FR. TOM'S HOMILY FOR THE 5th SUNDAY OF LENT, March 29, 2020:
My Dad always worked as a truck driver; and when I was a young boy, he was a long-haul trucker. This means that he would be away on long trips that would take him to all parts of the country for weeks at a time. This meant, of course, that time with Dad was precious, especially during those years because it was rare. In the 1970s, when I was just a kid, our country found itself in the midst of an oil crisis when OPEC declared an oil embargo. These were difficult times in our nation. I remember, maybe you do too, cars lined up for a quarter of a mile beyond every gas station. I remember the signs in front of stations that just said, “No gas today.” And I remember the rationing of gasoline when you could only go to buy gas on certain days based on your license plate number.
As you can imagine, this crisis struck anyone who worked in any travel related industry very hard, and this was true for my Dad, a truck driver. In fact, during this time, he was let go from his job, and was looking for work for quite some time. This was a very difficult time for our family even trying to survive financially.
But here’s the thing; the reason why I’m telling you this story. Of course, as a very young boy, my parents shielded us from these harsh realities that were swirling around us. At the time, we were not conscious of how bad things were around us, or even for our family. I always think back on these years as some of the most wonderful in my childhood. Why? Because all my brother and I knew at the time was this – Dad was home! And that was wonderful. Dad was home when we went off to school. He made us breakfast, sent us off with our lunches; and Dad was there when we got home. We got such a big dose of that precious time with Dad and this was the gift and the grace of what were otherwise difficult years for my family and the country.
I was thinking of this moment in my childhood because, of course, we are all living through a difficult and anxious time in our world today. If we have the news on, our thoughts are being filled with numbers of cases, numbers of fatalities, situations going from bad to worse around our country and around our world. We can be tempted to give into this anxiety and fear and see only the tragedy around us. But, I also know, that even in the midst of our current challenge, there are multiple gifts and graces surrounding us, if only we open our eyes to them.
We heard from Ezekiel today, “I will open your graves and have you rise from them, O my people! I have promised, and I will do it, says the Lord.” God’s words to us, His people, today, through the prophet are a reminder that in our Paschal story of life, death, and resurrection, death is never the end of the story. Our story always ends in renewal, in life more abundant than we could possibly imagine.
We hear the same message clearly from Jesus in our Gospel. We know this story of the raising of Lazarus well, but notice what Jesus says to His disciples before He goes to His friend who has died. He said, “This illness is not to end in death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” And glorified He is. When Jesus arrives on the scene, Martha is certain that this story ends in death. “If you had been here, my brother would not have died,” is her accusation to Jesus. It is the kind of accusation that we have perhaps felt in this midst of our crisis. Maybe in our minds we have though, “Lord, why are you allowing this to happen?”
But, let me be clear, as Jesus was clear to Martha. God does not create the illness in our world; God does not cause the death and destruction in our world. He is not responsible for the pain and suffering in our world. God does not create these terrible things just to teach us a lesson. That would be capricious and cruel. Each of these horrible things are the very opposite of who and what God is. God is love, God is mercy, God is our salvation – always and in every situation. But, it doesn’t mean that we can’t find His grace, His glory, His gift in the midst of this crisis.
A dear friend of mine, a Poor Clare nun named Claire, was always fond of reminding me, “Tom, life is messy. Invite God into the mess.” God did not cause this mess, but God is in the midst of it – because that’s where God always is – in our midst, trying to be close to us, helping us to carry the burden, trying to lift the anxiety, desiring nothing more than to fill us with His peace, His love, His holiness. It’s up to us to invite God in so that even in the midst of crisis, we can find a renewed faith, a renewed experience of our living God who is close to us.
On Friday, Pope Francis spoke to the whole world when he held an extraordinary Urbi et Orbi blessing. This blessing, “to the city and to the world” typically only takes place twice a year – at Christmas and Easter. The Holy Father knew that in this extraordinary global moment, we could all benefit from this blessing. In his reflection, he spoke about the Gospel passage where Jesus and the Apostles are on a boat at sea, and the waters become dangerous.
He said, “Like the disciples, we find ourselves afraid and lost. Like the disciples we were caught off guard by an unexpected, turbulent storm. But, we have realized that we are on the same boat, all of us fragile and disoriented, but at the same time important and needed, all of us called to row together, each of us in need of comforting the other. Just like the disciples, who spoke anxiously with one voice, saying ‘We are dying’, so we too have realized that we cannot go on thinking of ourselves, but only together can we do this. The storm exposes our vulnerability and uncovers those false certainties around which we have constructed our daily schedules and priorities. It shows us how we have allowed to become dull and feeble the very things that nourish, sustain and strengthen our lives and our communities. You, Lord, are calling on us to seize this time of trial as a time of choosing. It is not the time of your judgement, but of our judgement: a time to choose what matters and what passes away, a time to separate what is necessary from what is not. It is a time to get our lives back on track with regard to you, Lord, and to others.”
