Thursday, October 22, 2015

What I Remember...Is His Smile...

Feast of Pope St. John Paul II/Oct. 22, 2015
Holy Spirit Parish/UK Newman Center/Student Mass

He lost every member of his family – every member of his family – before he was as old as most of you in this room.  At an age when most of us are focused on passing exams and making sure there’s enough beer in the fridge (don't pretend like you don't know what I'm talking about), he was bobbing and weaving through the streets in the middle of the night trying his best not to get arrested for doing such a horrible thing as studying to become a Catholic priest.  When the whole society around him bitterly opposed absolutely everything that the Catholic faith stood for, he resisted.  They threatened to exile him from society, and he resisted.  
They threatened to throw him in jail, and he preached.  He preached love and mercy, he preached freedom and laughter and living the abundant life.  He preached the Truth – without shame, without watering it down, and without letting it sour him.  He preached Truth, they harassed him, and he preached all the more clearly.  As bishop, and then later as Pope, the world fought valiantly to transform life into something that was only valuable when it could produce, and reduce truth to what is comfortable, what is easy, what satisfies our appetite and preference, and still he soldiered on. 
As a young man, he loved hiking, fishing, skiing, canoeing, and camping - he loved poetry, symphony,  theater, philosophy and literature – but he loved them because they put him in contact with God, with God’s love – with God’s mercy, forgiveness and healing – with God’s wisdom;  he loved doing those things because through them he could invite others to encounter Truth, Goodness, and Beauty – and the heart of God from whom they flow.  

As an old man, his body withered away,
debilitated, feeble and physically frail.  His posture bent, his skin wrinkled, his mouth slackened.  And he taught us absolutely as much about how to die as he’d taught us how to live.

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But you know what I remember most about Pope Saint John Paul the Great?  His smile.  His smile!  It was broad, and easy.  It came naturally – even when the muscles of his face tried to forget how to do it – he smiled.  There are pictures of him on the mountainside, smiling.  There are pictures of him facing down communist dictators, smiling.  There are pictures of him reprimanding bishops and priests for dangerous, heretical thoughts – just before turning to them in love and compassion – with a father’s smile.  And in March of 2005, just three days before he died, they wheeled him to the window so he could bless the people; and though he was unable to speak because the Parkinson’s disease was so far advanced, as he offered his priestly blessing – yes…he smiled.

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John Paul II’s smile is forever etched in the recesses of my mind, I think, because he was a kind man.  Deep down inside, kindness – genuine kindness – was a foundation upon which everything else he was had been built.  Pope Saint John Paul the Great was kind – but he never let that become distorted into giving up on everything and giving in to everything in order to be niceLike Jesus – John Paul II came to set the world on fire.

