Dreaming with God

Dreaming with God

When I go to a parish for Confirmation, before the Mass I meet with the young people and let them ask me questions.  Almost always they ask something like, “Why did you want to be a priest?” And I respond, “I did not want to be a priest, nor did I want to be a bishop.  I didn’t go to the seminary until I was 27, because I wanted to be married. Yet, I had some experiences that helped me listen to God’s plans.  Eventually, I discerned that God was calling me to be a priest.”  I would never have dreamed in a million years that I would live this life.  It has been far more challenging and more of a sacrifice, yet more enriching and satisfying than I could have imagined. 

I served in rural parishes and on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation where resources are scarce but the needs are enormous. I helped parish communities rebuild after their church was flooded or struck by lightning and burned to the ground.  I was the chaplain for a Newman Center and a K-12 Catholic School system, where I taught senior religion.

Over the years, I accompanied people in the misery of cancer, car wrecks, suicides, murders or infant deaths, as victims of sexual abuse or veterans with PTSD, and countless other tragedies. The Lord has provided me with the grace to walk alongside them on a journey of healing and new life. I have been blessed by the poor and weak who have amazing faith and resilience. I have also experienced the joy of weddings, baptisms, graduations, family reunions and even miraculous healings. Finally, I participated in building a retreat center that is flourishing beyond what anyone dreamed.

As I look back on my journey of faith, one of the biggest lessons is this: God’s dream for me was much bigger than my puny dreams. The same is true for you. God’s dream for you is so much bigger than your puny dreams. 

In comparison to our plans, the life that God has planned for us is so much more. It is more challenging, more difficult and more of a sacrifice. But the Lord provides all the grace needed and more. And when we follow God’s plan, then life is more enriching and satisfying.

If you want to get a sense of what God dreams for you, then look at Jesus. Our mission in life is closely connected to Jesus’ mission. The readings for the last two Sundays introduce us to his mission. But those readings also describe our mission because through baptism we share in Jesus’ mission.

John the Baptist described Jesus’ mission by declaring, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”  (Jn. 1:29)  That was a bold statement.  The Israelites might have imagined that the Messiah would take away the sin of their people. But John declared that he takes away the sin of the world. John could never have imagined something so wonderful. He even tells us that this is not his idea. He said, “I did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘On whomever you see the Spirit come down and remain, he is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.”  (Jn. 1:33)

John knew how to dream with God. He shared in Jesus’ mission by pointing to him as the Lamb of God. In paintings, John is always depicted as pointing toward Jesus. That was his mission, but our mission is much bigger. We share in his work because he baptized us with the Holy Spirit.  He breathed his Spirit on the apostles and authorized them to forgive sins in his name. And he empowers every baptized person to continue his ministry of forgiveness and healing.

Today’s reading from Isaiah describes the Suffering Servant of the Lord.  That servant is obviously Jesus, but it is also you and me. Listen to God’s dream for his servant. “It is too little, the Lord says, for you to be my servant, to raise up the tribes of Jacob . . . I will make you a light to the nations.” (Is. 49:6)

God is always dreaming Large. Our plan is to keep church buildings in good condition, to initiate Catholics in the faith or maybe even to invite inactive Catholics back to the Church. God’s plan is to make the Church a Light to the nations.  He sends us on a mission to bring salvation to the ends of the earth.

As a rancher in western South Dakota, I never dreamed of going to other nations. But as a seminarian, I studied in Rome with classmates from more than a 100 nations. Then as a priest, I spent another four years in Rome. In those years, I organized the pastoral formation of seminarians at the North American College in Rome and coordinated their involvement at 25-30 sites which included elementary schools and colleges, soup kitchens, hospitals, a house for AIDS patients, providing food to refugees living in the streets and much more. I participated in immersion trips to San Salvador, India, Panama and Mexico. My dreams were so puny compared to that.

A key moment for me was when I was a freshman in college at the School of Mines in Rapid City.  Toward the end of the first year, I had planned out a double major in chemistry and chemical engineering.  But as I sat in my room and dreamed about it, there was no desire to be an engineer.  So I asked God, “What do you want me to do?”  The idea of seminary came clearly to mind, but I could not imagine doing that.  So it took me another eight years to say yes.  Nevertheless, I was beginning to open myself to God’s dream. 

That attitude is expressed in the Psalm refrain today.  “Here am I, Lord; I come to do your will.” (Psalm 40)  Those are some of the most dangerous words a person can say. Those words will put you in over your head. “Lord, what do you want of me?  I only want to do your will.” Eventually, I learned to say that.  It is the most fundamental prayer, as Jesus taught us to say, “Your kingdom come, your will be done.”

Parents, you could say it in this way. “Lord what is your will for our marriage?  How many children do you dream for us?”  While preparing engaged couples for marriage, I often asked them how many children they planned to have. No matter what number they were thinking about, I would ask them, “Have you asked God about it?”  I cannot remember an engaged couple who said that their plan for children was what God dreamed for them. Don’t let your fear keep you from asking God, “Lord what is your will for our marriage regarding our children, our jobs and our participation in the Church to bring your Light to the nations?”

Or you could say, “Lord, what is your will for our children? What do you want them to do with their life?  We only want them to do your will.” Often parents are not supportive of a call to the religious life because they think that they have a better idea. Beware of your puny plans for your children. Let God’s dream be theirs.  Teach them to listen in prayer for God’s will.

First, practice this with yourself.  Learn to ask for yourselves every day, “Lord, what do you want of me today?”  “Here am I, Lord; I come to do your will.”

Just before we receive the Eucharist, the priest says, “Behold, the Lamb of God, Behold him who takes away the sin of the world. Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb.”  How blessed we are to be called to the supper of the Lamb, to receive the one who takes away the sin of the world. It is pure gift!  Let it fill you more and more.  As you drink in the gift today, realize that God’s dream for you is to be filled with the Life of the Risen Lord. 

