Last week at our teen club meeting I asked a question of the teenagers, and I was a little surprised at the answers I got. I asked the question, “What is the purpose of the Church?” I got back a variety of comments such as to help people, to show people goodness, to teach the gospel, to show people to follow Jesus, but only eventually did I get the answer I was looking for: to lead people to heaven; to save souls. That is the purpose of the Church, and when I said it of course the kids agreed, but it wasn’t what they first thought, and it occurred to me that maybe that is the cause of many of the problems that we have today with people who either do not embrace the Church, do not follow it as fully as they should, or do not understand why we hold the positions we do. Because they don’t understand what the Church is all about, they don’t understand our insistence on certain teachings. This is not the first time that I’ve come across this.
Recently I had a phone conversation with a man who was rather angry because a layperson I invited to speak after Communion mentioned that gay marriage was wrong. He was furious with me because he thought that the Pope had allowed gay marriage when he said “Who am I to judge?” When I explained to him that that’s not exact at all what the Pope said he started giving me his diatribe of “Well, see this is why people don’t follow the Church any more. The Church insists on holding these unpopular opinions and the Church has to change and say what people want to hear if they want to get people to come. When I asked the man, “What is the purpose of the Church?” he couldn’t answer me. He actually said, “I don’t know!” I said to him, “So you really don’t know what the purpose of the Church is, yet you can be firm in telling me that the Church is wrong in teaching that gay marriage is not permissible.” He then just yelled some more insults at me and hung up. Don’t we need to know what the goal of the Church is before we can assert with force that the Church’s teaching is wrong? Sadly, many people have totally lost track of what we’re all about.
I recall a woman who once called me asking if I could do her wedding even though she needed an annulment. She told me she knew that technically she needed an annulment. I said to her, “No, truly you need an annulment.” “Well, Father,” she asked, “can’t you just marry me anyway without it? The way I look at it God just wants me to be happy and marrying this man will make me happy so, why won’t you do it?” I tried to explain to her that she had it all wrong, that God doesn’t just want us to be happy. Jesus didn’t have to suffer and die on the cross to help us figure out whatever is going to make you happy and then do it; that was Original Sin! In fact he’s called us to quite the opposite: not just to listen to what you think is right and what you feel is right but to listen to and follow what God teaches us. That was the whole temptation from Satan. God had warned Adam and Eve not to try to listen to their own hearts and heads and what they think is right, because they can be wrong, but God can’t. Basically God was saying, “I am God and you are not. I am all-knowing, you are not. If you follow your own heart and mind you can be wrong, but I can never be wrong. So do and follow all I tell you and your life will be perfect.” Of course, they didn’t listen to God, and when they decided to choose for themselves what was right and wrong instead of listening to God they destroyed Paradise. When I told the girl on the phone this she didn’t want to hear it and abruptly hung up the phone on me.
But that’s the problem we’re facing: in so many situations people somehow got the got the idea that the Church is here just to make people happy. No, the Church is here to show people the way through a fallen world to return to what we lost by Original Sin. It was the disobedience of Adam and Eve to the will of God that lost that unity – that Paradise – that we once had. Christ, by his obedience to the Father even unto death, reversed the disobedience of Adam and Eve, and now, when we are obedient to him we allow him to lead us to union with him – which is what “going to heaven” means – to be one with God. Our beliefs are not arbitrary and they are not decided by vote or opinion but by the truth revealed to us by God and preserved through the Church, what we call the Deposit of Faith.” Just because the majority of people don’t agree with it does not make it all of a sudden wrong, or because now a majority of people accept it doesn’t automatically make it in fact a means to union with God.
If you want to have a healthy body, you know that you can’t eat junk food. Well, imagine if people were to say “We like junk food; therefore, we think we should be allowed to eat all the junk food we want!” Nutritionists are simply going to tell you you’re wrong, that junk food doesn’t make you healthy. They tell you you have to severely limit your intake of it, perhaps even avoid it all together. You don’t like it. You want to be able to eat all the junk food you want and still be healthy, but your opinion or desire doesn’t change the fact that junk food is not healthy. Even if nutritionists should decide to appease people and tell them, “Okay. Since you believe there’s nothing wrong with junk food and a majority of you feel that way, then we’ll now declare that junk food is good for you,” does that now make junk food healthy? Your opinion can’t change the truth. In just the same way, when God reveals that something such as gay marriage, contraception, abortion, whatever it may be, is not healthy for your soul and does not lead us into union with him, all the opinion to the contrary doesn’t change the truth that these activities do not make us healthy but are harmful to that union with God, which is the definition of a sin.
