21st Sunday in Ordinary Time 2012

August 26, 2012
Homily by Fr. John De Celles
St. Raymond of Peñafort Catholic Church
Springfield, Va.

For the last 5 weeks we’ve been reading from Chapter 6 of St. John’s Gospel
—one of the most important
and most misunderstood or neglected chapters in the bible.

5 weeks ago, we began with the feeding of the 5000
—the miracle of the multiplication of loaves.
Then we moved into what is often called the “bread of life discourse”
—Jesus’ explanation about how his flesh is the bread of life, the Eucharist.

It’s interesting that while the miracle of the multiplication of loaves
is reported in all 4 gospels,
only St. John reports the bread of life discourse.
Now, some say this discrepancy is because John made the whole thing up
—that Jesus never really said it.
But this is absurd.
As St. John writes at the very end of his Gospel:
“This is the disciple who is bearing witness to these things,
and who has written these things;
and we know that his testimony is true.”

What really happened is that John was the longest living of all the apostles
—he died at a ripe old age, maybe when he was 90 years old,
maybe as late as the year 100 AD.
And so he wrote his Gospel many years after the others,
maybe 30 or more years later than Matthew, Mark and Luke,
—and so it’s almost certain that he’d read them,
since they were widely circulated.
On top of that, we know that John’s Gospel is the most theologically profound
—perhaps because of all the years he’d had to think about it,
or perhaps because of his unique closeness to Christ
when he was on earth,
he was, after all, called “the beloved disciple.”
So after having lots of time to think and pray over the life of Jesus,
and reading what Matthew, Mark and Luke had written,
he wrote down his own recollection
—not making things up, not correcting the others,
but recording things he’d come to understand
were much more important than maybe they first appeared.

In particular, John came to focus on the central importance
of mystery of the Incarnation.
And so he begins his whole Gospel, by explaining:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
Through him all things were made… In him was life.”
And then he concludes:
“the word became flesh and dwelt among us.”

The Incarnation—the taking of flesh by the life-giving God
—is at the heart of John’s understanding of the Gospel.
And so, while Matthew Mark and Luke recorded the multiplication of loaves,
and did so not only to impress us with Jesus power,
but also to help us understand Jesus giving us the Eucharist,
in chapter 6, of his Gospel John says, in effect,
‘but don’t forget what Jesus said after he multiplied the loaves’:
“I am the bread of life….and the bread that I will give
is my flesh for the life of the world.”

Again, some people what to see this as John making something up
to make a point.
Still others today want to say it really happened,
but Jesus is talking in merely symbolic language.
John probably had encountered people like this in his own time.
And so years after Christ’s death,
and probably after years of hearing some arguing that Jesus had just
been speaking metaphorically about his flesh and the bread,
John finally sits down and writes to the whole Church
and very carefully reports
that Jesus himself insisted they were wrong.

And so John writes, at Verse 53:
“The Jews quarreled among themselves, saying,
“How can this man give us (his) flesh to eat?”
Now, think about this: his followers think he’s talking about real food.
They don’t think he’s talking in symbols:
that spiritual grace is like food, or perhaps that his teaching is like food.
They’re upset because he sounds like a cannibal—
“How can this man give us [his own] flesh to eat?”

And how does Jesus respond?
He doesn’t change his teaching—he doesn’t say,
“no, no, I’m only talking in symbols”:
No:
“Jesus said to them,
“Amen, amen, I say to you,
unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man
and drink his blood,
you do not have life within you.”

Now, in the original Greek the word he uses here for “eat”
is very descriptive of physical eating:
the word “trogo”
doesn’t translate as “consume” or “sup upon”
but to physically “chew” or “gnaw.”
He’s saying, ‘you’re right: I’m not being symbolic.’
As then he goes on to say:
“For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.”
Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.”

Then you can see the disciples, thinking…
“how can he do this? That’s impossible.”
Or as John writes:
“Then many of his disciples who were listening said,
“This saying is hard; who can accept it?”

How familiar these words are to us today
—we hear it all the time, maybe we say it ourselves,
even if only in the back of our minds.
It’s hard to believe that the bread Jesus gives us is his body.
But Jesus still doesn’t back down.
As John writes at verse 61:
“Since Jesus knew that his disciples were murmuring about this,
he said to them, “Does this shock you?”

And then Jesus reminds them that they’ve seen his power
—they’ve just seen him feed 5000 with a few loaves of bread.
And he tells them there’s more to come, as John records:
“What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending
to where he was before?
It is the spirit that gives life, while the flesh is of no avail.
The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life.”

Now, some seize on Jesus words:
“It is the spirit that gives life, while the flesh is of no avail,”
They try to argue He’s backing away from talk of flesh being real food
–that he’s somehow saying that,
“no, no, it’s the spirit, it’s all spiritual food, not really my flesh.”
But that would mean he’d be contradicting everything he’s been saying.
No, what he’s saying is, in effect,
“But you’re not remembering who I really am!
I am the eternal Word who created life itself
—“the words I have spoken are spirit and life.”
I multiplied the loaves to feed the bodies of 5000,
and one day you’ll see me ascending—bodily–into heaven.
I work in my body and through my body,
but don’t limit me to the power of normal human flesh.
I have spiritual power you can’t even imagine.”

That’s what he meant
—and that’s what the people there understood him to mean.
And that’s why they left.
As John writes:
“As a result of this, many of his disciples returned to their former way of life
and no longer accompanied him.”
Think of this—these were his disciples,
people who had believed in him and were following him from town to town.
They’d heard his beautiful words
and seen his great power.
And yet all because they could not accept this one hard saying
—because they couldn’t believe in the Eucharist—
they walked away.

And what does Jesus do?
Does he run after them saying,
“no, no, wait, come back…you misunderstood”…?
No.
Still he won’t back down.
Instead, as St. John records:
“Jesus then said to the Twelve, “Do you also want to leave?”
It’s as if He’s saying,
“What about you 12?
Those others refuse to believe me, what about you?
You have a choice—believe this “hard saying” about eating the bread
which will be my flesh,
or be on your way too!”
Where else in the Gospels does he give such a stack choice:
“Here’s the line—which side are you on?”

What a terrible moment this must have been for those 12.
It was in fact a hard saying, who could believe it?

But then we read:
“Simon Peter answered him,
“Master, to whom shall we go?
You have the words of eternal life.
We have come to believe and are convinced
that you are the Holy One of God.”
Words. Life.
So simple.
They believe because they believe he is the savior: they have no choice:
They believe because he said so.

Did they understand what he meant?
I would wager no, not really, at least not completely.
But they did understood that he meant what he said.
And so they believed, and struggled to understand.

And almost exactly a year later that understanding took a huge leap forward,
when they sat with Jesus at the Passover supper,
on the night before he died,
remembering the first Passover, the night 1300 years before
when the Jews believed the word of the God given through Moses
and ate the flesh of the sacrificed lamb,
and God saved their lives from the angel of death
passing over Egypt
and freeing them for a new life in the promise land.
When they were at supper,
Jesus took bread, gave thanks, blessed it, and broke it,
just as he had when multiplied the 5 loaves into 5000 loaves.
But this time he said:
“Take, eat. This is my body, which is given for you.”
And with the cup: “take, drink. This is the cup of my blood.”

They listened to these strange but absolutely clear words of Jesus.
And they remembered the words he had said
that day after multiplying the loaves,
his words about his flesh being the bread of life,
true food that he would give them and that they must eat.
And they believed.

For 2000 years the Church has held fast to this belief.
And through the years, with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit ,
And contemplation on the teaching of St. John and the other apostles,
we have come to understand it better.
But all of it goes back to what Peter said—we believe, because Jesus said so.

Unfortunately, there have always been those
who do not side with Peter, and his successors, the Popes.
Of course this begins with the early disciples
who loved what Jesus had to say,
and were impressed by his power,
but left him because they could not accept this hard saying.

But not all of the nonbelievers walked away.
As John tells today:
“Jesus knew from the beginning the ones who would not believe
and the one who would betray him.”
And as he goes on to tell us at the end of Chapter 6:
“Jesus answered them,
“Did I not choose you twelve? Yet is not one of you a devil?”
He was referring to Judas…Iscariot;
it was he who would betray him, one of the Twelve.”
Judas stayed, but he did not believe.
And it seems, according to John,
that, the Eucharist was the beginning of his unbelief and betrayal.

Today, many followers of Jesus do not believe His words about the Eucharist.
Even those who say “Scripture alone” and “it’s in the bible, so I believe it”
–they don’t believe what Jesus insisted on 5 times in John Chapter 6.
And even those who claim to be in the company of Peter’s successors
—many Catholics don’t believe,
even, it seems to me, too many bishops and priests.

Am I saying that they are like Judas—betrayers of Jesus?
I can’t say that—only Jesus knows their hearts.
And Jesus loves them and is more merciful than you or I can even dream.
What’s more, many of them love Jesus very much.

But there is a line that Jesus draws.
There is a word Jesus speaks.
There is a truth Jesus insists on.
There is a gift Jesus gives.
And there is a faith in all that—a faith held and proclaimed by Peter,
and all of his successors, the Popes of the Catholic Church.
It is this:
“unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man…
you do not have life within you….
For my flesh is true food….
..The bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”

These are hard sayings.
But as we enter into this great mystery here today,
let us not allow our weak faith,
our stubborn hearts,
or our limited minds,
to lead us to abandon Christ, or to betray him
as he gives us himself, his body, his flesh
to eat as the bread of life.
Rather let us hold firmly to the faith of Peter in the word of Christ:
“Master, ….You have the words of eternal life.
We have come to believe, and are convinced
….you are the Holy One of God.”

