08 November 2017

A review of Tolton: From Slave to Priest - Bigger than Johnny Cash

Last evening, Mr. Andrae Goodnight brought the character of the Servant of God Father Augustus Tolton to life for the first time in the Diocese of Springfield on the stage of the Effingham Performance Center in a convincing, masterful, and moving performance.

This one-man play is written and produced by St. Luke Productions, a Catholic acting company dedicated to bringing the lives of the saints to life through engaging quality dramatic presentations. The set of the play is rather simple, but this is no reflection on the quality of the script, the acting, or the actor.

To portray other characters, such as Martha Jane Tolton, audio/visual equipment is used of recordings of portrayals by other actors and actresses. At first, I was a bit skeptical of this approach, but within only a few moments I saw how well the stage-actor and the recorded-actors blended together. Rather than being hokey - as, at first, I thought it might be - this is a clever way to increase the quality of the drama while keeping costs down.

Running under 90-minutes, Tolton: From Slave to Priest presents the essential elements to understand the life and story of Father Gus in a manner that gets to the heart of the issues. It shows forth the virtue of the first publicly known black priest in the United States of America and shows why people - Catholics and Protestants alike - both supported and opposed him. It shows the turmoil of his heart and his fidelity to Christ Jesus and to his Church. And, as it does all of this, Tolton: From Slave to Priest also includes a few references to the more common aspects of his life, such as his playing of the accordion (an unexpected and welcome inclusion).

If you do not yet know the story of the first citizen of the Gem City, you will after seeing Tolton: From Slave to Priest; if you do know the story of Father Gus, you will surely gain a deeper appreciation for the witness of his life while watching this performance.

I strongly encourage you to bring your family and friends with you to see Tolton: From Slave to Priest and am certain you will not be disappointed. The play will continue to be performed across the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois this week and the early part of next week:
  • JACKSONVILLE - The second performance will be held on Wednesday, November 8th at 7:00 p.m. in Jacksonville at Our Saviour church. The performance, I think, will be free to all attendees.
  • DECATUR - The third performance will be held on Thursday, November 9th at 6:30 p.m. in Decatur at Our Lady of Lourdes church. A free-will offering will be taken.
  • SPRINGFIELD - The fourth performance will be held on Saturday, November 11th at 7:30 p.m. in Springfield at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. A free-will offering will be taken.
  • QUINCY - The fifth performance, and the one to which I am most looking forward, will be held on Sunday, November 12th at 3:00 p.m. in Quincy at the Pepsi Arena of Quincy University. A free-will offering will be taken.
  • GRANITE CITY - The sixth and final performance will be held on Monday, November 13th at 7:00 p.m. in Granite City at Holy Family church. A free-will offering will be taken.
Just prior to the performance, I was asked to give a brief presentation on the canonization process in general, which i was happy to do. As I visited with people after the performance, one of the men I spoke with had been a recent concert by Johnny Cash at the Effingham Performance Center, the very same venue where Tolton: From Slave to Priest was performed. He told me there were more people in attendance for Tolton than there were for Johnny Cash. That is not bad praise! Do yourself a favor and watch the play.

05 November 2017

Dates and times for Tolton: From Slave to Priest in central Illinois

It was not part of my planning but, surely, rather a working of Divine Providence that St. Luke Productions desired to bring Tolton: From Slave to Priest to the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois during this National Vocation Awareness Week. What better way could there to be raise awareness concerning vocations to the priesthood by learning more about the Servant of God Father Augustus Tolton, the first publicly known black priest in this country?

I've already shared the dates and times of the performances with you already, but please allow me to share them with you again and to strongly urge you to attend at least one of them.

