Can't choose your family!

SIR3:2-6, 12-14 ; COL 3:12-17 ; MT 2:13-15, 19-23

Whenever I hear these readings from today, I have flashbacks to when I was a child sitting in the pews during the feast of Holy Family. When the readings said that children should honor, respect and obey their parents, my dad would elbow me a little bit and my mom would lean over and say “now listen carefully”. When the readings spoke about how a husband and wife should behave towards each other, spouses around the Church would look at each other, perhaps each thinking that the other should be paying closer attention.  Since Christmas is such a special time for families, it is very fitting that we celebrate the feast of the Holy Family right after Christmas. It gives us the opportunity to reflect on the fundamental role family plays in our life as Christians.

Family is of vital importance in helping us to fulfill our ultimate vocation. Family has a fundamental role in helping each of us become what God wants us to be. But, what is our ultimate vocation anyway? What are all people in the world called to be whether they are the Pope, a religious sister, a married person, a priest or a single individual? Blessed John Paul II explained it this way:
“God created man in his own image and likeness (cf. Gen 1:26, 27): calling him to existence through love, he called him at the same time for love. God is love (cf. 1 Jn 4:8) and in himself he lives a mystery of personal loving communion. Creating the human race in his own image and continually keeping it in being, God inscribed in the humanity of man and woman the vocation, and thus the capacity and responsibility, of love and communion (Gaudium et spes, 12). Love is therefore the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being” (FC, 11).
Our ultimate vocation is to become more loving and more capable of living in community. This is something that we must learn, it will not happen automatically. Family is not just a group of people who happen to be related, whether they like it or not. Family is a school in which we learn how to be a better human being. We learn to love, to make sacrifices, to be patient, humble and to put others ahead of ourselves. Family plays a central role in helping us to fulfill our ultimate vocation.

As we all know from experience, family life poses its share of difficulties and challenges.  Though it has many joys, living in a family at times is often tough. We may think that the greatest pressures for a family come from the outside. For example, we see in the Gospel today that the Holy family was threatened by Herod and were forced to flee. Today, many families suffer similar challenges that are outside their control: war, poverty, excessive busyness due to work or school or an illness in the family. Are these the external pressures the greatest risk to a family? It would seem not. Many families pass through such difficulties and come out stronger in the end. The greatest challenges facing families often come from within. Members of a family usually have different personalities and temperaments. As the saying goes, “you can choose your friends, but you cannot choose your family”. Disagreements, arguments, misunderstandings and hurt feelings are a daily, if not hourly occurrence. Families can be torn apart when there is unwillingness to forgive, enter into meaningful conversation and put other people’s needs in front of one’s own. Family life is full of such difficulties.

It is precisely these challenges, however, that help form us to become more loving. In particular the interpersonal conflicts among members of a family can help transform them for the better. I once heard a very helpful analogy for how this work.  Family life can be compared to a “rock-tumbler”.  A rock tumbler is a small, hollow, machine that you put small stones into.  Each stone has its own jagged edges.  After the stones have been placed in the machine and your turn it on, it begins to spin.  As the machine turns over and over, the rocks tumble inside, hitting each other and grinding one against the other and the sides of the machine.  Slowly but surely, the jagged edges of the stones rub one another smooth.  After some time each stone becomes polished and beautiful.  In this analogy, we are the stones.  Just as the stones have their rough edges, each of us have our own weaknesses and idiosyncrasies, for example, impatience, pride, or laziness.  As we live together, we have confrontations and frustrate one another.  We smash into each other like the stones inside the rock-tumbler.  Overtime we begin to see that the weaknesses and idiosyncrasies of those we live with are opportunities for growth.  With God’s grace, family life can make us more patient, sympathetic towards others and capable of cooperation.  Like the stones inside the rock-tumbler, we become more polished – our weaknesses become smoothed.  Through the interpersonal struggles of community life, God is forming us to become more loving.

In order to grow, we must respond generously to the challenges that come with living in a family.  God can only form us if we cooperate generously.  In the “rock-tumbler” analogy, the stones will become polished overtime whether they want to or not.  This is not the case with us! Just because we are given opportunities to grow, doesn’t mean we make use of them. Often we pin the blame on others. We can think “if only my husband/wife/child would change then everything would be fine”. Perhaps the best thing to do, however, is to look at ourselves. How can we respond more generously to the challenges of family life? The first and second reading from today give some ways we can do this: showing honor, respect and obedience to one another. Here are three areas in which can be generous in responding to the challenges of family life:
  1. Generosity with our time. Since everyone is so busy its takes a conscious choice for family members to spend time just being together in each other’s company.
  2. Generosity in communication. This includes being open and honest with others about what we are feeling and going through in life as well as listening and trying to understand where other people are coming from.
  3. Generosity in making compromises. We often must put the needs of others ahead of our own if a family is to work well.
In order for God to use family life as a means to transform us, He requires our generous response.

We have all probably seen those road signs that say, “caution, work in progress”. When we see this, we are meant to slow down and be patient. Perhaps, every member of a family should wear such a “work in progress” sign. Family life, together with its many challenges, is meant to transform us.  Today we can reflect on our personal situation and ask if there is one area in which we can be more generous. Perhaps we can choose to spend more time with our family, even if it means cutting back in other areas. Maybe we need to work on one particular relationship by listening more and being slower to judge. Perhaps we can be more flexible in putting the needs of others ahead of our own. Whatever it is, let us respond generously. Family life is not easy. It is however a wonderful school. Let us learn our lessons well.

Be the Light of Christ to others

Jn 1: 1- 18

I have a confession to make.  When I was a child I was a little afraid of the dark. Ok, I was afraid of the dark a lot. During this time, what saved me from a night of fear and allowed me to sleep was a little night light. Somehow this light made everything better. You may laugh, but I am sure I was not the only one! There is something very ingrained in the human consciousness about the dichotomy between light and darkness. There is something unnerving about darkness. It is somehow a reminder of death and evil. On the other hand light brings to mind life and goodness.  In the gospel we have heard this morning, St. John makes use of this contrast between light and darkness to teach us an important lesson about what the birth of Jesus Christ means for the world.

Because of sin, darkness entered the world. When we break ourselves off from God and do things to hurt our brothers and sisters, darkness is created on several levels.
  1. First, there is a darkness that separates us from God. We become cut-off from Him, the source of all life and love. We also lose sight of who God really is, we can forget that He is a loving Father and become afraid of Him instead.
  2. Second, sin brings a darkness that separates us from one another. We become jealous, envious, greedy and hurtful to each other. We can lose sight of what it truly means to be a human being and how we should act.
  3. Thirdly, sin brings darkness into our heart. We can feel great sadness. It can seem as though there is no joy, peace or hope in our soul.
At different times in our life we have all probably felt this darkness on all three levels. If our story ended here, things would seem very bleak indeed. Because of sin, darkness has entered the world.