Yet, God’s dream also includes the call to be a Light to the nations.  In your prayer, say, “Here am I, Lord; I come to do your will.”  Help me to participate in your dream to bring salvation to the ends of the earth.

Live your baptismal identity

Live your baptismal identity

Do you find Jesus’ baptism confusing or hard to understand?  If so, that is not so unusual.  Even John the Baptist was disturbed when Jesus came to be baptized.  He told him, “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?” (Mt. 3:14) The people being baptized by John were called to repentance, but Jesus did not need to repent.  So why was he baptized?  What did baptism signify for him?

A helpful way to understand the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord is to reflect on the prayers for this Mass.  The prayers for feast days express the mystery being celebrated.  Listen again to the Collect for this Mass.  Almighty ever-living God, who, when Christ had been baptized in the River Jordan and as the Holy Spirit descended upon him, solemnly declared him your beloved Son, grant that your children by adoption, reborn of water and the Holy Spirit, may always be well pleasing to you.

That prayer has two focal points:  Jesus’ identity as God’s beloved Son, and our identity as God’s children by adoption.  His baptism wasn’t a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, like it was for everyone else whom John baptized.  Rather, it was a revelation of Jesus as God’s beloved Son, and it reminds us that through baptism we are God’s children by adoption.

Jesus’ baptism sealed his identity.  Once you know your identity, then your mission is clear. Jesus’ ministry flowed from his baptism, that is, from his identity as God’s beloved Son anointed with the Holy Spirit.  In the Acts of the Apostles, Peter connects Jesus’ baptism to his ministry of healing. He said, “You know the word that [God] sent to the Israelites as he proclaimed peace through Jesus Christ . . . how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power. He went about doing good and healing all those oppressed by the devil.” (Acts 10:36, 38)

Peter described Jesus’ ministry in practical terms. He said, “[Jesus] went about doing good and healing all those oppressed by the devil.”  Often the Church focuses most of its energy on teaching the faith. We are concerned that young people learn the truths of the faith. That is important, but don’t forget that healing was central to his ministry.  Peter summed up Jesus’ life, not by referring to his teaching, but to his healing“He went about doing good and healing all those oppressed by the devil.” 

It is so important for us to understand Jesus’ identity and mission correctly because we share the same identity and mission.  If we only focus on teaching the truths of the faith, but fail to form disciples in his healing mercy, then we are not really being faithful to his identity or ours.

The first disciples experienced his healing together with his teaching. For example, Mary Magdalene was healed of the influence of seven demons (Lk. 8:2), and the disciples saw Jesus drive out evil spirits from many others.  They saw lepers cleansed, the lame walk and the blind regain their sight.  He washed their feet and graciously forgave them after the resurrection.

Have you experienced these aspects of Jesus’ ministry, or is your journey of faith mostly focused on learning what he taught? Do you think of a disciple as someone who knows the truths of the Catholic faith, or as someone who has experienced his power to heal, forgive, drive out evil and raise from the dead, and also who lives by the truth of his teaching?

It is important for us to understand Jesus’ identity and mission correctly because by our baptism we share the same identity and mission.  If we only focus on teaching the truth of the faith, but fail to form disciples in his healing mercy, then we are not really being faithful to his identity or ours.  Then as the Church, we are not being faithful to him.

As we recall Jesus’ baptism, we are reminded of his identity and mission. And we are challenged to live with a similar baptismal identity. Jesus identity as God’s beloved Son was the source of his greatness?  He felt total security as God’s beloved Son.  That’s why he had the strength to stand alone as he faced death. It made him all-powerfulable to cure the sick and to cast out demons.  “He went about doing good and healing all those oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.” (Acts 10:38)

Do you live with a constant sense that God is with you?  Instead of living with a sense of “God with us,” we focus on our “distance from God.”  So often we base our self-worth on our failures and sins, and we have a poor self-image because of those who criticize us.  Or else, we depend too much on the esteem we receive from others.

It does not matter what I think of myself.  That is not my true self.  Nor does it matter what others think of me, whether they despise me or admire me.  The truth of who I am is rooted in how God sees me. Our deepest identity is that we are children of God. At the World Youth Day in Toronto, Pope John Paul II said, “We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures; we are the sum of the Father’s love for us and of our real capacity to become the image of his Son.”

Listen to the words of the prophet Isaiah, who describes Jesus’ identity and ours: “You are my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight.  I have put my spirit in you. Thus says the Lord God, who created the heavens and spread them out, who hammered the earth into shape . . . . I have grasped you by the hand; I formed you, and set you as a covenant to the people, a light for the nations.” (Is. 42)

Jesus lived with a keen sense that God was with him, chose him, delighted in him, upheld him and sent him to heal.  He lived with a constant sense of the Father’s love. His mission was to bring that grace to others. He was anointed with the Spirit so that he might baptize us in the Fire of the Holy Spirit.  Then we will be like him, living inside of God’s mighty presence, and continuing his mission to heal and forgive, suffer like him and walk in eternal life.

By the grace of Baptism, God says to us:

  • “You are my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight.
  • I have put my spirit in you . . . . I have grasped you by the hand.
  • I formed you . . . . and made you a light to the nations, to open the eyes of the blind, to bring out prisoners from confinement.

Our baptism is renewed in every Eucharist.  Ask for the grace to be set on fire with God’s love who has chosen you, delights in you and sends you as a light to the nations.

 

Your Heart Shall Throb

Your Heart Shall Throb

What has happened to your heart this Christmas? Did it grow three sizes like the Grinch’s heart?  Or is your heart stagnant? The original movie How the Grinch Stole Christmas has a 100 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  Is that because people like his dog Max or cute Cindy-Lou Who?  Or is it because when the Grinch gets what Christmas is about, then his puny bitter heart grew three sizes?

