Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time

Note: I write this column on Sunday, August 17, since I will be on retreat all week until August 23.

 

Assumption High Mass. Praised be Jesus Christ! Thanks to all of you who came out to the Extraordinary Form High Mass on the Assumption. I was hoping that we would have 300 to 400 people (a good attendance for any Holy Day evening Mass). But I was stunned to find a standing room only crowd. Thanks to all of you who came out, whether out of devotion to the Old Mass, or out of curiosity or nostalgia, or simply in response to my asking you. I was moved beyond words.

 

And while I was hoping that those who came would have a positive and prayerful experience, I was completely overwhelmed as everyone I could see coming out of Mass was smiling (though a few were crying), and one after another approaching me to express their  gratitude, appreciation and joy. Young people and old; older folks who had fond memories from their youth reawakened, and younger folks who had “never seen anything so beautiful.” The music was amazing, the servers were reverent, and I thank the Good Lord almost no one knew enough to recognize all my mistakes. It was a wonderful evening.

 

Considering the overwhelmingly positive response, I now plan to schedule three or four more Masses like this throughout the coming year. But my main hope is, as I wrote in the program for the Mass: “that having participated in this beautiful Extraordinary Form of the one Mass of the Roman Rite you may come away with both an increased appreciation for our rich Catholic liturgical heritage, and a deeper understanding of the Mass in both the Extraordinary and Ordinary Forms—both in its ceremonies, and in its profound theological meaning. I pray that, through the Blessed Mother’s intercession, this will be reflected in the reverent and prayerful celebration of all Holy Masses at St. Raymond’s.” After witnessing the overwhelmingly positive reaction of so many of you, I have great confidence that this hope will be fulfilled.

 

Thanks again, to all who came and all who helped make it possible. And thanks to those donors who generously helped to defray the additional costs. And above all, thanks be to Our Lord and Our Lady, and Saint Raymond.

 

Robin Williams, Suicide, and Depression. Many Americans were shocked and saddened of the news of the suicide of Oscar winning actor and comedian Robin Williams. To be frank, I was never a big fan of his, but there is no denying his tremendous and varied talents and the wide numbers of people whom he entertained and made laugh.

 

His death makes us pause to think about many things. First, that all the money and success in the world doesn’t mean much in the end. It clearly doesn’t buy happiness, and it can’t conquer death. I’m sorry to say that it seems that Mr. Williams had no particular faith in God, and particularly no faith in Jesus. So that when he had to face his depression he apparently saw death as his only hope. If only he had had faith in Christ.

 

Does that mean that all people who commit suicide don’t have faith in Jesus—even self-proclaimed devout Catholics? By no means. It simply means that faith in Jesus Christ leads to real hope for millions of people who would otherwise give in to despair. It means that so many people who might otherwise feel all alone know that Jesus loves them perfectly and completely, and will never abandon them.

 

Williams’ death also makes us think of the reality of depression. All of us get depressed, in the sense that we get sad or emotionally low. But “clinical depression” is something else. It is a medical illness, often caused by real physical problems, such as chemical imbalances (I speak as a complete amateur here). Often it’s the result of a combination of psychological, environmental and physical factors. But it is never something to be ashamed of, and it is always something we should seek help with. Sometimes this involves just talking to family and friends, but when necessary we should not hesitate to seek professional help, even if it’s just mentioning your symptoms to your family physician. The more severe the depression, obviously, the more imperative that one seeks assistance.

 

Of course, there is a spiritual component to dealing with depression as well. Hope in Christ and the grace He pours out on us is an amazing thing. It helps put all things in perspective, can carry us through our darkest moments, and can heal every illness. Even so, sometimes the illness overcomes our hope. And sometimes, just as faithful Christians succumb to cancer and heart disease, faithful Christians also succumb to clinical depression, even to the point of suicide.

 

Although throughout history there have been those who try to portray it as a noble thing, and many today make the same argument, suicide is never, never good or honorable. It is always a sad, and evil thing. That is not at all to say that the people who commit suicide are always sad or evil people. Far from it. Most are simply ill: it’s estimated that around 90% of the people who commit suicide in our country have some sort of psychiatric disorder, e.g., clinical depression.

 

If you have had a loved one who has committed suicide, my heart goes out to you, and, much more importantly, so does the mercy of Christ. Our hope is in Him, Who knows the hearts of all, and finds no blame in one who dies as the result of a psychological disorder, such as depression, that robs one of the ability to truly freely choose life over death.

 

And if you are one who has ever considered suicide, or perhaps actually attempted suicide, know that you are not alone. Your family and friends are there for you. And the Church, the parish, your priests and health care professionals are here to help you. Most of all, be confident that Christ is here for you: He loves you, He will never abandon you, and He is bigger and more wonderful than any evil or darkness in your life. Have faith in Him, hope in Him, and trust in His infinite love for you.

