Becoming Fearless

Becoming Fearless

Last weekend, I celebrated Confirmation in Pine Bluffs, Wheatland and Casper. This weekend, I confirmed young people in Pinedale, Kemmerer and Evanston. Please pray for all of the young people receiving the Sacrament of Confirmation in these weeks. The homily for the Mass at St. Mary Magdalen, Evanston is below.

The one thing you never see in Jesus is fear.  He felt perfectly safe in the hands of the Father.  He felt protected by the Father as his Shepherd, so he had no fear.  But our hearts are preoccupied by so many worries.

What fears occupy your mind?  Are you afraid of what others think of you, or what they say about you?  Maybe someone you love has cancer or a life-threatening illness, so you are troubled.  Parents are anxious about their children and their future.  And many people worry about money, or having a stable job.

How can you and I live fearlessly like Jesus?  1 John 4:18 contains the clearest path to living without fear.  It says, “In [God’s] love there is no room for fear, but perfect love drives out fear. . . . and whoever is afraid has not come to perfection in love.”  Fear is the opposite of God’s love.  Jesus lived safe inside of the Father’s love.  When we come to perfection in God’s love, then we will be fearless.

Think of how enormous the universe is.  Astronomers say that there are about 100 billion stars in one galaxy, and there are more than 100 billion galaxies.  That means that there are approximately 100 billion x 100 billion stars out there, give or take a few billion!  Astronomers have found stars that are 40 million times brighter than the sun.  They discovered quasars that emit the light of a trillion suns.

Almighty God who created such an enormous universe sent his Son to tell us.  “No one can take [my sheep] out of my hand.  My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one can take them out of my Father’s hands.  The Father and I are one” (Jn. 10:28-30).  Jesus shares God’s almighty power, and he holds us in his hands.  He was safe in the Father’s hands, and he invites us to live inside those hands.

To be fearless does not mean that everything in the world is just fine.  There is a huge battle between good and evil.  Jesus hinted at this battle a few verses earlier when he said, “The hired hand . . . sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them” (Jn. 10:12).

There are plenty of things to fear, if you are not in the hands of the Father.  The wolf or Satan is prowling to attack the flock.  Sin has wounded us, so we easily give in to despair or temptation.  All kinds of illnesses wear us down physically and psychologically.  Mass shootings or acts of terrorism preoccupy our minds. There are plenty of things to fear, if you are not in the hands of the Father.

However, we are in the hands of the Father.  That’s what it means to be baptized.  We are immersed into the Trinity — Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Through Confirmation the grace of the Holy Spirit is strengthened.  We have the strength of Jesus.  We have his power to stand strong.

In addition, we have the protection of saints and angels.  A few students chose St. Michael the Archangel as a confirmation saint.  One student wrote: “I chose St. Michael because he symbolizes ‘strength’ to me.  He is the patron saint of soldiers, police and doctors who give protection.  One of St. Michael’s responsibilities is to combat Satan whom I know is alive and well.  What better name than to be confirmed in other than St. Michael who is already a champion for me.  He is the most powerful angel of the Lord.  I chose St. Michael as a constant reminder of ‘strength,’ to help combat Satan in my life as I journey toward my eternal life with Jesus and God the Father.” 

No matter what happens God holds us in his hands; his angels accompany us, and his saints show us that we can be fearless in the worst situations.  St. Maximillian Kolbe sacrificed his life at a Nazi concentration camp to save a man who begged not to be killed because he had family.  The guards told Kolbe not to look at them because his eyes were so strong, so fearless.

Often we don’t see that fearless strength in baptized and confirmed Christians.  Sometimes they act just like others who are not baptized.  Why?  The grace given in these sacraments can lie dormant.  It is there, but not active.  It is like a seed that lies in the desert without rain.  What do we need to do to activate the grace of Confirmation?  What do we need to do so that we will be fearless like St. Maximillian Kolbe?

First, realize that we are given God’s power through the Holy Spirit.  We share in Jesus’ own power.  We have his strength.  He said, “I give [my disciples] eternal life, and they shall never perish” (Jn. 10:28).  Most people think of ‘eternal life’ as something we experience after death.  They think of it as ‘everlasting life.’  But it is so much more.  Eternal life is ours right now.  It is the life of the eternal one – the life of the Risen Lord and the power of the Holy Spirit.

First, realize that you have Eternal Life right now.  Second, work your relationship with God.  Live inside of the Father’s hands.  One essential way is through daily prayer.  This is what one student wrote about her daily prayer.  “On a daily basis I spend about ten minutes in prayer.  I usually turn to God when I feel that I have said or done something wrong and need forgiveness, or when I feel that I will need help from God to complete something.  I also sometimes pray when I feel scared or I need guidance in a situation.  When I’m scared I pray so that I will be able to be strong and able to overcome any obstacles or challenges in my way.  When I need guidance I don’t know what I should do, and I pray that God will help me make the decision for me.” 

That is a pretty good example of working the relationship with God in prayer.  It is as simple as bringing our troubles to God and asking for help.  One way to make it better is to have absolute confidence that God is with you.  Trust that you have the Eternal Life of Christ – his wisdom, courage, strength and perseverance.  Pray daily and come to the Sunday Eucharist where we have a keen sense of the Father’s protection, and where the Life of the Risen Lord is poured into our hands. If we make a practice of daily prayer and Sunday Eucharist, we become more and more aware that we are held in the hands of God.  Then we know the truth of Jesus’ promise, “No one can take [my sheep] out of my hand.  My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one can take them out of my Father’s hands.  Then we become fearless like Jesus.