The Christmas mystery made St. Paul’s heart grow by leaps and bounds, and Christ sent him to share this grace with all nations.  So he says in the Letter to the Ephesians: “You have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for your benefit . . . [Now] the gentiles are co-heirs, members of the same body and co-partners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Eph. 3:2,6).

What did Paul mean by the ‘stewardship of God’s grace’? He said that it was something that had never happened before. “It was not made known to people in other generations as it has not been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets” (Eph. 3:5).  With the coming of Christ, God offered a grace like never before.  Paul was called to be a steward of that grace.  To understand his stewardship of grace, a story might help.

The Dutch philosopher Søren Kierkegaard once told a parable about a noble king whose heart was captured by a young woman.  She was from the poorest village in his kingdom.  He wanted to marry her but hesitated because his people would have seen it as totally inappropriate.  Kings simply did not marry poor peasants.  Yet, the king knew that he could do whatever he wanted.  He could marry her and no one would dare oppose him.  Still, he worried that if they were married, it just wouldn’t work.  The gap in their status would get in the way.  She would admire him in his grandeur as king, yet would not be able to love him as an equal.  And he would love and admire her beauty, but never see her as his equal.

In the king’s mind, the solution was to renounce his wealth and position and become poor like her.  One night, after all in the castle were asleep, he laid aside his golden crown and removed his royal rings.  He took off his silk robes and dressed himself in the simple clothing of the poor.  He left the castle and his kingdom behind.  The next morning, the poor peasant maiden in the village met him face-to-face.  He asked to speak with her and began to court her for marriage.  (see pp. 101-102, Awakening Love by Gregory Cleveland, OMV)

What happened in their relationship?  We don’t know.  Kierkegaard never said whether they were married.  He left the story open-ended.  It is a parable of the newborn king, who came to be with us in our poverty.  The child in the stable came to seek us out like a king for a poor maiden.  In the Eastern Church, the Epiphany is also viewed as the wedding of Christ with his people.

He came not only for the Jewish people, but for all nations. In the Opening Prayer of this Mass we prayed, “O God, on this day you revealed your Only Begotten Son to the nations by the guidance of a star.” The ‘nations’ are the non-Jews.  Sometimes it is translated as ‘gentiles.’ So Paul says, “the gentiles are co-heirs, members of the same body and co-partners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Eph. 3:6).

Any person who does not have Jewish heritage is part of the gentiles or nations. The newborn king came to be with us in our lowly and broken world. He left his heavenly realm of glory, and let himself be laid in a feed trough. He came as an equal to us, to make us ‘coheirs’ of God’s gifts.

Think for a moment of the infinite greatness of the Son of God. See how he emptied himself to become one of us. St. Paul described this so beautifully in the Letter to the Philippians: “Though he was in the form of God, Jesus did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.  Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. . . he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:6-8)

Jesus left behind the treasures of his heavenly glory to be with us in our poverty, so that he could fill us with his life and his Holy Spirit and his glory.  The Son of God lying in the manger points to the cross, where he pours out his Life for us. This is the heart of the Gospel.  This was the message that the apostles first proclaimed.  It is what Paul had in mind when he said, “You have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for your benefit.”

Pope Francis reminds us that we must keep this first announcement of the Gospel at the center of our hearts and at the center of all we do as a Church.  In The Joy of the Gospel he wrote, “The first proclamation must ring out over and over: “Jesus Christ loves you; he gave his life to save you; and now he is living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen and free you.”  This first proclamation is called ‘first’ not because it exists at the beginning and can then be forgotten or replaced by other more important things.  It is first in a qualitative sense because it is the principal proclamation. (Evangelii Gaudium, 164)

In one sense, the gifts of the magi reveal the treasure of the Christ child.  Gold, frankincense and myrrh are signs that he is a king, even more he is a king from heaven. Yet, their gifts are puny compared to the immense treasures we inherit from him.  If nothing happened to your heart this Christmas, then you probably did not get in touch with the gift of the newborn king. You failed to realize that he emptied himself to come and fill you with his riches.

This outpouring of Christ is renewed in every Eucharist. He lowers himself in the form of simple bread and wine, which he transforms into his Body and Blood.  Open yourself to that mystery today.  Kneel in humble adoration like the magi.  Let your heart grow in gratitude.  As the prophet Isaiah wrote: “You shall be radiant at what you see, your heart shall throb and overflow, for the riches of the sea shall be emptied out before you, the wealth of the nations brought to you.” (Is. 60:5)

Marvel at the mystery.  This stewardship of grace is entrusted to us.  We are called to bring it to the nations. It is meant for every single person on earth. So we should think of the rest of the world with this “stewardship of grace.”

After Mass today, someone asked me if the king married the poor peasant girl. The answer is in our hands.  The marriage which Christ offers to his people is often ignored or rejected.  As the Gospel of John says, “[Jesus] came to what was his own, but his own people did not accept him. But to those who did accept him he gave power to become children of God, to those who believe in his name . . .  From his fullness we have all received, grace in place of grace” (Jn. 1:11-12, 16).

Providence

Providence

Do you believe that God is guiding every step of your life right now?  Do you believe in God’s Providence for you personally?  Providence means literally to ‘see ahead.’  Divine Providence means that the Lord sees ahead and is guiding me. The Lord sees your immediate situation within a larger plan for your entire life. Even though you may not be able to see clearly how things will work out for you, God sees every moment of your life as part of his plan. Do you believe that?

