For Sunday Liturgies and Feasts
Homilies for September 2013
Return of the Prodigal Son
22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time—September 1, 2013
Humility: Defined and Practiced
Purpose: Humility is simply being true to the graces the Lord pours into our souls which enable us to live the vocation he gives each of us. Some will be recognized in this world for their achievements; many more will go through life with only God as the sole observer of all the good they do. Pope Francis offers the Church a very unique image of humility today, as do so many more “ordinary” people around us who live the Gospel in all the little ways of their own lives.
Readings: Sir 3: 17-18, 20, 28-9 ● Heb 12:18-19, 22-24A ● Lk14:1, 7-14
After serving the people of the Diocese of Erie for over 60 years, Msgr. James W. Peterson passed away on May 13, 2013, at the wise age of 89. Msgr. Peterson’s ministry was, to say the least, diverse. Early in his priesthood, Fr. Pete, as he was called, taught theology at Gannon University, and served as spiritual director to St. Mark’s Seminary. As his ministry expanded, he served as chaplain to the Erie County Prison, pastor of St. Teresa in Union City, and founder of the Maria House Project, a non-profit organization which provides small group living for men in need of growth in community for drug and alcohol addiction.
If that was not enough, the door to his house and his heart was, at all hours, open. He was, as many called him, a “friend to the almost friendless.”
Regardless of all he did, Msgr. Peterson would never speak a word of his diverse and stellar ministry. His humility would never allow it. He was, in his mind, just being a priest, just doing his job. He saw no need to waste energy on telling people who he was, or what he was doing. He was humbly serving God’s flock.
Fr. Pete’s life reminds us we also are all called to practice the virtue of humility. However, it is hard to be humble. It’s harder if we fail to understand what constitutes the practice of the virtue of humility. Humility is, at times, misconstrued. Humility is not living with our heads bowed to the ground, our eyes lowered, and rarely a spoken word. Humility is the polar opposite.
Humility is an honest assessment of who we are, what we do, and the gifts we have been given by God. The result of our assessment is a humble joy in living and using those gifts St. Thomas wrote that humility: “Consists in keeping oneself within one’s own bounds.” The humble person is not withdrawn and reticent but aware and thankful for what gifts God has freely given. Those gifts are then used for the betterment of others rather than wasting energy being envious or bitter about what gifts others possess.
Pope Francis recently demonstrated and defined the practice of humility. He defined it not by his words. He defined it by his actions.
After his election to the papacy, he turned down the Vatican limousine ride, instead taking the mini-bus back over to the hotel with his brother Cardinals. At the hotel, he gathered his luggage, thanked each member of the staff, and paid his own bill. He did not pass off these seemingly meaningless tasks to a papal aide. It was not as if he had nothing to do.
Francis, this humble servant of the Lord, remained Francis, humble servant of the Lord, even after being elected head of the Roman Catholic Church. His humility was not so much a series of individual actions or practices as it was a way of life for him, as a Jesuit priest, archbishop, cardinal, and pope.
How do we answer the challenge of humility? What do we do in our life to practice the virtue of humility? How are we a humble people? Are we living a humble life? How do we help “…the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind…” (Lk 14: 9).
At his introduction as Pope Francis, on the balcony over St. Peter’s Square, the newly elected pope seemed somewhat stiff and overwhelmed. Clearly, he was not. He was humble and reinforced his humility by his actions. Francis humbly asked the crowd in St. Peter’s Square to bless him “before” he blessed them. He said to the crowd of elated people, “And now I would like to give the blessing, but first I want to ask you a favor…I ask that you would pray to the Lord to bless me — the prayer of the people for their Bishop. Let us say this prayer — your prayer for me — in silence.” (Vatican Radio)
From the very beginning of his papacy, this humble servant demonstrated the importance of humility by being humble.
The first balcony appearance of Pope Francis was brief, as well as telling. It was not a portrait of a stiff, or overwhelmed, or out of place cardinal/archbishop, who was just elected pope; rather, it was a portrait of a humble servant taking another step down the humble path of his life.
