Being the Compassion of Christ

Being the Compassion of Christ

In 2005, I went to India with Catholic Relief Services to learn about the mission work they support.  CRS provides the Missionaries of Charity with funding for their ministries to the destitute.  We visited a leper community of men in Kolkata, India run by the Missionaries of Charity.  Many of the men were disfigured.  Some were missing fingers or parts of arms and legs.

Even though their leprosy had been healed through medical treatment, I was still nervous about touching them.  Nevertheless, we walked among them and shook their hands.  Like the lepers in Jesus’ time, they were isolated, so they responded with such gratitude to a simple handshake.  Their eyes lit up as we greeted them.

Today is World Day of the Sick, so the story of Jesus healing a leper fits well.  In 1992 St. John Paul II initiated World Day of the Sick.  He chose February 11 because on that day we celebrate the intercession of Our Lady of Lourdes.  Thus, the day calls to mind the sick people who travel to Lourdes for healing.  Also, Lourdes is a place where others go to minister to the sick.  They assist those who are otherwise unable to enter into the waters.  They pray for them and with them.  So today we remember the sick and our call to accompany them in their suffering.

How often do you visit the sick?  What is your attitude when you meet a person with cancer or a contagious illness?

  • Do you see yourself as one called to bring Christ’s compassion to them?
  • Do you see the suffering Christ in the sick person?

Recently, our attitude toward the sick has been influenced negatively in two ways.  First, we look at the sick from a distance.  The elderly are put in nursing homes, which is good because they need professional care.  But they experience isolation and feel forgotten.  Either we are too busy to visit the infirmed or elderly.  Or we say, “They won’t even remember if I visit, so what good will it do?”

We look at the sick from a distance

Second, our society says that suffering has no value.  The infirmed are encouraged to “end their suffering.”  Assisted suicide is growing.  Children in the womb diagnosed with an illness have a higher risk of being ‘eliminated.’  We value the perfectly healthy person more than the sick person.  We fail to see the suffering Christ in the sick.

Two temptations for us are:

  • To look at the sick from a distance, rather than reaching out to them with Christ’s compassion.
  • Failing to see the suffering Christ in the sick or not recognizing the dignity of the sick person.

Today’s gospel helps us see things differently.  “A leper came to Jesus and kneeling down begged him and said, ‘If you wish, you can make me clean.’ Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand, touched him, and . . . The leprosy left him immediately” (Mark 1:40-41).

How could the leper dare to approach Jesus?  Lepers were supposed to walk around yelling, “Unclean, unclean!” so that people were warned from any possible contact with them. Today people are afraid of being touched by anyone with a cold.  Imagine how much more people were afraid of contracting leprosy.

What is amazing is that the leper felt so confident in approaching Jesus.  In this scene Jesus showed us is that God is so approachable.  Even lepers felt comfortable coming close to Jesus.  When the leper asks for healing, “Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him.”

Jesus could have healed the leper with his Word alone.  He did that in other situations.  But here he touches the leper.  Lepers were totally isolated.  They lived apart from others.  So touching a leper is an expression of solidarity and fraternity….. to help the leper feel that he belongs to the community.

Several years ago, Fr. Jerry Scherer described to me how he ministers to the elderly or infirmed by saying, “Whenever I visit a nursing home, I also make a point to touch each person.  Human contact is so important for them.  Even if they cannot understand what I say, human touch is therapeutic for them.” 

Pope Francis talks a lot about a spirituality of CLOSENESS.  In a homily he said, “Closeness and compassion: this is how the Lord visits his people.  And when we want to proclaim the Gospel, to bring forth the word of Jesus, this is the path.”  In his letter for 2018 World Day of the Sick, Pope Francis said that the Church needs to “bring the Lord’s own gaze full of tenderness and compassion to the sick.” 

Francis speaks often about the ‘tenderness and compassion’ of God.  Those are not simply some of his favorite words.  Rather, they translate the word for mercy in this gospel.  When it says that Jesus was “moved with pity,” the Greek word is splanknizomai.  It means his guts ached for him.  It is like a mother who sees her child suffering with cancer and her stomach aches, or a father who feels sick to his stomach when his child is injured in a car accident.

 Compassion means to “suffer with.”  That is what splanknizomai means – to look at someone who is hurt or sick and ache for them.  When Pope Francis says that the Church needs to “bring the Lord’s own gaze full of tenderness and compassion to the sick,” he has splanknizomai in mind.

What is your attitude when you meet a person with cancer or a contagious illness?

  • Do you see yourself as one is called to bring Christ’s compassion to them?
  • Do you see the suffering Christ in the sick person? ……. not only the suffering of Christ, but the suffering Christ?

He said, “Whatever you do to the least of my brothers, you do to me” (Mt. 25:40).  When we visit the sick, we meet Christ there.

Lent begins this week.  People often ask, “What are you giving up?” A better question is, “What are you giving?” 

We are called to give alms.  Almsgiving comes from the word for being merciful, especially like God’s mercy to the oppressed and afflicted.  Almsgiving really means to imitate God’s mercy.  As we celebrate Eucharist today, remember how the Lord has been merciful to you.  Then ask for the grace to bring his tenderness and compassion to the sick and oppressed and afflicted.

Slaves of Christ

Slaves of Christ

I celebrated Masses last week with three Catholic Schools in our Diocese:  St. Mary’s School in Cheyenne (January 29), St. Anthony’s Tri-Parish School in Casper (February 1) and Holy Name School in Sheridan (February 2).  I also met with the priests and parish leadership in Sheridan because they are considering a building project for the school.  Then I went to St. Edmund’s in Ranchester to talk with a small group because that parish is formulating plans for upgrading their facilities.

