Saturday of the Twenty-first Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 430 

Herding ducks
at the Ky State Fair
Nevertheless we urge you, brothers and sisters, to progress even more,
and to aspire to live a tranquil life,
to mind your own affairs,
and to work with your own hands,
as we instructed you.

On Saturday the Catholic likes to reflect on Mary. She appears to us in the earliest pages of the Old Testament -- she is the New Eve born from the side of Jesus -- and never disappears. She is the Bride coming down from heaven in Revelation 22.
We might wonder what happened to her after she witnessed the death of Jesus, his resurrection and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Most likely, she progressed even more and aspired to live a tranquil life.
Bishop Saint Amadeus of Lausanne has a wonderful reflection about Mary:
So it was that she began to taste the fruits of her future reign while still in the flesh. At one moment she withdrew to God in ecstasy; at the next she would bend down to her neighbors with indescribable love. In heaven angels served her, while here on earth she was venerated by the service of men. Gabriel and the angels waited upon her in heaven. The virgin John, rejoicing that the Virgin Mother was entrusted to him at the cross, cared for her with the other apostles here below. The angels rejoiced to see their queen; the apostles rejoiced to see their lady, and both obeyed her with loving devotion.
In this vision, Mary has become a citizen of earth and heaven, welcome and honored in both. She seems to live in that "thin place" where the two worlds meet and exchange; she moves easily between them.

Eventually the day will come when she is assumed into heaven, but she is always free to return to bless and guide her people. Her sightings are innumerable, from Guadalupe, Lourdes, and Fatima to Medjugorje  Just as she appeared to her kinswoman Elizabeth in Luke 1, and to John of Patmos in Revelations 12, she appears to the Church throughout its history.

On Saturday, the original Sabbath, it is good to rest in Mary's presence. I like to think of how peaceful her home in Nazareth was, and how astonished John's disciples were when he invited them to "Come and see." They found a house of prayer unlike anything they had ever dreamt of.

After Jesus' ascension and Pentecost, Mary and John welcomed guests to come and stay with them, to ponder with them the mysteries revealed. In that holy house we also "taste the fruits of her future reign while still in the flesh."

Join us today at Mount Saint Francis for our Annual Picnic!

Friday of the Twenty-first Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 429

Miss Green County at the Ky State Fair
…we earnestly ask and exhort you in the Lord Jesus that,
as you received from us
how you should conduct yourselves to please God–
and as you are conducting yourselves–
you do so even more.

Alcoholics Anonymous has a useful expression, “Don’t just talk the talk, walk the walk.” While he celebrates the promise of sobriety, sanity and serenity, it means nothing if the recovering alcoholic is hogtied by grievances, resentments and arrogance. It is too easy to expound upon the glorious ideals of the good life while ignoring the hard work of doing them.

In this oldest document of the Christian tradition, Saint Paul reminds his Thessalonian disciples that the gospel is not a philosophy about life; it is a way of life.  It is “how you should conduct yourselves to please God.”

Saint Francis was never a scholar; he never learned to think abstractly. He did not ponder “justice” or “mercy” as ideals. He was not a romantic; he did not ponder the way things should be and try to live as if they are that way. Where the romantic rushed off to fight for ‘Freedom, Justice and the American Way,” Francis lived realistically. He conducted himself so as to please God.

This is often a hard principle to grasp. A priest and very dear friend of mine used to preach often about “this idea of hope.” He was talking about the virtue but somehow that analytical word idea pushed itself between the experience and the reality. We can talk about, redefine or manipulate the idea of hope but none of that is actually hope.

The “Pharisee,” as we encounter him in the gospels, is the one who talks the talk but does not walk the walk. He knows the idea and has convinced himself that he “gets it.” He will not hesitate to stand before the altar and boast of his virtue, all the while thinking he is the most humble of men. He might even practice penance without truly acknowledging his sin. He would give “his body to be burned but has not love.” The Pharisaic mind is firmly anchored in the imaginary world of ideas and ideals, without any connection to reality.

In the end he will hear the judgment of doom, “Amen, I say to you, I do not know you.”
              Therefore, stay awake,
              for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

Memorial of the Passion of Saint John the Baptist

@ the Kentucky State Fair
Lectionary: 428/634

We have been reassured about you, brothers and sisters, in our every distress and affliction, through your faith. For we now live, if you stand firm in the Lord.