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“I have come to set the world on fire – and how I wish it were already blazing!!! – Do you think I have come to establish peace on earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division!!”  This seems so strikingly out of character for the Jesus that we try to shove into the nice, neat little box that goes along to get along, that seeks to make everyone comfortable by being friendly and nothing else – this seems so contrary to the Jesus we sometimes want to make into our nice little buddy who follows us around, helping us stay out of trouble, and most of all doesn’t make waves.  The Jesus who is so nice and agreeable that He’s really a God made in our own image rather than the other way around. 
But, friends – that Jesus is a figment of our imagination. 
Yes, Jesus came to call sinners and heal their wounds and give them the grace to grow in virtue.  But that doesn’t include letting us define what is true based on what makes us feel good or keeps us on friendly terms with the world around us.  Yes, Jesus came to restore relationship with the marginalized, serve the poor and down trodden, and give them a place at the table – yes, Jesus came to befriend the sinner – but not by letting them pretend that “if it feels good do it” makes any sense.  
Jesus came to set the world on fire – the burning, purifying fire that calls us out of our sinfulness and into sanctity that isn’t based on defining ourselves, our morality, our ideas of success, or our paths in life on the enemy’s lies: “Eat whatever fruit you want – taste it…go ahead…surely you won’t die – God’s law is just a guideline to be interpreted to suit what you think would be nice.”  No – He came to set the world on fire with the Truth from God, the Truth which is God – the Truth which has fallen out of fashion in our world, in our country, in our town, and – yes – on our campus.
The Lord Jesus is the Prince of Peace – but not a peace that is based on hiding or softening the Truth so that we can get along without making anyone uncomfortable or upset.  That’s not peace – that’s pretend!  Standing up for the truth – struggling to live the truth in our own lives in a world that is trying to tell us that the only standard for what is true is what we decide to make it – standing up for the Truth in this world sometimes sets father against son, mother against daughter – some of you are living that reality even now in your lives.  John Paul lived it too…but take courage…take courage…because, what I remember most about him is his smile.  You can find that smile, too.
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“To believe in Jesus is to accept what he says, even when it runs contrary to what others are saying.  It means rejecting the lure of sin, however attractive it may be, in order to set out on the difficult path of the Gospel virtues.”  (WYD 2002 welcoming address.)
“The future is in your hearts and your hands.  God is entrusting to you the task, at once difficult and uplifting, of working with him in building up the civilization of love.”  (WYD 2002, Downsview Address)
“To believe in Jesus today, to follow Jesus as Peter, Thomas, and the first apostles and witnesses did, demands of us, just as it did in the past, that we take a stand for him, almost to the point at times of a new martyrdom: the martyrdom of those who, today as yesterday, are called to go against the tide in order to follow the Divine Master, to follow the lamb wherever He goes.”  (WYD 2000, Rome)
These are the words of someone who set the world on fire!!!  You want to be a part of that?  Listen to the words of John Paul the Great – be formed by his example – be inspired by his life!  Give up trying to be nice – challenge the world around you – stand for Christ – stand for truth – stand for what is right.  Let yourself catch fire!!!!
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I came here tonight to set you on fire – and how I wish you were already blazing!!!  Join me – join John Paul – join Christ – set this campus on fire!!!

Pope Saint John Paul II – pray for us!!!

Sunday, October 18, 2015

It's All About...All of Us!

