Monday, May 28, 2012

Joy - The Fruit of the Holy Spirit

Yesterday, Pentecost Sunday, we brought the Easter season to a close with the celebration of that momentous event in the early Church that brought the message of Christ out into the world.

Pentecost has often been referred to as the "birthday of the Church."  Some theologians would hold that the Church was born from the wounded side of Christ as he hung on the cross.  I don't want to get into a theological argument but I would like to see Pentecost as "the miracle of the Church."

Consider what happened on that day.  The disciples were gathered in that upper room which had become their place of hiding (after the death of Jesus), a place of discernment (as they tried to fathom what the resurrected Jesus was asking them to do), and expectation (having been told to await in the city for the coming of the Holy Spirit).  Then they are disturbed by a "mighty wind" and tongues of fire appear over them.  They then go out and change the world.

Remember that there were none of them who held a master's or a doctorate degree in theology or Scripture.  They were simple people who earned their living with their hands and the sweat of their brow.  Yet, it was to these that the Holy Spirit came charging them and giving them the strength to begin to bring the message of Jesus to the world.  Consider, also, that down through the centuries of the existence of the Church, there have been persecutions, corruption on the part of leaders of the Church, ruptures in the body of the Church, and scandals which exist even in our own day.  Yet, here we are, twenty-one centuries later still joining together to worship that resurrected Christ and coming together as a community of faith.

This is because of the power of the Spirit.  In the seventeenth chaper of the Acts of the Apostles, we read about Paul's discourse with the Athenians in the town square where he comes upon a shrine dedicated to the "unknown god."  Paul proceeds to tell them about Jesus and what his message was for the world.  Sometimes I think that for us Christians, the Holy Spirit is the "unknown God."  We pray daily the Lord's Prayer (the "Our Father") and pray often to Jesus to aid us.  How often do we pray to the Holy Spirit?  Yet it is the Spirit, given to us in our baptism and fortified with his gifts at our confirmation, that guides us in our faith journey.  It is the Spirit who moves us to prayer especially when prayer comes with difficulty.

In chapter five of his epistle to the Galatians, Paul speaks about the fruits of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  These are wonderful attributes and virtues to have and they are gifts of the Holy Spirit.  In my homily yesterday on the Feast of Pentecost, I spent some time speaking about joy.

Did you ever notice that sometimes people who consider themselves quite religious often seem unhappy or even grumpy?  A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of attending the annual Spring Enrichment program sponsored by our Albany Diocese.  The keynote speaker for this event was the Jesuit author, Father James Martin.  He spoke about the need for joy and humor in our spiritual lives.  He commented on how often pictures and statues of the Lord, the Blessed Mother, and the saints show them to be somber.

I decided to try out this premise.  In my breviary (from which I pray the Divine Office), I have a large number of holy cards that I obtained usually at the time of someone's death.  I have two kinds of these remembrance cards - those that picture Jesus, Mary or one of the saints, and those containing the actual pictures of the deceased person (priest, deacon, religious or lay person).  Father Martin was right on - all the "holy cards" picturing Jesus or the saints had hardly even a hint of a smile.  Those picturing the deceased were overwhelmingly pictures showing their smiling faces.  Obviously they knew that there was something better to come after this life.

The late writer and humorist, Erma Bombeck, tells the story of how one day in church she was seated behind a young mother and her little son (about three or four years old).  Bombeck said the child was not fidgeting or rummaging through his mother's purse; rather he would occasionally turn around and smile at the people behind him.  At one point, the mother cuffed him and said "Stop smiling!  You're in church!"  As Bombeck said: if that little boy couldn't smile in church where else was he to go.

We need to have joy and laughter in our lives.  We need not to take ourselves too seriously or we can become somber and miss all the beauty that God has given to us.

Now, some might say that there are times in our lives when sadness occurs: loss of a job, loss of a loved one, the diagnosis of a terminal illness, etc.  There is no doubt that difficulties and suffering will be part of our lives.  Yet, does that mean that we have to be deprived of joy?

A native son of our Albany Diocese, Bishop Joseph Estabrook (who was a bishop in the Military Archdiocese) passed away a few months ago from the results of pancreatic cancer.  Before his death, he wrote a reflection and I would like to share a few things that he mentioned in that beautiful reflection.  He tells how after receiving the first news about having the cancer, one of the doctors hung back and finally asked him how he could receive such news and remain so positive.  The good bishop thought for a moment and said to him:  Faith and fear cannot live in the same space.  He went on to write shortly before his death:  We must embrace the sufferings of the moment and the fears as they come to us, but, at the end of the day, we must let joy be the victor that Christ alone can give to us.  A beautiful statement of faith because Bishop Estabrook knew that our God is one who loves us intensely.  He clings to us in our moments of difficulty; he holds us tight like a lover.

Let us, then, be people of joy.  Let us echo the words of Psalm 126:  Our mouths were filled with laughter; our tongues sang for joy....The Lord has done great things for us; Oh, how happy we were.