 

Let us pray for the soul of Robin Williams, and all those who have died by their own hand. While it is right to judge their action as absolutely wrong, we do not judge their souls. We leave that to our just God, and His boundless mercy. And let us pray for all who suffer from depression. May they find the help they need in friends, professionals and brothers and sisters in Christ. And may the grace of Christ transform their sadness into joy, their despair into hope.

 

Oremus pro invicem. Fr. De Celles

 

Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

RELIGIOUS PERSECUTION. Our Christian brothers and sisters in Iraq continue to suffer bloody persecution at the hands of the Islamist terrorist army that calls itself the “Islamic State,” or “IS” (formerly  the “Islamic State in Syria and Iraq,” or “ISIS”). At last the governments of the west are starting to take note, and we finally saw our president begin last week to take some military action to defend “minorities” in Iraq. But we cannot let up in our prayers and other efforts to protect our persecuted brethren.

 

Excerpt from Pope Francis’ Angelus address, Sunday August 10.

 

Dear brothers and sisters,

          The news reports coming from Iraq leave us in dismay and disbelief: thousands of people, including many Christians, driven from their homes in a brutal manner; children dying of thirst and hunger in their flight; women taken and carried off; people massacred; violence every kind; destruction of historical, cultural and religious patrimonies. All this gravely offends God and humanity. Hatred is not to be carried in the name of God! War is not to be waged in the name of God!

          I thank those who, with courage, are bringing succour to these brothers and sisters, and I am confident that an effective political solution on both the international and the local levels may be found to stop these crimes and re-establish the [rule of] law. In order better to ensure those dear suffering populations of my closeness to them, I have named [Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples] Cardinal Fernando Filoni as my Personal Envoy in Iraq, who shall depart from Rome tomorrow [Monday].

          In Gaza, also: after a truce, war has once again resumed – a war that cuts down innocent victims and does nothing but worsen the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

Let us pray together the God of peace, through the intercession of the Virgin Mary: Grant us peace, O Lord, in our days, and render us artificers justice and peace.

 

Excerpt from an article in The Tablet (International Catholic News Weekly)

Headline: “Iraqi Patriarch calls for more airstrikes as displaced minorities face threat of humanitarian crisis” (August 11, 2014 by Liz Dodd)

The US must carry out airstrikes on Islamic State [IS] militants across northern Iraq and not confine its intervention to Erbil, the Baghdad-based Chaldean Patriarch has said. Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako also voiced concern that “death and sickness are grabbing the children and elderly people” among the thousands of displaced Iraqis seeking food, water and shelter in overcrowded cities.

          The patriarch urged US President Barack Obama to carry out airstrikes on militants in Mosul and the Nineveh Plain, saying that the decision only to provide military assistance to Erbil, where 100,000 refugees have taken shelter, was “disappointing”.

          Three days of US air strikes on jihadists closing in on Erbil have enabled Kurdish forces to retake some positions held by IS. Meanwhile the US is reportedly considering evacuating refugees still trapped on Mount Sinjar, where thousands of Yazidis fled when the city of Qaraqosh, which was also home to a large Christian community, fell to IS last week. The US Government today confirmed it is arming Kurdish forces.

          The British Government, which has so far resisted calls for a military intervention, said today that the RAF would start dropping humanitarian aid supplies “imminently”.

          The Apostolic Nuncio to Iraq, Archbishop Giorgio Lingua, described the US airstrikes as “something that had to be done, otherwise [the IS] could not [be] stopped”. Speaking on Vatican Radio, he questioned why IS had been allowed to gain such a foothold. “Was it not a lack of intelligence? … And then: who gave to these [IS fighters] such sophisticated weapons?”

          Patriarch Sako warned of the “deplorable situation” facing Christians and Yazidis who had fled their homes and were now reduced to sleeping in the streets and public parks. As well as those who have fled to the city of Erbil, some 60,000 Christians have fled to the northern Iraqi cities of Dohuk and Kirkuk, the Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah, and as far as the capital, Baghdad, the patriarch told the charity Aid to the Church in Need.

          Mgr Nizar Semaan, chaplain to the Syrian Catholic Community in the UK, broke down on BBC Radio 4’s Sunday Programme as he described the plight of those who had fled his home town, Qaraqosh. “Children, women, elderly people, young people are sitting on the street with no milk, nothing to drink, under the sun. Women are going to find something to eat for children, elderly people are without medicine. What kind of humanity is this?”

          He urged the international community: “If you are not able to protect us, welcome us. Open your door for us. We cannot stay and die there.”

          The Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Erbil, Bashar Warda, said the situation in the city was disastrous. He said: “We are struggling. It’s beyond our capacity. We don’t have enough space: schools, churches and homes are open. It’s a disaster.”

          The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, reiterated the call he made on Friday for the UK to offer asylum to those fleeing IS.