The martyr is first of all a witness. That’s what the word means. It is seriously abused when it is used for other purposes, as when Muslims celebrate slain warriors as martyrs, or when a person refuses to speak for herself in a difficult relationship and says she suffers like the martyrs.

Saint John the Baptist is called a martyr because he gave witness to the holiness of marriage. In the school of the prophets Hosea and Isaiah, this last of the prophets understood that God loves his people as a man loves his wife. Their devotion, loyalty, affection and courage demonstrate the fundamental relationship of the human to the divine. 

God has been described as king, and his people as subjects; God has been described as creator and his people as creatures. And those are good analogies. But most important is the symbol of God as husband to Israel; and Jesus, to the Church.

Saint John was arrested because he protested against Herod’s taking his brother’s widow to be his wife. This bond was anathema to the Jews and, like the marriage of Claudius and Gertrude in Hamlet
very suspicious. Then John was summarily executed at the behest of Herod’s wife, Herodius. She hated him for his opposition and arranged for his death. Finally, John died because of Herod’s incestuous lust for his wife’s daughter – another violation of marriage. Clearly, he died as a witness in defense of marriage.

We also celebrate John’s death as a martyr because he spoke for the Truth. If he was not singled out by Herod for his testimony about Jesus, few martyrs are. More often they die for other reasons. Eleazar and the Maccabean Martyrs died for their refusal to eat pork. Their tormentors did not care which God they worshiped so long as their professed beliefs made no difference. But when they proved their difference by refusing pork, they were tortured and killed. Roman martyrs suffered for their refusal to worship the emperor. Japanese martyrs suffered for their allegiance to the papacy; Jesuit martyrs suffered for introducing European ways to Native Americans.  Two Polish friars were killed by Shining Path Guerrillas for assisting the poor.

The willingness of the martyrs to die testifies to the credibility of their testimony. They speak the truth to power despite their obvious weakness. This is not a facility given to liars. Martyrs remind us  there are truths worth dying for, and many truths more important than my brief moment of life. 

Today's first reading gives us our response when we learn of the martyr's death: 
For we now live, if you stand firm in the Lord. 
Recalling  "the friend of the bridegroom"  and the manner of his death, we should stand firm in the truth of marriage as the Bridegroom has shown it to us. 

Memorial of Saint Augustine, Bishop and Doctor of the Church

Lectionary: 427

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites.
You are like whitewashed tombs, which appear beautiful on the outside,
but inside are full of dead men’s bones and every kind of filth.
Even so, on the outside you appear righteous,
but inside you are filled with hypocrisy and evildoing.

Jesus's metaphor of the whitewashed tombs reminds me of the septic tank at our retreat house in Prior Lake, Minnesota. Some genius put a lawn swing on it, which overlooks a neighboring lake. It's a wonderful place to sit in the evening and watch the sunset. No one ever wonders why this slab of concrete is here in the first place.

Jesus' teaching is about  corruption which, like sewage, may seep into every corner of our common life.

I consider myself blessed that I have never had to pay a bribe for a driver’s license, a building permit, to vote or to bury the dead. I have been caught speeding on state highways a few times, but the officer was always polite and business-like. He did not offer to write off the offence if I gave him all my cash.

I don’t take my good fortune for granted. I hear continually of corruption, graft and greed in foreign countries. The entire Communist empire was a kleptocracy. Had its managers been as honest as the socialist vision was pure, it might have succeeded. Government workers in Asia, Africa and South and Central America consistently supplement their income with bribes. The lowest paid workers get their jobs by bribery, and their employers bought their jobs with bribes. And so forth all the way to the top.

I worry when I hear of students cheating in school. Will they purchase phony diplomas? Will they have the requisite skills of surgeons, nurses, airline pilots and building contractors or will they buy the jobs from corrupt employers?

A recent article in New Yorker Magazine told of police and district attorneys stripping out-of-state drivers of cash and other goods. By confiscating the assets of suspected criminals, cities and counties supplement their revenue. In many cases government employees would be laid off without the extra income. This “asset forfeiture” of money, cars and other valuables is absolutely legal if the arresting officer says he detected a whiff of marijuana in the cars. No charges are made against the drivers. They are dismissed while a legal case is made against their property: "Texas vs. $2,000." Hapless drivers cannot defend their property; lawyer fees would exceed the losses. Predictably, the victims of this legal scam are poor, young, or recent immigrants.