Humble Unity

Humble Unity

This weekend, I celebrated Confirmation for 77 students in three parishes: Holy Name, Sheridan (Friday), St. Matthew, Gillette (Saturday) and St. John the Baptist (Sunday). Please pray for these young people and the many others who will be confirmed in the next several weeks. The homily for this Sunday is below.

Put yourself in the place of the apostles in this scene (John 20:19-31).  What went through Peter’s mind when Jesus appeared in the upper room?  The last time he was with Jesus he swore up and down that he never knew him.  As Jesus stood in their midst, he must have felt like hiding behind the others in shame.

But Jesus said nothing about Peter’s denial, or the others abandoning him.  Instead he greeted them with mercy as he said, “Peace be with you.” He reassured them that his friendship with them was rock solid.  In that first encounter with the Risen Lord, Peter must have been flooded with simultaneous feelings of unworthiness, forgiveness and joy.

Then Jesus did something even more shocking.  He said, “As the Father sent me, so I send you.”  I often imagine Peter hearing this and thinking, ‘We failed you.  How could you send us?’  Jesus never gave up on Peter and the other disciples.  That is one aspect of mercy.  God never gives up on us; he knows that we are so much more than our sins.  As St. John Paul II said at World Youth Day in Toronto, “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 be conformed to the image of his Son.”

Mercy means to never give up on the person who sins against you because God never gives up on us.  When we give up on someone and say, “He’ll never change,” then we are following the voice of the Evil One.  But grace is stronger than sin.  As Paul said to the Romans, “However much sin increased, grace was always greater.” (Rom. 5:20)

The disciples were sent with new hope that emanated from Christ’s mercy.  It impelled them to tell others.  Mercy means to be steadfast in showing goodness – even to those who deny us in the darkest hour – so that they are inspired to imitate such goodness.

It is important to learn the secret to Jesus’ mercy.  He never reacted to how others treated him.  Rather, he acted out of his relationship with the Father.  Mercy means to act with the Father’s love, not to react out of hurt or revenge.  The Risen Christ didn’t appear to the disciples and say, “Where were you? Peter, you said that you would go to death with me.  Where were you?” Jesus didn’t react to what they did; rather, he acted out of the Father’s love.

We saw this same dynamic on the cross.  He didn’t say, “What a bunch of losers I chose for disciples!” Instead he said, “Father forgive them, they know not what they do.” (Lk. 23:34)  He was centered in his relationship with the Father.  He acted out his new commandment, “Be merciful as your Father is merciful.” (Lk. 6:36)

One of the confirmation students chose a saint who was acted like that, St. Maria Goretti.  She was a champion of mercy.  She acted out of her relationship with God.  The student wrote this: “I chose St. Maria Goretti because she is the patron saint of forgiveness, purity, chastity, teenage girls and more.  Being the patron saint of forgiveness and purity really stuck out to me.     This stuck out to me because I have a hard time forgiving people.” 

When Maria was 11 ½ years old, a farmworker for her family tried to force himself on her.  She resisted, and he stabbed her 14 times.  As she was dying, she forgave him saying: “For the love of Jesus, I forgive him … and I want him to be with me in paradise.”  While in prison several years later, he had a dream in which Maria handed him 14 white flowers that burst into flame. The flowers represented the 14 stab wounds he had inflicted upon her; the flames symbolized forgiveness. After being released from prison, he became a lay Franciscan and attended Maria’s beatification, alongside her mother.

This is Divine Mercy Sunday.  Have you allowed the mercy of the Risen Lord to sink into your heart, despite your sins?  Do you react to others with God’s mercy?  Are you merciful as the Father is merciful?  The first Christians were a community whose hearts had been transformed by Jesus’ mercy. 

The reading from the Acts of the Apostles says about them, “Many signs and wonders were done among the people at the hands of the apostles.” (Acts 5:12)  Some of those “signs and wonders” were miracles of healing.  Just like Jesus, they did signs and wonders.  The disciples performed miracles in his name.  Another sign was the mercy they showed to each other.  Peter was still revered as the leader of the apostles, even though he denied Jesus.  Despite his weakness, they didn’t give up on him.

That reading also says, “They were all together in Solomon’s portico.”  (Acts 5:12)  At first, this sounds pretty normal, like they were just ‘together’ in a group.  But another translation says, “With one heart, they all met in Solomon’s portico.”  The Spanish translation is, “Estaban todos unánimes en el pórtico de Salomón”

Several different places in the Acts of the Apostles, Luke describes the disciples as unanimous, of one accord, with one heart.  They had an intense unity that was rooted in their common experience as sinners who were blessed with mercy.  One of the fruits of Jesus’ death and resurrection was a humble unity.  A profound sense of being united in his mercy.

A Church re-born

A Church re-born

Yesterday, we celebrated the Passion of the Lord. The homily is below. I encourage you to find 15 minutes of quiet today to reflect on the gracious death of Christ, in preparation for our sharing in his resurrection.

Do you understand the power of Christ’s blood?“When the soldiers saw that Jesus was already dead …. one of the soldiers thrust his lance into his side, and immediately blood and water flowed out.” (Jn. 19:33-34) Do you understand the power of the blood and water flowing from Christ?