29th Sun OT Yr B/2015
Holy Spirit Parish/UK Newman Center

          It’s all about first place:  political campaigns, football games, academics.  Finish first, finish best, do better than all the rest, right?  Earn the A, get the promotion, make the higher salary; be chosen and honored above others.  How much of our lives, in one way or another, is a race for first place?  Own the best house, drive the nicest car, wear the best fashion, look the sharpest.  Study harder, get that one spot left in the grad school program, be the first to publish or discover.  We cheer one another on in these quests; we sacrifice time, talent, and treasure in pursuit of being the best. 
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          Don’t get me wrong.  Striving for perfection, improvement, and success isn’t bad in and of itself.  Scientific advances that have helped us understand the breadth and depth of creation’s wonder would never have unfolded for us without the innate desire to strive for what’s best.  Medical advances that allow us to enjoy longer, healthier life than ever before would have never been available to us without the God given tendency to strive toward excellence. 
          Striving isn’t bad.  That’s why I think that James and John get a bad wrap.  We’ve become accustomed to thinking they were simply greedy for glory, prestige and power in heaven.  We completely understand the other ten apostles in their response.  ‘Hey – wait a minute!  Who do they think they are?  We want to be first!  Move over Zebedee boys, we want our piece, too.’  But I wonder…I wonder if all twelve of them got it wrong.  I mean – if the other ten really understood what Jesus was about, they wouldn’t have been indignant would they?  They wouldn’t have felt cheated, or threatened by the Zebedee boys’ request – they would have felt compassion for their misunderstanding…
Yes – James and John were the only ones to explicitly ask for places of honor in the kingdom of heaven – but the response of their comrades seems to suggest they were as confused as the Zebedee brothers.  Notice – Jesus admonishes all of them – he corrects all of them – he instructs all of them.  They all seem to have been missing something…
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I think the key to Jesus correcting the apostles – what they all seem to have failed to understand – was that in their desire to be the best, they’d forgotten everyone else.  This is what Jesus seems to correct:  if you want to be the best, the greatest, you must always consider everyone else.  In fact, if you want to win – if you want top prize – you have to make it your job to pay direct attention to everyone else; make sure everyone else is also succeeding.  The only winning there is in the Christian life is when we all win – when we all succeed – when we work together toward the goal of perfection.
Here’s the proof, I think, to what Jesus is saying.  How would the story have been different if what the rest of the apostles overheard was James and John asking something a little more like:  ‘Lord – how can we – all of us – win seats on your right and left hand in heaven’?  What can we do to make sure that all 12 of us are seated in places of honor in heaven?’  Or, better yet, ‘Lord, tell us how we can assure that everyone who follows you will win the ultimate crown of honor in heaven.’ 
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All too often, we’re making this same mistake as the apostles, aren’t we?  I don’t think we’re always driven by pure and simple greed – I don’t think we’re usually trying to climb up by stepping on others – I don’t believe that our basic motivation to get ahead is simply so we can place others behind or below us.  Most of the time I think we simply forget that we can never truly get ahead individually without working to bring others along with us.  We strive at work to provide for our families and secure a life as free from uncertainty as possible – that’s not greed.  We work hard to perform well in our classes to be good stewards of our educational opportunities and invest in our future, whatever God is calling us to be and however He is calling us to serve others.  That’s not a bad thing.
But, if we’re not thinking about those around us, we can look just like James and John, trying to climb the ladder by stepping on the heads of everyone else.  And all that does is awaken the same kind of competition in everyone around us.  Before we know it, life has devolved into a rat race, an ‘every man and woman for themselves’ free-for-all that leaves us all big, empty losers.
The same thing is true in our lives as Christians.  It doesn’t matter how hard you are striving to live the Christian life, how lofty and pious your goals, how sacred and holy your purpose.  When you’re so focused on your own growth in virtue and holiness that you forget about helping everyone around you, you lose – and they lose – and the life of love that holds the only true path to the honor and glory of heaven is lost to us all.
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Each week we come together – all of us together – to meet the Lord in Holy Communion together.  We share together – at the same time – in the same place – the one Body and Blood of Christ.  When we do this, we practice in an important way the lesson of today’s Gospel:  whoever wishes to be greatest among us must concern themselves with all among us; whoever wishes to be great among us must strive to serve all among us.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

"Lord, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"

