March 30, 31, April 1, 2020 at St. Peter Naples, Fl
In my 78th year of life, I have begun, like many others to think, “There has to be more than this.” I get that way sometimes when routine and the rut I have carefully carved out of the calendar and the clock sometimes seems more like a merry-go-round or a roller coaster for some of us, than real journey from one place to another. On a merry-go-round and even a roller coast, you always end up back where you started. It leaves me wanting something deeper and maybe more contemplative than just getting up in the morning, fixing some coffee, working the crossword, and until it gets too hard, the sudoku puzzle. In the last few years, I’ve actually been somewhat lifted up and encouraged by the fact that a lot of young people are beginning to wonder the same thing: “There has to be more than this.” Like you, I have watched some of them leave us, and the empty pews in so many churches are a very clear sign to us that they are looking and wondering, thinking as I do that there must be more than this.
Sometimes people ask me, “Father, are you a Jesuit?” After a laugh, I always deny it, wondering why or how they could possibly ask that question. I wonder, maybe it’s because I like scotch? Then I think, “I’ve never seen a Jesuit with a 44inch waist.” Why don’t they think I’m Friar Tuck? I have a lot of good friends who are Jesuits. One of them who came to seem me while discerning a vocation at the University of Oklahoma I sent to the Jesuits. He was getting a PhD in Astro-Physics! I didn’t even know what that meant. He asked me why I thought he should be a Jesuit, and I said: “You’re too smart to be a parish priest. You’ll go out of your mind hanging around here the rest of your life!” God has a bigger plan. He’s Jesuit now at a very large parish right on the Mexican Boarder in Arizona. I keep wondering what that has to do with Astro-Physics, but I suppose at this point it doesn’t make any difference. What he does is work and pray.
In my own story, a man in the sixth century had a greater influence. His name is Benedict, and I spent 8 years of education and formation at a large Benedictine Monastery. What I took away from there after eight years was way more than a Bachelor’s degree in Biology and a Master’s Degree in Theology. I took away the very heart of Benedict’s vision and the spirit of the Rule he wrote that to this day guides the lives of monks and nuns all over the world. The Christian life is both prayer and work. Work without prayer is ungrounded and can be self-deceptive. Prayer without work is a fantasy and does not reflect a real Christian vocation which is to find and serve God who is not confined to church or a tabernacle. A Benedictine Abbot once said to his monks something that applies to us all: Take God very seriously. Take your vocation seriously, but do not take yourselves too seriously.
I am a monk at heart. I live a rather solitary life. It’s just me and God. Having finally retired, I now work and pray, which is what monks do. Sometimes someone will ask me why in retirement I seem so busy, and my response is that we never retire from prayer, and when we realize that, we can’t retire from work either, since work is often the consequence of prayer. You pray about something, and God says, do something about it. What I have retired from is meetings. I no longer care about the loan, the lights, the locks or the leaks. When I see a wet ceiling, “I’m glad for a roofer. They have a job! When someone says, as they did for years and years, “Father, can I have the key to gym?” I say, “I only have car keys, and I obviously don’t know where the gym is located.” I will never forget the very first time I celebrated Mass here at Saint William Parish after I was welcomed here in retirement. The opening hymn had begun, the procession was just starting, and someone came up and pulled on my elbow and said: “Father, there’s no paper in the restroom.” At that moment, I knew I was a monk at heart, and I remembered something my mother always said just before we left the house: “Go to the bathroom, and don’t forget to wash your hands.”
For three nights to come, I am going to invite you into the mystery of who and what we are as a Catholic Church. It springs out of my life as a would-be monk. It takes shape from my experience and discovery that the Church itself is a Sacrament, a sign that accomplishes what it signifies. Something happens to us when we become Church, and as a Church we make something happen in this world. Sacraments are what we are. Sacraments are Holy Moments: the moment when the divine and human touch and become one. Sacraments are our experience of the Incarnation. In theology there is only one Sacrament, Jesus Christ; but as a Church we experience the Christ at the most significant moments of our lives: birth, death, and everything in between. The Sacraments accomplish the work of Jesus Christ. They heal what is broken, they strengthen what is weak, and they proclaim the forgiveness of sin. That’s what was happening all around Jesus when he was on this earth. It is still what happens all around Jesus when we are together as a Church. Sacraments are how we express without words what we believe, and what is happening to us in faith. The first night I shall talk about the Sacraments of Initiation. The second night, the Sacraments of Service, and the last night, Sacraments of Healing. Service and Healing are the work of Jesus Christ. Once we are brought into and born into Jesus Christ, there is nothing left for us to do but to serve and to heal in his name. That is exactly what he sent his disciples out to do, and that is our work and that is our prayer. Whenever you look up from the rut you may have made for yourself in life and begin to wonder if there isn’t something more, look around at the brokenness in this world and you will know there is more to life than we have ever imagined. I believe that when our young people tire of computer games, cheerleading, basketball and football, they may see in us a place for themselves and realize that they may be taking themselves way too seriously at the expense of taking God seriously. Living and celebrating the Sacramentality of our faith is, I believe, the key to and hope for our future. We have to take it seriously. I invite you to explore how to do that.
Parish Mission on Sacraments First Night: Sacraments of Initiation
Begin with singing, “Come to the Water”
Understanding is the challenge we face when we come into contact with our church and its way of expressing itself in the rites we celebrate. Understanding is not cognitive. It is not about the brain. None of us really think our way into a relationship or even more so, into faith. It is about experience. You did not think your way into love. You experienced it, and then along the way your figured out what it was. The problem in our day and age is that we rarely take the time to experience anything let alone reflect on that experience and come to some understanding about what it means. A Harvard Sociologist (Robert Putnam) described our contemporary age by saying that in these times we have increased the number of believers but not belongers. There are now lots and lots of people who style themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” While we can say with pride that Catholicism is for those who are both “spiritual and religious”, as well as well as for believers and belongers, we also have to deal with the reality that for everyone one person who enters the Catholic Church in America, three leave. Why? I suspect that there are lots of reason in this “spiritual, not religious” culture, but certainly two factors are the excessive individualism of our culture, and the credibility of the church itself for a variety of reasons, sex abuse, financial mismanagement, ineffective witness of contradictory lives, and lots of other personal reasons.
We live in an iPod, iPad, iMac, iPhone and endless other “i”-devices world. My point is that a small “i” begins to show how we name countless technological advances and machines. If you glance at the magazine rack in the grocery store, I wonder whether we are not moving from People Magazine to US and SELF. And self is where we seem to be stuck. I recall a famous line from the movie Beaches. Bette Midler leans over the restaurant table and says to her lunch companion, “But enough about me – let’s talk about you. What do you think of me?”
Our church is a “we” church. If you have not noticed, every prayer in the missal uses the first-person pronoun. We ask this……ends every prayer. Living our faith (catch the pronoun?) is always a corporate enterprise. We belong to a covenant religion that started with Noah, his sons, his wife, and the wives of his sons along with two of every living thing on earth. Of course, it should have started with Adam and Eve, but a tree and an apple got in the way after which it all went bad. Whenever I think this way, what comes to mind is an apple with a bite out of it. Have you ever thought about that when you look at the icon or emblem on the cover of many computers?
We belong to a covenant religion that continued with our forebears in biblical faith, covenants we read about every three years in the Sunday readings. There is the covenant with Noah (Genesis 9, 8-15), the covenant with Abraham and Sarah, and their beloved Isaac (Genesis 22, 1-2, 9, 20-13, 15-18). Then there is the covenant with Moses, (Exodus 20, 1-17) and a renewal of the covenant at the time of King Cyrus (2 Chronicles 36, 14-17, 19-23) followed by Jeremiah (31, 31-34) promising a new covenant. These covenant texts are the bedrock relationship on which our faith is based. We are in this together. It is that simple. Part of what binds us together is ritual which is something we do when words are inadequate. For instance, when you feel overcome with joy and happiness at seeing someone you have not seen for a long time, there are no words, you just want to embrace and kiss. So, with ritual there are simply certain gestures that have an agreed upon meaning. We don’t make them up as we wish They are given to us to shape what we say and do in common. When a birthday cake comes into a room, no one has to tell the one being honored what to do. For that matter, we don’t start singing the National Anthem! Our rites as a church, these rituals that shape and express us are not a place or a time for self-expression. Even the wearing of certain vesture covers up our uniqueness. All of this brings focus to the meaning of what is happening it’s not about some external behavior.