On Sunday, I celebrated the morning Masses at St. John the Baptist in Buffalo, then I went to St. Hubert’s in Kaycee for an afternoon Mass.  The following is the homily for Sunday.

In today’s reading, St. Paul described why he was working so hard.  He wrote, “I have made myself a slave to all to win over as many as possible. . . . All this I do for the sake of the gospel” (1 Cor. 9:19, 23).

If people observed how you work throughout the week, what would they say?  “He works like a dog.  He’s burning the candle at both ends.”  Would they say, “She’s really busy;” or “She has a mission in life.”  To be really busy means that work and family demands long hard hours.  But to have a mission in life has a whole different connotation.

How busy are you?  Are you busy with your business or God’s business?  When I was chaplain at the Catholic School in Rapid City, the students were stressed.  They were trying to find time and energy for academics, sports, part-time jobs, family and friends.  Parents seem to be busier and busier as they juggle work, family and an increasing amount of time accompanying kids to sports or other extra-curricular events.  Family life is often stressed and harried.  People have become slaves to their schedules.

What is the secret to living life with proper balance and the right attitude?  I don’t think that it is not the difference between being busy and not busy.  Rather it is a matter of being busy with a mission.  Paul was a man on a MISSION.  It is amazing to think that he traveled from Israel to Syria, Turkey, Greece, Crete, and Italy.  He was high energy!

To describe his mission, Paul often uses the term ‘slave.’ He begins his letters by writing, “Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus” (Rom. 1:1).  Why?  Through his death Jesus paid the price of our ransom (1 Cor. 7:23).  So Paul belongs to Jesus.  He owes everything to him.  When it comes to his relationship with Jesus, Paul is all in.  That is what underlies his approach to ministry as he says, “I have made myself a slave to all to win over as many as possible. . . . All this I do for the sake of the gospel.” 

Paul channels his energy as a slave of Christ Jesus.  His whole life is a mission for the Lord….. a mission for the sake of the gospel.  So Paul describes himself as a slave of Christ, but he never says that he is burned out or working like a dog.  He must have found it life-giving.

Do you relate to Jesus as a “slave of Christ”?  More often we live our spiritual life through the lens of being a child of God or a disciple of Jesus.  In addition to those dimensions of our relationship to God, we need to add the term slave of Christ.  For Paul, being a slave of Chr­ist is his response to the death of Christ.  His life poured out on the cross is what drove Paul to be a slave of Christ.  The term recalls the debt of love we owe to Christ.  It is a language of love, not servitude.

When I begin my day with this image it helps me to let go of my control.  Sometimes, I drive myself so hard.  But that’s the problem.  I am driving myself.  My focus is on what I want to accomplish.  That easily leads to feeling weary or burdened.  But when I re-focus and work as a servant of Christ, asking for the Holy Spirit to guide me, seeking to please God alone ….. then I might work very hard, but I’m more peaceful.  I end the day not feeling burdened, but what I would call a good tired.

Today’s gospel (Mark 1:29-39) gives us a glimpse of a day in the life of Jesus.  After he finished preaching at the synagogue and casting out a demon (Mark 1:21-28), he healed Simon’s mother-in-law.  After sunset he cured many sick people and continued with exorcisms.  Then before dawn he went off to pray in a deserted place.  And that morning he left to do the same thing in nearby villages.

He had a grueling schedule.  But do you picture Jesus as stressed out or worn down?  Rather, we picture him as single-minded and peaceful, even though he may have been bone-tired.

Prayer early in the morning seems to be the secret to Jesus’ mission.  He is busy.  Yet he gets up before dawn for prayer.  We know very little about what Jesus did in that prayer.  But it’s obvious that he only prayed, whereas we might pray while being preoccupied with the rest of the day.  You know how that is?  You say some prayers, but the goal is to get done so that you can get to work.

We need to pray as if it is the most important thing that we will do all day – totally focused on God.  Early morning is the best time to do that.  You’re rested, not going in ten different directions.

What is the fruit of a solid prayer life?  Through prayer Jesus was zeroed in on God’s work, not what is popular and not what he might want for himself.  When Peter finds Jesus praying, he tells him, “Everyone is looking for you.”  But he says, “Let us go to nearby villages that I may preach there also.  For this purpose have I come” (Mk. 1:38).

Prayer engenders a sense of being sent by God.  It calls us to obedience.  Think of how unpopular that word is in American culture.  Obedience is also one of the main elements of being a slave of Christ.

If people observed how you work throughout the week, what would they say?  He works like a dog.  Or, He or she is on a mission for God.  Have you experienced the freedom of serving God alone?  When we are single-minded in being a servant of God, it engenders so much freedom.  We are free from what the desire to please others or from our own plans to be successful.

How free are you as a slave of Christ?  Are you on a mission for God?  Does your prayer life keep you grounded in working through each day as a servant of the Lord?

Acting with Jesus’ Authority

Acting with Jesus’ Authority

Over the last week, I have been on the road to central and western Wyoming.  I celebrated Masses with St. Margaret’s School in Riverton (January 24) and Holy Spirit School in Rock Springs (January 25).  I also visited the people of St. Christopher Parish in Eden and the parish leaders in Rock Springs because both communities are developing building projects.

Then I went to Jackson for an ecumenical prayer service, Friday Mass with the Latino Catholics and weekend Masses at Our Lady of the Mountains (OLM) in Jackson and Holy Family in Thayne.  As people gathered for the Saturday evening Mass at OLM, a moose wandered onto the church property.  It was a great photo op!  Following is the homily from the weekend Masses.