We pray today, with Pope Francis as our guide, that we can grow to be as tender and as humble.
Readings from the Catechism of the Catholic Church: §2559, 2631, 2713
23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time — September 8, 2013
Discipleship is not free!
Purpose: As a contemporary disciple, how are we doing? Are we encumbered by things that hold us back from the Lord? Does our wish list of things get in the way of our worship of God? Detachment is key: today the Lord is making the point that discipleship has a cost. It is not free. Following the Lord as a disciple requires total commitment to the Lord. Commitment sealed by detachment is the point of the passage. The cost of that commitment is detachment from people or possessions that may hold us distant from the Lord.
Readings: Wis 9:13-18B ● Phmn 9-10, 12-17 ● Lk 14:25-33
St. Benedict once challenged his community of brothers with the testing thought that the “…way to God is often harsh and bitter.” In our jargon, St. Benedict may have said, “No one promised you a rose garden.”
I wonder if St Benedict had today’s Gospel passage in mind. Hate your Mom and Dad, brothers and sisters, your own life, and then pick up your cross of life and carry it. No complaining or whining allowed. Borrowing, as well as paraphrasing, from Tom Hank’s character in the film, A League of Their Own: “there is no crying in being Catholic allowed.”
Must discipleship be, as Benedict suggested, “harsh and bitter” and carry a very high cost? Perhaps. The key to understanding this passage is understanding the word “hate.” “It is a Semitic way of expressing detachment… It is not the emotion-filled word we experience when we scream, “I hate you”’ (Craddock, et. al., Preaching through Christian Year, pg.401). What is the point, then, and why does Jesus employ such harsh language?
This command of the Lord is reinforced by the two short parables of the tower construction project, and the king going into battle. In both the parables, the point is the same. Total commitment of resources to both the construction of the tower, and the battle, is essential for successful completion of both the tower and the war.
Today’s challenging Gospel forces us to pause and take a look at our relationships and our possessions, asking ourselves if those people and possessions hold us back from the Lord. The Lord’s call to commitment does not mean we need to rush out and sell or give away all we have, or remove ourselves completely from our loved ones. Discipleship in the Lord does not mean we have to become impoverished and alone. Rather, discipleship in the Lord requires that we act, think and live life differently. “When Jesus speaks about family ties and possessions, he is primarily asking for a change in mindset. All of us can begin to think differently. We can be less consumerists, more simple in our tastes”(Fahey, Footprints on the Mountain, pg. 594).
Not surprisingly, Pope Francis has visibly demonstrated the impact of such detachment from things, and the embrace of simplicity. The pope is known for wearing a plain pectoral cross, not one adorned with pontifical jewels. He does not reside in the traditional Apostolic Palace. He lives in a Vatican guesthouse, where he eats breakfast with the staff, and other guests, talks freely to them all and, against all custom, he travels in elevators with other passengers.”
His simplicity affords him the opportunity to concentrate on what is essential in his life, and to model those virtues to almost 1.2 billion Catholics with, as he preached in his Inaugural Mass, St. Joseph as his guide. “Here I would add one more thing: caring, protecting, demands goodness, it calls for a certain tenderness. In the Gospels, St. Joseph appears as a strong and courageous man, a working man, yet in his heart we see great tenderness, which is not the virtue of the weak, but rather a sign of strength of spirit, and a capacity for concern, for compassion, for genuine openness to others, for love. He must not be afraid of goodness, of tenderness!”
Simply, freely, and unencumbered was the intent of the harsh, “hateful” language of Jesus, and was the price of discipleship. How are we living our discipleship? How free are we to focus on the Lord rather than the people, property, or things around us?
Today, we are asked!
How do we respond?
Readings from the Catechism of the Catholic Church: §542, 788, 1506, 2623
24th Sunday in Ordinary Time—September 15, 2013
Forgiving others as God forgives us
Purpose: When and how we ask for forgiveness to return to our God is our choice. Today’s Gospel reminds us that when we make that choice, our Father is the first to forgive us, the first to welcome us home, and the first to restore our place in God’s family. The only catch is that we need to take that first step towards forgiveness. God has not moved away from us. We have moved away from God. And once we decide to ask forgiveness and return to our God, the Lord will run to us, and do the rest.
