Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Holy Spirit Will Help You Speak the Language of the Body in Truth

Homily from the Solemnity of Pentecost Sunday - Year B

In the first book of the Bible, Genesis, we hear a number of stories about man’s rejection of God’s authority and man’s attempt to seize that authority for himself.  Of course, we’re all familiar with the story of the fall of Adam and Eve in their grasping for the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Then there’s the story of Cain slaying his brother Abel out of envy.  And then there’s the wickedness of virtually all humanity that leads to the flood out of which the only righteous man on earth, Noah, and his family are spared.
Another, perhaps lesser known, story of man’s rejection of God’s authority is the story of the Tower of Babel.  Not long after the flood, men settled in the Kingdom of Babel.  And Scripture tells us, they decided to build for themselves a city with a massive tower  whose top reaches into the heavens and thus, make a name for themselves.  The name “Babel” means “gate of God” and the tower was man’s attempt to force entry into heaven.
Seeing this attempt by man to elevate themselves to the level of God, the Lord scatters the people and confuses their language, thus halting their attempt to force their way into heaven.
Now, skip ahead several thousand years, to today’s first reading.  On Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descends upon the Apostles as tongues of flame and empowers them to speak in all the known languages of the world, thus reversing the confused speech of Babel.  The people, once scattered, are now re-gathered into Christ’s universal, or Catholic, Church.  And following the multi-lingual preaching of the Apostles, nations of peoples hear the Gospel, are baptized by the thousands and enter the life of the Church.
I used to wonder to myself, not so long ago, “Why doesn’t God do that today?”  There are still so many people who do not yet know the Gospel  Why doesn’t God work a miracle today giving us the ability to speak new languages instantly so we could just run off as missionaries to China, North Korea or Iran and spread the Good News.
Well, I would argue that the Holy Spirit does in fact empower us to speak new languages.  However, I also think He is calling most of us to speak new languages right here in our own country, in our own communities amidst our everyday friendships.
There is a single, common language that every human being from the beginning of time until now has spoken.  And that’s the Language of the Body.
What is the Language of the Body?  You are all familiar with it; you speak it everyday.
It’s what Blessed Pope John Paul II described in his “Theology of the Body” as the capability of the body to speak its own language and to communicate without words.  This “Language of the Body” can be something positive like a hug, or negative like a not-so-friendly gesture in traffic.  For example, consider when Judas kissed Jesus while betraying Him (Mk 14:45).  Judas’ body said one thing, but his heart clearly said another.  Like the men of the Kingdom of Babel, Judas’ rejection of God’s authority lead to him to speaking a confused language of the Body.
Sadly, this confusion has existed for all time.  St. Paul talks about it in our second reading: “Desire of the flesh... against the Spirit... immorality, impurity, lust, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, rivalry, jealousy, outbursts of fury, acts of selfishness, dissensions, factions, occasions of envy, drinking bouts, orgies and the like.” (Gal 5:17-21).
And this confused Language of the Body continues today.  Hooking up and breaking up, sex without commitment, pornography, contraception
For every relationship, there is a specific Language of the Body.  You kiss mom goodbye; you don’t kiss the mailman.  You hold your younger sibling’s hand as you cross the street; you don’t hold the hand of a stranger.
Think for a moment about what is being said via the Language of the Body through sexual intercourse.  What is being said?  What is being communicated without words?