17th Sunday in Ordinary Time 2012

St. Raymond of Peñafort
Homily by Fr. John De Celles
July 29, 2012

In today’s readings we find a situation not unfamiliar to the modern world:
so many people in need,
and the apostles lamenting that they don’t have
either enough food, money or know how to fix the problem.
An impossible situation.
In the Gospel Jesus has only 5 loaves and 2 fish to feed 5000 men,
not to mention the women and children.
Yet there is nothing to worry about, as Jesus says:
“Have the people recline”:
in effect, ‘tell them to relax.”
Because in his magnificent generosity Jesus, God the Son,
would provide not only enough for them all to eat they wanted,
but so abundantly that there were 12 baskets full of leftovers.
The generosity of God’s love is breathtaking.

Now, sometimes God’s generosity is very clear
—like when he feeds 5000,
or when you ask him for help on a test and you ace it,
or you ask for a cure for you daughter’s cancer and she’s healed.
But sometimes, even when he’s being most generous,
we don’t recognize it, and even think he’s asking too much of us.

The thing is, we don’t always know what’s good for us
–but Jesus, who made us, always knows what we need.
And he knows that each one of us
is created for and are in fundamental need of really only two things:
two gifts which our whole Christian faith revolves around:
the gifts of Life and Love.

Elsewhere in Scripture St. John tells us:
“God is love.
In this the love of God was made manifest among us,
that God sent his only Son into the world,
so that we might live through him.”

Life and love, go hand in hand in the mystery of being a Christian
–and really in the mystery of being human.

But the New Testament isn’t the first place we find this idea.
We find it at the very first chapter of the first book of the Old Testament:
the story of the creation of the universe, and of man,
in the book of Genesis.
In that story we find that God creates man not because he needs to,
but because, as St. John says: “God is love.”
And so this God who is love, in whom living and loving are the same thing,
this God does not need to do anything.
But because love, by its nature, is naturally generous,
God by his nature generously wants to share his life and love.
So out of his life of love he generously gives life
to a new and wonderful creature,
a life that receives God’s love and lives to return that love.

Genesis tells us
“God created man in his own image: male and female he created them.”
This one creature–Man–in his very being, is created sexually as two,
and this difference shows that in his very being
he is created to live and love with another
–and to do so most sublimely in the context of their sexual identities
as male and female, as partners in marriage.

But this is a very different view of things than the world has.
Because for the world we live in, marriage is so often reduced
to whatever legislators or judges or Hollywood executives think it is
–a concept of marriage created by men in their image by the stroke of a pen.
A very different view of what marriage is, and as a result,
a very different view of the meaning of sexuality.

So for example,
we see that by the decision of every state legislature in this country,
marriages can be legally terminated by the simple decision of a judge.
And by the vote of unelected judges it may be that very soon
every state in the union will have to extend legal recognition
to so called “gay marriages.”
And television and movies make it clear that marital infidelity
has become more or less socially acceptable.
Quite different from the teaching of Jesus himself in Matthew Chapter 19:
“from the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female’
…’for this reason a man shall leave his father and mother
and cling to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh ‘
… what God has joined together, no man can separate.”

And we see a culture that sees sexuality
as a matter of an absolute individualistic right to self-satisfaction
–with no inkling of its nature as a generous sharing of life and love.
We live in a world that in many ways
would make the people of Sodom and Gomorrah blush.
Fortunately, through the Cross of Christ,
God is more merciful to us than he was to Sodom and Gomorrah.

44 years ago this last Wednesday, on July 25, 1968,
a very wise but embattled man,
wrote a very short but also very historic letter
reiterating the Church’s ancient understanding
of the essential integration and unity of human life and human love
in marriage and sexuality.
The man was Pope Paul VI and his letter was called “Humanae Vitae”:
“On Human Life.”

In Humanae Vitae Pope Paul called us to go back to Genesis Chapter 1.
He reminded us that married people are called to share life and love
in every moment and action of their lives.
And that while they’re called to live and love generously in the image of God
–they’re called to live out this love in very human ways.
Sometimes this is in very ordinary ways,
such as living in the same house and working,
and laughing and crying together.
But sometimes it’s in a very special way:
a most concrete, dramatic, intense, and wonderfully joyful way,
in human physical sexual intimacy:
a human act which is a sacramental expression
of the generous life-giving quality of God’s love,
and the love-giving quality of God’s life
found in the very creation of man described in Genesis.

This is what acts of sexual intimacy are intrinsically designed to mean
–and anything less is a corruption of this meaning:
an insult to the dignity of the human person, spouses, children,
and God himself.
So that Pope Paul VI taught,
repeating in modern language what the Church has always taught,
that it is always morally wrong
to intentionally separate the life-giving meaning
of human sexual intimacy
from its love-giving meaning.
Life and love go together in human intimacy,
so that any direct and intentional attempt
to render procreation impossible in the conjugal act
is absolutely contrary to the divine meaning of human love and human life,
and to the eternal and unchanging will of God.
In short, contraception is always a grave or mortal sin.

Contraception takes something God made to generously and dramatically express
his life and love, and the married couple’s sharing in His life and love
and at the same time mutually giving and sharing
in each other’s life and love together,
contraception takes this and changes, degrades it,
into something that it was never meant to be.
Elsewhere in the Gospel, Jesus asks:
“What father among you would hand his son a snake
when he asks for a fish?
Or hand him a scorpion when he asks for an egg?”

What husband or wife among you
would give your spouse an act of only false intimacy and selfish sterility
when they ask you to give yourself completely in an act of true love
that is directed or open to bearing the fruit of new life!

This is a very hard concept to accept, especially for those of us
who grew up in a world that teaches us a very different view of sexuality.
But if the world has clearly taken a contra-Christian approach
to the meaning of marriage in its acceptance of divorce and adultery
—and now even homosexuality—
perhaps we can see that it has also gone very wrong
in its understanding of the fundamental meaning of sexuality.
The world reduces sexual intimacy to little more than selfish pleasure,
but Christians see it as having meaning
—a wonderful, rich, joyful and divine meaning,
expressing what is most deepest to the human person.

I know so many people struggle with this—it’s so different.
And I don’t really expect that this homily
is going to cause an immediate mass conversion.
Especially among those of you who have to actually put it into practice.
I don’t have to worry about this in my personal life,
and a lot of the folks in this room are past the age of worrying about it
in their personal lives.
But for many of you this represents an immediate and intensely personal struggle
–a struggle with what you’ve been told over and over
as far back as you can remember,
and also a struggle with what your own passions
might lead you to assume.
Struggle, if you must,
but if you do take today as a new beginning of your struggle,
as you start, maybe for the 1st time,
to think about and pray about and study about
what the Church really has to say and offer
in its beautiful teaching on the mystery of human life and love.

And as you begin little by little to appreciate this beautiful mystery,
don’t be discouraged or feel overwhelmed
by what seems to be the impossibility of fulfilling its demands.
Remember those 5000 people in today’s Gospel
who had followed Jesus to listen to his teaching,
even though they were going out to a deserted place without food.
And in response to those who followed him to learn from him,
Jesus generously provided them with so much food
they had 12 baskets left over!
Will he be any less generous regarding the material needs,
as wells as their emotional and spiritual needs,
of Christian spouses who follow him and listen to his teachings today,
with a generous openness to life?

Some spouses will say,
but Father, this is so difficult and contraception is so easy.
Today Jesus tests Phillip by asking:
“Where can we buy enough food for them to eat?”
And Phillip replies, basically, “It’s humanly impossible.”
But then Jesus, God the Son, goes on to do what is humanly impossible,
reminding us of his words in Matthew Chapter 19,
as he finishes his instruction on marriage, children
and the treasures of the world:
“For man it is impossible; but for God all things are possible.”
God will provide every grace spouses need to become the men and women,
the husbands and wives,
that He created them to be from the beginning.

Do not lose hope, but be persistent in your pursuit of the truth, and beg the Lord,
for whom nothing is impossible,
to give you the generosity necessary to sacrifice personal pride or desires
to live in his love and conform to his eternal will,
his plan for your true happiness.

Begin today, and persevere, and he will give you what you need to understand
and to live the sublime divine mystery of generosity
that is the foundation of human love and human life.

16th Sunday in Ordinary Time 2012

St. Raymond of Peñafort
Homily by Fr. John De Celles
July 22, 2012

“Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.”

All of us need to do exactly this from time to time:
to relax, refresh, renew, and rejuvenate—to rest.
Of course, there are lots of ways we do this.
We go on vacations:
sometimes far away from home,
but sometimes we simply stay at home and relax.
Sometimes we just take a day or two off,
or maybe just an evening relaxing with friends.
Jesus used to do that too:
the Gospels tell us, in particular, how he used to visit the home
of his friend Lazarus and his sisters,
apparently just to get away from things and relax.

The need to rest is essential to man—not only physically and psychologically,
but spiritually as well.
In fact it’s part of what it means to be created in the image of God,
as Genesis chapter 2 tells us:
“God … rested on the seventh day from all his work.”
And so he made it one of the 10 Commandments:
“Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy…”
So to the ancient Jews, including Jesus himself,
the Sabbath was not merely a day to rest, but to rest with the Lord.

Of course, this means that when we go on vacation
you can’t leave God behind
—whether it comes to your morals, or to your prayer life,
or to Sunday Mass.

But more importantly this reminds us
that the highest and most necessary form of rest is prayer
—of being in the refreshing presence of God.

Think of what Jesus does when he rests.
Of course he sleeps, and he visits his friends.
But think of all the times he goes off by himself to a quiet place,
or up on a mountain, or to a garden, to pray.

And the highest form of prayer, and rest, is what we do here every Sabbath:
the Holy Mass.
Think about it:
the Mass is the ultimate getaway
—going ” away by yourselves to a deserted place.”
We really do, or should, leave the world behind
—this is very different, on purpose,
than anything we do in the world.
And we come here not to talk to or see each other,
but really to talk to and see God.
And of course, like all good vacations that rejuvenate and refresh us,
we come here to eat the most delectable and invigorating food
—the Holy Eucharist.

