FR. TOM'S HOMILY FOR THE FIST SUNDAY OF LENT, March 1, 2020:
One Ash Wednesday, the church was packed with the faithful eager to receive their ashes. Another minister helped the priest distribute the ashes, and they each started at opposite ends of the line and worked towards each other. But the other minister was having trouble remembering what to say. The priest said, “It is easy, you say, ‘Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.’” As they were about to begin, the minister panicked unable to remember the phrase. He hurried back to the priest and asked for the phrase again. Father told him and he went back to his station. But no sooner had he left, then he returned again. This time in frustration, the priest said, “Remember, you are a dummy and you’ll always be a dummy.” The minister said, “Okay, okay, I’ve got it” and sheepishly went back and distributed ashes. As the line shrank and the priest and the minister came closer together, Father was stunned to hear the words the minister was saying, “You are a dummy and you’ll always be a dummy.”
Judging by our Ash Wednesday celebrations, I think our Lenten journey is off to a good start. We were blessed with packed churches in all of our parishes, and I have heard from other priests who likewise experienced larger-than-usual turnout this year. And, none of our ministers called anyone a dummy!
Ash Wednesday is a celebration that always moves me and causes me to ponder what it means. For example, even though we were at near standing-room-only on Wednesday, not one of us was obliged to attend Mass, or get ashes on our foreheads. Ash Wednesday is not a holy day of obligation. It is a completely optional celebration. And yet, ask even the most marginally active Catholic and they will tell you, “I have to get my ashes.” Why is it that so many people go out of their way on Ash Wednesday to essentially come to church and leave with a dirty forehead?
I experienced Wednesday as a profound sign that says that even though there may be many people who do not practice their faith by coming to Mass each week, there is still an incredible hunger for the divine, a yearning for something greater than ourselves, a desire for something more meaningful than the superficial pleasures the world has to offer, and even a deep recognition that we are sinners in need of God’s abundant mercy. We still desire that closeness to God in the depths of our hearts. And, I think, there is something profoundly humbling about these dirty foreheads – something that roots us once again in God when we so publicly and literally mark ourselves with this symbol of ashes.
Just think of the symbolism. On a very natural level, the ashes on our foreheads are a reminder that all things end. They remind us in a very direct way that our time on earth is limited, that we will one day return to the dust from which we came. As we pray in one of the opening prayers for a funeral Mass, “O God, who have set a limit to this present life, so as to open up an entry into eternity...” Our time on earth does not last forever, it has a limit. But, that limit is not depressing, it is in fact the sign of new life – it opens up an entry into eternity.
Our ashes represent this cycle so beautifully. The ashes we placed on our forehead as a reminder that we are dust, just a year ago were the vibrant and green palms that we waved as we welcomed Christ and His triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. We have now replaced those “hosannas” of last year with the cry, “Be merciful O Lord, for we have sinned.” The paschal cycle of life, death, and new life is renewed once again as we enter into this sacred season.
Pope Francis, in his homily on Wednesday, gave an incredibly evocative reflection on the phrase, “You are dust and to dust you shall return” and the image of those ashes that we all embraced mere days ago. He said, “Ashes are a reminder of the direction of our existence: a passage from dust to life. We are dust, earth, clay, but if we allow ourselves to be shaped by the hands of God, we become something wondrous. More often than not, though, especially at times of difficulty and loneliness, we only see our dust! But the Lord encourages us: in his eyes, our littleness is of infinite value. So let us take heart: we were born to be loved; we were born to be children of God.” He said, “Lent is not a time for useless sermons, but for recognizing that our lowly ashes are loved by God. It is a time of grace, a time for letting God gaze upon us with love and in this way change our lives. We were put in this world to go from ashes to life.” Not to remain ashes, but to be transformed from ashes to newness of life.
