Saturday, November 30, 2013

Fr. Chuck's Column, Sunday, December 1


Happy Advent! This liturgical season focuses on the coming of Christ and of waiting for Him. Of course we recall the long time of waiting of God’s People: the Hebrews (and later the Jews) for the Messiah. We recall especially the time of Mary’s pregnancy leading up to the birth of our Savior at Christmas.

But especially in these early weeks of Advent we focus not on historical events but on the trans-historical event of the Second Coming, also known by the Greek word Parousia or “arrival.” This is an important part of our faith, but one that is not often given much attention.

The very earliest Christian prayer we have, in Jesus’ own language of Aramaic, is “Maranatha.”  It means, ‘Come, Lord Jesus!’ It expresses a wish and desire for the Second Coming, the arrival of Jesus as Lord in glory. Then the Kingdom of God will be ushered in in its fullness. Evil and sin and decay will be done away with; God’s Justice and Mercy will be triumphant. It will be wonderful! No wonder early Christians, especially those persecuted for their faith, tried to urge on and hurry up the Day of the Lord’s Coming. Dramatic imagery is used because it will be a dramatic reversal of how things are done on earth and in history. God’s Will will be done, and that will be a dramatic and fundamental change from how things are now, to say the least.

Early Christians hoped for the Second Coming of Christ to happen soon, in their own lifetime. After nearly 2,000 years, we have lost that expectation. But the Second Coming is still a part of our faith. Every Sunday when we recite the Creed, we state: “and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty; from there he will come to judge the living and the dead.” Or for our neighbors who use the Nicene Creed: “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead and his kingdom will have no end.”

Are we to expect Jesus’ Second Coming as an actual historical event? Is there an actual date in the future when Jesus will appear again on earth? Or is this teaching a sort of symbol for the judgment that each of us will face on the day of our own particular death? The first option of an actual historical event seems very hard to fit with our current understanding of cosmology. If creation has taken over 13 billion years of work up to this point, to suddenly and “out of the blue” interrupt it all and bring it to an end with some divine intervention from without the whole creative process just strikes me as a kind of a cheesy “deus ex machina” solution that seems unworthy of the God of such intricate and complex and prodigal creation.

And yet, to limit this creedal statement of the Second Coming to a symbol of our individual judgment does not do justice to the centrality and importance of this belief to our creeds and faith. God’s creation is not static. It goes somewhere. It has meaning because it has purpose. In Christian understanding time is not cyclical nor eternal. Rather it has a destination. It goes someplace. This is called teleology. Time ultimately finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ, Who is All in All. Time is not just a meaningless accumulation of endless moments, but proceeds to a destination determined by and known only to God. So figuring out the destiny of the universe is a little above my pay scale, and also above yours. Nonetheless, as we hear the prayers and readings of early Advent that direct our thoughts to the Second Coming of Christ in glory, these are beliefs to chew on and wrestle with. Not only does this article of faith give meaning to all of creation, but also to our particular part in it, to each of our lives.

Happy Advent!


Saturday, November 23, 2013

Fr. Chuck's Column, Sunday, November 24


It is a time of endings and beginnings. Today liturgically we mark the end of the church year with the celebration of the Feast of Christ the King. Next week begins a new liturgical year with the First Sunday of Advent. Christmas is not far away!

Also this weekend marks the end of the Year of Faith. It was actually a little longer than a calendar year, but now it is over. If you had been meaning to strengthen or increase your faith during the Year of Faith, but somehow never got to it, don’t worry because actually every year is a Year of Faith, and also of Hope, and especially Love. So EVERYDAY is a good time to strengthen your Theological Virtues of Faith, Hope and Love.

This week also brings us to our wonderful national holiday of THANKSGIVING. Again, every day is an appropriate day for thanksgiving and gratitude. We all have much for which we should be thankful. Every moment of existence, every breath, every harmonious note, every pleasant smell, every pretty sight, every comfortable touch, every delicious taste is all GIFT.

Gratitude opens us to more and more gifts. The more we stop to recognize what we have been given, the more we are conscious of our blessings, the more we give thanks not only for the big blessings but also for the countless myriad of small blessings that are bestowed on us unexpectedly and capriciously, then the more aware we become of just how truly blessed we are. And that awareness is itself one of the best blessings of all.

