On Sunday, I celebrated Mass at the Holy Rosary Church in Lander for the opening of the school year with Wyoming Catholic College. It was a joy to be with the students and faculty. The freshmen class of 59 students is the largest since WCC began in 2005. Others who attended the event and interacted with the students said, “I found these young people to be a source of encouragement. Their faith and goodness are inspiring.”
This Sunday I celebrated Mass at the Ascension Parish in Hudson where we dedicated a new altar, then I went to Holy Rosary Parish in Lander for the opening Mass of the school year with Wyoming Catholic College. We had a wonderful celebration for each community, and I enjoyed meeting so many new people. The homily for Mass, based on Matthew 16, follows below.
St. Peter is an interesting choice for the Rock of the Church. So often his mouth gets him into trouble because he speaks before he thinks. At times, Peter is strong, impetuous and proud. Other times, he is cowardly, humble and repentant. He is so normal. If the Lord Jesus could transform him and make him a great witness, he can make any of us into faithful disciples.
Peter professes such confident faith in Jesus as he said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God” (Mt. 16:16). Another time he asserted, “Lord, to whom shall we go, you have the words of eternal life. We are convinced and we believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God” (Jn. 6:68). Yet, rock-solid faith crumbled with a triple denial. That is whom Jesus chose to be the rock of the Church.
What made Peter the rock? What is it that formed him into the rock of faith, the rock of the Church? It is important to reflect on that because it will guide our journey of faith. It will help us to be rock-solid in the faith, despite our sins and quirky personalities.
First, he is the ROCK because that was his call. Jesus told him, “Simon, son of Jonah . . . You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church” (Mt. 16:18). Jesus made SIMON into PETER, the rock. In a biblical name change, God bestows a mission through a new name. But his identity and mission as rock would need to mature. It is Peter’s process of maturity which will help us live our faith. We need to undergo the same process.
Imagine for a moment that Peter was a ‘soft’ rock, but eventually he would become a ‘hard’ rock. For example, the granite of the Wind River Range is igneous rock. Igneous rock is literally ‘fiery rock,’ taken from ignis, the Latin word for fire. Igneous rock is formed from the molten rock in the fire of a volcano. Peter’s faith became like granite because of the fire of Jesus’ passion.
This fiery transformation is most pointed in John’s Gospel, where Peter denied Jesus at a charcoal fire (John 18:18), then at another charcoal fire Jesus asked Peter if he loved him (John 21:15-17). Those are the only two charcoal fires mentioned in the Gospels. So the fires are intentionally linked. At the first charcoal fire, Peter melted with fear. At the second charcoal fire, he became molten lava infused with Christ’s mercy.
As Jesus asked him three times, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was like clay being fired in the volcano of God’s fierce love. That merciful encounter with the Risen Lord hardened his faith like granite. He became a rock with a deep red vein of mercy running through it. Now, Peter’s strength was not based on his own stubborn will or quick wit. Rather it was grounded in Christ’s unfailing mercy. With steadfast love, Jesus confirmed him as the lead disciple. It must have blown Peter’s mind. It definitely transformed his heart.
In the end, Peter was a rock because Christ was his rock. That is what we find the First Letter of Peter 2:4-5. There Peter describes Jesus as the rock foundation of the Church, not himself. He says, “Come to Him, a living stone, rejected by human beings but chosen and precious in the sight of God, and, like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 2:4-5).
Peter himself speaks of Jesus as the LIVING STONE of the church. In the Catholic Tradition, Christ the living stone is symbolized by the altar. The Church directs us to use natural stone for the altar top, as an image of the place of Christ’s sacrifice, and as an image of Christ himself. Peter had to stay close to the sacrifice of Christ’s mercy in order to be a rock.
Perhaps you know that the bones of Peter are directly beneath the main altar at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. That is the perfect place for Peter. He is the Rock of the Church because he is below the Rock of the Altar of Christ. The early Christians placed the bones of martyrs under the altar, not because the martyrs’ bones make the altar holy, but to remind them that the mystery of the altar makes martyrs. This tradition is attested to in the Book of Revelation. “I saw underneath the altar the souls of those who had been slaughtered because of the witness they bore to the word of God” (Rev. 6:9). Similarly, St Ambrose wrote, “He who suffered for all is on the altar; they who have been redeemed by his sufferings are beneath the altar.”
In the end, Peter is a rock because Christ is his rock. He belongs under the altar. So do we. The mystery of Christ that we celebrate on the altar molded Peter into a Rock, and it will mold us. It will make our faith rock-solid.
