Christians: Stronger together than alone

When I was in elementary school I used to play on a lot of different sports teams. I didn't play well, truth be told, but I played. Being on a team can be a struggle; the members often don’t get along and it takes a lot of coordination and commitment to make it work. In the end, however, it is worth it. Whenever I was on a team I realized that others always brought talents I didn't have. As the Superbowl is just a week away, you will forgive me for quoting the famous running back Walter Payton. He summarized well the power of working together on a team with this simple phrase: “we are stronger together than we are alone”. We have just finished the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. As Christians we are all supposed to be on the same team, working for the same goal. Unfortunately, the disunity we see among Christians shows we are not playing as a team. The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is a moment to ask ourselves: are we not stronger together than we are alone?

Disunity among Christians holds us back from fulfilling the mission we have been given by Jesus. Any team that is divided will cannot win. As we heard in the Gospel, as Christians we have all been called by Jesus and given the mission to be “fishers of men”, that is, to help all people to come to love, know and serve Jesus. Disunity hinders this mission. It is important to realize that the Ecumenical Movement, which strives to create greater unity among Christians, began among missionaries. They witnessed that not only were Christians missionaries not working as a team, they were working against each other. For example, Anglican missionaries would come to a village and share the Gospel with those who had never heard of Jesus. Soon after, Catholics missionaries would come to the same village and explain that although the Anglicans were right about Jesus, they were the wrong Christian group to be part of. The same thing happened when Catholic missionaries arrived first. The villagers, seeing this situation, would ask why they should become Christians if Christians themselves didn’t have their act together. This disunity is nothing new. In the second reading, Paul asks the community at Corinth a provocative question: “Is Christ divided?” With this question, which in fact has been the theme of this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, St. Paul reproaches the Corinthians for their divisions and rivalries. In his most recent Wednesday Audience, Pope Francis said the following:
“Christ has certainly not been divided. But we have to recognize with sincerity and with sorrow that our communities continue to live divisions that are a scandal … Divisions among Christians are a scandal. There is no other word for it. A scandal!”
Divisions among Christians is a scandal that harms the effectiveness of spreading the Gospel.
Since we are stronger together than we are alone, we should earnestly desire the goal of greater unity among Christians. A team will not be able to unite if its individual members are not sold on the importance of coming and working together. It is not enough that we hope that Christians just get along better or are more civil to each other. The goal of the Ecumenical Movement is very ambitious since it is the unity that Jesus wanted and prayed for: full and visible unity among Christians. This goal respects two important truths regarding the current unity that exists among Christians.
  1. On the one hand, a very real unity exists among us because of our Baptism. One of the tangible fruits of the Ecumenical Movement is a rediscovered sense of brotherhood among Christians. Because of Baptism, We are truly brother and sisters in Christ.
  2. On the other hand, we must acknowledge that there are real divisions that exists among Christians. It helps no one when we level off or ignore differences, whether they be doctrinal or otherwise. As the document on Ecumenism from the Second Vatican Council said, “Nothing is so foreign to the spirit of ecumenism as a false irenicism”(Unitatis Redintegratio, 11), that is, a false making of peace.
These two truths should motivate us to be earnestly committed to the goal of full, visible unity among Christians.

Just as building any team involves a commitment to different activities, there are several dimensions, or tasks, involved in furthering Christian unity. One way is through theological dialogue. The Catholic Church has trained delegations which are in official dialogue with most other Churches and Christian communities in order to discuss doctrinal differences. This work has born real fruit. In 1999, for example, the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation signed Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. In this, Catholics and Lutherans were able to agree on the main theological issue which originally sparked the Protestant Reformation. This was a historic achievement. Another way that the Church works towards building unity is through common prayer and cooperation. Though our divisions prevents us from joining in a common Eucharist, common prayer as Christians is appropriate and powerful. Additionally, Christians should cooperate in initiatives which further Jesus’ mission, such as charitable works, working to build peace and the pro-life movement. A powerful example of such common prayer and cooperation is the Taize Community in France. This is an ecumenical monastic community composed of Catholics and Protestants who through their common life, prayer and welcoming of young pilgrims are working to bring greater unity among Christians. Theological dialogue and common prayer and cooperation are two ways in which the Ecumenical movement works to bring greater unity among followers of Christ.

Though these dimensions are interesting to hear about, for most of us, these don’t seem like things we can really be involved in. How can we personally contribute to the unity and teamwork among Christians? To answer that, think of this. Is it not the case that a team is only as strong as its individual members? No matter how closely knit a hockey team may be, if the individual players are terrible the team will be terrible. On the other hand, when individual players improve their own game, the entire team will get better.