Jesus was born so that He might bring light to the world. Christ came to overcome the darkness that sin created. If you look at Churches that were built long ago, you will find that they were traditionally built facing east. There is a very important reason for this. East is the direction from which the sun rises each morning when it comes to scatter the darkness and bring light and warmth to the earth. For early Christians, Jesus was often compared to the rising sun and so they wanted to build Churches facing the east. When Jesus was born, it was very much like a sunrise. He scattered the darkness caused by sin.
  1. Jesus came to reunite us with God. Because Jesus is truly God, He also reveals to us fully who God is, that He is a Father who loves and cares for us.
  2. Jesus also came to restore our broken relationships with each other. Because Jesus is also truly man, He shows us what it means to live best as a human being and how we should behave to one another.
  3. Jesus also came to scatter the darkness in our hearts. When we live close to Christ, He fills our hearts with joy, happiness and peace.

Jesus came into the world to be a light that scatters the darkness caused by sin.

As Christians we are meant to bring the light of Christ to those around us. Blessed Mother Teresa is well known for her work with the poor. Since her death, her personal writings have been made available to the public so that we can all learn better from her life. From these writings we learnt that before entering the slums of Calcutta, Mother Teresa received a very personal call from Jesus. In prayer, Mother Teresa heard the voice of Jesus speaking to her. Jesus said this to her: “Come be my light”, “carry me to the dark holes of the poor”. During her life, Mother Teresa came to understand that the poor lived in great darkness. This darkness was not just their material poverty, but also their loneliness and their feeling that they had been cast away by the rest of society. She realized that she was meant to bring the light of Christ to them. This meant more than giving the poor food and shelter. Through her actions, which could be as simple as a smile, listening to someone or saying a kind word, she tried to bring the love of Jesus to the poor. Daily we too encounter people who live in darkness. Perhaps they do not live in material poverty, but we all know people who are spiritually poor. These are people who are lonely, sad and feel unloved. Like Mother Teresa, through our kind actions we are called to be the light of Christ to these people.

The closer that we stay to Jesus, the brighter His light will burn in us. Most of you have probably seen those glow-in-the-dark stars that you can stick to the walls or ceiling of a room. Perhaps some of you even have them in your room. In order for the stars to glow in the dark, you need to keep them exposed to some light source, like an electric bulb or even the sun. Interestingly, the longer you keep the stars exposed to the light source, the brighter and longer the stars will glow when you turn off the lights. In our spiritual life, we are like these glow-in-the-dark stars and Jesus is the light source. The more that we stay in His presence, the brighter we will shine with His light.  If we spend little time with Jesus, then we cannot expect to glow brightly at all. There are many ways that we can spend time being exposed to Jesus. Some examples are prayer, going to Mass, reading the Scriptures and receiving the Sacrament of for example, by praying, going to Mass, reading the scriptures, and receiving the sacrament of reconciliation. The more we are in the presence of Jesus, the brighter we will radiate His light to others.

Because of the birth of Jesus we need no longer live in fear of the darkness caused by sin. He is the true light, the light that darkness cannot overcome. He reveals to us the Father and how we should live as human being. Sadly many around us still live in darkness. Today try to think of someone who is close to you who may live in loneliness, sadness or a lack of hope. This Christmas morning, commit yourself to doing some very concrete action by which you can bring them the light of Jesus Christ. In this way they too can experience the joy of Christmas.

The Hobbit and God's Christmas Battle Plan

Luke 2:1-14

A book that has captured imaginations for over a generation is The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien was an active Catholic and that the story has many Christian themes. The Hobbit has recently been made into an incredibly popular series of three films. The second installment just came out. In the first movie, The Unexpected Journey, we see how Gandalf, a good wizard, helps form a group to send an important quest to liberate a land from an oppressive dragon. This group is almost entirely made out of strong dwarves who are proven warriors. There is one noticeable exception. Gandalf insists on including in the quest one hobbit, Bilbo Baggins. This decision is shockingly unexpected and the dwarves are opposed. How could this weak hobbit help defeat the evil dragon? It seems to go against all proper logic for waging war. But Gandalf, for reasons I will explain later, stands by his decision. He sees a power in Bilbo that the others do not. This scene seems to be a great analogy for what is happening at Christmas. Often the story of Christmas seems too familiar, too comfortable. However, when we stop and think about it Christmas too is a shockingly unexpected strategy of God. Let us look closer at this metaphor from The Hobbit. We’ll begin with the dragon.

Jesus was born into an oppressed world. Christ entered a world that was under siege by the enemy.  When Jesus was born some 2000 years ago in Bethlehem, there was a certain world power that was an obvious “dragon”: the Roman Empire. That fact that the people of Israel were under Roman oppression is found in the story of Jesus’ birth. Because in Rome Caesar demanded a census, Mary and Joseph were forced to travel to Bethlehem to be counted. The Jewish people were expecting a saviour, or messiah, to come and rescue them from this tyranny. This saviour was supposed to be a political or military leader who would forcibly cast off Rome’s yolk and re-establish an independent nation of Israel. Today also, as Jesus is born anew this Christmas, He comes into a world with its fair share of dragons that terrorize humanity: war, crime, oppression, inequality and poverty. Most importantly, whether it be today or 200 years ago, here in Richmond or in Bethlehem, Jesus also comes to liberate our hearts from certain dragons that lay siege to our soul: pride, selfishness, loneliness, greed and envy. Jesus always comes into a world that is oppressed and in need of liberation.

God’s way of doing battle is completely different than we expect. Deep down, we all probably think much like the dwarves from the Hobbit. They believe that the way to beat the dragon is to get together the strongest, most powerful group of people. You need to fight fire with fire. But God’s way of thinking is much different. God could have entered the world as a powerful political or military ruler, but He did not. If we want to know God’s battle plan we need only look to two places. First, we can look at the manger. What do we see there? We see a poor baby who had to be born among animals because there was no room in the inn. We see incredible humility. We see a boy who will grow up to spend His time serving, healing and reconciling those who are on the margins of society: tax collectors, sinners, lepers and prostitutes. The second place we need to look if we want to know God’s battle plan is the Cross. There we learn that Jesus chose to destroy evil not through more violence or political machinations but through self-sacrifice. From the Cross we learn that you do not fight fire with fire. Evil is only defeated through love. This is revolutionary. God’s way of doing battle is completely not what we expect.