The Sacraments are not something we do. The Sacraments are not something the Church creates. We are drawn by God’s mysterious designs and God’s mysterious ways into these experiences. The Sacraments, the Liturgy is always God’s gift to us and our response to God. Tomorrow when I speak about Matrimony, I will tell you more about something I always say to couples who come in for their first meeting to talk about marriage. I always say: “From now own, do not talk to me about your wedding. It isn’t yours. It isn’t mine. If you think it’s yours, and you think you can design it, you are forgetting that God is in charge, and this Rite and what we do is our response to God’s self-revelation.” Matrimony, Anointing of the Sick, Reconciliation, Ordination these are never ours. I have no business talking about my Ordination. It was not mine. It was God calling and commissioning me to be and do something in His name. All I had to do was show up, kneel down, and say: “Present” when my name was called. After that I had to listen.
We get this message proclaimed every time one of the priests uses the Third Eucharistic Prayer at Mass. He says, and you may recall the words: “You never cease to gather a people to yourself., so that from the East and to the West….” We gather at the Lord’s invitation, not our own self will. That’s important to keep in mind sometime when you don’t feel like going to Mass some Sunday. Are you seriously going to turn down the Lord’s invitation because of a Tee time or you just don’t want to get up? Seriously? You see, we always think it’s about us way too easily forgetting that God is up to something. We are made members of one another in this worldwide Catholic Church through the waters of Baptism and the invocation of the three persons of the Triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In the prayer over the offerings on Holy Thursday, the priest proclaims these words: “Whenever the memorial of his sacrifice is celebrated the work of our redemption is accomplished.” Wow! If that’s true, you have to be there, not at home with your feet up and beer in your hands watching a football game if you want your redemption.”
Early on, for many generations, Initiation into the Body of Christ, the Church, was one ritual with three parts. Most of the Eastern Churches continue this ancient custom. Our Latin or Western Roman Church has split them into three separate rites or “Sacraments.” There is some movement to restore the more ancient practice, but for now we have it as it is: Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Communion. Actually, we have sort of messed up the order. For most of us it goes like this: Baptism, Holy Communion, Confirmation. Historically, Baptism and Confirmation were broken apart when the numbers of people being initiated were greater than the community’s leader, what we now call a Bishop, could manage at one time. So, the local delegate of the Bishop Baptized and the initiation was completed at a later time when the Bishop got around to the community. Once the faith of the person initiated was “Confirmed”, then they were allowed to share in the Eucharist. The bringing of a person into communion, into the covenant was the point of it all.
As we all know, many other Christian communities we call “Protestant” do not baptize children, and they do not understand why we do and what it’s all about, but the custom is there from the beginning, and it springs out of the fact that often entire households were initiated: Dad, Mom, and the children. They all came into the covenant. The evidence is there in scriptures. In the case of the children, it is the fact that they will be raised up in a covenanted family that makes it possible. That is why in the Rite of Baptism for Children, parents are asked to give public testimony that they will bring this child up in the practice of faith. Contrary to what some may want to believe, the parents are not speaking for their child in answering those questions. They are giving testimony to the faith they are going to share.
I honestly don’t know when, why or how we got into the odd custom we have in the Roman Rite Church of dribbling a few drops of water on the head of someone and calling that Baptism. In the end, it is the intention that matters, but we sure have to talk a good line to make the point. Baptism is birth into everlasting life. It is the beginning of new life with all of its promise and hope. About thirty years ago, when I was Rector of the Cathedral in Oklahoma City, we set about fixing up that 70-year-old church with some paint and some other arrangements that suited the Church of our time. One of the things we did was build a Baptistry. If any of you have ever been to Rome and seen the Lateran Basilica which is actually the Cathedral Church of Rome, you might remember that the Baptistry is a separate building off to the side of the church. If you’ve been to Florence, the very famous Baptistry there stands out as great piece of architecture in itself. The Baptistry was separate for a couple of reasons. For one, it was often heated when nothing else was, and for another, people being baptized got into a pool of water without clothing. They laid down, went under water and came up alive. It was a powerful and memorable experience.
A few years ago, I took a group of pilgrims to Lourdes. At one of the planning meetings, I spoke about the “baths” there, and I encouraged everyone to get over any hang-ups they might have and plan to go into the baths. It is a powerful and extraordinary spiritual and physical experience. On the second morning we were there, I reminded everyone that there was time set aside in the schedule to go into the waters. In the group was the retired Police Chief from Oklahoma City. He was a tough guy, burly, tough spoken, and there were no filters on his mouth. He said what he thought all the time. He was sitting in the back of the room with his arms folded. There was no expression on his face other than mild disgust. I concluded by saying that this was the chance, and the only chance to have this experience since few of them were likely to return to Lourdes. Skipping the experience of the baths might be something they would regret for a long time. I explained that there was a small room for removing clothing, and that an attendant would be there to wrap a very large sheet around you, and lead you to the pool. It is something you step down into, and water is flowing through it. The attendant helps you sit down in the water removing the towel-like sheet, and then they offer to pray for you or with you as you settle into the water. When the prayer ends, you stand up and the attendant wraps you in the cloth and leads you very respectfully and quietly back to the dressing area. By this time, the man in the back is looking up at the ceiling after glancing at his watch.
Every evening of the pilgrimage, the group would gather together, have a drink, and then share their most powerful thought or experience of the day. So, that night we followed the usual plan, and after many comments about going to confession, the beautiful Mass in the grotto, the procession the night before, Mr. Police Chief spoke up from that back. He said: “I did it.” With that he choked up and wiped his eyes. He said: “You never told us the water was cold.” I said, “No one asked.” He brushed aside my comment and with tears in his eyes, he said: “I will never ever forget that moment. Now I understand why some of my Protestant friends speak with such passion and so intently about their Baptism. I think I was Baptized today, and I feel wonderful, clean, and almost holy. I feel alive for the first time since my wife died.” The room was silent, and someone quietly said, “Forget about the “almost part.”
So, back to the Cathedral, we built a baptistry that was attached and visible from the church, but distinct. During the construction, that part of the church was walled off for the sake of safety, and to keep out the weather as they built the addition. After a few weeks, some of the 8th graders in the parish school wanted to know what was behind the wall. So, I arranged for the contractor to let the children look in. The concrete form had been poured, and they were about to begin the tile work. The children stood and looked at it for a minute or two, and one of the boys said: “It looks like a grave”. With that, I knew we were getting it right. Baptism is about dying and rising. Going down, going under, coming up, breathing in new life. That is what we’re doing.
Water and Fire! These are the most powerful earthly tools and earthly elements. When a forest burns, it dies. When it rains on that scorched earth, everything comes to life again. When it’s time for a baby to be born, the water breaks out of the womb, and life comes through the water. My friends, we have to get in touch with this truth and this reality again. Those of us Baptized as children run the risk of thinking it’s all over, and it’s just something you do to have a party or keep the grandparents happy. One tool that we have to make a connection with something that happened before we can remember is that water in the doorway. Touching it is important. Feeling it on your face and on your hands ought to be a reminder that the room you are entering is a place where Water and Blood bring us again into the very presence of God where the work of our redemption is accomplished.
Water is not the only element we use in our tradition for expressing something that is just a little beyond what words can say. There is white garment, there is fire and light, and there is Chrism. In the thrilling Book of Revelation, we read: (Chapter 21, 1-10). You know that white garment needs to be real, not some ironed strip of fabric. It’s a garment that gets used again to identify the white robed. Look at what I’m wearing. Think about what a child wears at First Communion. This about what a bride wears by tradition at a wedding. It has nothing to do with virginity. It has everything to do with being a white-robed member of the covenant. It is also our way of putting aside our silly need to be different, to stand out, or be stylish. We cover up and we look alike because by this sacrament we are one people, one body, one in Christ. It’s not about me any longer.
We take fire for light, and with great intensity, we pass that light on to a family on the day of a child’s baptism with the hope and the prayer that the light of that candle, the light of Christ, may never go out. Then we say: “Keep this candle burning brightly so that when the Lord comes you may go out to meet him.” With that, there is covenant. With that, there is identity. With that, there is mission, something to do.