Moral teachings tell us what leads us to union with God (salvation) and what harms that union (sin). If we were to say that something that was once revealed as a moral absolute has now changed, that what was once sinful is now holy, that would imply that God had changed, and that’s a metaphysical impossibility! We know that drinking rat poison would kill us. For rat poison to now be good for us there would have to be a complete metabolic change in the very structure and essence of the human body. If 96% of people now believe rat poison is okay and we should now be allowed to drink it, that doesn’t change the fact. Opinions don’t change truth.
And so, my brothers and sisters, if you feel concerned or confused about what the Church teaches and don’t understand one thing or another, remember that the purpose of the Church is not to be a social club. Our purpose is not to try to win in as many people as we can by promising anything that will make people join us. Our purpose is to save souls, and the only way we do that is by teaching the truth, by pointing out what is sinful and calling people to avoid sin and embrace what is holy. No opinion, no changes in popular acceptance of an idea can ever change that. To do the work of the Church means simply to preach the Gospel of Jesus, the good news that calls us away from sin and to union with him, and nothing else. Lies destroy and kill. Jesus came that we might have life and have it abundantly. That life is only found in obedience to the truth, the truth that will set us free.
Have you ever felt that you don’t know what God is supposed to do for you? When you go to church, when you pray, what are you looking for? It seems to me that many people come before the Lord but really don’t know what they’re expecting from Go. Or they have a completely different plan for God than what he wants. So the question we all need to ask is, “What are you looking for?” What do you expect God to do for you? And then we must ask, “Is that what God wants to do for us?” If we are not on the same page as God, he will forever be a frustration to us, or as Jesus says, a stumbling block. Do we want the same thing for ourselves that God does?
Let’s start by talking about what God isn’t and what he does not want to do for us: He’s not Santa Claus; he doesn’t promise to bring you good things or do good things for you if you’re good but if you’re bad he’ll punish you. He’s also not the genie in the lamp, that if you just rub the lamp properly the genie will come out and grant all your wishes. He’s not the police officer who’s going to make someone stop hurting you, nor is he the judge that is going to punish somebody who has harmed you when you bring it to him. So what does God want to do for us?
Somehow we have this idea in our heads that God has said “Come follow me and I’ll make sure nothing bad ever happens to you. I’ll give you the life of Riley!” So we go to church faithfully and we pray every day, thinking that nothing bad will happen to us, and then when something bad does happen we get very angry at God and we say, “You didn’t hold up your end of the bargain! I followed you and you still let bad things happen to me!” But God never said he would make sure nothing bad ever happens to us! He never promised that! We think he should do that, and when God does not work the way we think he should we get angry at him. No, God has come to help us turn away from sin and to help us deal with the difficulties and tragedies of life by finding him in the midst of our life and turning to him for strength to carry the crosses we must bear. By doing that, we turn the evils that befall us into means to bring us closer to God.
Let me give you a perfect example: this past September I had to go to Louisiana to participate in the funeral of a young girl only 21 years old whom I had baptized. She died after a long battle with brain cancer. I sat with her father at the very same kitchen table where I had played cards with her as a child years before. Her parents are faithful Catholics who have followed the Lord regularly their whole lives. Her father told me over lunch that so many people have remarked to him that they don’t know how he dealt with losing a daughter. They say they would have fallen apart if that it happened to them. They realize that it was his and his wife’s strong faith that is helping them through it. And he told me that several people have written to him emails or spoken to him and told him that watching him face the most difficult thing anyone could ever imagine has reinforced their faith. They’ve come to see the reason why we worship God and the importance of it and it has inspired them to return to church. The father said to me, “We were praying for a miracle for Kelly, but maybe the miracle we got was different from what we wanted. Instead of Kelly being healed, by her death she brought many people back to God.” Amen! That is indeed the power of faith. Only God could get them through that. There is nothing in the world that would have helped them through that very difficult time. And by their faith they turned that evil into an opportunity to bring other people home to God.