First, though, let me share again the bulletin blurb from St. Luke Productions to advertise Tolton: From Slave to Priest to give a brief bit of useful information:
Meet Fr. Augustus Tolton, the first African American priest, in this one-man multimedia performance. From his dramatic escape from slavery to his courageous struggle in the face of prejudice, Fr. Tolton’s inspiring life centers around his message reconciliation and hope. This riveting drama is filled with all the elements of professional theater, runs 90 minutes, and is suitable for ages 10 and up.
And now, the performance locations, dates, and times:
  • EFFINGHAM - The first performance will be held on Tuesday, November 7th at 7:00 p.m. in Effingham at the Effingham Performance Center. A free-will offering will be taken. Following the performance, I have been asked to give a brief presentation on the canonization process and to answer whatever questions attendees might have.
  • JACKSONVILLE - The second performance will be held on Wednesday, November 8th at 7:00 p.m. in Jacksonville at Our Saviour church. The performance, I think, will be free to all attendees.
  • DECATUR - The third performance will be held on Thursday, November 9th at 6:30 p.m. in Decatur at Our Lady of Lourdes church. A free-will offering will be taken.
  • SPRINGFIELD - The fourth performance will be held on Saturday, November 11th at 7:30 p.m. in Springfield at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. A free-will offering will be taken.
  • QUINCY - The fifth performance, and the one to which I am most looking forward, will be held on Sunday, November 12th at 3:00 p.m. in Quincy at the Pepsi Arena of Quincy University. A free-will offering will be taken.
  • GRANITE CITY - The sixth and final performance will be held on Monday, November 13th at 7:00 p.m. in Granite City at Holy Family church. A free-will offering will be taken.
I plan to be at each of the performances and hope to see you somewhere!

Homily - 5 November 2017 - On the Servant of God Father Augustus Tolton

The Thirty-first Sunday of the Year (A)
On the Servant of God Father Augustus Tolton

Dear brothers and sisters,

Mother Church presents the lives of the Saints to us as models of Christian living because she sees something of the life of Jesus reflected in them. Each one of us is called to form our hearts after the heart of Jesus so that we might each become heralds of his merciful love in each aspect of our lives. The Apostle Saint Paul so closely conformed himself to Christ Jesus that he could say to the people of Thessalonica, “With such affection for you, we were determined to share with you not only the gospel of God, but our very selves as well” (I Thessalonians 2:8). While he went about this work of sharing the gospel, he said, “We were gentle among you” (I Thessalonians 2:7).

Gentleness, of course, is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit, one Saint Paul mentions in his letter to the Galatians (Galatians 5:23). Of all the fruits of the Holy Spirit, it is perhaps the one least appreciated in our own day. Society, it seems, is becoming ever most bombastic, ever more self-centered, and ever more loud. We shout each other down, rather than listen to what each other has to say with a heart desiring to understand. Something is wrong with us and so we need someone to help refocus us on the life of Jesus, someone who can show us how conform ourselves to his heart.

It may be that one such man, the Servant of God Father Augustus Tolton, whose cause for beatification and canonization is underway, died one hundred and twenty years ago this past July. His life, which is intimately connected with this Diocese of Springfield in Illinois, will be presented this week across central Illinois in the play, Tolton: From Slave to Priest.

His was a life seemingly marked by opposition wherever he turned, save for a few moments of calm. In Father Tolton, we find one who, with Saint Paul, trusted in the Lord’s words: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (II Corinthians 12:9). Born April 1, 1854 in Ralls County, Missouri to faithful Catholic parents, Peter Paul and Martha Jane Tolton, who were slaves near Brush Creek, Missouri, Father Tolton remained a man of gentleness, the fruit of a deep life of prayer.

In 1862, Martha heard talk of slave traders in the area looking for children. Having herself been separated from her parents when she was sixteen, she feared for her children and fled the farm. After a harrowing escape through fields and over the Mighty Mississippi, they finally arrived in Quincy, Illinois, forty-one miles away; Augustus was only seven.

In 1865, he enrolled in St. Boniface school with the permission of the pastor, Father Schaeffermeyer, and found those both “hard of face and obstinate of heart,” those whose hearts were proud and whose eyes were haughty (Ezekiel 2:4; cf. Psalm 131:1). His enrollment led many to threaten to remove their children from the school, to leave the parish, and even to call for the removal of their pastor. Just one month after he enrolled, young Gus, now ten, withdrew from the school.

Hearing of his troubles, Father Peter McGirr, Pastor of St. Lawrence Parish (it would later become St. Peter Parish) insisted that Augustus study in a Catholic school. He promised he would personally see that Gus would have no trouble there. Years later, Augustus recalled, “As long as I was in that school, I was safe. Everyone was kind to me.”[1]

Deep within his soul, he seems to have felt a strong desire to share “not only the gospel of God, but [his] very self,” but because he had not yet heard of a black priest, he thought the priesthood was beyond him (I Thessalonians 2:8). He began serving Mass each morning before going to work at a local tobacco factory and became close with two priests who were both impressed with his devotion and thought he had a priestly vocation. They wrote letter after letter to seminaries and religious Orders throughout the country seeking one that would accept him; time and time again, they were told, “We are not ready for a Negro student.”