How I wish we would have the courage, understanding, and wisdom to get this right, but it doesn’t seem to be within reach right now, and so we bumble along with a system that clearly doesn’t work. Instead of announcing some grade level or some age for completing Initiation, common sense, if not good theology, ought to say that a person should be “Confirmed” and admitted to the Covenant when they want to and have the desire to be in Communion. In some places around the country, that is beginning to happen, and those of you with grandchildren in different places might already be aware of this change. Communion comes after Confirmation. The very fact that making this correction takes courage, understanding, and wisdom tells you something. These are three Gifts of the Holy Spirit: a sure sign that God is at work. Take if from an old pastor, as long as we keep up the present system of making Confirmation a “rite of passage” into adulthood, it’s going to be a one-way street out the church. It implies for young people that they are now adults and can make choices for themselves. So, who can blame them for leaving. They are not adults when they are 15 and 16! Our more ancient custom says that once faith grows from the formation, prayer, service, and the witness of parents, signs of that faith will become obvious. When that day comes, a person who is living the Covenant of Sacrifice and Service will want to receive the Eucharist and share in the grace, the strength, the support of the covenant community (the Church). Then, the Leader, the Teacher, and Sanctifier (That’s the role of a Bishop, by the way). He comes, and in his presence, those whose initiation is about to be complete step up, profess their faith, perhaps symbolically announce a new name by which they wish to be called, and a solemn anointing takes place that seals them, makes them holy, and draws them into the company of priests, kings, and prophets who throughout the Old Testament were anointed for service at God’s call.
Then it’s time to enter into the mystery of the New Covenant and it’s time to remember that whenever the memorial of his sacrifice is celebrated the work of our redemption is accomplished. At that point, there can be no doubt about who someone is, because Covenant People are so identified with Christ that what they do is what Christ does, and what Christ does is what his people do. In case you don’t remember what Christ does, he heals, he forgives, he feeds, he unites, he draws people to the Father so that they may all be one. That’s not somebody else’s job. It’s ours. If someone is hungry, we feed. If someone is naked, we clothe. If someone is thirsty, we give a drink. If someone is alone, we become their companion. If someone is lost, we lead them home.
So, we gather, as our blessed ancestors have done from the beginning. We break open the Word of God, and we break the bread that has become for us the Body of Christ. It is God’s gift to us. Doing this brings us peace, healing, and reconciliation. It is a God’s way of answering the prayer of his Son, that we might all be one, that we may be friends, and that the relationship Jesus has with his Father is the same relationship we have with the Father.
In an age of hyper-individualism, it is extremely important to pay attention to the words we use and how we pray. As I said at the beginning, every single prayer that is offered begins with the word, “We.” There is no “I” in the Eucharist. Even the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples is always in the plural. We say again and again: “Our Father.” “Give us.” “Forgive us.” It happens because we are one with each other and with Jesus Christ. It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: Every prayer we offer is THROUGH Christ our Lord, because by Baptism, Confirmation, and in the Eucharist, we are one with Christ. We are in, and through and with Christ.
We gather around this altar at the invitation of Christ. It is Christ who presides, not Tom Boyer. I always smile a bit at the parishes where I serve when at the beginning they announce: “Today’s Celebrant will be Father Tom Boyer.” No, it won’t. It will be Jesus Christ. He is the host, he is the one who speaks, he is the one who opens our minds and hearts to the Word, and he is the one who feeds. There is a spiritual meaning to everything we do in our sacred liturgies. We learn the meanings not just by our brain, but by listening, seeing, speaking, smelling, and touching. The senses are the pathway to meaning, and rich and powerful ritual involves them all.
The very first act reveals who we are and what we’re doing. We approach God’s presence. We’re not just going to church. When the Israelites came near the Temple, they broke into song, and we know the words. They were preserved for us in a Psalm. “We shall up with Joy to the House of our God.” Sing it!
Yet we know in our hearts that the pure and just one is not the one without sin, but the one who recognized his sin. A just one, then, is the sinner who knows that they are a sinner. The most important part of this Penitential Act is SILENCE. It must be severe, intense, and austere. It is time to shut up, and stand humbly before the sinless one who is looking at us with love. If you have ever been caught doing something really wrong and shameful in the presence of someone you love, there is nothing to be said. There are no words to express how you feel in shame and sorrow. Then, we ask for mercy and forgiveness, and break into a song by which we simply acknowledge and praise the Mercy of a God who loves us anyway. Embracing that forgiveness, we in the assembly are worthy to offer praise to God signing: We praise you, we bless you, we adore you, we glorify you, we give you thanks for your great glory. With that, we pray through Christ our Lord. Then, we sit down and we listen. God has something to say.
And then, it is time for a gracious God to feed us. But remember, Jesus said, “One does not live on bread along, but on every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.” If you think about it, where is the Gospel Book at this time usually resting? On the Altar. God will feed us from that table twice: once with the Word, and then again with the Body and Blood of his Son, the Bread of Life. Just as the eucharistic bread and wine are taken from the altar so that the faithful may nourish themselves on the body of Christ, so also the gospel is taken from the altar so that the faithful may be nourished with the word of Christ.
When the Scriptures are proclaimed in the assembly, God is speaking. It is different from when you might sit at home and read some of the Bible. The power of the Holy Spirit within the assembly. I’ll be you didn’t know that in a Jewish Synagogue the scroll of the Law cannot be taken from the ark and read if there are not present at least ten adult men. This norm suggests that that it is not enough for the book of the Law to be present and that someone reads from it; also necessary is people to hear it proclaimed. This is the difference between personal study of the Bible and the proclamation of the Scriptures in the midst of the assembly. That is where the power of the Word comes from – out of the assembly, out of the Body of Christ. The Sacred Scriptures belong to the Church, that is why the Lector leaves the Scriptures on the Ambo after the proclamation. The lector does not carry the book away, but leaves it with the assembly because it is in the assembly’s care just as the Eucharist is.
Let me wrap this up with a final thought about the gifts, because the exchange of gifts is what happens next, and it’s beautiful and powerful. Gifts are brought to God and placed on the altar. We give away some of what God has given us as a reminder that we do not have absolute possession of anything. What makes the offering holy is the fact that it is sacrificed, given up, given away. In the Book of Deuteronomy (16,16) God says: “They shall not appear before the Lord empty-handed.” No believer may come before the altar with empty hands, because the vocation of every person is to offer the world to God by their own hands.
And then, why bread and why wine? Why not a steak and coke? Think about this. Bread has all the elements of the world within it. Those elements are Earth, Air, Water, and Fire. That is what makes bread such a power element that crosses every culture, age, and time. The earth: that with rain produces the grain, that rises with air and is baked with fire! It’s all there, and as the prayers says, it is the “work of human hands.” It’s about work, labor, grinding, mixing. It’s hard and demanding, labor intensive. But, there is another side to these gifts. It is wine. Yet, wine is hardly as necessary and basic as bread. It does require some labor, but we can do without. What it does supply is pleasure, and it brings with it a sense of celebration, of joy, gratitude, and fellowship. So, we bring these gifts put them on the altar that God may sanctify them by the power of the Spirit and make them “For us” bread of life and spiritual drink. So, the bread that we have carried in our hands to the altar; after giving thanks, is then taken from the altar and placed in our hands as the Body of Christ.
The church cannot be satisfied with having the Eucharist; it does not possess it. The Eucharist serves no purpose if it remains simply an object to be possessed and adored. The church, however, is called to become the eucharistic body of the Lord, and becoming the Body of Christ is the one greatest witness to the truth of the Eucharist. How do we know this is the Body of Christ? Look at the people. If you see Christ, then you know what Eucharist is. To receive Communion is to become communion. Why do you eat this? In order to come this. In a society where individualism triumphs, the Eucharist reminds us of the common destiny of all humanity. In a society where waste prevails, the Eucharist is a call to share. Psalm 40 tells us that what is not shared is wasted. The eucharist which forms us as God’s people in a covenant of love.
