Third Sunday of Lent

What is prayer? I think most of us think of prayer along these lines: There is something that I want or need. So I go to God and I say, “Hey God, it’s me, here’s what I need.” And God responds to us, hopefully by giving us what we think we need. I think that is the approach that most of us have to prayer. I have a need; I go to God; God answers. But the Church defines prayer differently. The Catechism says, “In prayer, the faithful God’s initiative of love always comes first; our own first step is always a response.” Prayer is not about me going to God. In prayer, God comes to me, and I respond. Our prayer, whether we realize it or not, is not us going to God, but rather us responding to God, who has already reached out to us. We see that in Our Lord’s interaction with the Samaritan woman in today’s Gospel. It is Jesus who initiates the conversation by saying to her, “Give me a drink.” He is the one who speaks first; her first words are a response.

In fact, the Catechism uses this encounter in discussing prayer. It says, “The wonder of prayer is revealed beside the well where we come seeking water: there, Christ comes to meet every human being. It is he who first seeks us and asks us for a drink. Jesus thirsts; his asking arises from the depths of God’s desire for us. Whether we realize it or not, prayer is the encounter of God’s thirst with ours. God thirsts that we may thirst for him.” That is amazing. Most of us think of prayer as us bringing our desires to God. But really, it starts with the opposite; it begins by God bringing His desire to us.

Think about that: God desires something of you. On some level, that doesn’t make sense. God is lacking nothing. God is perfect; He is the cause of all perfection and all perfections are in Him. There is nothing God needs. But there is something He wants, something He desires, something He thirsts for, and it is you. The Most Holy and Blessed Trinity thirsts for you. Whether we realize it or not, every time we come to prayer, every time that we raise our hearts and minds to God, we are responding to God’s deepest desire.

In the Gospel, Jesus brings His thirst to the woman, but in doing so He also uncovers her thirst. First, her thirst for water, for material needs. But as He talks with her, He uncovers her deeper thirsts. He gets to her thirst for rest. “Give me this water, so that I may not be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” She is tired of her labor, tired of having to come in the heat of the day to draw water day after day. She thirsts for rest. The Lord goes deeper still. Although she tries to hide it, Our Lord reveals to her that He is aware that she has had five husbands. Truly this woman is searching for something. She is thirsting for intimacy. She is thirsting for someone who can make her feel whole. Like the woman, we have things we desire: we desire material things like food, water, and shelter; we have deeper desires like comfort and rest, and deeper desires still, like love and intimacy.

It is interesting to note that as soon as Jesus hits on this deep thirst, she begins talking to Him about God. That is what she is ultimately wanting, her truly deepest thirst. That is what all of us ultimately desire. As the Catechism says, “The desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God, and God never ceases to draw man to himself. Only in God will he find the truth and happiness he never stops searching for.” All of us, every single person who has ever existed, desires God. It is built in to us. Our desire for God is as natural as breathing. Unfortunately, we can often misinterpret this thirst for God or try to satisfy it in other ways. We can try to satisfy our thirst for God with fame and success. We can try to satisfy our thirst for God with possessions and wealth. We can try to satisfy our thirst for God with other people or with lust. We can try to numb our thirst for God with distractions or food or alcohol. When the things of this world fail to satisfy our thirst for God, we can give in to despair and hopelessness, assuming that life is ultimately disappointing and meaningless. The Samaritan woman was trying to satisfy her thirst for God with husbands. She was looking for the one person who would truly satisfy her, who would love her completely, who would know her fully. Unable to find this in any one man, she went from husband to husband, searching for God but not realizing it. But when her thirst encountered the thirst of Jesus, she was filled. Notice that after talking with Christ, John says that the woman, “left her water jar.” Her thirst has been quenched, not her thirst for water, but her thirst for God, and it was quenched by being assumed into God’s thirst for her.

Like the woman at the well, we all come to God thirsty; we come desiring things. And like her, there are many levels to those desires. But underneath all of those there is that deep longing, that thirst for God. What have you been doing with that thirst? Have you been trying to ignore it, to pretend that it isn’t there? Have you been trying to satisfy it with other things, with the things of this world? There are so many things people use to try to satisfy their thirst for God. Sometimes even good things. People try to have their spouse fill their thirst for God or their achievements. But it never works. Have you been trying to numb your thirst for God? Have you given in to hopelessness, deciding that that deep desire in your heart will just never be filled?