The ritual for dedicating an altar describes the Christian altar with two images. It is:
- A unique altar on which the sacrifice of the cross is perpetuated in mystery
- A table at which the Church’s children gather to give thanks to God and receive the Body and Blood of Christ.”
The altar is supposed to be fixed or immovable, attached to the floor. If possible, the top is to be made of “natural stone.” Thus, the altar is meant to be solid as rock, a place of sacrifice in biblical imagery. The Altar of Sacrifice fixes our hearts on the cross. At every Eucharist, we enter into the mystery of the cross.
Yet, the ritual states that it is also supposed to be “freestanding so that the priest can walk around it facing the people.” Perhaps this is because it is called the Table of the Paschal Banquet, which recalls not only the Last Supper, but also the meals of the Risen Christ when the disciples felt their hearts “burning” with the fire of Christ’s love and where they “recognized him in the breaking of the bread” (Luke 24:32-34).
Thus, the paschal banquet goes beyond the Sacrifice of the Cross. The Risen Christ presides at our paschal banquet, which points beyond to the marriage feast of the Lamb with all the saints in heaven (Rev. 19:9). Through the Eucharistic mystery, we enter into the mystery of Jesus’ sacrificial death; we are filled with the LIFE of his Risen Christ and we taste the glory of heaven. The Church’s reform of the liturgy at Vatican II recaptured both images, of the ALTAR of Sacrifice and of the TABLE of the Paschal Banquet. At times, some have overemphasized the table image and have lost the sense of sacrifice. Other times, the table image has been lost.
As you approach the altar to receive Holy Communion, come like Peter did to that charcoal fire at the Sea of Tiberius. With humble faith, come aware of your frailty and sin, but more keenly aware of Lord’s steadfast mercy. Ask Christ to make your heart burn with the fire of his love – burning away all sin, and molding you into a living stone.
Peter gives us so much hope that God can work with our humanity with all of its foibles and make us rock-solid disciples, if only we stay close to the Rock of Jesus Mercy.
The recent events in Charlottesville revealed a new level of racism in our land. Consequently, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops today announced the establishment of an Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism. It will focus on addressing the sin of racism in our society, and even in our Church, and the urgent need to come together as a society to find solutions. Please pray for the victims and their families in Charlottesville, and for our nation that we may live as brothers and sisters in Christ.
For the Feast of the Assumption of Mary (August 15), I traveled to the parishes in Rock Springs, Evanston and Kemmerer. Last Saturday, I was at the parish of St. Joseph in Rawlins. On Sunday, I preached at the parishes of St. Ann in Saratoga and St. Joseph in Hanna. It was a joy to spend time with the priests and people in those parishes in the south and western part of the diocese. Following is the homily from the weekend Masses.
What is the main job of a Bishop? What is the most important thing that a pastor needs to do at a parish? What is the main purpose of a parish? Sometimes we need to ask the bigger questions. Otherwise, we spend our time and energy on things that distract us from what is essential. So let’s take a little time for these bigger questions today.
As a successor of the apostles, a Bishop’s main job is to continue the ministry of Jesus. Bishops are like modern day apostles. The word Apostle means “one who is SENT,” in particular, to be sent with the authority of Christ. Remember when the Risen Lord appeared to the twelve in the upper room and said to them, “As the Father sent me, so I send you. Then he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven; whose sins you retain are retained” (John 20:21-23).
Jesus gave the apostles his power, the power of the Holy Spirit. He gave them explicit authority to forgive sins, to heal the sick, to proclaim the Kingdom. A Bishop’s job is to continue the ministry of Jesus. You could say the same for a pastor and for a parish.
In the gospel for this Sunday (Matt. 15:21-28), Jesus heals the daughter of a Canaanite woman. The disciples want Jesus to send her away, not only because she keeps bothering them, but probably because she is not a Hebrew. Why should this outsider share in the salvation of Jesus? Have you ever noticed how often he healed? So many gospel stories are about healing, especially healing outsiders – lepers who were outcasts, tax collectors who were despised or Samaritans who were hated and considered heretics. The list goes on.
In the Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis wrote that we need to go to the margins, and he said that the Church is a Field Hospital. He didn’t pull those images out of a hat. He has reflected carefully on the gospels. He is a man immersed in the Scriptures. So often Jesus healed people on the margins, and that is why Pope Francis uses those images.
Is your parish a FIELD HOSPITAL to those on the margins? The danger for a parish is to be insular and parochial, to take care of itself with little concern for those outside, to maintain the status quo.
At the last two parishes where I served, we held Healing Services. They were not services for the Sacrament of Anointing which we celebrated at other times. Rather, the Healing Services were for anyone with any kind of ailment. All people were invited to receive prayers for any purpose. We opened the services up to the community and encouraged parishioners to bring friends…. Catholic or non-Catholic.
