Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Gaze of Jesus

“But you have mercy on all, because you can do all things; and you overlook people's sins that they may repent.” (Wisdom 11:23)

You never know when God’s mercy will embrace you, you never know when you will feel the need to receive God’s mercy right away, and, as a priest, you never know when you will be called upon to dispense God’s mercy through confession.  It happens to priests all the time.  When we least expect it, someone will grab us for confession. We can be working on something, walking through a hospital, an airport, or even relaxing on a beach when someone will grab us to ask us to hear their confession (yes, the beach confession has happened).  On this Priesthood Sunday, as priests we are reminded that we are Ministers of Mercy in a unique way through the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  That so many times people will stop us before Mass, after Mass, or whenever or wherever they can find us to ask for forgiveness and we need to be ready to hear their confession.

Today God’s mercy hits the tax collector in the gospel in an unexpected way.   Jesus was just intending to pass through town when he looks up and sees small Zacchaeus in a sycamore tree trying to get a glimpse of Jesus.  This is the moment where God’s mercy strikes:  the gaze of Jesus, then the invitation of Jesus to abide in your home.  This tax collector was simply “seeking to see Jesus.”  The gospel writer doesn’t tell us Zacchaeus’ intentions or his reasons for wanting to see the Lord.  But whatever his motives were, whatever was in his heart, even if it was simple curiosity to see Jesus, it was enough to catch the Lord’s attention.  All Jesus needs is the tiniest of openings.  When Zacchaeus comes out of the tree, he hears the grumblings.  He hears the chatter.  “How can Jesus be with this sinner?”  Even through the gossip of others, God’s uses this sin to draw out something greater in Zacchaeus’ acts of repentance.  He will give half of what he has to the poor and pay back anyone he has extorted 4 times over!  So Jesus enters his life, he experiences his mercy and we immediately see the results.  “Today salvation has come to this house,” Jesus tells him, “because this man too is a descendant of Abraham.”  You see when Jesus looked up into that tree, he didn’t see a tax collector, he didn’t see a sinner, what he saw was a child of God.  The beauty of God’s mercy is that it looks past our faults, our imperfections and our sins.  It embraces us always because we are his children.  Now if we could only apply that same mercy to each other…

We hear the people grumbling in the gospel.  They don’t like that Jesus had treated such a sinful man in this way.  They don’t have rooms in their hearts for mercy.  Just like last week, we see division.  Last week we saw the gulf that separated the Pharisee and the tax collector and this week we see the gulf between Zacchaeus and the people that were looking on and grumbling.  They only saw in Zacchaeus a thief and a tax collector.  Jesus saw a child of God in need of mercy.  If we could only treat each other with more mercy, more respect, more like Jesus treated this tax collector, and how Zacchaeus, in turn, started treating everyone else.  We spend so much time demonizing those who are sinners or that simply don’t agree with us that we fail to see that ALL of us are children of God and that ALL of us are in need of his mercy.  If we could only see each other with the gaze of Jesus.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Lifted Up

“As long as Moses kept his hands raised up, Israel had the better of the fight, but when he let his hands rest, Amalek had the better of the fight.” (Exodus 17:11)

Today was supposed to be the third and last of my discipleship homilies that I've been delivering at every Mass to cap off our Discipleship Campaign. Alas, it was not part of God's plan.  This past Wednesday I noticed that my voice was giving out and that preaching 16 homilies over the last two weekends was beginning to take its toll. When I could barely make it through the homily at the school Mass on Friday morning, I realized that the Lord had other plans for our parish this weekend and I asked the other priests in the parish to prepare their Sunday homilies. 