There is only one thing that can satisfy our thirst for God, and that is by letting it encounter His great thirst for us. God desires you. He thirsts for you. As St. John tells us later in his Gospel, as Jesus hung on the cross, He cried out, “I thirst.” From the Cross Jesus thirsted, not for water or for wine, but for you, for your heart. In this Eucharist, we bring our thirst, our desire for God, and in return we encounter the God who thirsts for us, who desires us so much that He would give us Himself, His Body and Blood.

I think for so many of us, our experience of prayer and of the Mass is just intellectual, very unemotional and dispassionate. But that isn’t what it is supposed to be. Prayer is the meeting of our deepest desire for God and His deep desire for us. Prayer is two passions, two thirsts meeting and finding themselves satisfied in the other. And Mass is the greatest form of prayer we have, the most intimate encounter we have with God’s desire for us.

Today, right now, what do you want? What are you thirsting for? What is the deepest desire of your heart? Bring that to God. Give it to Him in this Eucharist. And in so doing, allow yourself to encounter His desire, His thirst for you. Know the passion and the longing in His love as His heart yearns for you. And find in Him the one who says, “whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst; the water I shall give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

Second Sunday of Lent

I was flipping through the channels on TV the other day and came across one of those famous televangelists. One of those guys with the really fancy suits preaching to a church that looks more like a basketball arena. And I thought, “Hmmm, I wonder what he’s preaching.” He was saying, “God wants to bless you abundantly.” And I thought, “Hey, that sounds like our first reading for Sunday.” In our reading, the Lord tells Abram, “I will bless you.” Not only does He promise to bless Abram, but He then adds, “I will make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” God is going to bless Abram so much that the blessing will overflow from him to others. God’s blessing for Abram is going to be so abundant that other people will be blessed because of it. And the Lord says the same thing to us that He said to Abram. God wants to bless you as well, and through you that blessing will pour out onto others.

But then this preacher went on. He said, “God wants to bless you abundantly. He wants to bless your finances abundantly. He wants to bless your health abundantly.” I don’t know what he said after that because I threw my remote control through my TV screen. There are a lot of preachers out there that equate “God wants to bless you” with “God wants to make your life easy and take your problems away and make you wealthy and successful.” It is such an attractive message. We can all be tempted to hear “God wants to bless you” and think it means “God wants to give you whatever you want.” Let me be clear: that is not what it means. “God wants to bless you” does not mean “God wants to make you a millionaire.” It doesn’t mean “God wants to take all your problems away and make your life carefree.” Listen to what St. Paul says to St. Timothy in the second reading: “Bear your share of hardship for the gospel with the strength that comes from God.” These are two saints talking. If being blessed by God was synonymous with having a nice, easy life, they’d have had the best lives ever. But they didn’t. St. Paul elsewhere recounts the list of his tribulations. He says, “Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I passed a night and a day on the deep; on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my own race, dangers from Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers at sea, dangers among false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many sleepless nights, through hunger and thirst, through frequent fastings, through cold and exposure.” In St. Paul’s life, it is pretty clear that being blessed by God did not mean that he didn’t have any troubles.

In fact, being blessed by God probably caused more troubles for him. Those hardships he encountered were a result of being called to preach the Gospel. If God had never called him, St. Paul would probably have had fewer difficulties in his life. The same is true for Abram. Notice how the first reading starts, “The LORD said to Abram: “Go forth from the land of your kinsfolk and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you.” God’s promise to bless Abram is preceded by a command to leave everything he has ever known and move to a new land. And Abram doesn’t even know where he is going, just that it is to a place that the Lord will show him. Anyone who has ever moved knows that moving is not a fun, easy thing. Imagine moving without modern conveniences like moving vans, and moving without knowing where you are going. Being blessed by God made Abram’s life more difficult than it would have been if he had not been blessed by God and just stayed where he was.

So if being blessed by God doesn’t mean taking our troubles away, what does it mean? We see this in the Gospel today. It is important to put the Transfiguration in context. Immediately before this, Jesus tells His disciples for the first time that He will suffer and die, and then tells them that whoever wishes to follow Him must take up their cross and follow Him. This news understandably unsettles the Apostles. So Jesus takes three of them, Peter, James and John, the three He seems to have been closest to, and He brings them to witness His transfiguration. They get a glimpse of His true glory and majesty. They hear the voice of the Father. All in all, it is a profoundly awe-inspiring event. Falling as it does on the heels of Jesus’s prediction of His Passion, its meaning is clear. The prediction of the Passion has the Apostles shaken and afraid. Perhaps it even has caused them to question whether or not they really want to follow Jesus. The Transfiguration is intended to strengthen and reassure them. It is as though Our Lord is telling them, “Yes, there will come a time when you will see me seemingly weak and defeated, but remember, in all of that, that this is who I am.” Jesus seeks to encourage the Apostles.