  • “I am completely yours.”
  • “I belong totally and exclusively to you.”
  • “I am willing to be completely vulnerable to you.”
  • “I entrust myself completely to you and you can entrust yourself completely to me.”
  • “I give you everything that I am; I hold nothing back from you.”
  • “I welcome God’s gift of new life through our love.”
  • “I will be with you always, all the days of my life.”
  • “This is my body, given up for you.”
So, what relationship is the proper place for this Language of the Body?  Obviously, a relationship in which a man and a woman have vowed themselves to each other.  A relationship in which they have vowed themselves to permanence, exclusivity, and fruitfulness.  The relationship between a husband and wife in vowed, covenantal love.
Sometimes we speak the Language of the Body well for our particular state in life.  Sometimes we stutter.  And sometimes we need a refresher course.  Here’s the Good News: Jesus wants us to know how to speak the Language of the Body with eloquence and beauty.  In our Gospel, Jesus says, “I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now.  But when he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth.” (Jn 16:12-13)  Just as he empowered the Apostles to speak new languages at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit wishes to teach us how to speak the Language of the Body in truth; to change our babble into a new Pentecost.
So, teens, here is your Pentecost moment.  This summer, we are going to teach you Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body.  You and Sarah Hill, our Core members and I will get together on Thursday nights at 7 throughout the summer beginning June 7th.  And we’re going to study and live out this life-changing teaching.
And I don’t think I’m overstating anything when I say, I think this could be the most important lesson you ever learn.  Because the Language of the Body spoken between man and woman is among the most profound expressions of human communication.  How we communicate with one another, how we give and receive one another in love, how we enter into union with one another here on earth, has the most profound consequence for how we will enter into union with God.

A couple of weeks ago, I quoted from the movie “Gladiator” starring Russell Crowe.  I’ll use his words again.  Immediately before a battle, Russell Crowe’s character, a Roman general, says to his troops: “What we do in life, echoes in eternity.”  How we speak the Language of the Body in life, echoes in eternity.  Join us this summer, learn the Language of the Body, and receive the fruits of the Holy Spirit.  “Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness [and] self-control.” (Gal 5:22-23)

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Life Teen Wants You

Homily from the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord - Year B

If you knew you were about to leave this earth, or leave your loved ones behind, what would your parting words be?
Often times, someone’s parting words are poetic and inspiring.  As he lay on his death bed, General “Stonewall” Jackson’s last words were, “Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the tree.”
And other times, someone’s last words are just downright funny.  As the philosopher Voltaire lay dying, he was asked by a priest to renounce Satan, he replied, “Now, now my good man, this is no time for making enemies.”
In today’s Gospel, we hear Jesus’ last words before ascending to the Father  They are neither his dying words, nor were they intended to be a joke.  However, seeing as how they are the Son of God’s last words to humanity, you can bet they are his most important.
“Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature.”  Jesus’ parting words are a commandment, an instruction, for you and I to go on a mission of evangelization.
My friends, evangelization, is simply the most important work of a Christian.  It is the most important work of the Church.  In his Apostolic Exhortation on evangelization, Evangelii Nuntiandi, Pope Paul VI calls evangelization the “deepest identity” of the Church.  Not only is evangelization the “deepest identity” of the Church, the Pope says, it is the very reason why Christ established his Church.  “[The Church] exists in order to evangelize,” the Pope says.  “To preach and teach, to be the channel of the gift of grace, to reconcile sinners with God and to perpetuate Christ’s sacrifice in the Mass” (Evangelii Nuntiandi, #14).
Now, the work of evangelization is not limited solely to missionaries. It is the work of all of us.
And the recipients of evangelization are not limited to peoples of far away lands who have never heard of Jesus Christ  All of us, are in constant need of evangelization and reevangelization.
This is what Blessed Pope John Paul II called, “The New Evangelization.”  The need, if you will, to fan the embers of a faint or dying faith into flame.

