the innocent, God’s justice will be revealed on the Last Day. For those who repent of such unjust acts against the innocent, God’s salvation will be revealed on the Last Day. You and I must do what we can to help those who advocate for abortion and who participate in abortion to see the error of their ways and beg the Lord to bring to repentance and conversion of heart; we must do so with gentleness, with honesty, and with genuine concern for the salvation of their souls.

One of the ways we can help in this effort, is to counter their arguments and correct their errors. At this moment in history, chief among their arguments is that we only care about the unborn child and not about the mother or what happens to either of them after the child is born. This, of course, is an unfounded claim, but if we are to convincingly refute it, we must be able to demonstrate our concern for the mother and her child in concrete ways. This is why I have resolved to make an ongoing monthly gift to First Step Women’s Center in Springfield because I know they will use it well to provide for mothers in difficult situations.

What is it that you can do? Perhaps you can volunteer to drive a woman to appointments with her doctors or to school or to work. Perhaps you can offer to watch her child while she cleans her home or goes to work or even takes a much-needed break. Perhaps you can offer to build something her home needs or to mow her lawn or shovel her drive. Perhaps you have a spare room that would be suitable for a young mother and her infant who has nowhere else to go.

These are all ways each of us can show our love not only for unborn children, but also for their mothers and for them as they grow older; they are also ways that you and I can become expressions of the mercy of God. Perhaps, by God’s grace and through our loving examples, we can lead those who advocate for abortion on demand to turn to Jesus, the healer of souls, to ask for his salvation and forgiveness. If they do, they will break out in song because “all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation by our God” and their heavy hearts will become light (Psalm 98:3). Amen.

[1] Pope Benedict XVI, Homily, 10 October 2010.

[2] Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I, 25, 5, ad. 1.

[3] Pope Benedict XVI, Spe salvi, 41.

[4] Pope Benedict XVI, Spe salvi, 47.

[5] Illinois Department of Public Health, “Abortion Statistics.” Accessed 1 October 2022. Available at https://dph.illinois.gov/data-statistics/vital-statistics/abortion-statistics.html.

[6] Pope Benedict XVI, Angelus Address, 14 October 2007.

02 October 2022

Homily on Guardian Angels and the Respect for Life

Dear brothers and sisters,

It may seem strange to say so, but the Gospel passage Mother Church provides for us today contains one of my favorite verses: “We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do” (Luke 17:10). Another translation of the Greek text puts it perhaps into easier English: “We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.”

This particular verse really should be one of the guiding principles of each of our lives. If we keep this verse ever in our hearts, it reminds us of an important truth: we are not the lords and ladies of our own lives. We are but mere creatures, whose existence is entirely dependent on the will of the Creator. As such, we must strive to serve him and to live in accord with his will for us.

When he considered this verse, Saint Ambrose – the spiritual father of Saint Augustine – said:

Know that you are a servant overwhelmed by very much obedience. You must not set yourself first, because you are called a son of God. Grace must be acknowledged, but nature not overlooked. Do not boast of yourself if you have served well, as you should have done.[1]

We are called neither to mediocrity nor to self-indulgence or self-promotion. Our society today gets this wrong and so produces very much unhappiness.

There are other creatures, however, who do find joy in being obedient to the will of God and who never boast of their service to the divine majesty. These are the angels. The angels know what we often forget, namely, that “obedience is pure when a command obliges simply because it was commanded, and for no other reason.”[2] Our obedience to God is often impure because, when we are obedient, it is often with grumbling, moaning, and complaining, and with hardened hearts (cf. Psalm 95:8-9).