If you believe in Providence, it’s a huge asset in the darkest moments of life.  It’s like a shining light pointing the way forward when you cannot see where to go.  This Sunday, we hear how Joseph trusted in God’s Providence. He had no idea what was happening in his betrothal to Mary. (Mt. 1:18-24)  When he found out that she was pregnant, it seemed that the only right thing to do was to “divorce her quietly” (Mt. 1:19) Imagine his darkness and isolation.  Yet, he trusted in Providence, and it made all the difference.

Before we look at his situation in more detail, what is the darkness in your life?  Maybe it is an unplanned pregnancy, or a medical diagnosis for your unborn child that is overwhelming.  Perhaps it is a life change: anticipating graduation or getting married, moving to a new job or the loss of a job.  It could be undocumented status and living in uncertainty for your well-being and your children’s safety.  For some, the darkness is depression or mental illness.  For others, it is a cancer diagnosis or the recent death of a loved one

This is the darkest week of the year. Joseph teaches us to trust in Providence when things are murky and mysterious, when we are thrown a curve ball in life, and we’re not sure what to do.

None of the gospels record a single word from Joseph. He must have been the strong silent type. Joseph is known not for what he said, but for how he acted. Joseph’s silent ‘Yes’ to God was pure action.  This gospel describes him as a ‘righteous man.’ That means that he had a ‘right relationship’ with God and with people.

He acted out of a deep relationship with God, and he sought to treat people with justice, not merely human justice but rather God’s justice. In other words, he treated others the way God treats people. You can see this in his reaction to Mary who “was found with child through the Holy Spirit.” Most people in that situation would go off the deep end. The temptation would be to lose hope in God and to run off at the mouth. Here his silence is even more striking. That he held his tongue at a time like this, speaks volumes.  But “Joseph being a righteous man, and unwilling to expose her to shame, planned to divorce her quietly.”  (Mt. 1:20)

His first righteous action was not to embarrass her and to keep it quiet – not to gossip. He must have thought, “This business is only between me, Mary and God.” It seems likely that the first person Joseph spoke to about this was God. That makes sense if you’re ‘righteous’ because a righteous person always acts out of a right relationship with the Lord.

When things get really dark, do you react with gossip or do you turn to prayer? The righteous person instinctively prays about the struggles of his or her life, “Lord, what on earth are you doing in this turmoil?          What do you want of me here?” 

As Joseph brings this situation to prayer, he listens with trust in God’s Providence. When the angel tells him, “Do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. . . [Immediately] Joseph did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home.”  (Mt. 1:20, 24)

He did as he was told.  Where did he learn to listen and act with such trust in Providence? Why did he obey God so decisively? How can we learn to act with this kind of trust in the dark struggles of life?

Joseph was the “son of David.” That title – ‘son of David’ – always reminded the people of one thing. God had promised David that he would always be faithful to him and to his descendants, despite their sins.  Ps. 89 is one place where you can find the promise.  It states: “Even if his descendants turn away from me, and do not keep my commandments, I shall never withdraw my faithful love.  I have sworn my holiness once for all.  I will never betray my bond of faithfulness to David’s family” (Ps. 89:32-33).

As a son of David, Joseph knew this solemn promise from God: “I shall never withdraw my faithful love.” In addition, God promised to make the son of David the promised Messiah. These promises were the trademark of David’s family.

Do you trust that God is guiding you in his faithful love, even in the darkest times? By our Baptism, we became sons and daughters of God, which is so much more than Joseph’s status as a ‘son of David.’ As a son of David, Joseph trusted in God’s Providence when he could not see the way forward. To be a Christian is to trust even more!  It is to believe that Jesus is Emmanuel, “God with us.” God dwells with us, never withdrawing his faithful love, even when we sin. Jesus is the promised Messiah who “saves us from our sins.” (Mt. 1:21)

This last October, John Henry Newman was canonized a saint. But his road to sainthood was marked by plenty of troubles and darkness. He was an Anglican priest who converted to the Catholic faith, which resulted in rancorous opposition and painful isolation. In his writings, he describes his experience of darkness together with trust in God’s providence.  The following meditation captures it best.

He wrote: “God has created me to do Him some definite service.  He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission – I never may know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next . . . I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons.  He has not created me for naught.  I shall do good; I shall do His work . . . [God] does nothing in vain . . . He knows what He is about.  He may take away my friends.  He may throw me among strangers.  He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide my future from me – still He knows what He is about.”  ~ John Henry Newman, Meditations and Devotions of the Late Cardinal Newman

No matter what happens, always remember that you are a child of God. In the darkest days, trust in Providence. As a first reaction, pray with trust that God is with you and guiding you.

Second, listen to saints like Joseph and John Henry Newman. Be inspired by how they trusted and obeyed God.  Joseph knew the promises of God.  He lived inside of those promises. As Christians, we have more reason to trust.

The Lord promised to be with us, in his Word and in the Eucharist. In these days before Christmas, ask for a renewed sense of his presence.  Pray for faith in divine Providence.

Lumen Christi

Lumen Christi

Last Wednesday, I visited Sacred Heart Seminary near Milwaukee, WI where Deacon Dan Kostelc is studying.  The following day, I drove to Mundelein Seminary near Chicago where I visited seminarians Seth Hostetler and Lee Noel.  I had a great visit at both places, and the seminary staff members spoke highly of our men who are preparing for priestly ministry.

On Friday, I was in Chicago for a meeting of the Board of Directors of Catholic Extension.  Every year the Diocese of Cheyenne receives grant monies from Catholic Extension for a variety of ministries.  For example, over the next five years they will provide $100,000 a year to fund the salaries and benefits of the three Sisters from the Esclavas de la Inmaculada Niña from Mexico City, who are serving in the Casper area. They are Sisters Josefina Guzman Ayala, Alejandra Austria Garcia and Imelda Muñoz Hernández.  In addition, Catholic Extension awarded the Diocese a five-year grant to cover the cost of tuition, room and board for seminarian Seth Hostetler; this is valued at approximately $35,000 per year.