My friends, God has not caused this moment – but He is very present in the midst of it. Can you feel that Divine presence? As with every moment, there is an opportunity to discover the gift and the grace that is hidden here. Use your time of isolation as a time of prayer. Use your time together as a family as a time to renew, rebuild, or even create a strong family build on faith and love. Think about how you will act differently when this moment passes – do not simply go back to the crazy, busy, unnecessarily hectic lives we have allowed ourselves to create; and instead remember that it is good to slow down; it is good to be together; it is good to gather around the table for a meal; it is good to pray as a family; it is good to have the chance to connect with one another in ways that are deeper than we are used to.
The Holy Father said, “By ourselves we flounder: we need the Lord, like ancient navigators needed the stars. Let us invite Jesus into the boats of our lives. Let us hand over our fears to him so that he can conquer them. Like the disciples, we will experience that with him on board there will be no shipwreck. Because this is God’s strength: turning everything that happens to us to the good, even the bad things. He brings serenity into our storms, because with God life never dies.”
My friends, life is messy – especially in this moment – but invite God into the mess. Let him fill this moment with His love, mercy, grace, and hope. Let this be the gift we discover today.
May the Lord give you peace.
FR. TOM'S HOMILY FOR THE 4th SUNDAY IN LENT, March 22, 2020:
Join me in song for a moment – you all know this one: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now I’m found, was blind but now I see.” You are all officially members now of our virtual choir.
I was blind, but now I see. Our Scriptures today are full of these opposing images of darkness vs. light; and blindness vs. sight. “Surely we are not also blind?” is the surprising question of the Pharisees and it is a question that is meant to speak to us today as well. Surely, we are not blind also?
Today’s Gospel passage gives us an incredible story of Jesus that functions on different levels. On the surface is a spectacular story of the healing power of Jesus. How amazing it must have been to witness this scene. Everyone knew this man to be blind all his life. And, now through this dramatic action of mud and saliva, Jesus restores physical sight to the man. And, all are amazed, but the story quickly shifts away from that level to the deeper level that asks where true blindness exists? Is it merely in the eyes? Or is real blindness in the heart; in the soul?
The author John Howard Griffin was best known for his book Black Like Me, which describes his experience of living disguised as a black man in the South in the early 1960s; later made into a movie. What is not widely known about Mr. Griffin is that during World War II, he was blinded in an airplane explosion; and he lived for 12 years completely blind. Then one day, walking down a street near his parent’s home in Texas, he suddenly began to see what he described as “red sand” and without warning his sight returned. A specialist later told him that he had been suffering from a blockage to an optic nerve that had suddenly cleared. Referring to that experience, he told a reporter, “You can’t imagine what it is like for a father to see his children for the first time. I had constantly pictured them in my mind and then there they were - so much more beautiful that I had ever imagined.”
Blindness, whether physical or spiritual, whether interior or exterior, is about what we are failing or unable to see. You know, the very first words that God speaks in the Bible are these, “Let there be light.” The very first words of God make it possible for our eyes to see the beauty of His creation; to literally see His presence that is all around us. When we are spiritually blind – and that is the blindness that really matters – we are blind because we have failed to see God who is right in front of us; all around us; speaking to our hearts; speaking to our lives.
Surely, we are not also blind, are we? This question has continued to echo in my heart throughout this week as each day we are being invited into greater and greater isolation because of the threat of this virus. And, it echoes not because I knew I was blind; it echoes because even in the midst of this crisis, I am beginning to see new things all around us.
Helen Keller said, “The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched - they must be felt with the heart.” In the midst of the anxiety and even fear that people are currently experiencing, I also see moment after moment of people reaching out to one another and finding new ways to care for one another. Our Grab & Go dinners which began on Friday were a great example. We encountered person after person who are already experiencing the anxiety that comes from the loss of their job, their lively hood, and the uncertainty about the days and weeks ahead. One after another, they were touched by a gesture as simple as a meal. Jesus words from Matthew’s Gospel were heavy on my heart, “When Lord did we see you hungry and feed you?”