We all play a vital role in furthering Christian unity by becoming better followers of Jesus. Simply put, the holier we become individually, the greater will be the unity among Christians.  As read in the gospel, we have all received a person call to follow Jesus Christ, as did Peter and Andrew. This call is meant to change our life entirely. We are called to repent and enter into a relationship with Jesus and imitate His way of behaving. The better we are at following Jesus, the greater will be our unity as Christians. Imagine for a moment that a number of individuals have become scattered on a mountain, each on different slopes surrounding the peak. What is the best way for them to find one another again? If they each walk down the mountain, their separation will increase. If they walk horizontally around the mountain there is no guarantee they will meet as they may be at different levels and might all be walking at the same time. The surest, quickest way to find each other is if all individuals hike up to the peak of the mountain and become reunited there. As Christians, we are the people scattered on the mountain. At the peak of the mountain we find Jesus. The closer that Christians walk towards Jesus, the closer we grow towards Him, the closer we will come to each other. We all have a vital part to play in strengthening unity among Christians. The greater our holiness, the greater will be our unity.
source: Σ64

We all probably personally know Christians who are not Catholic. It is a source of joy and hope that we share so much in common. At the same time, we cannot help but be saddened by the disunity that exists among us. Today we should remember that furthering Christian unity is the job of each one of us, not just for specialists living in the Vatican or elsewhere. The closer we as individuals follow Jesus, the greater will be the unity among Christians. Jesus has called us all personally and given us the mission to be fishers of men. We are on the same team. Let us never forget that we are stronger together than we are alone.

Overcoming fear with the Cowardly Lion

If you know the story of the Wizard of Oz, then you must remember the character of the Cowardly Lion. The Cowardly Lion feels that since he is the “King of the Beasts” he should be able to do anything that he thinks is right. The lion, however, is often paralyzed from doing what he knows is right because of fear. He is ashamed that he feels fear at all. We can experience much the same thing. We may know what the right thing to do is but we may be too afraid to do it because of fear of judgement, persecution or harm.
Because such fear is unavoidable, it is important that we cultivate the virtue of courage. The two readings today speak of the importance of having the courage to do the right thing in the face of fear. The first reading tells us the story of David and Goliath. All the soldiers in the army of Israel are too afraid to fight the enormous warrior Goliath from the opposing Philistine army. Only David has the courage to face his fear and do the right thing by battling Goliath. In the gospel we see that Jesus also has the courage to do the right thing in the face of opposition. Jesus knows that it is right to heal the man with the withered hand. He also knows that there will be consequences if He acts. He will be judged by the Pharisees who say that by healing this man Jesus would be breaking the law - as they saw it - by working on the Sabbath. Perhaps Jesus also knew that they would use His action as a reason to have His put to death. Jesus has the great courage to face these fears, do the right thing and heal the man. Without courage, we would rarely be able to do what we know is right.
Trusting in God gives us the strength to courageously face difficult situations. David is quite clear about the source of his courage to face Goliath: trust in God. David is able to overcome His fear because he is certain God will protect him. Today we are witnessing a powerful example of people facing their fears and doing the right thing by trusting in God. In Washington D.C., ten of thousands of people have gathered today for the annual March for Life. They are marching in very cold, inclimate weather. These individuals are powerfully reminding society of the dignity of all human life from conception to its natural end. They are standing up for the fact that before birth a child is human being deserving protection and that abortion is wrong because it is the taking of an innocent life. It can be difficult to speak this truth today. Speaking it can evoke a strong, sometimes hostile, reaction. Those marching today, therefore, show great courage by doing the right thing and standing up for the dignity of human life even in the face of the fear of consequences. Those participating in the march rely on God for their courage to do so. In their prayers - which is the backbone of the event - they put their trust in God, knowing that He will take care of them. When we too trust in God, He gives us the courage to do the right thing in the face of fear.

Eventually the Cowardly Lion learns an important lesson. He learns that true courage does not mean never feeling afraid. On the contrary, true courage is doing the right thing in the face of fear. Feeling fear is natural and unavoidable. The lion realizes this, and pushes himself outside his comfort zone, no longer allowing himself to be paralyzed by fear. Today we can ask ourselves a question: “is there some course of action that I know is right but which fear is preventing me from taking?” Let us ask God to give us the gift of courage to overcome our fears and do the right thing.