Imagine the astonishment of people as they saw Jesus cast out the demon in the possessed man (Mark 1:21-28).  The people said, “What is this?  A new teaching with authority. He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him” (Mk. 1:27).  In chapter 2 of Mark’s gospel, we see that authority again as he forgives the sins of a paralytic, then heals him by saying “Arise, pick up your mat and walk” (Mk. 2:11).

Disciples of Jesus live in awe of his authority, and they act with his authority.  In Mark 3:15 and 6:7, Jesus chooses the Twelve and sends them.  Both passages state that “he gave them authority over unclean spirits.”  In John 20:23, the risen Christ gives them authority to forgive sins.  Disciples of Jesus live in awe of his authority, and they act with his authority.  This is true for all disciples, not just the clergy.  We are empowered with his Spirit from baptism.

What was the attitude behind Jesus authority?  What adjectives could we use to describe his authority?  What did it look like?  If we know that, then it will help us know what his authority should look like for his disciples.

The first way to describe Jesus’ authority is to call it a childlike authority.  His primary relationship was as the beloved Son of the Father.  At his baptism he hears God say, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11).  As Jesus prays he says, “All things have been handed over to me by my Father” (Mt. 11:27).  He experienced the Father giving him all his gifts — the Holy Spirit, his power and authority.  His primary relationship was as a beloved Son of the Father.  This is his identity and the foundation of his authority.  It is a childlike authority.  Completely dependent on the Father.  Rooted in a deep relationship with the Father.  He was totally confident in his status as the Son.

If disciples are to act with Jesus’ childlike authority, then their most important relationship is as a beloved son or daughter of the Father.  That means they dedicate time in prayer every day to be with their best friend.  This is a challenge for everyone, myself included.  But is it crucial to develop a childlike authority.

Here are some ways that this kind of authority should be seen in us.  First, for the disciple with childlike authority there are no cliques.  No special groups that gather to gossip about others.  This applies to the pastor and to parishioners.  Instead, pastor and parishioners speak about every single person as brothers and sisters.

Second, when I act with childlike authority, I possess impartiality.  An impartiality of those who criticize me and those who praise me.  What others say does not define me, whether good or bad.  What matters is how God judges me.  I want to please God alone.

Another way to say this is that childlike authority gives the disciple internal freedom.  The disciple who has an identity as a son or daughter of God is free inside. Pope Francis is a good example of this freedom.  He doesn’t care what people think.  He doesn’t care what bishops or cardinals think.  He is not perfect, but he is free.  He was free enough to say, “Disciples build bridges not walls.”  Why?  Because disciples see others as brothers and sisters, as beloved children of their Heavenly Father.

Jesus had childlike authority.  Second, he had a servant authority.  In Mark 10:45 Jesus responds to disciples arguing about who is the greatest and tells them, “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”  We revere him because he died for us.  He did not die for perfect and smart disciples, but for weak, fickle and sinful disciples.

 Disciples acting with servant authority serve their enemies.  They definitely pray for them, as Jesus commanded.  They are generous to people who give nothing back.  They serve because Jesus love burns in them, not because of their own initiative.  Mother Teresa had authority because she served in this way.  People respected her authority because she poured her life out in imitation of Christ’s selfless love.

In addition to childlike authority and servant authority, Jesus acted with healing authority.  So often, he manifested his power by healing the broken — blind, crippled, lepers, etc.  Sometimes as a Church we have lost sight of his healing authority.  At times, we emphasize rules more than healing.  Pope Francis is in touch with this expression of Jesus’ authority, so he said, “The Church is a field hospital.”  

St. Frances Cabrini is a prime example of acting with Jesus’ healing authority.  She came to the United States in 1889 as a 39 year old religious sister to help Italian immigrants who were flooding to our nation in dire poverty.  Over the next 25 years she founded 67 institutions of mercy and healing — orphanages, hospitals and schools for poor kids.

The people in a parish ought to see in the clergy the authority of Jesus.  They need to see them acting with a childlike authority, as servants who extend healing.  But this should also be seen in every parishioner, in every disciple.  When the whole parish is alive with the spirit of Jesus’ authority, people are attracted to that faith community.  But if they are caught up with gossip, or cliques, or arguing over liturgical decorations, or other peripheral issues, then that parish has lost its way.

Where do you need to focus your growth?  Do you need to become more grounded in a childlike authority …… a servant authority ….. or a healing authority?  In your prayer, ask the Lord Jesus to give you his Spirit of childlike trust in the Father.  Ask for his generosity of service.  Pray for his readiness to bring healing to the broken.

Praying with Boldness

Praying with Boldness

This week, the Diocese of Cheyenne hosted the Southwest Liturgical Conference.  Over 400 people participated.  Many came from the Southwest Region which includes the states of Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Utah and Wyoming.  The following is the homily from the Mass we celebrated last Thursday.

When you pray at Mass, are you burning with faith, hope and charity?  Would someone look you and say, “She’s on fire with the Spirit,” or “He is burning with love for the Lord.”?

The phrase most quoted in regard to liturgical renewal is that the celebration of the Mass should lead “to a conscious, active and full participation of faithful.”  Most often, people end the quote there.  But the fuller quote is more powerful.  It says that the celebration of the Mass should lead to a “conscious, active and full participation of faithful, in body and mind, burning with faith, hope and charity” (General Instruction of the Roman Missal, 18).

When you pray at Mass, are you burning with faith, hope and charity?  In this gospel the fervor for Jesus is so strong that he asked the disciples to have a boat ready “so that they would not crush him” (Mk. 3:9).  How do we kindle that kind of burning faith in Jesus through our worship?