Another example would be what we’re doing right now, celebrating this Holy Mass online. You might recall that a study came out at the end of the summer that showed that 2/3 of Catholics did not believe in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist; that His presence was merely symbolic. I would love to take that poll again right now. We have only been without direct access to our Eucharistic Lord for a week, and already I can see the ways that God is increasing that hunger for what only He can give. I keep thinking of a well known quote by St. Padre Pio. He said, “It would be easier for the world to survive without the sun than to do without Holy Mass.” How many of you are feeling that right now?
I have had moments this week where – even in isolation – I have felt more connected than ever to each one of you and even our global faith community through prayer. God does not ever create the darkness in our world. These dark moments – whether disease, war, despair, or other challenges – are the very opposite of what God does. But, what God always wants to do is open our eyes, lift our blindness, let there be light? This moment is opening our eyes to things we had not previously seen.
What is God showing you in these days? Be attentive to this movement. God wants this moment to be a grace for you and for your family. You and your family are spending more time together – make it meaningful time; renew your personal prayer life and the prayer life of your family; or discover that life of prayer for the first time. Create space that opens the eyes of everyone to the grace, goodness, and mercy that surrounds you.
Let me share a poem with you that you may have seen online. It was written by a Franciscan friar in Ireland called Lockdown.
Yes there is fear.
Yes there is isolation.
Yes there is panic buying.
Yes there is sickness.
Yes there is even death.
But, They say that in Wuhan after so many years of noise
You can hear the birds again.
They say that after just a few weeks of quiet
The sky is no longer thick with fumes
But blue and grey and clear.
They say that in the streets of Assisi
People are singing to each other across the empty squares,
keeping their windows open
so that those who are alone
may hear the sounds of family around them.
They say that a hotel in the West of Ireland
Is offering free meals and delivery to the housebound.
Today a young woman I know
is busy spreading fliers with her number
through the neighbourhood
So that the elders may have someone to call on.
Today Churches, Synagogues, Mosques and Temples
are preparing to welcome
and shelter the homeless, the sick, the weary
All over the world people are slowing down and reflecting
All over the world people are looking at their neighbours in a new way
All over the world people are waking up to a new reality
To how big we really are.
To how little control we really have.
To what really matters.
So we pray and we remember that
Yes there is fear.
But there does not have to be hate.
Yes there is isolation.
But there does not have to be loneliness.
Yes there is panic buying.
But there does not have to be meanness.
Yes there is sickness.
But there does not have to be disease of the soul
Yes there is even death.
But there can always be a rebirth of love.
Wake to the choices you make as to how to live now.
Listen, behind the factory noises of your panic
The birds are singing again
The sky is clearing,
Spring is coming,
And we are always encompassed by Love.
Open the windows of your soul
And though you may not be able
to touch across the empty square,
Join me again, won’t you? “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now I’m found, was blind but now I see.”
May the Lord give you peace.
FR. TOM'S HOMILY FOR THE 3rd SUNDAY OF LENT, March 15, 2020:
Just a few years ago, in 2017, Pope Francis canonized two young people, Francisco and Jacinta Marto. Francisco and Jacinta were two of the three children to whom the Blessed Mother appeared in Fatima, Portugal in 1917. In his homily for their canonization, Pope Francis said, “Confirmed in hope, we give thanks for the countless graces bestowed over these past hundred years. All of them passed beneath the mantle of light that Our Lady has spread over the four corners of the earth, beginning with this land of Portugal, so rich in hope. We can take as our examples Saint Francisco and Saint Jacinta, whom the Virgin Mary introduced into the immense ocean of God’s light and taught to adore Him. That was the source of their strength in overcoming opposition and suffering. God’s presence became constant in their lives, as is evident from their insistent prayers for sinners and their desire to remain ever near to ‘the hidden Jesus’ in the tabernacle.”
Within two years of their experience of grace, their miraculous experience of the Blessed Mother, both Francisco and Jacinta would die as victims of the 1918 Spanish Influenza epidemic. They were 9 and 10 years old. When Pope Francis canonized them in 2017, they became the youngest people ever to be canonized as saints of the church who did not die a martyr’s death.
I have been thinking a lot about the 1918 epidemic as it has tremendous resonance to what we are experiencing right now with the COVID-19 pandemic. Almost moment-by-moment, we hear of new protocols, new closures, new cases unfolding all over our country and all over our world. As we know, here in our diocese, Bishop da Cunha has called for various protocols on our behavior at Mass – all designed to minimize physical contact and lessen the threat of spreading the virus. The obligation to attend Mass this weekend was lifted and so you are all here on a voluntary basis. It would not surprise me in the days ahead if our diocese followed what others have done and ban all publicly celebrated Masses. We will keep you posted should that develop.
