How should we respond to Jesus when He makes tough demands of us? What do we do about those who reject the Church’s teachings?
This is my homily for the 21st Sunday of Ordinary Time, Cycle B
A week ago we returned from our Youth Pilgrimage to Rome. We celebrated Mass in some amazing locations. This video is a compilation of the homilies I gave at each Mass.
I recently was introduced to Brian Holdsworth and his YouTube series on the Catholic faith. I was extremely impressed by this video, especially since it is a layman who has been saying the same thing I have been arguing for years about why the faith is in decline. It is well worth the 6-minute view.
My Homily for Pentecost Sunday, May 20, 2018.
A few parishioners asked me if I would post my Easter homily on my website. Since we had recorded the Easter Vigil to give to our catechumen who was baptized, I have a video of it. If you wish to see my Easter homily you may click the link here: Easter Homily 2018
When I was in college I became friends with a young man who was what I describe as a natural Christian, meaning that all the virtues that you and I sometimes work so hard to try to cultivate, to him came naturally. For that reason, it seemed to me such a great incongruity in his personality that, although he was Catholic, he didn’t go to church on Sunday. One day I got the opportunity to talk to him about it and he was very straightforward with me. He told me exactly why he didn’t go to church. He said he used to go when he was younger, but then one day he was sitting in church and he looked around all the people sitting there and he said to himself, “Look at all these people! They have no clue as to why they are here and what’s going on. It’s all such a waste of time!” And so he became very disillusioned by going to Mass and stopped attending. I remember I said several different things to him. First I asked him, “How do you know what’s going on in the minds of the other people who were sitting there in church? Is it possible that what you claimed they were feeling was really what you were feeling and that you were projecting your lack of understanding upon them? There are some people that go to church that have a fairly good idea of what’s taking place and truly listen to the Scriptures and are praying and feel like they have encountered the Lord every time they go to Mass. And even if there are people who are not all that sure about why they’re there, why would you let that prevent you from having a good relationship with Christ at Mass?” Then I said to him finally, “Alright, I will agree with you that there probably are some people who come to church that don’t really have any clue as to why they’re there and what it’s all about. But at least they’re there! Nobody has put a gun to their head and forced them to come to church. They may not understand everything that’s happening, but they know there’s something good is going on and that there is a reason they should be attending. They’re looking for God and maybe in time they will find him.”
I reminded him of the story of the transfiguration. I said, “Look what happened when Jesus took Peter, James, and John up the mountain with him. He was transfigured before them: his clothes became white and his face glowed with a radiance they had never seen before. Basically, Jesus showed them a hint of the glory that would be his when he was risen from the dead. It’s as if he took off the veil of his mortal image and let them see his true divinity; he let them see him for whom he was. Then Moses and Elijah appeared talking with him. Moses, the great lawgiver to whom God gave the Ten Commandments and who promised ‘A prophet like me will the Lord raise up from among your kinsman’ and Elijah, the great prophet who was taken to heaven in a whirlwind whom it was believed would precede the coming of the Messiah, and both of them were standing talking with Jesus about what he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem. Any good Jew would recognize the expression, ‘The law and the prophets’. That summarized the entire promise of Israel, everything written in the Hebrew Scriptures, or the Old Testament as we call it. It’s as if all of the promise that God had given from Abraham to that time was now standing there bearing witness to Jesus, saying ‘this is the one! The promise is fulfilled! This is the person you been waiting for!’ Peter sees all this and says, ‘Master, how good it is for us to be here!’ Good, Peter! Great response! But then he says something silly, ‘Let us build three booths here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah!’ Open mouth, insert foot, close, enjoy your meal Peter, because you just put your foot in your mouth big-time! Mark and Luke even apologize for Peter. They say he really didn’t know what to say because he was so awestruck by what had taken place. When they came down the mountain, Jesus didn’t say to Peter, ‘How could you be so stupid/! Didn’t you see what was going on there?’ Of course not! He knew Peter wasn’t a theologian; he was just a fisherman. He knew it was beyond Peter’s ability to grasp, and he didn’t expect it of him. Peter knew something good was happening there, and even though the significance of it passed him by and he didn’t realize the full ramification of everything he’d seen, he realized he’d seen something good, and that’s all Jesus wanted from him. I explained to my friend that Mass is the same thing. Yes, sometimes people are there and maybe don’t understand the fullness of the mystery, but they’re trying. So don’t sell them short. Give them the opportunity to grow in their understanding.”