Conclude with singing: The Servant Song
Parish Mission on Sacraments Second Night: Sacraments of Service
Begin with singing; Come to the Water
Jesus sent us to serve and to heal. To reach deep into this call to service, we need only explore the Rite by which a person is called from the community, Baptism. It begins for all of us at Baptism when we are anointed with a prayer that welcomes us into a Holy People who are as Christ was anointed, Priest, Prophet, and King. The Sacraments of Service: Holy Orders and Matrimony have two essential elements in common: sacrifice and service. A priest is not the only one who offers sacrifice, and that cultic act in liturgy is not all a priest is called to do. Remember, when we think of sacraments, we need to think of a people and what they mean and stand for; not just what they do. Now, that word, “Order” does not mean organizing things alphabetically or in good straight rows as Sister did when we were in the parish school.
Remember those great stories by the British author, J.K. Rowling about Harry Potter? Well, early in each school term, the students gathered in that great hall, and the new students were called up one by one. They sat on a stool, and a hat was put on their head. In the stories, it was a magical hat and they called it the “Sorting Hat” because it would magically sort the students into their “houses” or groups for the school year. Those in each house worked together as a team for the building up of the school and support of all the members. Well, when we Catholics talk about “Orders” we are talking about sorting, or dividing up the work and the responsibilities for the sake of the whole and the support of each member. That’s exactly what Holy Orders is really about: sorting out the members in to groups for a common purpose and the support of all the members. Lay People, Deacons, Presbyters, and Bishops are people who have been sorted out yet work together for the common good and mutual support in the use of their unique gifts and mission.
I have deliberately avoided using the word Priest for one of the Orders because we need to get something clear about that word and with it the expectations we have for those we might choose to call “Priest.” Actually, Presbyters is probably better for two reasons, it’s a term that refers to the wise elders of a community, and that is certainly what we have now as we face the reality that most priests today are old, and older men are hearing a call to that Order. The other reason I like the word Presbyter is that it disconnects from the Old Testament image of the Priesthood, and that is exactly what the first Christian communities wanted to do. They did not want anything to do with the Old Testament priesthood.
That old priesthood was hereditary. It was a privileged class supported and taken care of by the people. They were men who liked to dress up in fine robes and who held exclusive power and held enormous control and authority over the lives of the people. They ran the temple. They controlled the finances. They passed judgement on people, throwing out some for various reasons, but they also restored people who had been thrown out. An example of that comes to us with that story of Jesus healing some lepers and sending them to the priests for the obvious purpose of having them judged worthy and cleansed restoring them to their rightful place in the community. They were not teachers, they were rulers with a lot of power often abused. Among the Hebrews, a Rabbi was the teacher, and that was a different sort of person – let’s call it a different Order.
When the earliest Christian communities began to organize themselves and sort out the ministries and gifts, they wanted nothing to do with the old priesthood, because they had encountered the one priest, the ultimate High Priest, Jesus Christ. So, what we see developing is this role or ministry called “presbyter”. Judging from what the Epistles can tell us, that early church was very picky! The Epistle to Titus says this (1, 5-9) “…. appoint presbyters in every town, as I directed you, on condition that a man be blameless, married only once, with believing children who are not accused of licentiousness or rebellious.” He goes on to add that “a Bishop, “as God’s steward must be blameless, not arrogant, not irritable, not a drunkard, not aggressive, not greedy for sordid gain, but hospitable, a lover of goodness, temperate just, holy, and self-controlled. Holding fast to the true message as taught so that he will be able to both to exhort with sound doctrine and refute opponents.”
Then, in St. Paul’s first letter to Timothy (3, 1-7) he insists that they “must be irreproachable, married only once, temperate, self-controlled, decent, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not aggressive, but gentle, not contentious, not a lover of money.” He must also, “manage his own household well, keeping his children under control with perfect dignity; for if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how can he take care of the Church of God. He should not be a recent convert…he must also have a good reputation.”
The first letter of Peter (5, 1-4) instructs presbyters with these words: “Tend the flock of God in your midst not by constraint, but willingly, as God would have it not for shameful profit but eagerly. Do not lord it over those assigned to you, but be examples to the flock.”
Back in the day, when I was working in formation and direction of candidates for the priesthood. I paid a lot of attention to three things: an ability to make and maintain wonderful, nurturing, and lasting friendships, an ability to be hospitable, and I always encouraged them to keep some houseplants in their rooms at the seminary. If they could not keep a weed like a philodendron alive, why entrust them with life of a human soul?
What those earliest Christian communities were looking for and expecting then, was not so much a “priest” like the Old Testament priests, but a prophet. That is what they saw in Jesus Christ, a prophet, not a priest like those guys running the Temple, punishing people, throwing people out, imposing harsh punishments, and always demanding their money. They had seen in Jesus, a new kind of priest: one who offered sacrifice, yes, but also one who stood among them as the prophets had in the past. This is why some thought that Jesus was Elijah returned, or some thought he was John the Baptist returned from the dead. Matthew, as we read deeply into his Gospel saw the image of Moses in Jesus.
The longer I live in this mystery of priesthood, the more I begin to understand that priests are anointed, like Christ, as priest and prophet. The two roles are barely distinguishable. In fact, it is probably only in Ritual behavior that they are distinct. The prophet in us, the prophet in our community, is the one who can point to the presence and the action of God. That role has nothing to do with the future. The prophet is someone who is in touch with the past, but standing with both feet and eyes wide open in the present. The prophet sees the hand of God and says so. The prophet can look into the face of death and disaster and chaos and say: “Look at what God can do. Expect the Divine. Trust in the Providence and Goodness of God.” All of us fuss, worry, and invest time and energy in addressing symptoms, when in fact, a prophetic people address the causes of evil, pain, injustice, and sorrow. For a really great priest, this comes out of courage, and it means that the priesthood is not for cowards and those who are easily intimidated or fear-filled. A priest must transform the present into the future. The symbol of this transformation is the Eucharist. What is changed by the faith of the people and the words of Christ spoken by the priest is not just bread and wine, but all the ordinary things of life changed into the extraordinary and unmistakable signs of God’s immediate presence in and through the world. The Incarnation is not a theological principal; it is a day in and day out experienceof God’s creative, life-giving presence in all things and especially all people. Anything that dims the ability to perceive that presence and honor it must go, and that takes courage. “The poor you will have always with you.” is not an excuse for ignoring the cause of their poverty. Losing sight of the causes of people’s hunger while we’re making sandwiches, running soup kitchens, or food pantries won’t do. We’ve been doing that a long time, and still there are more poor people getting poorer. We are trapped into this stuff because working with the symptoms makes us feel good. We avoid addressing the causes of poverty because it’s tough, risky, unpopular, and sometimes dangerous; but we are prophets, and taking on injustice is our cause, and like the prophets of the Old Testament, they will pay a big price for doing that.
Prophet/Priest lives in the present. That means that the working definition of a priest is: “one who awakens others to the revelation found in their lives.” It’s about the present. It’s about the fact that God is present to us now, and in all things and at every moment. It’s all very fine to know all about what God has done in the past. For the leader, it’s important to know where you’ve been, just in case you go by again. Then you’ll know you’re lost! When we start repeating mistakes from the past, we’re in trouble. I guess you could say, “We’re lost.” But, all that knowledge of the past is no good if we don’t recognize that God is still doing things in the present, our present. Pious “wannabes” who are all caught up in the past, which they mistakenly call “tradition” are lost because they’re not living in the present. They are sure that all the answers are somewhere in the past, and consequently, they are incapable of living with ambiguity and doubt, which are very essential to the human condition in people seeking truth.
When thinking this way, I remember what it was like on April 19, 1995 and the days following when a building in Oklahoma City was destroyed taking 169 lives leaving a city of one million people stunned to silence. “Why?” was all anyone could ask. Those who needed power, those who were not living in the experience had all kinds of silly answers, when the only response to “Why” was to suggest that was the wrong question. “What does it mean?” was the issue, not why did it happen. And, “What are we going to become because of this?” was the next question. Effective ministry on that day and the days following happened when people were led to ask the right question and go on from there. It was a time to lead those who suffered to imagine a creative power in the midst of that chaos. The first time a man stands in the face of tragedy and thinks he knows the answer to the question “WHY” the real priesthood of Jesus Christ has been traded for certitude that puts us in control. If we are not comfortable in chaos and able to live in the face of it not knowing why, we will never experience creation and the Creator who is always to be found in the midst of it. We know that Christ did not come to take the tragedies out of life. He simply came to show us how to survive them. We know that in our minds, but forget under the pressure to respond to each other in pain and so we fail to act that way. When someone comes up with a glib or pious answer the question or the cry: “WHY?” in a moment of pain in the midst of tragedy, you know they’ve never been there.