Just as a century ago, people today are experiencing high levels of fear and anxiety and uncertainty about what is taking place. In the midst of all of this, we can wonder how we should be responding. I believe that in the story of Francisco and Jacinta there is a very important lesson for us. The lesson is this – as tragic as the 1918 epidemic was, as challenging as this current pandemic is, God always wants to break through our struggles, our challenges, our pains, and our sorrows to spread His love; to be close to us in the midst of it all; to share our pain and turn it to joy. 1918 was a difficult time for the world. The First World War was winding down, and as the world was healing from those wounds, the Spanish flu raged across the globe. And in the midst of it, the Blessed Mother, Our Lady of Light, appeared to these beautiful children in the countryside. Her message radiated out to the world. It was a message of light, joy, prayer, conversion, and peace. The world was not overcome by the darkness it experienced a century ago, instead it was flooded with God’s light.
Because of the coronavirus, our Lent is perhaps about to become the most serious Lent of our lifetimes. Rather than fasting from candy, or too much television, or video games, or soft drinks, we may be called to fast from the Holy Mass, fast from receiving the Eucharist, fast from gathering in our prayer groups, fast from meeting for Bible Study, or faith formation, or the Stations of the Cross – this list can go on and on. This will perhaps be the hardest fast of our lives. But, it can also become the most fruitful we have ever experienced. There is great potential for this moment to be one of profound grace for each of us who embraces it.
Our Gospel today tells us of this encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman. And He says something quite ordinary to her that I think can become for us an extraordinary desire. He says, “Give me a drink.” Now, of course, we all know what it is like in life to be thirsty, this is a common experience. But, I think we also know, especially as people of faith, that the more important thirsts in life aren’t the physical ones, but the spiritual ones we encounter.
There are many references to the spiritual life as a thirst for God in the Old Testament. Psalm 42 says, “As the deer longs for running streams, so my soul thirsts for the living God.” From Isaiah we hear God say, “Come to me, all you who are thirsty.” We all feel a thirst for God. This isn’t new. It is the same inner thirst that people have experienced since the beginning of time. The great Church father, St. Augustine explained it this way, “Our hearts are made for God, and they will not rest, until they rest in Him.” Another way of saying this is that we have a God-shaped hole in our hearts that only God can fill.
If we come to the point where attending Mass is not something available to us, let us not moan and complain, judge and second-guess our leaders. Instead let us be attentive to this fast and its power to make us profoundly thirsty, profoundly hungry for God. These extraordinary protocols will not last forever. In a matter of weeks, or perhaps months, we will return to normality. How will we use this time? Will we be attentive to the holy hunger that these days will induce in us? Hunger for the Eucharist, hunger for our community, hunger to be fed by God? Imagine the joy when we are able to gather around the Table of the Lord in the ways that we are so used to. In the meantime, listen to your “longing for running streams” and let it speak to your heart about your deep desire for what only God can give.
In the mist of the challenges a century ago, God broke in and His light shone in the darkness. It was a time that literally made saints. In the midst of this challenge, allow God to make you a saint too. One of the most well-known quotes of St. Padre Pio is, “Pray, hope, and don’t worry.” Let us make this our motto too during this challenging days. Let us pray for all those effected by this crisis; let us hope in God’s ability to be near to us and lead us through; and let us turn our worries into prayer, our anxieties into faith, handing them over to God.
Jesus, and Jesus alone, can calm the restlessness of our souls. Jesus, and Jesus alone, can satisfy the thirst in our hearts. Jesus, and Jesus alone, can fill the void in our lives. Jesus is the Son of God, who has come to fill that God-shaped hole in each of us. Jesus is the Prince of Peace, who has come to calm that restlessness of our hearts. Jesus is the water from heaven, who has come to satisfy that spiritual thirst we feel.
Let us be attentive in these days to the work that God is doing in our hearts and let us be renewed in our hunger and thirst for God. O Lord, my heart is restless until it rests in You.
May the Lord give you peace.
