Going to the margins to heal

Going to the margins to heal

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.

Pushed into the Storm

Pushed into the Storm

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?

Living and Dying as a Child of God

Living and Dying as a Child of God

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.

Transfigured in Glory

Transfigured in Glory

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).

 

Only Say the Word

Only Say the Word

This Sunday I celebrated Mass with the high school students from the Diocese of Cheyenne who are leaving for One Bread, One Cup conference in Conception, Missouri.  This was the homily for the teens and their family members.

How much time to you spend on your cell phone?  How many words and images flood your mind through social media each day?  The average teen spends more time on social media than they do sleeping.  This includes watching TV and videos, playing video games, listening to music and checking social media.  Teens in the U.S. spend about nine hours a day using media for their enjoyment.

Think of all the WORDS flooding your mind through social media.  It must be close to a gazillion words.

Yet, each day God is messaging us with even more images and words?  Jesus tells us that the Kingdom of God is like a farmer who throws seeds everywhere – on paths, on rocky ground, in thorns, and in good fields with rich soil (Mt. 13:1-9).  God is like a gardener who doesn’t sow seed in nice neat rows, but throws it everywhere.

God is always speaking to us.  God speaks to us with more words and images than social media.  But his Word is often ignored or blocked by the “evil one who comes and steals away the Word sown in our hearts (Mt. 13:19), or else the Word is choked by “worldly anxiety and the lure of riches” (Mt. 13:22).

One of the tactics of the evil one is to fill our hearts with worldly anxiety so that we lose touch with the Word sown in our hearts.  Worldly anxiety might be worrying about a sickness, or constantly being anxious about what others think of me.  It might be the desire for nice stuff or the greed to be more successful than everyone else.  Worldly anxiety leads us to be so focused on our problems that we lose our focus on God.

The danger is this.  God speaks constantly, but his Word can be blocked in so many ways.

In 2004, I was working at the North American College in Rome, and we took a summer trip to El Salvador with seven seminarians.  One day we visited the auxiliary bishop of San Salvador, Gregorio Rosa Chavez.  He said that he had recently been in Washington, D.C. to speak to the U.S. bishops.  One of the seminarians asked him what he thought about the U.S.  He responded, “It is a country that has so much noise that there is little room to hear the Word of God.”  He said that in 2004.  How the words and noise have multiplied since then!

Does your use of a cell phone drown out God’s Word?  I’m not saying that cell phone use is evil.  Using social media does not necessarily block God from speaking to you.  But it can, especially if it becomes an addiction which is true for many people.  It can, if all those words leave no room for God’s Word.

The main question is this:  Am I always listening for God to speak?  In everything, do I listen for his voice?

As I send a message on the phone, am I prayerfully thinking how God would want me to speak?  Words can wound or bring healing.  They can build up people or tear them down.  I not only need to LISTEN for God’s Word, but I am called to be an AGENT of that word.  I am called to speak God’s word of hope to others.

Three weeks ago Pope Francis made Bishop Rosa Chavez a Cardinal.  One reason is because he speaks words of hope to the poor.  He visits Washington, D.C. to visit more than 250,000 Salvadorans who live there because they have fled the violence in El Salvador.  In 2016, it was named the world’s most deadly country outside a war zone because of its homicide rate, with rampant gangs terrorizing people, driving many to seek refuge abroad.  Many of the Latino people living in this state come here because of similar struggles to survive.  Teens have left El Salvador on their own, without any family members, because of the violence.  Do we speak a word of hope to them?   Or look at them with disdain, without any concern for their situation?

God’s Word is so powerful, if only we receive it with humble hearts.  The seed that falls on rich soil produces a hundredfold.  Do you know that the average yield for wheat is over 100 times what is sown?  Every seed of wheat planted by a farmer yields about 110 seeds.

Seeds have such power to produce.  And the seed of God’s Word is even more potent!  It heals people….. It is stronger than Satan…… It gives martyrs hope beyond death.