Thankfully my friend eventually did return to regular worship. But this story gives us an opportunity to look at our understanding of the Mass. Do we comprehend what’s taking place every time we come to Mass on Sunday? Perhaps sometimes we feel we do or maybe we’d honestly say “I haven’t got a clue!” That’s okay! As long as we’re there and trying to grow, leave your mind open to learning more about the Mass. Don’t be discouraged or disillusioned if it doesn’t make sense to you. After all, can any of us honestly say we truly understand everything that takes place in Mass? St. John Vianney, the patron saint of parish priests, once said that if any priest realized what was actually taking place at his hands while he celebrated Mass he would die of fright for fear of what he was handling! It’s a mystery beyond our ability to fathom! We can’t even begin to comprehend the fullness of what’s taking place at Mass. We can have a basic idea, sure, but if we ever think we’ve gotten to the point that we understand everything perfectly well, were only deluding ourselves.
I like to think of it as when you go to an art museum. If you were to go to the Louvre in Paris or the Uffizi in Florence, even the Metropolitan Museum of Art here in New York, if you go in and don’t know much about art it can be overwhelming! There are thousands of paintings there, and you look around and can be lost. Maybe we look at a picture or two here or there and that helps a little bit, but if you take try to take in the whole thing it can be an absolutely daunting proposition. I don’t think anyone expects anyone to go into a museum and in one day take a look at every single picture and take in everything that each picture has to offer. You just couldn’t do it in one day! So if we have just a few hours to go through museum, we’ll look at the few things that seem to strike us the most, even if it’s only the highlights. In the Louvre everybody goes and looks at Mona Lisa and maybe there are a few others that might strike people’s interest. In the Uffizi gallery, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus is the most famous one. Real devotees of art will go back to the museum over and over again and each time to try to take in another picture and get a little bit more out of each painting than they could at just one glance. Maybe they might go back one day and say “I’m only going into this one room here and only take in the pictures in this room or of this style.” Another day they take in another, and they would quickly discover that the museum is an inexhaustible resource. They could spend their entire lives going into the museum and never take it all in, but I think any curator of a museum would be thrilled if somebody came and even sat and looked at just one painting and took that in to the best of his ability: they’d say he’s gotten something out of his visit to the museum that day. Well, coming to Mass is in many ways just like that. We come Sunday after Sunday to hear a Gospel reading that we probably heard before; in fact, many of them we hear over and over again to the point that we might feel that we’ve got it memorized. But we never exhaust the meaning of that Gospel. We are fed on it, we are nourished by the word, and we discover that we can come back time and time again and be nourished and grow more in the mystery. And of course, most importantly, we come and receive the Lord Jesus in Holy Communion. We take his actual body and blood as our food and that strengthens us and brings us into full union with him. And that’s when we discover what Jesus really want to do for us and the full importance of the Mass, why we come Sunday after Sunday, many people day after day: to receive the Eucharist.
A lot of times I’ll hear people talking about what God wants to do for them and they say, “Well, God just wants me to be happy!” I just shake my head in despair when I hear that. Yes, God wants us to be happy but he wants so much more than that! He has things planned for us that are far greater than anything we could even begin to comprehend, and our happiness is not going to come through the things that we think are going to make us happy, but by what God reveals to us as the true way to happiness. Sometimes people will discover the next step of that and realize that true happiness comes from living an upright moral life, which is a lot more meaningful than simply having the little pleasant things in our lives. Indeed, God wants even more for us than merely being ethical people or being kind to one another, being nice guys and helping us get along better. I’m not for a moment trying to make light of ethical living and of following the moral teachings of the Church and of the Lord. Don’t get me wrong! They are important. But they are only steps along the way to what God really wants to do for us. What does God want to do for us? He wants to deify us! The greatest thing that we can experience is deification – actually becoming part of God himself! The ancient Christians used to say that God became man so that man could become as God. He took on our nature so that we could take on his. He wants to draw us into all beauty, all essence, all goodness, all truth, total joy, total perfection. He wants us to be transfigured just as he was transfigured. Everything that Jesus inherited by his death and resurrection you and I will also inherit! All the glory that he now has in heaven he wants to share with us, and he has far more in store for us than when we often think about when we come to church and pray. Sometimes we pray for things that maybe are a little silly, maybe more serious. but God’s plan for us is always greater them what we have in mind. Maybe all we’re worried about is losing ten pounds to look better in that dress, so that when I go to so-and-so’s wedding, nobody will laugh at me and at how much weight I put on. Well, I have news for you! God is probably laughing at that, because if you think that the most important thing in life is losing ten pounds because otherwise everybody’s going to be staring at you at the wedding, no they’re not! Everybody will be looking at the bride! Probably few people if anybody are actually going to look at you and notice you put on ten pounds since the last time they saw you! Usually that’s one of our own vanities! Sometimes we pray about little more important things. If somebody is ill and we pray for their healing, that’s a good thing to pray for! Certainly, if somebody is out of a job, we pray for them to get work. Maybe sometimes it is a little frivolous: we just want a little more money so we can book a nicer room on our upcoming vacation, and maybe that’s not the most important thing that we should be praying about. It’s not to say that it is wrong to pray for the things we need here and now; but first we have to ask if they really are important – if they really are the things we should be worrying about, and sometimes we have to honestly admit that they’re not – Jesus does say to pray “give us this day our daily bread.” But God wants so much more for us than merely worrying about the things of this life. If we’re only worried about the here and now and not heaven, then were missing what God wants to do for us! He is not saying, “I want you to be comfortable! I want you to have an easy life! I want you to fit in and enjoy yourself!” No, he is saying, “I want to raise you up, I want to elevate you and lift you up to heights you can’t even begin to imagine, so far more important than anything this brief visit on earth has to offer! I have dreams for you that have never even entered into your consciousness!”