Because Jesus’ way of doing things in so unexpected, we can easily miss Him. Remember that the dwarves wanted nothing to do with Bilbo because he didn’t meet their expectations of a warrior. They overlooked the power in him that Gandalf could see.  Likewise, since Jesus’ way of battling evil is so revolutionary, we risk ignoring Him in our life. 2000 years ago so many people did not recognize Jesus for who He was. Before He was even born, Jesus was turned away from the inn. The powerful do not come to visit the new-born Jesus, but only the simple shepherds. Later when Jesus grew up and began His ministry and teaching He was rejected by so many people. Why? He simple did not fit the bill of how God should go about conquering evil in the world. Likewise, in our own life too we risk letting Jesus pass us by, failing to recognize His power. We can ask ourselves a few questions. Are we trying to make Jesus the center of our lives because we think He alone can save us, or is something else taking His place? Is this reflected by the time we put into cultivating a relationship with Christ through prayer and going to Mass? Or, are we trying to fill our hearts with what we think might be more satisfying, such as possessions and entertainment? We could also ask ourselves if our life shows that we are trying to continue Jesus’ mission, His way of battling the dragons in this world. Are we striving to live with deeper humility, service, love, mercy and forgiveness? Or, do we following another strategy, seeking to become more powerful, wealthy and popular? Regardless of time or place, people have always risked missing or ignoring Jesus.

Christmas is a wonderful opportunity to deepen our commitment to Christ and His mission. Today is an incredible chance to renew our desire to follow Jesus and not let Him pass us by. Our current Holy Father, Pope Francis, is a powerful example who can encourage us to do this. Many of you will know that Pope Francis was recently named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year. This reflects how his words and gestures have captured attention among Catholics and non-Catholics alike. But how does a 77 year old man - with only one functioning lung - exert such an influence? The answer, quite simply, is that he is someone who has not allowed Jesus and His message to pass him by. Throughout his life, Pope Francis has welcomed Christ more and more into his heart. He has said that his deepest identity is that of a sinner in desperate need of Jesus the Saviour. Through prayer, Mass, the other sacraments and reading the Scriptures he centers his life around Christ. Flowing from this, Pope Francis has committed himself to continuing the mission, or battle-plan, of Jesus for fighting the dragons in this world. Through his words and gestures he has shown the power of mercy, love, forgiveness, humility and service. He has washed the feet of convicts in a prison. He traveled to a remote island in the Mediterranean Sea in order to celebrate Mass for African migrants. He has boldly spoken out against war and global financial inequality. His example is a great challenge and encouragement to deepen our commitment to Jesus and His mission this Christmas.

At a certain moment in the movie The Hobbit, Gandalf defends his choice of making Bilbo a member of the group sent to conquer the dragon. He explains that while others believe “it is only great power that can hold evil in check”, that is not what he has found. Gandalf says he has found that “it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay”. With the help of Jesus, let us be numbered among these “ordinary folk”. Today let us choose one way to deepen our commitment to Jesus and His mission. Maybe it is to pray or go to Mass, to serve in a new way your parish or community or to forgive someone who has wronged you. Let us choose one concrete action. Perhaps we can make this our Christmas gift for Jesus.

When God throws a wrench in your plans...

A while ago a friend told me a story about a terrible commute he had one day coming home from work. On this particular afternoon it was very important for him to be home on time because he had made important plans for the evening. Things, however, did not go according to plan.  Because of a road construction, his normal 45 minute commute home from work took two hours!  I don’t know about you, but if this happened to me I would have been extremely frustrated. The funny thing was that my friend was not. He explained that he trusted that God had a reason for throwing a wrench in his plans. He said that because of the longer commute he was able to have a very good conversation with a co-worker he carpooled with, which would not have happened otherwise.  We have all probably had such an experience when our plans get drastically altered. This can be a very challenging situation.

If we want a remarkable story of someone who had their plans drastically altered, we need not look further than poor Joseph in the Gospel of today. St. Joseph is an example of someone who had their life literally turned upside down. For a moment, try to put yourself in his shoes.  Imagine this. Things in his life have been incredible. His business as a carpenter in Nazareth has never been so great. Most exciting of all, he has recently been engaged! He could not be happier. He and his fiancĂ©e, Mary, have been busy making plans for the future. He feels like you are on top of the world. One day, however, he receives news that brings your world crashing down on itself: Mary is expecting a child and he are not the father. Imagine how crushed St. Joseph must have felt. The plans for the rest of his life seem ruined. What will others think and say about him? About Mary?  At first he has to assume that Mary has broken the engagement and he decides to Mary quietly so that she is not publicly shamed. Just when Joseph thinks things cannot get any stranger he has an unbelievable dream. In this dream, an angel tells him to change his plans again! The angel says that the child Mary is carrying was conceived by the Holy Spirit and that the child will be someone incredible. More changes, more uncertainties! How would you react if this happened to you? What would you think and do? St. Joseph is a remarkable story of someone who had their plans in life drastically altered.

We have all experienced how difficult it can be when our life is changed suddenly. Everyone knows what it feels like when you make plans or have certain expectations for the future and then something happens that alters everything.  You probably would not need to try very hard to think of some examples in your own life. Maybe you are someone close has experienced trouble at work. Perhaps you were certain that you would receive a promotion, made arrangements for your new work situation only to find that you were passed over. Worse even would be the case of being laid off unexpectedly. This can turn your life upside down. Or maybe you are a student and had plans to enter a special program and then unexpectedly failed a course that meant you were no longer eligible for entry. Now you might have to look at different options. Among the most drastic of examples, we can consider the situation where you or a family member suddenly falls seriously ill. Such an event can change your life in the blink of an eye. When our lives change suddenly like this we can feel an array of strong emotions: sadness, confusion, anger and discouragement. It is very natural to wonder why God would allow these things to happen. Accepting the situation can seem impossible at times. We all know how difficult an experience it is when our life is changed suddenly.

From the example of St. Joseph we learn that trusting in God is an effective response in such circumstances. In the Gospel of today we see that in the face of such a dramatic change in his life, Joseph was able to trust that God was in charge. Such an action must not have been easy for St. Joseph. Trust like that is hard for all of us. As the following story illustrates, such trust really takes a leap of faith. One night, a house caught fire and a small boy was forced to flee to the roof of the house. The boy’s father stood on the ground below with his arms outstretched and yelled to his son, “jump, I will catch you!” The father knew that his son must jump in order to survive. When he looked down, however, all the boy could see was smoke, fire and blackness. Quite understandably, he was too terrified to leave the roof. The man yelled again to his son, “jump, I will catch you!” But the boy protested, “daddy, I can’t see you!”  To this the father replied, “But I can see you, and that’s all that matters.” When faced with unexpected changes in life, we can find ourselves in the position of the little boy. Trusting that God, our Father, is there with us can be terrifying. It is hard to believe that He is in control, because he can seem so hidden. But He does see us and He will save us. Taking the leap to trust that God is in charge is an effective and powerful way to respond when our life is changed suddenly.

When we are able to trust in this way, we allow God to work wonders. This kind of trust has an incredible power to transform our lives and the lives of others. We can see this so clearly in the life of St. Joseph. After he had his dream, he made the decision to trust God which set into motion an incredible chain of events. He welcomed Mary into his home and became the foster father of Jesus the Saviour of the world. Joseph went on to play a unique and important role in the history of salvation.  Looking back at the example of my friend and his commute we can see what a difference trust made. He trusted that there was a reason to allow his plans to get ruined. Instead of becoming frustrated he was able to have an important conversation with a co-worker. When we trust in God He will work powerfully in our life and the life of others.