Now, faith is not something you can store in a box in the closet for years and never use until you need it. The faith to do what this family did is the result of following God each and every day, knowing him, loving him, and finding his presence in your life. After that, worrying about praying for God to help us win the lottery or to lose 10 pounds seems almost silly! What does God want to do for you? Very simple: he wants to be there to help you every step of the way to make sense of and deal with the tragedies in life. Bad things happen in the world, and it is not God’s fault that bad things happen. He has come to help us carry the cross and turn it around so that we can deal with the difficulties, take the bull by the horns, and know that nothing can destroy us as long as God is there with us. When we realize that every bad moment has the power to bring us closer into God’s embrace, what have we to fear? Evil has no power over us!
And of course, most importantly, he comes to save us from our sins. And when we really think about it, the only thing worth fearing is being in sin. Sin is the only thing that can destroy the promise of eternal life that God has given us. Ultimately we’re on a journey to heaven, and Jesus is showing us the path to get there. We are set on that journey at our baptism, and by faithfully worshipping him, by following everything he tells us, by knowing and loving him, he helps us stay on that path and not be distracted by all the things around us that would make us want to leave that call to heaven behind to make ourselves happy and comfortable here on earth. There is no tragedy that can take us away from God or can destroy our promise of salvation in and of itself. Only if we allow it to turn us away from God does it have its real evil. And that is exactly what Satan is trying to do; he brings evil into the world hoping we will get angry at God for the evil that happened and turn against him so that Satan can just reel us in. Some people need only stub their toe to get angry at God, and when that happens they are Satan’s easy prey. When people get angry at God for the bad things that happen, does that give them any peace? Does it help them deal with the problems? Does it help them to heal and move on? No. It gives them a target for their anger, but nothing more. In fact, it turns them away from the only one who can give them peace. Only by turning to God, by doing what he wills for us to do and by inviting him into every moment to help us deal with our struggles, our weaknesses, the bad things that happen to us, our confusions, whatever it may be, do we find God. So do not fear bad times. Do not fear ill health. Do not even fear death. Fear only dying in sin. And if we follow the Lord, if we come to Mass to adore him and love him for everything he’s done and to ask for the strength to walk each and every day knowing he is holding us by the hand every step of the way, then we have found what God wants to do for us.
I like to ask you three questions. Please answer them in your mind as best and honestly as possible: number one – why are you here? number two – what are you doing? and number three -where you going?
First why are you here? Why are you on the earth at this moment in time? Different people might answer that in different ways. Some people might say “well I’m just a step in the chain reaction that began with the Big Bang, and once the Big Bang began one thing started affecting another and now it’s just my turn to be here. So if we follow that through then we’re nothing more than cosmic dust left over from the Big Bang with no rhyme or reason and no specific purpose for being here at this time. Others might say – as a teenager once said to another upon whom he showed up on rather unexpectedly, “Where did you come from?” He answered, “well, my mother and father loved each other very, very much!” In that case we can say we’re simply the result of a conjugal act. Perhaps we might be able to say if we knew that mom and dad had planned to conceive a child at that point that we were at least willed into being by our parents, but if not, then we were just a byproduct of a conjugal act, maybe even an “oops!” Neither of those gives you much sense of personal value today. There is a third answer which of course is the Christian answer: why are you here? because God has willed it. He wants you here at this moment in time. None of us here is an accident to God; every one of us is here on this earth at this moment because God wants us here. That gives me value! That helps me know that I have a reason for existing, that if I don’t seem to matter to anybody else in the world, I matter to God and God wants me here.