We do not merely remember an historical event today.  Rather than historical memory, this is a sacred memory.  In a sacred memory God continues to be present with the very same power.  Christ is present to us just like the day he died on the cross.  We stand with Mary and the beloved disciple at the cross.  Today we enter into the event of the cross.  We not only recall how blood and water flowed from his side, but also the blood and water continues to flow out for us. 

Do you understand the power of the blood and water flowing from Christ?  The Church was born from the blood and water flowing from Christ.  These are symbols of Baptism and the Eucharist.  If the water symbolizes the baptismal water, then Christ’s death is the birth of the Church.  St. John Chrysostom said that just as God fashioned Eve from the side of Adam, so the Church was born from the side of Christ. 

Let’s remember what this birth looked like.  Who was born from the side of Christ?  It happened with weak and sinful disciples.  Peter denied him three times.  He was one of the stronger disciples!  Most of the others were not even brave enough to deny him.  Peter and one other disciple followed Jesus after his arrest.  Because they followed him to the courtyard, Peter was questioned about being a disciple.  So the disciples were virtually all unfaithful to Jesus.  Not just Peter and Judas.

The Church was born with weak unworthy disciples.  So what did these disciples look like after Jesus’ death?  First of all, they were humbled by his faithful love.  Even though they were so unfaithful, he stayed true to them.  Jesus’ faithful love was shown in the beauty of his suffering.  The prophet Isaiah captures the beauty of suffering love, the amazing love of one who suffers for others, and who stays true to his mission when everyone else goes astray.

“He was pierced for our offenses, crushed for our sins; upon him was the chastisement that makes us whole, by his stripes we were healed.  We had all gone astray like sheep, each following his own way; but the LORD laid upon him the guilt of us all.” (Is. 53:5-6)

The beauty of suffering love pierced the disciples’ hearts.  It humbled them. They were bowled over by mercy.  He was a faithful strong suffering servant.  As a result, they were inspired to be servants like him. 

Do you understand the power of the blood and water flowing from Christ?  Do you see what it did for the first disciples?  What should our Church look like today as it is re-born from the blood and the water flowing from Christ?

Over the last year, we have seen that the Church’s leaders have been weak and sinful.  Yet, Christ still goes to the cross for us.  His death is still stronger than all of our horrible sins.  The blood and water flowing fromChrist is the greatest force in the universe.  So we can be re-born.

What does that re-born Church look like?  It has humble leaders. Like the first disciples, we are humbled by Jesus’ faithful love.  Even though we have been so unfaithful, he still offers us his merciful love.

Humble leaders do not have fancy titles, like ‘Your Excellency.’  In fact, titles like that should be banned.  In a Church that is re-born, clericalism is crushed.  Priests are no longer put on a pedestal, but they are suffering servants.  We humbly stare upon the crucified Christ and seek to imitate him who “was pierced for our offenses, crushed for our sins; we had all gone astray like sheep, each following his own way; but the LORD laid upon him the guilt of us all.”

Second, in a Church re-born, those who were harmed are restored.  They experience their own re-birth.  They are restored as we listen to their stories and tell them, “I believe you.”   They are restored as we acknowledge their injuries and help them with counseling.  Mostly, they are restored by the blood and water flowing from Christ.  It is more powerful than sin, sickness, evil and death.  Only Christ can give birth to his Church, only Christ can bring those harmed to re-birth.

Finally, the re-born Church is bold in prayer.  That may sound odd. How can the Church be humble and bold?  The reading from Hebrews describes this boldness.  It says, “Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Heb. 4:16)  

The word for coming before God with “boldness” is parresia; it has a sense of being confident, fearless or to speak openly.  This Greek word means literally “to speak every word.”  You know when someone has had a powerful experience of healing or a life-changing event and you cannot shut them up.  That is the sense.  They speak every word.  They don’t care what anybody else thinks.

After the resurrection of Jesus, the disciples spoke fearlessly or with boldness.  You couldn’t shut them up.  They didn’t care what anybody else thought.  They prayed with boldness because they were stunned by his love on the cross and by the power of his resurrection.  As it says in Heb. 10:19, “Through the blood of Jesus, we enter the sanctuary with boldness.”

His blood poured out on the cross washes over us with perfect mercy.  We can approach God with confidence because we know that he so graciously died for our sins.  “Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Heb. 4:16)      

New Director of Pastoral Formation

New Director of Pastoral Formation

Recently, we were pleased to hire Mr. Joseph Wotawa as the new Director of Pastoral Formation for the Diocese of Cheyenne. A native of St. Louis, MO, Joe has experience as a teacher, campus minister and coach in a Catholic High school and as a catechist in parishes. He has served in a variety of Catholic faith communities in the United States and Central America. In addition, he was in formation with the Society of Jesus (i.e., Jesuits) for eleven years. Joe has a B.A. in English and Philosophy and a Master of Divinity. He will begin his ministry here near the end of June 2019. Please pray for him in this time of transition.

The Power of Tenderness

The Power of Tenderness

On Saturday and Sunday, I participated in the Search Retreat conducted by the Newman Center in Laramie. I joined Fr. Rob Spaulding, Lillie Romeiser and 48 college students. It was a wonderful experience. The homily for the Mass is below.

“You were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light” (Eph. 5:8).  How can we be “light in the Lord”? St. Paul does not merely tell us to be light, but to be “light in the Lord.”  As humans, we cannot create light.  We can only receive it and let it shine through us.  Jesus alone could say, “I am the light of the world.”  (Jn. 9:5) Have you learned how to receive the LIGHT of Christ so that you become “light in the Lord”?