Before we receive Holy Communion we say, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the WORD and my soul shall be healed.”  That prayer is taken from a story in the Gospel where Jesus healed a servant.  A Roman centurion said this because his servant was close to death.  He had heard of how Jesus had healed others.  He was not a practicing Jew, but he believed in the power of Jesus’ words.

Each time you say those words before Communion, ask for a special grace.  Maybe for the power to be true to Jesus today.  Maybe for healing of someone who is sick. Trust in the power of his Word.

God is speaking to you every moment of the day.

Encouraging you when you are feeling down.

Whispering in your heart to do what is right.

Inspiring you to spend time with someone who is lonely.

Challenging you to witness to those who do not believe.

Make room for God’s Word, with time for silence each day.  Praying over a Scripture passage.  Listening to a beautiful song.  Walking in the beauty of nature.

The week before I was ordained as bishop, I was on a retreat and was praying over the Gospel of John.  This verse really captured my attention.  “Amen, Amen, I say to you, whatever you may ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you” (John 16:23).

So I have been asking the Father for all kinds of things in Jesus’ name.  I have been praying for peace in my heart or lifting up others who need prayer.  I trust in the power of that Word spoken to me.

Open yourself to the gift of the Word and let it fill you.  Then look for an opportunity to be an agent of God’s Word, through words that build up and simple deeds of goodness.

In the Spirit of Fr. DeSmet

In the Spirit of Fr. DeSmet

This Sunday I celebrated a Mass at the monument of Fr. DeSmet’s Prairie Mass site, near Daniel, Wyoming.   What drove Fr. Pierre DeSmet to come to Wyoming?  Was it the beauty of the mountains?  Did he want to be the first priest to attend a rendezvous?  Over his lifetime, Fr. DeSmet traveled roughly 180,000 miles.  He made at least 16 trips across the ocean to invite others to join him in his mission to the West.

As we recall the first Mass in Wyoming by Fr. DeSmet 177 years ago, I invite you to enter into the Spirit of Fr. Pierre Jean DeSmet.  Through Baptism we share in the same Holy Spirit who was the driving force in his life.

The readings today help us understand the power of the Holy Spirit at work in Fr. DeSmet and in us.  St. Paul tells us, “If the Spirit of the one raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, then the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also, through his Spirit that dwells in you” (Rom. 8:11).

How did Fr. DeSmet experience the indwelling of the Holy Spirit as a missionary?  How do we experience this LIFE of the Spirit given to us in Baptism?  The primary effect of the Holy Spirit in our lives is this.  We share in Jesus’ relationship with the Father.  Through Baptism and the gift of the Spirit, we have the right to speak to God face-to-face, just like Jesus did.

Listen to how Jesus prayed, “I give praise to you Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the learned and clever you have revealed them to little ones.  Yes, Father, such has been your gracious will.  All things have been handed over to me by my Father” (Matt. 11:25-26).

 Jesus had total access to the Father.  Through his prayer, the Father filled him with every gift.  We can pray like Jesus.  The Father sees us as the ‘little ones’ whom he wants to give his blessings.

Recently someone told me that they were struck when a priest said in a homily, “When you pray always start by saying, ‘God, I know you love me.’”  That is another way of stating the reality of our relationship with the Father because of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  St. Teresa of Avila taught her sisters to pray by telling them to begin prayer in this way: “See Jesus looking at you lovingly and humbly.”  She had a clear sense of being in a personal relationship with the Jesus and the Father.

Fr. DeSmet wanted others to know this powerful relationship with God.  This is a unique gift of Baptism.  We know that God loves all people, whether they are baptized or not?  But our relationship with God becomes more explicit through Baptism.  The initiative of God’s love is made concrete for us through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.   Through Baptism we live in Christ (Col. 3:3).

Fr. DeSmet wanted to share that gift with the Indian people who had heard about this power.  That is why they sent representatives to St. Louis to ask that Black Robes (Jesuits) would be sent to them. Four times between 1831 and 1839, they sent representatives to St. Louis to request that the Black Robes would be sent to this area.