Every year, Catholic Extension gives an award to one person who shines like the Light of Christ in his or her ministry.  The Lumen Christi award this year went to Mack McCarter in the Diocese of Shreveport.  See this link for his amazing story:  Lumen Christi.

Hope in the Night

Hope in the Night

This December, is your goal to survive the stressful holiday season? Or to thrive in Advent watchfulness? At the beginning of Advent, Jesus urges us to watch for his Coming as if we were watching for a thief.

He says to us, “Stay awake! For you do not know on which day your Lord will come. Be sure of this:  if the master of the house had known the hour of the night when the thief was coming he would have stayed awake and not let his house be broken into. So too, you also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect the Son of Man will come.” (Mt. 24:42-44)

When I was serving as a priest on the reservation, we had a few break-ins. Afterwards, I had nightmares that burglars were in the house. In the middle of the night, I would wake up and listen for someone in the house.  You know how your vision sharpens in the dark and you listen to the tiniest sounds?  That intensifies when you add the fear of watching for a thief in the dark.

The verb “stay awake” means to be vigilant and alert, or to be on the watch.  St. Paul used the same images in his letter to the Thessalonians.  He wrote, “You yourselves know that the Day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. . . . Therefore, let us not sleep as the rest do, but let us stay alert and sober.” (1 Th. 5:2,6) The image of the Lord coming like a thief in the night was striking for the first Christians.  They never forgot it.  It challenged them to watch for the Lord with intensity.

Sometimes we think it refers only to the Final Coming of Jesus at the end of time. But in Advent, we consider three different occasions in which Jesus comes to us. First, we recall that he came 2,000 years ago as the Light of the human race shining in the darkness. Second, we look forward to the end of time when he will come in glory to conquer all evil.

But there is a third coming in between those two.  It is equally important. He comes to us daily in the grace of the Holy Spirit so that we might shine as a light in a dark world and conquer evil in our day.  To be on the watch is to be alert for his presence every day. It means not only to keep watch for his Coming, but also to act in accord with his ways.

What gets in the way of keeping watch? What distracts you from shining as a light in a dark world?

For many, it is all the time absorbed in social media or with news stories that repeat the same information ad nauseam.  Adults spend almost 2½ hours a day watching news channels and slightly more time social networking on YouTube, Facebook, Snapchat or Instagram. Some are probably doing both at the same time.  For youth, gaming occupies much of their spare time. Kids play an average of 15 hours of video games a week.

One way to have a good Advent is to take a break from gaming, news programs or social networking. Watch what happens to your spirit, when you spend so much time doing that. Are you more hopeful?  Are you bringing light to those in the darkness? Or do those activities distract you and wear you down with incessant negativity?

That is exactly what young adults are saying. A recent survey showed that among those 25 years or younger, 64% are taking a break from one or more kinds of social media, and 34% completely quit social media. They listed several reasons:  it was a waste of time, the negativity of content, privacy concerns and too much pressure to get attention.

There are a few other good reasons to take a break:  it is good for your spiritual life, and you will have more hope.  That is, if you spend more time keeping watch for the Lord:  being quiet in nature, reading a spiritual book, reflecting on Scripture, praying a rosary, etc.

Christians are meant to bring the Light of Christ to the turmoil in the world. We shine with Light by watching with hope and working for justice. But we can only do that when we are centered on Christ because the darkness is daunting.  It is so dark out there.

Here are a few examples.  In our world, 8,500 children die each day from a lack of proper nutrition.  In the USA, there are 2,360 abortions a day, which means that 18% of pregnancies end in abortion.  In Wyoming 2% of pregnancies end in abortion, the lowest rate in the nation.  World-wide 70.8 million people are refugees or displaced due to violence, the most ever recorded in history.  Many are displaced within their own country of origin, but 25.9 million are refugees in foreign countries. Also, roughly half of all refugees are children.  That’s about 12 ½ million kids!

It is easy to be indifferent to our least brothers and sisters.  At times, people say that I focus too much on this topic.  However, Jesus said, “Whatever you did to the least brothers of mine, you did to me.” (Mt. 25:40)  On World Day for Migrants and Refugees, Pope Francis spoke out against the “culture of comfort” that leads to “indifference” in the face of the refugee crisis. Those of us who live in such comfort can easily be indifferent to the plight of our suffering brothers and sisters.  Instead of listening to their stories, we quickly describe them as “illegal” and therefore as undeserving of our help.

Christians are meant to bring the Light of Christ to the turmoil in the world. We shine with Light by watching with hope and working for justice. But we can only do that when we are centered in Christ because the darkness is daunting. Are you watching with hope and working for justice? 

One thing that helps me is to read modern day saints. One of my favorites is St. Oscar Romero. He gave a homily for Christmas in 1979 which is filled with hope. Yet, he had every reason to be depressed. In the three years prior, he had buried several priests who were murdered. Among those priests were his close friend Fr. Rutilio Grande and Fr. Octavio Ortiz, who was like a son to him. Not only priests were being killed, but also catechists were shot, then Bibles were placed on top of their dead bodies as a warning to other catechists.

Yet Romero had such hope in the power of God. This is what he said in that Christmas homily: “This country is giving birth to a new time. . . These times of suffering will also pass!  . . . we are called to live with the optimism that tells us that, even though we don’t know how, God will bring our country out of its troubles, and in the new moment which is to come, the good news of Jesus Christ will still be shining.” (p. 422, Memories in Mosaic)

Romero was watching with hope and working for justice. He was more hopeful than most of us who experience far less darkness. He worked relentlessly for justice despite such terrible corruption. It was the Salvadoran National Guard who had murdered the priests and catechists.