Last Sunday we read how Jesus had sent the apostles out
to preach the gospel, drive out demons and cure the sick.
In today’s Gospel the apostles have just come back from that mission,
and they’re exhausted.
So Jesus says, “Come away…to a deserted place and rest a while.”
But they can’t get away.
As St. Mark tells us:
“People saw them leaving and …[t]hey …arrived at the place before them.”

Why?
Because the people were desperate for what Jesus and his apostles had.
St. Mark writes that when Jesus
“saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them,
for they were like sheep without a shepherd…”
What shepherd were they “without”?

The answer is in today’s psalm, Psalm 23:
“The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
In verdant pastures he gives me repose;
beside restful waters he leads me;
he refreshes my soul.”

This is the shepherd they were looking for.
This is the shepherd we are looking for.
And they, and we, find that shepherd in Christ, and his apostles.
The shepherd that would give them repose, rest and refreshment.

But as they follow this shepherd out to this deserted place,
they find themselves in a predicament: they have no food.
We stop just short of reading this today,
but in the next few verses after today’s text from the Gospel of Mark,
we find that Jesus responds
by feeding of the 5000 with a few loaves of bread.
And so the sheep are completely refreshed by the shepherd who
“spreads the table before me…” so that “my cup overflows”?

And here we are, at the Eucharist,
as the good shepherd spreads the table before us,
the bread of eternal life.

But this can’t happen without shepherds.
As we read in today’s first reading:
“I will appoint shepherds for them who will shepherd them.”
Just as the Lord sent the apostles to preach his gospel,
he also sent them to be the shepherds of his sheep.
And he continues to send shepherds in his place.

Because without shepherds there can be no verdant pastures to repose in,
no refreshing of the soul, no table spread before us.
Without priests there is no Mass, no Eucharist,
no source of true and lasting refreshment and revivification.

So in a parallel text in St. Matthew’s Gospel,
when Jesus
“saw the crowds, he felt pity for them,
because they were …like sheep without a shepherd”
according to St. Matthew, Jesus added:
“The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few;
pray therefore the Lord of the harvest
to send out laborers into his harvest.”
Perhaps the Lord is guilty of mixing his metaphors, but his point is clear:
there are lots of sheep waiting for a shepherd.

My friends, we need more priests.
We at St. Raymond’s have been discovering this in a rather painful way
in the last month.
But you know, I’m convinced we have lots of priests
sitting in the pews here every Sunday
—they’re just not ordained yet.
I’m convinced that Christ is calling literally dozens of the young men
here at St. Raymond’s to the priesthood, to be shepherds of his flock.

But will they answer the call?
And will their parents and brothers and sisters help them to answer the call?

A lot of young men are afraid to answer
—and a lot of their family members are afraid for them.
And understandably so: I won’t lie to you, it’s a hard life,
if you do it right, or if you try to.

But so is the life of a lay man, if you do it right, or try to.

The other day, after I finished Mass someone came to tell me
there was no toilet paper in the rest room.
I thought to myself,
yes, and there’s a financial statement sitting on my desk I have to review,
and scores of emails and phone calls I have to return,
and a column and homily I have to write.
Not to mention a $3 million mortgage I have to pay.
And meetings, confessions and Masses…
I felt like the apostles in today’s gospel,
trying to get away to a quiet place but pursued by the crowd.
That’s the life of a priest today.

But it also sounds a lot like the life of a married man with kids, too!
Who’s busier me or him?

People say, but Father, priesthood is such a lonely life.
Yes, it can be.
But then again, not so much.
Like Jesus and the apostles, the priest is never really alone
—there’s always a crowd following him.
And this can be very consoling:
literally 1000s of people love you, just for being a priest.
If I said right now “I have no food in the rectory,”
a dozen families would show up this afternoon with dinner in hand.

And most importantly, I know that 1000s of people pray for me, by name,
every day—can any of you say that?

And all because I stand in the place of Christ, and by his grace
refresh their souls by spreading the table of the Eucharist before them.
Only a shepherd can do this, only a priest.

My dear sons, why don’t you want this?!
Mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers of my sons
—why don’t you want this for them?

Of course there are sacrifices, but for a moment see with the eyes of Christ:
who “saw the vast crowd, [and] his heart was moved with pity …, for they were like sheep without a shepherd…”
If you are called to be that shepherd,
to bring rest, refreshment and peace to his people,
why would you say “no” to that?
Or not even consider the invitation?

I know I’m a poor example of a shepherd,
but even my weakness should inspire you.
22 years ago I sat in the pew as a layman,
listening to another priest give one the of the worst homilies in history,
and I thought to myself: “I can do better than that.”
And something inside said to me: “Okay, smart-alec, why don’t you try”
And you sit there today thinking the same thing about me…So why don’t you try?

Now, you may be thinking, boy Father really needs a vacation.
Maybe.
Maybe I just need a few days off with some friends.
Earlier I mentioned that Jesus used to do that.
In particular he used to go to rest at the home of Lazarus,
and of course his sisters Martha and Mary, in Bethany.
Interestingly enough, today is the feast day of Mary of Bethany,
except that it’s suppressed to celebrate the Lord’s Day.
Although we don’t usually call her “St. Mary of Bethany,”
instead we call her by the other name she goes by in Scripture:
St. Mary Magdalene.

I won’t go through her whole story now
—I wrote some of that in today’s bulletin if you care to read it.
But it is the common teaching of the Church,
that this sister of Lazarus was once a terrible sinner,
who, by the love and grace of Jesus,
was lifted from the depravity of her terrible sins
to become one of the greatest saints:
the first to witness the resurrection and
and the one Jesus sent to announce the resurrection
to the Apostles.

This is the great St. Mary Magdalene.
She has been dear to me all my life.
You see, I was born, baptized and raised in a parish named after her
—it was there I first heard the call to the priesthood as a little boy.
And over the years she’s taken special care of me, in so many ways.
In particular, 10 years ago this very day, her feast day,
she intervened with our Lord as I lay in a coma dying in Fairfax Hospital:
in the morning all the doctors said I would be dead by the afternoon;
by the afternoon they were all shaking their heads in utter disbelief
that the illness was completely gone from my body.
She is a powerful saint and a tremendous friend.

Normally I recommend her as a particular patron of women
especially those who suffer from their own personal sins
or the sins committed against them.
But today, let me recommend her to those young men
who may have a vocation to the priesthood, and to their parents.
Because, you see, the Gospels tell us that she, along with certain other women
“used to follow [Jesus] and minister to Him” and the apostles,
“contributing to their support out of their private means.”

In other words, 2000 years ago she took care of the first priests of the Church,1
1 The tradition that holds that Magdalene traveled to France with her brother and sister also holds that her brother Lazarus himself became a priest, and perhaps a bishop…
and 2000 years later she still takes care of priests
—she takes care of me every day.
Let her take care of you, let her help you discover if you,
or your son or brother,
is a called to shepherd the flock of Christ.

It is written in our very nature that we all need to rest.
But that need is not only for physical rest
—in fact, the most satisfying and necessary rest
is resting with the Lord in prayer,
and being refreshed by the Bread of heaven.
As we now enter into this great mystery of the Holy Mass,
let us join the angels and saints, especially St. Mary Magdalene,
and leave behind the cares and troubles and sins of the world,
and let our Divine Shepherd lead us to repose in verdant pastures
and to refresh our weary souls.
at the table He spreads before us.
And let us be at peace, confident that the Lord will never deprive us of
this wonderful rest,
never leaving us like sheep without a shepherd.
Let us, “Come away …to a deserted place and rest a while.”

15th Sunday in Ordinary Time 2012

St. Raymond of Peñafort
Homily by Fr. John De Celles
July 15, 2012

Today’s second reading begins with one of the most lyrically and theologically beautiful texts in the Bible, taken from the first words of St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.

The first part of the reading in the form of a Canticle, and may have been written to be sung or recited by the early Christians—it has, in fact, been that for centuries in the Church as part of the chants of the liturgy of the hours. The second part is sort of a commentary on the first. But throughout we discover wonderful and essential teachings of the Church.

It’s main theme is that Christ is the center, reason and fulfillment for everything. It says the Father “has blessed us in Christ,” “adopt[ed]” us “through Christ” and “granted us” “his grace” “in the beloved” Christ. “In him [Christ] we have redemption by his blood.” All is a part of the Father’s plan, “a plan for the fullness of times, to sum up all things in Christ, in heaven and on earth.”

Without Christ, there is nothing. With Christ, we have “the riches of his grace…lavished upon us.” This is the heart of the Christian life and faith.

We celebrate this fundamental reality every Sunday, and in fact at every Mass —the canticle’s Eucharistic overtones are powerful. In particular, the Eucharistic prayer is absolutely about this, especially the first Eucharistic prayer, the Roman Canon.

It begins: “To you, therefore, most merciful Father, we make humble prayer and petition through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord:” It goes on to say the refrain “through Christ our Lord” multiple times, including as we pray that we “may be filled with every grace and heavenly blessing. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.”

And at the very heart of the prayer the bread and wine become Christ’s Body and Blood through Him, through his actions and words. And the prayer ends with, the powerful summary of the miracle that has taken place: “Through him, and with him, and in him, …almighty Father, …all glory and honor is yours, for ever and ever.”

This is the heart of our faith and life, and of the Mass.

Thank the merciful Lord that he has given us St. Paul and this beautiful text so that we should never lose sight this sublime truth and always let it inform the rest of our faith in Christ.

But, think about what we would lose if we didn’t have this text. Or if we didn’t have the rest of the letter to the Ephesians, or the other letters of the New Testament, and the Gospels themselves. If somehow they’d been lost or discarded by the early Christians.

You know, in the early Church neither this letter, or any of the books we now call the “New Testament,” were automatically considered as inspired Scripture.

And there were also different interpretations given to this and other texts, as there have been through the centuries. For example, one extreme interpretation is that it’s poetic setting tells us that it’s not meant to be read with theological precision, so that Christ really isn’t the center of things, so that he’s is not really essential to salvation.