Readings: Ex 32:7-11, 13-14 ● 1 Tm 1: 12-17 ● Lk 15: 1-32
He does not have a name. He is a hard worker. He refused to join the welcome home party for his brother. He insulted his father by arguing with him in front of the guests.
Who is this mysterious figure?
He is the older brother, and his actions trigger in us the question, why is ho so cranky? The older brother’s plight is not uncommon. We may even know how he feels because, at times, we have felt like him. We do the volunteer work, and someone else gets the praise. For all of our efforts at our job, we get the same raise as someone whose hardest task during the day was punching the clock. We sacrifice for our family, and no one recognizes our efforts, or even seems to care.
We know from our own experience, how the older brother must feel when his younger prodigal brother returns, having done nothing but leaving home, spending money foolishly, and abandoning all the work to his brother.
The reason was to demonstrate a point. A significant break with Middle Eastern custom was the father’s action upon seeing the son. In the Middle East culture, old age was seen as a blessing, and reflected certain cultural norms, and ways of behavior. Seeing his son in the distance, he runs to embrace him. He does not walk; he runs. For an older person to run was a significant loss of status, rank, and dignity as the father would have had to pull up his tunic, expose his bare legs, and run. The father’s behavior was totally beneath the understanding of how “senior citizens” behaved. Surely aware of the customs of the day, he still ran to his prodigal son, risking harsh criticism from his guests for his behavior.
Regardless of these customs, the father embraces the prodigal brother in an embrace of forgiveness. He puts a ceremonial robe on him, signifying his union again with the family, put sandals on his feet, recalling his son’s freedom, and a signet ring with, most likely, the family crest, indicating his oneness in the family. Totally and without reservation, the father forgives the prodigal son, and welcomes him home. And then throws a lavish party adding, in the older brother’s mind, insult to injury.
In the middle of this party and celebrating the return of his son, the guests at that festive celebration could see and hear the exchange between the father and the older son. Displaying such an attitude of ill will by the elder son to the father could embarrass the father. Hearing his other son’s complaint, the father expresses his constant love for him, and reiterates his promise of the transfer of the estate to the older brother.
The father, then, totally forgives the older brother. He behaves toward the other brother with the same spirit of forgiveness and acceptance and love as he does towards the prodigal son.
What is interesting is the parable leaves us hanging. The parable closes with the father’s plea to his other son. We do not know if the father’s plea persuaded the other brother to join the party. Does the older brother decide to welcome home his younger brother? Does he leave the estate? It is up to us to craft our own ending.
It is equally left for us to decide when we ask for our heavenly Father’s forgiveness.
Most of us probably have a little of both brothers in ourselves. We may not always use wisely our God-given gifts and talents, or we become envious of what others in our circle of family are given. In the process of misusing resources, or being blinded by our own pride, our distance from our God seems to exponentially grow, as does our need of forgiveness grow.
Readings from the Catechism of the Catholic Church: §545, 1439, 1449, 1700, 2839
25th Sunday in Ordinary Time—September 22, 2013
Use wisely our skills for God and for others
Purpose: Today’s Gospel is not telling us to roll over and play economically dead. Rather, the Gospel teaches the opposite. Use well, wisely, and cleverly, our gifts and talents. Be shrewd how we do what we do. Go into the streets and work for the betterment of others, not self
Readings: Am 8:4-7 ● 1 Tim 2: 1-8 ● Lk 16: 1-13
Today, Luke presents us with a difficult challenge: Be like the steward. Luke has to be kidding!
Luke was not kidding. So why on earth is Jesus telling us to be like the steward? Why does Jesus praise the clever and devious steward? The steward should really be in jail! However, the steward is held up as a model of behavior.
A key to understanding the parable is to realize that Luke has most likely expanded the parable. It may have originally ended with the text, “For the children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than the children of light.” (Lk 16:8) From that point until the end, it seems as if Luke has strung together sayings from Jesus about money drawn from other contexts.