          The Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, agreed that those refugees who wanted to travel “should be welcomed”, but emphasised their right to stay in their home country.

          “The Christian presence in Iraq is hugely important. When Christians move out, humanity is closer to total breakdown. I think the most important thing is to create safety in their own country,” he said.

          The Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need has announced it has launched an appeal for displaced Christians in northern Iraq.

 

GOOD NEWS. Amidst all the bad news that seems to surround us today, here’s a little bit of good news for you. On August 8 long-time parishioners Bob and Bev Ward celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. Years ago (16?) my predecessor, Fr. Gould, asked Bob and Bev to take over the CCD program and they’ve been teaching the faith at St. Raymond’s ever since. Now they run the RCIA as well as two weekly Bible Studies. And they continue to work with the Diocesan Conference for the Engaged, helping engaged couples prepare for marriage. But more than their “official” teaching they teach us by the wonderful example of Christian living they show us, especially the superlative example of their love for each other, and how they share that love with anyone who comes into their lives. We are so blessed to have them in our parish. Congratulations Bob and Bev on 50 years of showing the world what Christian marriage and love are all about. May the Lord Jesus shower you with His graces, may His Mother Mary keep you in her tender care, and may St. Raymond guide you in all do for his parish.

 

Oremus pro invicem. Fr. De Celles

Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

This coming Friday, August 15, is the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a Holy Day of Obligation. Masses will be scheduled at the usual times (see below), but this year we will have a special treat at the 7pm Mass on Friday: we will celebrate a Sung High Mass of the Extraordinary Form (the “Traditional Latin Mass”). This is a first for St. Raymond’s, and I chose this particular feast for a reason: as the Blessed Mother was taken up into Heaven, body and soul, in a certain mystical way we are all taken up into Heaven at every Mass, as God the Son comes to us in the Eucharist. And where Christ is, there also are the Father and Holy Spirit, with Mary and all the saints and angels of Heaven adoring Them.

The Book of Revelation records the Heavenly liturgy, and telling us: “Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready…Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding feast of the Lamb!” [Rev. 19:7,9]. “Then…I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them…” [Rev. 21:2-3]

Vatican II repeated this ancient teaching: “In the earthly liturgy we take part in a foretaste of that Heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the Holy City of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God… With all the warriors of the Heavenly army we sing a hymn of glory to the Lord; venerating the memory of the saints, we hope for some part and fellowship with them….” [Second Vatican Council, 1962-1965, Sacrosanctum Concilium, 8].

How many of us see Mass like this, approaching the altar as Mary, the angels and saints approach the throne of God, with  a profound and overwhelming sense of awe, reverence and sacredness?

Prior to Vatican II this was what the Church emphasized in her teachings about the Mass. And it was to reinvigorate appreciation of these same ancient teachings that Vatican II called for reforms in the celebration of Mass that would help Catholics to understand this more fully. Sadly, while many of the changes introduced by Pope Paul VI in the Novus Ordo (“New Order”) of the Mass were very helpful to this end, many Catholics wrongly came to think that the changes meant a complete break with both the old ways of doing things and the old ways of understanding the meaning of the Mass itself.

Because of this, I believe that one of the best ways to understand the Novus Ordo Mass is to better understand the form of Mass that came before it, that inspired and enthralled great saints for 16 centuries. Which is one of the main reasons Pope Benedict XVI, in 2007, authorized the widespread celebration of the “Old” form of Mass, which he called the “Extraordinary Form” (EF) of the Roman Rite. As he wrote: “the two Forms (old and new) of the usage of the Roman Rite can be mutually enriching,” so that by reference to the Extraordinary Form the Novus Ordo Mass (or “ordinary form” of Mass—OFM) “will be able to demonstrate, more powerfully than has been the case hitherto, the sacrality which attracts many people to the former usage.”

That being said, let’s look at some of the aspects of the EF Mass that will stand out as “different” on Friday.

1) The EFM is always said entirely in Latin, including the Scripture. (The sermon is in English and usually includes rereading at least the Gospel in English). The use of Latin, the official language of the Universal Church for centuries, reminds us of the unity of the Church, and that all the Catholics throughout the world, including those who lived in past centuries, join us in this Heavenly liturgy.

2) Many of the prayers are said only by the priest and/or servers in, often in a low, inaudible voice. In a “High Mass” (versus a “Low Mass”) these prayers are said while the choir sings the same prayer in beautiful chant (e.g., Kyrie, Gloria), which you may join in singing. Sometimes they are said while there is total silence in the church, especially during the Canon ( “Eucharistic Prayer”).

3) The priest praying this way has several symbolic meanings. For example, praying alone reminds us that he alone stands in persona Christi, who in turn is the one true priest of the Mass; but his humble low voice reminds the priest and us that he is merely a humble servant, not Christ Himself.

