Friday, October 31, 2014

Solemnity of All Saints

Imagine one woman's surprise when, after Mass on All Saints Day a few years back, a bishop walked straight up to her and said with a smile: "Be a saint." As she did not know this bishop, she was surprised, to say the least. But she took the message to heart as a serious call to holiness.

Jesus challenges each one of us today to be a saint. Today of course is All Saints’ Day, when we celebrate the "holy men and women of every time and place," and ask their prayers that we might become saints ourselves.

But what is a saint? A young boy once asked this question of his parish priest as they were standing together in church. The priest pointed to the saints on the stained glass windows and said, "The saints are those people who let God’s light shine through."

I think that’s a good a definition as any. Pope Benedict agrees. "Nothing can bring us into close contact with Christ himself," wrote the Holy Father, "other than the…light that shines out from the faces of the saints, through whom his own light becomes visible."

Today, the whole company of saints says to us: "Be a saint." The light of Christ shone from their faces. And the light of Christ can shine from ours.

(My new book of daily Advent devotions for 2014, the latest installment in The Living Gospel series by Ave Maria Press, is now available: )

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Ordinary 30 Thursday

A woman I know of was mistreated by her husband. For years he had put her down, would snap at her after coming home tipsy, and then one night he actually hit her. Her counselor urged her to protect herself by leaving the house for a safer place. She refused, however, as she thought that would be an unchristian thing to do. She loved her husband, she said; she reasoned that he was stressed and that she needed to meet his needs better. And after all, she concluded, Jesus calls us to embrace suffering for others- just like he embraced suffering for us.

Thankfully the counselor was able to help her appreciate the difference between necessary and unnecessary suffering. Necessary suffering springs from the loving choices we make to help others or ourselves become the people God created us to be. Unnecessary suffering perpetuates another person’s illness or sin, and it destroys the person who is trying to help.

Consider Jesus in today’s gospel. He said that he would indeed suffer in order to "accomplish his purpose" of dying and rising for our salvation. And for him to do this, he explained, his suffering had to happen at the right time- not today or tomorrow, he said- and in the right place- the city of Jerusalem. Meanwhile, he avoided that suffering which would prevent him from carrying out his mission. Jesus never suffered just for the sake of suffering. He was abused, but he was not a doormat; he was a victim, but he was not co-dependent.

For us, this means that sometimes, in our relationships with others, we may need to draw a line in the sand, say enough is enough, put our foot down, blow the whistle, change jobs, leave the house, defend ourselves, distance ourselves, maybe even end a relationship. Both for our good- and for theirs. Because love without suffering is sentimentality; but not all suffering is consistent with love.

(My new book of daily Advent devotions for 2014, the latest installment in The Living Gospel series by Ave Maria Press, is now available: )

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Ordinary 30 Wednesday

In an old Peanuts cartoon, Linus says to Charlie Brown: “I’ve got this whole Santa Claus thing licked. If there is a Santa Claus, he’s going to be too nice not to bring me anything for Christmas, no matter how I act, right? Right! And maybe Linus is right, because I’ve never heard of any kid really getting the threatened lump of coal.

However, sometimes we can think about God the way that Linus thought about Santa Claus. We know that God is love, and that he loves us regardless of what we do! But then we can conclude that because God loves us no matter what we do, we can go ahead and do whatever we want. Classically, this has been referred to as the “sin of presumption.”

Jesus knows that sometimes we’re tempted to think this way; he’s well aware that sometimes we try to excuse our behavior and get morally lazy.  That’s why he cautions us in today’s gospel to strive to enter God’s kingdom through the narrow door, if we wish to be saved. Salvation is our hope, and salvation is God’s free gift! But salvation is not an entitlement. As believers, this shouldn’t scare us. But it should motivate us- to repentance, to conversion, to love.

Saint Pope Leo the Great once offered some wisdom about this. “What does the Lord recommend,” he says, “except that no one should presume upon his own justice and no one distrust God’s mercy.”

(My new book of daily Advent devotions for 2014, the latest installment in The Living Gospel series by Ave Maria Press, is now available: )

Monday, October 27, 2014

Ordinary 30 Monday

A non-churchgoer once said to a priest: "I don’t go to church because there are too many hypocrites." To which the priest said, "That’s okay, there’s always room for one more."

We encountered hypocrites in today’s gospel. They were the religious leaders Jesus challenged because they told the people to do things that they themselves did not do.

But in a sense, the label of hypocrite can be applied to all of us. We don’t always practice what we preach; we don’t always live in a manner consistent with the faith we profess. This not only harms our relationship with God; it can harm other peoples relationship with God too. They can see the way we act, and it can put them off God and religion.

Not long before I was to leave for seminary at age 22, I went out for the evening with some old college friends. I was carousing a little too enthusiastically, I think, when one friend turned to me and said, "Some priest you are." She meant it in jest, but it was a fair comment, and it cut me to the heart. I’ve never forgotten it.

Each one of us is a public representative of Jesus. Which means that people will evaluate Jesus, to a certain degree, based on their evaluation of us. That’s why today’s gospel challenges us to live a way of life consistent with the gospel, so that others won’t be turned off from the gospel way of life.

(My new book of daily Advent devotions for 2014, the latest installment in The Living Gospel series by Ave Maria Press, is now available: )

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Thirtieth Sunday of Ordinary Time

We live in a very competitive culture, don’t we? This competitiveness is reflected, I think, in the popularity of today’s reality TV shows, in seemingly everything has been repackaged into a contest: singing, cooking, cooking, even dating!