Yesterday Bishop Mark Seitz spoke about the ‘work of Liturgical Renewal’ needed, especially for music within liturgy.  He listed six obstacles to this work.  I want to focus on the first obstacle, which is the most important one – Lack of Conversion within the Assembly.  Bishop Seitz said, “If your heart is not in it, you will not sing.”  Better, if your heart is not burning with faith, hope and charity, you will not sing with fervor or enthusiasm.

We all suffer from this – priests, deacons and people.  All of us need a deeper conversion.  So often, our singing is lackluster because the fire of God’s love does not burn in our hearts.

Here is a time when I saw a man with a heart burning with faith.  For seven years, I served on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.  In the mission parish at Bullhead, a young man named Clayton was in the Marines.  While home on leave, he was critically injured in a car accident.

Clayton went from being an amazing athlete to walking with a cane.  His head injury permanently affected his speech.  After several months of rehab in Bismarck, ND he came to Sunday Mass.  As a twenty two year old man, he could barely walk by himself.  But when I greeted him before Mass, he went on for ten minutes about how thankful he was to God for being alive.  I started Mass late because he was so on fire with gratitude that I could not interrupt him.

Often, his prayer was burning with faith, hope and charity.  During the Gloria, he would loudly proclaim, “For you ALONE are the Holy One, for you ALONE are the Lord, for you ALONE are the Most High.” You could see people looking at him like he was strange.

Clayton became a lector at Mass despite his struggle to walk to the lectern and his difficulty to speak clearly. Throughout the week, he worked on memorizing and internalizing the reading.  By Sunday, he proclaimed whole sentences while looking people in the eye, and the message was his.  When the Bishop came for Mass, Clayton read so powerfully that the Bishop said he was one of the best lectors in the diocese, not because he spoke so flawlessly, but because he proclaimed the Word with such faith.

Sometimes we need little people like Clayton to show us what conversion looks like.  To show us a heart that burns with faith, hope and love for the Lord Jesus.

In the Letter to the Hebrews, we hear a similar kind of confidence in Jesus.  “Jesus is always able to save those who approach God through him, since he lives forever to make intercession for them” (Heb. 7:25).  When you pray at Mass, do you present your prayers with total confidence that “Jesus is always able to save you . . . since he lives forever to make intercession for you”?

Several passages in Hebrews express a similar confidence in Jesus as our intercessor before the Father.  In Hebrews 4:14-16 it says, We have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God . . . Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:14-16).

The word for coming before God with “boldness” is the Greek word parresia. It also has the sense of being confident, fearless or to speak openly.  The word parresia means literally “to speak every word.”   You know when someone has had a powerful experience of healing and you cannot shut them up, like Clayton who spoke so strongly about being healed. That is the sense.  They speak every word.  They don’t care what anybody else thinks.  Pope Francis says that he wants us to recapture that kind of BOLDNESS in our prayer and in our witness.

How can we recapture that boldness?  First of all we need to keep fresh in our memory the saving acts of God.  If we forget what God has done for us, then we lose our identity as beloved sons and daughters of God.  Sometimes those God’s saving events are personal, like being healed or rescued from danger.  Other times, they are biblical, like the crucifixion and resurrection or another inspiring event in the Bible.

As you go to Mass, recall a powerful event of salvation – personal or biblical – and ask the Lord to make your heart burn with faith, hope and charity.  This is a simple prayer that God will certainly answer, if only we ask.

Second, “approach the throne of grace with boldness” (Heb. 4:16).  Ask for the Lord Jesus to bring healing to someone you know, or to intercede for the unborn as we recall the anniversary of Roe v. Wade on Monday.   Be bold in asking him bestow his mercy and grace on you or on our whole nation.

Worshiping Christ as King of all Nations

Worshiping Christ as King of all Nations

Today we worship the Child Jesus as the King of all nations.  The magi from the east who worshiped the child Jesus are the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecy which we heard in Psalm 72.

“The kings of Tarshish and the Isles shall offer gifts;

the kings of Arabia and Seba shall bring tribute.

All kings shall pay him homage, all nations shall serve him.”

The magi from the east “prostrated themselves and did him homage” (Mt. 2:11).  They worshiped Jesus as king.  They challenge us to kneel before Christ.  How will you worship Christ as king this year?  As I reflected on this passage, I felt called to pray with a greater sense that Jesus is LORD.  For the Hebrew people, the title LORD was used to translate Yahweh who created the world and who opened the Red Sea.

What does it mean to pray to Jesus as LORD?  First of all, not to tame Jesus into a nice guy who is a great teacher, but to pray before him as the LORD of the universe.  There are several scenes of Matthew’s gospel where people pray like this.  In chapter 8, a leper approached Jesus, knelt down before him, and said, “Lord, if you wish, you can make me clean” (Mt. 8:2).  Jesus immediately touched him and cured him.

Later, a Canaanite woman begged Jesus to heal her daughter.  He replied, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.  But the woman came and did him homage (or knelt down) saying, “Lord, help me.”  And he healed her daughter (cf. Mt. 15:22-28).

Both the leper and the Canaanite woman knelt before Jesus.  It is the same gesture as the magi, the posture of homage before a king.  They kneel before him as LORD with power over creation.  We get so busy that we often live as though we are carrying the entire burden of our lives.  We fail to hand over the burden to God or ask for his intervention.  Jesus is not really a king whom we worship.  Instead we often live as though we are masters of our destiny.

The goal of Matthew’s gospel is:  First, that we would kneel in homage before Jesus to bring our brokenness before him and with confidence ask for healing.  Second, that all the nations would worship him as king, and like the Canaanite woman experience his healing.

The Collect or Opening Prayer for this Mass says, “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 as Paul says in his letter to the Ephesians.  “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).