These are the kind of huge problems we can run into, even in a wonderful text like this. How do we solve these problems? And how do we know which letters are inspired and belong in the Bible?

Some say, well the Holy Spirit guides each of us to understand these things. But that’s not what the early church thought.

Remember, on the first Pentecost, the day the Holy Spirit descended on the first Christians, it wasn’t to the Holy Spirit inside of themselves that each Christian looked to teach them what God had in mind. Rather, as the Acts of the Apostles tells us: “they devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles….”

And as St. Paul goes on to write to the Ephesians, the Church is: “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone….” Again, the fundamental centrality of Christ, but now also the foundational quality of the apostles.

If the apostles said it, the first Christians believed it. Why? Because as St. Mark tells us in today’s Gospel: “Jesus summoned the Twelve and began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over unclean spirits.” Some people think the “authority” Jesus gave them was merely to cure the sick, but if we look carefully at the end of the text it tells us first: “So they went off and preached….” In fact, in St. Matthew’s account of this event Jesus commands them: “preach as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’”

Later Jesus makes this delegation of his authority permanent, first making Peter the first Pope, in Matthew 16:

“you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

And then, in Matthew 18, he extends the power to bind and loose to all 12 of the apostles together.

And that authority would not end with the death of the 12: the Scriptures make clear that others succeeded them in authority as apostles and bishops: first Matthias, then men like Barnabas, Timothy and Mark, and of course, St. Paul himself.

And it didn’t end with the apostolic age, but comes down to us through the successors of the apostles. And St. Irenaeus of Lyons would write in 180AD: “the faith preached to men, …comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops.”

Still, some Christians don’t agree with this, even some who call themselves Catholics. Unfortunately, since popes and bishops have been very patient with dissenters over the last 50 years, many Catholics have come to think that dissent is okay. It is not: as Jesus said: “a house divided against itself will not stand.”

Some of this dissent is willful and intentional, but most of it is simply due to ignorance: most Catholics today have simply not been taught some of the most basic truths of the faith.

So for the last 20 years or so there’s been a strong push to re-catechize adults and to improve the quality of the catechesis of our children. And by “improve” I mean present the actual authoritative teaching of the Popes and bishops in union with him.

To help pastors to focus on their responsibility to teach the true Catholic faith, the rite of installation of pastors requires new pastors to publically proclaim, under oath, a Profession of Faith, that begins with the Creed we say at Mass, and concludes by affirming faith in the all the infallible doctrine taught by the Pope and Bishops, and submission to all their official teachings.

This last May Bishop Loverde decided it was a good idea to extend this public profession of faith to all the catechists and religion teachers in the parishes. I, along with the vast majority of the priests of the diocese, wholeheartedly agree. After all, the catechists—CCD teachers— are helping me do my job of teaching the faithful, and if my profession of faith helps me to focus on this responsibility, then why wouldn’t that also be helpful to my assistants, the catechist?

Now, I have no doubt that all of the catechists here at St. Raymonds will happily make that profession next September: they want to teach the Catholic faith not the “Me” faith.

Unfortunately, this last Thursday the Washington Post published a front page story about five CCD teachers at St. Ann’s in Arlington who refuse to make the profession of faith.

Now, this is the Washington Post, so I wasn’t surprised that the article was saturated with the Post’s standard anti-Catholic bigotry. I mean, how convenient to find a dissenting priest who would not so subtly compare Bishop Loverde to the Nazis. And how did a story about just 5 catechists out of the thousands in the diocese merit front page coverage?

But besides that, it was just bad reporting. I could go on and on, but let me just focus on a few of the key errors.

First of all, the Post writes that all teachers are required: “to submit “will and intellect” to all of the teachings of church leaders.” The Post seems to imply is that Catholics would have to accept every little thing a particular bishop or group of bishops might teach, even if it were absolutely irrational and unprecedented.

Not so. The profession is talking only about doctrines which are presented by the Pope or by all the bishops acting with the Pope— in such a way that they clearly intend to be official. All this really is like when I’m sick and I think my symptoms point to a cold, but all the doctors I consult say I have pneumonia. I don’t agree with them, but they’re the experts, so I “submit” to their decision.

The Post goes on to say that, “[the] ‘profession of faith’ asks teachers to commit to ‘believe everything’ the bishops characterize as divinely revealed.”

Not quite. The profession says: “I also believe everything …which the Church, either by a solemn judgment or by the ordinary and universal Magisterium, sets forth to be believed as divinely revealed.”

Friends, this is straight out of Vatican II, the language the council used [in Lumen Gentium] to define infallible teaching: teaching that is from God and cannot change. So it’s not simply what “the bishops characterize as divinely revealed,” as if one day the bishops might get together and say, “hey, let’s make a new doctrine.” Rather it’s talking about what doctrines the bishops simply repeat that have “been handed down” to them as the constant infallible teaching of the Church.

Finally, the article quotes several of the dissenting Catechists and one smart-alec priest at Notre Dame who keep singing the refrain: bishops make mistakes.

So what’s new? I mean, Bishop Loverde, God bless him, approved the designs for this beautiful church, but that included a lighting system where you can’t change a single light bulb without spending $20,000 for scaffolding. He didn’t know that, not his fault, but still, a mistake.

But we’re not talking about the mistakes they make in ordinary every day decisions. And we’re not talking about individual bishops, or even all the bishops alive today. We’re talking about the deposit of faith, the truth entrusted to the apostles and handed down and protected by the Holy Spirit, so that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against” the Church built by Jesus Christ.

Now, some clever parishioner might look at today’s first reading and say, but Father, in that reading the priest Amaziah tries to silence Amos, a simple layman: “I was no prophet,” Amos says, “I was a shepherd and a dresser of sycamores.” But God sent that layman to the priest to prophesy. Isn’t that just what the dissenting catechist are doing to Bishop Loverde?

Not at all. If you think about it, the priest Amaziah is a heretical priest —for hundereds of years God had forbidden any temple to be built outside of Jerusalem, but Amaziah was a priest of the Temple of Bethel. Amos, on the other hand, was sent by God from Jerusalem to uphold the ancient teachings against the dissenters in Bethel.

Amos is actually the exact opposite of the Post’s dissenting catechists. In fact, he’s more like the one faithful Catechist quoted in the Post, who said: “If you’re struggling with something, fine, [but] don’t teach.”

Today scripture reveals two great truths. The first truth is that Jesus Christ is the center of the universe, and it is God’s eternal will that only through and in Christ can we enter into the glory of heaven. And the second truth is that Christ has sent his apostles and their successors to teach us this first truth and every other
truth of his Gospel. He has not left us to false priests like Amaziah, but to Peter and His apostles and their faithful successors, the bishops.

As we turn, now, to our Lord Jesus in the Holy Eucharist, let us remember the teaching of St. Paul and open our hearts to receive every grace and heavenly blessing Christ lavishes on us, in the wondrous truths of our faith, and in this sacrament.

And let us recommit ourselves to accepting and sharing the ancient Catholic and apostolic teaching proclaimed first in Jerusalem, then in Rome, and now in the Diocese of Arlington.

And let us do all this, and all things, always, through him, and with him, and in him.

14th Sunday in Ordinary Time 2012

St. Raymond of Peñafort
Homily by Fr. John De Celles
July 8, 2012

In today’s Gospel we encounter 2 very disconcerting facts.
First, it tells us that the people in Jesus’ tiny home town of Nazareth
his old friends, “Took offense at him.”
Second, it tells us: “So he was not able to perform any mighty deed there.”

Let’s look at these a little more carefully, beginning with the first one.
Why is it that the Nazoreans took offense at Jesus,
refusing to accept his teachings?
A lot of times we think, if only Jesus would come to me and speak to me
—that would strengthen me, and my faith, so much.
So it’s kind of stunning to us
that even these people who knew Jesus so well, his own people,
who he came to and taught personally,
wouldn’t believe in him.

But if you think about it, it’s not that surprising.
Jesus offended people all the time, saying a whole lot of things
that were hard for them to accept and believe.
For example, remember the Bread of Life discourse in John 6,
when he taught his disciples that he would give them
a bread that would really be his own body,
and they had to eat it to have eternal life?
Scripture tells us:
“Many of his disciples…said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?”
But Jesus, “Do you take offense at this? ….
…After this many of his disciples …no longer [followed] him.”

Or remember Matthew’s chapter 19, where Jesus lays out 6 very hard sayings:
including the prohibition of divorce, and re-marriage after divorce;
and the teaching that some people are simply not capable of marriage
—their either born that way or made that way by others.
Scripture tells us the apostles,
“were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?”
In other words, even they had a hard time believing these hard sayings.

Why is this such a surprise that people in Jesus’ time
would take offense at his hard sayings?
—we see the exact same thing all throughout the last 2000 years,
and especially today.
The Church says: “no divorce and remarriage”;
and that “homosexuals just can’t marry each other,
whether they were born that way or made that way by others.”
Don’t people take offense at that?—and all it is is the direct teaching of Jesus.
Even members of his Church take offense
—even sometimes bishops and priests—
“his own kin and in his own house,” as it were.
Why are we surprised that the people of Nazareth took offense?

Jesus can be offensive, if we cling to our sins, or refuse to have faith.

Which brings us to the 2nd disconcerting fact in today’s Gospel reading,
the fact that: “he was not able to perform any mighty deed there.”
How can Jesus “not be able” to perform a miracle?
After all, he’s God, isn’t he?

But notice, in fact, Jesus is “able” to perform miracles in Nazareth.
The text goes on to say,
“apart from curing a few sick people by laying his hands on them.”
So he did do miracles there.

To understand all this you have to remember
that Jesus usually performed miracles for one of two reasons:
either to show his power so that people would believe in him,
or simply out of mercy to the afflicted.