When he was twenty-four, Augustus opened St. Joseph School of Black Children in Quincy, the first of its kind in the city. Even here he was met with opposition, when black Protestants publicly refused to send their children to his school because he was Catholic.

One day a long-awaited letter arrived for Gus: he was accepted to the seminary for the Propagation of the Faith in Rome. Those ordained from this seminary would be sent to mission territories throughout the world, with no choice as to where they would be sent. Nevertheless, Gus was filled with great joy that day. He arrived in the Eternal City at the age of twenty-six and was nicknamed, “Gus from the U.S.”

Five years later, he was ordained a deacon. He later said: “The day I was ordained deacon, I felt so strong that I thought no hardship would ever be too great for me to accept. I was ready for anything; in fact, I was very sure I could move mountains – in Africa.”[2] He had spent all of his spare time studying the geography and cultures of Africa, certain he would be sent there, but the Lord’s ways are not our ways (cf. Isaiah 55:8).

The day before he was ordained a priest, Giovanni Cardinal Simeoni told Deacon Tolton it was decided the night before that he would be sent Africa, but the Cardinal over-ruled the decision. “America has been called the most enlightened nation in the world,” he said. “We shall see whether it deserves that honor. If the United States has never before seen a Black priest, it must see one now!”[3] He was sent home, to Quincy.

It was shocking news, but he had already promised his obedience. He must have remembered the difficulties of his childhood and early adulthood in the United States, but he trusted in the Lord even as he surely heard his words: “A prophet is not without honor except in his native place and among his own kin and in his own house” (Mark 6:4). Would the people take offense at him as they took offense at Jesus (cf. Mark 6:3)?

He arrived in Quincy in July of 1886 and was appointed Pastor of St. Joseph’s Parish, which had been established as a parish for Black Catholics. He received an enthusiastic welcome in the Gem City and was admired by all. They found in him a “rich and full voice which falls pleasantly on the ears” and saw the “whole-hearted earnestness” with which he went about his ministry impressed even the local newspapers.[4]

His ministry met with some success, but affairs soon turned sour when Father Michael Weiss was appointed Pastor of St. Boniface Parish, just one block from St. Joseph’s, for it was Father Weiss who took great offense at Father Tolton. St. Boniface Parish was in debt and had given much to St. Joseph’s Parish. Many of Father Weiss’ parishioners attended Father Tolton’s Masses and contributed to his parish. Father Weiss forbade Father Tolton from ministering to whites and repeatedly made it clear that contributions from whites belonged to white parishes. This was the first time Father Tolton experienced prejudice from a fellow priest, and it devastated him.

When finally this hardship became too great for him to accept, he wrote to the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith. Without naming Father Weiss, he said:

There is a certain German priest here who is jealous and contemptuous. He abuses me in many ways and he has told the bishop to send me out of this place. I will gladly leave here just to be away from this priest. I appealed to Bishop [James] Ryan and he also advises me to go elsewhere.[5]

Soon afterward, Archbishop Feehan told Father Tolton he would be welcome in Chicago, so he wrote again to the Congregation: “I beg you to give me permission to go to the diocese of Chicago. It is not possible for me to remain here any longer with this German priest.” The reply arrived two months later: “If the two bishops concur in giving their approval, go at once!”[6] Just twelve days later, he left for Chicago with nineteen of his converts and took up the pastorate of St. Monica’s chapel, where he was entrusted with the pastoral care of all of Chicago’s black Catholics. After he left Quincy, St. Joseph Parish closed for good.

One woman who encountered him, Mary Elmore, said of Father Gus, “We who come in contact with him in our labors and are witnesses of his ardent charity and self-denying zeal, feel ourselves privileged to – bow the knee for his saintly blessing.”[7] Within two years he began construction on a new church – that was never completed – and ministered to some six hundred black Catholics.

Having spent himself in the service of the Church, he died of heat stroke in 105 degree weather on July 9, 1897; he was forty-three years of age. St. Monica’s became a mission and it took another two years for a full-time pastor to be assigned to it. St. Monica’s closed for good in 1924.