A fair question by now may be “Why is Father giving us a scripture lesson?” The pulpit is not the place for Scripture Class 101. However, sometimes to clarify Gospel meanings, it is important to briefly dig down to the scriptural background of stories to make the point. This is one of those cases.
Today’s Gospel is really two teachings drawn from the actions of the steward and the actions of trustworthy people. Luke has stitched together these two stories. The first story makes the point that the steward is praised for shrewdness in the use of possessions. The second story teaches how to keep our trust in God by using well and wisely what we earn and what we possess (Karris, JBC, Sec. 43, pg. 708).
What does any of this have to do with us on this September morning?
Money. Who has it! How can you get more of it?
Money is difficult to preach about from any pulpit. How we make, use, or give money are sensitive issues that, if discussed, should be discussed with great care. Today, money is a focus. However, the Gospel is about more than making money. Jesus praises the steward’s shrewd use of money and possessions. The steward knows he “…is about to be dismissed … he does not engage in self pity or indecision but decides to act shrewdly and make some provision for his own future … he makes friends for himself with the debtors. The master is not cheated out of anything that is rightly his….”(Kinn, Teach Delight Persuade, pg. 303). This teaching is then linked by Luke to clear examples of the importance of his disciples giving their exclusive loyalty to God, and not to possessions or money. It is not that the Lord opposes making legitimate profits, employing shrewd but honest practices, in generating money. He asks us to be shrewd in our work, but loyal to God, first.
In some ways, the Gospel echoes the challenge of Pope Francis in Rio de Janeiro on July 27, 2013, at “World Youth Day.” Pope Francis said: “We cannot keep ourselves shut up in parishes, in our communities, when so many people are waiting for the Gospel. Let us courageously look to pastoral needs, beginning on the periphery (of where we live), with those who are farthest away, with those who do not usually go to church. They, too, are invited to the table of the Lord.”
The pope reminded the young people that it is their duty to creatively and energetically use their God-given talents to take the word of God to all people. It is a tall order for the young, as well as us, to follow. How do we labor for the needs of people, how do we address our financial affairs, and how justly and honestly do we compete in our challenging economic environment?
In 1891, Pope Leo XIII wrote on labor in Rerum Novarum, subtitled “On the Conditions of Labor.” In this encyclical, Leo taught that the role of the State is to promote social justice through the protection of rights. The Church must teach and speak out on social issues.
…there underlies a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man, namely, that wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage earner. If through necessity, or fear of a worse evil, the workman accepts harder conditions because an employer or contractor will afford him no better, he is made the victim of force and injustice.
As the church speaks on social justice and human rights issues, Luke’s Gospel story challenges us to be smart, as well as shrewd, in how we teach and spread the Gospel.
During his formal reception by Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, Francis noted: “I have learned that, to gain access to the Brazilian people, it is necessary to pass through its great heart; so let me knock gently at this door. I ask permission to come in, and spend this week with you. I have neither silver nor gold, but I bring with me the most precious thing given to me: Jesus Christ.”
So, we bring Jesus Christ to our lives and the lives of others. Today, Luke reminds us to be clever and smart in how we do it!
Readings from the Catechism of the Catholic Church: §952, 1928-42, 2424
26th Sunday in Ordinary Time—September 29, 2013
The causes of poverty are numerous, and we are called to action.
Purpose: For those living in poverty, the future is not bright. The reasons are both complex and numerous. The only real solution, however, is you and I. What are we doing, and what can we do, in facing the depth of poverty? The liturgy today gives us a clear and, perhaps, uncomfortable, answer. As the Faith makes clear, this “Eucharist commits us to the poor,” and challenges us to be prayerfully mindful and actively dedicated to the weakest of our brothers and sisters (Catechism of the Catholic Church §1397).
