Saturday, December 28, 2013

Fr. Chuck's Column, Sunday, December 29

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. I will pass over the contentious issue as to whether there were other members of the family (Jesus’ so-called brothers and sisters, see Mt. 13:55-56). Although, being the oldest of six children myself, and now very grateful to have five brothers and sisters, I rather wish that Jesus had grown up in larger family, full of the give-and-take and learning that a passel of siblings  provides. But for this Feast at least Jesus remains an only child.
On this feast we naturally are reminded of our own families: the one we grew up in and the one we may have formed and now live in. Families today come in many more configurations than in the past. Some include grandparents, some have adopted members, some are “blended,” some are broken by divorce, some go beyond traditional configurations, some are a single person by themselves as perhaps a widow or widower. All these families, like the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, are also called to be holy. What made the Holy Family “holy” was of course the presence of Jesus, in the same way our families today are made holy by the presence of Jesus. Jesus dwells in our hearts, and so Jesus can dwell in our families. The more we are explicit about that, the more we openly invite Him to be a part of our family, the more we try to make room for Jesus in our family life by prayer, worshiping together, and as a family performing good works and helping others, the more Jesus will be with us in our family, and hence the more our family will be truly holy.
Then today’s celebration is not only, or even primarily, about some Galilean peasant family of two millennium ago, but is a celebration of who we are, what we strive to be, what we are called to be right here, right now. Our families can truly be holy families by  inviting Jesus to be present to us as a family.
In addition we are also members of the Church, which is itself a “holy family.” The bond that we share, which is the Holy Spirit, is stronger even then the blood ties that unite us to our earthly family. Jesus is explicit about this. In Mt. 12:50 Jesus declares: “For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” In ancient Galilee, and indeed in all the ancient world, family ties were extremely important. They were literally a matter of life and death, for your survival depended on being able to rely on your family. Jesus radicalizes this idea of family and invites all who seek to follow the will of God the Father into intimate familial relationship with Him. So as members of the Church, if we are indeed trying to live as His disciples, we are then the intimate family members of Jesus Himself.  Pretty cool.
As we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family we are also celebrating ourselves, as God’s own children adopted in Baptism, and the wonderful invitation to familial relationship with our brother, Jesus. 
Happy Feast Day! 

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Fr. Chuck's Column, Sunday, December 22

After much preparation, shopping, decorating, baking, mailing and hopefully praying, Christmas is just about here.  Perhaps you are filled with a sense of joyful expectation, happy that Christmas is just around the corner. Perhaps you are feeling a little tired after all the exertion, a bit spent after all the holiday cheer and parties, a bit down or even depressed by the relentless expectation to be up and full of holiday cheer and “Ho, ho, ho” ad infinatum. That is entirely O.K. Because for us Christians Christmas is not about an emotion but about Faith.
As I stated in this column the last couple of Advents: Many people do not feel merry. Many have lost loved ones around the holidays, and so the celebration is always mixed for them with a certain measure of sadness. My Mother died on Dec. 21st six years ago, and so the holiday is always touched with a certain sense of loss and sadness. Others have problems with living family members or friends – frictions over inheritances, or marriage, or who is spending Christmas at which set of in-law’s house, or any variety of issues. These differences can lead to painful separations:  separations that are made all the more sharp and cutting by the holiday season when there is so much emphasis on family and togetherness. Still others are separated from loved ones by war or work or illness or physical distance, and feel sharply the longing for those not present. So there are plenty of emotional landmines in this season of such high expectations to blow up in our faces and get us sad, or down, or feeling blue. Add to that the short daylight, the cold, and you have a pretty good recipe for disappointment.
But for Christians, Christmas is not primarily about feelings. Rather, it is about FAITH. Unlike office or most other Christmas parties, where it largely depends on your feelings and mood, for Christians we are not focused on “feeling Christmassy” but rather on believing in God’s love for us made flesh in His Son, Jesus.
One of the great things about liturgy is that its success or failure does not depend on our feelings. We don’t have to feel a certain way for the liturgy to work. It is certainly nice to feel joyful and happy at the Christmas celebration, but it is much more important to   believe in what is being celebrated. And when we do summon up our faith in the preposterous belief that God became a helpless baby, and go through the motions of praying and praising and singing and worshipping, the feelings tend to follow along behind naturally. Faith does not come from the feelings, but the other way around.
So if you are not feeling particularly happy or joyful or merry this Christmas, if you are worried to distraction about your job or the economy, or you are disappointed because your children behave selfishly and badly, if you are estranged from your siblings, or your life seems stuck and going nowhere, or if you are missing a loved one like I am missing my Mom, or if you are just overwhelmed by the fluster of activity and commercial craziness of the season, that really is all right. There is nothing wrong with those feelings. You do not need to apologize for or be embarrassed by those feelings. And more importantly, they will not stop Christmas from    happening.
I dare say that on the first Christmas, more than 2,000 years ago, the great majority of people were hungry, frightened, cold, sick, worried, oppressed, hurting in some way. It did not matter. Christmas happened nonetheless. In fact, that is the whole point of Christmas. It is God’s work, not ours. That is our faith.  
Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