If today were not Sunday, we would be observing the memorial of the Guardian Angels, whom J.R.R. Tolkien referred to as “God’s very attention itself, personalized.” He went so far as to say, “And I do not mean ‘personified,’ by a mere figure of speech according to the tendencies of human language, but a real (finite) person.”[3]

We often associate Guardian Angels with children, and rightly so. Consequently, in this Respect Life month, how can we not consider the more than 63 million babies aborted in these United States of American since the wrongly decided Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade? When the Supreme Court recently decided Dobbs v. Jackson, the Justices rightly overturned the previous court decision, returning to the question of the legality of abortion to each State of the Union. There was – rightly – much rejoicing among those of us in the pro-life movement, but our work here in Illinois has now only just begun.

According to the Illinois Department of Public Health, 46,243 babies were aborted in 2020, more than the population of my hometown; figures for 2021 are not yet available[4]. Since Illinois has some of the strongest laws favoring abortion in the nation, we can expect this lamentable figure to increase as neighboring states continue to either restrict or to ban abortion. What can we do to reduce these numbers? How can we increase our efforts to care for unborn babies and for their mothers, who all too often find themselves in horribly difficult circumstances with no one to support them and see no other option? We must not only continue to do what we have been doing, but also find new and creative to personally reach out to babies, mothers, and fathers because this is what the Lord Jesus has given us to do, to love our neighbors as ourselves (cf. Matthew 19:19).

We may be tempted to think that we cannot do very much to change the culture of death so prevalent in our state; such thoughts of discouragement do not come from God. We may not be able to effect a great change across the state, but we can certainly effect a great change in the life of an individual woman, child, or man. We cannot forget that while “it is not our part to master all the tides of the world but to do what is in us for the succor [help] of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till.”[5]

As I said a moment ago, we often think of Guardian Angels as something for children to be concerned about and not adults, but this is not the case. Mother Church, basing herself on Sacred Scripture and the words of Jesus, teaches us that “from its beginning until death, human life is surrounded by their watchful care and intercession” (cf. Matthew 18:10).[6] Each aborted child has a Guardian Angel, as does each mother and father of these children and the doctors and nurses who participated in it. How can their Guardian Angels have allowed them to take part in such grave evil?

When God assigns Guardian Angels to individual humans, he gives them a particular mission: “to watch over human beings, to whom they minister by purifying, illuminating, and perfecting them as God’s will commands.”[7] Their mission to purify, to illumine, and to perfect us is not carried out by force, but by urging and guiding us to choose what is good and reject what is evil in every aspect of life; in all that they do, Guardian Angels respect our freedom.

Just as it is possible to ignore or even reject the will of God, so it is also possible to ignore or even reject the promptings of these “ministers of divine care for every human being.”[8] We can be sure that those individuals who have participated in an abortion were not following the guidance of their Guardian Angels. We can also be sure that we are not following the promptings of our Guardian Angels when we fail to defend the unborn and come to the aid of mothers and fathers in crisis pregnancies.

In this Respect Life month, I urge, ask, and beg you to speak with your Guardian Angel so that you might discern how the Lord is calling you to help spread the Gospel of Life and remain obedient to God, especially in the most difficult situations of life, from conception to natural death. We become unprofitable and unworthy servants of God when we imitate his personalized attention and care for every human being, and, with the angels, see the beauty, truth, goodness of God’s commands, because we also have our eyes fixed on him, just as his eyes have always been fixed on us, no matter how small we are.

Each of our Guardian Angels can rightly say to God, “We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do.” May the same be true of you and of me so that we might rejoice before the Face of God with our Guardian Angels forever. Amen.

[1] Saint Ambrose of Milan, Exposition on the Gospel of Luke, 8.31.

[2] Saint Bonaventure, Breviloquium, 2.11.5.

[3] J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter to Christopher Tolkien, 7-8 November 1944.

[4] Illinois Department of Public Health, “Abortion Statistics.” Accessed 1 October 2022. Available at https://dph.illinois.gov/data-statistics/vital-statistics/abortion-statistics.html.

[5] J.R.R. Tolkien, Lord of the Rings, 5.IX.

[6] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 336.

[7] Saint Bonaventure, Breviloquium, 2.8.1.

[8] Pope Benedict XVI, Angelus Address, 2 October 2011.