The only thing that limits Jesus
is either his own divine nature or our human nature.
His divine nature limits him in the sense that,
for example, as God by nature he is not capable of doing any evil,
he is not capable of not loving.
And our human nature limits him in the sense that
in his love for us he respects our free will
—and limits himself according to our choices.

Here in Nazareth he is “amazed at their lack of faith.”
His own people are, in the words of today’s first reading:
“Hard of face and obstinate of heart.”
There’s not a thing he can say or do to change their minds,
so there’s no reason to perform a great sign,
except out of mercy for “a few sick people.”

Think of all the times he performed great miracles,
and still the eyewitnesses didn’t believe in him.
Again, go back to the Bread of Life discourse
—right before that
his disciples personally witnessed him feed five thousand men,
“with five …loaves and two fish.”
And still they left him because his sayings about the Eucharist
were too hard to accept.

Same thing here in Nazareth, so he says, in effect,
“no miracles, believe or don’t, it’s up to you.”
The only thing limiting him is his respect for their free will choice to reject him

Of course, he faces the same problem today.
Through his holy Catholic Church he continues to proclaim the hard sayings,
and people still take offense because of a lack of faith.
Even his own people.
For example, Americans, 95% of whom were born into the Christian families,
but so many now reject Christ and his teachings.
And Europe, a civilization saturated in and founded on
Christian history and heritage,
and now the faithful are only a small minority.
And you and I—we also all too often take offense at his teachings
because all too often our faith is too weak.

Some people say, that’s why it would be great
if he’d show some great sign of his power.
But again, that didn’t work so well 2000 years ago:
remember the feeding of the 5 thousand.
And it really doesn’t work today.
In my opinion Christ has been performing an incredible mighty deed
for 2000 years—his Church.
The miracle of the Church—founded on the ministries
of men like St. Peter, a humble fisherman who denied Jesus 3 times.
Or St. Paul, who tells us in today’s 2nd reading that
he suffered from some unnamed weakness he describes as
“a thorn in the flesh …an angel of Satan.”

And for 2000 years it has been ruled by and filled with weak men and women,
even great sinners.
And yet look at what she has done:
the Catholic Church has dramatically changed the world,
and still survives today as a strong dominant voice and force
for truth, worship and charity.

If that’s not a might deed of Jesus I don’t know what is.
And instead of inspiring awe and faith, it seems to draw only disrespect.

Of course, sometimes miracles can be helpful in strengthening faith.
But you know, sometimes God works more effectively
by not doing might deeds
—by remaining silent, or simply speaking in a quiet voice.

Let me give you a personal example.
I apologize if you’ve heard part of this story before,
and I’ll try to make a long story short.
23 years ago I was working at a moderately successful career
as an accountant with a big firm,
But after some big changes in the firm, I decided to quit,
confident that I’d have my pick of jobs with other companies.
But it didn’t turn out that way, and days turned into weeks,
and weeks into months.
So I started to really get serious about my prayers.
And then I realized a couple of things:
first, what success I’d had, was really a gift from God
—he had been doing mighty deeds for me all along.
And second, I realized that I was asking him for a new mighty work
—“find me a great job”—
but I was doing very little to do anything like “mighty deeds” of faith in him.

In short, by doing nothing, he forced me to my knees and to believe.
And then, he did do a mighty deed,
and things started to fall into place for me.
At first, it was a wonderful career opportunity.
But pretty soon it began to lead to where I am today.

Sometimes, it’s only when God holds back his might deeds
that we are able to see his mighty deeds
—because it is only when we realize how weak we are on our own
that we can begin to see Christ’s true might,
and how strong we could be with his grace.

For as Jesus told his apostles at the end of all the hard sayings in Matthew 19:
“With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
And as he said to St. Paul in today’s second reading:
“My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”
And so St. Paul summarizes: “when I am weak, then I am strong.”

Now some will surely say that all this merely wishful thinking,
or a psychological self-deception.
“Of course,” they say, “when you’re weak you can become desperate,
so you cling to religion as a way to explain things.”
Maybe.
They can believe that if they want to.

But that’s not what we believe.
We believe there is an all-powerful God, who loves us.
We believe that he came into the world to teach us how to live and love,
and to save us from our weakness, by the power of his grace.
And we believe that it’s only when we humble ourselves
to recognize our weakness and sins,
and the power of his words and grace,
that we can become the truly good men and women He created us to be.

As we now move deeper into this Holy Mass,
let us have faith in Our Lord Jesus
and in everything he’s taught us,
even the sayings that are sometimes offensive
to our sinful and obstinate hearts.
And let us kneel before him humbly
firm in faith that by the power of his grace
“when I am weak, then I am strong.”

13th Sunday of Ordinary Time 2012

For God formed man to be imperishable; the image of his own nature he made him.
– Wisdom 1:14

When St. Francis of Assisi was told by his physician that he had but a few weeks at most to live, he is reported to have cried out almost in joy, “Welcome Sister Death!” The great saint had by then been suffering terribly for some time, not only from a general failure of his health, but also from the holy stigmata which he had received many years before, and which was causing him increasingly great physical pain. Death then, was surely a relief for the poor man from his long sufferings in this world, but this alone cannot fully explain his attitude toward death which is so curtly expressed in that mysterious phrase, “Sister Death.”

Death has this strange ambiguity about it, and not just for a great saint like Francis but for any Christian whose faith is sound. Sound faith makes Christians think of death in terms the world at large simply cannot understand. We understand death, certainly, to be an evil in itself, not created by God as Wisdom assures us, but the result of Original Sin. But for faith-filled Christians, death is, nonetheless, not simply an evil, but an evil which has been transformed by Jesus Christ into a positive reality for the Christian, a true good in the supernatural order. This is surely what he is expressing when he refers to death as “Sister Death.”

Now a non-Christian, even a pagan, might be able to welcome death as a kind of “benefit” when it is an escape from terrible suffering in this world; but that would not make death a positive thing, something that has the character of a good, but it would be only the lesser of two evils. But for St. Francis, death was more than that, it was something to be embraced when it’s time had come, positively welcomed, whatever the circumstances of life, and that is what he meant when he addressed death, as “Sister Death.” It was but his expression of the Christian faith that molded his outlook on everything, including death itself, the same faith that should mold our attitudes toward life and death.

Our first reading today declares death to be an evil in the order of creation, introduced not by the Creator, but by the rebellion of the creature made in the image of the Creator. God is all life, life with no mixture of anything that is evil, anything even remotely related to what we know as death. Man was created to be imperishable because man was created as God’s true image, and God is imperishable; so only the gift of life was at the heart of God’s act of creation. Man was meant to given glory to God as the living image of God in creation. So death was never part of that divine plan. Death was caused not by the Creator but by man’s refusal to be the true image of his creator, the image of the living God. Death was caused by sin. When man sinned, he introduced death into God’s good creation, and death always remains an evil on the level of nature itself, something man naturally and rightly abhors as a creature who was made for life, unending life.

But for the Christian, even death itself has been transformed by the saving mission of Jesus Christ who is the Lord of Life. We believe, as Christians, that death has been conquered and transformed by the Lord of Life. In many ways, Jesus showed us his own abhorrence of death as a natural reality. He raised the dead back to life; he wept at the death of Lazarus, he sweat blood in the Garden of Gethsemane as he prepared himself for the Cross on which he would die for our sins. As the new Adam, he hated death more than any man, for he did not bear the weight of his own sins, but the weight of ours which merit death. He was pure innocence, pure life as God had created the first Adam; death had no claim on him.

But the Christian doctrine of redemption involves a total transformation of man, bringing good out the evil caused by man’s Original Sin, the punishment of death, which by Christ’s cross is made to yield to life, indeed become the very means by which Christ will restore man to his original relationship to God, as the living image of the imperishable deity. The Great Father of the Church, St. Irenaeus of Lyon, taught this already in the 2nd Century when he wrote, “Life in man is the glory of God; the life of man is the vision of God.”

What a mystery that God should choose to use death, the very punishment for sin, to be the vehicle to restore this imperishable Life of God to man. When Jesus died on the Cross, his death conquered death and produced an effect which is the opposite of death. His death, on the level of nature, produced an effect that is not only the opposite of death – life – but did so on the level of the supernatural, for it did not cause a natural life to be restored, but the life of grace, an infinitely higher order of life, the life which is God’s life in the human soul.

But this mystery of death producing life does not end with the death and resurrection of Jesus. Christians do not escape death any more than they escape suffering in this world. What happens is understandable only in terms of what happened in the case of Jesus, the Lord of Life. We die, but our death is not an escape from something, like the suicide of euthanasia, but a transformation into something even greater, a passage into the Life that never ends, the Life that was but planted as a seed in our Baptism, but can only come to full blossom as the result of our death, the passage from one life to another, from the lesser to the greater. It was this holy thought that filled St. Francs with such joy when at last his time had come to make that blessed passage to Life Eternal, and he welcomed the means for this passage by referring to it as his sister, “welcome Sister Death.”

Unbelievers only abhor death and can find nothing really good to say about this reality. At best, the godless praise death only in despair, as a kind of lesser evil, an escape from a life too painful to bear, but not as a passage to anything else. Some half-believing Christians today sometimes seem to mimic this attitude of total unbelief in their attitude toward death. They do not think of death as “Sister Death” because they no longer have a supernatural vision of life and death. The half-Christian does not think of their real life as the Life received in Baptism, the Life that cannot be destroyed by death, but only ushered in fully by death. They do not think of death as “Sister Death” because they rarely think of Christ as “Brother Life.” St. Francis thought of little else, and the man or woman who shares the same faith is more like Francis than their contemporaries who believe nothing of this, and for that reason, he or she can say with St. Paul, or St. Francis, O Death where is thy sting.” If we truly believe that Christ is Life, and that He has transformed death itself in to a gateway to Life, then this will also be our faith filled response to death, when at last God chooses to call us to share in His eternal, imperishable and fully beatifying Life: “Welcome Sister Death!”

