Sunday, June 26, 2011

Our Amazing God

I would like to share in this post some thoughts about our amazing God - a God who loves us unconditionally - no strings attached - and wants just the best for us.  Our God has a love that can never be surpassed by any other and is brought to us through God's creation of us and our world, God's redemption of us through his Son, Jesus Christ, and God's sanctification of us through the Holy Spirit.

This amazing God has been the subject of many books, works of art and great pieces of music that attempt to capture for us the awesomeness of our God.  Nothing we do or create can, of course, come close to recognizing or understanding all that God means to us but we must try.  We also must try to share with others what we know and learn about our God in the hope that others may see and appreciate God's great gifts to all of us.

Let me share with you some of the reflections of my own bishop, Bishop Howard J. Hubbard of the Diocese of Albany in the State of New York.  In a column he wrote some years ago after His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI had issued his first encyclical Deus Caritas Est, the bishop had this to say about our amazing God:

...The most important truth about every person - young or old, rich or poor, liberal or conservative, brilliant or intellectually challenged, black, white, red, yellow, brown - is that God is deeply in love with that person....God does not love a person because the person is lovable.  Rather, the person is lovable because God loves him or her....When we were created, God made a commitment to love us, and he will never withdraw that love....God cannot love us more than he loves us at this moment because he loves us infinitely right now....God is passionately in love with us.  That's a joyous and incredible message, which God has revealed to us in the Scriptures.

What wonderful thoughts; how can we not be moved by the fact of God's love for us.  The bishop also reminded us that we are called in turn to love others to emulate the love God has for us.  This desire to reach out to others has resulted in our Albany Diocese commencing in 2010 a three year program known as the Amazing God Initiative.  The purpose of the initiative is to rekindle the light of faith and the enthusiasm of Catholics in our part of the Church.  It means nurturing the faith of those who are involved in the Church as well as reaching out to others who may have become alienated from the Church or have no faith tradition.

The first year of the initiative which is shortly coming to its close speaks of the love of God as shown throughout the course of history particularly in the Old Testament.  Year two will address the Heart of Christ and will focus on Jesus' saving work among us, and the third year will deal with the Holy Spirit and the Spirit's great gifts and how those gifts now affect our world.

In future posts I will update my readers concerning this wonderful initiative and hope that the message of God's great love will be received and cherished.  At the opening prayer service to launch this special initiative in June of 2010, Father Frank DeSiano, a Paulist priest whose work is in the field of evangelization made these interesting and thought provoking statements:

We are always pointing a finger, "no, no, no", "sin, sin, sin."  We have to say some of that but before we do we need to say: "love, peace, welcome."  We need to embody the love of God....God is amazing.  Jesus revealed a God of unrestricted, overwhelming love that cannot be stopped.

To learn more about the Amazing God initiative of the Albany Diocese, please contact their web site:  Yes, our God is truly amazing.  May this amazing God be always with you and shower his love upon you.

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Eucharist as Family Meal

At the beginning of this post, I want to thank two of my good friends, Father Anthony Barratt and Father David Wm. Mickiewicz whose insights I have borrowed in presenting the following thoughts.

At the end of every November here in the United States, we gather with family and friends to celebrate Thanksgiving Day.  Picture yourself as the host of an annual Thanksgiving meal.  What would it be like?

First, your guests (family and perhaps some friends) would arrive and they would be welcomed.  Then you would sit around and share the family stories (what has happened since we last met; how are certain relatives doing; remember when...).  The table would then be set for the banquet meal and all would gather at the table offering a prayer of thanksgiving for all the good things they are grateful for.  The meal would be enjoyed, the dishes and bowls removed, and we would gather again before people would leave.  Finally there would be a sending off or farewell to our guests, wishing them well and hoping to see them again soon.

This is what a typical Thanksgiving Day meal would look like.  How does it resemble the ordinary, every day meals in your family?  In our society today it seems very difficult to really sit down and enjoy a true family meal with everyone in the family having so many things on their schedules: the kids have soccer or band practice, Mom has a church meeting, Dad has to put in some time volunteering for a local charity, etc.  All of these things are good but they do prevent us many times from sitting down as a family for a meal together.

How does this Thanksgiving Day meal resemble our Eucharistic celebration?  It is very much the same.  First, we gather and welcome those who come together for Eucharist (a very important role in our Church today is the role of "greeter').  What is the welcoming like in your parish?  Let us remember all the various people Jesus dined with in his lifetime:

     -  a young nameless couple in the village of Cana; Jesus attended their wedding and partied with the guests and made the celebration lively by providing more wine for the feast;
    -   tax collectors (a very hated group in Jesus' time because they were seen as being in league with the domineering Romans) and known sinners; for these get-togethers Jesus received much criticism from the Pharisees (how can you dine with those people?), and Jesus would tell them that he came to call sinners and not the just;
    -  vast crowds of people; one of the miracles recorded in all of the four gospels is that of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes (Matthew 15; Mark 6; Luke 9; and John 6);
    -   some who were critical of Jesus (Pharisees) who would invite him to dine often to try to catch him up either saying or doing something they disapproved of;
    -   Peter's mother-in-law whom he healed;
    -   his good friends Martha, Mary and Lazarus where he would go to just be with good friends;
    -   little Zacchaeus who had to climb a tree in order to see Jesus and would then be asked to host him at his home (much to the consternation of the Pharisees because Zacchaeus was a hated tax-collector);
    -  after his resurrection joining two disciples on the road to a village called Emmaus where they would recognize him in the breaking of the bread; and
    -   on the shores of the Sea of Galilee where he would make breakfast for his disciples.