His is a life of deep faith and of perseverance. Speaking to a group of black Catholics, he said:

I was a poor slave boy but the priests of the Church did not disdain me. It was through the influence of one of them that I became what I am tonight… It was the priests of the Church who taught me to pray and to forgive my persecutors. It was through the direction of a Sister … that I learned to interpret the Ten Commandments; and then I also beheld for the first time the glimmering light of truth and the majesty of the Church. In this Church we do not have to fight for our rights because we are Black. She had colored saints – Augustine, Benedict the Moor, Monica. The Church is broad and liberal. She is the Church for our people.[8]

Despite the opposition he faced, he never lost his love of the Church or of the priesthood, and never did he condemn Father Weiss or speak ill of him, so deep was his gentleness. Throughout his life, Father Tolton could sing with the Psalmist, “In you, Lord, I have found my peace” (cf. Psalm 131).

In this he is a model for each of us; never did he cease his proclamation of the Gospel or the sharing of himself with those he met. As Father Roy Bauer has said, “Some people could easily judge that his life was not a success, but God calls His servants to be faithful, not successful!”[9] The fidelity of Father Tolton cannot be doubted, and for this reason he is a model for us all and a continual reminder that “when I am weak, then I am strong” (II Corinthians 12:10).

Father Tolton found his place of refuge in the Lord and now we pray that he will be declared Blessed and raised to the dignity of the altars. May his example and intercession raise up many more such faithful and devoted priests in our Diocese, that each of the Lord’s altars may have a holy and zealous priest to administer the mysteries of God. Amen!

[1] Roy Bauer, They Called Him Father Gus: The Life and Times of Augustine Tolton, First Black Priest in the U.S.A., Part Eight.
[2] Ibid., Part Fifteen.
[3] Ibid., Part Seventeen.
[4] The Quincy Journal, July 26, 1886.
[5] In They Called Him Father Gus, Part Twenty-four.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Mary Elmore, Letter to John R. Slattery, SSJ, 1890-1891. In The Father Tolton Guild: Official Organization for the Promotion of the Cause for Canonization of Father Augustus Tolton (1854-1897), October 2017, 3.
[8] Roy Bauer, They Called Him Father Gus, Part Twenty-three.
[9] Ibid., Part Twenty-nine.

Homily - 2 November 2017 - The Commemoration of the Faithful Departed

The Commemoration of the Faithful Departed

Today Holy Mother Church prays for her children who, at the moment of death, though destined for the everlasting glory of heaven, were not yet prepared to enter into that joy, but who were also not deserving of hell. These are the members of the Church Suffering, the Poor Souls in Purgatory who are being purged – purified – for the everlasting life of heaven. This Commemoration of the Faithful Departed, this All Souls’ Day, is a stark reminder to us that not every soul enters the glory of heaven immediately at the moment of death.

This realization marks us with great sorrow and so we pray the Father of Mercies to “bestow on [his] departed servants [his] great mercy … and the fullness of eternal joy.”[1] Whereas yesterday Mother Church honored her heroic children who lived well the faith of Jesus Christ – the saints of every age and place – who are now with the Lord in glory, today we pray for those who hope to share in that glory, “those who have gone before us with the sign of faith.”[2]

Jesus says, “Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and I will not reject anyone who comes to me” (John 6:37). It is our choice in this life whether or not to belong to Christ, but just as he will not reject anyone who comes to him, neither will he force anyone to come to him. As Saint Augustine put it, “God made you without your consent, but he does not justify you without your consent.”[3] The choice is ours, to be made again and again, at every moment of our lives. With every word we speak, with every thought we think and every deed we do, we are free to accept or to reject the grace given us. He extends his hand toward us, saying, “Come, follow me” (Luke 18:22), and he waits for us to either grasp his hand or to walk away.

We know that “death puts an end to human life as the time open to either accepting or rejecting the divine grace manifested in Christ.”[4] This is why the manner in which we live this life is so important, for by it we make our decision for or against Christ. “With death, our life-choice becomes definitive – our life stands before the judge.”[5] Today, then, is a fitting day for us to consider what the choice of my life is, towards what my life is oriented. This choice can have a multiplicity of forms, for each of our lives is different, though the fundamental choice before us remains the same.

There are some people whose lives are so filled with wickedness that any desire for truth and love has been completely snuffed out within them. This is what is meant by the word, “hell.” There are also people whose lives are so imbued with love and purity that their love for God flows readily to their neighbor. Such holiness of life clearly marks one for heaven. But such people are not common, are they?