And that is what it means to be blessed by God: not that we will not face trials, but that in the midst of our trials we can remain sure of God’s loving care for us. Listen again to what St. Paul tells St. Timothy: “Bear your share of hardship for the gospel with the strength that comes from God.” St. Timothy is not facing hardship alone, but he does so fortified with the strength that comes from God. Abram, as he set out on his journey to an unknown land, did so certain of the Lord’s care and support. God’s blessing is not a promise of an easy life. Rather, God’s blessing is the promise of His presence even in the midst of life’s greatest trials. God’s blessing does not give us things like wealth or good health or material success. Those are small things. God’s blessing gives us something much bigger than those things: it gives us God Himself.

Sometimes, I think we can forget just what an amazing blessing that is. The all-powerful, infinite, eternal Creator of Heaven and Earth is with you. He loves you; He knows you, He cares about you. In the midst of all of your difficulties and troubles, He is close to you with His strength and support. That is the blessing that God gives each of us. God knows that there can be times when it is hard to believe that God is with us, so He gives each of us our own Transfiguration moments in our lives. He gives us those moments where His presence is so real and so tangible, we are like Peter, James and John on that mountain. Maybe our Transfiguration moments are as big and dramatic as theirs, maybe they are a bit more subtle, but God gives them to each of us. He probably gives us more than we even realize, we just miss them. And God gives us our Transfiguration moments to strengthen us as well, so that we can know the blessing of His presence and so that our faith can be strengthened for those times that we face trials and hardship.

So what are your Transfiguration moments? What are those times that God has revealed His presence in your life? Have you ever stopped to reflect on them, or do they just pass you by? God gave them to you for a reason. And if you are having trouble thinking of any, perhaps spend some time in prayer with God asking to see how He has been present and active in your life. As He told Abram, God wants to bless us abundantly with the blessing of His presence. Let us not take this great blessing for granted.

First Sunday of Lent

As a kid, I remember watching cartoons where a character would be tempted to do something bad. Suddenly a little red devil would appear on one shoulder and a little angel would appear on the other. The devil would be telling them to do it, while the angel tried to stop them. Usually the devil won. I think many people, when they think of temptation, think of it kind of like that cartoon depiction, that there is a little devil telling them, “Do this” and a little angel saying, “Don’t do this.” But that is rarely the case. Temptation is rarely as blatant as a voice saying, “Do this thing that you know to be wrong.” As we see in our readings today, temptation is much more subtle.

One of the first things temptation does is display something that seems good. In the Gospel, Satan tempts Jesus to turn stones into bread. Certainly having something to eat must have been very appealing to Our Lord after His fasting in the desert. Likewise, the serpent in the first reading shows Eve how attractive the fruit is. Temptation always makes sin look attractive and desirable. Every time we sin, we do so because there is something about that sin that looks good, that looks like it fills some want or need. Maybe it is a physical pleasure, or maybe it is feeling popular or powerful, or maybe it is avoiding something that we think will be unpleasant. Whatever it is, temptation shows us something that looks good.

After showing us something that looks good, temptation tells us that the only way to get that good is by sinning. Temptation tells us that there is something good that we can only get apart from God. Now, if we are aware, we realize that there is nothing good apart from God, and that what temptation promises us is a lie. The devil promises Jesus all the kingdoms of the world. But those kingdoms do not belong to him; they belong to God. Likewise, the devil tells Eve that if she eats of the forbidden fruit, “your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods who know what is good and what is evil.” But the trick is that they are in paradise; they already know what is good. There is nothing that the serpent can add to their knowledge of goodness. All they will be gaining is knowledge of what is evil.

Likewise, temptation always promises us some good and tells us that we can only get that good by sinning. But, as we see in the readings today, it is always a trap. God is the source of all that is good. Nothing that we have apart from God can be truly good, no matter how much it may look good. Lying promises that it will get us out of a tough situation, but in the end it only creates more problems. Lust promises that it will make us feel good, but it only leaves us dissatisfied and feeling more alone and isolated. Pride promises that it will make us feel powerful and important, but it only leaves us suspicious of others and afraid of making even the slightest mistake. Sin can never deliver the good that it promises, because there is nothing good apart from God.