Then we took it one step further, and held MERCY NIGHTS, where we offered healing prayers and confessions at the same service at the Cathedral in Rapid City. We sent postcards to every household in a two-mile radius of the Cathedral so that it became a community event, not merely a Catholic event. People who had been away from the Church for decades came simply because they received a postcard. Over 500 people at each service. Priests heard confessions and prayer teams offered prayers for up to three hours.
The Healing Services and Mercy Nights were two practical ways that we sought to be a Field Hospital for those on the margins. Now it’s true that the Church is more than a field hospital. We also need to teach the faith, and we must celebrate the Sacraments devoutly and faithfully. But Pope Francis said that many people are so broken that the first thing they need is the healing mercy of God. Before we can teach them the finer points of doctrine, we need to offer them Christ’s healing mercy. After all, that is how Jesus ministered.
A Bishop’s job is to continue the ministry of Jesus. In the tradition of the Church, that involves three main duties: to sanctify, to preach and to shepherd (or govern). The duty to SANCTIFY is primarily with the Sacraments. The duty to PREACH is obviously with homilies, but it involves teaching in faith formation classes and many other ways. The duty to SHEPHERD or govern involves all of the daily ministry which the Church does – visiting the sick, helping the needy, and being a field hospital on the margins.
But the Bishop cannot do that for the whole diocese, right? So priests are commissioned as co-workers with the Bishop to keep the VISION of Jesus alive. And priests need the witness of other disciples who will join him in the ministry of Jesus. Priests and bishops have to spend time daily with the Scriptures, especially with the Gospel. Because it keeps us in touch with Jesus and his vision. The same is true for all who are disciples of Christ. Otherwise, we get focused on programs, or our own special interests.
Daily prayerful meditation on the Gospel is essential for a healthy church. Is your parish going to the margins to offer the healing of Christ? How do your programs serve that mission? Do you believe in his healing which is available for everyone? We only need to let the faith of the Canaanite woman instruct us in this truth.
The gospel for this Sunday begins with an interesting image. “After he had fed the people, Jesus MADE the disciples get into the boat” (Matt. 14:22). Jesus made them get into the boat. You could say, “He pushed them into the boat.” In Spanish it says, “Jesus obligated his disciples.” (Jesús obligó a sus discípulos.) The Italian translation is, “Jesus ordered the disciples to get into the boat.” (Gesù ordinò ai discepoli.)
Sometimes, God pushes us right into a storm!
Shortly after ordination, God pushed me into a dark storm. After I was ordained for three years, I was sent to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in northern South Dakota. Normally, life on the reservation is rough, but it was intensified by one of the harshest winters ever recorded. It started snowing in late October and by early December we had close to 30” of snow. There were two Franciscan Sisters with us, and Sr. Jacque said, “Isn’t the countryside beautiful with all the glistening snow.” I told her, “You just wait until the wind blows.” The week before Christmas the wind blew for three days straight, and we were buried.
That winter we had over 100” of snow. High winds constantly blocked roads. Ranchers suffered large losses of cattle and struggled with depression. It was a long dark cold winter ….. and the storm continued right into the next spring when the thawing snow flooded one of the mission churches. A year later, lightning struck another church and burned it to the ground. In the meantime, we had a rash of suicides.
Storms come in a variety of flavors. What kind of storms have you experienced? Maybe financial uncertainty or losing a job, which can throw an entire family into turmoil. For some, it is cancer or a life-threatening illness. The constant battle drains you physically, mentally and emotionally. It might be leaving for college. As much as young people look forward to having their own space and being independent, leaving family and friends can be unnerving. Parents send their kids off to college, but not without apprehension about the storms that they will encounter.
Sometimes, God pushes us right into a storm. And the storm can last deep into the night. The disciples spent almost the entire night in the storm before Jesus came walking on the sea. “During the fourth watch of the night, he came toward them walking on the sea” (Matt. 14:25). The fourth watch is the last watch – around 4 or 5 am.
Why does God push us into storms? Why does he leave us there all night long?
First, the storms of life are a place to meet God. The long night of the storm puts us face-to-face with our nothingness, which humbles us and opens us to God’s power. Storms are a special place to meet God. That is what I have found, as I look back on the storms of my life. For me, coming to Cheyenne as a new bishop is another storm. Moving to a new state and leaving everything familiar is stressful. But this Gospel reminds me to see this as a time and place to meet God.