HOMILY THIRD SUNDAY OF LENT December 15, 2013 St Austin, Austin, TX

          Some years ago when I lived in Manhattan, New York City, there was an ad on the TV that stated, “In New York ‘wait’ is a four letter word.” meaning a nasty word.  And it is true.  Everyone in that city always seems to be in a hurry.  People always rush, are in a hurry, have no time, are go, go, go; impatient, and … I LOVED it. 
          You see I grew up taking after my Mother who had no patience.  Bernice, my Mom, was always very action oriented.  “Do it, do it right, do it right now” could have been her motto.  So I am NOT a patient person and I come by it naturally.   I hate to wait.  And so for me, wait is a four-letter word.
          So when I read in today’s second reading from the Letter of Saint James “Be patient, brothers and sisters,” I have a problem.  “Be patient,…”   NO!  I don’t want to be patient.
          This is the only time all year long that we get a selection from the practical and wise Letter of Saint James in the Sunday readings  - and what they give us is “Be patient”!  Oh come-on. 
          Now some of you may find patience to be a difficult virtue, if you even think of it as a virtue at all.  But that is our reading.  So let us take a deep breath and see what we can make of all this.
          “Be patient, brothers and sisters, until the coming of the Lord.”
                    We have been waiting nearly 2,000 years for the Lord to return.  He is certainly in no rush, and there is no indication that He is coming anytime soon.  So this requires a great deal of patience.
          St. James continues: “See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains.  You too must be patient.”  Note that this is not waiting for waiting’s sake.  Something is going on.  Something is developing.  It is not noticeable, but the seed is changing, growing, preparing for the conditions to be right to appear above the ground.  This is not waiting for waiting’s sake, but rather allowing things to develop to the right point in order to appear.  The farmer knows the crop is coming, but only at the right time.  The same with the Lord’s coming.  The time is not yet ripe. So we must be patient.
          St. James tells us:  “Make your hearts firm.”  This waiting is not passive.  It is not inactive or indolent.  This patience requires firmness, strength, perseverance.  “Make your hearts firm” in faith, in hope, and above all in love.  The patience that St James calls us to is not just sitting around twiddling our thumbs.  Rather this is a patience that is purposeful.  “Make your hearts firm” by doing good deeds, by forgiving those who hurt you, but giving alms and by generous acts, by speaking the unpopular truth, by standing up for what is right, by prayer and even by penance.  “Make your hearts firm.”
          Too many of us Christians I am afraid have rather flabby, lazy, weak hearts.  Pope Francis in his recent Apostolic Exhortation asks: “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses 2 points?"   Good question.  Well, we know why.  It is because our hearts are in the wrong place.  Our hearts are not firm, but weak and flabby.  St. James calls us to make our hearts firm.
          As if it is not bad enough that St James tells us to be patient, he then goes on to say:  “Do not complain about one another.”  What?!?  Do not complain?  What am I going to do all day long?  I mean, one of our favorite past-times is complaining about one another.  What would happen to politics in our country if we all stopped complaining about one another?  The cable news networks would all go out of business.  It is preposterous.
          But St. James gives us a very good reason for not complaining about one another.  He says so “that you may not be judged.”  The more you complain about others, the more you set yourself up to be judged.  You don’t need to be a lawyer to know that setting yourself up for stricter judgment is not a good policy.  “Judge not lest you be judged” as Jesus told us.  Don’t even complain about one another, because complaining involves judging.  So don’t do it.
          Well, maybe it is a good thing this is the only Sunday all year long that we hear from the Letter of St. James, because in these few short lines he gives us three difficult challenges: “be patient”, “make your hearts firm”, and “do not complain about one another.” 

          That could keep most of us busy for the whole year.  Amen.  

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Fr. Chuck's Column, Sunday, December 15