The story in today's first reading took on a different meaning for me last night as I reflected on it.  Moses is praying for his soldiers down below and is assisted by Aaron and Hur. I really wanted to give those final 8 homilies this weekend on these readings and finish this campaign as we had planned it. But I couldn't do it on my own. I needed the help of my brother priests, and my physical limitations the last few days actually made me reflect on all that the rest of you do to assist me in making this parish great. It allowed me to reflect and be thankful for the Aarons and Hurs in this parish that not only lift me up but that lift all of you up to help you to do the work of God. This is the work of the praying Church.  There are so many people who exist behind the scenes who lift up this parish with their quiet sacrifices of time, talent and treasure.  I was listening to Bishop Robert Barron's homily on this reading last night and he asked us to reflect on all those people who so very generously and quietly donate their hard earned money for the works of the church and in doing so are holding up the arms of the praying church like Moses' hands are help up so that the Church can continue its mission, it's battle if you will, to work for justice in an unjust world.  In this parish, we are thankful for those who weekly sacrifice so much in the collection basket so that our parish can continue doing its work here in our local community. I also thought about your overwhelming generosity last week when we took up the collection for the victims of Hurricane Matthew. So many are suffering particularly in Haiti and you enabled the work of the Church to directly help those who have nowhere else to turn to but the Church.

And then I think of all those who lift up the arms of the Church through their prayers. Prayer: the center of today's gospel. Prayer is what keeps this parish alive. Prayer is the undercurrent and the source of all the good works that we do here. When I think of all the people that visit our Adoration Chapel each day to pray before the Blessed Sacrament, I realize how blessed we are as a parish. There are people that visit every day, some as early as 5:30am, and are persistent in their prayers as the widow in the gospel. This is one of the reasons why I wanted to preach this weekend, so I could joyfully announce that this week, the monstrance and the Blessed Sacrament exposed for adoration will return to our tiny chapel. We have waited far too long for this return, but we need adoration of our Living God now more than ever.

Everything I have preached about the last three weeks needs to be lifted up in prayer. All our works need to be assisted in prayer. I feel your prayers every single day and I am blessed, but now we need to pray for each other. We need to pray persistently, stubbornly, asking the Lord for the impossible because everything is possible for him. We need to pray that we continue to go and make disciples, that we continue being a Eucharistic people, and that we continue opening our arms to all so that everyone continues to see Immaculate as home and continues to feel that they are part of a great spiritual family. We are called to lift each other up in prayer. When we fail each other, when we fail to lift up the arms of the praying Church, just like when Moses’ arms fell, our spiritual army will start to fail. But when we lift up the arms of Holy Mother Church towards God in prayer, there is no limit to what our Immaculate family can accomplish. So I ask you his week: how much time do you spend daily in genuine prayer?  Not just praying an Our Father or reading off a daily prayer from a book, which is all well and good, I mean genuine sitting in silence type prayer.  I mean “having a cup of coffee with Jesus” type prayer as my friend, Father Jose Alvarez likes to prescribe as penances.  This is the type of prayer that is needed to lift up this parish and to make the impossible happen.  So I ask you as we conclude this campaign of discipleship to be persistent in your prayer life.  Pray for me, pray for each other, and pray for our parish. The work of going out to make disciples and bringing them home has only just begun.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Rebuild My Church

“Ten were cleansed, were they not? Where are the other nine? Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?” (Luke 17:17-18)

This past Tuesday we celebrated the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi.  He is my patron saint (it’s my middle name) and I chose him for my confirmation saint.  Two weeks before I became pastor of this parish, I travelled to Assisi for the very first time.  After our tour of the town and the tombs of Saints Francis and Claire, I asked our tour guide how I could get to San Damiano: a small chapel on the outskirts of town. Why did I want to go there?  Well, for those who don’t know the story of St. Francis in San Damiano here goes:  When Francis was discerning his vocation, he retreated to this small chapel which laid in ruins.  All that was left there was a cross and the saint heard the Lord say to him, “Francis, rebuild my church.”  Now Francis saw this as a tangible sign from the Lord to do something concrete with his life and he started literally rebuilding San Damiano stone by stone.  But there was also a deeper meaning behind this invitation, for Francis would turn out to be a transformative figure in the Church of the 13th century as the universal Church needed some rebuilding as well and the Franciscans would breathe some life into an aristocratic and “too wealthy for its own good” Church.”  So I wanted to travel to where St. Francis had heard the voice of the Lord, and even though it was late in the day and the chapel was closed, I convinced a taxi driver to take my mother, a friend, and myself to San Damiano. 