Learning to live in gratitude is a spiritual discipline. It requires us to go out of our busy pre-occupation with myself, my needs, my desires, my agenda, and pay attention to God’s action in our lives. Gratitude is the proper disposition of a creature (you and me) to our creator (to God). Indeed, there are some theologians who believe that the primordial sin of Adam and Eve was the sin of ingratitude, of taking for granted all the wonderful blessings of the Garden of Eden, and not saying “Thank You” to God. Unfortunately we continue to fall into that fundamental sin today.

So as we celebrate Thanksgiving and give thanks for our blessings, hopefully we will commit ourselves to be more thankful EVERY day, and not just for big blessings, but for all the blessings we receive each day. In this way we become more aware of God’s presence and action in our lives, and open ourselves to receive even more of God’s manifold and generous blessings. Happy Thanksgiving!

God bless!


Saturday, November 16, 2013

Fr. Chuck's Column, Sunday, November 17


First of all I want to thank all of you for your response to my announcement this past weekend about our parish’s financial challenges. Your understanding is much appreciated. Working together, with confidence in the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we will move forward and resolve this challenge successfully.*

One of the things we need to respond to soon is the construction of a sidewalk protection structure in front of the church. Pieces of stone have been falling from the front of the building for some time: for years in fact. Fortunately no one has been hurt. All the loose stones were removed by the firm that did the inspection and study of the church and rectory fa├žade, so I do not anticipate any stones falling for a while. Nonetheless, it is prudent for us to take measures to insure everyone’s safety until the church and rectory facades are replaced.

We have received a permit from the city to do this. The structure they require is rather large and not very attractive. It will take up the entire sidewalk in front of the church. We have a contractor set to construct it. The only reason we have not given the go-ahead on this project is that we do not have on hand $25,000, which is the cost of this structure. As soon as we can afford it we will have it built. Stay tuned.

On a totally different note, if I may express it that way, this Friday is the Feast of St. Cecilia. She was a martyr. While details of her life are sketchy at best, historical research suggests she was martyred in Sicily under Marcus Aurelius between 176 and 180. By 500 there was a dilapidated church in Rome dedicated to her. So devotion to St. Cecilia goes back a long way. She is a very ecumenical Saint, being celebrated on the calendar not only by Roman Catholics, but also by Eastern Rite Catholics, Orthodox and by Anglicans.

She is best known as the patroness of music, and especially of church musicians. We are especially fortunate here at St. Austin to have such good music. Our choir and our ensembles are all quite extraordinary. The high quality of music here draws people to our worship, and so is a great evangelization tool. We owe Dr. Hoffman, the musicians, the cantors, choir and ensemble members all a debt of gratitude.

More wonderful and extraordinary to my way of thinking is the great participation in singing and the music that you – the people in the pews – exhibit. This congregation both likes to sing and sings pretty well. There is always room for improvement, of course, but I bet St. Austin parish sings better than most parishes in this diocese.

This is significant for making real the liturgical vision of VCII.  In the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy we read: “Liturgical action is given a more noble form when sacred rites are solemnized in song, with the assistance of sacred ministers and the active participation of the people.... Choirs must be diligently promoted, but bishops and other pastors must ensure that, whenever the sacred action is to be celebrated with song, the whole body of the faithful may be able to contribute that active participation which is rightfully theirs....  (paragraph 112)   

So I invite you to celebrate St. Cecilia this weekend, and all the year, by singing out with gusto.

God bless!

 

Sunday, November 10, 2013

HOMILY 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time November 10, 2013