Perhaps you have heard this before… How do you make God laugh? Tell him about your plans. Unexpected changes are part of life. Because of this, it is so important that we follow the example of St. Joseph and trust that God is ultimately in control. Today we should ask ourselves an important question: has something unexpected happened to me in my life that I find difficult to accept? In this Mass we can ask God for the grace to trust that God is in control. When we do this, God will act. Trust allows Jesus and His peace and joy to more fully work in our lives and the lives of those around us.

Overcoming Criticism

These days we are all aware of the need to keep our heart healthy. Many foods are even advertised as being “heart healthy”.  The heart is perhaps the most important organ as it pumps life-giving blood throughout the body. We know that eating certain foods have a bad effect on our heart because arteries become clogged and blood flow is restricted. Clogged arteries put a barrier in the way of blood and our health suffers. This situation is one we want to avoid. Interestingly, a similar problem can affect our spiritual health.

The life of Jesus is like the blood that should flow freely throughout our existence, bringing us nourishment and strength. In particular, when the life of Christ is alive in us, we should be filled with joy.  On this third Sunday of Advent, called Gaudete Sunday, or “Rejoice” Sunday, we are reminded that the coming of Jesus brings joy. We light a pink candle on the Advent Wreath and can wear rose-colored vestments in order to recall an important message:  Jesus, the one who brings joy is coming soon! Recently, Pope Francis wrote a document called “The Joy of the Gospel”. There he explains the effect that Jesus should have on our lives. In the opening lines he writes:
The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ joy is constantly born anew. (EVANGELII GAUDIUM, 1)
In our bodies, when our heart is working well and blood is pumped freely, our health is good.  Likewise, when the life of Jesus flows freely in our lives we are spiritually healthy; in particular we should be filled with joy.

During this Advent season, we have been challenged to remove any obstacles that prevent the life of Christ from flowing freely in our heart. We have tried to remove any barriers that stop Jesus from coming into our life. With a physical heart, when we eat unhealthy food, our arteries become clogged, blood-flow is restricted and our health is damaged. Likewise, certain behaviors cause barriers in our spiritual life and prevent the life of Christ from fully entering our life. This has a negative effect on our spiritual health. In the end it decreases our joy. Advent is a time to ask ourselves an important question: what behaviors in my life have become barriers which prevent Jesus from fully entering my heart? More than this, we have been challenged to change these behaviors.  Last week we met the figure of John the Baptist and heard his message to repent because Jesus is coming soon. In the Gospel of today, Jesus praises the person of John the Baptist and stresses the importance of his message. Returning to our heart analogy, repentance is about identifying ways in which our arteries have become blocked and trying to remove these blockages so that blood can travel freely once more. During Advent we are challenged to repent and remove any obstacles that stop Jesus and His joy from fully entering our life.

In the second reading from the Letter of James, we were warned against a certain behavior that greatly damages our spiritual health: criticism and complaining.  When we tear down other people, we put up a barrier that stops Jesus from fully entering our life.  Criticizing and complaining damages a community, whether it be our family, our work community or our parish. On top of this, such behavior harms us because it makes us preoccupied with what is bad or going wrong. When we get stuck in this habit, we lose sight of all the good things in our life. In the end, we prevent Jesus from filling us with joy.  Unfortunately, criticizing is all too easy. As the following story illustrates, we can always find something to complain about.  
A father and his son took a donkey to the market. At first, the man sat on the donkey, and the boy walked. People along the way said, “What a terrible thing, a big strong fellow sitting on the donkey’s back, while the youngster has to walk.” So the father dismounted, and the son took his place. Soon onlookers remarked, “How terrible, this man walking, and the little boy sitting.” At that, they both got on the donkey’s back—only to hear others say, “How cruel, two people sitting on one donkey.” Off they came. But other bystanders commented. “How crazy, the donkey has nothing on his back and two people are walking.” Finally, they were both carrying the donkey. They never did make it to market.”
We need to be on guard against criticizing and complaining. Such behavior tears apart community and acts as a barrier preventing Jesus from fully entering our life.

There are practical ways that we can repent of this behavior. Just because criticism and complaining is sadly commonplace does not mean that we should just give up trying to better ourselves in this area.  I would like to offer two practical suggestions.
  1.  Be aware of what you are doing. Once we realize that we tend to criticize and complain we should stop and think, “why am I behaving like this?” Be aware that criticizing and complaining is often an attempt to tear others down in order to make ourselves feel better. Our criticisms often say more about ourselves and our own insecurities than it does about other.
  2.  Actively search out the good in others. It is all too easy notice what others have done wrong. Challenge yourself to search for the good in others and recognize this. Perhaps a good rule of thumb is that for everything negative we say about someone we should say two positive comments. This means that is we cannot find something good to say, we should not say anything at all.  

The habit of criticizing and complaining can be overcome. Since this behavior damages our community and prevents the joy of Christ from fully entering our life it is well worth the effort.

Christmas is just 10 days away. We all want to take steps to welcome Christ as fully as possible into our lives. Just as blood gives life to the body, Jesus alone is the one who gives nourishment and joy to our life. Let us try to remove obstacles that prevent the life of Christ from flowing freely in our hearts, in particular the habit of being critical and complaining.   Today ask yourselves if there is perhaps one particular area in which you criticize and complain a lot: family, work, or parish community. This is a clogged artery and is bad for your spiritual health. Try to unclog this artery by actively searching for the good in others rather than being content to simply complain and criticize.  Our personal joy and the joy of our community depend upon it.

¡Viva Cristo Rey!

The year is 1927. In Mexico City, a priest named Miguel Pro is led by soldiers to the place of his execution.  For months Miguel Pro had defied the virtual ban on Catholicism by the fiercely anti-Catholic Mexican government. He has moved around Mexico City in disguise – often as a mechanic - in order to celebrate Mass secretly in houses.   At last the government has caught up with him.  Fr. Pro is led up against a wall to face the firing squad.  In the final moments before his execution, he extends his arms in the forms of a cross- in one hand clutching a rosary, in the other a crucifix - and cries out, “¡Viva Cristo Rey!”, “Long Live Christ the King!” This dramatic story of Blessed Miguel Pro can help us better understand the significance of the feast we celebrate today, Christ the King.