Scientists tell us that the matter that makes up every human body originally began as the matter of the stars. Every atom in our body started out as the carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen of a star. That means that we are all literally composed of star dust – each one of us. And, I think God did that on purpose so that we will know from the moment of our creation is that our origin is luminous and our destiny is to shine just as brightly. From the origins of the universe until our individual births, we were created to be luminous beings. Our Lenten journey begins with that same dust on our foreheads as a reminder that these 40 days of prayer, fasting, and charitable giving are all meant to renew us so that we can again shine the light and love and mercy and compassion of Christ more brightly than before. To become luminous once again.
The Holy Father said, “We are precious dust that is destined for eternal life. We are the dust of the earth, upon which God has poured out his heaven, the dust that contains his dreams. We are God’s hope, his treasure and his glory. We are dust that is loved by God.”
My friends, “You are dust and to dust you will return.” But embrace that identity and all the luminosity it promises. Yes, we are dust – but we are dust that is loved by God. God loves every luminous part of your being and wants nothing more than for you to shine with the brightness of a thousand stars. And so, my friends, let us allow ourselves to be loved by God. Let us invite God to shower us with His forgiveness and mercy, especially during these 40 days. Let us remind ourselves of our preciousness in God’s sight – so precious that He created us out of the stars themselves. Let us rise again from ashes as we journey once again toward Easter. And let us share that same love of God luminously with everyone we meet.
May the Lord give you peace.
FR. TOM'S HOMILY FOR THE 7th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, February 23, 2020:
One of the single most powerful spiritual moments of my life happened on September 12, 2001. We all remember the tragic events of the day prior as our nation was brutally attacked and more than 3,000 innocent people lost their lives. It was a moment unlike anything that most Americans had ever experienced as the occasions have been very few that we have ever been attacked on our own soil. But, it was the next morning that struck me in a powerful way. I was a new priest, just a week shy of my first anniversary of ordination, and people were flooding to the Church for prayer and to find some solace and hope in the aftermath of war. As I sat in prayer that morning, getting ready to offer some words of spiritual consolation, my heart nearly stopped as I read the words of the Gospel on that day. The Gospel passage that the liturgy of the Church had to offer us on September 12th was this, “Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you.”
I don’t know that there were ever a more difficult time to hear those words; but also I do know that it was the most important time to hear them. As our hearts were full of sorrow, as well as anger, and confusion, and perhaps even a desire for vengeance – God had His most powerful message ready for us, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” In other words, God was saying very simply and powerfully to our hearts – don’t forget who you are. In the midst of this tragedy, do not let your hearts be filled with anger and hate – but remember who you are; remember what it means to follow My Son. I have never forgotten that moment or the impact that those words had on my heart that day. And, there was no coincidence in those words. In fact, just another day later was the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, and then the Memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows. God had His message ready for us in those days. “I love you, I am with you, do not let your hearts be turned to hate. Conquer this darkness with the light of My Son.”
Today’s Gospel message to love our enemies can be one of the most difficult parts of the Gospel for us to embrace. It is contrary to our human nature, contrary to what the world tells us. Many of us hear these words with some doubts – are we really meant to love our enemies, turn the other cheek, give without expecting repayment, to not judge people, to pray for those who are unkind to us? It would be difficult to find another passage in the Gospel that is more at odds with our world’s normal way of behaving. If we turn the other check, after all, won’t we just get hit on that one too?
But, at the same time, this passage states more clearly than just about any other exactly how we are different from the world as believers in Jesus. Our reading from Leviticus today said it well, “Be holy, for I, the LORD, your God, am holy. You shall not bear hatred for your brother or sister in your heart…Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against any of your people. You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Radical, constant, unrelenting love is the unique and particular call of all of us who were baptized in Jesus Christ.