Priests are called to enable persons to perceive the revealing presence of God in their ordinary lives. That is what all of us need from the priest. We don’t need to know why, we just need to have someone point to the hand of God in the midst of some chaotic moment. To do this, a priest must possess a singleness of mind. Jesus called it “purity of heart.” It simply means that a priest will be simply, pure of heart, honest, straight forward. There is only one agenda.
Howard Hendricks teaches at Dallas Theological Seminary and is one of the founders of “Promise Keepers”, a powerful program of spirituality for men. Howard says that we are suffering from AIDs, “Acquired Integrity Deficiency.” He believes we are producing celebrities today, but few people of character. So many have been caught in sexual misconduct or financial scandals, or have shown themselves to have an unhealthy love of power and authority. We have leaders who trade character for cash. Power, fame, and money corrupt many of these big-shot leaders. Some have called this the greatest challenge to Evangelical leaders. It is embarrassing. We desperately need men of integrity, and the only place they are going to come from is a real, solid, Catholic/Christian home.
Here is the big difference we sometimes fail to see. We have to decide what we want and need. Leaders have dreams and look to the future. The manager looks to the bottom line of the profit sheet. This is exactly what’s wrong with our country these days, and with the whole world for that matter. We have no leaders, no statesmen, we have only politicians who are “managers.” There’s no one around like Martin Luther King, Jack or Bobby Kennedy, Gandhi, Anwar Sadat, Golda Meir, or David Ben-Gurion. Now all we get are celebrity executives! They have no dreams. They live for profit, and for profit now. They have no imagination, only information. The days in which we are living are without dreams. They are full of fantasies, but the two are not the same. A dreamless sleep is called, “death”, and dreamless society or a dreamless church is dead and meaningless. Our church needs dreamers just as much as we need air, and our society, our church needs true leaders, uncommon men and women who can restore the collective dream: The Kingdom of Heaven. Our passion for control shows it’s self in Secularism, which is the art of this world.
You deserve to have holy men, and that does not mean pious men. I’m not talking about people who walk around with a rosary dangling from their hands, or dressing up in some black robe pacing up and down a corridor with a breviary in their hands. I’m talking about real holiness which sometimes might look fanatical or just plain weird. A really holy person is somehow wild. They are wild with God. They are in love with God, and you can see it, hear it, and believe it. There is something about them that is intense, deep and real. These are people who have met God, who have suffered, and have some vision of the Kingdom of God. If you don’t know where you’re headed, you can’t take anyone there. These are people who know God not by hearsay or from some book, but from having maybe hit bottom and discovered that in the cross, in death, in betrayal, in loneliness, there is someone who loves them and has never left them.
The ultimate priest and prophet is Jesus Christ who is the one who stands before us to intercede for us, to teach, to sacrifice, and to open our eyes and ears to the present and the state of our relationship with God. What Jesus did is what presbyters must do: proclaim the Kingdom of God, raise a call to conversion, reconcile people to one another and to God, and heal what is broken when it comes to those relationships so that the Kingdom of God can be seen, experienced, and lived right now. “It is at hand” he said over and over again.
Break with song: “Hear Us Now Our God and Father”
In the last parish I served as Pastor, there was an old couple from Lebanon whose children had brought them to Oklahoma when life at their home was getting more dangerous as the violence of religious and political hatred tore apart a country that had for generations shown us how Catholic/Christians and the People of Islam could live side by side with mutual respect, trust, and kindness. Radicalism, a disastrous kind of fundamentalism, and distrust of people who are different tore that all apart in one generation. So, these two “refugees” sought comfort and hope in their family and in their church. They were like old Simeon and Anna, always in the Temple, always at prayer, and always filled with hope. The church there was arranged in four sections, like a cross. The choir was behind at the top, and there were three seating sections in transepts and nave. This couple sat in the side transept section in the front pew. In the back, behind the choir there was a vesting room for the servers. Books, candles and stuff like that was kept back there, and at the other end was the vesting room for the clergy. Inevitably before Mass there was traffic back and forth from one end to the other, and I would make the trip once or twice as well checking with the musicians or making sure all the servers were there and ready. Since the old folks spoke no English, and I speak no Lebanese, we could really never talk, but we found a way over the years to communicate with smiles, nods, winks or bows. The tabernacle was close by, and when passing, I would genuflect, and then passing in front of them, I would bow, and they would grin ear to ear and bow back at me.
One Sunday just before the opening hymn as servers and clergy were lining up, one of the smaller servers said to me: “Why are you always bowing to those people?” I thought, that’s a good question, and I asked him, “Why are you always genuflecting at that Tabernacle and bowing at that altar?” With great confidence born out of his Catholic School education, he said: “Because Jesus is there. It’s a Sacrament.” I said to him: “Let me tell you something. Those two people have lived together as husband and wife for more than 70 years.” If that’s not enough to make it obvious that Jesus is in that front pew, nothing will.” I bow to the presence of Jesus Christ.”
Well, servers have a way of sharing information, and by next weekend, every time one of them passed in front of those two old people, the servers bowed to them. The old folks smiled and bowed back, and in no time at all, it was like a coocoo clock going off at noon with everyone bowing and bobbing up and down, and everyone was smiling. Maybe those servers learned something very important about the Sacrament of Matrimony. It’s not about a ritual, white dresses, invitations, photographers, cakes, and receptions. It is about the Incarnation. It is about God taking on human flesh to reveal something essential about God’s life, God’s presence, God’s dream for us all before there was sin.
This Church, right now, is sacramental. It is filled with the presence of God. All around us there are sacraments of unity, of peace, of forgiveness and love. You who sit here together as husband and wife are living signs of the power of forgiveness, of what loving sacrifice can accomplish in lifting up another, and of what it means to keep a promise just as God keeps promises, because you are friends and by the grace of the vows you made before God and his church, you are friends with God.
If you ever take time to look carefully and critically at how we go about all of this, and what we are hoping to express in the way we conduct our rituals, there is a lot of silliness that distracts from the truth to which we bear witness in this celebration. For instance, this whole idea of the “Father giving away the bride” is a perfect example. It comes from a time and a culture in which marriage was treated as a contract between families, and the transfer of wealth and property played an important role. “Giving away the bride” ritualized this contract. In this light, you can see how the tradition of the father escorting his daughter to her groom may have developed. Yet, we Catholics believe that the bride and groom give themselves to each other as equal partners, and as one, they give themselves to God. When we get it right, and when we decide that it is more important to reveal the truth than play-act with a script from centuries ago and call it “custom”, a good message will be proclaimed and faith will be revealed. Parents play a major role, and sharing in this moment is a gift greater than writing the checks to pay for it all. But there are other ways to say this. The groom may walk in with his parents, and the bride with her parents who might meet and greet each other with peace before the altar to which they are bringing their children once again just as they did for First Communion.
Lighting candles has great significance in our Catholic Churches. The most important of these is the Easter or Paschal Candle. All the candles given at infant and adult baptisms are lit from this candle. It is also lit during funerals to mark our loved one’s passage to eternal life. This business of the Unity Candle trying to symbolize two lives become one is already profoundly signified through the couple’s exchange of vows and rings and the Nuptial Blessing. I’m always amused at how confusing and contradictory this relatively new custom can become. It was probably started by someone at a Hallmark store to sell candles. The big candle gets lit and then they blow out the two little ones! It’s as though the identity of the two disappears when you get married. My bet is that by the end of the first week, it will be obvious to both bride and groom that their individual identities have not only failed to disappear, but rather have suddenly grown more real and intense.
In my years as a priest, more than once someone has said to me: “What do you a single and celibate man know about marriage?” It’s a good question, and I have answer. “I’ve never laid an egg; but I know more about it than the chicken.” You don’t have to be married to know about marriage. We’ve all grown up and come from a marriage.
