Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Voice

“My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” (John 10:27)

In 1987, I was in the 7th grade when St. John Paul II came to Miami, and I was in the crowd when he celebrated his unfinished Mass at Tamiami Park.  He was so far away from where I was, yet I could still hear his wonderful, saintly voice speaking to us: the unmistakable voice of a shepherd.  In 2010, I was in St. Peter’s Square during the Sunday recitation of the Angelus when a tiny white figure appeared at the window of the papal apartments and you could hear the gentle, prayerful voice of Benedict XVI throughout the square: the unmistakable voice of a shepherd.  Two summers ago, I was again in St. Peter’s Square during a Wednesday audience and now you could hear the joyful, welcoming voice of Pope Francis: again, the unmistakable voice of a shepherd.  In this case, it was the voice of the current Vicar of Christ, our Universal Shepherd here on earth who reminded us this morning: “No one can be said to be a follower of Jesus, if he is not ready to listen to his voice."

These three great shepherds remind us of Christ, the Good Shepherd.  We listen to them much the same way the disciples listened to Jesus.  The voice of Jesus calls out to us this day to follow him.  We hear him, but are we listening?  The image of God as shepherd was not something new that Jesus introduced.  It is was an image that was quite present throughout the Old Testament.  God is our shepherd, and now Jesus, God with us, is telling us he is the shepherd.  Like every shepherd, his voice is distinct and authoritative.  When the sheep hear him, they follow.  But something more is required of us: we must listen to what he has to tell us.  We must single out the voice of Jesus from all the voices of the world trying to drown him out and listen to him.  Today he is quite simply telling us to follow him.  If we follow him, we will not perish.  As Pope Francis reminded us this morning: “The image of the shepherd and the sheep shows the close relationship that Jesus wants to establish with each of us. He is our guide, our teacher, our friend, our model, but above all he is our Savior.”  Which is why the image of the lamb rescued over the shepherd’s shoulders is so fitting for this day.  The Good Shepherd comes to our rescue even when we have strayed from him and can no longer hear his voice.  He comes to our rescue when we are most in need to put us on his shoulders and take us to greener pastures.  This image is what makes what Pope Francis did yesterday so remarkable.

The Pope traveled to a Greek island where there are a great concentration of refugees especially from war torn Syria.  The Holy Father said that he encountered great suffering.  Now he met with 300 refugees one by one each telling him their story.  The Pope heard a story from a Muslim father with two children who recounted how terrorists kidnapped his wife because she was a Christian, and then killed her when she refused to deny Christ.  “She is a martyr,” the Pope declared this morning.  So one by one he listened to these stories of suffering.  In our case, the shepherd also listens to his sheep, and in this particular case, even if they are not necessarily of his fold.  Yet what the Holy Father did at the end of his brief trip is what spoke volumes.  Twelve Muslim refugees from Syria boarded Shepherd One (the papal plane) and the Pope brought these refugees back to the Vatican where they would be cared for.  The shepherd almost quite literally put the sheep on his shoulders and led them to greener pastures. 

This is the image of the Good Shepherd that we should take with us this Sunday.  On this World Day of Prayer for Vocations, we pray that Christ send us shepherds after his own heart as he promised in the gospels.  We see a wonderful example of a good shepherd in our Holy Father especially with his actions in Greece with the refugees: a shepherd like Christ.  Pray for vocations and pray for your priests.  I pray every day that I can be a shepherd like Christ and like our most recent exceptional popes.  May the words you hear me say be the words of the Good Shepherd who today just simply calls us to follow him.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Breakfast With Jesus

“Jesus said to them, “Come have breakfast.” (John 21:12)

Two weeks ago, the Lord called home Mother Angelica, and in the wake of her death, I was watching some of the highlights of her show.  During one particular Bible Study she turned to her audience and said as only Mother Angelica could: “Have you every noticed what terrible fishermen the disciples were? They only caught fish when Jesus was around!”  This is totally true as we hear about another miraculous catch, but this time after the resurrection.  There is so much going on in today’s gospel that I leaned on our dear friend Father Benedict, as he likes to be called these days (you may also know him as Cardinal Ratzinger or his most famous name, Pope Benedict XVI).  When I entered seminary, my parent’s gave me a book written by Cardinal Ratzinger and I must admit that I didn’t know who this cardinal was at the time.  Yet I was transfixed by the reflections in this book, particularly his reflections on today’s gospel which he calls a morning of Easter joy for the disciples: “The freshness of the morning by the sea of Galilee gives us some inkling of the morning joy of the emerging Church in which everything is a matter of departure, beginning, and hope.”  Peter decides to go fishing, which brings him full circle (we’ll come back to this later), and the disciples join him not knowing they would all have an encounter with the Risen Christ.  Our former pope focuses on two aspects of this narrative: “First is the encounter with Jesus after the long night of wasted effort.  He stands on the bank; he has passed through the waters of time and death, and now he stands on the bank of eternity, but it is precisely from there that he sees his own and is with them.  He asks the disciples for something to eat.  This is part of the mystery of the Risen Christ, of the humility of God:  he asks men and women for their contribution.  He needs their assent.  The Lord asks us to set out for him.  He asks us to become fishers for him.”  That is the beauty of our God, the humility as Pope Emeritus Benedict puts it, that he wants us to cooperate with him in the work of salvation.  Just like he wanted to the Virgin Mary’s assent, he asks for ours as well as he sends us out to be fishers of men. 