Sometimes we forget the difference that Christian baptism makes in our relationship with God.  We hear people claim that being ‘spiritual’ is the same as being ‘religious.’  Yet, through Baptism we are gifted with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  As you recall that gift in your life, give thanks to God.

How well do you attend to this relationship?  Do you pray with confidence of the Father’s gifts the way Jesus did?  He confidently said, “All things have been handed over to me by my Father.” 

To be baptized is to be on FIRE with the Spirit…. and to bring that gift to others.  That is one of the reasons that I became a priest.  I had some powerful experiences of forgiveness or God’s presence, so I wanted to help others know those gifts.

Now I know the truth of St. Paul’s words, “The Spirit of the one raised Jesus from the dead dwells in me and you.”  Through this baptismal gift, “Almighty God who raised Christ from the dead gives life to your mortal bodies, through his Spirit that dwells in you.”

How well do you proclaim this new LIFE?  How well does your parish keep the mission of Fr. DeSmet alive?  We should not remember his first Mass in Wyoming as merely an historical event of the past.  But it should help you see that “the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you.” 

 Fr. DeSmet realized that those who do not belong to Christ through baptism are missing a great gift.  Salvation is at stake.  So he went to the wilderness with a sense of urgency.  Pope Francis keeps saying that we need to go to the periphery, to the margins of society.  We need to bring the MERCY of God to the least. In a homily this May, he said that we need to send the best priests to the periphery.  I suppose that means the best bishops!

Who are the people on the periphery in your family, parish or state?  Who needs to experience “the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead”?

This Spirit will free them from the selfishness of sin.  It overcomes racism which is alive and well in our nation.  It frees those trapped in porn, who have become “debtors to the flesh” (Rom. 8:12).

The Spirit gives new hope to those on the periphery.  Pope Francis reaches out to immigrants, prisoners and the disabled.  A few years ago, Francis embraced a disfigured man with sores covering his body.  Vinicio Riva has neurofibromatosis, and he had been shunned by the public.  But he felt such new hope after the encounter with Pope Francis.

As we remember the missionary spirit of Fr. DeSmet, we are reminded that the Holy Spirit who inspired him is alive and well in our world.  It shines out in people like Pope Francis.  It gives the marginalized new hope and transforms broken sinners.

At every Eucharist, this indwelling of the Spirit is poured anew into our hearts.  Who are the people on the periphery in your family, parish or state?  Who needs to experience “the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead”?

Inspired by the Sacred Heart

Inspired by the Sacred Heart

Last Friday was the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  I was in Casper, WY at Our Lady of Fatima Parish to celebrate Mass and dedicate a new statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  The next day I celebrated Mass at St. Patrick’s Parish in Casper where I dedicated a Celtic cross donated in memory of all the foreign-born Irish priests who have served in this diocese.  It was so good to be in Casper and meet the people of the area.

If you know someone’s heart is to know the person.  Maybe that is why the image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus is so powerful.  By his pierced heart Jesus humbly invites us to know him and to be with him.  Praying with the image of Jesus’ heart is to have an intimate conversation with Jesus himself.  And through his heart Jesus shows us the Father’s heart.  He brings us to that place of abiding with the Father.

So let’s ponder the heart of Christ.  This passage from Matthew’s gospel is a rare moment when Jesus describes his own heart.  “Learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart” (Matt. 11:29). 

How often do you think of Jesus as “MEEK and HUMBLE”?  We think of him as almighty with power to heal, to calm storms, to cast out demons and to raise the dead.  Meek and humble are not the first words that come to my mind about Jesus, but here, that is how he describes himself.

In the Old Testament, the words meek and humble are used to describe the anawim, or the poor who trust in God to rescue them. The meek person has a gentle strength.  The meek man is often afflicted or beaten down; yet he knows that God has his back.  In the Bible, the meek have an acute sense of how weak they are by themselves, but they trust in God as their rock and strength.  That is why the meek person has a gentle strength.