We are part of the Gentiles.  Any person who does not have Jewish heritage is part of the Gentiles or nations.  Something new is being revealed to us as the magi do homage to the Christ child.  The Old Testament prophecy of God gathering all nations together to worship him has begun.  Think of how faith in Jesus has grown since that moment.  There are 2.2 billion Christians.  That number includes almost 1.3 billion Catholics.

Yet, recent violent international conflicts remind us that we are far from this unity.  We have so far to go in the fulfillment of the prophecy as we heard in the psalm, “All kings shall pay him homage, all nations shall serve him.”  Do you dream to bring him to all nations?  Do you dream of unity among all people?

The Church’s mission to all nations contrasts the isolationist attitude in America these days.  FEAR seems to be ruling people’s hearts, rather than FAITH in Christ’s power to bring healing to all nations.  FEAR of immigrants rules in America, rather than seeing them as human beings ….. brothers and sisters in dire need.

In the Catholic Church, this week is National Migration Week.  In the last few years, there have been more people displaced people than ever before – surpassing even post-World War II numbers.  There are over 65 million refugees or displaced persons.  Most are women and children

In 2016, the 193 members of the UN general assembly unanimously adopted a declaration for refugees and migrants.  They pledged to uphold the rights of refugees, help them resettle and ensure they had access to education and jobs.  They committed themselves to drafting and approving, before the end of 2018, two Global Compacts, one for refugees and the other for migrants.

Pope Francis urges us to pray for the success of this effort, and to encourage our leaders to address the needs of displaced people.  However, last month the U.S. pulled out of the talks on the Global Compacts.  It is a sign of the times.  A sign of the struggle with the topic of immigration.  There is a lot of work to be done.

Do you worship Christ as king?  Do you kneel before him with a sense of your poverty, yet with confidence ask him for strength and peace and joy?  Kneel in worship today.  And thank him for his presence among us.

As we worship Christ the LIGHT of all nations, we need to ask him to shed his light on our nation as it struggles with fear of immigrants.  In humility let us pray to ask him to make us servants of his dream to bring his light to all nations?

The Perfect Christmas

The Perfect Christmas

This is turning out to be the perfect Christmas.  On Christmas Eve I celebrated a home Mass for a woman battling cancer with a handful of family members gathered together.  I celebrated midnight Mass at the Cathedral in Cheyenne.  On Christmas Day, I drove to Lusk and celebrated Mass in the Wyoming Correctional Facility for the women prisoners.

It is the perfect Christmas – Masses in a home, a prison and the Cathedral.  To understand why I describe it that way, let’s go to the manger scene.  Look at who is gathered there.

First of all SHEPHERDS because they were the first to hear about Jesus’ birth.  Shepherds must have brought their SHEEP along, so you always find sheep near the manger.  By the feast of the Epiphany, the WISE MEN show up with their CAMELS.  The wise men were foreigners.  They are often depicted as a Black man, an Arab and one from the Far East, perhaps Chinese.  The magi were among the intelligentsia of the time.  They were counselors of kings.

By the way, sheep and camels are stubborn and stinky.  Gathered at the manger are ornery stinky animals with poor shepherds and top level advisors to foreign kings of completely different races.  It is the most eclectic group you might imagine.  If you visit Italy during Christmas, they add all kinds of other characters —  virtually every kind of person who lives in the village – bakers, blacksmiths, teachers, farmers.  You name it.  They are all at the manger.

Christmas is for everybody, no matter what level of your work, from shepherds to the magi, from local citizens to foreigners of every race.  People who have been away from the Church for decades should feel welcome.  Because Christmas is for everybody, saints and sinners alike.  The perfect Christmas includes those dressed in their Sunday best at the Cathedral and those stuck in prison.

In fact, Christmas is more for the sinner than the saint, more for the puny than the powerful.   The angel of the Lord spoke to shepherds.  They were specially chosen by God to be the first ones to hear this good news. 

My family raised sheep for several years.  When you work with sheep you smell just like them.  The oil from their wool permeates your clothes.  Shepherds stink.  Raising sheep is hard work.  If you can afford to do something else, you won’t raise sheep.  Shepherds were the first ones to hear about Jesus’ birth because God wanted the ordinary people to know first.  The angel describes Jesus’ birth as “good news of great joy that is for ALL the people” (Lk. 2:10).  

God sent his Son to be with ordinary shepherds “living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flocks” (Lk. 2:8).  People working at night.  Common folk who knew what it was like to struggle for a living — like so many blue collar workers on the fringes of society today working behind the scenes in construction jobs, in the service industry or as farm laborers.  Jesus was born among shepherds so that common ordinary people would know that God cares for them.  He came to encounter them and save them.

Christmas reminds us that God came to be with us, no matter how poor or rich, from the people who work at the top level of government to prisoners serving their time.  However, God’s first choice is to be with the least.

Later, the Pharisees and scribes complained about Jesus and said, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Lk. 15:3).  Actually, he not only eats with them, but he feeds them with his Body and Blood.  The “infant lying in a manger” will end his life by feeding sinful unfaithful disciples with his Body and Blood.  Jesus gave us the Eucharist so that disciples in every age could encounter him in the depest way, and so that they would bring this encounter to the least.

Christmas is so powerful because it expresses the largesse of love….. not only the largeness of love, but also the largesse of love.  The abundance and bounty and gratuity of love.

  • How well do you live inside of this love?
  • Have you let God embrace you in your sinfulness and brokenness?
  • How well do you encounter the needy with the Father’s love?
  • How well does our nation extend the largesse of God’s love to the needy of the world?

God chose to lay his Son in a manger in order to call back the LOST and to encourage the LEAST.