If we’re only concerned about the needs in our lives here on earth then were missing everything God wants to do for us. We will never find the joy that we can know when we know the heights of glory to which we are being called by God. And maybe that’s why we don’t follow our faith as strongly as we should and don’t evangelize others, because maybe if we honestly ask ourselves, “Do I really want to worry about heaven?” the answer is, “No! I’m only really worried about here and now. I’m not looking for God to save my soul. I’m not looking for him to make me the best I can be. I’m not looking for God to bring me to great heights. All I want God to do is make my life comfortable here and now. I want him to be Santa Claus and give me all the things I want.” Sometimes people even go so far as wanting God to allow them to believe in and practice things that contradict that call to holiness, that are completely opposed to it, and they want the church to teach that those are good simply because it will make them feel good now, it will make their life easier and help them feel good about themselves, and they end up sacrificing the very call to holiness simply to fit in here on earth. They flee from any talk about challenge, about changing our hearts, about carrying our crosses, about realizing that it takes much prayer and sacrifice in order to reach those heights that God has in store, and instead demand only to be left where they are and told that their lives are perfect, when they know very well they are not.
My brothers and sisters, yes, the Lord does care about our everyday needs, and it’s okay to pray for them, but let’s make sure that’s not the only thing we ever pray for, that were not caught up only in the here and now. Do we ever pray for holiness? Do we ever pray, “Lord, help me to overcome sin! Help me to be righteous!” Do we ever pray, “Lord, change me! lift me up, Lord! Beam me up! Help me to be what you want me to be! Lord, let me worry not about what I want for myself but what you want from me! Transfigure me! give me the holiness and the joy that only you can give!” When we do that, then we will know true happiness, true peace.
As a pastor I find I have many different types of people to shepherd. Some are proud, and some have no self-esteem. Some are weak, and some are strong. Some are trying very hard to be the best they can be, and some are convinced they are already perfect. It’s not easy. I have to love all of them and shepherd each one as his or her needs require. For some that means offering encouragement and lifting them up. For others, it means awakening in them the realization that they need to change. Some need to face the consequences of their choices, and some need to move beyond them. If I am to be a faithful shepherd, I need to know each sheep individually and what they are dealing with, and the more I know about them, the better I can help them. There is no one magic approach that will heal everyone.
One of the biggest challenges I face is trying my best to see where each person is on that journey and how to help them go further. I must confess that it is not always easy. I am not always sure where someone is on the journey. I can best help my people by knowing who they truly are, warts and all. If I know what is really going on in their hearts, perhaps I can say something specific that will make a difference. Without this knowledge, I can only offer general platitudes.
Some people can be frustrating, especially those who see no need for any further growth. They think they are perfectly fine just where they are. That group includes the two extremes: those who don’t worship God because they think their life is just fine and don’t think they need him, and those who think they have arrived at perfection and have no need for any further growth. I find both of those groups difficult because they will not be guided; they don’t need any help. The people in between are where the real graces happen, with those who see the need for growth and want to be helped. Their weaknesses and needs may be as far apart as the tundra is from the tropics, but as long as they want to be better, there will be growth toward God.