Temptation knows that if we think too hard about it, we will realize that its promises are empty lies. So it tries to keep us off-balance. In the Gospel today, Satan is taking Jesus all over the place and throwing temptation after temptation at him in rapid fire. They’re in the desert, then BOOM they’re on the temple then BOOM they’re on a very high mountain. Turn stones to bread; throw yourself down from here; worship me. Temptation tries to get us caught up in a whirlwind of emotion and desire, so that instead of thinking rationally we just act. We’ve all had that experience where we did something sinful and, in hindsight, we look back and think, “Why on earth did I do that?” When we are thinking clearly, the temptation seems stupid. But in the moment, we allowed the tumult of the temptation to overwhelm us. When we are being tempted, one of the best things we can do is to try to calm ourselves down. Turn to God in prayer and say, “Lord, help me to see this situation clearly.” If we do this, we will see that, under the emotion, the temptation is clearly a lie.

But we have to do this with God, or we can fall into another trap. In trying to see a situation rationally, apart from emotion, we can start trying to rationalize our sin. Satan tells Jesus, “It’s okay to throw yourself down from the Temple. God promised He would protect you.” He is trying to get Christ to rationalize His sin. The serpent begins by asking Eve a question to get her to start questioning whether disobeying God would really be a sin. We’ve all been there. We are tempted to do something, and we start thinking, “Is this really a sin? It can’t be that bad. I mean, if you look at it a certain way, it actually looks like the right thing to do. It isn’t a really bad sin.” If temptation can’t distract us with our emotions, it will try to mislead us with our own reason. That is why it is important that we face temptation with the help of God. In the light of His truth, we will see sin and temptation clearly and not be misled by our own rationalizations.

Unfortunately, like Eve, we sometimes get caught by temptation. Whether we get swayed by its false promises, caught up in the emotions, or misled by our own reasoning, we can give into temptation and sin. Thankfully, when we have sinned, God doesn’t abandon us. He always gives us a way back to Himself, and He does this most directly in the Sacrament of Confession. Whether they are big or small, in Confession God forgives our sins and fills us with His grace so that we can better resist temptation. Especially if it has been a while since your last confession, I encourage you to make use of this wonderful sacrament during this season of Lent. We have confession every Thursday afternoon at 5, every Saturday afternoon at 4, and, during Lent, every Wednesday morning at 7:30. We all need forgiveness, and we all need help to repel temptation. And that is what the Sacrament of Confession gives us. Why would we avoid this grace?

Both our first reading and the Gospel today show us people being tempted and the ways that it tries to entice us to sin. But there is a clear difference in the readings. In the first reading, Eve is caught by the temptations. Our Lord, on the other hand, resists temptation. He doesn’t get caught in emotion, and He doesn’t rationalize with it. He doesn’t allow its false promises to trick Him. Rather, He stands firm on the Word of God. Every time Satan tempts Him, Our Lord responds by quoting Scripture. And in defeating Satan and remaining obedient to His Heavenly Father, Christ not only merited grace for Himself but for all of us. As St. Paul says in the second reading, “just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so, through the obedience of the one, the many will be made righteous.” By resisting temptation, Christ merited for us the grace to resist temptation and also gave us the example of how to do that. Especially during this Lent, let us seek the Lord’s help, so that, like Him, we can resist every temptation.

Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time

I was talking with the second graders this week, and I asked them, “How many of you have a set time each day that you have to do your homework?” They all raised their hands. And so I asked them, “Why do your parents give you a specific time that you have to do your homework instead of letting you do it whenever you want?” One of the boys raised his hands and said, quite honestly, “Because then we would never do it.” And he’s probably right. They’d keep putting it off and getting distracted and doing other things and they’d never get around to doing their homework. Their parents know this, so they give them a set time that they are required to do their homework in order to make sure it happens.

I think, in some sense, that is the same reason that the Church gives us the season of Lent. We can get so busy in our day-to-day lives, and our spiritual life gets put on the back burner. We know that we should work on our spiritual life, but we keep putting it off or getting distracted. And so, like a good parent who makes their kid sit down and do their homework, the Church gives us the season of Lent and says, “Okay, this is the time that I’m going to make you focus on your spiritual life.”

To help us do that, there are three things that the Church asks us to do for Lent: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Each one of these three practices helps us to grow in our spiritual life.

The first Lenten practice is prayer, and it is also the most important of the three. If Lent is about growing in the spiritual life, I can’t do that without God. In our first reading, God tells us that He will never forget us; but we often forget Him. By spending time with God in prayer, we remember that He is always with us.