What, then, of the rest of us? What of those of us who want to live holy lives but who fail so often? It is true that within the majority of people,
there remains in the depths of their being an ultimate interior openness to truth, to love, to God. In the concrete choices of life, however, it is covered over by ever new compromises with evil – much filth covers purity, but the thirst for purity remains, and it still constantly re-emerges from all that is base and remains present in the soul.[6]
What, then, becomes of these souls who are open to and desirous of truth and love, but whose lives are also marked with sin? "Will all the impurity they have amassed through life suddenly cease to matter?[7]

Our sins, the impurities of our lives, cannot simply be treated as inconsequential; simply admitting such souls covered with the filth of their sins into God’s presence would go against his justice. Yet casting such souls into hell would violate his mercy, for these souls yearned for him, even if imperfectly. Such souls, then, must first be purified to be able to receive the fullness of truth and love. Thus we hear the words from the Book of Wisdom: “God tried them and found them worthy of himself. As gold in the furnace, he proved them, and as sacrificial offerings he took them to himself” (Wisdom 3:5-6). This process of purification is called purgatory for it is a true purgation, a cleansing, of the soul. It is “the inwardly necessary process of transformation in which a person becomes capable of Christ, capable of God, and thus capable of unity with the whole communion of saints.”[8]

We often speak of the pain of the fire of Purgatory; why do we do so? The Psalmist tells us, “fire goes before [the Lord]; everywhere it consumes the foes” (Psalm 97:4). Saint Paul tells us that we will be saved, “but only as through fire” (I Corinthians 3:15). What is this fire, then, but the fire of divine love?

The Lord’s “burning flame cuts free our closed-off heart, melting it, and pouring it into a new mold to make it fit for the living organism of his body.”[9] This fire is the encounter with Christ Jesus himself, who is both Judge and Savior, and this encounter with him is the moment of judgment. Many today are afraid of the notion of judgment “because they confuse judgment with petty calculation and give more room to fear than to a loving trust.”[10] They fear judgment because they have not yet opened themselves to the mercy of God.

Pope Benedict XVI explained this encounter with Jesus most powerfully:

Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms us and frees us, allowing us to become fully ourselves. All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw, pure bluster, and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives becomes evident to us, there lies salvation. His gaze, the touch of his heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation “as through fire.” But it is also a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally of ourselves and totally of God. In this way the interrelation between justice and grace also becomes clear: the way we live our lives is not immaterial, but our defilement does not stain us forever if we have at least continued to reach out towards Christ, towards truth and towards love… The pain of love becomes our salvation and our joy.[11]

Today’s celebration, while it is one of deep sadness as we mourn our beloved dead and pray for them, is also one of profound hope rooted in the love of God that makes us like himself.

Let each of us, then, raise our prayers and offer our sufferings to the Father of Mercies for the Poor Souls in Purgatory. We know our prayers on their behalf are beneficial to them because, “no one lives alone. No one sins alone. No one is saved alone.”[12] We are all one in the Body of Christ. Therefore, let us keep ever in mind the words of Saint Ambrose, the great spiritual father of our heavenly patron: “We have loved them during life; let us not abandon them in death until we have conducted them by our prayers into the house of the Lord.”  Amen.

[1] Roman Missal, Prayer after Communion 3 for the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed.
[2] Roman Missal, Eucharistic Prayer I.
[3] Saint Augustine of Hippo, Sermon 169.13.
[4] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1021.
[5] Pope Benedict XVI, Spe salvi, 45.
[6] Ibid., 46.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life, Second Edition.  Michael Waldstein, trans. with Aidan Nichols, O.P., ed.  (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1988), 230.
[9]Ibid., 229.
[10] Joseph Ratzinger, Seek That Which Is Above: Meditations Through the Year, Second Edition.  Graham Harrison, trans.  (San Francisco, California: Ignatius Press, 2007), 77.
[11] Pope Benedict XVI, Spe salvi, 47.
[12] Ibid., 48.

Homily - 1 November 2017 - All Saints' Day

The Solemnity of All Saints
Dear brothers and sisters,

Today the Apostle John offers what may well be the best answer to any question ever posed by a teacher: “My lord, you are the one who knows” (Revelation 7:14). Teachers may not give you full credit for the answer, but they should at least give extra credit for being clever.

There are some people who seem to skate through life, as it were, on extra credit, without ever really investing themselves fully into their projects and duties. They count on their charm, charisma, or cleverness, but do not know the satisfaction of an honest attempt or the growth that comes from failure.