Solemnity of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist 2012

St. Raymond of Peñafort
Homily by Fr. John De Celles
June 24, 2012

Today we celebrate the Solemnity of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist.
It’s a very unusual feast.
Usually when a saint’s feast day falls on a Sunday
we basically skip over it to celebrate the regular Sunday Mass
—the Lord’s Day.
Also, there are only 3 nativities—or birthdays—we celebrate:
Christmas, Mary’s Birthday, and this one.
Very unusual.
But we do this because St. John is a truly unique figure in salvation history.
He is the last of the Old Testament prophets
and the first of the New Testament
—a sign of the fulfillment of the promises to Israel in Christ and His Church.

And he’s also the first public disciple of Christ,
and so a model of Christian discipleship,
reminding us that every Christian is called
to proclaim Christ and his Gospel
to the world we live in,
even, if it means martyrdom,
as it did with St. John.

Given that, it seems extremely providential that this year
his feast falls on the first Sunday of the Fortnight for Freedom
—the 14 days from June 21 to July 4th,
that the American Bishops have asked us to set aside
as a period of concerted prayer and penance
for the defense of the Religious Liberty.
Of course this is in response to the Obama Administration’s regulations
requiring all employers, including Catholics,
to provide their employees with insurance covering
contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing-drugs,
even though this runs absolutely contrary
to 2000 years of Catholic moral teaching.
In short, they’re trying to force us to commit a mortal sin.

This is almost unprecedented in the history of our nation,
which was founded on the principle that:
“that all men are …endowed by their Creator
with certain unalienable Rights,
that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
and who’s Constitution goes on to specify
the most important of these rights,
in its Bill of Rights, in order to guarantee them.

And the very first right it specifically guaranties is Religious liberty.
The very first words of the very first amendment say:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,
or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”

For 221 years the definition of “the free exercise of religion”
have been given a very broad definition,
and whenever anyone tried to narrow that definition
either the congress, the courts or the president
eventually stepped in to slap it down.
But never has a president tried to so widely and overtly
try to narrow the definition to such an extreme extent as this.

In effect, the president’s regulations say that the term “religion”
only includes institutions of religion.
—in effect saying, individuals don’t have a freedom of religion,
except to the extent they belong and act inside of
an institution of religion.
So for example, when a Catholic priest speaks about his faith to non-Catholics,
according to the president, he is not practicing his religion.
Or when a group of Catholics form an organization to serve the poor,
regardless of what religion the poor belong to,
that is not practicing our Catholic religion.
Or when a group of Catholic individuals form a college, like Notre Dame,
and open the doors to people of all faiths,
that is not practicing their Catholic faith.
Or when a Catholic business man tries to run his business
consistent with his Catholic values,
like charity, honesty, and solidarity with the poor,
that has nothing to do with practicing his religion.

What?
Did Jesus say, “when I was a hungry Catholic, you gave me to eat”?
Or “When you did it to the least of my Catholic brothers, you did it to me?”

Some point out that the president later gave what he called an “accommodation.”
First of all, shouldn’t we “honor” the most basic human right
—not merely “accommodate” it?
But more importantly, the accommodation provided that
Catholic institutions wouldn’t have to pay for this coverage,
instead insurance companies would cover it for free.
How stupid do we look?
There is no such thing as a free lunch
—everyone knows insurance companies will pass the cost on to the Church.
But even if it were free,
the Church would still be forced to provide this immoral benefit
to its employees.
If the insurance company gave us free poisonous Kool-Aid
would that make it okay for us to hand it to our people and say,
“here, drink the Kool-Aid”?

And besides, most dioceses are self-insured
—they are the insurance company,
and so they will pay for it.
And what about actual Catholic insurance companies
—like the Knights of Columbus: are they supposed to pay for this?
And finally, it still doesn’t apply
to independent organizations
like Catholic universities or Catholic Charities,
or to individual Catholic-owned businesses.

And so the U.S. Bishops rightly responded with bold defiance:
“we cannot, we will not, obey this unjust law.”

But besides redefining religious liberty,
the president and his supporters are attempting
to demoted “religious liberty” to sort of a 2nd class liberty.
To them, even though religious liberty has been specifically listed
as the first right in the Constitution for over 220 years
they believe that it is easily trumped by a very recently invented liberty,
found nowhere in the actual words of the constitution
and not even in the craziest of dreams of the founders,
but only in the imaginary penumbras and emanations of lawyers
over the last 50 years.
It usually goes by various nice sounding names,
like “the right to privacy” or “the right to choose.”
But ultimately, the underlying liberty being pursued
is simply “sexual liberty”:
—the freedom do whatever, however, whenever you want.
In the end, the so-called rights to contracept and abort flow from this,
as do the so-called rights to homosexual activity and “gay marriage.”

2000 years ago huge crowds came out to listen to John the Baptist preach:
the gospels tell us that,
“[all of] Jerusalem and all Judea
and all the region about the Jordan”
went out to hear him.
One of the people who, as scripture says, “liked to listen to him,”
was King Herod.
But eventually St. John crossed the line with Herod
when he publically outted Herod for committing adultery
with his own brother’s wife, Herodias
And so, Herod beheaded St. John.

Even 2000 years ago, sexual liberty trumped religious liberty.

Something similar happened in the 16th century,
with another king and another saint.
The king was Henry VIII of England,
who had also gotten caught up in sexual libertinism
and wanted to divorce his wife in order to marry his mistress, Anne Boleyn.
And the saint was St. Thomas More,
whose feast we celebrated 2 days ago on Friday.
Thomas, a layman, was known throughout Europe
as one of the most brilliant of scholars, and greatest lawyers.
Like John the Baptist, he was also very popular:
people used to love to read his books,
or to come to listen to his arguments in court or Parliament.
And like Herod, King Henry also liked to listen to him
—in fact, he made Thomas one his most trusted counselors,
eventually appointing him Chancellor of England
—second only in power to the King Himself.
But then Thomas got in the way of Henry’s sexual freedom,
opposing his divorce and adultery,
not to mention his oppression of the Church when it refused the divorce.

And now we have the same problem with President Obama.
Oh, I know it’s not his own personal problem,
but it is his adamantly held position
that sexual liberty trumps everything.
Look at his support of gay rights,
including gays in the military, and now so-called gay marriage.
And his ultra-extreme positions on abortion,
including his barbaric support for partial birth abortion.
And now his all-or-nothing approach
to contraception, sterilization and abortifacients.

None of this bodes well for Catholicism and Christianity in America.
Defenders of the president have already raised the false alarm
that the bishops are leading a “war on women,”
Combine this with years of accusations that the Church “hates” homosexuals,
and we see a frightening pattern.
If religious liberty is overridden by absolute sexual liberty,
and if Christians can be portrayed as truly at war and hateful,
they’ll have every excuse they need to pursue even further oppression
of Christians, especially faithful Catholics.

And remember, after the First Amendment guarantees religious freedom
it immediately goes on to guarantee
freedom of speech, the press, and to peacefully assemble.
If sexual liberty can override the first liberty of the first amendment,
how long will it take for it to override the rest?
And then how far off is the day when Catholic priests
won’t be able to preach, even inside our own churches,
that adultery, fornication, contraception, abortion and sodomy
are mortal sins?
And how soon before Catholic parents won’t be able to say the same thing
to their own children in their own homes?
How soon before close your churches, arrest your priests,
or take your children from your homes because you’re not fit to be parents.

They’re already trying to do this in other western countries.
Earlier this month the Canadian Province of Ontario
passed a law forcing all Catholic Schools to have clubs
to support openly gay students.
And government officials, including the Premier, are threatening
to penalizing teachers and administrators
if they say anything in these clubs that is negative toward homosexuality.

It can’t happen here, right?
Tell that to Californians who voted back in 2008 to prohibit “gay marriage.”
only to have their vote thrown out by U.S. District Judge,
who wrote in his decision:
“Religious beliefs that gay…relationships are sinful …
harm gays and lesbians.”

If that’s how the courts see things, and if sexual liberty trumps religious liberty,
wouldn’t the next logical step be to do something
to stop Churches from hurting gay people?

We must defend our religious liberty.
And not just the freedom to serve fellow Catholics,
or to worship as we choose
but the freedom to feed the hungry and educate the ignorant,
to proclaim the Gospel,
and to reject sin, coercion, lies and injustice.

We must fight the good fight.
Some of us will fight like St. John the Baptist,
with fiery words and bold public chastisements.
Some will fight like St. Thomas More,
with persuasive reason and logic.
.
But all of us must fight.

Not a war against women, or against sexual libertines,
but against religious oppression, and false notions of liberty.
And not with violence or hate, but with reason and love,
even for our enemies.
The only swords we will wield are the swords of truth and the Word of God,
and our most important weapon will be simple but constant prayer.

Today we celebrate a unique feast of a unique saint, John the Baptist.
As we ponder his unique place in the history of salvation,
let’s also recall something else unique about him:
his birth was announced by an angel to two different people.
The first announcement was to his father Zechariah,
the second was to the Blessed Virgin, Mary.
And to Mary he said,
“in her old age [Elizabeth has] conceived a son;
…her who was called barren.
For nothing is impossible with God.”

As we go forward today in our defense of religious liberty,
inspired by the example of St. John and St. Thomas,
let us keep these words in mind.
Let us trust that the Lord will allow no one to most rob us
of the most basic right he alone has given us:
the freedom to love and follow him in faith,
the precious divine gift of religious liberty.
Let be charitable, let us be courageous, let us be faithful, let us be determined,
knowing that “Nothing is impossible with God.”

12th Sunday of Ordinary Time 2012

When I was attending parochial school, many, many years ago, we used to pray regularly for the conversion of Russia and China where Christians were being persecuted and martyred for their faith. Those prayers made us much more aware of the terrible situation of our brothers and sisters in Christ in those far off lands, and prayer helped us to experience the solidarity of the Church in her suffering. Had we not been made to pray for the suffering faithful of those unfortunate nations, we would not have been aware of the reality of religious persecution in our day, because the denial of religious freedom, and the persecution of Christians for their religion, were not big interest items for the news managers in our society then, and still is not a hot issue for them today.