          Perhaps you have seen the 1954 movie musical, “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers”.  Great dance scenes.   Well in our Gospel we have something similar, but different.  We hear a story of ONE bride for seven brothers.  Seven brothers, following the injunction in Deuteronomy chapter 25, each marry this woman and then he dies childless.  Finally, this lady with the strong constitution ups and dies. 
          This creates a problem for the Sadducees.  Actually, not a problem but rather an opportunity for them to put Jesus on the spot.  The Sadducees – unlike the Pharisees - did not believe in the resurrection of the body.  You died and pzzzt, that’s it.  So they bring this strange case of one woman with seven husbands to confuse and confound Jesus.   Now at the resurrection whose wife will that woman be?  For all seven had been married to her."    //
          Are these guys serious?  Are they so convinced that they know how eternity and resurrection work that they think this is a serious problem for God?  Don’t they understand that eternity is going to be different than how things are now?  What is wrong with these guys?
          Well, what is wrong with them is that they have no imagination.  They think eternity will be just like life is here and now, and so they are stumped by this odd – and rather silly – question:  “whose wife will that woman be?” 
          Imagination is a very important, and often undervalued, faculty.  Sometimes we dismiss it:  “Oh, is only a figment of your imagination.”   “you’re just imagining things.”  And so on.  And we consider imagination only important for daydreaming, artists, wishful thinking, and in general other non-productive pursuits. 
          But I hold that a good imagination is essential to being a religious person, and in particular a Christian.  It is not only those Sadducees that lacked a religious imagination.  Often enough I think that we do too.
          Too often we think we know what God wants, how God reacts to every situation, and especially what God ought to do about it.  We know exactly what God should be doing about every aspect of our lives.
           But God is mystery.  God has options that we cannot even imagine.  God is not bound in any way by our “ought’s”.   And then when things do not go the way we expect God to handle them, we either are disappointed in God, or we begin to question if God really exists. 
          We need great imagination to expand our concept of how God acts.  That we do not see the results we expect does not so much mean that God has failed us, as that we have failed to imagine a great enough freedom for God to act in surprising and unforeseen ways. 
          Even in the natural world we need imagination to understand what is.  Cosmologists tell us that all the billions of galaxies we see, each with billions of stars and even more planets, all that makes up less than 5% of what is actually out there.  The rest, more than 95% of the total, is dark matter and dark energy.  They call it dark because they have no idea what the heck it is.  They just know that something’s there.  Without imagination you cannot even begin to get a correct idea of what the universe is like.  This is why Albert Einstein stated that “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”
          Many of you university students will spend most of your career in jobs that don’t yet exist today.  Without imagination you will never succeed. 
          The amount of technical information is doubling every two years.  This means that for students in a technical four year degree program, half of what they learn in their first year will be out of date by their third year.  In such a fluid situation imagination is essential.
          With all these possibilities and rapid changes, you need imagination to approach and prepare for the future, just in the everyday, practical world. 
          In the life of the spirit imagination is even more essential.  Imagination opens us up to new and larger possibilities.  Because what God the Father wants for you is much greater than you can reason; even much greater than what you can imagine.  God did not send you God’s most precious Beloved, God’s own Son, just so you can be “reasonably happy and moderately comfortable.”  The love beyond all telling compels our imaginations to work overtime to grasp even the feeblest hint of the glory that awaits us, and all the love God wants to pour out on us.  
          In the words of the French essayist, Joseph Jouber, “Imagination is the eye of the soul.”  Or more concretely in the words of Lauren Bacall, “Imagination is the highest kite that one can fly.”
          Let your imagination soar!  Your imagination is a precious gift, given to you by God to reach for things beyond the grasp of our knowledge and experience.  The God of mystery is both here in the concrete AND in the beyond, where imagination helps us comprehend God’s greatness and goodness. 

          Imagine that!

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Fr. Chuck's Column, Sunday, November 10


Back on October 23 we had a very good meeting of many different parish leaders: from the Parish Pastoral Council, the Finance Council, the School Advisory Board, the Property Committee, the Pastoral Staff, and others. It was an informative and somewhat sobering meeting. To get a better idea of what was said you can speak to one of the 40 or so people who were there, or you can watch a video of the presentation made at that meeting on our parishes’ physical and financial situation at: www.staustin.org/stewardship.

If you watch that video you will see, as the representative of our Property Committee explains, we have pieces of stone falling out of the front and side walls of the church. This is not new. I have written about this situation in my bulletin column before (Sept. 29, 2013). We are fortunate in that it is a slow-moving problem. It must now be addressed, but we do not have to panic. We can take the time to study the alternatives and come up with the best and most cost effective response, and that is what we will do.

A much more pressing issue for us as a parish is the repayment of the debt on the garage. We built the garage at the height of a boom when construction was most expensive. We ran into large overruns of approximately $1.6 million, mostly for increases in the cost of cement and steel. Then buried gas and oil tanks were found on the property from when it had been a service station. Removal and remediation for those tanks added an additional $200,000 to the garage construction costs. And as construction kicked into high gear, we experienced the financial downturn of 2008, and all the projections for income on the garage fell through the floor. We had just about the worst timing possible.