Finding Your Catholic (Bourne) Identity


John 1:29-34

Many of you have probably seen the movie The Bourne Identity (1). The movie begins on a thrilling note as the protagonist, Jason Bourne is found barely alive, floating at sea. It is soon discovered that Bourne has no memory of who he is. In him we can witness firsthand what a terrible experience it is when someone loses their identity. Such a person is sad, restless and lacks peace and direction. At times we as Catholics can be like Jason Bourne. Even though we come to Church each Sunday, often times we are unsure about our mission. What is our main task as a Church? What is the most important job that we have been given to do? We risk losing our deepest identity. The gospel of today is a remedy against this. The example of John the Baptist is a strong reminder and example of what our identity is as a Church and individual disciples of Jesus.

Our identity as Catholics and the Church is that we are meant to lead other people to Jesus Christ. Our most important mission is to evangelize. John the Baptist is an example for us because his whole existence is like a signpost leading people to Jesus.  Especially since the Second Vatican Council, the Church has reminded herself many times that this fundamental identity. For example, in 1975, Pope Paul VI wrote the following with respect to Catholic identity:
Evangelization is in fact the grace and vocation proper to the Church, her deepest identity. She exists in order to evangelize. (Evangelii Nuntiandi, 14)
We have just begun the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. This annual event strives to further the Ecumenical Movement, which works to bring about greater unity among Christians. One of the important reasons why the Ecumenical Movement began was because of a growing realization among Christians that our disunity hindered our ability to fulfil our primary mission of Evangelization. The Ecumentical Movement in large part began among missionaries. For example, in India, Anglican missionaries would come to a village and share the gospel among those who had never heard of Jesus. Soon after, Catholics missionaries would come to the same village and explain that although the Anglicans were right about Jesus, they were the wrong Christian group to be part of. Of course, the same thing happened when Catholic missionaries arrived first. The Indian people, seeing this situation, would ask why they should become Christians if Christians themselves had such disunity. Divisions among Christians hindered our main mission of leading people closer to Jesus; it went against our primary identity as an evangelizing community.

In order to fulfil this mission, we must have a clear understanding of who Jesus is and what he does for us. Today there can be a lot of confusion on this question. In the Gospel we see that John the Baptist is very straightforward in announcing who Jesus is and what He does for us. Notice that John the Baptist is not saying, “look everyone, there is Jesus, a great teacher, a good guy, or a sage, moral leader”. No, John says, “behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world”. Later on, He testifies that Jesus is the Son of God. In a few short statements, John the Baptist has proclaimed the core of the Gospel, which is often called the Kerygma, meaning  “the cry” or “the proclamation”. The Kerygma is something we should all know by heart. It explains very briefly who Jesus is and what He does for us. In four easy points, the Kerygma is as follows:
  1. God created you for a relationship with him
  2. Our relationship was broken through sin
  3. Jesus - true God and true man - restores our relationship
  4. We respond by inviting Christ to be the centre of our lives
In order to lead people to Jesus Christ, as did John the Baptist, we must have a clear understanding of who Jesus is and what He does for us.

More than knowing about Jesus, our relationship with Him must change our life.  There is a big difference between simply knowing about something and having that thing change your life. Let us take, for example, the relationship that different people have with the Vancouver Canucks. Compare the relationship that a sportswriter will have with the team to that of a die-hard fan. The sportswriter might know everything about the Canucks: the history of the franchise, the statistics on all the player and every possible detail about the team. This knowledge, however might not have any impact on the rest of the writer’s life. It is just a job. For a die-hard fans, the situation is completely different.  Their relationship with the team impacts all aspects of their life: how they spend their free-time, what they wear, what makes them happy (victories, not losses) and what they talk to other people about. When it comes to Jesus, we need to be like the die-hard fan. John the Baptist was such an individual. He knew about Jesus but this knowledge changed all aspects of his life.  Its not enough to know about Jesus, our relationship with Him must change us.

In order to complete our mission of bringing people to Jesus, we need to be able to articulate to others the difference He has made in our life. We, like John the Baptist, need to be able to testify about Jesus. When we are able to explain to others in an open and honest way the story of how God has worked in our life we are able to draw other people to follow Jesus. For a long time this was something that I struggled doing. During my time at University my friends would ask me questions similar to the following. Why are you Catholic and not some other religion? Why do you go to Church on Sunday? Who do you that think Jesus is? At the time, I struggled to answer these questions. Perhaps it was because I only a minimal relationship with Jesus back then. In order to better articulate our faith to others, we can begin by asking ourselves three questions:
  1. When in my life did I make the personal, intentional choice to put Jesus in the center of my life? Or, when did I chose to follow Christ in a deeper way?
  2. What was my life like before making this decision?
  3. How has my life changed since I chose to make my relationship with Jesus a priority in my life?
When we are able to articulate to others the difference that Jesus has made in our life, we can better draw other into a relationship with Him.