The storms of life are a place to meet God, and the Lord uses storms to deepen our faith. Jesus said to Peter, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matt. 14:31). He challenged him to trust in his power over all things. And he challenges us to trust. In Matthew’s gospel, the disciples are often described as having ‘little faith’ (cf. Matt. 6:30; 8:26; 16:8; 17:20). They believe. But their faith is weak. It is like a flame that flickers in the wind. When Peter sees how strong the wind is, he begins to sink. Later during the passion, he wavers in his commitment and denies Jesus.
You might ask: “How could Jesus expect Peter to have faith enough to walk on the stormy sea? Isn’t that asking too much?” Yes. It’s asking a lot for a mere human, but not for someone who believes in Jesus as the Lord of all creation, and as the Risen Lord with power over death. Thanks to this experience Peter comes to know Jesus as the Lord of creation. He saw in Jesus the same power as the Lord who opened the Red Sea.
In the Old Testament, Yahweh (translated as “LORD”) shows his power by walking on the sea. The sea is a place of terrifying power. And when Yahweh shows his power over the stormy sea, the Hebrew people realize he is Almighty God.
As Jesus walks on water and calms the storm, the disciples realize that he is God. So the disciples in the boat “did him homage” (Matt. 14:33). That faith is crystalized after Jesus’ death, when the disciples saw the Risen Lord. He has power over sin, evil and death. The only response can be to give him homage.
The Greek word here for homage means to fall face down and kiss his feet. Matthew’s Gospel ends with that image. In the last scene of the Gospel as the disciples meet the Risen Christ, it says, “When they saw him, they worshiped (or did him homage), but they doubted” (Mt. 28:17). Don’t worry if you worship and doubt. To be a disciple is to keep worshiping with imperfect faith. The mistake would be to quit worshiping in times of doubt. To give up in the storm.
When I was on Standing Rock, Paul & Margie Keller lost their house in a fire. Paul is a deacon. He and Margie have strong faith, but when they saw their home go up in flames, they were devastated. Their faith flickered. Yet, today they describe that experience as a blessing. The outpouring of help from friends and neighbors was amazing. The experience of God providing for them during that time of loss deepened their faith. You might say that they describe the fire as a place where they met God. Their faith grew stronger because of that stormy night. It helped them to fall down before Jesus and kiss his feet.
When has God pushed you into a storm? Or where are you experiencing a storm right now? Can you see how it was a place to meet God? How did God invite you to grow in faith through that storm? Did you respond by giving Jesus homage?
This week, I was in Rapid City, SD for the funeral for Fr. Gerald “Jerry” Scherer. He died at 98 years and was a priest for 63 years. I had known him my entire life. Because he was my mother’s first cousin, he often visited our family. I preached the homily for his funeral Mass. The text is below.
On behalf of the diocese and Fr. Jerry’s family, I would like to say THANKS to all who have offered such good care to Fr. Jerry. Over the last four years, he has received loving care from the people at There’s a Hart and Bella Vista Golden Living Center. Thank you for your dedication and service to him and so many others. We don’t say thank you enough to those who serve the elderly and dying.
Homebound ministers from the parishes in Rapid City visited him regularly to bring him Holy Communion and listen to his stories. He was a story teller….. Last night someone said to me, “Tell the story of his first confession. He said that he was standing in line and didn’t know what to confess, so he kicked the kid ahead of him so that he had something to confess.” Thanks for listening to his stories and accompanying him on his final journey to the Father’s house. Also, Fr. Dan Juelfs has been especially attentive to his needs while acting as Power of Attorney. There are many others too numerous to mention.
Those who were privileged to be with Fr. Jerry over these last years would say, “It was a GIFT.” He was easy to be around…. most of the time! Even when we had to twist his arm to leave his hermitage, or the “R & R” as he called it, he maintained a gentle stubbornness.
After he had fallen on the ice and injured his shoulder, I told him that he needed to be closer to others. I said that his sister Darlene and other family members were worried about him. He replied, “I know. They’re afraid that I will fall and not be able to get up. And maybe I will freeze to death or die all alone. But I am not afraid of that. I am ready to die and feel peaceful about it.” Then I thought to myself, “Okay. How do you respond to that?”
He approached death with calm confidence. For Fr. Jerry, death was not something to be feared. Rather, he anticipated it with a sense that it would be the deepest experience of God in his entire life.
A few years ago, his brother Cliff sent me a copy of Jerry’s autobiography, over 50 pages of single-spaced typed reflections or “Musings,” as he titled it. Mostly, he wrote about how God TOUCHED him throughout his life. Toward the end, he described a near death experience in connection with an operation on his back in 1994. Something went wrong with how he reacted to the anesthesia, and the doctor later told him that they almost “lost him.” This is how he described it.