In this gospel scene for this Sunday (John 8:1-11), the woman caught in adultery and the scribes and Pharisees are exposed to the Light of Christ.  Let’s look at how Jesus shines his light on both parties, the accusing scribes and the adulterous woman.  Then we will know better how to live as children of light. 

Can you imagine what it was like for the woman when the Pharisees and scribes made her “stand in the MIDDLE [of the crowd]and hear them tell Jesus, “This woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery” (Jn. 8:4).  Can you imagine the public embarrassment? This is one of the most humiliating and embarrassing experiences imaginable.

The scribes and Pharisees focused everyone’s attention on this woman.  The spotlight was on her.  But Jesus turned the tables.  He focused his light on those who accused her.  He said, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (Jn. 8:7).  He reminds them and us that in God’s light, we are all sinners.  The focus shifted from her sinfulness to everyone’s struggle with sin.  Christ invites us to see each other as broken brothers and sisters.  Do I see myself as better than others?  Am I self-righteous?  Or do I see myself as a fellow sinner? Then I am humble and grateful for God’s constant mercy toward me.

In Jesus’ Light, we are all sinners who have been rescued by his mercy.  Imagine what it was like for the woman to hear Jesus say, “Neither do I condemn you.  Go and sin so more” (Jn. 8:11). 

St. Augustine says of this scene, “Only two were left, misery and mercy.”  A woman in misery and Christ overflowing with mercy.  She came before Jesus in such misery.  She left filled with his mercy.  Can you image what went on in her heart?  It was filled with the soft Light of his mercy.

Several years ago, in a small community I met with a young girl who was much like the woman caught in adultery.  Sally (not her real name) was pregnant as a junior in high school.  She came to Mass every Sunday with her family, but now she felt so judged when she came to Church.  She felt horrible.

I told her, “Sally, your sin is public.  Everybody in town knows your sin. Their sins are more private.  But they are sinners just like you.  In fact, many of them have the same sin.  It’s just that their sins are not as public as yours.”  I encouraged her to go forward with God’s forgiveness and to focus on God’s mercy.  In other words, she needed to walk inside of God’s merciful light, and ignore the public spotlight.

Have you let Christ’s mercy sink into your heart this lent?  Do you treat others with his mercy?  The two go hand-in-hand.  If you have not accepted God’s mercy, then you will not be able to show mercy.

We are more like the Pharisees than we like to think.  They were reluctant to accept the mercy Jesus offered to sinners.  So are we.  Have you ever said to yourself, “I know God can forgive me, but I can’t forgive myself.”?

Sometimes that attitude reveals a form of pride.  Why?  Because it is a way of saying, “I will determine what should be forgiven.  I will define forgiveness!” But that is God’s job. Our role is not to define forgiveness, but to accept it.  In this case, the way to forgiveness is to become like a little child who knows how to receive God’s love.  That is why Jesus said, “Unless you become like little children you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 18:3). 

Other times, the reluctance to accept forgiveness might be the effect of sloth. Sometimes we have given up on God’s grace.  Kathleen Norris says in her book Acedia & Me (p.205), “When we are convinced that we are beyond the reach of grace, acedia [or sloth] has done its work.” John Climacus speaks of sloth as “a voice claiming that God has no mercy and no love for [us].” 

Sloth is not just laziness in the spiritual life.  It is giving up on myself and giving up on grace because a dark spirit whispers in my ear, “You’ll never change.”  The evil one says, “See how you keep saying that you will stop sinning or pray more faithfully, but you don’t do it….  You can’t do it…. Give up!”  In this instance, sloth leads us to give up on ourselves and on God’s loving mercy.

The secret to having a new start in our spiritual life is humility and perseverance. Humbly accepting the Light of God’s mercy day after day.  And persevering in prayer.  Never giving up on prayer and its power to transform me. Standing in the Light of God’s transforming love day after day.

Imagine the tender and humble mercy that the woman experienced as she was alone with Jesus and he said, “Neither do I condemn you.  Go, and sin no more.” Pope Francis said, “Jesus expects us . . . to enter into the reality of people’s lives and to know the power of tenderness.” (Amoris Laetitia, 308) I wonder if he had this gospel scene in mind when he wrote that.

Marvel at the power of tenderness that Jesus showed this woman.  Then bring the same power of tenderness to others.  “You were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord.  Live as children of light” (Eph. 5:8).  Let yourself be soothed by the Light of God’s mercy.  Receive it freely, humbly and gratefully.  Then invite others into the light.

Christus Vivit

Christus Vivit

Yesterday, the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation CHRISTUS VIVIT of Pope Francis to young people and to the entire people of God was made available on the Vatican’s website. 

Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo, President of the USCCB, Cardinal Joseph Tobin and Archbishop Charles Chaput issued a joint statement on the release of Christus Vivit.  They said: 

“This exhortation is a wonderful summons to the whole Church to more vigorously invest in youth and young adults, especially those on the peripheries and those who are disconnected from the Church. . . . Now more than ever, we must turn our attention to our young people and engage them as ‘protagonists’ of the Church’s mission. Their insights can help us grow as a Church and guide us as we all learn to become better missionary disciples in an intercultural and intergenerational context. . . .”

“The Synod of Bishops met in October 2018 on the theme ‘Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment.’ Bishops, clergy, religious, and lay people, including a number of young people, together with Pope Francis, addressed the challenges facing younger generations today and ways in which the Church can best respond. Now the work of the Holy Spirit, manifest in the sessions of the Synod, will bear fruit in the dioceses of the United States.”