Jason Bourne eventually re-discovers his identity. This revelation does not suddenly make his life easy. Quite the contrary, in fact. After finding out his identity, Bourne’s life becomes one challenging adventure. Knowing his identity, however, gives Bourne a sense of purpose, focus and peace. When we as Catholics remind ourselves of our identity, much the same thing happens. As individuals and communities we are given a clear focus and goal that unifies all our activities and energies. Today let us be reminded that our greatest mission is to be like John the Baptist. We are called to lead as many people as possible to know, love and serve Jesus Christ. This is our Catholic identity.

(1): Some ideas for this homily come from Catholic Christian Outreach’s Commission Study. In particular the Bourne Identity reference and the 4-point Kerygma.

Falling in Love makes all the difference

Recently I found this prayer fixed to a bulletin board at the back of the Church:

Nothing is more practical than
finding God, than
falling in Love
in a quite absolute, final way.

What you are in love with,
what seizes your imagination,
will affect everything.

It will decide
what will get you out of bed in the morning,
what you do with your evenings,
how you spend your weekends,
what you read, 
whom you know,
what breaks your heart,
and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.

Fall in Love, 
stay in love,
and it will decide everything.

This prayer is attributed to Fr. Pedro Arrupe S.J. (1907 - 1991). Prior to becoming the Superior General of the Society of Jesus (a.k.a. The Jesuits, the religious community of which Pope Francis is a member), Fr. Arrupe was a missionary, serving for many years in Japan. Incredibly, he was living in suburban Hiroshima when the city was devastated by an atomic bomb on August 6th, 1945. Though Fr. Arrupe and seven other Jesuits were within the blast zone, they all survived.

I first read Fr. Arrupe's prayer several years ago while on a month-long retreat in Mexico led by another Jesuit, this one spent the majority of his life serving in India. Since then I have loved this prayer. It always reminds me that Christianity is not, in the end, about ideas or even a way of acting but primarily about a relationship with Jesus. As Pope Benedict wrote:
Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction. (Deus Caritas Est, 1)

I want my relationship with Jesus transforms all areas of my life. I can become discouraged when I see that this is not the case. I take great hope from Fr. Arrupe's prayer. It encourages me to focus on the most important thing. Fall in Love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.

The most important day of your life

What is the most important day of your life? Maybe it was the day you were born or the day you got married. Normally we celebrate these life changing events every year. We all celebrate our birthday year after year even though we become less straightforward with how old we are with each passing birthday. Married couples celebrate their anniversary yearly, even if husbands need the occasional reminder. We tend to celebrate the most important days in our life. Here’s a question: do you know the date of your baptism? Today we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus. It is a perfect opportunity to both look at the significance of this event and remind ourselves of the importance of our own baptism. 

It can be very difficult to understand why Jesus was baptized. Try to picture this scene for a moment. You are in the desert, beside the river Jordan. You are surrounded on all sides by a great mass of people. One by one each person enters the river and approaches John the Baptist who immerses them into the water. What are these people doing? They have come to accept John’s baptism of repentance. In being baptized they are publically acknowledging that they are sinners. More than this, they are making the choice to change their ways and choose a new path for the future. How can Jesus be among this crowd? How can Jesus, who is without sin, repent? John the Baptist seems to grasp the problem and tries to prevent Jesus from being baptized, saying, “I need to be baptized by you and yet you are coming to me?”  At first glance it does not make any sense of Christ to be baptized by John the Baptist. 

The Baptism of Jesus makes sense when we begin to see it in the light of the Cross and Resurrection. Many of you will know that a few years ago, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote a wonderful book on Jesus of Nazareth. There he tackled the question of the significance of Jesus’ baptism. He explained it this way:
Looking at the event [of Jesus’ baptism] in light of the Cross and Resurrection, the Christian people realized what happened: Jesus loaded the burden of all mankind's guilt upon his shoulders; he bore it down into the depths of the Jordan. He inaugurated his public activity by stepping into the place of sinners. His inaugural gesture is an anticipation of the Cross.
Simply put, Jesus did not get baptized for Himself but for us. At His baptism, Jesus is embarking on His mission as the “Suffering Servant” who reconciles mankind to God, which we read about in the first letter from the prophet Isaiah. At His baptism, He took our sins on Himself and descended into the water, which is symbolic of His death. Afterwards He came out of the water – a symbol of the resurrection – He left behind our sins in the Jordan. The significance of Jesus’ baptism comes into focus when we view it through the lens of His Cross and Resurrection. 