So how are you going to spend more time in prayer this Lent? Maybe you already have a very robust prayer life; maybe your prayer life has been a bit lacking. Whatever the case, we could all benefit from spending more time with the Lord. But the question is, how are you going to do it? Just saying, “I’m going to pray more” is too vague. It doesn’t give us any solid plan to work with. When are you going to pray? In the morning when you wake up, while driving to work, at lunch time, in the evening, before bed? Where are you going to pray? In your room, in the car, the adoration chapel? How are you going to pray? Are you just going to spend some time speaking to God in your own words, pray the rosary, read the Bible? Maybe your prayer is going to be coming to daily Mass during the week. All of us are called to spend some extra time in prayer during the season of Lent in order to grow closer to God. How are you going to do that?

The second practice of Lent is fasting. This is the one that everyone thinks of when they think of Lent. It is the “giving something up” part. Unfortunately, I think a lot of people give something up for Lent, but it doesn’t accomplish anything. They just do it because they know they’re supposed to. So they give up chocolate or ice cream or soda, and after Lent they go back to having those things, and they haven’t actually grown in their spiritual life because of it.

In the Gospel today, the Lord tells us not to worry about the things of this world, but rather to seek the kingdom of God first in our lives. But, usually, we give more importance to the things of this world than we do to the things of God. For example, when I was teaching the eighth graders this week, I asked them, which would be more difficult, to go 40 days without praying of to go 40 days without social media. You can probably guess their answer. For most of us, there are things that we are more attached to than we are to God. By giving those things up for Lent, we learn to stop worrying about them and put them in their proper place.

So what is that thing that you can give up for Lent this year that will help you actually grow in your spiritual life? If it is chocolate or ice cream or soda, then great. But I’m guessing that most of us have something that we could give up that would help us more than giving up sweets. For many of us, giving up social media or Netflix or our favorite TV show would be much more helpful than giving up dessert. Or maybe alcohol has become too important in your life and that is something you could give up for Lent. Here is my challenge: ask yourself, what is the one thing that I think, “I could never give that up for Lent. It would be too hard.” That is a sure sign that thing has become too important to us. Give that up for Lent. Will it be difficult? Absolutely. But it also is more likely to lead to our spiritual growth.

The third practice of Lent is almsgiving. If our prayer and fasting for Lent are supposed to help us grow in holiness and self-denial, then that should show itself in our lives and the way we treat others. Almsgiving can refer directly to giving money to those in need, but it can also refer to other acts of charity. We can donate clothes or other items. We can donate our time by volunteering. We can do something nice for a neighbor. There are many different forms that our almsgiving can take, but it is a necessary part of Lent, because part of growing in holiness is growing in love for our brothers and sisters.

So there are three practices for Lent: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. The Church calls us to do all three of these things. The all-important question is: what are you doing for Lent? What are your prayer, your fasting, and your almsgiving going to be? I encourage you over the next few days before Ash Wednesday, spend some time in prayer with God and ask Him what He wants you to do for this Lenten season. As Jesus tells us in the Gospel today, seek first the Kingdom of God. Our Lenten practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are meant to help us do that. Ask God to help you find those Lenten practices that will draw you closer to Him, so that this Lent may truly be a time of growing in holiness.

Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

One of the rules they taught me when I was a Boy Scout is that if you get lost, stay where you are. They teach us that over and over again. They drill it into us because, when you’re lost, you start thinking that the logical thing to do is to try to find your way out. I’ve been in situations where I got lost, and you think “Well, maybe I’ll just go look over this ridge.” It seems perfectly rational, like the most obvious thing in the world. Our natural instinct when we get lost is to try to get un-lost by walking around until you know where you are. Unfortunately, all moving is likely to do is to get you more lost. And so despite what we think is the logical choice, the right thing to do is to stay put. It is one of those many situations in life where what seems like the natural, logical decision is actually the wrong decision.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus also tells us that what we think is the logical, obvious way of acting is not the way that He calls us to act. We naturally assume that if someone is evil we should fight back. At the very least we should defend ourselves. But Jesus tells us “offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one as well.” We logically think that if someone wants to take something that is ours, we should stop them. Jesus tells us “If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand over your cloak as well.” If someone is forcing us to do something, our natural inclination is to do as little as possible. Jesus tells us, “Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go for two miles.” When someone asks us for something, we think it just makes sense to first evaluate whether they really need it and if we can trust them. Jesus tells us, “Give to the one who asks of you, and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow.”