What this old man has learned from listening, watching, reading, and study is that a marriage is not much different from being a priest since ultimately it is about commitment which scares the day-lights out of a lot of young people these days who seem to think that the best way to avoid commitment is to never make any. With both sacraments of service there are few things that work and make it easier and more fruitful. It works for priests and for married couples. Do things together. It will keep you from taking each other for granted. It takes planning and attention to emotions, yours as well as theirs. You make time to go out and have fun, do some chores together, because that’s where you are going to find God. It does not matter what you do together, but how. You can’t forget to laugh. All kinds of science reveal that laughter reduces pain and allows us tolerate discomfort. Physically it reduces blood sugar levels making our heart and brain function better. Laughter establishes and restores a positive emotional climate and connection between two people. Of course, you don’t laugh at each other, you laugh at yourself and invite someone into the joke, because you are no longer taking yourself so seriously. When you laugh at your own faults and failings, it can help the other to do the same not with ridicule but with genuine good humor. It heals, uplifts, puts one’s emotional world back in order. If you don’t laugh much, you better start. If you already do, keep it up.
Back in the day (don’t you love saying?) when I would be meeting with engaged couples early on in their formation, I would insist that they pray together knowing that it is something we Catholics find awkward and sometime avoid simply out of a failure to try and learn how. I would say: “Start this way: one of you should just say, “Let’s pray.” Then be quiet, maybe close your eyes, and wish for a moment about the future for and with each other. It does not have to take long, and when you’ve made your wish, simply say, “Amen”, which is our standard way of saying “OK, that’s enough.” Then, when you get comfortable with that, don’t be afraid to ask the other one what they prayed for or prayed about, and then it’s not too hard to start doing that out loud, and before you know it, you’re praying together, praying for one another, being grateful, and most of all acknowledging that God brought you together, and from the very beginning, God saw the two of you as one with a plan that you would be a living sign of God’s covenant.
A lot of couples come in at the beginning thinking that it’s all about them. You know that routine if you’ve had children getting married, and probably you were there once yourself, but the truth is, it’s not all about you. You did not choose the one you married. God did, and you would do well not forget it, because when you keep that in mind, you are going to treat each other better, because that person who came into your life and awakened you to the wonder and mystery of love is a gift from God. It is God who put you together.
Keeping in touch with God’s role is what puts some energy and focus into the service that this sacrament presents. Husbands and wives help one another to become more holy and so have a special place among the peoples of God, and they bear children to whom they must reveal God and bring them up to keep God’s commandments, which is what they promise at Baptism.
Finally, there are two other ideas I believe are important. One is forgiveness. We all know what power there is in forgiveness both offering and accepting it. But what too often escapes us is the daily discipline of forgiving that a strong marriage and family require. Forgiveness doesn’t need to come in big dramatic scenes, but it does need to happen every day at least once. Every night, all of us must make it a habit to think over the day and acknowledge any hurts, no matter how small. It’s no surprise to realize how many small hurts accumulate in a day. If you don’t let them go, resentment sets in. Matthew, probably one of the most forgiven of the apostles because of his past records for us an instruction by Jesus that must have hit him square between the eyes. He remembers for us that Jesus said we must forgive not just seven times but seventy times. In other words, a whole lot. Forgiving the small stuff every day can make the bigger hurts less difficult to confront and healing them more complete. It takes practice, and as we know, practice makes PERFECT.
Finally, we cannot ever underestimate the power of gratitude or good memories to enrich one’s life. All of us must lean and remember to express gratitude for the good things in life, and sometimes with spontaneous celebration. Why wait for a birthday or an anniversary? Maybe it’s just deciding to sit down together after the laundry is folded, or maybe even before the laundry is folded. Forget about the laundry! Open a bottle of wine, live in gratitude, and express it often. Take and make time to do things just because they help you bond and create a good memory. It’s those memories that will soften the sense of loss when one of you gets left behind.
I have the most fond and wonderful memories of that old couple in Norman, Oklahoma. Papa is gone now. He suffered the ravages of Parkinson’s disease, and finally gets to rest. In the last years of our lives together in that parish I would often be included in family feasts as only Lebanese people can feast. I would always have to sit on one side of Mama with Papa on the other. She would fuss around and make sure my plate was overflowing and do the same for Papa. When he could no longer hold a knife and fork, she would cut the food, and arrange it just so on his plate. He would lean back and watch her. She never said a word, just fix it just right, and wait for him to eat. They had this wonderful way of just gazing at each other. They never said much. In fact, I can’t remember ever hearing them talk to each other. I just remember the they looked. I call it “the gaze of love” that wrapped up gratitude, forgiveness, affection, hopes, and dreams. The fact that they never seemed to talk struck me once as perhaps the real secret to a joyful, lasting marriage. Don’t talk! Maybe just gaze now and then and cherish the moments because they are precious and sometimes fleeting.
Let’s stand and sing about this. “When Love is Found”
Those of you here present with your spouse, join your hands and turn toward each other. Those here without a spouse, join me now in prayer over the sacrament that is here before us.
My friends who are one in the holy sacrament of marriage, renew now the promises you made to one another, and turn to the Lord in Prayer, that these vows may be strengthened by divine grace.
Repeat after me these words:
Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation
For in the good and the bad times of our lives
You have stood with love by our side.
Help us, we pray,
To remain faithful in our love for one another;
So that we may be true witnesses
To the covenant you have made with humankind.
May the Lord keep you safe all the days of your life.
May he be your comfort in adversity and your support in prosperity.
May he fill your home with his blessings as we all now pray together:
We praise you, O God,
We bless you, Creator of all things,
Who in the beginning made man and woman
that they might form a communion of life and love.
We give you thanks for graciously blessing the family life of your servants who stand before you in this holy place as they once did with great dreams and tender love.
Look with kindness upon them today and as you have sustained their communion amid joys and struggles,
renew their Marriage covenant each day,
increase their charity, and strengthen in them the bond of peace
so that together with the circle of their children and friends around them they may forever enjoy your blessing.
Sing: “The Servant Song”
Parish Mission on Sacraments Third Night: Sacraments of Healing
Begin with singing: Come to the Waters
Two days ago, we heard the Gospel of the Transfiguration, that moment when Jesus came into the presence of God. His mission on this earth is to take us there, to lead us to Easter and to glory. There is a problem however. There is not enough glory in our lives, and most of the time, we are not much of an Easter people, and the problem is something we don’t much like to talk about: sin.
All of us are engaged to one degree or another in a personal, ongoing battle with sin and vice. We are living through an age of serious moral decay. Cheating and Lying are a way of life today. These days, when someone gets caught doing something wrong, they are more upset about being caught than over what they did. If they think about it all, they wonder how they could have avoided being caught in the first place. There is not enough faith, the kind of faith that grows from repentance and change.
One of the startling facts of life in our times is that no one wants to admit to sin and take any responsibility for its consequences. Too many these days have no sins. They just have issues! So, call it what you want, but it is deadly. On Sunday night, I reminded you that the pure and the just among us are those who know and recognize their sin. That’s the way to holiness and greatness. When we say someone is a good man or a good woman, we do not suggest that they are people in whom there is no inclination to evil, but rather that they are people who have wrestled and still wrestle with it and never give in because their quality and their goodness comes from the struggle. Those people are truly noble. These are people of virtue, character, and nobility. The work of Jesus and his expectation that we change leads us to glory, to Easter, to virtue and nobility.
“Morality is like art, said G.K. Chesterton, “it consists of drawing a line somewhere.” We live in an age in which no lines seem to be drawn at all, or those that have been drawn are being erased. In my 78th year of life and more than 50 years as priest I have come to recognize that an unhealed wound, a kind of sinful restlessness, afflicts humanity and robs us of glory.
Bruce Springsteen, “The Boss” wrote a song that describes our age when he sings: “Everybody has a hungry heart.” I think we are hungry for glory, hungry for the life we should have had by God’s will and God’s original plan for us. But we have traded our glory for something else, and sin is the consequence. Our hunger is for God and the glory that comes from being in God’s presence. I want to propose to you that in the great Divine wisdom that has shaped and called us Church there is a gift we have forgotten about, and it’s not good for us. That gift is the Sacrament of Reconciliation. This coming Sunday we are going to proclaim a wonderful story about a woman and man who met at the water. A sinner came face to face with the holy one. The thirsty one ends up giving a drink to the one who has a well, and the water jar gets left behind. That water jar, that thing, that kept her coming back again and again because it wasn’t enough gets abandoned because she met the truth and found understanding, mercy, compassion, and love. No ridicule, no shame, no scolding, no reproach, just acceptance of one who was waiting and looking for the Christ.