When looked at this way, we better appreciate the fact that the Baptism of Jesus completes Christmas. It is with good reason that today’s feast concludes the Christmas season. Among the Doctors of the Church there is a famous expression used to describe the purpose of the Incarnation that says: “God became man to make men like God”. St. Thomas Aquinas expressed it this way:
The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods.
The first part of this phrase, which speaks about God assuming our human nature, happened with the conception and later birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. The second part of the phrase, which speaks about us becoming like God, was made possible in large part by the Baptism of Jesus. Because Jesus was baptized, our own baptism has force and power. As one ancient theologian wrote:
For when the Saviour is washed all water for our baptism is made clean, purified at its source for the dispensing of baptismal grace to the people of future ages. (St. Maximus of Turin)
Our baptism is precisely the moment in our life when we “become like God”. At our baptism:
  1. We are grafted onto Jesus Christ
  2. We are filled with grace, the very life of God
  3. We receive the gift of the Holy Spirit
  4. We become forever a beloved Son or Daughter of God

God became man so that man could become like God. The baptism of Jesus is like the completion of Christmas.

Because our baptism is such a life-changing event, it is something that we should remember and celebrate. We all tend to celebrate well a baptism on the actual day of the event. Baptisms are usually accompanied by a big party and everybody gets dressed up – particularly the person getting baptized. A few years ago I spent some time in Tijuana, Mexico. In the chapels that I would visit, the people always had such beautiful celebrations for baptism, even though they did not have much money. In particular I remember vividly how one young boy was dressed at his baptism. He was of course dressed all in white, but his clothes were remarkable. He wore a small white tuxedo, complete with bow-tie. On the back of his tuxedo was embroidered in gold the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. He was even wearing white shoes with a silver decal of the Holy Spirit on them. The parents of this young boy definitely realized that something important was happening to their son at his baptism. Though we celebrate baptism on the day of the event, most of us probably do not remember and celebrate our own baptism as we would our birthday or wedding anniversary. I admit that while preparing this homily, I had to look up the day that I was baptized. Pope Francis has encouraged us to remember our baptism day and celebrate it each year. If we don’t, he said “we end up considering it merely as an event that took place in the past – and not even by our will, but rather by that of our parents.” Our baptism was one of the most important days of our life, it is the day that we became forever a beloved son or daughter or God. This is something we need to remember and celebrate.

Today, as is the custom of the Popes on the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus, Pope Francis will baptize several children in the Sistine Chapel. Our own baptism, though not in such an incredible setting, is no less important. Today, I challenge each of us to follow the advice of Pope Francis by trying to celebrate in some way each year the day of our baptism. If you don’t know this day, find it out and write it in your calendar. We should never forget this life-changing day in which we were grafted onto Jesus and forever became a beloved son or daughter of God.

The priesthood, one month in

As of today I have been a priest for a month. The past month has flown by! It has been a month of many blessings as well as new things to get used to: a new parish, celebrating Mass, hearing confessions and having people call me “Father”.  Providentially, I had the opportunity to hear a great talk today that got me reflecting on what it means to be a priest. Today many of the priests of the Archdiocese of Vancouver had the opportunity to hear Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa speak. Since 1980, Fr. Cantalamessa has been the Preacher to the Papal Household. In this role, he preaches to the Pope and other high-ranking officials each Friday during Lent and Advent. Two words struck me from Fr. Cantalamessa’s talk: love and gift. These words seem to be at the core of what it means to be a priest and minister to people today.

The starting point is God’s personal love for each one of us. Fr. Cantalamessa reminded us of Pope Benedict’s Encyclical, Deus Caritas Est. In this, Pope Benedict emphasized that God’s love is both agape and eros.  The latter is important to remember. God’s love is not some distant thing; He is drawn to us. Likewise, Fr. Cantalamessa explained that our love for God must be both agape and eros. We certainly must be willing to make sacrifices for God (agape), but at the same time we must be enchanted by Jesus and drawn to Him (eros). We are called to be friends of Jesus, not just His spokesmen. This was a great reminder for me one month into my priesthood. I need to remember that the primary thing for me is to love and follow after Jesus. Deepening my personal relationship with Jesus must be my primary concern.