Local governments depend upon this shady practice because citizens demand services but tax-payers refuse to pay for them. 

Corruption creeps into our lives like the vampire miasma of Bram Stoker’s novel. More laws will not protect us. We dare not take our privileges for granted. Honest leadership in government, church, sports, entertainment, education begins in the heart of every citizen. 

Memorial of Saint Monica

On the Ferris Wheel
eye-level with Old Glory
Lectionary: 426

Rather, after we had suffered and been insolently treated, as you know, in Philippi, we drew courage through our God to speak to you the Gospel of God with much struggle. Our exhortation was not from delusion or impure motives, nor did it work through deception. But as we were judged worthy by God to be entrusted with the Gospel, that is how we speak,
not as trying to please men, but rather God, who judges our hearts.

“When I was young” the old man said, “I worried about what people thought of me. But when I grew older I decided I don’t care what people think about me. Today, in my old age, I realize people don’t think about me at all.”

In today’s reading from his first letter to the Thessalonians, I see Saint Paul surviving and growing through a similar experience. He recalls how he suffered and was “insolently treated” in Philippi.

Most people like to be liked. They suffer some disappointment when they encounter misunderstanding, suspicion and animosity. Saint Paul worked especially hard to be “all things to all men.”

Although I am free in regard to all, I have made myself a slave to all so as to win over as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew to win over Jews; to those under the law I became like one under the law—though I myself am not under the law—to win over those under the law. To those outside the law I became like one outside the law—though I am not outside God’s law but within the law of Christ—to win over those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, to win over the weak. I have become all things to all, to save at least some. All this I do for the sake of the gospel, so that I too may have a share in it. (I Corinthians 9:19-23)

The worse thing a missionary can do is let his own failings, prejudices and unconscious desires get in the way of the gospel. After his shabby treatment at Philippi he examined his conscience closely and realized, 
Our exhortation was not from delusion or impure motives, nor did it work through deception.” 

His conscience was clear. He could not claim worthiness for himself but he knew that “we were judged worthy by God” to bring the Gospel to others.

Saint Paul, throughout his career, demonstrates wonderful persistence. He he must announce the gospel. He might be occasionally disappointed by his own shortcomings, but he cannot and will not quit. He is a self-described vessel of clay, but even a broken pot holds some water.

The egotist thinks he is empowered to announce the gospel and everyone should listen to him. Discovering his shortcomings he quits and goes home. Perhaps he blames himself; perhaps he blames others. In either case he does not not meet the success he expects, so he quits.

Missionaries, bound by obedience and love, set ambitions aside. They will be occasionally mortified by their own shortcomings. They will discover time and again that the people to whom they preach the gospel are more generous, more courageous and more devout than they are. If there was any trace of ego when they entered the ministry it will be found out and and burned out by the word that cuts like a two-edged sword. Freed of ego, they will pass easily into history. 

Monday of the Twenty-first Week in Ordinary Time

A view from the Ferris Wheel
at the Kentucky State Fair
Lectionary: 425

Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You lock the Kingdom of heaven before men. You do not enter yourselves, nor do you allow entrance to those trying to enter.

Christian leaders continually face a terrifying paradox. They must lead their congregations through the narrow gate without getting in the way. Their only real qualification for this ministry is personal integrity. Knowledge, training and experience are certainly useful but only of secondary importance. After all the years in seminary, your MA in pastoral theology won't get you downtown on the city bus. More often than not, neither will your ordination. 

That integrity is rooted in the covenants of Baptism, Eucharist and Confirmation. Within the Catholic Church it is also recognized as Holy Orders, a sacrament conferred on deacons, priests and bishops. But, as we all know, the rites are mysterious; their guarantees may hide tragic, even fatal, deficiencies. 

The paradox, simply put, is that I should "be myself;" but myself must be worthy of the authority entrusted to me. Every Christian leader, from bishop to catechist to parent, should be keenly aware of this paradox.