Jesus reminds us to stop wasting energy holding on to past hurts, trying to settle old scores, even handing down grudges from one generation to the next. Just think, how many of us are angry with someone because of the way they treated us, something they said to us, or something they said about us – a day ago, a week ago, a month ago, even years ago? As Christians, we are not called to anger, judgment and resentment. We are called to love – always, everywhere, everyone, with no conditions or exceptions. And not a superficial kind of love; not a huggy-feely love, not an all-accepting generic love that fails to ask anything of us or the other. Jesus inaugurates a new kind of love – one that is so profound, so deep that it leads Him to love His enemies all the way to the Cross for us; a love so powerful that it is transformative of not only us as individuals, but even of the whole world. Jesus hanging on that cross – specifically for you, for me – is the greatest symbol of love that has ever existed. He did that for you because he loves you.
We love our enemies because when we love Jesus, everyone is within our circle of love – even our enemies. No one is excluded; no one is shut out. If Christianity is to ever change our world it will only be accomplished by the noticeably different behavior of Christians. In this world that is so full of hate, anger, and division, do we stand out in contrast as recognizably different; to paraphrase the hymn, “Will they know that we are Christians by our love”?
Jesus calls us to rise above the pettiness of the world. So, the one who was struck on the cheek should rise above the attack or insult and not respond in kind. The one who lost the tunic relinquishes even the cloak, not to be outdone in generosity. It is a way of saying: I will undo your violence toward me with generosity, goodness, kindness, mercy and compassion. I will erase your evil with my constant acts of goodness. The insight and brilliance of Jesus is to recognize that the only real antidote to the violence and evil in our world is the love, forgiveness and the mercy of God – as shown to the world by you and by me. We are not called to overlook the evils in our world, but to overwhelm the evil in our world with our unrelenting acts of goodness, kindness, and holiness.
I like to say that there are no asterisks in the Bible. After Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” There isn’t an asterisk that says, “See below: Unless your enemy is really mean; or really deserves it.” Our Lord and Savior says simply, “Love, and bless, and forgive, and pray.” This is a Christian heroism that does not merely respond to evil in the world, but transforms it – through Christ – into goodness and holiness. But it takes real courage to practice it. It is not easy. But if we could be called to it on September 12, 2001; surely we can be called to it today. This is the only way that the Kingdom of God will ever reach its fulfillment; if it begins in the converted hearts of believers.
Today, Jesus is urging you and me to join Him again on a journey. We’ve all come a certain distance and now He wants us to move just a little more. Can we give a little more to those in need, forgive a little more those who hurt us, love a little more even those who have not earned it? He says today, “You have followed me this far; and now join me for the extra mile – it will make all the difference.”
Love, give, pray, forgive – even just a little more; and you will transform first your soul and then, the world.
May the Lord give you peace.
FR. TOM'S HOMILY FOR THE 6th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, February 16, 2020:
Everyone has heard of Jesse Owens, famous for winning four gold medals in the Berlin Olympics in 1936. Not so many, though, have heard of Lutz Long. Lutz was one of Germany’s top athletes in the 1936 games and one of Adolph Hitler’s favorites. In the long jump trials, Lutz broke the Olympic record. There was only one man who could possibly beat him – Jesse Owens.
Just before Jesse’s turn to qualify, Hitler infamously left his box and walked out of the games. This was viewed as a snub of the black athlete who didn’t fit into Hitler’s ideal. Jesse said of that moment, “It made me mad as anyone can be. Then, I fouled on my first try and didn’t jump far enough to qualify on my second. With only one try left, I began to panic.” But, then, Jesse felt a hand on his shoulder and it belonged to Lutz Long. Lutz suggested that Jesse draw a line a few inches short of the takeoff board and jump from there. And it worked. Jesse qualified by a foot.
That moment of heroic kindness sparked the beginning of a close friendship between the two. In the days ahead, Jesse won three gold medals with Lutz cheering him on at every event. Then came the long jump finals pitting Jesse against Lutz. Again, Jesse won. He recalled what happened next, “While Hitler glared, Lutz held up my hand and shouted to the gigantic crowd, ‘Jes-se Ow-ens!’ Then the stadium picked up the chant. My hair stood on end.”