We’ve all met people who are so strong and calm in distressing circumstances.  That is what I am talking about.  In my life one of those people was Leona Ryan, an elderly lady on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.  When her husband Gene died I was working in Rome, so I called to offer my sympathy.  I said that I was sorry to hear of the loss of her husband, and she immediately replied in a matter of fact and almost forceful voice, “Father when you have God with you, you can do anything.” 

Now, if you didn’t know Leona you might think that she was avoiding the pain, or hiding in a false piety.  But her response was true to her spirituality, “When you have God with you, you can do anything.”   That is the kind of gentle yet fierce strength that Jesus had as he went to the cross.  Imagine what it was like the day of the crucifixion to hear Jesus say, “Father, forgive them; they do not know what they do.”  He does not have to force his way.  But with gentle strength, rock solid in the Father’s love, he offers us a fierce unfaltering forgiveness.

Today, we marvel at the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a meek and humble heart. This is the secret to his greatness.  In his little book Poverty in Spirit, Johannes Metz said that Jesus’ poverty in spirit, or humility, was the secret to his greatness.  Because Jesus stood before the Father with open and empty hands, he was granted all of the Father’s gifts.  So he says in this gospel, “All things have been given to me by my Father” (Matt. 11:27). 

Jesus says, “Learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart.”  The meek and humble Jesus invites us to follow this way in the Beatitudes.

   “Blessed are the poor in spirit’ who humbly and totally depend on God.

    “Blessed are the meek”  who are gentle and unassuming before others.

Today, we ask Jesus for the grace to be meek and humble like him, to trust completely in the Father to carry us through every trial. The person with a meek and humble heart receives the immensity of God’s mercy and emanates that mercy to others.

Transformed by the Eucharist

Transformed by the Eucharist

A few years ago, a sixth grade boy was serving morning Mass.  Matt usually came barely awake with his hair uncombed.  He often forgot to bring me the book at the right times.  But he was very talkative.  After one Mass, he said, “I don’t understand why people don’t come to Mass.  Whenever I receive Communion I get this BIG HAPPINESS inside.” 

What did he mean?  He gave a simple description of how God dwells in us through the Eucharist.  Matt could not understand why anyone would not want to be filled with this “big happiness.”  Even when he came half-awake, he was aware of the gift.

 Jesus says, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have LIFE within you”  (John 6:53).    

Today I would like to reflect with you about this LIFE we receive in the Eucharist.  Sometimes adults are numb to the gift.  In fact, most of us fail to appreciate the LIFE of the Risen Lord poured out in the Eucharist, or we would be better about telling others about it.  When was the last time that you invited someone who has drifted from the Church to come back, especially so that they might receive Communion?

How many youth have ever invited a non-Catholic friend to join the Church because you are so joyful about receiving the Eucharist?  How many adults have invited anyone to consider becoming Catholic? Maybe we fail to invite others because we do not really appreciate our faith, especially the Holy Eucharist.

“Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have LIFE within you”  (John 6:53).    

The LIFE that Jesus mentions is not normal physical human life.  Rather, it is his life….. the life that he received from the Father.  So he says, “Just as the LIVING Father sent me and I have LIFE because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have LIFE because of me”  (John 6:57).    

Here Jesus describes his Father as the “Living Father.”  The Living Father is one of my favorite terms for God.  As the Creator, he is the source of life.  He pulses with life.  Jesus had a keen sense of the Father’s life as the strongest power of the universe.  His life is stronger than sin or sickness, evil or death.

This is what he felt as he said to Martha whose brother Lazarus had been dead for four days, “I AM the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25).   

Jesus felt this LIFE deep in his bones, and he longs to give us this life.  “I am the LIVING Bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread with live forever”  (John 6:51).    

The Bread of the Eucharist is filled with Jesus’ life.  When we eat it, it fills us with his power, the power of the Risen Lord.  Yes, it has the power to make us live with him forever, in eternity.  But it also has the power to make us live like him right now.  The earlier Church Fathers emphasized this latter point.