The young parent, weary of her child's continual demands, often discovers within herself a woman she never expected to meet. She is angry, irrational and petty. Hurting, angry words spew from her mouth; words she would never choose to use. She is being herself, and not at all happy with what she has discovered. But she is not alone. Every catechist, priest and bishop meets that same conundrum. Can I trust myself to lead? 

Leaders of every sort -- from the family to the military -- are soon exposed as human beings flying mostly by the seat of their pants. Despite their training and their good intentions, they cannot suppress who they are. 

I've been reading a history of World War II lately. The story is rich with the human foibles of presidents, prime ministers, tyrants, insurrectionists, generals and admirals and the men who trusted them. War is like chess; the winner is the one who makes the fewest mistakes within the mayhem of battle. Only occasionally do knowledge, training and experience prevail. No one knows what's going on.  

As we read today's gospel we hear Jesus' furious anger at incompetent, unworthy leaders. They are control freaks who lead their flocks to the narrow gate but will not let them pass through it. 

Sooner or later, I suspect, everyone discovers his and her own positions of leadership. They come with Baptism. We must pray daily, with an anxious, urgent spirit, to be found worthy of such a terrible, beautiful gift. 

Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 123

I will set a sign among them;
from them I will send fugitives to the nations....

The word fugitives in today's first reading catches my attention. Various translations read it as survivors or refugees. 

We should read this passage in its original context, as written by the third author of Isaiah. By that time Jerusalem had been leveled by the Babylonian army and its population scattered throughout the known world. They remain in that "diaspora" to this day. They were refugees from disaster but they carried their love of God with them. For the Lord had promised, "I myself will go along, to give you rest.

I am reminded of Saint Paul's long-awaited arrival in Rome, as a prisoner of the Empire. Hobos riding the railroads  brought the Gift of Tongues to Protestant congregations throughout the United States, inspiring the Pentecostal movement. 

It is only appropriate that missionaries of the Crucified Lord should go to the world as refugees. Well-financed missionaries can announce the Gospel of Prosperity and Success.They can help people build sturdier homes; teach literacy, hygiene and nutrition; and organize effective political parties; but the brokenhearted wayfarer who washes up on some distant shore, receives the hospitality of strangers and blesses them for their kindness will be the more effective evangelist. 

In his letter to the Galatians 4, Saint Paul refers to some kind of ailment, possibly of the eyes, and how he received such kindness from them: know that it was because of a physical illness that I originally preached the gospel to you, and you did not show disdain or contempt because of the trial caused you by my physical condition, but rather you received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus. Where now is that blessedness of yours? Indeed, I can testify to you that, if it had been possible, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me.
Apparently his helplessness, which may have included a disgusting condition, and their generosity prepared the Galatians to hear the Gospel. 

The Roman Catholic Church in the United States has been hugely blessed by the influx of refugees from all parts of the world, including Ireland, Italy, Germany and Eastern Europe. They came looking for opportunity and security; they brought faith, hope and love with them. 

One time in Ireland I was asked to celebrate a mid-summer Sunday Mass. I took the opportunity to thank the congregation for keeping the faith through centuries of English persecution. I reminded them that the Potato Famine of the 1840's had become a harvest of plenty for the United States, as Catholic men and women and families migrated to the new world. Ireland and Malta, the only English-speaking Catholic countries, have sent lay and clergy missionaries to all part of the world.  

I know from experience how hard the missionary life can be. I lived in Australia for a year and a half, and in Louisiana for seven years. Neither are missionary territory in the exact sense, but I was far from my family, friends and community. I had much to learn about their ways. When I didn't offend people by my simple ignorance of their culture, I hurt them by the shortcomings of my virtue. But I also found the Spirit of Mercy, Courtesy and Hospitality in those faraway places and I was given many friends. 

Let us pray that God will continue to send refugees and fugitives to faraway places to announce Grace and Peace. 

And let us add a prayer that he will send them to our parishes and neighborhoods. 

Saint Bartholomew, Apostle

Lectionary: 629

The LORD is just in all his ways
and holy in all his works.
The LORD is near to all who call upon him,
to all who call upon him in truth.
R. Your friends make known, O Lord, the glorious splendor of your Kingdom.

"Doesn't do much for a man's appearance." said one cowboy to another in Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, as they recalled the death of another man who had been flayed by Indians. 