Miguel Pro's execution on November 23, 1927
Nowadays there is a tendency to make faith a merely private thing that has little influence on society at large. It seems that faith is often barred a place in the public sphere. Oddly enough, both those who are against religion and even faithful Catholic can do this.  There has always been people who are against religion and do not want it to influence public society. We see this dramatically in Mexico at the time of Miguel Pro. The anti-Catholic government outlawed Catholic schools, prohibited worship outside Churches, closed monasteries, and took away the right of priests to vote.  Certainly in Canada we are blessed with the freedom to practice our religion openly. Yet there can be a popular mentality that says religion is a private affair, having little place in the public sphere.  This is how many interpret America’s principle of “separation between Church and State”. In this mentality, politicians and private citizens are discouraged from allowing their faith to inform the changes they would like to see in society. Surprisingly, a good number of Catholics can think in a similar way but for very different reasons. Some argue that the only important thing is getting souls to heaven. Sometimes they are not too concerned too about trying to improve society and make it more just and humane.  Both non-religious and even Christians themselves tend to isolate faith so that it is a merely private affair which has little impact on the greater society.

The great lesson of today’s feast is that our faith must have a transforming impact on the public sphere because Christ is the King. Christianity was never intended to be a merely private affair that had no influence on society.  In the very beginning, our loving God created the heavens and the earth to be His home. He shared the earth with man. The plan from the beginning was that God would be King. The earth would operate according to God’s laws of love and justice. However, God’s great project went off the rails because of sin. Humanity rejected God as their King and the world became ruled instead by greed, jealousy and hatred. Over the course of history, God has tried to save the great project of creation by encouraging humanity to follow Him and His rule. God’s ultimate act of salvation was to send His Son, Jesus Christ into the world. In His life Jesus always announced that the kingdom of God had arrived in His very person. Jesus is the King on several levels. Interiorly, Jesus is our King as He should hold the most important place in our heart – we are to love Him more than anything else. Jesus is also our King because our interactions with our neighbour are to be governed by His law and example. More than this though, that Jesus is King means that all of society should be shaped by His values: national government, international relations and the economic market. In fact, the Feast of Christ the King was instituted in 1925 to emphasize this point in a sea of growing nationalism and secularism. Christianity, far from being a merely private affair, is meant to transform all aspects of human life.

Jesus, however, is a King unlike any other. Jesus exercises His Kingship in a completely new and unexpected way.  For a moment, try to picture in your mind a king. What comes to mind? Perhaps you pictured someone sitting on an elegant throne, wearing rich garments and a golden crown on their head. Keeping that picture in mind, how do you imagine the king behaving? Don’t we imagine kings to be powerful, authoritative, dominating and having others at their beck and call? Now, let’s take a look at the image of Christ the King presented in our gospel today. When we look at the crucifix we can see what kind of King Jesus is: His throne was the Cross, His crown was of thorns and His royal garments were rags. Not only does Jesus look different than any other King, His actions are unique as well. The power of Christ the King is shown through His mercy, peace and self-sacrifice. This kind of power, though unexpected, is ultimately stronger than the power of any earthly king. By sacrificing His life, Jesus defeated sin and death. When we imitate the example of Jesus we can experience this power in our own life. For example, at the time of Miguel Pro, many were fighting the government through armed resistance. Though these militias experienced some success, the actions of Miguel Pro and other martyrs who followed the example of Christ and laid down their lives for God and their countrymen was so much more powerful. Their witness and sacrifice inspired many and brought lasting change. Their actions carried so much power because they imitated how Jesus exercises Kingship.

Following Christ the King takes incredible courage because it means nothing less than committing ourselves to changing the world. As followers of Jesus, we are called to strive to build a word that reflects the values of Jesus. There are many people and forces in the world who claim that their ideas and way of doing things should be king. Knowing which of these voices advocates the kind of world that Jesus would want is not easy. Some voices we can agree with, other voices we need to oppose. In his day, Miguel Pro had to oppose the voice of those who tried to limit the Mexican people’s freedom to practice their religion. We can take inspiration from his example. When we look at the society, we should ask ourselves, is this the kind of world that Christ would want? What would need to change? We often hear about the issue of defending human life and marriage. This is very important, but there is more. Recent Popes have drawn our attention to the great injustice that exists between the rich and the poor. Many poor countries are so in debt that they spend most of their funds paying interest to wealthy countries and cannot afford to build up their own country. Is this the world Jesus would want? As another example, we need to seriously consider the effects that our wasteful consumer culture is having on the environment. What kind of world do we want to leave for future generations? How would Jesus have us respond to these challenges? Solutions are not easy to arrive at, yet we must work on them. Saying that Christ is our King is a very demanding statement because we must commit ourselves to building a world that Jesus would want.

Several years ago I had the opportunity to visit the place in Mexico City where Miguel Pro was martyred. The government has not allowed for a large monument there.  All you can find is a small plaque attached to the wall. When I visited the site, however, I was surprised to see that many flowers were left by the site. The witness of Miguel Pro continues to inspire. I personally have found his life very encouraging. Today let us follow his example by not falling for the lie that Christianity is merely a private thing. As Catholics we are not meant to stay in some citadel looking out at the world with detachment. We should be interested in creating a world more worthy of what God has called us to be. We should be interested in politics, economics, education and social structures. Today let us remind ourselves that we are called to build the kingdom of Christ the King. This is our call. ¡Viva Cristo Rey!

What prevents God's mercy from healing the wounds caused by sin? Only you.

When I was living in Mexico a few years ago, the following encounter was not uncommon when I met people living in the streets. At times we would meet people who had a serious injury, a large cut or broken bone, for example. After just a brief look it was clear that this individual needed to see a doctor otherwise there was no hope that they would get better. We would always tell the person this fact, and explain that we would take them and cover the expenses. The strange thing is that some would refuse to allow us to bring us to the hospital. They would tell us that their injury was not that bad and that they would get better on their own. I was reminded of these experiences when I was reflecting on the reading of today. These people never accepted the severity of their wound and as a result, they could not be helped to find healing.  A similar dynamic is at play in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector.

In this parable we meet two people who respond very differently to the reality of sin in their lives. The Pharisee and the tax collector were in stark contrast in the way they viewed their own sinfulness.  One message of the parable is straightforward: each of us, without exception, is in need of God’s mercy. Taking as an analogy my experience in Mexico, we could say that each of us is seriously wounded as a result of sin and we require God’s healing. But here’s the point: in order for God to heal us, we must first recognize that we are wounded and ask for His help. Just as we could not force anyone to go to the hospital, God cannot force His mercy on those who do not think they need it. The Pharisee and tax collector were both sinners. The Pharisee is at least guilty of the sin of pride and despising others. Quite probably the sins of the tax collector were greater. He was cooperating with a foreign oppressor and had stolen from his countrymen. The way the two see the reality of sin in their lives makes all the difference. The Pharisee is convinced that he is not in need of God’s forgiveness because he follows the law perfectly; he is blind to the severity of his wound and therefore does not ask God for healing. The tax collector, on the other hand, is well aware of his need for God’s mercy and calls on God for healing. At the end of the day it is the tax collector and not the Pharisee who is made right with God. This is all because the two men respond in a very different way to the reality of sin in their life.