So praying for persecuted Christians, in addition to the help of our prayers for the persecutred themselves, also benefitted us who prayed in two ways: first, it made us aware of the widespread persecution of Christians ignored by our media and government; and, secondly, it made us understand that we were bound to those suffering people by our common humanity and by our faith which obliged us to pray and work for their freedom and their human rights.

The fact that most of our national politicians and our national news managers still do not really care about religious freedom, at least for for Christians, has been made abundantly clear in recent times. You may recall that during the first war with Iraq, Desert Storm, neither the news media nor the government got all that upset when American soldiers, who were defending Saudi Arabia from possible aggression, were denied the right to even use the Bible, or conduct private services in the desert. Saudi Arabia, of course, has no religious freedom for Christians, but it has lots of oil, and so our national interest in their oil made us cooperators with Saudi Arabia in denying our own military the right to worship God as Christians, so long as they remained there to defend the oil we need from that country.

Likewise, there continues to be little coverage from the media and little protest from our government – from our government over the ongoing persecution of Christians in China, especially since that country became a major trading partner with us. The economy is our only national interest there. Oh, the politicians mouth a few condemnations now and then, but it is clear that the US government plans to do nothing of any consequence to promote religious freedom, or political feredom for that matter, because it might endanger our economic interests in China, which also holds a huge amount of our national debt.

As a result of this silence and inaction on the part of the powers that be, most Americans seem unaware that Christians are being persecuted in China, or that Christians have no religious freedom in places like Saudia Arabia, where we are still poised to ask our soldiers to be ready to die for the Saudi’s independence, and their oil. Note that there is no campaign to end religious persecution in China as there was on the part of the media, our government and political activists to end aparteid in South Africa, a campaign that succeeded in gaining political freedom for the disenfranchised majority of native South Africans. Why do we not see the same effort when it comes to religious freedom of billions in China and the Muslim countries? Because religious freedom does not eman much to those who control the media and those who rule in our government.

As a result the Christians in China, and other places, today must feel very abandoned. Like the Apostles in the boat in today’s Gospel, they are riding out a storm that threatens their very lives, and they must feel very alone. Of course, because they are Christians, they know they are not alone in the boat, for the Lord is always with them. But at times he must seem asleep, and unconcerned about their fate. That is the ultimate test of faith for the martyrs of every age; the Lord may seem, like the rest of the world, not to care about what happens to them.

But the point of the Gospel is that the one who is in the boat is never unaware or unconcerned about what happens to his creation, and above all what happens to his disciples. If we really believe that the one who was in that boat is the Eternal Son of God, then we know that nothing escapes his providence, not even when he slept in the boat, or slept as an infant in his Mother’s arms. He was still at work as the Word through whom all things were made, the Wisdom of God through whom all things are rightly governed and directed to their appointed ends. Even when our neighbors do not care, our own brothers and sisters, God is there, and God’s will cannot be frustrated.

But then comes the crunch. It may be that God’s will is that we accept the Cross the world has given us, as it was His will to accept the Cross given to Him by which we are redeemed. Here we can only trust that His will that we accept the Cross is the result of love, and not indifference. The proof of this love, for Christians, is the love that led Jesus to Calvary. He has loved us unto His own death, our suffering, our death cannot mean nothing to Him. Whatever he permits in our lives, it must be seen in terms of that awful love that suffered Calvary on our behalf.

This belief of Christians in the universal providence of God and the love that God has for all his creatures, and especially for those who have become his children in Christ His Son, is the great consolation in trials of very kind. The Martyrs go to their death in peace, because they believe in this special love of the Father for the Son, and for those who have become Sons of God in the Son. It is a love the world cannot understand, because the world knows indifference more than love, and naturally tends to attribute to indifference what it does not understand.

The Christian also at times does not understand, feels abandoned by everyone, as did Christ in the Garden. But the Christian believes and trusts in that same love that Jesus knew from the Father. It was never just his own love of the Father that sustained Him, but above all it was his knowledge of the Father’s love for Himself that enabled Christ to be abandoned by all his disciples and fulfill the destiny of the Cross where he was alone, separated from everything, except this knowledge of the Father’s love. That was all he needed to embrace the Cross, and it’s all any of us needs in order to accept the crosses in our own life. It sustained the martyrs of yesterday, and sustains the martyrs today. It is the life-giving refuge of all who are abandoned by this world.

Today, we are learning that unconcern about religious freedom elsewhere endangers our own religious freedom here. It’s becoming clear today that the same powers that care little about violations of religious freedom abroad, also have little respect for religious freedom here at home. It’s logical; it makes a certain perverted sense. So, the Catholic Church and observant Catholics are now confronted with an attack on our religious freedom by our government. Not only is there little interest or protest by the secular powers, but even many Catholics seem incapable of understanding what is happening to their Church, and many seem to approve of it. What’s the big deal, they say, if Catholic institutions ar forced to provide financial support for birth control and abortion? The question itself reveals how little religious freedom means to them, and how far down the road we are to losing other freedoms as well.

And so today we also pray, but now for our religious freedom, and we pray in a special way during this fortnight of prayer sponsored by our Bishop. Hopefully this prayer will not only gain God’s grace in our struggle, but will make us more aware of the importance of this freedom and how it is being undermined by our government. And secondly it may give us an even greater sense of solidarity with the those everywhere who are being persecuted for their religious faith, and hopefully it will move more and more Christians to get involved in this struggle for our own religious freedom. We might do well to remember the warning of a Protestant German pastor during the Nazi persecutions when so many did not care: they came for the Jews and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew; then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out. We need to speak out loud and clear, while we still have the freedom to do so.

11th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Father’s Day) 2012

St. Raymond of Peñafort
Homily by Fr. John De Celles
June 17, 2012

Life is filled with trials and challenges, especially nowadays
with so many problems that past generations never even imagined.
So it’s a great thing that in the summer we slow down and relax a bit,
and make opportunities to celebrate the good and important things in life.
So we celebrate work on Labor Day,
our great free nation on the 4th of July,
and motherhood on Mother’s Day.
And, of course, today we celebrate fatherhood, with Father’s Day.

Fatherhood truly is good, and absolutely essential to the wellbeing of society.
But there are a whole lot of folks who forget this.
And this forgetfulness is the cause of so many of those problems I mentioned.
You know the statistics:
63% of youth suicides, 90% of all homeless and runaway children,
71% of all high school dropouts all come from fatherless homes.
And I could go on and on.

Fatherhood is important, good fathers are essential
—and bad fathers are a disaster.

Scripture tells us that in the beginning,
God created mankind in his own image and likeness as male and female,
telling them be fruitful and multiply.
In other words, in God’s plan for the happiness of mankind,
the first thing necessary is marriage,
and the second springs from it: parenthood.
Because you see, love is the source of all true happiness.
And marriage and parenthood are the “school of love”
where all human beings are supposed to naturally
learn to love God and each other.
So that when marriage and parenthood are messed up
families and societies are in trouble.

Now, parenthood is a two sided coin:
on the one side motherhood, and on the other fatherhood.
Both of these are equally important in the eyes of God, and for the good of man.
It’s true that in the past society sometimes tended to over emphasize fatherhood
at the expense of motherhood.
So much was determined by who your father was,
and so much authority was placed in the hands of fathers.

But nowadays there’s a certain shift in the other direction, the other extreme.
For example, mothers now have an absolute right to decide
if their unborn children live or die—fathers have no say in the matter at all.
In fact, to a large extent, mothers get to decide
if a child is even going to be conceived or not.

And so today 40% of children are living in fatherless homes
and 41% of children are born outside of marriage.
And father’s drift away from the family, one way or the other.

But that is not how families and societies are meant flourish,
and it promises the destruction of both.

In today’s Gospel Jesus twice compares the Kingdom of God
to the seed of a plant.
Some today say that a fatherhood’s role is simply to plant the seed of his child
and then, more or less, walk away.
But fatherhood is much more than that.
Elsewhere in scripture Jesus uses another plant allusion, saying:
“I am the vine, you are the branches.”
And then he says: “and my Father is the vinedresser.”
A vinedresser doesn’t simply plant the seed and leave;
he remains to care for it, to help it become a full grown fruitful plant.
He waters and feeds it,
protects it from pests, varmints and unfriendly weather,
and he prunes away its dead and dying branches,
that drain it of his vibrancy and health.

Where there is a seed planted, a true father,
created in the image of God the Father, remains and cares for his children.
He feeds and waters them:
–first in a literal sense, he puts food on the table.
But a good father also feeds and waters them by seeing that
his children get a good education,
both formally and informally,
in practical matters, like hygiene and manners,
in secular matters, like math, science and history,
and in spiritual matters—teaching them the truth about God.
For a Catholic father this means taking responsibility
for personally teaching them the truths and practices of the Catholic faith,
as well as supplementing that by,
if possible, sending them to Catholic school,
or at least to CCD from K thru 12,
or homeschooling them with a solid Catholic curriculum.

And above all it means watering them with the water of baptism
and feeding them regularly with the Bread of Life!
What young plant or child would survive, much less flourish, without eating food
—and not just eating once in a while, but every day?
What child would survive, much less flourish, spiritually and morally
without eating the bread of life not just once in a while,
but at least every single week?
What kind of father lets his children starve?

A true father also protects his children.
A vinedresser might build a fence around his plants,
or cover them to protect them from ice,
or hunt down the varmints that try to eat them.
A good father tries to provide a safe home for his family,
and carefully watches who his children’s friends are.
He doesn’t let his children play in a busy street,
or stay out late at night unsupervised.
And he’s careful who he trusts to supervise his children
—never trusting them to anyone who would in any way
corrupt or endanger them.