I encourage everyone to read the Apostolic Exhortation.  The document can be read in English or Spanish by clicking on this link: Christus Vivit.

Repent

Repent

IHow well do you know the LORD who spoke to Moses at the burning bush?  (Ex. 3:1-14)  Have you met the LORD who revealed himself at the burning bush?  Do you know what matters most to him? 

The passage of the burning bush is foundational for our understanding of God.  It is the beginning of a whole new experience of God in history.  If you understand what the LORD said to Moses at the burning bush, then you will better understand Jesus’ words and actions.

One of the first things that God tells Moses is, “I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.” (Ex. 3:6)  In other words, the LORD of the burning bush is the God who journeyed with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  God made a covenant with them.  Moses is being reminded of God’s fidelity and promise to be with them.  He is reminded of the promise that they would have descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and would inherit the promised land.   Those promises were made 400 years before God spoke to Moses at the burning bush.

That kind of God is different than the gods of other ancient cultures.  For other nations, God was totally transcendent, far off in the heavens.  Their gods did not journey with them; they were not close to them and guiding them each day.  They did not see God as being involved in their personal history or helping them in their struggles. 

However, the LORD of the burning bush is deeply concerned about his people.  He says, “I have witnessed the affliction of my people in Egypt and have heard their cry of complaint against their slave drivers, so I know well what they are suffering.  Therefore, I have come down to rescue them.” (Ex. 3:7-8)  This revelation was life-changing for the Israelites.  It was a revolution in their understanding of God.  The LORD is a God who hears their cries, knows their suffering and comes down to rescue them. 

When you pray, do believe that this is how God cares for you in affliction?  Or do you wonder if he hears you?  Do you just pray because you are supposed to pray, but without a sense that God is deeply concerned about you, your family, and those who suffer in our world? 

Many Christians do not pray to the LORD who said to Moses, “I have witnessed the affliction of my people and have heard their cries for help, so I know well what they are suffering.  Therefore, I have come down to rescue them.”  Instead, they pray to a God who is totally transcendent, who is far off in the heavens and has little or no concern for them.  Who is the God to whom you pray?

We are a lot like the Israelites who didn’t believe Moses.  He knew that this experience of God would be hard for them to believe.  So he said to God, Look, the Israelites are probably not going to believe me.  They will think that I had heat stroke or something, and imagined this whole thing.  “If they ask me, ‘What is this God’s name?’ what am I to tell them?  God replied, ‘I am who am.’ . . . This is what you are to tell the Israelites:  I AM sent me to you.”  (Ex. 3:13-14)

What does it mean when God says that he is ‘I AM’?  Biblical scholars have struggled to understand this name of God.  Many said that ‘I AM’ means that God is the essence of existence.  He is the source of existence, or the beginning of all things.  ‘I AM’ means that he is the Creator.

But in the Jewish culture, they understood something more.  God is not only the Creator, but also the Redeemer who rescues the oppressed.  When God said that his name is ‘I AM,’ it was not a philosophical way of describing his presence. Rather, the LORD’s presence was concrete in history and active in their midst.  God is saying,“I AM present for my people and with my people.  I AM with you in your distress.  I hear your cries and answer your pleas.  I will accompany you on your way.”

Do you pray to God as both Creator and Redeemer? When you pray, do you imagine God as far off in heaven or as One who is closer to you than your closest friend?  We should pray with both images.  Many relate easily to God as Creator, but you cannot stop there or else God is kept at a distance.  As the Redeemer, God comes down to rescue the afflicted.

The Israelites experienced the LORD as their Redeemer at the Red Sea.  As Christians, we experience the LORD as Redeemer in Jesus’ deep compassion for lepers, the blind, the crippled, the sick, the widow of Nain, and in so many other events.  By his life, Jesus helped us understand that this is what the name ‘I AM’ means.  He said, “I AM the good shepherd.  The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.” (Jn. 10:11)  I will protect you from wolves.  I will guide you and watch over you.  I will die for you.

As we celebrate the Eucharist, we experience how God pours himself out to be totally present in a mystical way.  Jesus opened our hearts to this mystery when he said, “I AM the Bread of Life.”  I exist to fill you with my Life.  I AM living in you.  I will always be with you.

During Lent, we are called to renew our relationship with God through repentance.  The first level of repentance is to be open to who God is and what God does.  Every one of us needs to a change of heart regarding God as both Creator and Redeemer.  If we don’t get that right, then we will fail to get the second level of repentance right, which is to let our relationships be transformed by this fresh experience of God’s love.   

At the first level, to repent means to believe that God hears my cry for help, knows my affliction and will rescue me; it means to listen to a God whose first concern is for those being oppressed.  At the second level, to repent is to bring that experience to the people around me.  For Moses that meant that he had to go back to Egypt and help free the Israelites caught in slavery.  He was called to be an agent of God’s redemption. 

For us, it means that we need to listen to the cry of the oppressed in our world and do something about it.  That includes the child in the womb who is helpless, as well as to the pregnant mother who often feels totally alone.  There are so many other kinds of people whom we are called to be agents of God’s protection.  One group is especially appropriate. 