I said in one of my pilgrimage videos three months ago, that if Assisi is the most peaceful place on earth, then San Damiano is the most peaceful place in Assisi.  We arrived and I asked the taxi driver to wait for us and to keep the meter running because it was a long walk back into town and it was getting late.  The meter didn’t matter to me.  I was transfixed by this place.  I stood staring at this chapel that St. Francis had rebuilt with his two hands and thought about the mission that I was about to embark on as soon as I returned home.  I kept repeating the words of Jesus to Francis in my head: “rebuild my church.”  When it was time to go, you can see in the picture below that while my feet look ready to leave, my head is still firmly pointing towards the chapel.  I did not want to leave, but just as the disciples had to descend from Mount Tabor, I too had to get down from this mountain to begin my new mission.  What was going through my mind in that picture below?  I was thinking of all the incredible parishioners that I had yet to meet. I was thinking about rebuilding a church.  I was thinking of Immaculate Conception.

Now you may think there’s nothing wrong with our parish, that no rebuilding is needed here.  We come to Mass; things go smoothly, so no problem.  But that’s not the Church that our Lord envisioned.  We are an apostolic Church!  Called to go out and not to be merely pew dwellers. 

Last week, I referenced the first part of our mission statement that focused on being disciples.  This week, the focus is on us being a “Eucharistic people called to go out and bring the presence of Christ into the world.”  What does it mean to be “Eucharistic?” Well, just look at today’s gospel.  Eucharist means thanksgiving and we see one of the ten lepers come back glorifying God and thanking Him for being cured.  This spirit of thanksgiving is how we should live our lives.  (We must be thankful this week especially because we were spared from the hurricane.)  Being Eucharistic also means being the presence of Christ in the world because Jesus asks a very important question when this leper returns: “Where are the other nine?”  The statistic of 1 in 10 used in the gospel is the same statistic the Archbishop constantly reminds his priests of: only 1 in 10 Catholics in the Archdiocese go to Mass.  So it’s up to us to go out and find the other nine.  It’s up to us to be apostolic.  It’s up to us to be a Eucharistic people.  It’s up to us to rebuild this church together!  All of us are living stone, as we hear in 1 Peter 2:5, that make up this beautiful parish, but there are many stones that are missing.  I give thanks to God for the ones that are here and are doing great works, but now we must invite others to be part of this continual rebuilding process.  God has blessed us with so much, how do we repay him and how do we help him rebuild his church?

Monday, October 3, 2016

The Inconvenient Truths of Our Faith (10/3/2010)

(I preached this homily on Respect Life Sunday, October 3, 2010. Sadly these words still ring true today.)

“For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but rather of power and love and self-control. So do not be ashamed of your testimony to our Lord." (2 Tim 1:7-8a)

In the today’s gospel, the apostles asked the Lord to increase their faith, and my friends we need our faith to increase as well in the world that we live in.  We need that faith to confront the violence that we hear about in the first reading.   The prophet is pointing out the social ills of his time.  As Catholics, many of us have fallen silent to the social ills of our times.  These ills have become so much a part of our society that we accept it as normal.  All around us we see the violence the prophet in the first reading talks about, but we shrug it off and continue living our lives.  Even in my preaching I have unfortunately fallen silent over the last several years to the issues that concern the dignity and sacredness of human life.  Today is Respect Life Sunday and I cannot be silent anymore to the indifference I see in my people towards life issues, and as Catholics we cannot and should not be silent when we see human life from conception to death being assaulted in so many ways.  We must stand up for the unborn and for the dying no matter what the consequence and stand up to all assaults on human dignity.  St. Paul tells Timothy in today’s second reading:  “For God did not give us a spirit of cowardicebut rather of power and love and self-control. So do not be ashamed of your testimony to our Lord (2 Tim 1:7-8a).”  Yet we are still ashamed to stand up for human life.  The tragic consequence of our silence is 4000 unborn children dying every day in our country. 