Ordinarily athletes don’t help their opponents, but Lutz Long showed Jesse an heroic kindness that was truly miraculous. Ordinarily athletes don’t celebrate an opponent’s victory. But Lutz Long was no ordinary athlete. He rejoiced in Jesse’s achievement in a way that spoke truth, and love, and hope to the watching world.
In today’s passage from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is reminding us that we too are called to offer acts of heroic kindness. He reminds us of the incredible power that showing kindness can have in our lives and in our world. Jesus urged His followers to show kindness to one another, even to the point of “turning the other cheek” when someone treated them unkindly. He warns those who treat others with anger, “You have heard that it was said…’Whoever kills will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother or sister will be liable to judgment.” Jesus lived this message Himself showing kindness to sinners, compassion to the sick, mercy to His enemies. And so should we.
Kindness blesses the person to whom we are kind and it also blesses us when we extend that kindness. Today’s readings invite us to take a look at our own lives and ask ourselves how they compare to the life that Jesus calls us to in the Sermon on the Mount. The invite us to ask ourselves what could happen in our world and in our lives if the energy we expend on anger, or even apathy, were instead expended on kindness? How would our lives and those around us change if instead of mimicking the anger and division we hear around us, we embraced heroic kindness as our mission and our daily focus? The pattern of anger begetting anger is too ordinary in our world. We give in to it often without even noticing. We’re called to something bigger, something better, something stronger.
Kindness is a power greater than any other on earth. And it is at the disposal of every person in every nation; at the disposal of each and every one of us here today. What’s more, it has no limit. In fact, the more kindness that we give, the more there is to receive, the more it changes our world.
When we feel the desire to respond to the challenges of our world with anger or even hatred, let’s remember Lutz Long and face that anger with heroic kindness. Let us live the lives of extraordinary kindness that Jesus Himself lived and that He calls forth from each one of us, His followers. Let us engage in heroic acts of kindness as though it were the only thing we were called to do.
Let me end with the Prayer of St. Francis, which exemplifies the lives of kindness that we are called to live:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.
O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
May the Lord give you peace.
FR. TOM'S HOMILY FOR THE 5th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, February 9, 2020:
Three people were viewing the Grand Canyon one day. One was an artist, one a priest and the third was a cowboy. As they stood on the edge, each one responded to the wonder before them. The artist said, “What a beautiful scene to paint!” The priest cried, “What a wonderful example of God’s handiwork!” And the cowboy sighed and said, “Heck of a place to lose a cow.”
My friends, perspective matters. In our Gospel today, Jesus proclaimed, “You are the salt of the earth…You are the light of the world… Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.” We know this passage well, but I think that we most often focus on our failure in its regard. In other words, we usually hear, “You are supposed to be the salt of the earth and light of the world; so get to it!!” But, as I reflected on this Gospel this week in my own prayer, what kept coming to me were images of different people. These weren’t people who are failing at their mission as salt and light in our world, but rather people shining brightly and bringing the full flavor of the Gospel to bear.
For example, I kept thinking about my grandfather and in particular the night that he returned to Heaven. When he passed, of course, there was sadness, but it wasn’t the same kind of sadness that we often experience with a loss. And that was because we knew where he was going. My grandfather lived his life as a deeply prayerful Catholic man, devoted to God; devoted to the Church; devoted to his wife and children; devoted to service. He was a man that everyone knew and loved. He always had a smile on his face, a joke to tell (that he never told correctly), a joyful song to sing (whether or not he could carry a note), and a kind word to share. For me, he was a model of how a good, holy, Christian man lives his life. And as I held his hand surrounded by family on the night he returned to Heaven, there was in that room even a sense of joy because we knew he was receiving the reward that God had prepared for him. For me, he was the salt of the earth and the light of the world.