Readings: Am 6: 1A, 4-7 ● 1 Tm 6:11 – 16 ● Lk: 16:19 – 31
“Poverty USA,” an initiative of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, recently noted that more than 46 million Americans live in poverty in the U.S. This represents the largest number of people living in poverty in 50 years. Presently, one in six Americans lives in poverty. One in seven households was food insecure last year. American children staying in a shelter or emergency housing last year numbered 1.6 million. The availability of health care, especially to the poor, is so “unavailable” it should be embarrassing to a country with the resources we have in the United States.
American families were having a difficult time making ends meet before the recession. With continuing unemployment and increasing costs of living, more and more families have to choose between necessities like health care, childcare, and even food (Poverty USA). As Ronald Reagan famously predicted, “We fought a war on poverty and poverty won.” With 46 million Americans—15 percent of the population—now counted as poor, the former president may have been right.
The liturgy challenges us to solve the problem of poverty and, after that, the riddle of the Great Sphinx, and the myth of the Bermuda Triangle. Not really. The point is that the solution to poverty is difficult. However, our readings give us a plan for facing poverty.
Our readings tell us that Amos, who is never subtle, railed against the complacent rulers in Zion and Samaria to address injustice and poverty. Amos, if he had his way, would take every bit of money, jewels, and treasure from the rulers, and give it to the poor. The Gospel solution, however, is quite different. Jesus argues that the poor are a part of God’s plan. They cannot be ignored because, one day, the poor will have their fate improved. In the interim between starving and salvation, what do we do?
Poverty is the result of a complicated economic system. The causes of poverty, in part, include a shift in business away from our manufacturing base, the lack of education for many, the rise of suburbs, and the breakdown of family systems, and limited success of government programs. Poverty is a system failure. Its solution demands a structural economic change to our system in order to better the fate of the poor.
Our role? Pope Francis, speaking to students from Jesuit-run schools in Italy and Albania, as well as their teachers and family members, compared poverty to a scandal. “In a world where there is so much wealth, so many resources to feed everyone, it is unfathomable that there are so many hungry children, that there are so many children without an education, so many poor persons. Poverty today is a cry. We all have to ask ourselves if we can become a little poorer, all of us have to do this. How can I become a little poorer in order to be more like Jesus, who was the poor Teacher?” (NCR, June 7, 2013).
Jesus was always attentive to the needs of the poor. He knew poverty firsthand, and knew it was neither nameless nor faceless. He knew, and he responded. And us? Facing such a large problem on a global stage, we might be tempted to think there is nothing we can do to change it.
In his most recent trip to Rio de Janeiro for World Youth Day, Pope Francis demonstrated the importance of addressing poverty. He did not only talk about poverty; he immersed himself in it as he visited a slum, Varginha, within the Manguinhos Complex in the North Zone. In that slum, he made the point, “No one can remain insensitive to the inequalities that persist in the world!”(NCR, July 26, 2013) No one.
Our role: do something; do anything. “Be servants of communion and of the culture of encounter! I would like you to be almost obsessed about this. Be so without being presumptuous, imposing “our truths,” but rather be guided by the humble, yet joyful, certainty of those who have been found, touched, and transformed by the Truth who is Christ, ever to be proclaimed (cf. Lk 24:13-35). (Pope Francis, Address Bishops and Priests, Cathedral of San Sebastian, Rio de Janeiro, July 27, 2013.)
The rich man in our Gospel never lifted a finger to help the poor beggar. He ignored the calls for help. He remained insensitive to the needs of the poor man, Lazarus. He did nothing when a simple word from him would have given Lazarus more food than he could imagine.
The Lord calls us to be sensitive to the poor. It is easy to do nothing in the face of such a problem. It is easy to walk away … we cannot. No longer can we ignore the welfare of the poor, and the varied conditions that cause poverty.
As the causes of poverty are numerous, so also should our responses be numerous. Feed one child. Provide one family with shelter. Give one mother a bed, and a home for her new baby. Create one job.
Poverty calls for Christian understanding and action. If Nike can challenge the world to “Just do it,” how much more can God, and his representatives, exhort all peoples to live out their faith of love, mercy, and justice?
Readings from the Catechism of the Catholic Church: §633, 1859, 2831