My friends, we must be committed to promoting what John Paul II called a culture of life and rejecting the culture of death that surrounds us.  This culture of life is not simply limited to protecting the unborn, but to protecting all those who have no voice:  the dying elderly, the disabled, the immigrant.  In his Installation Homily last June, Archbishop Wenski told us that we could not reduce the human being to a mere problem.  We cannot look for quick or expedient solutions that are convenient.  We live in a society that when confronted with a problem we “take care of it.”  If a woman finds herself with an unexpected pregnancy, she has the right in this country to "take care of it" as if the sacred life inside her womb were reduced to a headache or a cold that we want to get rid of.  The Archbishop went on to say that as Catholics there should be no such thing as "problem pregnancy-only a child who is to be welcome in life and protected by law."  I have always preached this, but it never became more real to me than when my first nephew was conceived.  You see the world would have seen this as a "problem or unexpected pregnancy" but his father and mother saw him as blessing from God.  As a celibate priest with no biological children of my own, I could not imagine my life without my nephew who turns five next month.  I could not imagine a world where I do not hear his little voice ring out in church yelling my name because he just wants to run up to the altar to give me a hug and celebrate Mass with me.  Which is why I thank the Lord for his life and because his father and his mother said yes to life as well.

Upholding the dignity of human life also means upholding the church’s teaching on contraception which is also a convenient means to eliminate a problem but tragically removes the total, self-giving love that a man and a woman are meant to share in marriage.  Unfortunately, this is not a problem that is exclusive to married couples, but that our teenagers confront and sometimes not on their own.  We are plagued with “well-intentioned” parents who fearing that their teenagers may be sexually active will provide for them contraceptives or put their daughters on the pill to prevent an unwanted pregnancy.  What message does this send to our children?  How does that help us promote the sanctity of human life and the sacredness of human sexuality?  What we are doing is giving our teenagers a blank check to give in to the temptations of society instead of upholding the beauty of chaste love that our Creator only intended to be shared between a husband and wife.  “But Father, you’re living in the past.  We have to protect our children.”  NO!  I’m very much living in the present and seek to protect our children because too many times I have had to console young people who have been exposed to things that they were not physically, spiritually, or emotionally ready to confront.  Sure they may have avoided a pregnancy, but were exposed to illnesses both physical and psychological that could have been prevented.  Cherishing human life goes beyond protecting the unborn, but cherishing the gift to create life that God gave us.  When we expose our children to the ills of this world even under the guise of protecting them, we are participating in a culture that reduces human sexuality to a casual encounter, a sport, and not the sacred expression of love created by our loving God.

It is not my intention to make anyone feel guilty for past transgressions against the dignity of human life, but rather to open our eyes to see the truth that lies before us.  We either see the truth of living a life following the precepts of Jesus Christ or the truth of a world that has turned its back on its Redeemer.  As Catholics, we cannot stay silent.  4000 babies a day, countless elderly being killed in the name of mercy, human sexuality being distorted for the sake of casual pleasure and convenience, immigrants being treated like modern day lepers, embryos being destroyed to harvest their stem cells for the sake of medical research.  God has blessed the human race with extraordinary intelligence and ingenuity, but do you actually think he would have us find the cure for cancer, paralysis, or AIDS by destroying human life?  We cannot arrive at a common good by doing something intrinsically evil.  So Respect Life goes beyond the tragedy of abortion and brings to light the different facets of a culture of death that we as Catholics are called to transform.  God has not given you a spirit of cowardice.   He has anointed each of you with the Holy Spirit to speak the truth in every aspect of our lives.  We cannot discard the central teachings of our faith for the sake of convenience or because we are ashamed to stand up to the evils of society.  At the end of the first reading, the prophet who observed all of this violence and all of the social ills of his time starts to see hope as he sees the love of God transforming the world.  That love has been poured out into our hearts so that we can speak up and with great love proclaim the truth and proclaim to the entire world that human life is sacred from the moment of conception, throughout our lives, and all the way up to that moment where God calls us home to experience eternal life.  "Increase our faith."  This should be our cry as we ask the Lord to transform hearts and minds.  October is not only Respect Life Month, but it is also the moth of the Rosary.  When was the last time you prayed the rosary.  We have at our disposal an weapon of peace in which we invoke the our Blessed Mother to protect the unborn, to give us the courage to stand up for faith even, and to help transform the heart of this nation.  I have come to the conclusion that the assault on human life in this country does not have a political or judicial solution.  It must be a spiritual solution where hearts are converted.  If we persevere in prayer and proclaim our faith with courage, abortion will one day join slavery on the ash pile of history.  Until then, we must lift up our voices, for we cannot afford to be silent anymore.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Lord Increase Our Faith...To Be Better Disciples

(This is part 1 of three part series of homilies on discipleship that I will be delivering in my parish this month.)