We should recall God’s commandment regarding resident aliens (i.e., foreign immigrants without rights) to the people of Israel.  “You shall not oppress or afflict a resident alien, for you were once aliens residing in the land of Egypt.” (Exod. 22:20)   This commandment is tied directly to the revelation of God at the burning bush and how he rescued them at the Red Sea.  Throughout the Old Testament, it is repeated again and again to remind them and us that our treatment of others who are afflicted should reflect how God has rescued us. 

Suffering as gift for others

Suffering as gift for others

“Why is this happening?”  Whenever you speak with someone who has suffered a tragedy or a mysterious illness, they want to know “Why did God let this happen to me?” That is an excellent question because it expresses trust in God.  You don’t ask “Why did God let this happen?” unless you believe in God as good and caring.   Yet, often in suffering we are left in the dark.  God is silent.  The darkness and silence are disturbing.  We feel all alone.

Then, it’s important to remember the stories of faith.  Today’s Scriptures from Genesis 15:5-18 and Luke 9:28-36 offer two valuable stories that help us in dark times.  Abraham’s mysterious vision and Jesus’ glorious transfiguration give us hope in suffering.  Both stories inspire us to trust God in the darkness of suffering. 

Abe has no children, yet he trusts God who promises him descendants as numerous as the stars of the sky.  God tells him, “Look up at the sky and count the stars, if you can.  Just so shall your descendants be.”  Then, God ups the ante.  He promises his descendants an enormous tract of land – even though Abraham is a foreigner.

The promises seem impossible! So Abraham asks, “How do I know this will happen?”  Then he is given a vision of God’s fidelity.  God tells him to take a heifer, a goat and a ram, and cut them in two.  That was the way that people made business deals.  They cut animals in two, then walked between them, shook hands and said, “If I break my promise, then let me die like these animals.” 

The Hebrew words here could be translated literally, “cut a covenant.” We say “Let’s cut a deal.”  God’s mysterious presence is seen as a smoking fire pot and flaming torch passed between the pieces.  In a sense, God said to Abraham, “Let me be cut in two if I’m not faithful.”

This is not just Abraham’s story to assure him in his struggle.  It is a story of faith handed on to us.  God promises to be with you and me in the darkness of our journey.  He promises that this difficult and dark path will lead to glory. 

The Transfiguration is a similar story of glory in suffering.  Immediately before this, Jesus told his disciples about his suffering and death.  Now he is inviting them to trust that it will not merely be about suffering, but it will be an exodus – a path to glory and new life.  Moses and Elijah spoke of “his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem” (Luke 9:31).  As Jesus shines in glory, we get a glimpse of the resurrection.  The Father teaches us to see Jesus’ suffering as a way to glory.  And God encourages us to see our life as an exodus.  We are on a journey that promises a share in his glory beyond our suffering.

The Father is with Jesus and will carry him through his passion and death.  God cut a covenant with Abraham, but the cross is the biggest deal God ever cut.  He promises to carry us through suffering, if only we listen to his Son. 

Immediately before the Transfiguration Jesus told his disciples that he would “suffer grievously, be rejected . . . and be put to death . . . and be raised up on the third day” (Luke 9:22).  Then he challenged the disciples to imitate this way to glory.  He said, “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross every day and follow me.  Anyone who want to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake, will save it” (Luke 9:23-25).  The next passage is the Transfiguration, so these two texts should be read in tandem.

When God tells us “This is my chosen Son, listen to him,” we are being called to listen especially to those words — to take up the cross every day and to lose our life for his sake.  If we do what he tells us, then we will share his transfiguration.  Stay strong in trial every day.  Trust God in suffering hour by hour.  Lose your life for his sake.  Instead of doing what feels good, do what is helpful to others.  Serve selflessly.  Pray for those who hurt you.  Wash feet.  Forgive as he forgave.

Several years ago, I was serving a small parish where a lady named Alice was suffering from cancer.  She often did not feel well; yet, she came to Mass faithfully, even daily Mass.  You could tell she was not well.  She did not have good color in her face.  She was thin.  She had lost her hair.  Sometimes I looked out and thought, “Alice, what are you doing here today.” 

She probably wondered why this was happing to her.  But the way she suffered with faith was inspiring to everyone in the parish.  Her attitude was powerful.  Her frail but faithful presence inspired everyone.  God was using her for the good of others.  She was losing her life for Jesus’ sake. 

Often God uses our suffering for others.  If we think of what meaning it has for our life alone, we will not see the fullest meaning.  Remember Abraham never saw numerous descendants, nor did he inherit the land.  The Israelites were be led to the promised land about 500 years later.  His journey only makes sense when you see how he suffered for future generations. 

Similarly, Jesus’ suffering as the innocent Son of God makes no sense for his life alone.   Rather, God used his Son’s suffering to redeem the world.  Our suffering should be seen in this perspective.  We will not see the full meaning of our suffering in this life.

When you remember the stories of Abraham and Jesus, then you have the faith to live like Alice.  We are called to be witnesses of Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection by how we suffer for others, and by how we suffer with faith in the resurrection.  With faith, our suffering is a gift for others.

Suffering itself is part of a longer journey to glory.  Stay strong in trial every day.  Trust God in suffering hour by hour.  Lose your life for his sake.  Instead of doing what feels good, do what is helpful to others.  Be a gift for others in your suffering.

Chosen in Christ

Chosen in Christ

Today, we celebrated the Rite of Election at St. Mary’s Cathedral for catechumens and candidates from several parishes in the Diocese of Cheyenne. It was so good to have people from Gillette, Casper, Glenrock, Wheatland, Laramie, Cheyenne and other places. The homily for the Mass is below.