And you know, as I speak of him, I’m sure you’re thinking of someone in your family or in your life who was or is salt and light to those around them. We all know people like my grandfather and their lives inspire us. We can sometimes be tempted to think that holiness is something abstract or an ideal. But, I know that holiness is real and tangible. We can be tempted to think that holiness is something very rare and only for the privileged few – like like St. Francis, St. Mother Teresa or St. John Paul the 2nd. But, I think that holiness is actually as common as salt. When Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth and the light of the world,” He didn’t say, “you will be,” He said you are! He was reminding us, His followers, of our call to live and spread His Gospel. He was telling us what we have been made through His grace. I think Jesus paying His followers a compliment – then and now. Jesus was telling them that He already knew how good they are; how holy they are; and He is saying the same to you and to me.
Any homilist today has a choice between a homily that is a pat on the back or a slap on the cheek. I think today is a good day for a pat on the back. All of us here are the salt of the earth and the light of the world already. If we look around, we just might realize that we meet holiness in and through each other every day. We can see it in the devotion of those who come to daily Mass; in those devoted to the Blessed Mother and the prayer of the Rosary; in those who have reared their families and taught them to share a devotion to God and His church – like the beautiful family we have here today bringing their child for baptism. We can see it in the beautiful young people joyfully coming to church with a smile on their face. We see this holiness in those who care for the needy of our community, whose ministry brings them to prisons and nursing homes and homeless shelters; we see it in our bereavement ministers who accompany grieving families through the loss of a loved one; we see this holiness in the sick and the dying facing the greatest challenge of their lives with tremendous faith. Holiness is all around us. We are salt and light.
This holiness is prayer-powered and grace-filled! This much we all know, but we also need remember that this holiness reveals itself to us in human form. It is the sanctity that nods to us on the street; that offers us a bowl of hot soup on a cold day or helps to shovel us out from a snow storm. It is in the face of the person who tells us not to worry or that they understand what we’re going through or that they will offer a prayer for us and our needs. If our eyes our open, we can recognize the holiness that surrounds us at nearly every moment not floating high in the heavens out of reach, but right in front of us in the places that we live.
If there is a challenge to be found for us today as we hear these words about salt and light it is this – let us all pledge to expand the area of goodness and holiness in our lives. If we are reaching out this far in goodness, let us agree to reach out that much farther. Let us acknowledge today in this holy place for this Holy Mass that we are holy; let us remember all of the good and important ways that God’s holiness already shines on our faces and in our lives through our idealism, our commitment to faith and family and Church, through our devotion to prayer, our acceptance of the values of the Gospel, our prayerful celebration of the Holy Mass, our continual outreach to the homeless, the hungry, the grieving, the sick and imprisoned. Be the change you want to see in the world; be the holiness the world needs. Shine your light.
Pope Francis said, “It’s curious, both salt and light are for others, not for oneself: salt does not give flavor to itself; light does not illuminate itself. The Christian is salt given to others by God. Our attitude must be to give of ourselves, to give flavor to the lives of others, to give flavor to many things with the message of the Gospel, to light the world with the light of Christ.”
I think that Jesus wants us to know today that holiness is not only our destination it is also our present reality – always in need of purification and perfection, of course; but we are already the salt of the earth and the light of the world and our good deeds give glory and praise to our Heavenly Father.
Let us leave this place and light the world with God’s love and spread the flavor of the Gospel wherever we go.
May the Lord give you peace.
FR. TOM'S HOMILY FOR THE PRESENTATION OF THE LORD, February 2, 2020:
Today we celebrate the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord. This is one of the oldest feasts in the Church and it is the oldest feast that honors our Blessed Mother. As we heard in our Gospel, following the precepts of the Law, Mary and Joseph, brought Jesus to the Temple to be presented to God 40 days after his birth and so we celebrate it today, 40 days after our celebration of Christmas.
Today’s feast is really a feast for families, to celebrate family, and in particular to celebrate the great responsibility and privilege that parents have in raising their children in the faith. It is a day, also, for us to reflect upon the great gift of our own baptism. After all, the Presentation in the Temple is reminiscent of what parents to today when they bring their children to the church to receive the Sacrament of Baptism.