Fr. Cantalamessa explained that there is a great difference between Christianity and other religions. He said that every other religion begins by telling its adherence what to do. “If you want to be saved, you must do this” and “if you wish to obtain enlightenment you must do that.” In other words, duties come first. In Christianity, on the other hand, duties – though important – come second. Christianity begins by telling us what God has done for us to save us. Christianity begins with gift rather than duty. In Christianity, we are given the gift of the Holy Spirit – the very love of God – who allows us to do joyfully what is commanded. Fr. Cantalamessa quoted St. Augustine on this:
The law was given so grace we would seek. Grace was given that the law we might keep.
While listening to this, I was reminded of the fact that the priesthood is first and foremost an incredible gift! I have a tendency to get caught up with duties, the things that I must do in the day. At its core, however, I do believe that priesthood is the incredible gift of a unique way of following and relating to Jesus.

Preaching Love and Gift
Fr. Cantalamessa argued that in our preaching we need to imitate the example of St. Peter found in Acts 2:14ff. Our situation today is in many ways similar to the times of the apostles. Then, they were preaching to a pre-Christian world. Today we are preaching to a post-Christian world.  If we follow their example, we can succeed in changing the world, just as they did. St. Peter, newly filled with the Holy Spirit, begins by telling people about love and gift and not about duties. He begins by telling the people the good things that God has worked for them through Jesus: Jesus Christ died for our sins. This is the kerygma, or “the cry”. Fr. Cantalamessa explained that this is what Pope Francis is doing. He is starting be telling people about the love and gifts that God has given us in Christ. This is the primary thing, duties and commandments come second. To be able to preach in this way, we must first accept, more and more, Jesus as our own Lord and Messiah. Saying that Jesus is Lord, is a decision. It is saying to Jesus, “I joyfully submit myself to you.” When we preach the kerygma, then, we are able to call others to make the decision to accept Jesus as their Lord.

Fr. Cantalamessa finished with a powerful image. He explained that the painting “The Scream”, by Edvard Munch, has become something of a symbol for our modern culture that is often atheistic and materialistic, looking at our current existence as the only reality. The scream in the painting expresses how we are often lost with nowhere to look. It expresses the anguish of heart that has lost a sense of deeper purpose and hope. In the face of this scream, we are called to proclaim the cry of the kerygma, the good news that speaks of hope, gift and love: God in His love for us has given us the gift of Jesus who has died for our sins. Fr. Cantalamessa explained that we must somehow make the cry of the kerygma the foundation of all our preaching – definitely a challenge for the future!

Finally, in this short month as a priest, I have tasted something of the truth with which Fr. Cantalamessa ended his talk: there is no greater way to spend your life than serving Jesus and having Him as your friend!

Wise men: not just a nice Christmas Story

When I was five years old I got to play one of the wise men in our Church’s nativity play. You can probably guess my costume. I wore a bathrobe and a towel tied around my head. In my hands I held a box covered in gold wrapping paper.  Today, on the feast of the Epiphany, we should take a closer look at the wise men. The wise men are not just some nice story that we tell at Christmas or extra characters in a manger scene. In fact, the story of the wise men that we find in today’s Gospel actually presents a model – or paradigm – for our lives as Christians. Their story is our story. Let’s walk through their journey and see how it relates to our own. We will, of course, start at the beginning. How did these men come from a faraway place to meet Jesus?

The Star
The wise men were attracted to Jesus by the light of a star. It is very unexpected that the wise men – who were pagans and not part of the people of Israel – would be among the first to meet Jesus Christ, the King of the Jews. This shows that being led to Jesus was God’s pure gift. God wants each and every human being to come to know His Son. In His goodness God has led us to Jesus. What is the star that led you to Christ? How did you come to believe in Jesus? How did you end up being a Catholic? Though we might all answer this question differently, I bet that nobody here received a phone call from Jesus telling us to follow Him and go to Church. Isn't it the case that we are led to Jesus by some intermediary? Usually we are drawn to the beauty and goodness of Jesus through some person or event. For the wise men it was the star. God put people in my life who led me to Jesus: my family, teachers and friends at University. He also had me live through different experiences, some happy and some difficult. I can see that even something as simple as a book that I read at the just the right time helped lead me to Jesus. What are the “stars” in your own life? Give thanks for these people and experiences. They are a free gift which God put in our lives to lead us closer to Jesus.