Number two: what are you doing? What is your purpose for existing? Why you get up in the morning and get dressed and go to work or to school or whatever it is that you go each and every day? What’s the reason behind it? Some people never think it through. A lot of people have no answer to that question. “Well I just do it because that’s what we do. That’s what we’re trained to do and we just do our thing.” For many people it simply survival, just like animals in the wild who, whenever they wake up, they go to hunt and find their food and keep themselves from being some other animal’s food. So every day is just a struggle for survival – “eat or be eaten!” Of course that doesn’t give us much comfort. Then there’s the Lord’s message to us. The Christian answer to “what am I doing here?” is that I am here because God wants me here and God made me in his image and likeness. You are the only person just like yourself that God has ever made, and God is showing himself to the world through you in a way he has never done before; you have a way of showing God to the world that only you can do! In whatever you do each and every day you are called to radiate the face of Christ, to be the very face of Jesus to everyone you meet, so that the world by knowing you can know God, and the world will be a better place because you are in it! If you live your life each and every day remembering what you are doing – being Christ in the world even if it’s only in the simple gifts I have, in my limited ability to meet other people and interact with them, then whatever I do, whether it’s big-time or little, I do it to show the face of Christ to people. That gives me tremendous meaning! That gives a sense of worth to every day because every new day is an opportunity for me to show God to the world once again in a way that only I can do. It’s not anything I can pat myself on the back for, but that has been given to me by God the day I was created, and that gives the automatic answer to question number three, “where are you going?” What is the purpose of your life? Sadly, for many people, the ultimate goal again is just like everyday – survival, just trying to make sure we don’t get swallowed up before eventually something takes our lives, and that’s pretty dismal! When you think about it, when that happens our lives are no different from a bunch of prairie dogs running around frantically yelping a call to the others to try to find food and get into our holes quickly when a wolf or predator comes to try to grab us as a meal. We’re spending all of our time only trying to survive and avoid being swallowed up by the cruel cold world around us. That leads many people to live simply for pleasure, simply for hedonism, just to enjoy each and every day. In the beginning perhaps maybe that can feel good, but after a while it becomes pretty empty. We need more than just little pleasures.
For other people their goal is to make it big. Maybe they want to go to top. They want to be able to make something big of themselves so they can go to their high school reunion and show all those people who thought they were good for nothing what they became, and then of course they do go to their high school reunion and find out that all the people they thought were going to be impressed by them are more successful than they are, and they become rather depressed because they failed to achieve their goal. Their goal was too dependent upon other people and being better than what other people have done, and of course when they find other people also doing well, instead of being happy for them, they get annoyed.
Some people only want to move up the corporate ladder, to be number one, to become president or CEO or whatever it may be and they never do. Their goals are forever unaccomplished. Or perhaps they do get there and something happens and everybody is publicly embarrassed in the news and they need a scapegoat, and so the Board of Directors decides the CEO is the best to go, and all of their happiness – everything they worked for – is gone, just like that! For other people it’s to have that retirement home: doing everything possible to save money so when I retire I can buy myself a beautiful home on the shore and just sit and look at the sea every day and listen to the sound of the sea creatures. And they do, and that beautiful home gets wiped out in a hurricane! How many people set goals for themselves that never happen, that are either unrealistic or they don’t do anything to make those goals happen, and sometimes what we think is going to be so important turns out not to be very important at all. Maybe they dream of a huge mansion, and when they get it, they find out that it hasn’t made them happy; in fact, it’s just more rooms to clean! Our lives are filled with stories of people who claim they got everything they wanted and are still unhappy. It’s not a rare moment that somebody gets everything they wanted on this earth and quickly discover they have nothing!
Where are we going? Of course God ultimately has one thing in store for us: he is calling us to his glory in his kingdom. God wants us to be with him so that we when we pass through this earth when we can sit and bask on the glory of the face of Christ. Sometimes we dismiss that all too quickly; we look for all the earthly things and we forget about the heavenly things. If it sounds like I’m praising myself in what I am about to write, please forgive me as that’s not my intention, but I can tell you that as a priest that I know great happiness and peace following God every day. How many people if they found out their life were ending might lament that they didn’t accomplish all the things on their bucket list. I can honestly say that if I were to find out that my life was ending tomorrow I have done what I wanted to do, that I have already reached everything that I have wanted in my life. My purpose in living is not to reach a personal goal of anything I want to accomplish in this life but just to continue each and every day doing what God has asked me to do. You may know that Pope Francis is not keen on making monsignors. Someone asked me if I was disappointed and I responded, “Who cares? I don’t like the color magenta anyway!” Twenty-four years ago I got the only title I ever wanted, the title of “father”, and since then I have just been doing what God asks of me. I’m not perfect and I am not trying to make myself out to be a saint. I have my sins and my shortcomings and my failures, but my life is not an ambitious goal to try to do something for myself but trying my best to do what God wants me to do each and every day, to be his face to everyone I meet, so that when I die I can enter his kingdom and gaze upon Christ forever. Has given me a peace each and every day that I would wish on anyone of you, that I would hope that all of you could know, and when we realize that we are here because God wants us here, that we are called to radiate his face to everyone we meet, and are going to the glory of his kingdom, that gives us all the meaning our lives could ever desire! When you have Jesus, who could ask for anything more? May Jesus Christ be praised!