4) Because of these inaudible prayers there are many periods of apparent silence. This reminds us of the Heavenly liturgy: “When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in Heaven for about half an hour…” [Rev. 8:1]. But the silence does not mean nothing is happening: the priest is praying, and you may follow and pray along with him. Or you may pray and meditate in your own words. The OFM seems to have us doing or saying something specific at each part of the Mass, but the EF allows you more freedom to actively participate by talking to Jesus in your own words from the depths of your heart.

5) Things like silence and Latin also serve as sort of a veil over the  “sacred mysteries” which can never be fully understood by man, and that Heaven appears here to us, but veiled in signs. They also remind us of the veil that covered the Holy of Holies of the Temple that only the high priest could enter.

6) The EFM is offered with the priest facing away from the people (“ad orientem,” like our 8:45 Sunday Mass). He is not turning his back to you, but turning with you toward the Lord, to be united with and to lead the people in worshipping God, and offering prayer for and with the people, as we wait together for the “rising of the sun of justice” (in the east, “ad orientem”)—the Second Coming of the Son of God.

7) There is a lot of kneeling, genuflecting and bowing, e.g., Holy Communion is received while kneeling at the altar rail (except for disabled). This reminds us of the Heavenly liturgy, as Revelation describes 7 occasions similar to the following: “And the twenty-four elders and the four living creatures fell down and worshiped God who is seated on the throne….” [Rev. 19:4].

8) Holy Communion is received only on the tongue. This is a dramatic reminder that we are not receiving ordinary food, but the body of Jesus Himself. “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread…of the Lord in an unworthy manner… without discerning the body eats …judgment upon himself [1 Cor. 11:27,29]

9) There is more emphasis on external signs (multiple servers, candles, incense, vestments, hats, etc.), as at the Heavenly liturgy: “before the throne burn seven torches of fire….And round the throne…are four living creatures… and… twenty-four elders, clad in white garments, with golden crowns upon their heads.” [Rev. 4:5,6] ….“And another angel …stood at the altar with a golden censer;… and the smoke of the incense rose….” [Rev. 8:3,4]

10) At the “High Mass” there’s a lot of chanting. “The four living creatures, each…with six wings, …day and night they never cease to sing, “Holy, holy, holy…!” The twenty-four elders…singing, “Worthy art thou, our Lord and God ….” [4:8-11].

11) You will also notice careful attention to precise ritual acts, done by specific ministers. This reminds us of the hierarchical nature of Heavenly worship, where the different ranks/groups of angels each have their own particular ritual to perform, the elders theirs, and even the Lamb His.

12) The sign of the Cross is repeated many times during the Mass. This serves several purposes, but always reminds us that the Eucharist is the re-presentation of the sacrifice of the Cross.

13) There are many repetitions, especially repetitions in threes, reminding us of the Trinitarian nature of the Mass and Heaven.

 

I invite you all to join us this Friday at 7pm for the Extraordinary Form High Mass. Many will not feel drawn to attend the EFM regularly, but you will all be glad you came. It is the beautiful form of Mass attended devoutly by centuries of saints and sinners, and it reminds us of where we have come from and what we have believed—so that we can better understand where we are now and what we believe still.

Note: we will be joined by a guest choir, an ensemble from “Suscipe Quæso Domine,” more popularly known as, “The Suspicious Cheese Lords.”

 

Oremus pro invicem. Fr. De Celles

Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

What Price Catholicism? In the news the last few weeks we’ve heard two important news stories about people who have paid a great price for holding on to their Catholic faith. The first story was about a Catholic woman in Sudan, named Meriam Ibrahim, who had been imprisoned in Sudan, awaiting execution. The week before last, after months of intense negotiation by the Italian government and the Vatican, the Sudanese government freed Meriam  and she was flown to Rome to meet with the Pope. It was a great story.

But the real story was the reason she had been in prison in the first place. You see, Meriam’s mother was an Eastern Orthodox Christian and had raised Meriam as a Christian. Shortly before she married her Catholic husband in 2011 Meriam had converted to Catholicism. But because her father was a Muslim, Islamic law considered her to be Muslim also, and soon after her marriage she was accused of apostasy from Islam. When she refused to recant her Christianity and “return” to Islam, the Sudanese government sentenced her to death.

The second news story was about the plight of Christians, mainly Catholics, in Iraq, who have increasingly become the target of persecution by the terrorist army called the “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria,” or “ISIS.” The week before last ISIS in Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq, issued an ancient and familiar order to these Christians: “submit or die.” (This after terrorists posted to the internet pictures of Christians crucified in Raqqa). But the Islamist terrorists were “generous,” in their own corrupt way: by “submit” they meant either convert to Islam, or stay Christian but pay heavy taxes for the privilege of  becoming permanent, subservient and silent second-class citizens (dhimmitude); and by “die” they meant either be executed or leave the country and everything you own.