Jesus isn’t calling us to be logical. He isn’t calling us to be guided by our own reason and what we think makes sense. He calls us to love. But this isn’t a warm fuzzy love. This is a sacrificial love. This is a love that gives and gives and never counts the cost. If we really listen to what Our Lord says in the Gospel today, it seems foolish. And that’s the point. As St. Paul says in the second reading, “If any one among you considers himself wise in this age, let him become a fool, so as to become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in the eyes of God.” Gospel love should make us foolish.

If everything Christ had said to this point didn’t already go against everything we naturally assume, He then raises the stakes higher. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Let’s put this in historical context. At this time, Israel had been conquered by the Romans. This foreign kingdom has invaded them, establishing pagan worship in Israel, forcing the Israelites to pay taxes to these Gentiles. The Romans put down any attempt at rebellion among the Jews with extreme prejudice. It is not too harsh to say that the Israelites hated the Romans. The Romans were their enemies. And we naturally hate our enemies. It just makes sense.

But Christ flips that on its head. Love your enemies. That’s His command. As if to make it clear that He means what He says, He adds, “if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same? So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” We naturally love those who we find easy to love. But Christ calls us to something more. Our love is not to be limited to only those we find lovable, we are called to love everyone. And we are called to love everyone precisely because God loves everyone.

So what does that mean for us? We have to love the person who angers us. We have to love the person who has hurt us. We have to love the person whose actions we find completely odious. We have to love those people who disagree with us on everything we hold dear. We have to love criminals. We have to love terrorists. That is the message of the Gospel. This is a hard message. It grates against everything that we think makes sense. Our natural inclinations, our logical assumptions about who we should love and who we don’t have to love get thrown out the window. Christ’s command to love our enemies should in some sense rub us the wrong way, because it goes against our natural way of thinking.

But Christ didn’t just tell us to love everyone; He lived it. He prayed for the soldiers even as they drove nails into His hands and feet. If Jesus can love even those who crucified Him, how can we say that there is someone that we don’t have to love? If Christ loves everyone, and we claim to follow Him, then we too are called to love everyone.

It is important to remember that loving someone is not the same as encouraging them. Christ loved sinners, but He didn’t encourage them to keep sinning. Rather, He called them in love to turn from their sins. Likewise, when we say that we should love our enemies, it does not mean that we should support them if what they are doing is wrong. But it also means that we cannot hate them. As the first reading tells us, we are not to take revenge or cherish a grudge. Even when someone has hurt us, we are called to love them. Loving them may mean trying to stop them from doing what they are doing if it is wrong, but, again, this should be done out of love, not vengeance or hatred.

That’s easy to say; it is hard to do. It is hard to love those that we naturally consider unlovable. It is hard to love people who we logically assume that we should hate. Who do you find it hard to love? Who is it that your common sense tells you that you don’t have to love? As we continue with this Mass, pray for that person. As Jesus says, “I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Ask God to help you to love that person as He loves them.

Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

In the early to mid-1800’s, large numbers of Catholic immigrants began coming to the United States, especially from Germany and Ireland. For many of us, this is the time when our ancestors first came to this nation. At this time in the United States, there was a strong anti-Catholic sentiment among many people. Catholic immigrants were portrayed as dangerous to the American way of life. Because the Catholic Church is based on a hierarchy, it was claimed that Catholicism was incompatible with democracy. It was said that Catholics were more devoted to their Church and the Pope than to the laws of the United States. It was feared that Catholics would begin forcing their religious laws into American law. Catholic immigrants were seen as poor, violent, and dangerous. This sort of anti-Catholic rhetoric was widespread and virulent. There were anti-Catholic riots in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston, Louisville, and Maine. Churches, convents, and private homes and business were burned. An entire political party, called the Native American Party and colloquially referred to as the “Know Nothings,” formed around this nativist, anti-immigration, anti-Catholic fervor.

The kind of rhetoric that was used against our Catholic ancestors in the 1800’s is in many ways similar to the kind of rhetoric that we find in some circles today when discussing the topic of immigration. As Catholics, our approach to immigration must be founded on the Word of God. As we hear in the first reading today, “Thus says the LORD: Share your bread with the hungry, shelter the oppressed and the homeless; clothe the naked when you see them, and do not turn your back on your own.” Around the world today, there are 65 million people who have been displaced from their homelands. Some have been displaced due to famine and natural disaster, others due to violence, war, and persecution. They are the ones that our reading speaks of; they are hungry, oppressed, and homeless. As Catholics, caring for immigrants and refugees is not optional, it is a requirement given to us by Almighty God. “Thus says the LORD: Share your bread with the hungry, shelter the oppressed and the homeless; clothe the naked when you see them, and do not turn your back on your own.”