Michaelangelo attempted to describe the horror of the Apostle Bartholomew's death in his painting, The Last Judgement. According to legend, when the enormous painting was unveiled the crowd gasped and the Pope dropped to his knees. 

In recent years, sedentary philosophers and ivory-towered theologians have wondered if martyrdom is really necessary. "Can't we all just get along?" they might be asking. They recall the saints who volunteered to die as martyrs to prove their fidelity, and the "martyr card" that is often used by one or both parties in a difficult relationship. They see how the word has been adopted by Islamic terrorists. They suppose the whole idea is discredited by these examples. 

But they fail to acknowledge the savage violence that innocence and virtue arouse. If some victims seem to invite abuse, that does not justify the violence that falls upon them. If some children misbehave, there is no excuse for the torture and terror they suffer. In our "peace-loving" country even our pets are abused by their disappointed owners because they cannot give "unconditional love." 

So long as there is sin in the world there will be war. The two are synonymous. So long as there is war there will be men and women who risk their lives in the struggle for peace. They will fight and die for causes they consider worth killing and dying. 

They do so because human beings cannot abide evil very long. They might be willing to suffer for awhile, hoping it will end soon. They might look the other way, or ignore what is happening, or believe that victims of violence bring it on themselves. But when the evil can no longer be denied, human beings act. They arm themselves and prepare for combat. 

Christian martyrs oppose evil but refuse to kill anyone even when confronted with deadly force. Their weapons are integrity, innocence and raw courage. Like soldiers of every age, they believe their cause will triumph even though they do not live to see it. They hope their victory will come more quickly precisely because they are not tainted by compromise. 

Every human being, regardless of creed or religion, is challenged and heartened by the witness of true Christian martyrdom.  As he approached Calvary, the first Martyr told his disciples not to expect the world's honor or recognition. As they have treated me, so will they treat you

We pray for our neighbors, fellow workers, acquaintances and friends that they will be inspired by our daily, quotidian witness of generosity and sacrifice. We pray they will never be aroused to such violence against their loved ones or us. 
Brother Andrew holds his
audience in rapt attention. 

We pray that we will remain faithful to the laws which Jesus has given us -- fidelity in marriage, generosity to strangers, mercy toward enemies, contrition for our sins, and so forth -- for the edification and salvation of the world. We pray also that we will never threaten,coerce, or intimidate anyone as we live in the Truth. We do penance for every instance of that violence, no matter how  subtle. 

Finally, we pray that we will not be "led into the temptation" of martyrdom. None of us is so sure of our courage. 

Saint Rose of Lima

Lectionary: 423

But Ruth said, “Do not ask me to abandon or forsake you!
For wherever you go, I will go, wherever you lodge I will lodge,
your people shall be my people, and your God my God.”

This text has recently graced our wedding ceremonies but it originally describes the loyal affection of a young widow for her mother-in-law.

Ruth was a Moabite, meaning she was not a Hebrew and knew nothing of the Hebrew religion or God. She lived in her native land of Moab with Naomi, her husband’s mother, who was a displaced alien. After a series of tragedies Naomi had little recourse but to return to her distant home and live among her own kin.

To her surprise, Ruth elected to go with her. This young widow had better prospects in her own country but she abandoned all that to travel with her dear mother-in-law.

Sometimes, following our hearts rather than everyone's expectations, we set out for a faraway place to worship someone else’s God. We must leave the familiar and the predictable and risk everything on rumors we have heard of a more prosperous land with a more loving deity. In that foreign land we will have to learn the language of the people, their customs, songs, food and ethics. 

Occasionally we might slip into the old ways, with its alien morals, frightening imagery, and disregard for human compassion. Christians will look at those odd behaviors and wonder what to make of them. Should they ignore the relapse or point it out? Should they humor our strange attitudes toward the different, the unattractive and the defenseless? If they remain true to the Sacred Kingdom in which they live we will soon feel strange indeed. With gratitude we'll turn away from the old ways of our former life, thank them for their gentleness and do penance for our sins.

Citizens of the Kingdom of God, we will sometimes feel like Naomi, a faithful woman in a strange land. And sometimes we'll feel like Ruth, strangers in paradise. In time our affection for the saints will transform our hearts. We will be fully adapted to the ways of God. 