Jesus dined with many people and was not fussy about who or what they were.  These are the various people who come to our liturgies; are we as welcoming to them as Jesus was to those he met?  In the rule of St. Benedict (the founder of monasticism) we read:

All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ for he himself will say:  I was a stranger and you welcomed me.  Proper honor must be shown to all...Great care and concern are to be shown in receiving poor people and pilgrims, because in them more particularly Christ is received; our very awe of the rich guarantees them special respect.

One of the hymns we sing at our liturgy is called Gather Us In and it speaks of all those whom we welcome:  the "lost, forsaken, blind, lame, young, old, rich, haughty, proud, strong..." - in other words "everybody."  When Mohandus Gandhi was a young lawyer living in South Africa he began studying about Christianity and was impressed about what he learned about Jesus.  He went to a Christian church one weekend to observe their worship but was told at the door that he was not welcome because of the color of his skin.  Later Gandhi would state:  I like your Christ - I do not like your Christians - your Christians are so unlike your Christ.

How do we welcome people as we gather to worship each week?

The second part of our celebration is the hearing of God's story in the Scriptures; not our story but God's.  How well do we proclaim it?  Do our lectors/readers prepare well to proclaim what is God's word?  There is power in the word of God; it was by God's word that the world was created; it was God's divine Word that took on flesh and came among us in the person of Jesus Christ, and it would be Jesus' words that would bring healing to the sick, life to the dead, and still the waters of the sea.  This is why it is important for us to hear the Word when we come to liturgy.

When I was growing up there was much attention paid to when one would commit a "mortal" rather than a "venial" sin as far as attendance at liturgy was concerned.  The command of the Church was that we should gather for worship each week (on Sunday) and on special days (holy days of obligation) during the year.  But how late could you arrive at Mass at still not have committed a mortal sin?  It was said that if we were there by the time of the Offertory of the Mass we would only have committed a venial sin.  How sad it is when we try to compartmentalize our worship and see what is the least amount we have to do in order to stay in God's good graces.  We are only asked to give our God an hour of our time each week; given all that God has done for us, is this too much to ask without worrying about the extent of sin?

After we hear God's word we set the table for the banquet.  We bring our gifts to the feast - the bread and wine that will be used as well as our personal gifts in the form of monetary donations to assist the parish.  We pray and give thanks to our God for all his gifts and offer again his Son in the sacrifice of the Mass.  We then partake of the Body and Blood of the Lord at communion time, joining with our brothers and sisters as one family.

At the dismissal time of the Mass, we are sent forth on a mission.  This is not merely the end of "another week in church."  In the new translation of the Roman Missal (to be implemented on the first Sunday of Advent in the United States) some of the dismissal rites speak to this.  One says:  Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord.  We are called to go out into the world and bring Christ's message of love, peace and hope to a world desperately in need of it.

When we think back to our annual family Thanksgiving Day feast, would we come late?  Would we fail to take part in sharing the family's stories?  Would we not bring something to add to the feast?  Would we jump up from the table when we had eaten and leave without a formal good-bye?  I'm sure we would not and this behavior should be echoed when we come to liturgy each week.

The celebration of the Eucharist each week is the most important thing we as Catholic Christians can do in our lives.  In Sacrosanctum Concilium, the document on the liturgy of the Second Vatican Council we read:

From this it follows that every liturgical celebration, because it is an action of Christ the priest and of his Body, which is the Church, is a sacred action surpassing all others.  No other action of the Church can equal its efficacy by the same title and to the same degree.

It goes on to say:  ...The liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; it is also the fount from which all her power flows.  And again:  With zeal and patience pastors of souls must promote the liturgical instruction of the faithful and also their active participation.

Our weekly liturgy, then, as I stated before, is the most important thing we can do in our Christian lives.  The story is told about two college students - roommates - on a Sunday morning.  One was Catholic, the other was not.  The one who was not Catholic asked his roommate if he was going to church that morning; the roommate sleepily told him he was too tired after being out late the night before and therefore was not going.  The first young man then said:  If I believed as you do about Jesus being present in communion, I would crawl on my hands and knees to be there.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks about liturgy this way:  We must consider the Eucharist as: thanksgiving and praise to the Father; the sacrificial memorial of Christ and his Body; and the presence of Christ by the power of his word and of his Spirit.