For all kinds of reasons which are completely irrelevant unless you are looking for an excuse, the practice of sacramental confession in the Catholic Church dropped off almost overnight about forty years ago. Before the Second Vatican Council, Catholics came regularly and in great numbers to confess their sins to a priest, but then, just like that, they stopped coming. Analysts have proposed a variety of reasons: a greater stress on God’s love, a desire to move away from a fussy preoccupation with sexual peccadilloes, the sense that confession is not necessary for salvation, and on and on it can go. Whatever the cause or the causes, the experience has fallen out of practice.
A well-known priest-sociologist once announced that whatever Catholics drop, someone else will inevitably pick up. So, for example, we Catholics, after the Council, stopped talking about the soul, out of fear that the category would encourage a kind of split in humanity between the spiritual and the physical. Suddenly into book stores pops up all kinds of books on care of the soul with a widely popular series on “Chicken soup for the soul.”
Then the Catholic Church slows down talk about angels and devils, and presto, an explosion of books and films about these fascinating spiritual creatures.
A great example of this priest’s idea is the way in which the practice of sacramental confession – largely extinct in the Church pops up in a somewhat distorted form all of the world. What do we find on daytime talk shows from Oprah, to Jerry Springer and Maury, but a series of people coming forward to confess their sins, usually of a sexual nature? And what do we see on the numerous judgement-shows like Judge Judy, Dr. Phil, American Idol, or Dancing with the Stars? But people being forced to accept a kind of punishment for their bad or inadequate behavior. Just maybe we ought to admit that the need to confess our sins and receive some sort of judgement or comfort is just hard-wired into our spirits. When we don’t have the opportunity to deal with our sin in the proper context of faith and church, we will desperately cast about for a substitute.
If you want to get a really crazy conversation going sometimes among Catholics, get them started sharing their experiences with Confession. Many of us around my age can tell horror stories about psychological abuse in the confessional by priests who were hung up on sexual sins, or all too eager to threaten eternal damnation, or perhaps just cranky from sitting in a box for hours. On top of that, every priest (including this one) could tell you tales of people coming to confession for trivial reasons or out obsessive-compulsive neuroses. Sometimes I think some people come just because they know someone will listen to them. However, there was an old Roman saying that just because something can be abused doesn’t mean you should get rid of it.
I want to honestly say right here that some of the best and most spiritually rewarding moments in all my years of priesthood have been in the context of hearing a confession. I will never forget sitting in Concourse D at the Dallas Fort Worth Airport. A man walked up to me and said: “Father, would you hear my confession.” For a just a few minutes, we walked up and down the concourse. He was a priest who in a moment of discouragement and desperation had left his people to pursue his own pleasures. In those few moments, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, he turned around and went back home. I hope to this day that someone came out running to great him with a ring and a robe. There have been moments with young people struggling to love their parents but acting out in hurtful ways. There have been little children trying to learn that a hand is not a weapon with which you hurt someone, but something God has given us to help others up who have fallen, or to pat someone you love, or feed someone who is hungry. I’ve prayed with people who have been unfaithful discovering that their real infidelity is to God and that they have betrayed themselves as much as their partner in this life.
So, what is it with us? Laziness? Denial? Or maybe a presumption that if we just feel sorry, we don’t have to say we are. How does that work? You scrape my car in the parking lot. You go home and feel badly and maybe tell God you’re sorry, but never say anything to me? It just doesn’t work that way when people want to make up. When you’re sick, you see a doctor, you take your medicine. If you don’t, you might die. Isn’t it odd that many of us go to our doctor at least once or twice a year for a check-up to stay healthy and in good shape without a thought about a check-up for your soul?
There must be some little voice whispering that God can’t be offended by what we say and do, or worse yet, by what we fail to say and do, and so around and around this world goes with the morality of choices hardly ever being taken into consideration as though I can do what I want as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody, but of course the hurt is already there and it’s deep because it’s all about me and my rights. If my rights offend you, it’s your problem. No, it isn’t. So, in God’s mercy there is a way to take another look at what we say and do and what we fail to say and do and take responsibility for the consequences which not many people want to do these days because, blame is the game. It’s been going on since Adam and Eve. She blamed the snake, he blamed her, and they ended up alone, in shame and very sorry. The consequences of forgetting that we are children of God, or of thinking that we can act or do what God alone does is dragging down – way down.
There is always that fear about what someone is going to think of us. So, we don’t want to say what everyone of us can and should say: “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.” While you might be saying that to a priest you respectfully call, “Father.” What I as a priest hear is someone speaking to God the Father. People who don’t know enough to understand are always asking why you have to confess to a priest, and you know the answer, because he’s a sinner too, and where two or three gather in the name of Jesus Christ, he is in their midst. So, there’s two sinners, and the one came to forgive sins and heal whatever is broken. People who don’t know enough question the power or the right of a priest to forgive sins, and as soon as they do, you know that they never listened to the words of the prayer. Let me review them for you: God the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. It is the Holy Spirit that forgives, not the priest. He just speaks the words in the name of the whole church which is fulfilling the commission given to it by Jesus himself.
So, once again, we see the Church as a Sacrament – this time a Sacrament of healing forgiveness that lifts up, restores, heals the broken hearted and sometimes broken lives. We are all people who long for a second chance, and that’s what we proclaim with this great gift: that we have a second chance. And what does the priest think about those repentant and sorrowful people who come to pray with him? I’ll tell what I think. I sit there is total amazement at the faith in the lives and hearts of people who come to confession. They bear witness to me, and many times, they shame me. I can’t tell you how often I have headed off to find a confessor after some time in the confessor. I don’t see sinners. I don’t see evil. I don’t hear anything but a painful cry from a hurting heart. I’m not there to judge. I’m there to bind up what is broken, to strengthen the weak, and hold up those who feel lame, tired, lost, and alone.
There is one verse in John’s Gospel that leaves me speechless and in awe. It goes like this: Luke 22:54-61
One of the most powerful moments in the Gospel happens without a word spoken. Jesus has talked and talked and talked about repentance and conversion, and he never gets better results than when he says nothing and just turns and looks at Peter. Of course, it all happens because of things said earlier, but the final and best moment is accomplished in silence. Luke tells us that Jesus turned and “looked at Peter.” and Peter wept. What must have been said between those two men in that glance? What was the message Peter understood as his eyes met the eyes of his friend, his Lord, his brother? We can only imagine, and we can only hope.
What do you think that look was like? It’s easy for us who live in a measured world of revenge, power, retribution and superiority to think that the look on the face of Jesus as he turned to Peter was one of reproach and “I told you so.” But, after we remember the lessons of Mercy we have heard from Jesus again and again, I think he looked at Peter winked and smiled with love.
We bring our brokenness, our inadequacy, our sinfulness here to this place to be included, to be part of the fellowship, to take part in the forgiveness; the amnesty that redemption proclaims, and we take the chance and live in the hope that he will turn his face toward us again, that He will look at us, and that like Peter we may be touched by the divine mercy that renews our hope in the face of sin.
If Fellowship and Forgiveness belong to this place, so does Mercy.
Mercy is a gift we cannot receive until we have surrendered. It was not until Peter looked Jesus in the eye with full knowledge of what he had done and who he was, that he could simply give up, surrender to grace knowing full well that he was, after all kinds of testing and mistrust, accepted in all his brokenness.
Mercy is not benevolent tolerance or a kind of grudging forgiveness. It is a loving allowing, a willing breaking of the rules by the one who made the rules. It is wink and a smile. Receiving the mercy of God takes humility. That was the difference between Peter and Judas. It was that quality that made the difference between one who said: “I have sinned against heaven and earth.” and then destroyed himself in pride, unable to admit that he had done such a thing; and the other one, who failed by his denial, and was willing to look into the eyes of the one he had failed.