“It is necessary,” the Pope said, “to awaken again in believers a full relationship with Christ.”  And the Holy Father stressed over and over again the great need for a new evangelization of our young people: “In its ever renewed encounter with man,” the Pope said, “evangelization is linked to generational change... the Church is always looking toward the future.  She constantly goes out to meet new generations.”  One of the most joy-filled and exciting experiences of the New Evangelization I have witnessed at St. Vincent’s is our high school youth ministry program: Life Teen.  Life Teen truly is a fan in the hand of our Lord, wafting the breath of the Holy Spirit onto those young embers of faith, fanning them into a great flame.  And our young people have indeed been set aflame.
This past Spring, a record number of teens attended the Life Teen retreat.  On Wednesday nights, they gather again for what we call Ministry Hour, a night of catechesis.  We used to see about a dozen or so come each Wednesday night.  Now, that number has grown into the 40’s and 50’s.  And of course, look at what Life Teen has done to support vocations.  Last year, the Coonan brothers were ordained to the priesthood.  Last week, Chris Lapp was ordained to the diaconate.  Next week, one of our former Core members, Ben Muhlenkamp will be ordained to the priesthood.  And our parish has 5 other men in seminary formation for the priesthood.
And I expect the Holy Spirit will continue to bless our parish with more vocations.  Over the past 9 months, nearly a dozen of our teens, both boys and girls, have come up to me, completely unsolicited, and said, “Father, I’m thinking about a vocation to the priesthood or religious life.”
But it’s not just about vocations to the priesthood and religious life.  The evangelization mission of Life Teen also prepares our young people for holy marriages and families.  It cultivates a life of holiness for young singles.  And it instills virtues and values in the world’s future Catholic doctors, lawyers, business owners and politicians.
As I said, we’ve seen an upsurge in the zeal of our teens lately.  They want to know Christ more intimately and they want to get to Heaven.
So, I have a gift I want to give you.  I want you to imagine looking at a vocations poster years from now and seeing the face of a young man or young woman you ministered to as a Life Teen Core member.

I want you to imagine a young couple you ministered to as a Life Teen Core member and hearing them ask you to be a godparent to their first born child.

I want you to imagine the teens you ministered to as Life Teen Core member, years from now ministering to your own sons and daughters.

I want you to imagine walking through the gates of Heaven and being greeted someone, who many years ago, was on the verge of falling away from the faith, but decided to hang on, simply because you were there.  Imagine that person saying, “Thank you for leading me closer to Christ.”

Because that’s what Life Teen does.  That’s what an adult Core member does.

And that’s the gift I want to give you.  I want to invite you to prayerfully discern ministering to our teens.  We are so blessed to have a dozen or so Core members currently minister to our sons and daughters.  I pray to the Holy Spirit that he will inspire you such that that number doubles this weekend.
Our high school youth minister, Sarah Hill, will be sharing a few, brief words with you about Life Teen during today’s announcements.  I ask you to please stay and give her your attention.  Then, Sarah and I will be in the gathering space after Mass, to talk to you about the gift God may be asking you to receive.  The commission Christ has given you: to “go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature.”

Sunday, May 13, 2012

God Loves Us First

Homily from the 6th Sunday of Easter - Year B

The protagonist of a story is the main character around whom all the action centers.  The protagonist of The Lord of the Rings trilogy is Frodo Baggins.  The protagonist of Gone With the Wind is Scarlett O’Hara.  The protagonist of The Hunger Games is Katniss Everdeen.
So, if I were to ask you who is the protagonist in the story of your life, you would probably say "me."  However, you would be wrong.
The protagonist of the story of our lives, the main character around whom all the action centers, is not us.
It is God.
God is the main character in our lives not just because He is omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent.  God is the main character in our lives because He is the great initiator.  What do I mean?
In our readings today, we hear two key phrases (one in St. John’s letter, the other in the Gospel according to John) which tell us how God initiates the first action in our lives.  In the second reading, St. John’s letter, John says, “In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that He loved us.”  Here, we see that the love we have for God is not something of our own initiative or our own doing.  Rather, it is simply the response to the initiative God takes with us.  Before we can ever love God, He loves us first.
And in the the Gospel, Jesus tells us, “It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you.”  Again, choosing God is not something we decide to do as it were.  Rather, God chooses us first.  Our choosing him, is simply our response.
Maybe you’ve heard stories about how inmates on death row “found” Jesus while awaiting their death sentence.
In reality, it was not them who found Jesus, but Jesus who found them first.
Now the question is, “Why does this matter?  What’s the big deal?”  It seems simple enough right?  God loves us first, we respond.  But perhaps that’s not how we always see our relationship with God or with one another for that matter?
What do I mean?  It’s this: How often do we try to “earn” the love of another?  I would venture to say quite often.