Where did he get such hope? He was centered in Christ.  He had a consistent prayer life. In the words of St. Paul, he “put on the armor of Light . . . he put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Rom. 13:11,14). With those images Paul is reminding us of our baptism. At baptism we are clothed with Christ, given his Holy Spirit and his power to do good.  We were dressed in the armor of his light to do battle with the forces of darkness.

Every day we have to keep putting on the armor of Light.  Being clothed in Christ is a grace, so this clothing is received in prayer.  Also, the Eucharist renews the grace of Baptism and keeps the power of the Risen Lord alive in our hearts.  Without prayer and  the Sacraments, we can feel so weak in the dreary dark world.

This December, will you thrive in Advent watchfulness? We are called to keep watch with hope and to shine as a light in a dark world.

Beyond Violence

Beyond Violence

Earlier this month, I gave the following reflection during a prayer vigil at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Cheyenne.

I imagine that many of you have heard of Immaculée Ilibagiza.  She wrote the book Left to Tell about her experience of surviving the genocide in Rwanda. Many of her family members were brutally murdered. A few years after the genocide, she returned to Rwanda and visited the prison where her brother’s killer was being held. The prison guard brought out the killer who had used a machete to open the skull of her brother.

As the killer knelt in front of her, the prison guard expected her to take out vengeance. He wanted her to spit on him and mistreat him. Instead, she forgave him.  She was convinced that the only way for the nation of Rwanda to find peace was through forgiveness.  And she wrote that the key to stopping violence was not through more violence toward the killers, but through forgiveness.

The world is scarred by so much violence – by the violence of genocide, the killing of unborn children, senseless shootings, terrorist acts and ongoing wars. All people of good will are against violence.  But people disagree in how to end violence. Many people support violence toward those on death row.  In the United States, about 53% favor capital punishment and 42% oppose it.

Immaculée Ilibagiza believes that forgiveness is the way to stop violence. Pope John Paul II who lived through the holocaust and atrocities of WWII said, “Violence begets violence.”  He advocated for an end to capital punishment.

If we sanction capital punishment by our laws, then we are teaching our children that violence is a legitimate response to crime.  Not only that, we are saying that it is okay to kill people on death row, even though there may have been a mistake in their trial.  Since 1973, 156 people on death row were exonerated. Thus, for every ten executed, one was found innocent and released. So how many were killed without having the chance to be exonerated?

Opposing the Death Penalty is an anti-violence cause and a pro-life issue. Every human life is sacred. The dignity of each person is rooted in creation and redemption. We are created in the image and likeness of God, and Christ died to redeem all people. All people have an inviolable dignity – from the child in the womb, to the undocumented person fleeing violence, to the person trapped in addiction and homeless on the streets, to the person on death row.

No one can take this God-given dignity away. Not even the person who has committed the most heinous crime can renounce his dignity. Even if he says, “I am worthless.  I am scum because of what I have done.” That is not true.  His God-given dignity is sacred. It still remains. Pope Francis has officially affirmed this sacred gift by writing, “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person, and the [Church] works with determination for its abolition worldwide.”  (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2267)

By sanctioning Capital Punishment at the hands of the state, we are implying that some criminals have lost their God-given dignity.  Consequently, this erodes the dignity of every other human being. It lessens our respect for the sacred dignity of those with disabilities, the refugee, the terminally ill or the child in the womb. To stand for life is to stand for the dignity of every human person.

We live in a violent culture, a culture that constantly violates human dignity. Taking another life is a way of extending the violence. Yet, violence begets violence. This is true for the child in the womb, but also for the person on death row.  The antidote to violence is forgiveness. Perhaps this is why Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’  But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil.”  (Mt. 5:38)

Obviously, we have a right and a duty to protect the common good.  So dangerous criminals need to be imprisoned for the safety of society. But we should not lower ourselves their level by reacting to violence with more violence. With his new commandments, Jesus was saying, Do not react like a criminal, but act like the Father.”

 This one of his greatest lessons. He never reacted to how he was treated.  He didn’t hang on the cross and say, “Father, look at how violently I have been treated? Strike them down. Wipe them out.  Show them who is more powerful.” Instead of reacting with vengeance, he acted with the Father’s mercy. He said, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they do.” (Lk. 23:34)  Likewise, he taught us to act like children of the Father.  He said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you; so that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he causes his sun to rise on the bad as well as the good, and sends down rain to fall on the just and the wicked alike” (Mt 5:44-45).

Mercy is non-negotiable in the Gospel.  We fail to be disciples of Jesus if we do not imitate his mercy. In Amoris Laetitia Pope Francis wrote, “At times . . . We put so many conditions on mercy that we empty it of its concrete meaning and real significance.  This is the worst way of watering down the Gospel. . . . We should always consider inadequate any theological conception which in the end puts in doubt the omnipotence of God and, especially, his mercy.”  (Amoris Laetitia, 310-311)

 When we say the only way to deal with people who have committed horrendous crimes is to execute them, we doubt the omnipotence of God and his mercy. We look at them and say, “They’ll never change.  They are hopeless cases.” But God can do all things in his omnipotence. No one is beyond his omnipotent mercy. If we give up on a criminal, then in effect we are saying that evil is stronger than grace. We have given up on redemption for that person.  We doubt the omnipotence of God and his mercy. We have lost faith in the grace of the cross and new life of the resurrection.

At times, all of us fail to live this way. We give up on redemption or mercy for our enemies, corrupt leaders, even ourselves. That is why we are gathered in a church tonight.  We need to pray constantly for the Lord’s help.  And we need to look to people like Immaculée Ilibagiza who show us that what Jesus asks of us is not impossible.  Not only that, it is the only way forward.  Forgiveness is the antidote to violence, and it brings healing to the family members of victims.