According to news reports, hundreds of Mosul Christians have been killed, and almost all of the rest, 10s of thousands, have left everything behind rather than convert or remain under the thumb of thugs, having to comprise their Christian faith more and more every day. And for the first time in 16 centuries no Mass was said in Mosul last month.

Last week we read the parables comparing the Kingdom of Heaven to a treasure found in a field and a pearl of great price found after long searching,

that when one finds it he “goes and sells all that he has and buys it.”

The story of the pearl of great price has a real meaning to Meriam and the Iraqi Christians. What does it mean to us? Would we be willing to give up everything we have in exchange for our Catholic faith? Think of all the compromises we make with secularism every day, the doctrines—especially the moral doctrines—that many Catholics in America publicly deny every day. Some because they’d have to change their lifestyles or lose some friends, and some simply because their time is too valuable to spend on trying to understand the Church’s teaching. But in the end, it’s simply because it would cost too much, and they are not willing to pay the price.

Meriam Ibrahim and the Christians in Iraq have found the pearl of great price, and they have traded everything they had to possess it. Do we? No one is threatening to kill us or forcing us to leave our homes. At least not yet. But they do threaten us that if we want to be Catholic, it may cost us more than we can bear.

We must all pray for our Christian brothers and sisters being persecuted around the world, especially those in Iraq and Mosul. And we must also pray that we may always follow their example of fidelity to Christ and His Church.

 

A Religious Vocation. Most of you will remember Teri Tolpa, who was the chair our Respect Life Committee for several years until 3 years ago when she moved to Denver to go to graduate school. Her parents, Debbie and Ted Tolpa, are still active members of St. Raymond’s. I’m delighted to report that Teri has been accepted to enter the Sisters of Life as a “postulant” on September 6th, 2014.

I’m sure you all join me in congratulating Teri, and in thanking her for responding to God’s call. She will be visiting Virginia near the end of August to spend some time with her family before she enters the convent, so we should have the chance to thank and share our support with her personally. Please keep her in your prayers in the months and years ahead.

The Sisters of Life (www.sistersoflife.org) are a contemplative-active order of religious sisters, founded by John Cardinal O’Connor in New York City in 1991. They take a special vow “to protect and enhance the sacredness of human life.”  Their convents are primarily in the NYC metro area.

The vocation to be a religious sister (or a nun) is one of the greatest gifts God can give to a woman, and to her family and parish. It is truly a “pearl of great price.” To give oneself totally to the Lord in vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience is to have an undivided heart for Him and to serve Him first in all things. As St. Paul says: “the unmarried woman or girl is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please her husband” (1 Cor. 7:34). Because of this religious sisters are often called “brides of Christ,” as they give themselves completely to Him.

At some time in their life every Catholic girl and unmarried woman should discern whether God is calling her to this magnificent vocation. If any of the girls or women in our parish would like help in this regard, Fr. Kenna and I would be happy to talk to you, and/or introduce you to some religious sisters in the area. Don’t be afraid—if God is calling you to this, be assured He has something wonderful in mind for you.

And parents, make sure you encourage your daughters in this regard. Don’t push, but pray, propose and support. And don’t ever be afraid of losing a daughter or not having grandchildren. If your daughter is called, God will reward you generously for betrothing your daughter to Christ.

 

Sung High Mass (EFM). August 15 is the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a Holy Day of Obligation. As previously announced, the 7pm Mass that evening will be offered as a Sung High Mass of the Extraordinary Form (a.k.a., the “Tridentine Mass” or the “Traditional Latin Mass”). I invite all of you to experience this very beautiful ancient form of Catholic Mass. (Next week I will explain more about this form of Mass and its importance to all Catholics). We will, of course, also have our regular (Ordinary Form) Masses the evening before (Vigil) and during the day.

 

Oremus pro invicem. Fr. De Celles

Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, July 27, 2014

17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, July 27, 2014

Homily by Fr. John De Celles

St. Raymond of Peñafort Catholic Church

Springfield, VA

 

Today’s gospel tells us that the kingdom of heaven is like

a treasure found in a field,

or a pearl of great price found after long searching,

that when one finds it he “goes and sells all that he has and buys it.”

It is beautiful imagery, and evokes keen appreciation of the wonderful treasures

that await us in the kingdom of heaven.

But the thing is, the kingdom, as Jesus tells us, is already here;

not perfectly, but nascently,

as on earth we share in the treasures of the kingdom

that exists here on earth in the Church founded by Jesus Christ.

The Church is the Kingdom on earth.

 

This begs the questions:

Do we recognize the treasures we find in the Church?

And most importantly:

how many of us would trade everything we have

in exchange for the treasures of Christ’s kingdom?

 

This last week we heard about two different stories of people who did just that.

The first story was about a Catholic woman in Sudan, named Meriam Ibrahim,

who had been imprisoned in Sudan, awaiting execution.