Since then we have been paying the interest on the loans, but not paying anything on the principal. Now that we have leased all the retail spaces in the garage, the principal is also coming due. Our total loan indebtedness is approximately $5.1 million, most of which is for the purchase of the land the garage sits on and the construction of the garage. This leaves us with very large debt payments.

At the same time our collections have begun to decrease. Our offertory income is down 6% from the projections from last year, which is the level on which we based our current budget. We are currently forecasting a deficit for this fiscal year of over $500,000.

This has put a severe strain on our cash flow. So far we have been able to meet payroll and all our other immediate commitments, but frankly I do not know how long we can keep this up.

We could try cutting our current budget, but most is in fixed costs such as insurance, utilities and payroll. Surprisingly little, only about 10%, goes to pay program costs. So to cut the budget substantially will be very difficult. 

The other option is to increase our giving. If every family in the parish increased their giving by $20 a month, about $5 a week, we would be able to meet our commitments, pay off the debt, and have no shortfall. 

Personally, I think we have a pretty great parish here at St. Austin. I am loath to start cutting personnel and programs, but obviously that is what will happen if it is necessary.

However, I am willing to increase my donation by $20 a month and am doing so. I hope you will too. So I am asking every family to consider, pray over, and try your best to increase your donation to the parish by $20 a month. If you have been blessed by God and can do more than that, please do. If you are able only to increase a smaller amount each month, please help us out with what you can. If you have not been donating in the past, now is the time to start. We need everyone involved in this critical effort. 

If you give by credit card or by bank transfer, you can increase your donation online. Cash, checks, gifts of stocks, are all most welcome. More info on how to do this is available at www.staustin.org/stewardship or you can contact our Director of Development and Communications, Jennifer Anderson, at 512-477-9471 x325 or janderson@staustin.org for assistance.

And please pray for our parish leadership as we grapple with these difficult situations.

Thank you! God bless!


Sunday, November 3, 2013

Homily 31st Sunday of Ordinary Time Cycle C November 03, 2013

Do you like this story about Zaccheus the wealthy tax-collector?    I do. 
          This story we hear in today’s Gospel appears ONLY in the Gospel of St. Luke.  He is the only one that tells us this story about the wealthy tax collector, Zaccheus. 
          It is interesting where Luke situates this story.  Immediately before this passage, as Jesus is approaching the city of Jericho, there is the story of the healing of a blind beggar.   Luke 18: 35-43   
          Now Luke gives us another healing that involves sight:  not physical sight, but rather insight.   For we are told that Zaccheus was seeking to see who Jesus was; but he could not see him because of the crowd, for he was short in stature.
            The crowd that keeps Zaccheus from seeing who Jesus is, was not just a lot of tall people standing in the way.  It can also mean that the crowd is that set of expectations that get laid on us of “going along with the crowd”; all the conventions and expectations of society, what those around us expect of our behavior, what everyone is expected to do.  And these crowd expectations can get in the way and block us from truly seeing who Jesus is.  All the expectations about keeping up with the Joneses, all the subtle pressure to have the latest fashion, the fastest smart phone and tablet, the recent model car, a certain type of house, who to like and who to disdain, and on and on.  All that stuff can become clutter in our lives that keeps us from seeing who Jesus truly is.  And so it was for Zaccheus.
          For all his faults, Zaccheus is still an attractive and sympathetic character because he is persistent.  You see Zaccheus doesn’t give up.  He takes the initiative and breaks away from the crowd to get a different perspective.   So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree in order to see Jesus, who was about to pass that way.     
          When is the last time you climbed a tree?  On the way here to church?   Probably not.  For most of us it has probably been a good long while.  Climbing trees was NOT what a chief tax collector, a wealthy man, an important personage, was supposed to be doing.  In a society that put great emphasis on dignity and decorum, this would have been highly unusual.  It tells us that Zaccheus was willing to risk appearing ridiculous, risk looking foolish, in order to see who Jesus was.   So intense was Zaccheus’ desire, so driven was he to see ‘who is this Jesus?’
What is Jesus all about?  What is it about Jesus that is so attractive and so compelling?    
So Zaccheus throws dignity to the wind, leaves the crowd behind, runs ahead and climbs up into a sycamore tree along Jesus’ route.
          Along comes Jesus. The scene is rather comical.  There is Jesus standing on the road, talking to Zaccheus up in the tree. 
          What does Jesus see?  He does NOT see someone acting foolish.  Rather, Jesus recognizes in Zaccheus a burning desire for something more in life than just making money.  Jesus recognizes the hunger and thirst in Zaccheus that all his wealth does not satisfy.  Jesus sees that Zaccheus is hungry; so Jesus invites himself to dinner, not to be fed but rather to feed Zaccheus“Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.”  And he came down quickly and received him with joy.
               This little Gospel scene is a beautiful lesson for us.   First Jesus heals a beggar of blindness, and now Jesus is going to heal a wealthy man of his inability to see.  They are equally needy and equally blind, but in different ways.  We too have blind spots.  We don’t see clearly our purpose in life; we don’t see how we are blessed by God; we don’t see what Jesus is calling us to do.  Jesus wants to heal us also.
          Often, like Zaccheus if we want to really see then we have to break out of our routine.  We have to get away from the crowd, from all the conventional expectations.  We have to stop worrying about looking foolish, we have to take a risk to go out on a limb to get a different perspective on life.  Probably that does not mean literally climbing up in a tree.  But it might mean turning off the TV and the smart phone and all the other distractions to spend time in quiet and prayer.  It might mean including daily mass in your schedule, something totally different than the rest of your day.  It might mean taking time for a retreat or an evening of recollection, even going off to a monastery or a retreat house.  Your family and co-workers may think you have gone a little nuts, but we will never hear the Lord’s inviting Himself to our house, that is into our hearts, until we stop to listen.
          We can then receive the Lord with joy into our hearts, into our lives.
This will, of course, require changes.  For Zaccheus it required a fundamental shift from looking on his possessions as something to hoard and from the accumulation of more and more and more, to a very different approach of seeing his possessions as the opportunity and the means to do good, to achieve something positive and lasting with them rather than to hoard them just for himself in a sterile way. 