In our own life, we can easily downplay the severity of sin. It is easy to forget the wide-ranging effects of our own sins. None of us would go as far as the attitude of the Pharisee, but isn’t it easy to think along these lines, “in comparison to other people my sins are not that bad … I haven’t robbed a bank or killed anyone!”?  Indeed, some sins are more serious than others. We should not, however, brush off our sins as “no big deal”. Often the full effects of our sin are hidden from us. Let me illustrate this with a story. Last week I was visiting my family was getting ready to return to St. Matthew’s as it was getting late. As I gathered my things from the table where I had placed them when I came in, I noticed that my keys were missing.  At first I was calm and I started to search under some other items on the table. As time went on I became more frantic. These weren't just any keys, these were the keys to the Church and the School! I knew if I lost them it would be bad news. My search became more serious. I called everyone who was at the dinner to see if they had taken them by mistake. I started to search with a flashlight down the heating ducts. After an hour of searching I had just about given up hope when I saw a large bowl full of decorations sitting on another table. I figured it was worth a shot. I started digging my hand into the bowl and low and behold … my keys were there! At that very moment a thought struck me: my niece! I have a five year old niece and though I couldn't prove it, I had a sneaky suspicion that she was responsible for hiding my keys. The next day, my niece was asked if she had hidden my keys. Her response: “aahhhhhh yes”. Why did she do it? “I was trying to be sneaky”, she said. This story illustrates well what happens when we sin. Like my niece, we know – at least to some extent -  that what we are doing is wrong. At the same time we are not usually aware of the full effects of our actions. My niece had no way of knowing much stress her action would cause me or what would happen if the keys went missing altogether. She was just trying to be sneaky! Likewise when we sin we forget that it always hurts us, others and our relationship with God. The full consequences of our sins are often hidden from us. As a result, we can tend to downplay the severity of sin in our life.

After recognizing the wounds our sins cause, it is crucial that we trust in God’s mercy and pass this mercy onto others. A fundamental Christian attitude is to recognize that we are sinners in need of Gods mercy and that we need to spread this mercy to others. This message, which is at the heart of the parable in today’s gospel is expressed strongly in the message and devotion of. This devotion spread particularly through the writings of the Polish nun, Saint Faustina Kowalska. In the 1930’s she wrote a diary of about 600 pages chronicling revelations she had received from Jesus about God’s mercy. The message of Divine Mercy was not all together new, but rather a powerful reminder. Through St. Faustina, Jesus wanted to remind the world that His mercy is always greater than our sins so long as we call upon Him in trust, receive His mercy, and let it flow through us onto other. In the parable we heard today, we have to avoid thinking that the Pharisee is the villain and the tax collector is the hero. The hero of the parable is God and His mercy. For those to whom Jesus initially told this parable, it was shocking to think that this tax collector could return home justified. The one thing he did right was call on God’s mercy. The Pharisee, on the other hand, was blind to his need for God’s mercy. In addition to not asking for mercy, he did not show mercy to others. Instead he judged and despised the tax collector.  The message of Divine Mercy as promoted by St. Faustina can summarized just by remembering “A-B-C”. A: Ask for God’s Mercy. God wants us to approach Him in prayer, asking for mercy for our sins and that His mercy flows over the whole world. B: Be merciful. God wants us to show mercy and forgiveness to others. C: Completely trust Jesus. God wants us to know that the graces of His mercy are dependent only upon our trust. The more we trust Jesus, the more mercy we receive. The Divine Mercy message sums up wonderfully the fundamental Christian attitude promoted by the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector: we are sinners in need of God’s mercy and we need to spread this mercy to others.

Going back to my experience in Mexico, it was always sad when people refused to recognize the extent of their injuries and accept help. Their continued suffering seemed so senseless. Let us not make the same mistake in our spiritual life by shutting ourselves off from God’s mercy by not recognizing our need for it. Remember that allowing the healing rays of God’s mercy to enter our souls wounded by sin is as simple as A-B-C: A) ask for God’s Mercy, B) be merciful and c) completely trust Jesus. 

Are you a committed Catholic? Take this simple test and find out.

If you are able to remember your High School chemistry class, perhaps you can recall something called a litmus test.  This is a very simple test in which you take a strip of special paper and dip it in a liquid. Depending on what color the paper turns, you know right away if the liquid is acidic, basic or neutral. It is such a quick, simple and accurate test. What if I were to tell you that there is a kind of litmus test that will tell us immediately if we are a committed follower of Jesus Christ or not? You would probably want to test yourself, wouldn't you? Well, I think that there is such a test and I will tell you what it is … just not right away. Let’s try to figure out together what this litmus test could be. We will begin with the incredibly loaded question that Jesus asks at the end of the gospel.

“When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on earth”? Jesus wonders aloud if, upon His return to earth at the end of time, He will find people of faith on the earth. This question is the key to understanding the parable we heard in the gospel. At first glance it seems that the message of the parable is this: keep asking God in prayer for what you want and eventually He will relent and grant you your request just as the unjust judge did to get the widow off His back. There is a problem with this interpretation, however. God is not an unjust judge. The question cannot be whether God will grant us what we ask for in prayer. God is a loving Father, He always will give us what we need; we don’t need to wear Him down. The question is not whether God will be faithful but whether we will remain faithful to Him. The question is whether, through all the ups and downs, struggles and joys of life, we will continue to have faith in God, trust Him, pray to Him and desire a relationship with Him. Jesus holds up the widow as an example for us because she did not grow weary, she preserved and did not give up. When the Son of Man comes, will He find people like this widow? Will He find faith on earth?

When we look at the world today, the answer does not seem very promising because the number of those possessing the faith of the widow is decreasing in many places. In fact, we can become discouraged because it can appears that the longer Jesus waits to come back, the less faith He will find on earth. We have all probably heard stories in the media telling us that religious practice is on the decline. When we look at the numbers, we find a more complicated picture. Globally the number of Christians is increasing. In 2010, the number of Christians in the world grew by a net 28 million. Looking closer we find that the Church is growing in the global south while it is shrinking in the West. Let’s discuss Vancouver in particular. When the archdiocese of Vancouver did a census in November 2012, it was found that just under 100,000 people were attending its 77 parishes. This makes Catholicism this region’s largest religious group by far. Many parishes are in fact growing in numbers, particularly as a result of immigration. But there is another side of the story. Though about 100,000 Catholics were counted at Mass on a given Sunday, there are approximately 250,000 baptized Catholics in the Vancouver region who do not practice their faith with any regularity(more). I do not mention this to depress us. It is however the reality and should get us thinking and hopefully move us to action. The numbers lend an urgency to Jesus’ question: “When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on earth”? When we look around, especially in the West, the answer does not seem very encouraging.