Detour with Herod
On their journey to Jesus, the wise men got side-tracked along the way and found themselves in the company of Herod. The very same thing can happen to us as we try to follow Jesus: we take detours and get off-track. This can happen without us even being aware of it or making a conscious choice. Perhaps we become too busy with school or work and slowly drift away from Jesus by no longer taking the time to be with Him in prayer and at Mass. Or maybe some crisis in our life, such as an illness or death in the family, can cause us to become discouraged or lose faith for a time. We see this even in the lives of some of the saints. Take, for example, St. Ignatius of Loyola who was born in Spain in the year 1491. Though he was raised as a Catholic, as a young man Ignatius took a serious detour from the path of following Jesus. He was a soldier who was very concerned with gaining honor in battle, keeping up with the latest fashions and chasing women. Ignatius was arrogant and addicted to gambling. On one occasion he was arrested for beating up a rival. Ignatius did eventually get back on the path to following Christ. Though perhaps not as dramatic as St. Ignatius, in different ways we too can get sidetracked as we follow Jesus. The important thing is that when we notice our mistake we repent and get back on the right path.
They meet Jesus and give Him gifts
After their detour with Herod, the wise men finally were able meet the baby Jesus.  When they met Christ, the wise men did something very significant: they laid their gifts at His feet. We are called to do the same. In different ways, we have all met Christ and have caught a glimpse of His goodness, beauty and love. After we meet Jesus the only proper response is to lay our gifts at His feet. We give Him the gift of our time, to spend in prayer, and the gift of our love and devotion. We also lay at His feet our talents so that He can use us to serve others.  St. Ignatius met Jesus in a striking way, literally. One day while he was defending a fortress, a cannonball struck his leg, badly breaking it. While he was recovering, St. Ignatius asked that books be brought to him. To his dismay, the only available ones were a book on the Life of Christ and one on the lives of the Saints. While reading these books, St. Ignatius met Christ and was drawn to the beauty of a life spent serving Him. He decided to put his whole being at the service of Jesus. Years later he wrote a prayer, called the Suscipe, which expresses well the sentiments in his heart and those of the wise men as well:
Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,
my memory, my understanding,
and my entire will,
All I have and call my own.
You have given all to me.
To you, Lord, I return it.
Everything is yours; do with it what you will.
Give me only your love and your grace,
that is enough for me.
Like St. Ignatius and the wise men, after we meet Christ we are called to lay our gifts at His feet.
St. Ignatius
They take a different path
After they have met Jesus given Him their gifts, we are told that the wise men went home by a different path. Encountering Jesus should never leave us unchanged. After meeting Christ during his recover, St. Ignatius took a radically different path. He thought to himself, “what if I were to live like these saints I keep reading about?” Ignatius became to devout his life to prayer. In time he became a priest, serving countless people, especially the very poor in Rome. Eventually he started a large religious community called the Society or Jesus, or the Jesuits, of which our current Holy Father, Pope Francis, is a member. From time to time it is helpful to ask ourselves, “in what way has my life changed as I follow Jesus?” In what ways am I trying to live more like Jesus and be of service to others? Like the wise men, meeting Christ should encourage us to take different paths.

When I was five, I dressed up as a wise men for an afternoon. Today let us remember that we are called to imitate the journey of the wise men our entire life. Where are you on this journey? Are you currently following a star to meet Jesus? Are you on a detour? Are you laying your gifts at the feet of Jesus? Are you allowing Him to take you on a new path? This journey is one that we can go through time and time again during our life. Wherever we may find ourselves, let us try to recommit ourselves to following Jesus. Let us pray that we might have the same desire that burned inside the hearts of the wise-men: a desire to always seek Jesus, to lay our gifts at His feet and to follow Him wherever He might lead.

Mary be a Mother to me now

Did you make any New Year’s resolutions this year? For those who made resolutions, how many of you made a resolution regarding your physical health? Each New Year, many of us resolve to get in shape, go to the gym or lose weight. We are used to making resolutions to improve our physical health. Perhaps this year we should consider making a resolution to improve our spiritual health.  On this the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, I suggest that we resolve to improve the relationship we have with Mary.
Often people have difficulty with the idea that as followers of Jesus we are called to have a special relationship with Mary. Perhaps some of you have had to answer questions like this before, “why do Catholics worship Mary?”, “why pray to Mary when you can go directly to Jesus?”  When it comes to Our Lady, people encounter difficulties in two areas:
  1. Catholic beliefs about Mary, such as the Immaculate Conception and Marian titles such as the one we celebrate today, Mary, Mother of God. Some people have difficulties calling Mary this.
  2. Catholic devotion to Our Lady. There are those who struggle to see why we should have a special relationship with Mary and why we would pray to her.