God often touches our hearts in surprising ways.  I recently read a story about Pope Francis that describes how God surprised him with grace as a teenager.  He was almost 17 years old and was walking to meet his girlfriend and other friends from school.  As he walked past a church where he often prayed, he felt inspired to go inside and something amazing happened.  He said,

“I saw a priest walking.  I didn’t know him; he wasn’t one of the parish priests.  And he sat down in one of the confessionals.   I don’t quite know what happened next, I felt like someone grabbed me from inside and took me to the confessional.  Obviously I told him my sins, I confessed . . . but I don’t know what happened. . . . Right there I knew I had to be a priest; I was totally certain.  Instead of going out with the others, I went back home because I was overwhelmed.  Afterward I carried on at school and with everything, but knowing now where I was headed.” 

How often God touches us to draw us into a relationship. Over the years, how has God touched your heart?  That question is not only for catechumens and candidates.  It’s for everybody – all of you who are Christians, the leaders of RCIA, godparents and sponsors, deacons and priests.  How has God taken the initiative to befriend you?  How has he chosen you?

It happens in so many different ways.  While out in the beauty of nature, we are filled with awe.  We realize how awesome God is as the Creator of such magnificence.  In my early twenties, I liked to ride my horse to the State Park five miles south of our ranch.  The Little Moreau River carved deep ravines into the land.  It was a picturesque area where I experienced God in nature.

God is constantly speaking to us in the beauty of nature, through forgiveness, by putting the right person in our path to help us in time of need. How has God taken the initiative to befriend you?  How has he chosen you?

That is why you are here today.  It is not so much that you have decided to enter RCIA or be a sponsor, but that God has touched your heart.  Believe me, I would not be in the Diocese of Cheyenne unless God had chosen me.  I’m not only saying that he chose me to be a priest or a bishop.  I mean that he chose me to be a disciple.  God initiated a relationship with me and kept nurturing it every day. God has guided my life, blessed me with forgiveness, protected me from death and spoke to me through the Scriptures.  I am here because God chose me to be in a relationship with him.

The reading from the book of Deuteronomy describes God’s relationship with the Jewish people.  This is the oldest and most important summary of Israel’s faith journey.  It is an early Jewish Creed.

“My father was a refugee Aramean who went down to Egypt with a small household and lived there as a resident alien…. When the Egyptians maltreated and oppressed us, imposing harsh servitude upon us, we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors, and the LORD heard our cry and saw our affliction, our toil and our oppression.  Then the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a strong hand and outstretched arm, with terrifying power, with signs and wonders, and brought us to this place, and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” (Dt. 26:5-9)

That passage describes the gratuitous initiative of God toward the Israelites.  This is why they refer to themselves as the Chosen peopleWhenever we come to Church we should be aware of how God has blessed us personally, but also we need to be aware of God’s blessings to us as a whole people.  The Israelites recited that creed as a testimony of how God chose them as a people. 

We have inherited their witness of faith, and we add the great events of Jesus’ life.  With today’s gospel we can say, “Jesus defeated Satan in the desert.” (Lk. 4:1-13).  His triumph over the devil in the desert was a sign of his total victory over sin and evil at the crucifixion.  As a people, we are no longer trapped in sin or controlled by evil. 

First, think of all the graced moments in your life that led you here today.  In every one of those are moments God chose you.  Second, remember the biblical events where God chose his people – at the Red Sea, in desert when Jesus defeated the devil, at the Cross as he poured out his life, at Pentecost when the Holy Spirit infused the hearts of his disciples.  In all those saving events, he chose us as his own. 

The directions for the Rite of Election state this:  “This step is called election because the acceptance made by the Church is founded on the election by God, in whose name the Church acts” (RCIA, #119).   Our prayer is founded on the election of God.  We are here today, to celebrate that God chose you – all of you, not only the catechumens and candidates, but every single person of faith.  I will say: “Those who are chosen in Christ, come forward, together with your godparents.” (p. 67, RCIA)  Then each person is called by name because God calls us by name.  He establishes a personal relationship with each one of us.

The main attitude for us today should be a spirit of thanksgiving.  Being thankful for God’s constant blessings.  Thank God, then follow the final instructions from Moses in Deuteronomy.  He told the Israelites to recite the creed of all the ways God helped them, then to say, “Therefore, I now have brought you the first-fruits of the products of the soil which you, O Lord, have given me.’  And having set them before the Lord, your God, you shall bow in his presence”(Dt. 26:9-10)

After you have remembered all the ways God has guided his people over thousands of years, place your basket of first-fruits before the altar and kneel in his presence. That is what we do in the Eucharistic Prayer.  We bring up gifts of bread and wine as symbols of all God’s blessings.  Then we kneel in thanksgiving and awe.

Conversion and Revolution

Conversion and Revolution

On the weekend, I celebrated Masses for the people in Newcastle, Hulett, Sundance and Upton. It was good to be with the people in the northeast corner of Wyoming. Meanwhile, the summit on sexual abuse was being concluded in Rome. Below is the text for the homily by Archbishop Mark Coleridge at the concluding Mass.

It is good that, after all our words, there are now only the words of Christ: Jesus alone remains, as on the mount of the Transfiguration (cf Lk 9:36). He speaks to us of power, and he does so in this splendid Sala Regia which also speaks of power. Here are images of battles, of a religious massacre, of struggles between emperors and popes. This is a place where earthly and heavenly powers meet, touched at times by infernal powers as well.