Queenship of Mary

Lectionary: 422

Sacrifice or oblation you wished not,
but ears open to obedience you gave me.
Burnt offerings or sin-offerings you sought not;
then said I, “Behold I come.”
Here I am, Lord; I come to do your will.

I don’t like to indulge my own preferences when I write this blog but I am struck by the irony of these two readings falling upon the Gentle Mother’s feast day. I would ban the story of Jephthah from the Lectionary. Although the Bible is not unfamiliar with irrational violence, this story is particularly appalling. It describes the murder of a daughter by her overly devout father without explanation or apology. If he is not praised for his action, neither is he condemned. Nor is the victim's story a template for Mary's willing virginity. We should leave this story, along with the cursing psalms, out of the liturgy of the Church. 
Today’s gospel is also more violent than usual, as it threatens to “destroy those murderers and burn their cities.” Few Catholics of my acquaintance imagine Mary as the Divine Harridan of God’s Wrath.

With a sigh of relief I turn to the responsorial, Psalm 40: Here I am, Lord; I come to do your will. Mary is the "handmaid of the Lord" who willingly, joyfully gives her life to God. She hears the Word of God and believes it will be fulfilled. 

The long reign of Queen Elizabeth II of England has perhaps given Americans a friendlier feeling for royal women. I don’t remember a king of England; that seems odd to me. But a queen who is only a figurehead seems more natural. Elizabeth Tudor, a beautiful young woman crowned as queen shortly after World War II, has reigned with dignity and grace for more than sixty years. Despite the antics of her children and her own rare missteps, she seems to personify the office of queen. She has served her nation and her people well.

I would not describe the Queen of Heaven as a mere figurehead but her authority never overshadows the sovereignty of God. This day is a memorial, not a feast or solemnity.

To know her is to love her. The Angelus and the Rosary lead us directly to the Heart of Mary, that immaculate place where we claim her as our mother and queen. We celebrate her obedience daily with the Angelus:

The Angel of the Lord declared to Mary / And she conceived of the Holy Spirit. Hail Mary . . . 
Behold the handmaid of the Lord / Be it done unto me according to Thy word. Hail Mary . . . 
And the Word was made Flesh / And dwelt among us. Hail Mary . . . 
Pray for us, O Holy Mother of God, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.
Let us pray: Pour forth, we beseech Thee, O Lord, Thy grace into our hearts; that we, to whom the incarnation of Christ, Thy Son, was made known by the message of an angel, May by His Passion and Cross be brought to the glory of His Resurrection, through the same Christ Our Lord. Amen.  

Memorial of Saint Pius X, Pope

Lectionary: 421

He said to one of them in reply,
‘My friend, I am not cheating you.
Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?
Take what is yours and go.
What if I wish to give this last one the same as you?
Or am I not free to do as I wish with my own money?
Are you envious because I am generous?’


Before Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891) the Church’s official teaching about labor echoed the attitudes of the landowner in this parable. The worker should be grateful for whatever pay he is given; and the employer should be generous. Because Jesus taught, “you always have the poor with you.” the wealthy should give to the poor as God gives to them.

Few people conceived of a world without poverty. Notions of a better life for everyone, with universal education, health care, leisure and upward mobility simply didn’t exist in the mind of the church. Those things might happen in utopia, but they will occur only in heaven.

With his encyclical, Pope Leo asserted the worker’s right to receive a living wage. He based his teaching on the long established principle of ownership and property. If the farmer has the right to eat his own crops and provide for his family from there, the industrial worker should also enjoy the fruit of his labor. He should be paid a just wage, not a charitable stipend.

With that being said, we can turn our attention back to the teaching of this parable. It is not about labor/management relations; it is about attitudes within the Communion of the Saints.

First we notice that the landowner is not you or me. I don’t own the church. Although I am a “cradle catholic” I have no privilege over those who joined yesterday. Although I or my ancestors sacrificed to build this parish church, I welcome anyone who will join the church and I want to hear what they have to say, in whatever language they speak. If they can learn English I can learn Spanish, or at least I can try to sing these Spanish songs. (In the last few years, when we gather to celebrate our provincial liturgies, we friars usually sing several Spanish hymns.)

Secondly, we notice the landowner explained his policy to “one of them.” His speech is a literary device which Saint Matthew uses to instruct us, the congregation who hear the gospel. The landowner does not go on the defensive, explaining himself to the angry mob. He doesn’t owe them even an explanation.