They used the metaphor of how nature transforms lower life forms.  Plants assimilate minerals.  Likewise, animals eat plants and assimilate their nutrients.  The stronger form of life assimilates the weaker.  When people eat vegetables or meat, they process the food into nutrients.  But the opposite happens when humans eat the life of the Risen Christ in the Eucharist.  Then we are made into him ….. because he is a higher form of life.

Thus, the Living Bread of the Eucharist forms us into Christ.   His LIFE, his goodness, his power over sin….. takes over our body and soul.  He gives us his attitude. That is why St. Paul wrote in the letter to the Philippians that we can have the same mind as Christ (Phil. 2:5).  He transforms our hearts to be like his heart.

This is not just a pious theory, but a practical truth.  Here is one story of how I have experienced it.  While I was a seminarian, my class was divided.  We were judgmental and critical of each other.  At one point, I was disgusted with the whole dynamic.  I realized how wrong it was to have such an attitude, and I decided to pray for each person at Sunday Mass.  I was seated near the front, and as each person came forward for Communion, I prayed for goodness toward each person.  Through the Eucharist, I experienced total transformation.  I walked out of Mass with a new heart.

The Eucharist makes the Church, as Henri de Lubac said.  It heals us of our sins.  It reconciles us to one another.  It fills us with the Holy Spirit.  Jesus said, “He who eats my flesh and drinks by blood remains in me, and I in him” (Jn. 6:56).

 Today marvel at the gift of the LIVING BREAD.  Thank God for how Christ dwells in you through the Eucharist.  Receive him with humble gratitude.  Let him transform you.

Where do you struggle with sin?  Ask the Lord to free you from the sin of gossip, holding a grudge, lust, pride.  In the mystery of the Eucharist, be open to the forgiveness that flows from the cross and the Risen Lord.  Don’t EARN it….. just RECEIVE it.

Jesus’ HEALING power is poured out at the Eucharist.  It not only forgives sins, but heals our hearts from the effect of sin.  We are given his charity ….. to speak like him, instead of gossip ….. to love like him, instead of lust.

As we celebrate the Eucharist today, apply the healing power of Christ to your life.

The Father knows best

The Father knows best

 

Today I would like share my own journey to priesthood and to being your bishop. I am a native of Timber Lake, SD, almost 500 miles northeast of Cheyenne.  My family owned a farm and ranch. I still enjoy riding horse. I also like to hike and ski.  I have six brothers and six sisters.  Close to 100 family members were here this week for my episcopal ordination.  It has been such a gift to be part of a large family.

Why did I become a priest?  The most important factor in my vocation is that I was raised in a family of faith.  Our family prayed daily and attended Mass regularly, so I always thought about my life in terms of God’s plan.  In my growing up years, one of the recurring thoughts for me was, “I need to do what God wants.”

When I was 10 years old, I was riding a horse across a highway, and I failed to see a speeding car. My horse froze on the road, but at impact he reared up which saved my life. After being struck by the car, my horse wobbled off the road and died.  The car was totaled.  I escaped with some facial cuts and a broken collar bone, and I realized that God had protected me.  From that moment, I had a sense that my life was not my own.  God had a specific purpose for me, and I seriously thought about priesthood.

After high school I attended the School of Mines in Rapid City.  I enjoyed studying there, but at the end of that year, I realized that I did not want to be an engineer.  I asked God, “What do you want me to do?” and clearly heard a call to the priesthood.  But I didn’t want to do that.  I was afraid.  I especially didn’t like the idea of being celibate.  So I decided to return to our family ranch and work there for a while.  The thought of priesthood kept nagging me. God was patient, but persistent.

As I spent time in the quiet of nature I found myself praying in awe before the beauty of sunrises and sunsets, the northern lights and billowing thunderstorms.  I felt the call to be quiet.  Not listening to the radio in the tractor.  No TV at night.  SILENCE was key.   If you want to hear God’s voice, silence is key.

Eventually, I gave in and went to the seminary when I was 27 years old.  In the end, I had to trust that what God wanted for me would give me the greatest JOY and SATISFACTION.