I keep thinking of one particular line from the Baptismal ritual that stands out for me. During the rite, the priest or deacon reminds the parents, “You are the first teachers of your children in the ways of faith. May you also be the best of teachers, bearing witness to the faith by what you say and do.” It is a powerful moment in the rite of Baptism, but I think it is a powerful reminder for all of us who have received the grace of Baptism.
Certainly for the parents and the godparents, it is a strong reminder of the great responsibility that they take on when they bring their children to the Church. It is not just a matter of becoming a part of the Christian community. They are not merely fulfilling an obligation that is expected of them from the church and their own families. But, they, too, are pledging to live a certain kind of life – a life that gives witness to their faith through all that they are – in what they say and in what they do.
This is a point that is so important, I want to spend a moment with it. We know that we live in times when the numbers of people practicing their faith are in decline. The greatest increase each year are among those we call “nones.” In other words, when asked what faith tradition they belong to, more and more Americans are responding “none.” But, less we lose hope, there is one category that shows promise. A 2014 study entitled Young Catholic America took a deep look at these trends. The authors found something really interesting – they found that more than 80% of young people who have parents that are active in their faith maintain an active faith life into adulthood. The study remarked, “The single most important measurable factor determining the religious and spiritual lives of teenagers and young adults is the religious faith, commitments, and practices of their parents.”
“You are the first teachers of your children in the ways of faith. May you also be the best of teachers, bearing witness to the faith by what you say and do.” As parents, leading an active Catholic life is not just a good thing, but it has a real impact on the faith life of your children. I often ask our parents – whether in our faith formation program or our Catholic school – where do you want to be in 20 years. When your beautiful young person is an adult, and married, with children of their own; and that beautiful child – now your grandchild – is ready to receive First Holy Communion – where do you want to be? Do you want to be right here with a beautiful tear in your eye as your grandson or granddaughter receives Communion for the first time? Or do you want to be somewhere arguing with your kids about why they have abandoned the faith?
“You are the first teachers of your children in the ways of faith. May you also be the best of teachers.” Parents who are active in their faith have kids who likewise maintain that active faith into adulthood. That’s how it works. It is how it works for you and me, it is how it will continue to work for succeeding generations. So, when someone asks you why you go to Church every week tell them – it is because I want to continue to hand down the faith from my generation to the next.
And, none of this should surprise us. For the more than 2,000 year history of the Church, the faith has been spread – not by printed book or newspaper; not by television broadcast or the internet – it has been spread through the witness of faithful followers of Jesus. One of the most ancient sayings about the Church is that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” The word martyr means witness and it refers to the early followers of Christ whose witness was so powerful that they often gave even their lives for the faith. This kind of witness has a powerful impact. The threat of martyrdom didn’t leave people running away from the faith in fear, but rather running toward the Church so that more and more could have even just a seed of the same kind of faith that those early followers did.
When we look at the state of the church or the state of the faith in our world today, it is an incorrect assumption to think that the end is near. Rather, this is a moment in time when we are all called to be the best teachers of faith to those around us – by what we say and what we do. Mary and Joseph challenge all of us to reflect on the example of living faith that we’re setting. Do we make the practice of our faith important? Do we let the people closest to us, those whom we live with, know how important that faith is? Do we pray together as a family, with friends, in the community of the Church?
The renewal of the church today is no farther away than the person on your left and right. We have the power to be the seed of the Church today exactly as those who went before us were. We all share the privilege of witnessing to our faith in such a way that others are inspired to follow. Joseph and Mary show us that the best way to achieve this is by the good example of our own lives; knowing God’s law, following it; and working together for the spiritual wellbeing of the whole.
Let us all take up this challenge anew today. I’ve seen many times the power of one person renewing their commitment to the practice of their faith. It can change your life. It can change your family.
Let us pray today through the intercession of Joseph and Mary that we all be renewed as the best teachers of the faith to all those around us. This will renew our lives, the lives of those around us, the life of our community of faith.
“You are the first teachers of your children in the ways of faith. May you also be the best of teachers, bearing witness to the faith by what you say and do.”
May the Lord give you peace.