There is a perennial human temptation to care only about ourselves and those who are like us. We are tempted to care only for the needs of some people while remaining indifferent to the needs of others, especially of those who are different from us. We can want to close in on ourselves, seeing those outside as threats. Especially when it comes to immigration, we can be tempted to try to exclude people who we see as different, whether that’s a different language, different race, or different religion.  This is what many of our Catholic ancestors faced when they immigrated to the United States. As people of faith, this cannot be our approach. Rather than closing in on ourselves, our faith calls us to go outside ourselves in caring for those in need. Rather than focusing on what makes people different, we are called to see all people as created in the image and likeness of God. Unfortunately, we have seen this sinful temptation to turn our backs on those in need who are different from us in recent days. The bishops of our country, including our own Archbishop, have spoken out strongly against this. We have seen political decisions motivated not by charity and concern for those most in need but rather motivated by fear and, as Archbishop Carlson put it, “disordered nationalism.” Our Archbishop said, “Our commitment to life and religious freedom teaches us that we must welcome all faiths and cultures at our shores and doors, mindful of the inherent dignity found in them and ready to grow in God’s grace.” Cardinal DiNardo, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Archbishop Gomez of Los Angeles, the vice president, issued a statement in which they call upon all the Catholic faithful “to join us as we unite our voices with all who speak in defense of human dignity.”

The Catholic Church has played a key role in welcoming and caring for immigrants and refugees. As Archbishop Carlson said, “This Gospel mandate to actively reach out and welcome the stranger has guided our Catholic social values and practices for centuries. Throughout our Catholic tradition, we have learned to be attentive to the needs of the poor, the marginalized, and the vulnerable.” Each year in the United States, approximately 30% of the refugees that come to this country are resettled by the United States Catholic Bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services department. All of us, as people of faith, have a duty to show concern for those who have left their homeland and support efforts to care for them. It isn’t enough just to say that we care about them or to wring our hands and wish that someone else would do something. We are called to care for them ourselves. Catholic Relief Services, the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, Catholic Charities, and the Migration and Refugee Services of the bishops’ conference are just some of the organizations that we can support in order to help those in need here and around the world.

As Cardinal DiNardo and Archbishop Gomez proclaimed, “Welcoming the stranger and those in flight is not one option among many in the Christian life. It is the very form of Christianity itself.  Our actions must remind people of Jesus.” Jesus tells us in the Gospel today that we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. We are meant to be a shining example of God’s love, especially for the poor and most vulnerable, those who have left everything. The way we treat immigrants and refugees must be a reflection of the Christ’s compassion and mercy. Our bold example of love towards our brothers and sisters who have left their homeland should be a witness to the world. And woe to us if we hide the light of Christ under a basket. We cannot be the salt of the earth or the light of the world by pushing people away and shutting our doors.

Archbishop Carlson stated, “In faith, we have come to recognize and know the face of Christ in the migrant and refugee.” We must remember that Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were once refugees in Egypt. Pope Pius XII wrote “The émigré Holy Family of Nazareth, fleeing into Egypt, is the archetype of every refugee family. Jesus, Mary and Joseph, living in exile in Egypt to escape the fury of an evil king, are, for all times and all places, the models and protectors of every migrant, alien and refugee of whatever kind who, whether compelled by fear of persecution or by want, is forced to leave his native land, his beloved parents and relatives, his close friends, and to seek a foreign soil.” What would have happened if, while attempting to flee to Egypt, the Holy Family had been denied entry and sent back to Bethlehem? Jesus tells us that whatever we do to the least of our brothers and sisters, we do to Him. Is the way that we treat immigrants, the ways we talk about them, and the ways we encourage our government to treat them, is that the way that we would treat the Holy Family?

May the Holy Family watch over and protect all immigrants and refugees. And may our actions to welcome and care for them reflect the love of Christ so that we may truly be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.

Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

I always chuckle inside when people tell me that they get distracted at Mass. I chuckle because I also sometimes get distracted at Mass, and I’m the one saying the words. I’m sure we’ve all had that situation at Mass where we’re saying something like the Creed or the Our Father, and we’re saying the words, but we aren’t really thinking about them at all. In fact, there may be some words in the Mass that we have never really thought about. We’ve said them Sunday after Sunday but never really thought about what they meant. Every Sunday in the Creed we profess that the Church is one. What does that mean? It means that the Church is called to be united as the Body of Christ. This does not mean that we are all the same, but rather that we all, in our diversity of gifts, are united by a common faith and the celebration of the sacraments as one Body.