Pope Francis attracts attention. It is all well deserved in my humble opinion. He is a real gift to the Church from the Holy Spirit. I like almost everything about him. Even the red wines from the Mendoza region of Argentina seem to taste better since the Archbishop of Buenos Aires has become Pope!
Recently Pope Francis troubled the ecclesiastical waters once again by issuing his first (and I hope not last) Apostolic Exhortation called Evangelii Gaudium, or in English, The Gospel of Joy. For Pope Francis, the Gospel certainly is “Good News of great joy!” You can read it on the Vatican’s website, Click on English, and near the Holy Father’s picture find the words “Apostolic Exhortations.” Click on that, and it is easy since there is only one to choose from. It runs for a full 58 pages of densely packed text with no pictures. It is more readable than most church documents, but still has some heavy going in places. Sometimes the Pope employs a more homey turn of phrase, but much is still theological and in places dense. He is not a lightweight. Nonetheless it is worth the effort to read it. I hope to use this document for my Lenten book discussion group in the Spring of 2014.
Meanwhile let me give you one paragraph where he talks about challenges involving the laity, the ordinary people in the pews like you. Here it is:
102. Lay people are, put simply, the vast majority of the people of God. The minority – ordained ministers – are at their service. There has been a growing awareness of the identity and mission of the laity in the Church. We can count on many lay persons, although still not nearly enough, who have a deeply-rooted sense of community and great fidelity to the tasks of charity, catechesis and the celebration of the faith. At the same time, a clear awareness of this responsibility of the laity, grounded in their baptism and confirmation, does not appear in the same way in all places. In some cases, it is because lay persons have not been given the formation needed to take on important responsibilities. In others, it is because in their particular Churches room has not been made for them to speak and to act, due to an excessive clericalism which keeps them away from decision making. Even if many are now involved in the lay ministries, this involvement is not reflected in a greater penetration of Christian values in the social, political and economic sectors. It often remains tied to tasks within the Church, without a real commitment to applying the Gospel to the transformation of society. The formation of the laity and the evangelization of professional and intellectual life represent a significant pastoral challenge.
For Pope Francis, indeed for Vatican Council II, the vocation of the laity calls them (that is, YOU) not so much to be involved in church but rather in the world. It is good that many St. Austin parishioners get involved in the choir and music ensembles, in teaching CCD, in being lectors and Eucharistic ministers and such. But this involvement “remains tied to tasks within the Church” as Pope Francis says. And the real vocation of the laity is not in Church but out in the world.  The Pope is calling for “a real commitment to applying the Gospel to the transformation of society.” We continually need to work to help all of us, clergy and laity, to finally get it into our thick heads and down into our guts that the real vocation of the laity is out to the world: to the workplace, the public forum, media, education, recreation, the arts, politics, to all the world “applying the Gospel to the transformation of society.” That is the vision of Vatican Council II. It has yet to be lived out in the church. It is still radical after five decades. It is a work Pope Francis is calling us to.
It is easier to be a Eucharistic Minister than to try to transform society. The “transformation of society” does sound a little daunting I must admit. But let us trust in the Holy Spirit to guide and strengthen us, and with Pope Francis’ guidance and encouragement, start on the task. After all, it doesn’t depend on us, but on God.
God bless!

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Fr. Chuck's Column, Sunday, December 8

This week we have two very important celebrations in honor of the most blessed virgin, Mary. On Monday we observe the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. This is the title under which Mary has been designated as the heavenly patroness of our nation. In our nation’s capital, on the grounds of the Catholic University of America, is a very large church of questionable beauty dedicated to Mary under the title of The Immaculate Conception. This is a rather recent title for Mary. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, that Mary was never separated from God by selfishness or sin, and by a special favor of her son, Jesus, was kept free of all sin from the very first moment of her being, i.e. from her conception, was not officially declared until December 8, 1854. So in terms of church things this is still pretty new.

Sometimes people mistake this doctrine of the Immaculate Conception for the conception of Jesus in the womb of Mary, but that is called the Annunciation, after the angel Gabriel “announcing” to Mary that she was to be the mother of the Savior. It occurs, correctly, exactly nine months before Christmas, on March 25.

Usually this Feast of the Immaculate Conception is celebrated on December 8, but this year the Second Sunday of Advent falls on that day. It may seem a little odd to you, but in church thinking the Second Sunday of Advent is more important and takes precedence over the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Wouldn’t want to miss lighting that second candle on the Advent Wreath! So this year Mary’s conception is delayed by one day till December 9, in order to observe the Second Sunday of Advent. Well, at least that is better than the fate of the Feast of St. Juan Diego, the Indian to whom Mary appeared in 1531 at Tepeyac (near Mexico City) as Our Lady of Guadalupe. That feast is normally celebrated on December 9, but this year has been pushed off the calendar entirely by the Immaculate Conception. Too bad, Juan. Perhaps at San Juan Diego High School they will sneak it in on the 10th!

The other Marian feast this week is on Thursday, December 12, which is the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. This feast has special significance for all Mexicans, but is also significant for us gringos, as Mary, under the title of Our Lady of Guadalupe, is revered as Empress of All America, both north and south. So we can count this one as ours, too! On this day we recall Mary’s appearances near Mexico City in December of 1531, expressing her concern for the native Mexican people. They had been recently conquered by the Spanish, and like all conquered peoples were not in a good space as they say. Mary asked for a church where she could display her favor to those in need. And if you visit the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe you will see the most remarkable outpouring of fervor and faith by the people. It is always moving.

Both the Feasts of the Immaculate Conception and Our Lady of Guadalupe give honor to the poor, most likely illiterate, peasant woman of Galilee who lived nearly 2,000 years ago, called Miriam (Mary in English). Her accomplishment, one of the greatest of all history, was simply to open herself entirely and without hesitation to God’s Will for her. It may not sound like much, but it literally changed history. And this week we get to celebrate (and hopefully imitate!) that.

God bless!