          Zaccheus found his true treasure in the Lord.  So can we.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Fr. Chuck's Column, Sunday, Nov 3


Last Sunday, Oct. 27, following the 9 a.m. Mass, we had a very nice blessing of the new water fountain that our parish installed a couple of months ago. Mr. Alan Graham of Mobile Loaves and Fishes (who gave us a big donation for the fountain) and about 40 to 50 parishioners participated, including some who donated money to the project and some who donated sweat equity, or both. It was a nice, simple affair.

Well, it must have been a slow news day because we appeared on page one of the Metro Section of the Austin American Statesman. Our parish appeared on KXAN news. Our water fountain was a subject of discussion on a radio talk program on KLBJ, AM 590. The fountain blessing got picked up on “Morning Briefing” on the National Catholic Reporter website, and a notice in USA Today. But the best of all was that St. Austin and Mobile Loaves and Fishes got a “horns up” in the Oct. 28 issue of The Daily Texan, the University of Texas newspaper!

What to make of all this?  First of all, it is of course very heartening to see that our efforts got recognized. But also it is a bit disturbing that when a church congregation does something not just for itself but for the general community as a whole it makes such a big splash. Is it really that unusual that a church would do something that primarily benefits people who are not its members?  There are two possible explanations.

The simplest of course is that we don’t do very much for those who are not our members. To the extent this is true we need to look at why we as a church body exist and how well we are carrying out that mission. Vatican Council II teaches us that the Church exists as a sacrament for the salvation of the whole world. Our concern needs to extend to everyone, because that is the mission that Jesus gave us. If we are not doing that then we need to do better!

But the other explanation is that we do reach out beyond our church boundaries but do it in quiet and unassuming ways that often fail to get noticed. The day before the fountain blessing we had close to 100 people here packing meals for Catholic Relief Services to ship to Burkina Fasso in Africa in order to feed hungry people. In just over two hours our dedicated crew of St. Austin parishioners packed 10,000 meals! You should have seen them go! All of those meals are going to feed hungry people in another country on another continent. That is outreach!

The same afternoon following that blessing, a wonderful organ concert was presented in our church, feeding a different need of the human soul for artistry and beauty. Man does not live on packaged meals alone.

Every day in our worship, in our parish school, in our charitable and social justice ministries, St. Austin reaches out in support, in consolation, in help. Maybe we need to make these efforts better known.

In any case, we do NOT do these things because of the positive publicity that they attract. The publicity is good and I am glad our fountain made such a splash (pun intended). But ultimately we do all this because this is what Jesus told us to do. As long as He sees, the effort is worthwhile.

God bless!