When a young person falls in love, experiences a crush, often they will do anything to gain the attention and the affection of the object of their desire.  And in their mind they will say, “If I do this for this person, they will appreciate me.”  “If I say this to this person, they will respect me.”  “If I look this way, if I’m prettier or more athletic, if I am more handsome or witty, they will love me.”
But that isn’t love.  That is merely appealing to the needs of another and offering oneself as the solution to those needs.  “Oh, you want to laugh, I can make you laugh, now love me.”  “Oh, you want to be seen with a good looking partner, here I am.  Now will you love me in return?”
And that’s not the relationship God wishes to have with us.  There is nothing we can do to “earn” God’s love.  There is nothing we can offer God to make Him love us.  Because God has no need of us.  We can’t say to God, “God, I’m pretty” or “God, I’m funny” or even “God, I’m holy, now will you love me in return?”
Because God already loves us.  He loves us before we even exist.  Jeremiah 1:5 says, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you.”
Earlier this week, a man came to my office to discuss some matters and we got on the topic of homilies.  He said, “Father, we need to hear more catechetical homilies.  We don’t know our faith as well as we should.”  Then he said, “When I hear a ‘God loves you’ homily, I tune out.  And I’m thinking to myself, “Well, you’re gonna love this one.”
We need to hear God loves us.  Perhaps we don’t hear it enough.  I know there are some who don’t believe it.  I spoke with another man this week who expressed this pain of not knowing the Father’s love.  And I told him I could prove God’s love for him.  “You exist,” I said.  None of us could exist without the love of God.  As I said, He has no need for us, so were not here for some utilitarian purpose.  We are here because God chooses to love us, not for His sake or need, but for ours.
And its very fitting that we talk about this kind of love on this Mother’s Day weekend.  Mother’s know very well what it means to love as God loves.  Like God, they love their children long before their children love them.  Months before your children ever set eyes on you, you love them as they grow in the womb.  So you mothers know well what St. John means when he says of God’s love, “not that we have loved God, but that He loved us.”  “It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you.”
Can your children do anything to “earn” your love?  No, of course not, you simply love them.
And in this month of May, in which we give particular honor to Mary, we see a shining example of how God loves first.  She is immaculately conceived; born without original sin.  Not because of any personal merit of her own, but because of the pure gift of the Father.  Before Mary loved the Father, the Father loved her.
So the Father loves us.  Not because we are pretty, handsome, smart or athletic.  But because God’s love is purely of His doing and not ours.

You are loved, not because of who you are, but because of who God is.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Remain in Me... As One