These are important concerns that are well-worth addressing. Many non-Catholic Christians and even some Catholics are a little uncomfortable with the way Catholics view Mary.

For this reason, it is important to remind ourselves and others that Mary has no other mission than to lead us closer to Jesus. At Christmas we are reminded of this every time we look at the Nativity scene. There we see Mary presenting her Son to the world. Mary gave birth to Jesus some 2000 ago, bringing Him into the world. As Catholics, we do not believe that her mission ended there, however. Still today, she has a critical role in bringing Jesus more and more into our hearts. There is a very simple test for us to know whether our devotion to Mary is good and true. If our devotion to Mary is a true one, then we will find that over time we are led to a deeper relationship with Jesus.  Throughout history there have been many reported apparitions of Mary, such as in Fatima, Lourdes and Mexico City. At each of these approved apparition sites, Mary’s mission has always been to encourage people to better know and follow her Son Jesus. She is never the center of attention. She is not trying to be a replacement for Jesus. As Catholics we do not worship Our Lady.  Mary’s mission has always been to leads us closer to Jesus.

More than this, when Catholics profess certain beliefs about Mary or give her particular titles in order to defend what we believe about Jesus. This is the case for the Marian title that we celebrate today, Mary, Mother of God. This title for Mary is very ancient. Try to imagine that the year is 431 and you are in Ephesus, which is in modern day Turkey. About 250 bishops have gathered to resolve a very important dispute that strikes to the core of belief about who Jesus is. The leader of one camp is Cyril of Alexandria. He is arguing that Jesus Christ is true God and true Man and that these two natures of Jesus are united in one person. In other words, the baby that Mary gave birth to is true God and true Man. Because of this, it is right and proper to call Mary by the title “Theotokos”, which means, “Mother of God”. Nestorius, on the other hand, does not feel that Mary can be given this title.  Maybe she could be called “Mother of Christ” but not Mother of God. Though Nestorius would say that Jesus was true God and true Man, he would emphasize more the disunity between these two natures of Jesus, rather than the unity. In the end, the Bishops sided with Cyril. The Council of Ephesus in 431 declared solemnly that Mary was indeed Theotokos, Mother of God. Giving Mary this title is a clear way of saying that Jesus is at all times true God and true Man and that these two natures are united. Therefore, giving Mary the title of Mother of God is actually a way of defending what we believe about Jesus.
"Am I not here, I who am your mother?" (Jolivaresb)
On a personal level, Mary is one of the greatest gifts that Jesus gave to His followers because in Mary He has given us a Mother.  Perhaps some of you have been to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. The Basilica was built close to the site where Mary appeared to a poor indigenous man named Juan Diego in the year 1531. Above the main entrance to the Basilica is a very visible phrase, written in large letters for all to see: ¿No estoy aquí que soy tu Madre?, “Am I not here, I who am your Mother”. These words are part of a famous conversation that Our Lady had one day with Juan Diego. Mary had already appeared to Juan Diego and had made arrangements to meet him again. Before the meeting, however, his uncle, Juan Bernardino, fell ill.  Juan Diego was anxious to care for his uncle, so he made the decision to skip his appointment with Mary avoided the spot where they were to meet. Not surprisingly, Mary found him anyway. When she caught up with him, she asked him why he was so worried. After all, she said “am I not here, I who am your Mother”. These words are put at the front of the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe to remind each one of us that Mary is our mother. She is always near us. She always cares for us. We should feel confident going to her whenever we need help. When Jesus was giving us Mary to be our mother, He gave us the greatest of gifts.

Making resolutions at New Year’s is, I think, a good thing. It shows that we have hope for a better future and want to take steps to make this a reality. I can think of few resolutions that should give us as much hope as resolving to develop a deeper relationship with Mary this year. We can do this in different ways such as praying the rosary, reading a book about Mary or just remembering to ask Mary for help when we need it by saying something like, “Mary, mother of Jesus, be a mother to me now.” Close to 2000 years ago she gave birth to Jesus, true God and true Man. Today give her permission to allow Jesus to become more alive in your heart.