The spiritual writer, Anthony DeMello once wrote:  Look at God looking at you...and smiling.  All we need to do is smile back.  May you all have the joy of the Spirit in your lives.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

What's Been Happening - Again!

It's been several weeks since I last posted and I would like to bring everyone up to date on what's been happening in my busy life.  In addition to being ill during the first part of the Easter season (see most recent post - The Year I Missed Easter), a number of things have been happening in my life as well as in our country and around the world.

For several months I have been serving as the interim administrator of a parish in Troy, New York while awaiting the return of the pastor who had been on medical leave.  That part of my life has now come to an end with a return of the pastor and my being able to move on to do a number of other things that I do for the Diocese of Albany, New York.

Toward the end of my sojourn at Sacred Heart Church in Troy the parish was able to complete a long-awaited dream of constructing a new playground for the children of the parish school and the neighborhood.  It was my privilege, together with the priests from the parish, to bless and dedicate this new playground a few weeks ago.  The children are now happily playing using this new facility.

Two events happened that have affected us in our country.  One was the announcement by the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to review the workings of the Leadership Council of Women Religious (LCWR) in the United States because of what the Vatican felt were possible deviations from Catholic teaching.  This has led to an uproar and cries from various people throughout the country coming to the defense of the women religious.  The secular media in our country, of course, in their usual way, chose to make this sound like an attack on all the good work being accomplished by religious women in our country.  Two things need to be kept in mind: 1) The LCWR was created as a response to the Vatican's call for religious congregations to have a national entity which would be a conduit for various religious orders to maintain a connection to the universal Church; and 2) the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) is empowered and responsible for seeing that institutions and groups affiliated with the Church are adhering to the doctrinal and moral teachings of the Church.  Having said that, if what the Vatican is alleging is a problem within the LCWR, let me say that it is my hope that the commission now charged with looking at the work of the LCWR do so with sensitivity and openness.  Also, in no way should the review of this commission fail to take into account the tremendous work done by the religious women in our country who dedicate their lives to assisting the poor, in teaching, social work, and health care.  The many thousands of these dedicated sisters must not go unnoticed or unappreciated.  My feelings in this matter have been echoed before in one of my previous posts - Women: God's Gift to Today's Church.

The other event occurring in the country was the announcement by our president that he supports the concept of marriage for gays and lesbians.  This is a hotly contested issue and polls show the country evenly divided on whether or not these unions should properly be called marriages.  My own position is that I believe in the traditional concept of marriage as being between a man and a woman, and in my Church this union is seen as sacramental.  Nevertheless, the fact that this topic is alive today should give us all pause to take a look at how we treat our sisters and brothers whose sexual orientation is different from our own.  All individuals are children of God and are worthy of being shown the respect that is due to all persons regardless of creed, race, gender or sexual orientation.  May we all take a long, hard look at our own views and how we regard those who are different from ourselves.

Getting back to my final days at Sacred Heart Church, I must tell you about one of the last activities I was able to attend.  Our parish school - which has children in pre-kindergarten through sixth grade - held their annual musical show the other night.  The children in the cast were from grades four through six and they performed the musical Annie which was, for this production, entitled Annie, Jr.   These children were amazing and well poised as they performed.  The audience was tremendously pleased and thoroughly enjoyed their efforts.  It was a great mark of excellence for a great school.  I will certainly miss the children.

One thing I do have to look forward to in the near future is a trip to the Eternal City - Rome, where on October 21, I will be privileged to be among the hundreds of thousands who will gather for the canonization of several new saints.  Two of these new saints are from upstate New York:  Blessed Marianne Cope, a religious sister who worked with (St.) Father Damien in the leper colony on Molokai.  The other one is one who was born here within the borders of our own Diocese of Albany - Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha - a Mohawk Indian maiden who will become the first Native American saint to be canonized.  It will be a glorious celebration and one to which I look forward with great anticipation.

Finally, today, here in the United States, we celebrate Mother's Day.  We all owe a great deal to those wonderful women who have borne the sacred name of "mother" be they living or deceased.  As a tribute to them, I would like to quote a passage from the author John Killinger from his book Lost in Wonder, Love and Praise:

I believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God,
who was born of the promise to a virgin named Mary,
I believe in the love Mary gave her Son,
that caused her to follow him in his ministry
and stand by the cross as he died.
I believe in the love of all mothers,
and its importance in the lives of the children they bear.
It is stronger than steel, softer than down,
and more resilient than a green sapling on a hillside.
It closes wounds, melts disappointments,
and enables the weakest child to stand tall
and straight in the fields of adversity.
I believe that this love, even at its best,
is only a shadow of the love of God,
a dark reflection of all that we can expect of him,
both in this life and the next.
And I believe that one of the most beautiful sights
in the world is a mother who lets this greater love
flow through her to her child,
blessing the world with the tenderness of her touch and the tears of her joy.