FR. TOM'S HOMILY FOR THE 2nd SUNDAY OF LENT, March 8, 2020:
I always say that I am a well-named Thomas – a doubter. Especially in my teens and early 20s, I really struggled with faith. I wanted to believe more than anything in the world, but that gift had just not been given to me. And then, around 21 years old, God began to enter my life in a powerful way. I began feeling drawn to the Mass, drawn to the Eucharist. And, I will never forget one particular Sunday. There was nothing different about this Mass, it was just the same as it was every Sunday. But, when the priest got to the words of institution – “Take this, all of you, and eat of it…This is My Body. Take this and drink…This is the chalice of My Blood.” – when the priest said those words, it was though it was the first time I had ever heard them. In that moment, they were not words I was trying to understand with my mind; they were words that I knew were true in my heart. I knew in that moment that Jesus was real; that He was present before me; that He was transfigured in my sight – bread into Body; wine into Blood. After I received Holy Communion that day, I could feel the presence of Jesus in me in a real way. As I knelt back in my pew, tears began to roll down my face. And my life has not been the same since that moment.
I was thinking of this moment in my own life as we hear a similarly amazing story unfold in our Gospel today. Jesus “was transfigured before them; his clothes became dazzling white.” Take a moment to take in that sight. Imagine what must it have been like for the disciples to see something so incredible – Jesus is transfigured, glorified, wrapped in the mantle of God’s wonder – all in the sight of three simple fishermen, Peter, James and John. For them, this moment of Transfiguration was a defining moment in their lives. Up until now, they had seen Jesus in normal, everyday ways. He had not yet really revealed His divinity. But, in this moment they saw Jesus in a new and spectacular way; they experienced this miraculous presence of Moses and Elijah. They heard the very voice of God echoing from Heaven, “This is my beloved son. Listen to him.” From this moment, everything in their lives changed. From this moment, they began to see Jesus in a new light.
It was an experience they would never forget. We know this because St. Peter himself tells us in his second letter, “With our own eyes we saw his greatness. We were there when he was given honor and glory by the Father, when the voice came to him from the Supreme Glory, saying, ‘This is my own dear Son, with whom I am pleased!’ We ourselves heard this voice coming from heaven, when we were with him on the holy mountain.” St. Peter wrote those words 35 years after the resurrection; shortly before he would be crucified. He remembered that moment for the rest of his life.
Today, as we recall the transfiguration of Jesus, it is not a moment of mere historical memory. It is instead a moment of invitation. Jesus invites us to experience transfiguration in our own lives; to have had moments when, even for a split second, we seem to glimpse a reality beyond this one. Those moments when for an instant we see beyond the ordinary to something extraordinary - God’s true presence in our midst; God’s life-changing presence before us.
The Eucharist we gather for every week is a preeminent experience of transfiguration. We gather around this simple table and present mere bread and wine. And just as amazingly as on that mountain, it is transformed in our midst; transfigured into the living presence of God. We begin with elements that are common, ordinary, mundane. We end up with something heavenly, extraordinary and miraculous. It is as if the voice of God says to us, “This bread and this wine are my beloved Son. Welcome Him. Let Him become a part of you. Listen to Him.”
The challenge for us is to live with an openness that believes that God can be transfigured in our midst today, just as He was then. It is an invitation to not close our selves off to the heavenly, to the miraculous because the reality is that Jesus is constantly revealing Himself to us. When our eyes our opened we can see that we live in a near constant state of Transfiguration – that Jesus reveals Himself to us in countless ways every day. He invites us to climb that mountain of transfiguration with Him and experience something of His divine glory.
And if the altar is a place of transfiguration for us; so too is the Confessional. If we have the courage to step into that confessional and lay our sins before God, we too will become dazzling white as our sins are lifted. In that moment Jesus wants to lift off our burdens, take away our struggles, instill in us the beauty of His grace. Jesus wants to restore us to holiness. Imagine that. Imagine letting this thought settle in your heart and take root – I am holy. I am holy. I am without sin. I am free. In the confessional, we hear the voice of God who speaks the most incredible words to us. He says, “Your sins are forgiven.” In the confessional, we are transformed, transfigured by that Grace. In that moment, we once again become God’s beloved daughters, beloved sons, with whom God is well pleased.
My friends, Jesus takes us up that mountain of transfiguration with Him once again today and invites us to recognize His presence in our midst. But, it isn’t just Jesus who becomes transformed and transfigured. We see how transfiguration changed St. Peter’s life forever; and how it changed my life forever. God is inviting us to become transfigured too and change our lives forever.
My friends, let us open our hearts to experience transfiguration together. Jesus is calling us all leave the ordinary behind and ascend the holy mountain. He wants to take us up to be with Him as he did with Peter, James and John. And here, in this moment, Jesus reveals Himself to us if we only open our eyes. He wants to forgive our sins and set us free. Let us see Jesus made new before us and become once again the luminous beings that these encounters makes us.
“This is my beloved Son. Listen to Him.”
May the Lord give you peace.