Lately I have come across a trend, especially in newcomers to the faith and in people who have become painfully aware of their sinfulness: even if they have been forgiven in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, they still tend to view those who have been there before them as better than they, and they don’t feel worthy to be counted among them. I can imagine St. Paul going through that when he first met Peter, James, and John. After all, Paul had persecuted the faith and was trying to destroy it until Jesus converted him in dramatic fashion on the way to Damascus. With all of his sinful past, how could he now be counted as equals with the Apostles? But Peter denied Jesus three times, and James and John wanted to sit at Jesus’ right and left in His glory. They were not without sin. Every saint has his past, and every sinner has his future. Jesus has an uncanny ability to see past our weaknesses to the good we can do when we realize He knows all too well our sins and allow Him to work through us in spite of – perhaps even because of – our sinfulness. As St. Paul says, “when I am weak, it is then that I am strong.” (2 Cor. 12:10) An ideal example of this is the recovering drug addict who has been sober for many years and is now running a program to help others with an addiction to overcome them. His awareness of his past and of how Jesus pulled him through gives him the desire and the ability to minister to others who are on that same journey. He might even feel that Jesus allowed him to go down that dangerous path so that he would be able to help many others to leave that road and start out on the right way. It can be the man who was once addicted to pornography who now runs a program to free others from their enslavement. He understands their pain and their weakness, and has a more burning desire for them to be freed from their burden.
I am a human being with my own sins, and sometimes someone confesses something to me that I have personally dealt with in the past or even at present, and I find myself in a good position to offer them advice that I have gleaned from my own struggle with that particular sin. But no one falls prey to every sin possible, and I’ve discovered over the years that I have learned a lot about the sinfulness of the human person from what I have heard in confession, and even if I never myself fell prey to a certain sin, the lessons I have learned from those who have puts me in a better position to understand and guide another. For this reason, I always tell people never to be afraid to bring your worst sins and fears to a priest in confession. We deal with the weaknesses of human nature on a regular basis and can usually appreciate what you’re going through, even if we haven’t been there ourselves. For example, my parents are thankfully still healthy, but I have counseled enough people dealing with invalid parents to know that they can find it frustrating and that they often lose patience with them. Although I am not married, I have dealt with enough people who are tempted to be unfaithful so as to be able to say something constructive to them. I have worked with teenagers for many years, and I know the strange, dumb, and embarrassing things they sometimes do, especially when it comes to sexuality: from the one fighting compulsive masturbation, to the one who took naked selfies and accidentally emailed them to someone, to the one who was caught by their parents in the midst of a sexual act, the list goes on and on. I always tell people the same thing: if there is anyone you should NOT be embarrassed to share your worst sins with it is a priest in confession. Remember that he has the power to offer you the forgiveness of Christ.
Sometimes I discover that people have quite the reverse attitude toward what they think they should appear to be in the eyes of their pastor and what they in fact should do. Perhaps because they respect their priest so much they want Father to think they are holy, and if Father should discover they have any faults or sins they would be mortified and it would ruin his opinion of them. But that would be like so wanting the doctor to believe you’re healthy that you don’t tell him when you are sick! If anyone needs to know your illness it is the doctor. Similarly, if anyone needs to know your weakness and sins it is your priest. My job is not to pretend you are perfect, but to see you as you are, to love you as you are, and to try to help you become perfect.
But sometimes people worry that, if they tell Father their sins and he remembers them, every time he sees them he will be recalling their sins and he’ll be ashamed of them. I can’t speak for every priest, but I can tell you what I feel. What I said above about the pastor needing to know his sheep and tend to them as they are applies here. If I pretended that my parishioners were a gathering of perfect people I’d be sorely deluded. My job is not to judge people nor is it to feel ashamed of them, as if their sin was somehow a reflection upon myself. The more in fact that I know about a person, the better position I am in to be able to respond properly to their needs. If I do in fact remember something someone told me in confession (which, by the way, I can’t even repeat to them), it only serves to help me know them better and respond in a more understanding manner to their needs. I find that the people who receive the most peace of mind are those who tell the full truth about themselves to their priest, trusting that he is there to help them and that he wants to help ease their burden. I will not feel like a failure if you confess your sins to me, nor will I lose respect for you because I know of all the horrible and sordid things you have done; on the contrary, I will feel like a failure if you were afraid to come to me! When I deal with a person and hear his confession on a regular basis, I end up developing a more complete understanding of him and end up loving him all the more. Everyone needs a place where they can divulge their deepest sins and failings. Who better to bring them to than your priest?
A parish is not a gathering of saints but of sinners trying to become saints. While we are all at different stages in our journey to holiness – to being the best version of ourselves that we can be – we will never be perfected until we enter into Heaven.
So don’t be afraid of your pastor or any priest with whom you have a good relationship knowing your faults and weaknesses. Don’t be embarrassed. The more he knows of you the more he can help you, and the more you know he knows of you, the more easily you will be able to share other problems with him, and the better he can help you grow in holiness and peace of mind.