The prophet Isaiah tells of God’s frustration with his people who have wandered, “The Lord says, I have reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me.  The ox knows its owner and the donkey its master’s manger, but Israel does not know [me], my people do not understand” (Is. 1:3).  That is why manger scenes have an ox and a donkey.  Those animals know their master and his manger, the feed trough where they eat.  But like rebellious children, so often we stray from our Lord who wants to feed us with his life.

No matter if we wander.  Jesus was born among shepherds because his ancestor David was a Shepherd – King.  Jesus is the Shepherd who leaves the 99 in search of the lost one.  He is the King who died on the cross to conquer sin and death in us.  He was laid in a manger to feed us with his Body and Blood and renew his life in us when we decide to obey  him as our master.

Accept this “Good news of great joy . . . for all people.”  Worship the Christ child as Savior and Lord.  He is so faithful to you.  Renew your fidelity to him.

Christmas is for everyone, saints and sinners.  As he fills you with his own Divine Life at this Eucharist, let the largesse of his love fill you. Then ask him for the generosity to bring that love to others.

The pace of John the Baptist

The pace of John the Baptist

How is your pace this December?  Are you caught up in the Christmas rush?  Or are you keeping an Advent pace?  With all of the Christmas glitz in stores, it is easy to lose sight of Advent.  We need an Advent pace more than the Christmas rush.  The pace of Advent is quieter.  It helps us focus on God.  It is life-giving, rather than draining.

On the Second Sunday of Advent, John the Baptist grabs our attention and invites us to some quiet time in the desert.  John was “in the desert proclaiming a baptism of repentance” (Mark 1:4).  The desert is a place without distractions…. a place to focus on God.  John is fixated on God.   And he preaches repentance to focus our hearts on Jesus’ coming.

His clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt was like the prophet Elijah (2 Kings 1:4).  John appears as the long-awaited Elijah-like prophet to announce the Day of the Lord.  He is a prophet in the desert.

“He fed on locusts and wild honey” (Mark 1:6).  This is the food of desert dwellers.  It must have taken a lot of honey to sweeten the bitter locusts!  John wasn’t afraid of roughing it.  He would have fared well in Wyoming.  Seriously, locusts and wild honey are the food of a poor man living in the desert ….. a man of humility, who depends on God for sustenance.  John lived simply.  He shows us a pace of simplicity and an attitude of humility. He has a single focus.   He is God-centered.

The Advent pace is one of simplicity, humility and being God-centered.

How can you adjust your pace in this way? …… to live in simplicity, humility and God-centered.

Find some desert time.  Take quiet time in nature where you are alone with God.  Eat a light lunch by yourself and read a Scripture passage.  Make space for God’s voice to be heard.  It will be life-giving.  Have you been eating lots of Christmas goodies?  How about simplifying your diet or fasting so that you get in touch with your hunger for God?

To eat “locusts and wild honey” is minimal nourishment.  Like the people of Israel who journeyed in the desert, John’s primary food was the Word of God.  John the Baptist ate God’s word.  He calls us to the desert to feed on the Word and experience anew the sustaining power of God.

He points toward Christ and says, “One mightier than I is coming after me.  I am not fit to stoop and loosen the straps of his sandals” (Mark 1:7).  Little John is in touch with God Almighty.

An Advent pace restores our perspective.  We’re not in control.  We are puny people created to live for God alone.  Humility puts us back in touch with God’s greatness, and it eases our worries.  Then we realize that it’s not our work.  Rather, when I walk in humility, I put myself under God’s guidance.  I trust in his power to get things done.

Humility helps me be God-centered.  And being centered on God produces freedom.  Little John was free.  He didn’t care what anybody else thought.  This interior freedom is the opposite of constant worry of what others think or say about me.

He only cared about one thing – who he was before God.  He only did one thing in life – he pointed out Christ.  In religious art, John the Baptist is depicted as pointing to Christ.  He announced, “One mightier than I is coming after me.”

 The Advent pace is one of simplicity, humility and being God-centered.  Advent refocuses us on one thing.  On Christ who came with mighty power.  On Christ who is coming again.

Now and then we meet people like John.  They are so focused on God that they make you stare God in the face.  As a seminarian I had the opportunity to meet Mother Theresa.  While standing in line, she challenged the person standing in front of me with a stern question, “What are you doing for Jesus?”  Her question pierced my heart.  It stuck in my mind.

Mother Theresa was God-centered.  Like Little John, she was a tiny woman with a piercing presence.  Why?  She was totally focused on God, and she was free inside.  That is the fruit of an Advent pace.  It produces humility, a single focus and freedom.

Sometimes we see this focus and freedom in our youth.  Three years ago, I celebrated the Sacrament of Confirmation in Lead, SD.  In preparation for her confirmation, one girl wrote, “If I could do one thing to make myself a better follower of Jesus, I would dedicate more time to him.  I think the main reason people drift away is because they just ‘don’t have the time.’  There should ALWAYS be time for Jesus.  So I need to find more time than a prayer before bed for him.  He gave his life for me.  I should be able to give him more than five minutes of my day.”

The Advent pace is one of simplicity, humility and being God-centered.

What do you need to do to walk in the pace of John the Baptist?

 

 

 

Watching for the Lord

Watching for the Lord

If the Lord came today, would you be well prepared?  Are you watching for his coming?  What do Catholics believe about the end time?  How should we react when we hear Jesus say: “Be watchful . . . . You do not know when the time will come” (Mark 13:33).

Are you watching for his coming?  Or do you never think about it?  Do you watch for the Lord with as much energy as you watch while hunting for a trophy deer? ….. or for bargains in the store?  Think of the time & energy spent watching your favorite football team?  Or for the latest news on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or Snapchat?  Are we using as much energy to watch for the Lord?