In 1995, Bud Welch lost his only daughter Julie in the Oklahoma City bombing.  Bud has become an ardent and persistent supporter of the abolition of the death penalty.  He said, “You don’t heal by escalating violence and by using the death penalty we escalate violence – and that violence is sponsored by the state.”  (More on his story can be found at this link Bud Welch.)

Instead of reacting with vengeance, he is acting with the Lord’s mercy. This is the way beyond violence.  This is the way to healing for those wounded by violence.

The DNA of Christ

The DNA of Christ

This Sunday we honor Jesus Christ as the king of the universe, yet, we listen to a gospel passage in which he is mocked on the cross. (Lk. 23:35-43) We worship a crucified king.

In the Preface to the Eucharistic Prayer we will pray: “Lord, holy Father . . . you anointed your Only Begotten Son, as eternal Priest and King of all creation, so that by offering himself on the altar of the Cross, he might accomplish the mysteries of human redemption.”  Jesus is the Eternal Priest who sacrificed himself on the cross. He is the King of all Creation, “making peace by the blood of his cross.” (Col. 1:20)  This is the Catholic way of honoring the Lord Jesus – to view his kingship by staring at the crucified Christ on the Cross.

What does it mean to worship a Crucified King who is the Eternal Priest?  How well do we live that mystery?  In what practical way does this affect our daily lives?  For example, many people are struggling with illness.  Others are suffering because of natural disasters, poverty, violence, or abuse.  Faith in the crucified King affects our experience.  It changes the way we pray through suffering. It transforms our understanding of death.

People who suffer in faith illustrate this mystery. They show us the beauty and transforming power of the crucified king. Several years ago, I met young man named Brent, who had muscular dystrophy. Brent was 16 years old when I first met him. He was confined to a wheelchair, but he had an amazing attitude.  He was always upbeat.

Brent enjoyed building model airplanes. It was a way for him to keep active, to occupy his mind and his muscles. But he could not stop the progression of muscular dystrophy. He died a slow death as his muscles continued to deteriorate.  He finally suffocated and died at age 27. His parents were amazing. They cared for their son with constant love and patience.

What does the feast of Christ the King have to say about Brent’s illness and death? What does it tell us about people like Brent who suffer with great patience, or his parents who carried him on that journey?  One thing we know for certain is that Jesus accompanied Brent in his suffering. As a crucified Messiah, he chose to enter into human suffering. Jesus didn’t save himself. He conquered suffering and death by entering into it, not by escaping it.

Three times Jesus was challenged and taunted to “save himself” from suffering. The leaders jeered at him and said, “He saved others, let him save himself if he is the Chosen One, the Christ of God.”  The soldiers mocked him too: “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.”  Even one of the criminals ridiculed him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us.” (Lk. 23:35-39) Precisely because Jesus did not save himself from suffering and death, he conquered it. As one spiritual writer said, “Jesus did not come to explain away suffering, or to remove it.  He came to fill it with his presence.” ~ Paul Claudel

Jesus suffered together with Brent.  The suffering Christ empowered him with his presence. Jesus filled him with his own patience, strength and peace. The crucified and Risen Lord enters into the darkest moments of human life and fills us with his presence.

That is what it means to worship Christ as King of the universe. It means to believe that nothing is beyond his reach, even the darkest moments of existence. It means to believe that in our darkness, he abides in us and uses us so that others might contemplate his merciful suffering and victorious love. I learned about Christ the King by contemplating his presence in Brent and in his parents.

Now, the Crucified King is also the Risen Lord in glory. As the head of the Body of the Church, he is forever infusing his mystical Body with his love.  At Baptism, we were grafted onto the vine of Christ so that we might be nourished with his Spirit. In the Eucharist, the Blood of Christ is a transfusion that reinvigorates our hearts.

The ongoing infusion of Christ’s Love will inevitably bring us into the Resurrection. As St. Paul said, “He is the beginning, the firstborn of the dead.” (Col. 1:18)  Jesus’ ultimate victory came through the cross and flowered in the resurrection. What does that say about being a success in life?

 It means to see the sacrifice of Brent’s parents as success. They were successful because they imitated Christ on the cross. Jesus challenged his disciples to live their lives for others when he said, “Anyone who saves his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:24).

It’s a strange formula for success. We usually equate success with making lots of money, having a high-paying job, driving a fancy car, wearing nice clothes or being popular. We have a list of the wealthiest people in the world. We keep track of the highest paid athletes. In our world, success is defined by what you have, not by what you give.

But the crucified Jesus defined success by how much you give, by the way that you lose yourself.  Losing your life is the way to success.  Brent’s parents lost their lives for the sake of Christ, as they cared for their son. “Anyone who saves his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake will save it.”

We are called to pour out our lives for others. You might say that this is our DNA from being created in the likeness of Christ. Since all things were created in his likeness, we are true to our DNA inherited from Jesus when we lose our lives for others, when we are other-centered. Those who live like are being true to their DNA inherited from Christ. They are on a certain journey to the Resurrection. They will share in the final victory of Christ the King.

Ultimately, this is pure gift. So in the Letter to the Colossians St. Paul says, “Let us give thanks to the Father for having made you worthy to share the lot of the saints in light.  He rescued us from power of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of his beloved Son. Through him we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” (Col. 1:12-14)

How do you see this mystery of Christ the King at work in you?  Surely, you often have selflessly given of yourself, or have been patient in suffering, or have shown immense generosity for others who are down and out.  Give thanks for the grace of living in the DNA of Christ.