A comment we all frequently hear from people is that lots of people don’t accept the Church’s teaching on certain issues, therefore the Church should change them so that people will come to church again. They will claim, “This is 2014! The Church has to get with the times and change its teachings or more people will continue to leave!” We don’t at all like the idea that people are leaving, but what would it profit us to change the teachings just to keep people in church on Sunday? Recall what happened when Jesus revealed his teaching on the Eucharist and many people found it too hard to accept and no longer followed him (cf John 6). What didJesus do? Did he call out after them and say, “Wait a minute! Come back! You don’t like that teaching? Okay, I’ll change it. What do you want me to teach? Just tell me and I’ll teach that, as long as you stay with me!” No. Instead, with a heavy heart, he let them go. He was not happy that they would no longer follow him, but he could not change his message and the call to unity with himself and the truth he had come to reveal simply because people didn’t like it. Neither can the Church change a teaching just because it is not popular.
“But,” they may object, “if the message were more appealing, more people would come, and you’re never going to get certain people to come back as long as the Church holds that teaching!” In other words, “give the people what they want and they will come!” I like to use this analogy:
I could fill our church every Sunday night with teenagers, young adults, and others who would never otherwise come to Mass. It’s very simple: give away free beer and show porn. First of all, I’d be arrested. But even if I weren’t, would that be doing anyone any good? Are we merely trying to count how many people are sitting in church on Sunday, or are we trying to bring them the call of salvation by fidelity to the teachings of Christ? I realize this is a drastic example, but it makes the point: anyone who would have us change the teachings just to get more bodies in the pews does not understand the call to salvation by avoiding sin and being formed in the image and likeness of Christ.
Yes, we should do everything in ourpower to be welcoming and acknowledge that even people who are sinners – as we all are – are welcome in church on Sunday and can have positive gifts to offer, which is what Pope Francis has been saying. But under no circumstances can we pretend that sin is not a sin just to make them happy. Our job is not to craft a popular message but to be consistent to the message of salvation by fidelity to the call of Christ. Only that can save people.
Suppose someone, tired of paying over $4 per gallon for gasoline, observing that water from the garden hose is far cheaper, decides he wants his car to run on water. He even gets 96% of car owners to agree with him, and petitions the car manufacturer to allow them to put water and not gas in the gas tank. All the opinion of those people doesn’t change the fact that the car doesn’t run on water. If the people complain that the car manufacturer lacks compassion and understanding of the people’s difficulties and keeps petitioning every new CEO who comes along to change the “law” and allow the car to run on water, does the manufacturer give in and allow it because the people want it? Of course not! Put water in your gas tank and your car will be destroyed! Similarly, when the Church clearly teaches that any given action (such as any sexual act outside of the covenant of marriage, abortion, etc.) does not lead to union with Christ but instead damages that union, no one’s personal opinion changes that. So anyone who advises us to ignore what the Church teaches and “follow their own hearts” is like telling people it’s okay to put water in the gas tank.
“Okay, but how about issues that do notseem to have moral relevance, such as women priests?” Some people are clamoring for the Church to readdress this issue. Well, Pope Paul VI did precisely that. He looked carefully at Tradition, at Scripture, and at previous magisterial teachings, and after extensive prayerful study, he defined in the encyclical Inter Insigniores that the Church does not possess the authority to admit women to the priesthood, and that this is a teaching that is part of the Deposit of Faith which must be adhered to by all. Pope John Paul II further defended and upheld this position in his encyclical Dignitatis Mulieris. Both Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis have upheld this, Pope Francis most emphatically so when in one interview he would not even address the question. He simply said, “No. That has been settled definitively.” The question is therefore settled; end of discussion. So those who are still clamoring for women priests are, quite frankly, throwing an ecclesiastical temper tantrum. Like a child who continues to cry and nag when a parent says no, trying to wear them down until they give in and give the child what he wants, so these people continue to cry and carry on, kicking and screaming in their tantrum. This is hardly mature behavior, and hardly what a disciple of Jesus is expected to do. While some issues are within the Church’s power to change (such as married clergy), others are not, such as women priests, gay “marriage”, abortion, contraception, etc. These have been definitively settled by the Church. So let’s end the temper tantrums, but in a spirit of love for the Lord and maturity of action, accept it and move on.
Remember that the Church’s purpose is not to be popular. We’re not battling other religions to see who has the most people in our pews on Sunday. Our commission by Jesus is to preserve what he has revealed to us and to faithfully teach everything he has commanded us and call people to salvation. Our job is to teach the truth whether people accept it or not. Yes, we will do everything we can to help people understandand accept Christ’s call to holiness, but we cannot change Christ’s teaching. That would betray our very reason for existence.