As a priest, I learned to trust that the Father always leads me to the best place.  I was able to say YES to this call because over the last 30 years, as I said YES to celibate priesthood which I did not want to live, or to different assignments which I did not prefer, I gained greater and greater trust in the Father’s plan.  I have found that his way leads me to the fullness of life.

This ongoing process of dying to my own desires and doing what God wants is the WAY, the TRUTH and the LIFE. It has led me to selfless joy.  I have found fulfillment in doing God’s will.  The Father knows best. I could say YES to being a bishop, not because I like wearing a miter or bishop’s clothing, but because I trust in God’s guiding hand.

Do you trust in God’s providence for your life?  God has a specific plan for your life.  Do you believe that?  Are you seeking to live according to that plan?  He will bring you to the best place.

Today is Trinity Sunday.  Let’s reflect for a moment on the Father, Son and Holy Spirit who guide us.  In the reading from Exodus, Moses says that this is how God described himself. “The LORD, the LORD, a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity” (Ex. 34:6).

Do you know the CONTEXT? This is the second set of stone tablets that Moses took up the mountain.  He broke the first set when he came down from the mountain and saw the people worshiping the golden calf.  So this is Moses’ second trip up Mt. Sinai.  He is anxious about approaching God since the people strayed so quickly the last time.

Then God stuns him by declaring:  “The LORD, the LORD, a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity, continuing his kindness for a thousand generations, and forgiving wickedness and crime and sin” (Ex. 34:6-7).

This is the main description of God in the Old Testament.  It is repeated several times in the psalms and the prophets.  God the Father is above all MERCIFUL.  It is impossible to express God’s mercy with only one word.  In this passage,  there are five adjectives.

He is MERCIFUL, or compassionate.  The Hebrew word rahum is closely related to the word rehem, the word for the intestines or the womb.  One way to define this word is “womb-love,” like a mother’s love for the child that she carried in her womb.  Or the love that brothers and sisters have for each other.  The father has merciful womb-love.  His deep compassion for us is like the tender love of a father or mother for their own children, so Our Father sent his Son to be our Brother.

Second, God is GRACIOUS.  This Hebrew word (hanun) is often translated as PITY.  This word is used for someone stronger who is lenient to a much weaker person.  Almighty God who could crush us for our sinful stupidity, instead pities us.  So the Father sent his Son to be crucified for us, to be the sacrifice that atones for our sins.   “God so loved the world that he sent his only Son so that whoever believes in him might not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

The Lord is “rich in KINDNESS (hesed) . . . continuing his kindness for a 1,000 generations, and forgiving wickedness and crime and sin” (Ex. 34:7).  Another translation renders this phrase “abounding in steadfast love.”  God has unbreakable loyalty and love.  This Hebrew word (hesed) is used for God’s unbreakable covenant with us.  So he sent the Holy Spirit to be with us always.

I have experienced God as a merciful Father who is so darn faithful despite my sin. The Lord Jesus has instilled in me his own selfless love.   The Holy Spirit constantly accompanies me to guide and strengthen me.  So I am confident in saying YES to this new mission in life.  The Father knows best.

Do you trust in God’s providence for your life?  As you celebrate the Eucharist today, remember with gratitude how God has guided you as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Simply be aware of the mystery of God’s presence and ask for a greater faith to follow the Lord as a faithful disciple.

Come, Holy Spirit

Come, Holy Spirit

HOMILY AT VESPERS – 7:30 PM, SUNDAY, JUNE 4

It is good to gather in prayer tonight on the feast of Pentecost.

Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful,

And kindle in them the fire of your love.

Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created.

And you shall renew the face of the earth.

I would like to begin by thanking Archbishop Paul Etienne.  Paul, I appreciate your encouragement and guidance the last three months.  Also, it is a blessing to have so many family members here.  My family is large, supportive and entertaining.  I have 12 siblings, and sometimes they tell tall tales, so if they say something about me that seems crazy, just ignore it!

I bring to Cheyenne a strong sense of FAMILY.  My family of origin shaped my identity, instilled in me a strong work ethic and nourished the gift of faith.  What a gift my family has been!