This week, after months of intense negotiation by the Italian government

and the Vatican,

the Sudanese government had freed Meriam

and she was flown to Rome to meet with the Pope.

A great story.

But the real story was the reason she had been in prison in the first place:

her only crime was that she had converted from Islam to Catholicism

and now refused to recant her Christianity and return to Islam.

And for that they sentenced her to death.

She had literally traded everything she had—including her very life—

to be faithful to Christ and His Church.

 

The second story was about the plight of Christians, mainly Catholics, in Iraq,

who have increasingly become the target of persecution of

the terrorist army called the “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria,” or “ISIS.”

This last week ISIS in Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq,

issued an ancient and familiar order to these Christians: “submit or die.”

But the Islamists were “generous,” in their own corrupt way:

by “submit” they meant either convert to Islam,

or stay Christian but pay heavy taxes for the privilege of

becoming permanent, subservient and silent second-class citizens;

and by “die” they meant either be executed

or leave the country and everything you own.

 

Almost all of them, 10s of thousands, decided to leave,

and to leave everything behind

rather than convert or remain under the thumb of thugs,

having to comprise their faith more and more every day.

 

——–

The story of the pearl of great price has a real meaning

to Meriam and the Iraqi Christians.

What does it mean to us?

 

Today many Christians in the West see the faith as merely a source of comfort.

They focus on passages of Scripture like those we find in today’s psalm :

“O Lord…Let your kindness comfort me…

Let your compassion come to me ….”

But when it comes down to it, they value gold and comfort more than God

and silver and pleasure more than his Church.

So that the rest of the words of today’s psalm fall on deaf ears:

“The law of your mouth is to me more precious

than thousands of gold and silver pieces….

I love your command more than gold, however fine.” And the idea of giving up all that they have on earth

to gain the treasures of the kingdom of heaven is inconceivable.

 

In today’s first reading, God tells Solomon:

“Ask something of me and I will give it to you.”

And Solomon responds:

“Give your servant…an understanding heart                    to judge your people and to distinguish right from wrong.”

And then it says that God “was pleased” that he had

“asked …not for a long life…, nor for riches…                    but …[to] know what is right.”

 

God gives us many wonderful gifts,

but one that is crucial for us to enjoy all the others is

“To know what is right and wrong.”

This is the gift God gave to Solomon, and the gift the Psalmist referred to

when he wrote of God’s “law” and “commands.”

 

And so among the many gems in the treasure chest of the kingdom

he gives us particular teachings about what is right and wrong,

like so many diamonds and rubies—and pearls.

But too many Christians reject them,

because they conflict with their comfort,

or they would cost too much to follow.

 

For example, 46 years ago this last Friday, on July 25, 1968,

Pope Paul VI issued his famous encyclical Humanae Vitae,

reiterating the apostolic teaching of the Church

on the procreation of human life.

A teaching that is not just a matter of what is wrong with contraception,

but also about what is the right way to understand procreation.

A teaching that reveals the right understanding the meaning of man,

as male and female,

being created in the image of the God who is love.

A teaching that reveals that God creates us just

so that he can give himself totally to us in love

and we can give ourselves totally to him in love.

A teaching that reveals that God builds this total-self-giving love

into the very nature of man,

most fundamentally in the relationship

of male and female as husband and wife.

A teaching about how this mutual-self-giving love

is expressed in the bodily act of total-mutual-self-gift: sexual intercourse.

A teaching about how God’s incredible loving generosity in giving life to man,

is imitated as husband and wife give life to children

through the act of physical love.

 

A teaching that is not merely one jewel,

but a whole jewelry box discovered inside the treasure chest,

a jewelry box filled with the gems of Christ’s teachings on

love, sexuality, family,  procreation and marriage itself.

Diamond’s, jades, rubies, sapphires, emeralds—and pearls of great price.

 

And yet many, actually most, Catholics reject this whole jewelry box

—and all the precious jewels in it.

Some because they think the wisdom of the world about these things

is wiser than the wisdom of Christ and his church.

Some because they have been convinced

that there is no real “right and wrong.”

Some because they think they’d have to give up to much if they accepted it.

And, sadly, some because even their time is too valuable to spend on

trying to learn and understand the Church’s teaching.

But in the end, it’s simply because it would cost too much,

and they are not willing to pay the price.

 

——-

But what happens if we’re not willing to pay the price

for the treasure of the kingdom?

In today’s Gospel after Jesus tells the parable of the treasure

he gives us a very different parable.

“The kingdom of heaven” he says, “is like a net thrown into the sea,           which collects fish of every kind.           ….what is good [is put] into buckets. What is bad they throw away.” And to make sure we understand his point, he speaks plainly:

“Thus it will be at the end of the age. The angels will go out

and separate the wicked from the righteous

and throw them into the fiery furnace….”

 

On the one hand the “righteous,” and the other hand “the wicked.”