28th Sun OT Yr B/2015
Holy Spirit Parish/UK Newman Center

What would Jesus say to us if we came to Him and said: Lord, what must we do to inherit eternal life?  “Well – let’s see.  You shouldn’t kill or commit adultery.  You shouldn’t steal, bare false witness, or defraud.  You should honor our fathers and mothers.  And –remember what I said to that young man in Mark’s Gospel – you should give from what you’ve been given to support the poor.”  Great Lord – we’re doing that!  We’ve been doing that all along, since the ‘youth’ of our now mature parish.  Excellent! We’ve got it all figured out.  Nothing more to do – except perhaps write a bigger check.
Is there really nothing more in today’s Gospel?
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When the young man approached Jesus and asked his question, Jesus summarizes for Him the basic requirements for the Kingdom of Heaven that the young man was already aware of and already doing.  It seems as if Jesus creates a space to honor the great strides toward holiness the young man was already making.  I’m pretty sure Jesus would do that for us, as well.  But what does Jesus do next?  What would He say to us next?  What happened next in today’s Gospel?
Jesus looked at him – Jesus saw Him – Jesus loved Him – and then Jesus pointed out the one thing that was keeping him from what he most desired.  In this young person’s case it was his attachment to possessions:  “You’re lacking one thing – go sell your possessions and give them to the poor.  Then, come follow me.”  When Jesus looks at us – (and all of the good we’re already doing, and all of the growth in virtue and holiness we’ve achieved) – when Jesus sees us, I believe He loves us the same way He loved that young man:  by revealing what is keeping us from growing in relationship with Him on our journey toward heaven.
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We are all saints in the making – but we’re not saints yet.  And that means there’s always something more for us to surrender, something more that we can give to God.  For some of us, that is a greater surrender of material possessions – and so for some of us, Jesus is inviting freedom from our attachment to wealth by giving from our possessions and financial resources for the good of the poor.  You’ll hear in your hearts as I say that whether or not that’s the case for you. 
But for many of us, there’s something else holding us back.  Maybe it is an attachment to career, or success, or perfection – and Jesus is inviting us to be freed from that so we can be more generous with our time and talents, and make use of them for the Gospel.  Some among us are enslaved to the flesh, attached to drink or drugs, to pornography or sexual satisfaction – and Jesus is inviting us to be freed from our attachment to those things so we can be more open to real life and true love and freedom. 
Some of us are attached to ways that thinking and believing that close us off from the teaching ministry of the Church.  Some of us are attached to the past, leaving us closed off to who God is calling us to be today and tomorrow.  For some it is attachment to old hurts, old habits, old relationships – for some it is an attachment to comfort, or control.  Some of us miss our departed loved ones so much – the grief hurts so much – that we have a hard time walking with Jesus into the future.  Some of us just can’t seem to be freed from our anxieties, or our perfectionism, or our false ideas of what it means to be “good” – and they keep us stuck.  Whatever it is – Jesus honors the growth in holiness we’ve already experienced, and then looks on us with love and invites us to go deeper by to letting go of what is getting in the way, and to follow Him more completely.
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And almost always, that seems impossible.  When we really hear Jesus’ invitation to go a little deeper, we’re almost always left in the same position as the young person in today’s Gospel.  We hear Jesus ask us to let go of that thing we just can’t seem to let go of – or don’t even really want to let go of deep in our hearts – and when we hear the voice of the Lord asking us to let it go – our hearts fall, and we turn away sad.  Because we think it’s impossible.
Isn’t that the Good News Jesus really brings today:  Nothing is impossible with God!!  It’s easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needed than for us to let go of our attachments to follow Jesus more completely all the way to heaven.  But nothing is impossible for God!
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In one way or another, we’re all here today asking Jesus the same question.  Even if we think we have it all figured out, somewhere deep inside we know that there’s still some distance to travel.  And so we ask – with the young person in the Gospel – “Lord, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Hearing that question, Jesus turns to us – right here, right now – He turns to us and honors the journey we’ve already traveled.  And seeing you – right here, right now – seeing you, He loves you!  And He invites you to go just a bit deeper.  How is Jesus inviting you to go deeper?  I know it seems impossible – it always does.  But you know what?  Nothing is impossible with God.  

Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Holy Father Is Like a Child...Thank God!