In his vision of the heavenly court, Saint John the Beloved certainly does not find himself in the presence of those who merely ambled their way into heaven. No, these men and women “wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands” are those who “have survived the time of great distress” (Revelation 7:9,14). It is no accident that they are standing before the throne of God.

As we contemplate the lives of the Saints, of those who have made themselves pure out of love for God (cf. I John 3:3), we often wonder how they did so. How did they keep their hands sinless and their hearts clean (cf. Psalm 24:4)?

We are told that the seal of the servants of God was placed on their foreheads (cf. Revelation 7:3). Elsewhere we are told that this seal is the sign of the tau, the Greek letter T; the seal of the servants of God is the Cross (cf. Ezekiel 9:4). On the day of our Baptisms, a priest traced the Sign of the Cross on our foreheads and as he did so, said, “I now claim you for Christ our Savior by the Sign of his Cross.” When the Bishop confirmed us with the Sacred Chrism, he again traced the Sign of the Cross on our foreheads, saying, “Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit.” The Saints, too, have been sealed in the same way. What is it, then, that differentiates us from them?

Throughout their lives – or at least toward the end of their lives – they longed to ascend the mountain of the Lord and to stand in his holy place (cf. Psalm 24:3). Put perhaps more simply, they wanted – more than anything else – to be with God, to look upon the beauty of his face (cf. Psalm 24:6). Each of the Saints recognized the truth of Saint Augustine’s words: “You stir man to pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”[1] Do you not know this to be true?

All of the Saints survived the time of great distress by remaining near the Cross of the Lord. They heard Jesus’ invitation: “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23); they heard these words and did not shy away. Rather, they remembered that they were sealed with this very sign, that they were claimed for Christ, that they were not their own because they were purchased at the price of the Blood of the Son of God (cf. I Corinthians 6:20).

Each of them encountered their own time of great distress. For some, it was religious persecution and martyrdom; for others, it was rejection by their family and friends; for some, it was the renunciation of wealth; still for others, a battle with pride or a period of spiritual dryness. In all of this, they clung to Jesus Christ and to his Cross.

How many forms the time of great distress has taken in our own day! There is the great distress of divorce and abortion; of unreturned love and feelings of inadequacy. There is the distress of economic ruin, the destruction of powerful storms, and violent attacks. And with these distresses, the distresses of the Saints’ remain. Yet even so, hope resounds: “These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress; they have washed their robes and made them white in the Blood of the Lamb” (Revelation 7:14). In the lives of the Saints, we learn, as J.R.R. Tolkien said, that “the Christian still has to work, with mind as well as body, to suffer, hope, and die; but he may now perceive that all his bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed.”[2]

Looking upon the glory of the Saints, we see our own weakness reflected against their strengths. Saint John the Baptist and Saint Thomas More gave up their lives in defense of the sanctity of marriage. Saint Gianna Molla gave up her life to give birth to her child. Saint Damien de Vuester and Saint Marianne Cope risked their health to care for the lepers on Moloka’i. Saint Clare followed Saint Francis and renounced her social status to gain a life of poverty. Saint Thomas Aquinas put his great intellect at the service of the Church. Saint Therese of Lisieux showed us the Little Way of love. Saint Augustine struggled against sexual temptations and gave his heart to God.

There are a great many other Saints, of course, each of whom who has given something unique to the Church. Looking upon the Saints, we wonder: Can I really be like them? Can I be holy? Can I really be a Saint? The answer is, quite simply and honestly, yes. Yes, I can be a Saint, and so can each of you. What is necessary for us to be holy is to remember that the seal of the servants of God has been placed on our foreheads. In their personalities and dispositions, and in the circumstances of their lives, the Saints are just like us.

We think ourselves unworthy of being admitted to their great company, but that decision is not up to us. We have to remember, as Tolkien said: “But in God’s kingdom the presence of the greatest does not depress the small. Redeemed Man is still man.”[3] The Lord Jesus calls us his friends and wants us to be with him; who are we to refuse his friendship (cf. John 15:15)?

The Saints knew that friends become like their friends. So it was that they looked to the Cross to learn the hidden beauty of the Beatitudes. In the Eucharist, Saint Damien recognized the “one and only companion who will never leave me,” the one who is the “most tender of friends with souls who seek to please him.”  He encourages us, as do all of the Saints:

His goodness knows how to proportion itself to the smallest of His creatures as to the greatest of them. Be not afraid then in your solitary conversations, to tell Him of your miseries, your fears, your worries, of those who are dear to you, of your projects, and of your hopes. Do so with confidence and with an open heart.