For me, the CHURCH has become a second family.  It was bittersweet to leave S. Dakota because of such strong relationships.  In a special way, I have been blessed with the bond of brotherhood among the priests in Rapid City.  I have been in a Iesu Caritas fraternity with some of them for 24 years.  I hope to build on the gift of FAMILY here in Cheyenne.

To begin, I want to tell a story of a good brother priest.  He taught me what it means to live as a brother in a family of faith.  I spent six years on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation with Msgr. Bill O’Connell.  Ministry on the rez is so challenging because of the tragic suffering in people’s lives.  However, of all the assignments which I had, that one was one of the best.…. because we had such a good team spirit, not only as brother priests, but also with the sisters and deacon couples with us.

Often we were at a mission parish until late at night.  But in the morning Msgr. O’C made a point of discussing with me what time we would be back, so that we could plan the evening meal together, even if that meant that we waited to eat until 8 or 9 PM.  Whoever, came back first was on to cook.

When we drove for four hours to and from Rapid City, he stopped to see the priests along the way…. to show them his concern. He was a master at listening to people and asking about their family.

He often would call priests who had problems.  At times, he disagreed strongly with personal decisions that they had made, and he told them so in no uncertain terms.  But he never cut off the relationship, even when he felt that a man was wrong.

In The Joy of the Gospel (#169), Pope Francis said, The Church will have to initiate everyone—priests, religious and laity—into this “art of accompaniment” which teaches us to remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other (cf. Ex 3:5).”  Msgr. O’Connell initiated me in the “art of accompaniment.”  He listened to people, walked alongside them, encouraged, challenged and prayed for them …. as a humble, sinful and merciful brother.

As a bishop, I hope to practice the art of accompaniment both as a spiritual Father and as a brother in Christ.  In the ritual, the priest being ordained as a bishop is told, “With the charity of a father and brother, love all whom God places in your care.”

I have learned from Msgr. Bill O’C and from my own family the sustaining power of brothers and sisters who hang together…. who accompany each other.  But also I have known the discouraging division when siblings bicker & fight.  We all know this in our families, but I am especially speaking about it in regard to our family of faith.  One of the greatest delights of the Evil One is to discourage us or divide us through back-biting and bickering.

As a Church family, we need to pray for one another, speak about each other with goodness and reach out with compassion to brothers or sisters in distress.

This is the hardest work.

One of the benefits of coming from a large family is that you get lots of practice in disagreeing and compromising, in fighting and forgiveness. I have learned to never give up on this process, to never give up with family members and with my Church family.

But not giving up on family requires that I do not give up on myself, as a beloved son of a merciful Father.  I mean that I need to humbly accept God’s mercy each day, even when I fail to be a good brother to others.  The KEY to never giving up lies in what Jesus taught us about the Holy Spirit.

He said that the Holy Spirit is the Paraclete.  Paraclete means the “One who stands beside you,” or literally the “One whom you call to your side.”  The Latin word is Advocate, which we use for a lawyer who stands beside you to defend you.

I believe wholeheartedly in the Paraclete.  The Holy Spirit always stands with me when I am faithful and unfaithful, if only I cry out with humble trust. The Holy Spirit always stands with you when you are faithful and unfaithful, if only you cry out with humble trust.  This is one of the most important truths of the faith.  Jesus’ last words in Matthew’s gospel are, “I am with you always, to the end of time” (Matt. 28:20).

Pope Francis insists on the art of accompaniment…. of standing beside others and never giving up on them, even when they sin against us.  Why?  Because that is how God treats us.  We need to accompany one another with the same patient love as the Paraclete.  We must never give up on forgiveness and unity in our families and in our Church family.

This kind of UNITY is the work of the Holy Spirit.  St. Paul says, “Make every effort to preserve the unity which has the Spirit as its origin and peace as its binding force” (Eph. 4:3). So tonight, let us pray for the grace to never give up on unity in our church family and to practice the art of accompaniment, like the Paraclete.

Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful,

And kindle in them the fire of your love.

Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created.

And you shall renew the face of the earth.