That refusal to explain himself throws into sharper relief the message of the parable, God’s gracious generosity. He owes nothing but gives everything. His mercy and his justice are pure unearned, unmerited generosity. When I suppose that God owes me something because I work hard and keep my nose clean, I lose sight of God’s Goodness.
This parable may stir up an argument but its intent is to silence the arguer. We should contemplate God’s goodness, not quibble about it. This truth about God is too large to explain or defend; it must be apprehended in prayer. With Saint Francis we sing about it, “You are all good, supreme good, totally good.”

Memorial of Saint Bernard, Abbot and Doctor of the Church

Lectionary: 420

The LORD turned to (Gideon) and said, “Go with the strength you have
and save Israel from the power of Midian.
It is I who send you.”
But Gideon answered him, “Please, my lord, how can I save Israel?
My family is the lowliest in Manasseh,
and I am the most insignificant in my father’s house.”
“I shall be with you,” the LORD said to him,
“and you will cut down Midian to the last man.”

The Lord often chooses the weak and makes them strong to overcome the enemies of his people, as in today’s story of Gideon. He was the “most insignificant” member of the lowliest family in Manasseh, and Manasseh was the weakest of the twelve tribes of Israel. This biblical motif demonstrates God's sovereign strength, our weakness and our total reliance on God.  

We have seen this theme many times: the Hebrews escaped Egypt despite the Pharaoh’s pursuit into the Red Sea; a shepherd boy David killed the Philistine giant Goliath; the Prophetess Deborah led an army of foot soldiers against Sisera’s 900 chariots and defeated them; then Sisera was assassinated by Jael as he hid in her tent; Judith unmanned the Assyrian army by decapitating Holofernes; the Maccabean guerrilla army defeated the Seleucids, captured Jerusalem and purged the temple; and so forth. With God on their side even a very small army cannot be defeated.

But the death and resurrection of Jesus, which fulfills this theme, demonstrates a deeper dimension. This is not simply God’s preferred way to prevail. It is not even the right and proper way. It is the only way of salvation. His light shines in darkness; his power is manifest in human weakness; and his foolishness is stronger than human wisdom.

Once again we see the amazing wisdom of Saint Paul. On the rare occasions when he tried to overcome his opponents with strength, as he opposed the “super-apostles,” he had to fall back on his weakness. Power only made this wandering tent-maker look ridiculous. God said to him,
"My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me.

As he passed days and weeks in jail cells and the brigs of prison ships he came to understand God’s strength:

in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Two millennia later we are still tempted to overcome our enemies and their arguments with whatever power we can muster. As the preacher said to me, "When God needs me to protect him, God's going to be big trouble." 

Monday of the Twentieth Week in Ordinary Time

The movie Fat Man and Little Boy, about the making of the first atomic bomb, described, with the tragic death of one scientist, the radiation poisoning that would kill thousands of people. He had carelessly set up an experiment with enriched uranium and when the contraption collapsed he grabbed it with his hands. He paused to make some calculations on the chalk board and then told his students, “You will be okay, I think. But I will die.” Within hours he was mortally ill, his body swollen and grotesque. In his story we saw the fate of thousands in Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

Today’s gospel gives us another synecdoche in the story of the rich young man. Personally invited to follow the Lord, “he went away sad, for he had many possessions.” We hear the same story in today’s first reading about a whole nation:

The children of Israel offended the LORD by serving the Baals.
Abandoning the LORD, the God of their fathers,
who led them out of the land of Egypt,
they followed the other gods of the various nations around them,
and by their worship of these gods provoked the LORD.

In Jesus' sadness for the young man and in the story from the Book of Judges we see the intense concern that God has for each of us and all of us. Unlike human efforts to care for half of humankind by destroying the other half, God delivers each of us from evil through the blood of one man, even as that Man is raised in glory -- if we will only believe in Him.

Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Downtown Louisville
from the Ky State
Fair-is Wheel
Lectionary: 120

For the sake of the joy that lay before him
he endured the cross, despising its shame,
and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God.

Our readings today recall the struggle of the spiritual life. Medieval monks called it spiritual warfare and Muslims call it jihad.