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith.” (Luke 17:5)

It took a certain level of humility for the disciples to ask the Lord to increase their faith.  They realized they needed more faith to live up to the calling the Lord had given them. 

This is where we are this Sunday here at Immaculate.  Asking the Lord to increase our faith as we seek to deepen our relationship with him, as we seek to live up to our calling to be disciples, and as we seek to go and make disciples.

Over the past few weeks, you’ve been reading in the bulletin how we are in the middle of a Discipleship Campaign and that we unveiled a mission statement.  Why are we doing this?  Well quite frankly, just as St. John XXIII did over 50 years ago, we need to let some fresh air into this church, and allow for the Spirit to do great things in us.  We need a mission and we need a vision.

We already have a mission.  Jesus told us as the end of the gospel of Matthew: “Go and make disciples.”  I’ve been reading this wonderful book on how a parish in Baltimore was rebuilt, and their pastor had this to say: “Mission is why we exist. Every parish exists for the same reason…[to `go and make disciples.’] Disciples are students of Jesus Christ.  We’re in the disciple-making business.  That’s our why….vision is [our] what.  Vision is a picture of what could be and should be…Without a vision for our churches and the impact God wants to have through us, bad things can happen…people go off course…As a church, vision means looking to people we are not reaching but should be.  Vision is about solving problems and removing the lids that keep our churches from reaching new people.  To only reach the people you’re reaching now, just keep doing what you’re doing.”  But as your pastor, I’m not satisfied with that.  The Archbishop calls doing what we’re doing “spiritual navel gazing.”  “We need to be looking to a future in which we are bringing new people into a relationship with Christ by doing new things.”

Let me go back that point of removing the lids that keeps our church from reaching new people.  This is where the ministry of hospitality comes in.  Many of you who walked through the main entrance may have noticed a welcome table as you walked into church. I want our parish to excel in the virtue of hospitality.  We need to be a welcoming community.  The letter to the Hebrews tells us: “Do not neglect hospitality, for through it some have unknowingly entertained angels.” (Hebrews 13:2)  So we need to welcome the stranger, reach out to the fellow parishioner we do not know, and embrace everyone around us. I’ve said this countless times: we do not come to Mass by ourselves.  We celebrate Mass as a community.

So it’s time for our parish and parishioners to open the doors of our hearts to everyone.  The purpose of this Discipleship Campaign is to remind us who we are as Christians and to empower you to follow the Lord’s command to “Go and make disciples.”  I’m challenging you to go out and to bring new people into this church. That’s start with investing yourself in the mission of the parish.

One last things about this vision, it is also “about identifying ways [our parishioners] should be increasingly transformed by Christ.”  And here is where all of us, including your pastor, need to change: we need to approach Mass every Sunday with the expectation that Christ will transform us and do something new in us.  That is what takes place in the Eucharist.  We need to be better at hospitality, we need to be better at outreach, we need to be better at leaving old ways of doing things behind, but in order to accomplish any of that, we need to get closer to Jesus Christ and allow him to transform us.  The Lord expects great things from us.

My friends, this is a new day for Immaculate.  We are committing ourselves to discipleship. We need to ask the Lord to increase our faith because this is a big endeavor we are undertaking.  We are committing ourselves to excelling as a parish in how we live out our Christianity.  Yes, Jesus does expect great things from us.  We need to be like the servants at the end of today’s gospel:  When you have done all you have been commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do.’”

Now I leave with the following question for you to ponder this coming week:  “As a parishioner of Immaculate Conception, am I doing what I am obliged to do?”