“Watch . . . You do not know when the Lord of the house is coming.  May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping” (Mark 13:36).

In Mark’s Gospel, this is the last thing Jesus says before the Passion.  This is chapter 13, and in chapter 14 Jesus catches the disciples sleeping in the garden of Gethsemane even though he had urged the disciples three times to “be watchful.”  The last time he says, “Watch and pray lest you enter into temptation.  The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak”   (Mark 14:38).  So one aspect of being watchful is to pray for strength against the evil one.

We begin every Advent with the challenge to watch for the Lord.  The opposite of being watchful is to sleep.  Sleeping is a metaphor for sloth.  Sometimes sloth is described as spiritual laziness.  The word for sloth is ‘acedia,’ literally “not caring,” which leads one to give up on the meaning of life.  It can also mean to give up hope when things get tough, or to lose trust that God is with you in the trials of life.

We are entering the darkest time of the year.  Some people naturally struggle with depression.  In addition, spiritual struggles are common in the dark of winter.  There are so many reasons to give in to sloth.

  • The boredom of the daily grind ….. at work and school
  • Sickness that has worn you down.
  • A family relationship that has gone sour and you are tempted to give up on forgiveness or a peaceful resolution.
  • Or maybe it is a recent death of a family member.

Being watchful and hopeful are advent virtues.  How do we stay watchful and hopeful?  How can we be a light in the darkness?

First of all, to be watchful means Keep your focus on God.  Be steady in your prayer.  In the letter to the Colossians, Paul writes: “Persevere in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving” (Col. 4:2).  In the 1st Corinthians, he says, “Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, be courageous, be strong.  Your every act should be done with love” (1 Cor. 16:13-14).

To be watchful includes daily acts of love. It is a call to imitate both the prayer and charity of Christ.  It means to stand ready to give an accounting to him on his return.

As Catholics, we approach the End Times with the focus of being faithful disciples each day.  We do not know when he will come again, and we never propose a date.  In a verse that precedes today’s gospel, Jesus said,“As for that day or hour, nobody knows it, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son; no one but the Father” (Luke 13:32).

As we begin Advent, ask yourself: Am I living each day with my focus on God?  Or am I too caught up in the busyness of everyday life?  Have I allowed those around me who ignore God to deaden my watchfulness?  23% of U.S. adults self-identify as “nones,” or people who identify as atheists or agnostics, as well as those who say their religion is “nothing in particular.”  It is easy to be affected by those who are not active in a faith journey.

Here are a few ways to be watchful and hopeful this Advent.  First: Decide anew that Jesus really is the Son of God, the King of the universe who will judge all nations.  Then read the daily readings with this faith in your heart.

Today’s first reading says, “You, O Lord, are our father, our redeemer you are named forever.”  The word redeemer in Hebrew is go’el, or the nearest male relative who is obligated to rescue his family member who is destitute.  He pays the debts of a relative who has fallen into poverty.  He ransoms (or redeems) one who has been sold into slavery.

Jesus is not only the Lord of the universe, who transcends our world, but also he is with us in our struggles. He is our kinsman or redeemer who rescues us from sin, evil and death.   Read the daily readings with faith in Jesus as Lord of the universe, and as Redeemer who rescues you.

Second: Work your relationship with God each day.  Make a new commitment to pray each day.  If you don’t go to daily Mass, then try to go once a week.  Take a quiet walk three times a week … to center again on God.

Third, be other centered.  Keep your focus on the needs of others.  Watch for people who are isolated or needy.  Visit the elderly stuck in nursing homes or in their own homes.

“Watch . . . You do not know when the Lord of the house is coming.  May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping.”

Marriage Encounter at Ucross

Marriage Encounter at Ucross

I attended the Worldwide Marriage Encounter Weekend (WWME) at the Ranch at Ucross (northeast of Buffalo, WY) on November 3-5.  Sixteen couples attended from Wyoming and Montana.  The talks were given by three couples and a priest:  Tom & Mary Frances Burke (Casper), Paul & Tracy McElvery (Gillette), Phil & Lisa Beamer (Worland) and Father Tom Ogg.  The team couples spoke openly about their real-life struggles with communication and demonstrated the skills for authentic dialogue as a path to deeper intimacy.  Similarly, the priest on the weekend spoke of his relationship with parishioners by way of having a spousal relationship with them.

The presenters gave excellent talks, which helped the participants grow in genuine communication and intimacy.  I was encouraged by the depth of dialogue between the couples and their renewed hope.  At the end of the experience, many of the couples spoke of how much they appreciated the opportunity to step away from busy schedules and dedicate time solely to their relationship.

In addition to the talks and fellowship, we celebrated Mass each day, and Fr. Ogg was available for confessions.  I attended the weekend because priests and religious are welcome to attend and reflect on their spousal relationship with the people of their parish or community.  I was renewed in my own journey, and it was refreshing to see the couples beaming with joy as we departed.

We are blessed to have capable faith-filled leaders of WWME in this diocese.  I invite you to consider participating in a Marriage Encounter.  The next dates are January 26-28, 2018 in Billings, MT, and March 2-4, 2018 in Riverton, WY.  For information, call Paul & Tracy McElvery, 307-689-2820.  Other dates and locations can be found on the WWME website:  www.wwme.org.

Confirmed in Love to be Fearless

Confirmed in Love to be Fearless

Over the last week I celebrated the Sacrament of Confirmation with the parishes in Cheyenne – St. Joseph’s (Tuesday), St. Mary’s (Wednesday) and Holy Trinity (Saturday).  This week I will celebrate Confirmation at St. Rose of Lima in Torrington (Monday), St. James in Douglas (Tuesday) and St. Anthony in Cody (Wednesday).  Please pray for the young people who are receiving this sacrament.  Below is the homily from the Confirmation Mass at Holy Trinity in Cheyenne.