This familiarity with the Lord is the key to the holiness of the Saints; it is the key to our holiness, as well.

The Saints, each in their own way, sought to imitate him who gave his life for us. These men and women became his presence in the world; they became wells of love and beacons of hope. They knew that “what the world is in particular need of today is the credible witness of people enlightened in mind and heart by the word of the Lord, and capable of opening the hearts and minds of many who desire for true life, life without end.”[4]

If you, my brothers and sisters, remain close to the Cross of our Lord; if you do not flee from it but instead embrace it; if you let your heart rest in God; then you will be such a credible witness and you will be holy. To be sure, this is not an easy task, but it is a worthy one and to this you are called.  You have been made for greatness; do not shy away from it!

As you strive for holiness, be not concerned with the opinions of your peers or of society, but keep in mind the wisdom of Gandalf the Grey: “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”[5] What will you do with the time given you? Will you seek to ascend the mountain of the Lord? Will you seek his face? He is calling you; do not stay away from him. Be a saint!

[1] Saint Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, 1.1, Henry Chadwick, trans. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 3.
[2] J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” in Tales from the Perilous Realm (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008), 389.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Pope Benedict XVI, Porta Fidei, 15.
[5] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring: Being the First Part of The Lord of the Rings (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994), 50.

03 November 2017

Ongoing Islamic State Updates - November 2017

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29 October 2017

Homily - 29 October 2017 - The Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Dear brothers and sisters,

We have rather grown into the habit of calling ourselves Christians without giving a great deal thought to what it means to bear the name of Christ. Likewise, we often think of ourselves as disciples of Jesus, but give little thought to what it means to be one. Our English word disciple has the same root as discipline. Both come from the Latin word discipulus, meaning a student or learner; discipulus itself comes from discere, meaning to learn. A disciple, then, is a follower in the sense that he or she is a student who follows the teachings of a learned man; the disciples of Christ follow him who is the great "Master and Teacher" (John 13:13). Can it be said of us who bear the name of Christian that we follow the teachings of Jesus?

Throughout the period of his earthly ministry, the Pharisees and the Sadducees followed Jesus not so much because they wanted to learn from him; they did not want to be his disciples, but instead to test him (cf. Matthew 22:35). “Teacher, which commandment is the greatest?”, one of them asked him. Though the Pharisees are often berated in homilies for attempting to trap Jesus, this is not the case with this question; it was a test, yes, but not a trap. “This is not a trick question but is designed to see if the Galilean preacher has the knowledge necessary to be teaching others about God and his will for their lives” (Matthew 22:36).[1] It was an attempt to discover if Jesus was worth following or not.

With his answer to this question, Jesus cites two important verses from the Old Testament. First, he refers to the great Schema from the Book of Deuteronomy, when Moses said to the people: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). Second, he refers to another part of the law which Moses gave to the people: “You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). By joining these two commands together, Jesus not only shows the Pharisees that he does have the knowledge necessary to teach others about God, but also that he has taken his rightful place upon the seat of Moses as both teacher and law-giver (cf. Matthew 23:2).

Christ Pantocrater. Uncial detail from the Badische Landesbibliothek, Germany.
Just after he gave them this answer, Jesus posed a question to them, a question to which “no one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day did any one dare to ask him any more questions,” lest he be shown a greater teacher than they (Matthew 22:46). The Pharisees were content to hear his answers, but were not prepared to take his answers to heart; they were not prepared to learn from him and to follow him.

Saint Luke records another occasion on which the Lord Jesus gave this answer in response to a question from one of those versed in the law. He agreed with Jesus’ answer, but “desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’” (Luke 10:29). It was, to be sure, a risky question, one Jesus answered with the parable of the good Samaritan (cf. Luke 10:30-37). In the end, as he so often does, Jesus turned the question around and put the focus on the man asking the question: “Which of these three,” Jesus asked him, “proved neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers” (Luke 10:36)? The man answered Jesus’ question correctly but failed to keep his final exhortation to “go and do likewise” because Jesus’ response deeply challenged the man’s outlook upon the world; he, too, came to Jesus to seek his answers, but not to give him his heart (Luke 10:37).