Don’t get me wrong: competition can be a good thing. The down side, however, is that it can make us think that life is all about getting ahead of others. This worldview turns us into very selfish people, who concerned only about our needs and our goals. We encounter this selfishness today when children, the sick, or the elderly are seen as burdens who get in the way of our plans or our lifestyle. We see it in the resentment, envy, and depression people struggle with today because they don’t think they’re getting everything they deserve. And we see it reflected in the fact that fewer and fewer people these days enter the “service” professions of teacher, nurse, or priest- jobs concerned with giving, instead of getting.

This selfishness can also affect our relationship with God. It makes religion and spirituality nothing more than an exercise in self-fulfillment and self-discovery. It reduces forgiveness to a therapy which we do only when we’re ready, and only so we can be at peace after having been hurt. It turns helping people in need into an effort to feel good about ourselves.  And I heard a bishop recently complain that whenever he preaches about Christian sacrifice today, he feels a need to explain what its benefits are, because so many people are concerned only with “What’s in it for me?”

Such selfishness can make us lonely, because it leads us to view other people as either the competition to be beaten or as the means to an end- our end. And if we don’t think they’re helping us to achieve our goals, we drop them like a hot potato. That’s why the famous Christian writer C.S. Lewis once described hell, not as a fiery pit, but as an existence of supreme selfishness, in which people become more and more separated from each other, until they wind up in a terrible, eternal isolation.

Of course, selfishness is by no means unique to our culture. A tendency toward selfishness is a universal quality of our fallen, sinful human nature. That’s why in today’s gospel Jesus taught us to love our neighbor as ourself. Love is the antidote to selfishness- and the loneliness that comes with it. However, because selfishness can be such a powerful force in our lives, Jesus had to actually command us to love.

When I was younger I didn’t understand how love could be a commandment. But that’s because I was confusing “love” with being “in love.” Being in love is a wonderful thing. But it can also be a selfish thing, because by it we feel needed, wanted, accepted, and loved. However, the being “in love experience” doesn’t last forever, and it usually lasts less than two years. It’s when it ends that the real work of love begins- the love Jesus commands us to give. This love is not a feeling, but a choice. It’s a gift of our self that we make for the benefit of others so they can become the people God created them to be. It’s a choice to meet another’s person’s need, instead of focusing exclusively on our own. It’s sacrificial, not selfish.

Today’s gospel challenges us to give this kind of love. We should ask ourselves: Do we love others as much as we love ourselves? Consider the people in your life. Do we serve them, or do we expect them to serve us? Do we ever consider their needs? Do we even know what they really are? And if we do know, what should we do to meet those needs?

For instance, do we need to spend quality time with them? Do we just need to be with them- instead of being somewhere else? Do we need to talk with them and share our feelings? Do we need to really listen without judging, interrupting, or giving advice? Do we need to give them a hug or physical affection? Do we need to tell them that we love them? Do they need our forgiveness? Maybe they need us to help with the kids, repair the house, or read them a story. Maybe they need us to get professional help for a problem or addiction. Maybe they need a token of our love- a little gift, a night out, a note.

Everyone’s needs for love are somewhat different. We can’t just assume we know what they are. And we can’t assume that they’re the same as hours. We have to ask, then we have to act. Even if doing those things doesn’t come naturally to us. Even if we don’t feel like doing them. Even if we don’t think the people we’re doing them for really deserve them.

Sometimes it’s hard to love other people this way when they’re being difficult, or when we feel they don’t love us back. It’s tempting to withhold our love from them or shut ourselves off from them, because that’s a way we can punish them. But Jesus hasn’t called us to punish. He has commanded us to love. Let’s face it: Lovable people are easy to love. Difficult people are hard to love. Sometimes they require tough love. As disciples of Jesus, however, they are the measure of our love.

Loving others can indeed be a challenge. Our selfishness tries to prevent us from considering others’ needs in addition to our own. That’s why Jesus commands us to make the choice to love. Because life is not about getting ahead of others. And life is not just about us. As Christians, life is about loving- in the same way that Jesus loves us.

(My new book of daily Advent devotions for 2014, the latest installment in The Living Gospel series by Ave Maria Press, is now available: )

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Ordinary 29 Thursday

A priest from Nepal, once shared with me his amazing conversion story. Born and raised a Hindu, Fr. Silas Bogati became involved with the American “hippie” drug scene of Katmandu in the 1970’s. He was headed down the wrong path until he was introduced to Jesus Christ by a street preacher.

Fr. Silas was ultimately was ordained the first native-born Nepalese priest. But his conversion came at a terrible cost. When he became a Christian, Fr. Silas was shunned by his Hindu family because, according to the caste system, he had become an “untouchable.”

Many of the earliest Christians, who were Jewish, experienced much the same thing, because when Jews became Christian, they were expelled from the local synagogue and effectively cast out of their families. Jesus’ words in today’s gospel about divided families spoke directly to their situation, and to their pain.

However, these early believers must have been consoled by the fact that by following Jesus they received a new family: the Church, a family of brothers and sisters in Christ, united not by blood ties, but by the unbreakable bonds of the Holy Spirit.

The same is true today. We Christians, throughout the world, are one big family. And in a world full of broken families, families separated by great distances, and those who have no families, this reality should fill many people with inspiration and hope.

The task for us, however, is to act and live as if we are family. In our parish communities, we need to work at being welcoming, friendly, and inclusive. We need to serve one another, respond to one another’s needs, and challenge, support, and pray for each other. In short, we need to make our parishes feel like family to attract those who are looking for a new family to call their own.

(My new book of daily Advent devotions for 2014, the latest installment in The Living Gospel series by Ave Maria Press, is now available: )