Jesus wasn’t afraid of anyone.  He was fearless.  In today’s gospel he challenges the Pharisees by saying, “Why are you testing me you hypocrites?”  (Matt. 22:18).  He was fearless before them, like in so many other passages.

Whom do you fear?  How much of your energy is spent on worrying about what others think of you?  How often does fear paralyze you?  It is not only young people who struggle with fear; so do most adults.  Do you believe that you can be fearless like Jesus?

What made Jesus fearless?  He was fearless because of his relationship with the Father.  He was fearless because Holy Spirit filled him with the FIRE of the Father’s love.  One of my favorite Scripture passages deals with the freedom from fear.  In the First Letter of John it says, “In love there is no room for fear, but perfect love drives out fear . . . and whoever is afraid has not come to perfection in love” (1 John 4:18).

The opposite of fear is LOVE.  A little child who is afraid runs to its mom or dad because it knows that their love will keep them safe.  A child of God becomes fearless by having perfect love of God.

At Confirmation you receive the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.  As Catholics, we define the Holy Spirit like this.  The Holy Spirit is the “personal love between the Father and the Son.”  So at Pentecost when the first disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit, it means that they were filled with the love of God.  They had an overwhelming experience of being loved by God.  So they became fearless like Jesus.  In the Acts of the Apostles, the apostles are described as “bold,” or “fearless” (cf. Acts 4:13-31).

The Jewish leaders were struck by their boldness, or how fearless they were.  After Jesus was crucified, they locked themselves in the upper room where they had eaten the Last Supper out of fear of the Jews.  But after Pentecost and being filled with the Holy Spirit, they were fearless.  They don’t care what anybody else thinks.  Because “In God’s love there is no room for fear, but perfect love drives out fear.”

God wants to make you fearless. The Sacrament of Confirmation is meant to make you strong in God’s love.  To be confirmed means to be strengthened.  With the gift of the Holy Spirit, you are given the power to be fearless.  But you have to have a healthy fear of God.  If you fear God alone, you will be fearless.  One of the gifts of the Holy Spirit is the fear of the Lord, or awe of God.

You know the story of Thomas who doubted that Jesus was raised from the dead?  Thomas is a good example of having awe or fear of the Lord.  The Risen Christ appears to him and says, “Put your finger into my hands and put your hand into my side.  Do not be unbelieving, but believe.”  Thomas replies, “My Lord and my God.” 

 That is what “Fear of the Lord” looks like.  It helps us kneel in wonder before Jesus’ power over sin and death.  It is not fear of an angry God, but awe of a merciful Lord who was crucified for us and with gentle mercy shows us his pierced hands and wounded side.

If you fear God alone, you will be fearless.

St. Teresa of Calcutta was fearless because she feared God alone.  I met her when I was a seminarian.  My first memory of her was of her kneeling on the floor of the chapel in silent prayer before we celebrate daily Mass.  She always began her day with an hour of prayer before the Blessed Sacrament.  Because she lived inside of God’s love, she was fearless.

Most people remember her for her works of mercy.  It is true that she was so merciful with the sick and abandoned.  But she was also fearless.  The day that I met her, we were waiting in line after morning Mass to greet her. Ahead of me was a man who was telling her that he was making a movie in India, and he was going on about his accomplishments.  She must have recognized that he was too focused on himself.  So she interrupted him and challenged him by asking, “What are you doing for Jesus?”   She nailed him to the wall by repeating that several times and asking him to think about serving God, not accomplishing things for himself.

I was struck by how strongly she spoke, and I was thinking that “maybe it’s not a good day to meet Mother Teresa!”  The strength of that tiny woman was intimidating. That was a striking experience of her fearlessness because she had the gift of the ‘fear of the Lord.’

The goal of Confirmation is to set your heart on fire with god’s love.…. to make you fearless.…. to make you bold witnesses.

But it doesn’t happen automatically.  In fact, you will not be much different than others who are not confirmed, unless you FEAR GOD above all things.  The grace of Confirmation can fade and become very weak if you are careless. Some Catholics don’t pray regularly.  They are careless about coming to Mass every Sunday.  They ignore the commandments.  And as a consequence, it is hard to tell that they are confirmed.

Confirmation will make you closer to God, but only if you do your part.  You have to work at the relationship.  If you do take time to pray, God will make you a SAINT.  The goal of Confirmation is to make you like Jesus.  The goal is to become as strong as Christ, as fearless as Christ.

One of the students wrote in their letter to me, “When I am wanting to quit I say the Hail Mary over and over in my head, or I say, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” in my head and that really helps make me stronger.”   That prayer is a quote from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians 4:13.  Those prayers are simple ways of centering your heart in God, or being rooted in God’s love.  That power will be confirmed or strengthened tonight.  Trust in that grace.  Open yourself to the Love of God that raised Jesus from the dead.

Another person wrote about the struggles in your life.  The struggle to forgive your dad and other people close to you.   The struggle with depression or other dark thoughts.  Bring those weaknesses to God tonight.  Ask him to heal those parts of your life.  With his great strength, he will fill those places of darkness with light. “In love there is no room for fear, but perfect love drives out all fear” (1 Jn. 4:18).  The Love of the Holy Spirit drives out all darkness and fills you with light.  It gives you the grace to forgive like Christ.

God wants to confirm you in his love to make you so strong in his love that you are fearless.  Now open yourself to that love.