The Church has a mission to ensure that when Jesus does return He will find that there is still faith on earth. The Church exists to evangelize. We have the job to help increase the number of people who have the faith of the widow in parable. Certainly as Catholics we want to nurture those already within the Church, but if we stopped here we would not be fulfilling the mandate of Jesus to make disciples of all nations. This Sunday we celebrate World Mission Sunday. As Archbishop Miller wrote in his letter we read last Sunday, today the global Church has the opportunity to recommit itself to its task of bringing the gospel of Jesus to all people, both those who have never heard it before and the baptized who are inactive in their faith. Today we have the opportunity to support missionaries, both with our prayers and with financially in the collection. Today we are also reminded that we are called to bring others to know Jesus Christ. Again, the Church exists to evangelize – it is our reason for being. We have a mission to ensure that when Jesus returns He finds that there is still faith on earth.

As Christians we should have a natural desire to evangelize. If Christ is the center of our lives then we should naturally want to lead others to come to know Him. The world “missionary” sometimes brings to mind the negative image of a Bible thumper, someone who uses guilt or fear to get people to go to Church, someone who shoves their beliefs down other’s throats.  True evangelization is not like this.  I think of it this way. Have you ever watched a movie or read a book that you enjoyed so much that you couldn't stop telling people about it? Don’t we go around telling people, “listen you have to watch this movie or you have to read this book”? If we have experienced in our own life a glimmer of what it means to have a relationship with Jesus Christ and what it means to be part of the Church, will we not want to do the same? Being a missionary is not about imposing our beliefs on people, it is saying to people “listen, we have something truly incredible here, come, join us and share in it!” This doesn't have to be intimidating or scary. It can be as simple sharing with people your own experiences of faith in a truthful, non-judgmental way. You can talk about your struggles of faith, how you trust God to help you change in your life or how you are really trying to live like Jesus even though you fail. Or it can be as simple as asking people the right questions to get them thinking. Maybe ask them what they do when life gets hard. Or if they share some struggle or joy, ask them where they see God in all of this. Evangelizing doesn't need to be complicated but it is not optional. When we encounter something truly good in our lives we have a natural tendency to want other to share in this. If we never feel a desire to lead others to come to know Jesus then we should stop and ask ourselves why that is. If our commitment to Jesus is true, then we should have a natural desire to evangelize.

There is really a simple litmus test that can help us determine whether we are really committed to Christ and His teaching. No one else can do this test for you and in the end the results are just between you and God. If we feel we fail the test, we should not get discouraged; we are all really a work in progress. At least we know that something needs to change. If you have not guessed what the test is by now, here it is. To know whether we are in fact committed Catholics I think we only need to ask ourselves two questions. Do I have the desire that those around me have a relationship with Jesus? Am I taking some practical steps to make this a reality?

Gratitude's luminous power

One of my favorite stories is the Lord of the Rings.  The author, J.R.R. Tolkien, was a committed Catholic and filled the story with many Christian themes. One powerful image is the contrast between light and darkness, a metaphor for the conflict between good and evil. Throughout most of the story, darkness is spreading throughout the world called Middle Earth. The darkness is ominous; it threatens to engulf the whole world and block out any light. At the risk of sounding over-dramatic, I suggest that a similar darkness can spread can spread across our hearts.

The sufferings and difficulties we encounter can be a darkness that engulfs our existence if we are not careful. The negative things that happen to us can spread and cover our whole life like a fog so that it is the only thing we see and focus on. One of the most interesting things about suffering I read in a book by Viktor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist and holocaust survivor. In “Man’s Search for Meaning”, Frankl records his experiences living in a Nazi concentration camp and some of the observations that he was able to make about human nature. The whole book is very powerful, but I was particularly struck by his reflection on suffering. Suffering, he said, is like a gas. If you take a certain volume of gas and place it into a container, the gas will expand to fill the whole container. This happens regardless of the quantity of gas. Regardless if the quantity is small or large, the gas will expand to fill the entire container. Suffering behaves the same way in our life. Suffering will always spread to fill however much space we give it in our life. The suffering can be great, like in a concentration camp, or smaller, like the daily inconveniences of life. Regardless of the objective amount of suffering we experience, if we are not careful this suffering will expand to fill our whole life so that it is the only thing that we see and focus on. If we let it, the negative things that we experience in our life will be like a darkness that spreads over us so that it is the only thing that we can see.

When this happens we easily lose sight of all the good that Jesus does for us in our life. Because we tend to focus on the suffering we experience, we are in the dark and ignore all the gifts that Christ continually gives.  Certainly we all experience suffering in our life, whether it is big or small.  At the same time, like the ten lepers in gospel, Jesus has touched our life. He has given us gifts and continues to do so. Some gifts were given long ago and we often take them for granted: our life, faith, family, friends and living in Canada. In other, simple ways, Jesus communicates His love to us, usually through other people. For example, a good conversation with a friend, a nice meal with family or a smile from a stranger are really gifts from Jesus.  Jesus is always working in our life but we often miss it. It is as though the negative experiences of life form a cover of darkness, preventing us from seeing anything else.

Gratitude to Jesus cuts through the darkness that suffering can cause in our life. When we give thanks to Christ for the gifts He gives, we break up the fog caused by difficulties and negativities that blinds us to all else. As we heard in the gospel today, gratitude is such an important virtue. Jesus expressed His discouragement that only one out of the ten lepers He healed returned to give Him thanks. Though all were healed, only the one who returned back to give thanks is told by Jesus that He was saved. It was his gratitude to Christ that saved Him. The same goes for us. This weekend we celebrate Thanksgiving. In addition to eating turkey, this holiday is a great opportunity to practice the virtue of gratitude. On this holiday we can experience something of how we are saved through gratitude to Christ.  When you are gathered with your family, when you celebrate together, when you give thanks to God for all He has given, how do you feel?  Joy? Happiness?  Isn’t it the case that you are less aware of your sufferings and difficulties at this moment? Gratitude is not just a courtesy that we offer someone who has given us a gift. When we show gratitude, we are also doing ourselves a favor because we remind ourselves of the good things in our life. Remember the analogy of Viktor Frankl. Suffering is like a gas that will expand to fill the container you put it in. Gratitude is a way to ensure that we keep our suffering in a small container. We cannot get rid of suffering but we can limit the effect it has on our life. Gratitude to Christ does this, it breaks through the darkness of suffering that can cover our life.