Homily from the 5th Sunday of Easter - Year B

There’s a scene in the movie Gladiator where a batch of new, inexperienced gladiators are sent to the Colosseum for the first time to fight for their lives.  Immediately before facing their enemies, the leader of the group, played by Russell Crowe, tells his comrades,  “Whatever comes out of these gates, we’ve got a better chance of survival if we work together.
If we stay together, we survive.”
The gates open, and through them rush several chariots of armed soldiers bearing down upon the smaller band of foot soldiers.  The charioteers and their soldiers swiftly circle the gladiators and start picking them off one by one.
Crowe shouts to the others to form a circle with their backs to one another: “Come together!  Lock your shields!  Stay as one!”  His friends shout back.  “As one!  As one!”  As a chariot comes charging at them, Crowe shouts, “Hold!  Hold!  As one!”  
His friends shout back again, “As one!”  And as the chariot passes, it is unable to penetrate their circle.
Not all the gladiators listen however.  And, of course, its those who stray away from the pack and are out on their own that are easily slain.  Those who stick together, on the other hand, survive and win the battle.
Today, Jesus gives us the same instructions Russell Crowe gave his friends.  “It we stay together, we survive.”  “I am the vine, you are the branches... Remain in me, as I remain in you.”
Notice Jesus doesn’t say “stick close to me.”  He says, “Remain in me.”  Or, as the gladiator puts it, “As one!  As one!”  Jesus doesn’t tell us to be a vine to grow alongside him.  Instead, he tells us to be a branch, fixed and connected, to him, the vine; as one.
If we become disconnected from him; if we stray and wander out on our one, we will perish.  “Anyone who does not remain in me will be thrown out like a branch and wither; people will gather them and throw them into the fire and they will be burned.”
How do we “remain in Jesus” and have him “remain in us”?  Today’s readings suggest five ways.
The first three ways, are illustrated in the first reading.  St. Paul arrives in Jerusalem to meet the disciples.  Barnabas, one of the 12, tells his brother Apostles, that three things have happened to Paul that demonstrate that he remains in Jesus and Jesus in him: Paul “had seen the Lord.”  “He had spoken to him.”  And “he had spoken out boldly in the name of Jesus.”
First: Paul “had seen the Lord.”  If we are going to remain in Jesus and have him remain in us; if we are going to be branches firmly connected to his vine, we have to know him, we have to see him.  We have to open our hearts, our minds, and our souls to an intimate encounter with the Lord.  An encounter that spurs us to conversion and transformation as it did Paul.
Second: Paul “had spoken to him.”  If we are going to remain in Jesus and not just be casual acquaintances with him, we must have a relationship with him that continually develops and grows through daily conversation with him.  We must speak with him.  Husbands and wives couldn’t possibly claim to remain in one another if they didn’t communicate with one another.  Same with us and Christ.
Third: Paul “had spoken boldly in the name of Jesus.”  The essence and identity of a Christian is one who knows and speaks with the Lord so  well, that it compels him to share that relationship with others.  We must speak boldly in the name of Jesus, not only with words, but also through our beliefs, the values we hold dear, and actions which proclaim more eloquently than words that we are one with Christ.
The fourth way is revealed by St. John in our second reading.  The evangelist says, “Those who keep his commandments remain in him, and he in them.”  “Let us love not in word or speech but in deed and truth.”  We may know the commandments, we may be able to quote Scripture and the catechism, but knowing and speaking are not enough.  We must be doers of his word and people of action.
And finally, the fifth way, again, is attributable to St. Paul.  After his encounter with Christ; after “he had seen the Lord... spoken to him... and... had spoken out boldly in the name of Jesus” Paul enters the Church and spends the rest of his life within it.  He “arrived in Jerusalem” and “tried to join the disciples.”  Paul had a profound encounter with the Lord.  But Jesus didn’t want it to stop there.  He wants such encounters to be sustained and strengthened through life in the Church.
And we read that Paul “moved about freely with them in Jerusalem, and spoke out boldly in the name of the Lord... The church throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria was... being built up... and with the consolation of the Holy Spirit it grew in numbers.”  It is in the Church that Jesus feeds us.  It is in the Church that Jesus helps us grow.  It is in the Church that Jesus prunes us so we may bear much fruit.

In today's society, there are many forces and voices which try to divorce Christ from the Church.  You will hear people say, "I'm spiritual but not religious."  Or, "I like Jesus, I'm just not crazy about the Church."  Well, I've got news from you, you cannot separate Christ from the Church.  You cannot separate the Bridegroom from the Bride.  You cannot separate the Head from the Body.  You cannot separate the Vine from the branches.  Recall St. Paul's own conversion.  Paul, then Saul, was persecuting Christians, dragging them from their homes and imprisoning them.  When Christ confronted him, Jesus did not say, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting the Christians?"  He did not say, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting the disciples?"  Jesus said, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting ME?"  Christ and his Church are one and the same and you cannot separate the one from the other.
See the Lord.  Speak to the Lord.  Speak boldly in his name.  Keep his commandments and do so all the while living in the Church and you will remain in him and he in you.