27th Sun OT Yr B/2015
Holy Spirit Parish/UK Newman Center

One of the greatest disappointments in the wake of Pope Francis’ visit to the United States has been the way many Catholics in America have tried to co-opt what the Holy Father said and did to advance their own hand-picked issues and arguments.  Watching the response on social media, for example, it seemed that about half of my Catholic friends wanted to celebrate the Holy Father’s meeting with Kim Davis as a complete vindication of her exercise of religious freedom to refuse issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, and proclaim to the world, “This visit is everything! It means everything! Stand up and pay attention!” – as if nothing else the Holy Father did or said mattered.  At the same time, the other half of my Catholic friends seemed to laud the Holy Father’s visit with a former student of his who is an openly gay man, saying, You see – this visit is everything! It means everything! Stand up and pay attention!!” – as if nothing else he did or said mattered. 
It’s interesting how much these folks – who seem to be completely at odds with one another – agree on.  And so incredibly disappointing how much they’re wrong about.  Rather than taking in all that the Holy Father did and said – rather than considering the total example of all the folks he chose to meet with and learn from how he chose to meet with them – each one seemed to see only what they wanted to see.  Rather than receiving the Holy Father’s example as something to learn from, as one of my friends commented, it seems everyone is only listening to what “tickles their ears” rather than letting the Pope call us to conversion and “keep us on our toes.” 
Surely no one here did that.  Not us – we wouldn’t try to hijack the prophetic voice of the Vicar for Christ and selectively pick and choose from his authentically Christian witness to grind our own axes.  We know better.  We learned the lesson that another of my friends pointed out:  “It didn’t work out so well with they tried to do that to Jesus either, did it?”  No – Jesus wouldn’t be backed into any one political or social corner – and when folks tried to do that, Jesus pointed out that the Good News, the news of authentic love and freedom, calls everyone to conversion.  We’re tuned in enough in our parish family to realize that the message of Christ won’t be tamed and fit nicely and neatly into the boxes of our preconceived political and social perspectives.  As one of my favorite Catholic memes says, “If you’re not hearing Pope Francis challenge your view of Christianity and Catholicism, you’re not listening.”
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It’s not a new thing for those who just ‘don’t get it’ within the established religion to use marriage and sexuality issues to ‘test’ the Christian message.  It’s all the way through the Gospels – including our reading today.  And those Catholics who hear in Pope Francis’ teaching only what they want to hear are really doing exactly the same thing the Pharisees are doing in our Gospel today.  They didn’t approach Christ with a heart open to teaching and ready to answer the call to conversion – they asked their question to ‘test’ Him.  And when they didn’t get the answer they wanted, they rejected Him. 
The Gospels this weekend seem to make it clear:  there’s no reason to continue debating issues like same-sex marriage and divorce.  Man and woman were created for one another – and based on that, the union of persons we refer to by the word “marriage” – at least sacramental marriage that is recognized within the community of faith in the Church – is reserved for this male-female union.  And the Lord Himself says with great clarity that divorcing one’s spouse and marrying another is adultery.
Unfortunately, some will not hear anything else I say because you’ll either sit back on your laurels and say, “Preach it Fr. Alan – that’s right!!!” hearing nothing more than a vindication of your current position – or you’ll balk at a clear restatement of Sacred Scripture and say, “Whoever believes that is not someone I’m willing to listen to.”  That’s a shame…but its understandable…it’s what folks did with Jesus…it’s what folks are doing with the Holy Father.  What makes me sad about that, though, is that – just like with Jesus and Pope Francis – it will mean that the real gem – the real lesson that goes hand in hand with these clear teachings – will go completely unnoticed.
You see – the real gem – the real call to conversation – the real Gospel message that the Holy Father was preaching in his meeting with Kim Davis and his former student – is the same message that Jesus preaches in the Gospel today:  Whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.
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Accepting the Kingdom of God like a child… Children have an instinctive desire to make friends, to share, to welcome others, to play together and experience joy together.  Isn’t that what the Holy Father is modeling for us, and challenging us to live?  Isn’t that part of Pope Francis’ call to conversion? 
Children also instinctively rely on their parents to teach them right from wrong, and to provide boundaries that keep them safe, healthy and happy.  But how many of us approach the Kingdom of Heaven that way – perhaps occasionally throwing our own “no” tantrum, but ultimately turning toward the Church, the teaching of the Church on faith and morals, and receiving it, setting aside our surface desires and appetites and accepting the loving teaching of the Church because we realize that it assures our safety, security, and happiness?
The Holy Father isn’t a contradiction when he meets with Kim Davis and his former student – he’s modeling for us the simple love and acceptance of one who approaches the Kingdom of Heaven like a little child, where the desire is to welcome all to the joy of the family of faith. 
The Holy Father isn’t a contradiction when he upholds Jesus’ teaching on marriage and divorce and makes the annulment process simpler and more straightforward – he’s modeling for us the great mercy of a simple child who lowers the bar for full participation in the joy-filled circle as far as possible. 
The Holy Father isn’t a contradiction when he consistently, continually, without flinch or fail upholds the teaching of the Church on marriage, sexuality, social and environmental responsibility while at the same time reaching out and being present to those who are themselves rejecting that same teaching – he’s modeling for us a child-like posture toward the great gift of the Holy Spirit alive in the Magisterium of the Church and inviting others to do the same. 
He’s modeling for us the way to the Kingdom of Heaven.

“Amen, I say to you, whoever does not accept the Kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.”