On the one hand “right” and the other hand “wrong.”

On the one hand “treasure,” on the other hand the “fiery furnace.”

Christ freely offers both, and we freely accept one or the other.

 

So, we have a decision to make: is the treasure of Catholicism,

including the knowledge of right and wrong,

worth the price?

Meriam Ibrahim and the Christians in Iraq have faced that choice.

They have found the treasure, the pearl of great price.

And they have sold everything they had to buy it.

 

Do we?

No one is threatening to kill us or forcing us to leave our homes.

At least not yet.

But there are strong cultural forces trying to tell us

to abandon the fullness of our Catholic faith.

They tell us that it’s anti-social and anti-freedom.

That it’s contrary to new enlightened ideas of “what is right and wrong.”

That it’s rooted in bigotry and hate.

 

And so while they don’t threaten to cut our heads off,

they do threatened to cut us off from mainstream of the culture.

And they may not force us to leave our homes and country,

they do threaten to ostracize us from family and friends.

In effect, they tell us if want to be Catholic, it will cost us more than we can bear.

But in reality they are telling us, submit or die.

 

——-

My friends, in just a moment

we will kneel before our Lord Jesus present in the Blessed Sacrament

–one of the most precious jewels in the treasure chest

He’s given to us in his Church.

As we kneel before him, let us thank him for this treasure—all of it.

And let us thank him for the gift of the heroic example

of our brothers and sisters in Iraq and Sudan,

and beseech his mercy to keep them safe

and reward them for their fidelity.

And let us beg him to give us the grace to follow their example,

in recognizing, accepting and cherishing

the fullness of treasures of His Church,

in standing against those who try to force us to submit

to false notions of right and wrong,

and in being willing to give up everything we must

in order to be truly faithful Catholics.

Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, July 20, 2014

16th Sunday in Ordinary Time, July 20, 2014

Homily by Fr. John De Celles

St. Raymond of Peñafort Catholic Church

Springfield, VA

 

Today we read a rather unusual gospel text.

If I asked you what it was about, most of you would probably say

it was the parable of the weeds among the wheat.

But if we were paying close attention we noticed that in the middle of the text

we find that Jesus gives us two other parables:

the parable of the mustard seed

and the parable of the yeast.

So we sort of have a parable sandwich:

the two smaller parables wrapped between the 1st parable;

double-decker parable sandwich at that.

And like any well-made sandwich,

all the parts are chosen to blend together and complement each other,

producing a combined taste that is absolutely delicious.

 

Now, every sandwich, by definition, has bread

—sometimes two pieces, sometimes one, like a “wrap” or a taco.

Some tend to think the bread is unimportant,

that the stuff inside the sandwich is important—the meat, so to speak.

But you can’t have a sandwich without the bread:

it holds everything together, gives it form,

and allows it to be eaten conveniently.

But it also can add flavor: the taste of rye or pumpernickel

can make all the difference to the taste of the sandwich.

 

And so we have the parable of the weeds and wheat

wrapping around the other two parables:

at once giving context, holding the whole text together,

and also giving it it’s defining flavor.

 

The primary context is Jesus himself,

who is the sewer of good seed, the wheat,

while the devil is the sewer of bad seed, the weeds.

In that context we understand that the good seed, the wheat,

is the individual believer in Christ,

and the bad seed, the weed, is the one who follows the devil.

 

But then we see something that is perplexing to all of us:

Christ allows the weeds to grow among the wheat.

 

I’m sure all of us have asked ourselves about this from time to time:

why does Christ allow bad people to flourish in the world,

and in particular, in the Church itself?

And this question has many sisters:

Why does he allow bad things to happen to good people?

Why does he allow good people to sometimes do bad things?

And we could go on and on.

 

The parable itself gives us the basic answer to all these similar questions.

Jesus says:

“if you pull up the weeds you might uproot the wheat along with them.”

 

But, there’s a slight problem with that answer.

After all, like weeds in the wheat, couldn’t God

—who is all-knowing and all-powerful—

simply go through the human population and recognize all the evil people,

and pull them out?

It would seem so.

So I think he’s trying to tell us something more here.

First of all, I think he’s telling us he has his reasons for doing what he does.

We may not see it at first, or ever,

but he is a lot smarter than us and has a very good reason.

 

And I think he’s also saying that

even though he knows the weeds from the wheat, sometimes we don’t.

And that can be a problem.

For example, there are many people who appear to be very good,

and may even lead other people to God,

but inside or in their private life they’re terrible sinners.

So pulling that weed might not serve God’s purpose, because we’d thing:

“that’s a good person—why is God doing that to him?”

—it might even lead to other good people losing their faith:

in other words, he might pull up some wheat with the weeds.

 

And I also think he’s saying that

sometimes it’s hard to tell the weeds from the wheat.

Not in the sense that God confuses good and evil.