Unfortunately, even from the earliest days of the Church, division has crept in. We hear of that in our second reading today. St. Paul says that word has reached him that there are rivalries among the Christians in Corinth, with some saying that they belong to Paul, while others say that they belong to Peter, and still others saying they belong to Apollos, another preacher of the Gospel. St. Paul is appalled by this division in the Church. He reminds the Corinthians that, no matter who taught them the Gospel, they are all united in Christ.

Sadly, division was not just a problem in the early Church. Division between Catholics still causes a problem today. There are several different types of division that often creep up in the Church. The first is the kind of division that sometimes exists within a parish. One of the beautiful things about a parish is that it is made of so many different people, each with their different gifts and personalities. There are many different programs and organizations to meet the needs and utilize the talents of all these different people. In itself, this diversity is a good thing. Unfortunately, diversity can sometimes turn to division. I can think that the way that I do things is the way that everyone should do it. I am part of such-and-such program or group, and it strengthens my faith, so then I decide that everyone should be involved in it, and anyone who isn’t must not be taking their faith seriously. This can cause division in a parish. Some people like the more traditional trappings of the Church and the liturgy. Other people find that such things don’t speak to them. Instead of realizing that different people are nourished by different things, we can think that there is something wrong with those other people who like to pray differently. We have multiple Masses on a weekend, and, like many parishes, those different Masses have different music. Some people like the quiet of 7am Mass, others the choral music at 9am or the contemporary music at 5pm. And that’s all fine, but again, sometimes I can decide that what I like is what everyone should like, and if someone likes something else, they must be wrong. Another common source of division in a parish is between families that send their children to our full-time school and families that send their children to our PSR. In these and so many ways, we create division amongst ourselves. Rather than working together and celebrating the diversity of gifts that God has given to each of us, we see those differences as a threat or a problem.

Another way that division can harm the Church is by excessive allegiance to a parish. We should love our parish and participate in its life. Our parish is the place of so many important events: baptisms, weddings, funerals, and we naturally get attached to it. That is normal. But like the Corinthians who claimed allegiance to Paul and Apollos more than to Christ, we can be more attached to belonging to a certain parish than we are to being Catholic. We see this most dramatically when parish structures change. Populations continually change. Schools and parishes that were once vibrant and growing now find themselves struggling. Sometimes, the difficult decision must be made to merge, close, or otherwise alter parish structures. We have seen this in recent years in the Archdiocese of St. Louis, and I guarantee we will see more in the future. It is understandable that this is difficult for people, again, we naturally get attached to our parish. But we must remember that first and foremost we are not members of such-and-such parish but members of the universal Catholic Church. Sometimes, excessive allegiance to a particular parish causes people to resist efforts to collaborate with other parishes in a way that helps both of them.

Especially in today’s culture, politics can create division in the Church. When talking about political issues, it is important to remember that there are two parts: a fundamental principle, and an application of that principle. Catholics should agree on the fundamental principles, because the Church is constantly reminding us about which principles are in harmony with human nature and with the moral truths that God has revealed to us. We know that certain things are moral and others are immoral. But two people can start with the same fundamental principles and yet disagree on how those principles are applied. For example, it is a fundamental principle that the rights and the dignity of all people must be respected, that people have a right to seek a good life for themselves and their family, and that nations have a right to protect their safety. Those fundamental principles we as Catholics are called to agree on. However, how we think those fundamental principles get applied to something like immigration reform may legitimately differ. And that is okay, there is room for intelligent, respectful, and healthy disagreement even among Catholics. But all too often, we can allow legitimate political disagreements to create division within the Church. I can decide that if someone disagrees with me politically, it must be because they don’t take their faith seriously. Or, I allow my political views to shape my religious views rather than the other way around. Our allegiance is not to this or that political party but to Christ.

In the Gospel today, we hear Our Lord call Peter, Andrew, James, and John. As we hear about these four men throughout the New Testament, it is clear that they were very different people with very different personalities. But they and the rest of the Apostles worked together for the sake of the Gospel. Likewise, God has called all of us, with all of our differences, to work together for the sake of the Gospel. But that means we have to accept the legitimate diversity that exists in the Church and not turn it into a cause for division. Jesus prayed at the Last Supper that all of His disciples would be one. Let us work to always be a source of unity in the Body of Christ and never a source of division.