In this place, around this table, gather the weak the broken the lame, the sinners, the powerless to celebrate fellowship, forgiveness, and mercy. If Jesus who sits with us at this table is the revelation of what is going on inside the eternal God, which is the core of Christian faith, then we are forced to conclude that God is very humble. He never holds rightful claims against us. We never attain anything by our own holiness but by ten thousand surrenders to Mercy. A lifetime of received forgiveness allows us to become mercy. And when the time comes for us to look into the face of Christ, we can only hope that he will turn and look at us just as he did Peter. Our best hope is that he will wink and smile, and once again we will feast in joy as we pass the plate of Mercy to all who are broken and humble enough to come in.
Sing: “There is a Balm in Gilead”
Have you ever noticed when driving around town those people who are in tank tops and shorts running along with the latest expensive running shoes? They are never smiling. They look like they are in agony, and then I begin to wonder why the people who are running are the ones who don’t need to. They already have flat abs. They don’t need to run. I do, Then I just speed up so I don’t have to see them. It’s all part of the culture and age in which we live. It has been poisoned by a cult of youth and healthy living evidenced by flat bellies and blemish free tanned supple skin so much so that we must now reach deeply into our treasure of tradition for an antidote that would restore our vision letting us see an even greater sacramental sign that reveals the Holy and the Presence of God. I’ll remind you again. When it comes to spirituality and sacraments, it is always going to be about people.
This cult of youth and health has cost us a great treasure, and hides from eyes a living sacrament of Christ’s presence. It is the sacrament of suffering, illness and age.
The sick and frail are themselves a sacrament of Christ’s presence among us. Those bent with age and slowed by the burden of years are a living reminder of Christ under the burden of our sin. They proclaim to us still the Good News of Hope in a living homily of patience. Those who live with sickness and pain are a far more real sign of Christ’s presence than the crucifixes which hang all around us. Knees that have bent before the Bread of Life and the Cup of Salvation are worn from a life of adoration and service. Feet that now shuffle behind walkers or canes have walked down the aisles of our churches in a life-long procession toward the holy.
These are lives broken for all. In humble recognition of that which is holy, we anoint with sacred oil that which is most precious for us and bears the image of Christ. We touch, embrace, and reach out not so much to give strength as to receive a measure of their strength and their patience.
I’ve always believed and sensed very deeply that hospitals and nursing homes are very holy places. They are filled with the presence of God, the power of life, the hope of resurrection. In the presence of these holy ones who are suffering, frail, yet faithful. At the same time, they are often places of great loneliness and isolation. Often the sick and the frail are cut off or absent from the fellowship, friendship, and nurturing companionship of the church. One of the most under-appreciated sacramental signs happens during Holy Week when a Bishop gathers the church together for the Blessing and Consecration of the Oils. Then, at the conclusion, someone from every parish takes some of that Oil back to the parish church visually and materially linking all the churches together.
We use these blessed oils in the most wonderful way to mark places and people as holy, as sacred, and as someone very dear to the heart of God. When an altar is blessed, oil is poured on it. When a church is blessed, oil is smeared on its walls. When someone steps up wanting the privilege of sharing the Body and Blood Christ giving witness to their faith in Confirmation, we smear oil on them. When the hands of priest are prepared to hold the sacred gifts in sacrifice and offering, they are smeared with oil. The act unites and bonds us together. Listen to the prayer a Bishop offers over the oil of the sick: “Lord God, loving Father, you bring healing to the sick through your Son Jesus Christ. Hear us as we pray to you in faith, and send the Holy Spirit, man’s Helper and Friend, upon this oil, which nature has provided to serve the needs of men. May your blessing come up on all who are anointed with this oil, that they may be freed from pain and illness and made well again in body, mind, and soul. Father, may this oil be blessed for our use the name of Lord Jesus Christ who lives and reigns with you forever and ever. Amen.
When that oil shared with communities around the diocese is then taken and smeared on the head and hands of the sick who, because of their illness or age have been away, they are once again in touch with, included in, and part of the sacramental praying church. The healing is about reaching out and gathering back in whoever is broken and left out. There is hardly anything more painful than loneliness and the feeling of abandonment that often comes with disease, suffering, and age. In their suffering, those we anoint become sacraments in a sense. They are a sign to us of the suffering Christ who stands among us with the promise of resurrection and hope.
We who live in this sacramental faith develop an eye for the holy.
We see it where others do not. We look upon common ordinary things and can see their potential for bearing grace. Bread, Wine, Water, Oil, and Flames to the sacramental eye connect us with the Holy, and can lift us out of the present.
Let us pray: Father, you raised your Son’s cross as the sign of victory and life. May all who share in his suffering find in this sacrament a source of fresh courage and healing. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ who lives forever and ever, Amen.
Listen now the Word of God.
A reading from the Prophet Isaiah:
“The desert and the parched land will exult; the steppe will rejoice and bloom.
They will bloom with abundant flowers, and rejoice with joyful song
The glory of Lebanon will be given to them, the splendor of Carmel and Sharon;
They will see the glory of the Lord, the splendor of our God.
Strengthen the hands that are feeble, make firm the knees that are weak,
say to those whose hearts are frightened: Be Strong, Fear Not!
Here is your God, he comes with vindication;
With divine recompense he comes to save you.
Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared;
Then will the lame leap like a stag, then the tongue of the dumb will sing.
Sing: “Healing River”
A reading from the Epistle of Saint James.
Is there any one among you sick? Let him bring in the presbyters of the Church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he be in sins, they shall be forgiven him.
The Word of the Lord
The Book of the Gospels it taken from the Altar to the Ambo
Sing: “Praise to you Lord, Jesus Christ. King of Endless Glory.”
A reading of the Holy Gospel according to Mark
“Jesus appeared to the Eleven and said to them:
“Go into the whole world and proclaim the good news to all creation.
The man who believes in it and accepts baptism will be saved;
the man who refuses to believe in it will be condemned.
“Signs like these will accompany those who professed their faith;
they will use my name to expel demons
they will be able to handle serpents,
they will be able to drink deadly poison without harm
and the sick upon whom they lay their hands will recover.
Then after speaking to them, the Lord Jesus was taken up into heaven
and took his seat at God’s right hand.
The Eleven went forth and preached everywhere.
The Lord continued to work with them through and confirm the message
through the signs which accompanied them.
The Gospel of the Lord.
Illness and suffering have always been among the gravest problems confronted in human life. In illness, we experience our powerlessness, our limitations, and illness always leads us to glimpse death. It can lead to anguish, self-absorption, sometimes even despair and revolt against God. It can also make a person more mature, and initiate a search for God and a return to God. Christ’s compassion toward the sick and his many healings of every kind of infirmity are a wonderful sign that “God has visited his people” and that the Kingdom of God is close at hand. Jesus has the power not only to heal, but also to forgive sins, he has come to heal the whole person, soul and body; he is the physician the sick have need of. His compassion toward all who suffer goes so far that he identifies himself with them: “I was sick and you visited Me.” His preferential love for the sick has not ceased through the centuries to draw the very special attention of Christians toward all those who suffer in body and soul. It is the source of tireless efforts to comfort them. Often Jesus asks the sick to believe. He makes use of signs to heal: spittle and the laying on of hands, mud and washing. The sick try to touch him, and so in the sacraments Christ continues to touch us in order to heal us. With great confidence then, and in response to the command of Christ that we should continue to do what he has done and act in his name, I ask that those who wish to receive the strength and grace of this Holy Anointing come forward.
My sisters and brothers, in our prayer of faith let us appeal to God for those who are before us:
- Come and strengthen them through his holy anointing, Lord Have Mercy
- Free them from all harm: Lord Have Mercy
- Free them from sin and all temptation: Lord Have Mercy
- Relieve the sufferings of all the sick her present: Lord, Have Mercy
- Assist those dedicated to the care of the sick: Lord, Have Mercy
- Give life and health to our brother on whom we not lay hands in your name: Lord, Have Mercy.
The imposition of hands takes place followed by the anointing.
“Through this holy anointing may the Lord in his love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit. May the Lord who frees you from sin save you and raise you up.”
Lord Jesus Christ, our Redeemer,
by the grace of your Holy Spirit
cure the weakness of your servants.
Heal them and forgive their sins;
restore them to full health and strengthen them to continue their service to your people
for you are Lord forever and ever, Amen.
May the God of all consolation
bless you in every way
and grant you hope all the days of your life.
May God restore you to health
and grant you salvation.
May God fill your heart with peace
and lead you to eternal life.
May Almighty God bless you,
the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen
The “Servant Song” is sung