“It was a world of peace. Quiet. A world where God was present in a special way. I couldn’t move. I didn’t want to move. God had blessed me from seminary days on with a contemplative and mystical way of prayer. This was something like that. I was to totally content to sink deeper and deeper into God.”
Then he wrote, “If I ever had any fear of dying it was all taken away in that beautiful experience I had following my back operation at the VA hospital in Iowa City. . . . Maybe my next ‘near death experience’ will be the real thing and take me all the way into the arms of God. A loving God.”
As his mind and body deteriorated these last years, Fr. Jerry lived with PEACE and CALM as he awaited the final embrace of God. Actually, in the Joy of the Gospel Pope Francis describes the Christian life as one of living between the embrace of God at Baptism and the final embrace of our merciful Father at death.
This faith engenders an attitude of sure faith in the midst of suffering that we just heard in the reading from Lamentations.
“I have forgotten what happiness is; I tell myself my future is lost, all that I hoped from the Lord. . . . Remembering it over and over leaves my soul downcast within me. But I will call this to mind, as my reason to have hope:
The favors of the Lord are not exhausted, his mercies are not spent. They are renewed each morning, so great is his faithfulness” (Lam. 3:17-26).
Over the years, Fr. Jerry said that he had become more and more aware of God’s blessings. As the writer of Lamentations says, “The favors of the Lord . . . are renewed each morning, so great is his faithfulness.” This attitude is essential for a Christian as he or she approaches death.
When we come before God in the final judgment, the LORD will ask us, “How well did you live a CHILD of God?” In particular, “How well did you live like my Son?” Another way to ask this question is: Do people see in my life the mystery of Jesus’ victorious death & resurrection? How was that mystery present in the life of Gerald Scherer? That is the ultimate question.
In the gospel today, we heard Jesus say, “All things have been handed over to me by my Father” (Matt. 11:27). As God’s Son, he was filled with every gift. That constant sense of the Father’s gifts carried him through the cross and into the resurrection. To be a CHILD means that I recognize the Father’s gifts ….. in every moment of my life. It means to live with gratitude.
Fr. Jerry wrote, “If we just take time to prayerfully reflect on our lives we realize that God has been part of our lives far more than we realized. What is the result of such reflection? Gratitude. We find ourselves thanking God for all the blessings he has blessed us with throughout our lives. And again, if we look at our lives through the eyes of faith we come to see EVERYTHING AS BLESSINGS!”
That is the attitude of a child of God…… even better, it is the attitude of an adopted child. That is one of St. Paul’s favorite images for a Christian, “You received a spirit of ADOPTION, through which we cry ABBA, ‘Father’!” (Rom. 8:15). The adopted child knows that they have not EARNED anything. Their life is pure gift. The adopted child ought to live with gratitude, with a sense of amazing blessings flowing from his or her parents.
It also means to have childlike trust in the worst suffering. That is what we hear from St. Paul as he continues his reflection on adoption, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us” (Rom. 8:18). Such trust in suffering is based on the lived experience that God is always with us as a merciful Father.
In his autobiography Fr. Jerry, talked about how God worked through his sins or experiences of evil. He describes several different times where God used bad events to teach him a lesson or to help him be more mature. He wrote that “everything is a blessing.” Most of all, he wrote about a growing sense of God being with him. Perhaps that is why he laid in bed (unable to walk) in the last days with such grace.
The person who lives as a child of God has a perspective of hope. They do not focus so much on their sins or the evil in the world, but on God’s great faithfulness. That is what I saw in Fr. Jerry. He had a joy and a peace that was rooted in this childlike trust in the Father’s love.
Today is the feast of St. John Vianney (August 4) ….. a good day to remember another good priest who was ever more being conformed to Jesus Christ.
On Monday, July 31, I hiked Medicine Bow Peak with Fr. Steve Titus and the seminarians of the Diocese of Cheyenne. We celebrated Mass at the top (12,014 ft.). It was a glorious day, and the power of the experience was intensified in the prayer of the Mass. Mountain-top experiences are an integral part of the Christian life.
We all need to experience the presence of God in powerful ways. This Sunday, we recall how Peter, James and John saw Jesus shining in glory at the transfiguration. Each Sunday, Christ is transfigured in glory during the Eucharist. How necessary it is for us to be with him so that we might be transfigured.
In fact, in Matthew’s gospel the transfiguration of Christ is linked to the glory of God shining out in Jesus’ disciples. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells the disciples, “Your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father” (Matt. 5:16). In the parable of the weeds and the wheat, he tells them, “The righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matt. 13:43).