But he knows that we are all sinners—even the best of us sins:

sometimes the wheat act more like a weed.

 

And more than that, sometimes a weed can become wheat.

We read in today’s first reading:

“But though you are master of might, you judge with clemency,

…and you gave your children good ground for hope

that you would permit repentance for their sins.”

Remember, the basic context of this parable,

the wheat of this bread, so to speak,

is Jesus himself,

the same Jesus began his public ministry by proclaiming:

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

 

So when He says:

“if you pull up the weeds you might uproot the wheat along with them,”

he’s also talking about the weeds in our own lives,

the evil done by good people, the sins of those who follow Christ.

 

If he were to come today and pull up weeds he might take a lot of us with him.

And the problem with that is that the weeds that are pulled will be

“throw[n] them into the fiery furnace,

where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.”

And so in his mercy, he waits patiently,

and allows the weeds to grow along with the wheat in our hearts and lives,

allowing us to repent, to pull the weeds ourselves, with his grace,

and so receive the reward of those he calls “the righteous,”

who “will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.”

 

And then, there are also those people who simply do not follow Christ at all,

those who willfully embrace sin.

In the context of Christ who is not only all powerful and all knowing,

but also all-merciful and patient,

and for whom all things are possible,

we know that sometimes the weeds themselves

can be transformed into wheat.

And so he holds back… allowing time for repentance,

so that even the worst sinners among us can be saved.

 

We see this in the New Testament itself, as we see Mary Magdalene,

the archetypical sinner from whom Jesus drove out seven demons,

so that she became a great saint whose feast we celebrate this Tuesday.

And then there’s St. Paul, who persecuted the first Christians.

And we see it all throughout history:

St. Augustine, St. Thomas Becket, St. Ignatius, and even St. Francis;

each of these a noted sinner, who became a great saint.

And in your own lives, you know people like this—maybe even yourself.

How many of us, by the mercy and patience of Christ,

have been weeds transformed to wheat.

Thank God he didn’t come to pull us out

when we were complete and total weeds.

This is the bread of the sandwich,

the context that holds it all together and makes it all possible:

                    the merciful and patient Christ,

who sometimes allows the weeds to grow among the weeds

—in the world, in the Church and in our hearts.

 

Which brings us to the stuff inside the sandwich:

the parables of the mustard seed and the yeast.

 

The parable of the mustard seed reminds us that the kingdom

is like the small seed that grows into a “large bush.”

Again, in history we see how this has played out.

The church began with about 200 believers on Pentecost in 33 AD,

but has grown to 2.2 billion Christians, 1.2 of those Catholic.

Even so, sometimes we seem like wheat among the weeds:

we may be 2.2 billion, but there are more than twice that number

of people in world who are not Christian.

And many of those vehemently oppose us,

by trying to convert us, or oppress us, or even kill us.

 

And there are even those who are in the Church who do not truly follow Christ.

And then even ourselves, even as we try to follow Christ, we continue to sin.

 

Sometimes it seems Christ’s’ kingdom in the world, in the Church and in our hearts,

is very small, defenseless against the powers of evil.

And yet, just as surely as we saw it grow in population form 200 to 2.2 billion,

and just as we’ve seen periods of great holiness in the Church

and in our own lives,

we know that, by Christ’s grace,

and through his mercy and patience,

the tiny seed can become a great tree.

 

And finally, the parable of the yeast.

This reminds us that as those who follow Christ will grow

—not merely in numbers but also, and most importantly, in holiness—

as time passes they will lead others to be transformed and lift up by Christ.

As the patient and merciful Christ allows the wheat and weed to grow together,       his grace and the good example of Christians

can transform weeds into wheat:

what is flat can rise, what is evil can be converted.

 

So this is the “meat” of our sandwich:

the great potential of the seed of the faith planted in us

to transform the world, the Church and each one of us.

So that in the context of the bread of Christ’s mercy and patience we discover

the possibility of our own greatness and transformation,

so that we can “shine like the sun in the kingdom of our Father.”

 

Now, I began by saying we have 3 parables today.

I supposed I’ve introduced a 4th parable: “the parable of the sandwich.”

I apologize if that’s been silly or confusing.

But bear with me for one more moment.

 

In all this we see the key is the bread: the mercy and patience of Jesus.

All the other stuff, our great potential and transformation,

only comes and holds together

because of his mercy and patience.

 

Allow my little parable now to turn your eyes to the Bread we are about to receive

—bread that is transformed by Christ’s mercy and patience,

so that as weeds become wheat, wheat becomes bread,

and bread becomes Christ himself.

In the gospel today he tells us: “Whoever has ears ought to hear.”

As he comes before us in the Eucharist,

let he who has eyes, especially the eyes of the heart, let him see.

Let us see Jesus, and open our hearts to receive him,

him who is mercy and patience incarnate.