And above all, he protects his children from moral or spiritual danger of any kind.
He’s not afraid to shield his daughter from boys who won’t respect her virtue.
And his son never does an overnight on Sunday if it means he won’t get to Mass.

God the Father, the vinedresser, also prunes away the dying or dead branches.
Likewise, a good, true father isn’t afraid of pruning the sickly or deadly things
from his children’s lives.
If they develop friendships with people who behave badly or sinfully,
a good father is not afraid to prune that friend out of their lives.
If their children start to develop bad habits,
good fathers aren’t afraid to discipline them.
If they don’t do their homework a true father doesn’t hesitate
to turn off the TV until they do.
If they speak or dress immodestly a good father isn’t afraid to set them straight.

Some fathers are overwhelmed by all this.
They feel like the man in today’s Gospel who plants the seed
and then wakes up one day and it’s all grown up,
and, as Jesus says, “he knows not how.”
Some fathers feel that they “know not how” to raise kids,
so they leave it to someone else,
to their wives, or teachers, or other “experts.”

Now, it’s true that when it comes to kids Moms do some things better than Dads.
But not everything.
For example, a Mom might think a dress looks really pretty on her daughter,
but a good Father knows that the boys won’t be thinking it’s just “pretty.”
A Mom may be able to tell her son, “you be a gentleman on your date,”
but a good Dad can show his son how to respect a woman
by the way he himself treats women, especially his wife.
.
And besides all the male/female differences,
there are a lot of simple things that Dad, for some reason,
does or understands better than Mom:
maybe math, or being patient, whatever.

And it’s true that teachers are better at teaching some things than Dad.
But a true father makes sure they don’t try to stray beyond their field.

Several months ago a Dad told me that he accidentally discovered
that his son’s middle school English literature teacher
had his class do a project examining
the supposed “injustice” that “gay people” are denied the “right to marry.”
What does that have to do with his expertise in English lit?

And believe me, this isn’t an isolated incident—it happens all the time.
Is your daughter’s biology teacher teaching biology, or sexual morals.
Is your son’s history teacher teaching historical facts, or ideological doctrine?

And, this isn’t limited to public schools
—sadly, it can happen with Catholic school teachers too.

A good father realizes that all the corruption he sees in our society
is flourishing because the seeds are planted in the schools.
A few seeds of immorality here, or radical ideology there.
Here a seed of heresy, there a seed of anti-Catholic bigotry.
And then one day you wake up and you wonder why
your children don’t share any of your values and reject your Catholic faith.
Again: “he knows not how.”

A good father doesn’t abandon his responsibilities to “experts.”

Now, some of you women may be saying, but what about me?
Ladies, of course a lot of this applies to mothers as well.
But let it also remind you to help your husbands,
and all the men in your life, to be good fathers
—especially to support them and praise them when they try.

And some of you men may be saying, that’s all fine and good,
but my children are all grown up.
Yes, but you can apply this to being a grandfather,
and to helping your grown son to be a better father.

Or maybe you don’t have any children.
But are you an uncle?
Uncles are sort of fathers once removed.
Or maybe you’re a teacher, or a coach,
or work in some field that affects fathers and their children.
Then it all applies to you to, one way or another.

And then some of you fathers might agree with everything I’m saying,
but you’re in the military and you have no choice
but to be away from your family, sometimes for months on end.
Of course, when you go away you have to rely on others—especially your wives– to do much of the feeding, protecting and pruning.
But even then, as you know better than I, you must still do your best
to provide whatever support you can to your wives.
Stay in contact with your kids as best you can,
and remind them not only that you love them,
but of your expectations of them, especially
that they respect and obey their moms,
and that they love and serve Christ and His Catholic Church.
And pray for them—and make sure they know that you pray.

And remember,
while we look to God the Father as the source of all true fatherhood,
Jesus also tells us:
“he who has seen me has seen the Father.”
By your imitation of Christ, who laid down his life for his friends,
your example of laying down your life for you children and for all of us,
is an incredible act of fatherly love
— a heroic effort to truly protect your children from real evil.

Finally, maybe you’re a member of one of those families
that I spoke about earlier
—living in the 40% percent of fatherless homes.
There are lots of reasons this happens,
and sometimes things are beyond our control.
But I’m sure everyone would agree that if they could change things,
they would make things more like the way I’ve described
than how they are.
And just because things aren’t the way they should be,
it doesn’t mean that God can’t or won’t find some way to help you
to make it through these difficult times.
He will if you let him, because he is the true Father of us all,
and he is always there loving us just the way we need him to.
You do your best, and then trust in God, and He will be there for you.

Our world is filled with problems,
many of which our grandparents would never have dreamed of.
But that’s because our grandparents would have never tolerated
the diminishment of fatherhood that we have.

Today, let us all celebrate fatherhood and praise its goodness and importance,
And as we continue with this Holy Mass,
the mystery which flows from the perfect love
between God the Father and Son,
let us pray that, by the grace of this sacrament,
we may always honor and love our fathers as we should,
and [that] our fathers may always
be the good and true fathers
we so desperately need them to be.

11th Sunday of Ordinary Time 2012

I repeat we are full of confidence, and would much rather be away from the body, and at home with the Lord. This being so, we make it our aim to please him whether we are with him or away from him.

In the First letter of St. Peter, the great Apostle gives this command to all generations of Christians: “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope…” But what is this hope of Christians? St. Paul summarized this hope in these beautiful lines from Second Corinthians that we just listened to: to be at home with the Lord. That is Paul’s hope, and the hope of any man or woman who professes to be a Christian, our hope is to be at home with the Lord. What else could it possibly mean to be a Christian, than to have this hope of being one day at home with Christ? So intense is this desire of Paul, and so confident His hope, that he is willing to be separated for a time from the body to be with Christ, for while we are in the body, we are in exile from our true homeland. Paul wishes that the second coming would take place while he is in the body, but if that is not to be, then he accepts the temporary separation from the body, until the resurrection, so much does he desire to be at last at home with the Lord.

The Christian is like the children of Abraham wandering in the desert, with no true homeland in this world, awaiting the homeland God will give them. In the Letter to the Hebrews, we read these lines: But now they desire a better homeland, a heavenly one. Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them. (Heb. 11:16) The spiritual offspring of Abraham who have no homeland in this world, are those reborn in Christ. Unlike the natural descendants of Abraham who eventually were given a homeland, the spiritual descendants remain till the end of time dispersed throughout the world, exiles from their true and better homeland which is heaven.

Of course the natural offspring also were to be given the better homeland, and there was a mortal danger involved in their attachment to an earthly homeland. You will recall how Samuel resisted their desire for a king, for the danger was that they would then become like all other nations, and would confuse their temporary home, the earthly promised land, with the homeland that God really had prepared for them. And this indeed turned out to be exactly the case. And so God had to graft a wild branch, the branch of the gentiles, onto the vine of Christ to make them jealous, and in this mysterious way one day He is to bring them to that promised land which is not the fruit of human of human labor, but the gift of God in Christ.

The danger for the spiritual descendants of Abraham is much the same as it was for his natural offspring, that we will confuse this temporary home and homeland for the better, heavenly homeland, where at last we will be at home with Christ. Paul is determined to keep his hope fixed on that heavenly homeland where Christ sits at the right hand of the Father. He does so by keeping his heart fixed on Christ, that is, by charity, which makes him love the Lord more than his own body, which includes then his citizenship in this world. Because Paul’s heart and hope are fixed on the heavenly homeland, because he so intensely desires to be at home with Christ, nothing in this world can shake his confidence: we walk by faith… we are full of confidence.

Those who fall into the trap of making this world their true homeland are full of confidence, only so long as nothing goes drastically wrong in their life in this world. We saw this in the decade of the 90″s with the booming economy in that decade and the over-confidence it generated among many people, until, things started going wrong. Then we had the 9/11 catastrophe and a few years later the bursting of the bubble created by the wild decade-long speculation in real estate. With the collapse of the good times, we found out once again how fragile prosperity is in this world.

But this reality check inevitably happens, in less dramatic ways, in each of our lives: the loss of one’s job, a sudden serious health problem, the death of a loved one. Sooner or later, these things make us see the uncertainty of this world in making us happy, and then, hopefully, we realize once again that man was not made for bread alone. Great confidence suddenly is changed into insecurity and fear of the future, fear for one’s life, fear of death, fear of suffering, fear of life itself.

It is all this that Paul says does not bother him in the least – he is full of confidence because his hope has never been rooted in this world, but in the greater homeland, and his desire is simple: to be at home with Christ. Paul’s life is not easy; he is persecuted by pagans and his fellow Israelites, and even rejected by some of his own Christian converts who ridicule and slander him. His life is constantly threatened, and yet he is full of confidence. He has but one judge, and thanks be to God is the very one who died for his sins, Christ the Lord. He is full of confidence because he leads his own life by one principle, “ to please him whether we are with him or away from him.” Even Paul’s visions have perhaps ceased, and now he feels his exile from Christ all the more; but he is full of confidence because he has this one aim in his life, to please him before whose tribunal he will render an account of his life and ministry. No other human judgement means anything to Paul.

What a wonderful thing to have this full confidence in Christ, and it should be our confidence as well as Paul’s. It will be our confidence if, first of all, we refuse to locate our true citizenship in this world, and consider ourselves exiles so long as we are away from the Lord. In this vision of faith, even death itself is gain, and not something to be feared, even though it is so contrary to our natural desire to live in the body.

And secondly, this confidence will be ours if we truly live our lives with that same single aim of St. Paul, to do everything so as to please him who has loved us unto death, in the hope that one day we shall be in our true home with Christ. If we so live our lives based on the love of Christ, consciously to please him, we need not even fear the final judgement, for He who has loved us is our judge. So long as we live in this world according to His will, to please him, are confidence is not presumption, but is genuine hope that trusts not in ourselves, but in Him who has died and risen for us.