We are, therefore, a Eucharistic people.  What does this mean?  What are the characteristics of a Eucharistic people?  They are people of joy and peace: the joy of knowing that God has given us the gift of his Son and the peace that the Son brings to us; openness: open to all who come to worship with us; wonder and awe at the great mystery of the Eucharist; freedom and vision:  the freedom to be the people God wants us to be and the vision to act accordingly; and finally, authentic stewards of gifts: we need to be good stewards of all that has been given to us particularly our health and the environment in which we live.

Some years ago, I was challenged by a houng man after a Mass at which I preached about the Eucharist as family meal and how we join in communion.  He chided me because I had not used the term "sacrifice" in my remarks.  We do believe, of course, that the Mass is a true sacrifice - that of offering Jesus to the Father in an unbloody way using the gifts of bread and wine.  But let us remember where the word sacrifice comes from: from two Latin words - sacrum and facere - meaning to "make holy."  This is what Eucharist does for us - it makes us holy.  It challenges us to be a Eucharistic people with the characteristics noted above; it calls us forth to bring the message of Jesus to the world.  May the Eucharist always be for us the source and summit of our Christian life and may we always be people of joy, peace, wonder and awe as we give thanks to our God for his greatest gift to us - Jesus.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Stay Connected

In the Gospel of John we read the following:

...And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always; the Spirit of truth...I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you....  (John 14: 16-17a; 18)

These words, spoken by Jesus to his disciples shortly before he went to his death must have been consoling for the disciples.  In Jesus' time, orphans were a sorry lot.  There were no orphanages or government agencies dedicated to serving children; orphans were left to whatever the society would do for them which was very little.  So being promised that they would not be left as orphans had to be a consolation.  Jesus also promises that the Father will send another gift - the Spirit of truth to guide the disciples as they moved forward in their journey of faith.

What do we do with a gift we have received?  We usually want to show it off and let others know what a great gift it has been.  We also want to stay connected to the one who has given us the gift.  What about the gift of the Holy Spirit in our lives?  Are we grateful for the gift; do we want others to know how grateful we are?  And how do we stay connected with the great gift-giver God?  The primary way we do this is through prayer.

Prayer can take many forms.  Some like to pray quietly in their rooms or while riding in the car; some while listening to music.  Others may choose more formal prayer such as the Rosary.  Whatever form of prayer we choose, it is important that we stay connected to the giver of all our gifts - God.  For us as Catholic Christians, the most important way we can pray is by coming each week and joining around the eucharistic table.  The Mass provides us with three important forms of prayer: we begin our liturgy with a recognition of our sinfulness and ask God's mercy and forgiveness; at the Prayer of the Faithful (or General Intercessions) we ask God for the needs of our Church, the world, our community and ourselves.  Then we come to the central part of the liturgy when we offer again to the Father his Son, Jesus, in the eucharistic prayer - a prayer of thanksgiving.  So we have the prayers for forgiveness, prayers of petition and prayers of thanksgiving.

These types of prayers should be a part of our own personal prayer as well.  At times we need to ask forgiveness for sins we have committed.  We are always in need and can go to our Father with our requests, and we should never forget to offer thanks for all that we have been given.  But some times our prayer life may become dry or sterile; we may find it difficult to pray.

The story is told of a missionary in a third world country who was assigned a car when he arrived at the mission.  The car, however, would not go without first being pushed.  To assist him in doing this, he arranged with the local school to have some of the older children push off his car when he began his mission rounds.  Then he would either park on a hill or leave the car running as he made his rounds.  This went on for two years.  Poor health required that he leave the mission.  He greeted his replacement and proceeded to tell him about the car problem.  At this point, the new missionary popped open the hood of the car and found a loose cable.  He tightened the cable, got into the car and when he turned the ignition the car immediately started.  The problem had been a loose cable; the missionary had had a loose connection.

Sometimes we have a loose connection in our prayers.  We need to ask the Holy Spirit to help us find the problem and fix it.  It may simply be that we need to find some time each day to spend in prayer with our God.

There are so many ways we stay connected these days: cell phones, texting, e-mail and the Internet.  This blog, for example, through the power of the Internet has reached over forty countries around the world and it does so in an instant.  But we don't need to text God or send him an e-mail.  God is always ready to receive our prayer; all we have to do is open ourselves to hear God's message to us and to respond in our hearts.

One way we can offer our whole day to the Lord as prayer is something called the "Morning Offering."  It is a prayer that I have found to be a wonderful way to begin the day by offering all that we do (except our sinful acts) as a prayer.  The prayer can be something like this:

O Sacred Heart of Jesus, I offer you all my prayers, works, joys and sufferings of this day in union with your Sacred Heart and in thanksgiving for all the gifts I have received from you.

A man was wandering around heaven one day when he had a vision of a church preparing to celebrate the liturgy down on earth.  He could see the priest opening his mouth to offer the prayers but he couldn't hear anything.  He saw the choir stand, opening their mouths to sing while he saw the organist's fingers play across the keys but he could hear nothing.  Jesus happened by at the moment and the man asked him why he couldn't hear anything coming from the vision.  Jesus replied, "Unless they sing and pray with their hearts, we cannot hear them up here."

May we always sing and pray with our hearts; may we always stay connected to our loving and amazing God.