Do we not ask the same question of Jesus in an attempt to justify ourselves before God? Do we not also ask rhetorically, “And who is my neighbor?”, in the attempt to convince ourselves that we are good people, that because we have helped this person or that person that we have done enough? To us, too, Jesus asks, “Which of these … proved neighbor…?” and commands us, “go and do likewise,” yet still we hesitate to love our neighbor as ourselves.

The man who first asked that question of Jesus has less blame than us, for he had a different understanding of who his neighbor was than we do.

Until that time, the concept of “neighbor” was understood as referring essentially to one’s own countrymen and to foreigners who had settled in the land of Israel; in other words, to the closely-knit community of a single country or people. This limit is now abolished. Anyone who needs me, and whom I can help, is my neighbor. The concept of “neighbor” is now universalized, yet it remains concrete. Despite being extended to all mankind, it is not reduced to a generic, abstract and undemanding expression of love, but calls for my own practical commitment here and now… [W]e should especially mention the great parable of the Last Judgment (cf. Matthew 25:31-46), in which love becomes the criterion for the definitive decision about a human life’s worth or lack thereof. Jesus identifies himself with those in need, with the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and those in prison. “As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40). Love of God and love of neighbor have become one: in the least of the brethren we find Jesus himself, and in Jesus we find God.[2]

Now that Jesus has come and taught us, now that we have heard his teaching with authority, our responsibility for our neighbor, both near and far, is greater (cf. Matthew 7:29).

As Christians in these United States of America, we often do well caring our neighbors who are far away, but we are not always so keen to care for our neighbors at our doorstep, which is why so many either wince at or ignore the Lord’s command we heard just a few moments ago: “You shall not molest or oppress an alien, for you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:21). Many do not like these words, true though they be, because we all too often allow our politics to dictate our faith rather than allow our faith to dictate our politics, as is both right and just.

Because “the whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments” to love both God and neighbor, “no other commandment of the Bible is properly observed if either one of these is transgressed or compromised, for the aim of all divine Scripture is to bring us out of ourselves to love and serve God and our fellow human beings.”[3] Consequently, “closing our eyes to our neighbor also blinds us to God.”[4] Rather than closing our eyes to our neighbors both near and far, we should strive to imitate Saint Paul, from whose mouth “the word of the Lord has sounded forth not only in Macedonia and in Achaia, but in every place [his] faith in God [went] forth” (I Thessalonians 1:8). The word of the Lord sounded forth from his mouth because he loved God and neighbor. Does the same word of the Lord also sound forth from our mouths? Do we love God and neighbor in the same way?

Saint Paul’s preaching of the Gospel was sometimes formal, as in his speech at the Areopagus, but it was also often informal, as when he sat making tents in the marketplace (cf. Acts 17:22 and 18:3). So it is with and you me; our preaching must sometimes be formal, but it must frequently be informal as well. This is why Pope Francis is so keen to remind us that

there is a kind of preaching which falls to each of us as a daily responsibility. It has to do with bringing the Gospel to the people we meet, whether they be our neighbors or complete strangers. This is the informal preaching which takes place in the middle of a conversation… Being a disciple means being constantly ready to bring the love of Jesus to others, and this can happen unexpectedly and in any place: on the street, in a city square, during work, on a journey.[5]

It can and should happen wherever and whenever someone needs to hear or be reminded of what the Lord God himself tells us: “If he cries out to me, I will hear him; for I am compassionate” (Exodus 22:26). Jesus showed his compassion for us when he ascended the throne of his Cross to show us just how much he loves us.

The sight of the Lord’s Cross should stir each of our hearts to an ever-deeper love of God and contrition for our sins in gratitude for his merciful love toward us poor sinners. The recognition of the immensity of this love should move us toward our neighbors, to invite and encourage them “to serve the living and true God and to await his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus, who delivers us from the coming wrath” (I Thessalonians 1:9-10). May we, then, love God and neighbor in this way, so as to truly be his disciples by following him unreservedly and by conforming ourselves to his way of loving until he is formed in us (cf. Galatians 4:19). Amen.

[1] Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri, Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture: The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2010), 288.
[2] Pope Benedict XVI, Deus caritas est, 15.
[3] Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri, Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture: The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2010), 289.
[4] Pope Benedict XVI, Deus caritas est, 16.
[5] Pope Francis, Evangelii gaudium, 127.