The contest is essentially that of obedience: “Will I do what I want to do or will I obey the Holy Spirit?” In his Second Admonition to the friars, Saint Francis wrote:

Adam... might eat of every tree of paradise; and so long as he did not offend against obedience he did not sin….

When people set out on the road to holiness they suppose they should give up all kinds of pleasures. They will live on bread and water, sleep on boards, wear hair shirts and pray for hours at a time. But the saints often warn their disciples about the temptation to harsh disciplines.
If they win this contest against the body – as some anorexics do – they might discover their personal wills have become too rigid for obedience. Often they fail to see how inflexible they have become. Admired by some for their ferocious discipline, they cannot abide human frailties.

It is good to practice self-discipline. We should eat healthy, sleep enough, exercise often, and practice small “mortifications.” Since January, for instance, I have avoided using the elevator, preferring to climb the eight flights to our chaplain offices. I often get there ahead of my colleagues, though they had more fun chatting with others along the way.

These little sacrifices are a way to practice the presence of God. “I pass up these donuts for the love of God.” or “I’ll say a rosary while driving across town instead of listening to the radio.”

A more rigorous discipline, Saint James tells us, is control of the tongue. Silence is the best response to many situations. It can be a way of not participating in or consenting to a wrong; an absence that is very present. The Book of Wisdom attest the power of silence:
To us (the good man) is the censure of our thoughts;
merely to see him is a hardship for us...

Remember Saint Thomas Moore’s refusal to endorse King Henry’s divorce and remarriage. All England was upset about his refusal to speak.
Clearly, the Lord has sent us to be his sacred presence in our world and that presence will sometimes be troublesome. But we must not fall to the temptation of imposing ourselves upon others. I often assure the Veterans at the VA hospital that I prefer listening to speaking. In a hospital the chaplain should be hospitable. 

Being God’s presence we will sometimes speak, often remain silent, and always obey God’s Spirit.

Saturday of the Nineteenth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 418

Joshua in turn said to the people,
“You may not be able to serve the LORD, for he is a holy God;
he is a jealous God who will not forgive
your transgressions or your sins.
If, after the good he has done for you,
you forsake the LORD and serve strange gods,
he will do evil to you and destroy you.”

But the people answered Joshua, “We will still serve the LORD.”
Joshua therefore said to the people,
“You are your own witnesses that you have chosen to serve the LORD.”
They replied, “We are, indeed!”

In this reading from the Book of Joshua we hear a familiar technique of an accomplished preacher. He arouses the emotions of his congregation, first as he reminds them of all God has done for them, and then when he offers them one last chance to get out. "We will still serve the Lord!" they shout; and, "We will indeed!" 

This scene happens at a critical juncture, as the second generation of Hebrews, children of Egyptian slaves, cross the Jordan and enter Palestine. They will destroy those cities that don't welcome them and claim the land that God has given them. They will harvest from fields they did not plant and from the orchards they did not prune. 

But they must never forget they serve "a jealous God who will not forgive your transgressions and sins." 

Before the devout Christians reacts by insisting the God is always merciful and kind and forgives seventy times seven times, we should remember that life has its own way of not forgiving. Many decisions cannot be undone. 
  • If you take your life savings to the casino and lose it all, they won't listen to your sad story and give it back. It's gone, regardless of the consequences. 
  • If you lose control of your car and the crash kills people. They're dead.
  • If, in a moment of drunken bliss, you conceive a child, that child will be yours for all eternity.  
Grace, like sin, is also forever:
  • A baptized child is baptized for all eternity; there is no second baptism. 
  • A priest is ordained for all eternity. 
  • A married couple are married until death parts them. 
Sometimes these blessings feel like curses. The burdens of virtuous life seem too ridiculous, demanding and risky. We'll ask ourselves, "Why do we have to live this way when no one else does?" 

Because a word once spoken cannot be recalled. The Preacher Joshua tried mightily to impress upon the people the seriousness of their word. Seeming to understand, they swore they would not forget. 

God's mercy cannot undo the past. There is no reset button in real life. But God's mercy can transform the past from curse to blessing: 
  • the child born out of wedlock might gratefully accept the gift of life; 
  • the gambler ruined by her addiction can find blessing in the Higher Power who demands that she risk all in surrender to God;
  • the reckless driver can pledge himself to a life of atonement for the dead; and
  • a crucified man will reappear as God.