“But then something remarkable happens,” Pope Emeritus Benedict adds.  “When the disciples return Jesus does not need their fish.  He has already prepared breakfast and now invites the disciples to eat it, he is the host who provides them with food.  The gift is mysterious but nevertheless not too hard to decipher.  The bread is he himself. `I am the bread of life.’ He is the grain of wheat that dies…Jesus is the bread, and he is also the fish that for our sake has gone down into the water of death to look for us there and to find us.  This is the lesson of the breakfast to which Jesus invites his own on the borderline of time and eternity, the eucharist. `Come and eat,’ he says to us and thus enable us already to cross the boundary of time and death.”  Again, so many things happening in this gospel: discipleship, gathering of fish, recognition of the Lord, and ultimately participation in the Divine which we experience every Sunday: the Eucharist. 

I promised I would come back to Peter’s full circle journey, so here we go.  Remember that a few months ago in the gospel, Jesus used Peter’s boat to teach the crowds and then asked the reluctant fisherman to put out into deep waters for a catch after another wasted night.  Peter protested but he obeyed and the result was the first of the miraculous catches.  Jesus assured him that he would soon be fishing men, which brings us to today.  Post-resurrection Peter is emboldened.  He sets out to fish on his own even though it is fruitless, yet Jesus makes it fruitful.  “Follow me,” Jesus says at the end of the gospel as almost to remind Peter that the fishing will only be bountiful if he follows in the Lord’s footsteps.  This emboldened Peter is seen in the first reading when he stands up to the Sanhedrin who orders him and the apostles to stop preaching about Jesus.  Peter who just two weeks ago denied he even knew the Lord and was afraid when we gathered to hear the gospel on Easter morning, is now standing up to the authorities: “The God of our ancestors raised Jesus, though you had him killed by hanging him on a tree (Act 5:30).”  So Peter goes from the cowardice of Good Friday to the boldness of Easter in proclaiming that Jesus is Lord.  This is what love does.  This is what being asked, “Do you love me?” three times does to a man.  It takes Peter’s denial, his redemption and affirmation of his love for Jesus by the lake this morning to bring him to the boldness that he exerts in the first reading where he is willing to risk his life to proclaim the Risen Lord.

This is the boldness that all of us need as we gather to have breakfast with Jesus this morning.  He needs us. He counts on us.  Yet so many times we have those pre-Resurrection moments like Peter where we deny that we even know the name of the Lord.  May this breakfast set us down the journey of true discipleship where we follow Jesus even where we “do not want to go.”  We need the courage, the boldness, and the love that Peter expressed during that fateful breakfast on the shore.  Let me ask Father Benedict to bring it home for us: “We want to ask the Lord that he will grant us to be in the shoal of the hundred and fifty-three fish of his unbroken net.  We want to ask him to grant us to let ourselves be bound and led by him even against our will.  We want to ask him that our eyes may be opened and that like Peter we recognize him and learn to say, full of joy: `It is the Lord.’ Amen.”*

*(“Ministers of Your Joy” by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, 1988, pp.55-66)

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Waiting for Judas

“Give thanks to the Lord for he is good, for his mercy is everlasting.” (Psalm 118:1)

There’s a story that apparently is part of church legend, but I did not hear until last night when I was listening to the homily of an archbishop from up north.  It goes something like this:  On the day of the final judgment, the day of victory when evil and the devil’s minions are finally vanquished, there is obviously great rejoicing in heaven.  Everyone is singing and dancing in paradise except Jesus who is standing quietly at the gates of heaven.  Someone goes and asks the Lord why he is standing there, to which Jesus replies: “I am waiting for Judas.”  This story is so powerful because it reminds us that Jesus never gives up on any of us.  He is always ready to forgive even the ones who have betrayed him.

This is a great lesson on Divine Mercy Sunday that takes on a special meaning during this Jubilee Year of Mercy.  God is always ready to forgive and reach out to us even in the darkest moments of our sinfulness.  Even when we think we have done something so horrendous that we feel does not merit God’s mercy, he gives it to us anyways for as the psalm reminds us: his mercy is everlasting, it knows no bounds.  Look at the disciples in today’s gospel who are still hiding in fear after Christ died.  I mentioned this in passing last week, but all of these men, except John, deserted Jesus while he was on the cross.  Yet when Christ appears before them, he does not seek vengeance or an explanation, he simply gives the disciples what they had been missing in their hearts: peace.   “Peace be with you,” the Lord says three times today.  Peace is what we get when mercy is given to us.  Peace is what we feel when we are embraced by the merciful arms of a God who waits patiently for us.

This morning Pope Francis defined mercy as “the bridge between God and man; opening our hearts to the hope of being loved.”  That was the problem with Judas.  He had his own agenda.  His heart was closed off to being truly loved by Christ.  Thomas, on the other hand, though he doubted upon receiving Christ’s mercy and peace allowed his heart to be so overcome that he exclaimed “my Lord and my God.” God’s mercy transforms hearts, and it should transform us in such a way that we are merciful towards others.  Mercy must be an act, not just a warm and fuzzy feeling we get after coming out of confession.  There are so many instances in the gospels where people who experience Jesus’ mercy through healing or forgiveness immediately go and share the good news of that mercy with others.  I was discussing this with a priest friend of mine yesterday and we lamented how quick we are to seek the Lord’s mercy, but how slow we are to be merciful to others.  So be merciful just as your Father in heaven is merciful as Jesus reminds us in Luke’s gospel. 

Today we celebrate that God’s mercy triumphs over even the darkest of sins, and as a priest I experienced that mercy first hand during those long hours in the confessional during Holy Week.  I read an article on a Catholic website the other day that the Sacrament of Reconciliation was dying.  Well, my parishioners apparently never got that memo because that south wall of the church always had a long line whenever the confessionals were open during Holy Week.  God’s mercy has triumphed.  This is the cause of our joy.  So if you haven’t experienced this mercy and joy because you feel that your sins are unforgivable, just think about that story I told earlier.  If Jesus would wait for Judas because he hadn’t given up on him, how could he possibly give up on you?