In this Sala Regia the word of God invites us to contemplate power . . . Standing over the sleeping Saul, David appears a powerful figure, as Abishai sees only too well: “Today God has put the enemy into your hands. So let me nail him to the ground with the spear”. But David retorts: “Don’t kill him! Who has ever laid a hand on the Lord’s consecrated one and gone unpunished?”

David chooses to use power not to destroy but to save the king, the Lord’s anointed. The pastors of the Church, like David, have received a gift of power – power however to serve, to create; a power that is with and for but not over; a power, as St Paul says, “which the Lord gave for building you up, not for destroying you” (2 Cor 10:8). Power is dangerous, because it can destroy; and in these days we have pondered how in the Church, power can turn destructive when separated from service, when it is not a way of loving, when it becomes power over.

A host of the Lord’s consecrated ones have been placed in our hands – and by the Lord himself. Yet we can use this power not to create but to destroy, and even in the end to kill. In sexual abuse, the powerful lay hands on the Lord’s consecrated ones, even the weakest and most vulnerable of them. They say yes to the urging of Abishai; and they seize the spear. In abuse and its concealment, the powerful show themselves not men of heaven but men of earth, in the words of St Paul we have heard.

In the Gospel, the Lord commands: “Love your enemies”. But who is the enemy? Surely not those who have challenged the Church to see abuse and its concealment for what they really are, above all the victims and survivors who have led us to the painful truth by telling their stories with such courage. At times, however, we have seen victims and survivors as the enemy, but we have not loved them, we have not blessed them. In that sense, we have been our own worst enemy. The Lord urges us to “be merciful as your Father is merciful”.

Yet, for all that we desire a truly safe Church and for all that we have done to ensure it, we have not always chosen the mercy of the man of heaven. We have, at times, preferred instead the indifference of the man of earth and the desire to protect the Church’s reputation and even our own. We have shown too little mercy, and therefore we will receive the same, because the measure we give will be the measure we receive in return. We will not go unpunished, as David says, and we have already known punishment.

The man of earth must die so that the man of heaven can be born; the old Adam must give way to the new Adam. This will require a true conversion, without which we will remain on the level of “mere administration” – as the Holy Father writes in Evangelii Gaudium – “mere administration” which leaves untouched the heart of the abuse crisis (25). This conversion alone will enable us to see that the wounds of those who have been abused are our wounds, that their fate is our fate, that they are not our enemies but bone of our bones, flesh of our flesh (cf Gen 2:23). They are us, and we are them.

This conversion is in fact a Copernican revolution. Copernicus proved that the sun does not revolve around the earth but the earth around the sun. For us, the Copernican revolution is the discovery that those who have been abused do not revolve around the Church but the Church around them. In discovering this, we can begin to see with their eyes and to hear with their ears; and once we do that, the world and the Church begin to look very different.

This is the necessary conversion, the true revolution and the great grace which can open for the Church a new season of mission. Lord, when did we see you abused and did not come to help you? But he will reply: In truth I say to you, as often as you failed to do this to one of these the least of my brothers and sisters, you failed to do it to me (cf Matt 25:44-45). In them, the least of the brothers and sisters, victims and survivors, we encounter Christ crucified, the powerless one from whom there flows the power of the Almighty, the powerless one around whom the Church revolves forever, the powerless one whose scars shine like the sun.

In these days we have been on Calvary – even in the Vatican and in the Sala Regia we are on the dark mountain. In listening to survivors, we have heard Christ crying out in the darkness (cf Mk 15:34). And the cry has even become music. But here hope is born from his wounded heart, and hope becomes prayer, as the universal Church gathers around us in this upper room: may the darkness of Calvary lead the Church throughout the world to the light of Easter, to the Lamb who is the sun that never sets (cf Apoc 21:23). I

n the end, there remains only the voice of the Risen Lord, urging us not to stand gazing at the empty tomb, wondering in our perplexity what to do next. Nor can we stay in the upper room where he says, “Peace be with you” (Jn 20:19). He breathes on us (cf Jn 20:22) and the fire of a new Pentecost touches us (cf Acts 2:2). He who is peace throws open the doors of the upper room and the doors of our heart. From fear is born an apostolic boldness, from deep discouragement the joy of the Gospel.

A mission stretches before us – a mission demanding not just words but real concrete action. We will do all we can to bring justice and healing to survivors of abuse; we will listen to them, believe them and walk with them; we will ensure that those who have abused are never again able to offend; we will call to account those who have concealed abuse; we will strengthen the processes of recruitment and formation of Church leaders; we will educate all our people in what safeguarding requires; we will do all in our power to make sure that the horrors of the past are not repeated and that the Church is a safe place for all, a loving mother especially for the young and the vulnerable; we will not act alone but will work with all concerned for the good of the young and the vulnerable; we will continue to deepen our own understanding of abuse and its effects, of why it has happened in the Church and what must be done to eradicate it.

All of this will take time, but we do not have forever and we dare not fail. If we can do this and more, we will not only know the peace of the Risen Lord but we will become his peace in a mission to the ends of the earth. Yet we will become the peace only if we become the sacrifice. To this we say yes with one voice as at the altar we plunge our failures and betrayals, all our faith, our hope, our love into the one sacrifice of Jesus, Victim and Victor, who “will wipe away the tears from every eye, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning or weeping or pain any more, for the former things have passed away” (Apoc 21:4). Amen.

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