How do you need to grow in generosity by losing your life for the sake of Christ?  Certainly, each of us needs to grow in generosity or selflessness, patience in suffering, and the mercy of the crucified Lord.  Ask for that grace in prayer and as you receive the Eucharist. We can only live such love by humbly receiving it from the Lord.

Perseverance

Perseverance

In the trials of life, are you living with perseverance?  Are you staying strong each day as a faithful disciple?  Are you persisting in prayer and enduring in faith?  World events are terribly disturbing, so it is tempting to give up.

This week there was a school shooting in California where two students were killed, and the shooter killed himself.  School kids have shooting drills because this has become a regularized tragedy. Because of violence and insecurity in Africa this year, more than 9,000 schools were shut down in eight countries – Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Niger, Mali, Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Nigeria.

Millions of innocent people are subject to violence and death in Syria, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Venezuela, Bolivia, Hong Kong and the list goes on.  But when they flee for safety, often they are met with disdain.  We see a stubborn disregard for the human dignity of the least. Many are indifferent to the victims of human trafficking, others fail to protect the unborn or undocumented, or they are deaf to the cries of poor families desperately seeking the basic necessities of life.

Jesus cited all kinds of suffering when people asked him about the end-times.  Then he urged them to have perseverance despite violence, war and tragedy.  He said, “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; . . . they will seize and persecute you, they will hand you over to the synagogues and to prisons. . . . You will be hated by all because of my name, but not a hair on your head will be destroyed. By your perseverance you will secure your lives.”  (Lk. 21:9, 12, 17-19)

In the trials of life, are you living with perseverance? Are you staying strong each day as a faithful disciple? “By your perseverance you will secure your lives.”  What is the secret to perseverance?

First of all, we learn perseverance from Jesus. Last week St. Paul encouraged us by saying, “The Lord is faithful; he will strengthen you and guard you from the evil one . . . . May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the endurance of Christ.” (2 Thes. 3:5)  Paul must have pondered the amazing endurance of Jesus in the passion.  So he spoke of the ‘endurance’ of Christ.  The same Greek word is translated as either endurance or perseverance.

One dictionary defines it as “resolute continuance in a course of action.”  It means to stay the course no matter what, even if everyone else gives up.  Perseverance means steadfastness, especially like you see in Christ. In the Book of Revelation, St. John describes it as a strength that comes from communion with Jesus.  He wrote, I, John . . . share with you the distress, the kingdom, and the perseverance we have in Jesus.” (Rev. 1:9)

We learn perseverance from Jesus, and we receive it from him. When I am tempted to give up and when I don’t feel like praying, often it’s because I am too focused on all the problems. Then I need to re-focus on Christ by renewing my prayer. I need to renew my communion with the Lord.

Perseverance is not something we can conjure up by ourselves.          Rather, Christ gives us his enduring strength in prayer, in the Eucharist and in his Word. This word only appears twice in all four Gospels, here and in Luke’s explanation of the Word that falls on rich soil. In that passage Jesus says, “As for the seed that fell on rich soil, they are the ones who when they have heard the word, embrace it with a generous and good heart and bear fruit through perseverance.” (Lk. 8:15)

People with perseverance let the Word take root in them. No matter what, they take time to listen to the Lord. Even in sickness or tragedy or isolation, they persevere in prayer. Are you struggling with perseverance? Are you tempted to give up hope in your faith life? Or are you tempted to despair because of the chaos in the world? Then renew your commitment to prayer and the Word of God. Ask the Holy Spirit for the ‘endurance of Christ.’

I have been carefully reviewing the Gospels. I am on a subcommittee for the Translation of the Scriptures for the USCCB, and we are in the process of reviewing the New Testament translation.  Since June, I have spent 1-2 hours a day carefully reading the gospels. I have been constantly reflecting on the words of Jesus. It keeps me in a steady conversation with Christ.

I have a different attitude when I maintain a good habit of prayer. The problems remain, but my perspective is hopeful and peaceful. Then I see myself as serving the Lord and not working by myself.  It’s his Church, not mine.  I’m a worker in the Lord’s vineyard.

Parents, you have so many concerns about your children. But remember, they are God’s children first. Pray for them, and every day put them in God’s hands. If you try to take care of them all by yourself, you will become weary. But if you see them as gifts from God who loves them more than you do, then you will have the ‘endurance of Christ.’ Care for them inside of your communion with Christ.

Another main source of perseverance is the example of the saints. Reading stories of the saints always inspires me to keep going. Tomorrow is the feast day of St. Rose Philippine Duchesne. She had untiring perseverance.

Born in France, she joined the convent when she was nineteen.  Soon the French Revolution began and the convent was closed, so she took care of the poor and the sick, opened a school for homeless kids and risked her life helping priests in the underground. Eventually, she came with four nuns to the United States to work among the Indians. She was 49 years old, and founded the first free school for girls west of the Mississippi.  But cold and hunger drove them out, and the school failed.

Then she went to Florrisant, Missouri where she founded the first Catholic Native American School.  Father DeSmet met her there in 1823.  He said he had never seen a soul more ardent in its love of Our Lord. At 72 years of age, she was in poor health and retired. But she went to a newly founded Indian mission in Kansas and dedicated her time to prayer. The Indians named her ‘Woman who prays always.’ (pp. 359-360, Saint of the Day)

People saw in St. Rose Philippine two characteristics – perseverance in hardship and persistence in prayer.  The two go together.  She had perseverance only because she was a ‘Woman who prays always.’ She stayed in close communion with God, so she had the ‘endurance of Christ.’

In the trials of life, are you living with perseverance? Are you staying strong each day as a faithful disciple? Jesus said, “You will be hated by all because of my name, but not a hair on your head will be destroyed. By your perseverance you will secure your lives.”  (Lk. 21:17-19) He could say that because he was secure in the Father’s love. At every Eucharist, that same love is poured into our hearts.

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