Being thankful to Jesus for His gifts is a habit that we need to practice daily. It is important to show our gratitude to God on this holiday of Thanksgiving, but it is really something that we need to do each and every day.  The first step in showing gratitude to Jesus is being aware of the gifts that He has in fact given us.  For myself I realize that I do a poor job of this.  At the end of the day, I easily remember all the bad experiences.  It is difficult for me to remember the good experiences. These events, which are really gifts from Jesus, are ways He shows His love. I imagine that your experience is similar. This is why it is very important for me to take a short time each night to review my day.  St. Ignatius of Loyola calls this the “examen”.  In an examen, you take 5 minutes or so to review your day. You begin by looking for 3 or so “moments of grace”, simple ways in which God was really present: a good conversation with someone, a time of peace in prayer, an unexpected compliment. When I do this I am surprised because I always remember many moments of grace that I would have completely forgotten about otherwise. The practical result is that I become more aware that God does indeed love me because He is giving me these gifts during the day. After finding these moments of grace, the second step is simple: give thanks to Jesus for them. As I continue with my examen I can go on to look for ways that I did not follow Christ as best I could that day. But the first step though is always to take the time to remember how God has blessed me and to give thanks. I find this daily habit of showing gratitude to Jesus to be very powerful.

In the Lord of the Rings there is one moment when the lead character, Frodo, finds himself in a place of extreme darkness. When this happens, he is able to pull out from his pocket an object which is a powerful source of light. When he does this the effect is dramatic.  The darkness that surrounds him is pushed back in a rapid, dramatic way. Taking the time to be grateful to Jesus can have the same effect in our life. Test this in your own life. Today before you go to sleep try to remember three moments of grace in the day and give thanks to Jesus for them. On Thanksgiving this would be a great activity to do as a family. Make a habit of this and you will notice a change in your life. Taking time each day to show gratitude to Christ breaks the darkness that blinds us to the reality that Jesus is always giving us gifts and shining His rays of love upon us.

Poor hidden in plain sight

I was a student for a good number of years and I really loved it. But, one of the worst parts about being a student was all the exams. If you think back – if you have not purged the bad memories from your mind – I think that you will agree.  As much as I hate to admit it,having tests and exams was good for me because it helped me learn. I was often behind in my studies, but if I knew I had an exam coming up then I would take the time to study and absorb the material. In fact, my favorite exams where the ones where the teacher gave the questions they would ask beforehand.  Often they would give ten essay questions from which you would need to answer three random ones on the actual test. For these exams I really studied! I had no excuse not to learn the material!  Our life as Christians is a lot like this.  We are students trying to learn how to live as God intended.  Jesus is our teacher.  At the end of our life we will be tested.  But Jesus is a very kind teacher; He really wants us to prepare well and be ready so He has been very clear about what we will be asked on our final exam. In the gospel that we have just heard, Jesus gives away one of the big questions that we will be asked on the final exam of our life.

In the end we will be judged on how we have treated the poor.  The question we will be asked on our final test as Christians is “what have you done to help the poor”? In the parable today, the rich man lived a luxurious life and did not lift a finger to help the poor man Lazarus who suffered on his doorstep. The rich man failed his test.  In the Church I know that many people do a great deal to help the poor. This is incredibly encouraging.  I would like to share one example I read about recently.  In LA there is a Jesuit priest named Fr. Greg Boyle who works with gang members, among whom he is simply known as “Father G”. Fr. Greg does a lot to get youth out of gangs and prison and integrated into society. He recognized early on that this was not an easy thing as many people are not eager to hire ex-gang members or convicts. In response he set up his own business, called “Home-boy Industries” which produces clothing and other products and is staffed by ex-gang members. Fr. Greg also set up a free tattoo removal service after having a conversation with a an ex-convict who kept complaining about how no one would hire him. He could not figure out why.  Fr. Greg, who could see quite clearly the tattoo of a profanity written across the man’s forehead, knew perfectly well and he did something to help this man and others in a similar situation. Closer to home, in our own parish many people do much to respond to the needs of the poor. Numerous groups have initiatives to feed, clothe and provide housing for the poor.  Many individuals give generously to collections to help the poor locally and abroad.  This is important because at the end of our life we will be judged to a large extent on how we have treated the poor.

Poverty often takes a different appearance than we expect.  When we think of poverty, images of malnourished children in developing countries often comes to mind. Or perhaps we think of problems closer to home: the poverty of Vancouver’s downtown eastside or in Walley.  This kind of material poverty is terrible and widespread.  Jesus calls us to do help ease this kind of suffering.  We need to be aware, however, that in addition to this material poverty there is another kind of poverty that is particularly rampant in the West. Mother Teresa is well-known for her work with the poor.  For the first years of her ministry, she served in India.  Later she expanded her work to Africa and Latin America.  Eventually she began opening houses in the developed world, in North America and Europe.  It was there that she first encountered what she called the “spiritually poor”.  These were people who felt unloved and unwanted by society: the elderly, the disabled, children in broken homes, those struggling with addiction, people on the fringes of society, the lonely. Such people are not starving for a food but for love. She explained that this kind of poverty is incredibly destructive and hard to alleviate.
I find the poverty of the West, much, much, much greater, much more difficult to remove because a piece of bread will not satisfy the hunger of the heart. And our people, the “shut-ins”, they are hungry people. The fear, the bitterness, the hurt, the loneliness, the feeling of being unwanted, unloved, uncared for … I think it is a tremendous disease, much greater than leprosy and tuberculosis.
It is important that we be aware of this spiritual poverty because we often turn a blind eye to it. Poverty often takes on a different appearance than we expect.
When you want to begin serving the poor, a great place to start is the poor closest to you.   Looking out at all the poverty and suffering in this world – both material and spiritual – it can be overwhelming.  Sometimes we don’t know where to start.  The parable in today’s gospel it is interesting that Lazarus is literally on the doorstep of the rich man and yet he is ignored. He was so close.  Are we missing some poor person who is on our doorstep?  Today I would like us to especially think of people who are spiritually poor because we often miss them.  When Mother Teresa would speak in the West she would often point out that we all come in contact with people who are spiritually poor every day but we often ignore them.  To seminarians in Lebanon she said:
Maybe right here in this wonderful, big university, maybe your companion is feeling lonely, feeling sick, feeling unwanted, feeling unloved, do you know that?
Speaking about the closeness of the spiritually poor she explained:
And maybe that kind of hunger is in your own home, your own family, maybe there is an old person in your family, maybe there is a sick person in your family, have you ever thought that your love for God you can show by maybe giving a smile, maybe just giving a glass of water, maybe just sitting there and talking for a little while.  There are many, many in rich countries. There are many.
When we want to start serving the poor, a great place to start is with those closest to us.

If Jesus were to give us a “pop-quiz” today, how would you do? In giving us one of the most important questions on the exam in advance, Jesus has done us a great favour. He has given us a chance to “study” well, to change ourselves and have a positive impact on others in the meantime. Today we can do some cramming for the final test.  Ask yourself, who is the Lazarus in my life? Perhaps we can be more generous in helping the materially poor. Beyond this, all of us know someone close to us who is spiritually poor.  Remember the words of Mother Teresa.  Helping satisfy the hunger of the spiritually poor can be as simple as giving a smile or lending an ear to listen. Let us be generous! Remember well that when your life here is over, you only get to take with you that which you have given away.