20 July 2014

Homily - 20 July 2014



The Sixteenth Sunday of the Year (A)

Dear brothers and sisters,

Just a few minutes ago, we collected our various intentions together and presented them to the Father, praying the Lord to “increase the gifts of [his] grace” so that, we, his servants would be “ever watchful in keeping [his] commands.”[1] What, then, are the gifts of his grace, and what are his commands?

Though his commands are not always easy to keep, they are supremely simple. The Lord Jesus summarized them into two simple commands:

You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments (Matthew 22:37-40).

To love God is to honor him as is fitting for the creature to worship the Creator. To love our neighbors is to desire and to work for what is for their true and lasting good. It is as simple as that.

We might say that the gifts of his grace might also be simply summarized in one principle gift, a gift named in the final line from the first reading, the “repentance of sins” (Wisdom 12:19). The reality of sin and the consequences of sin have fallen somewhat out of fashion in recent years and some now even deny that any deed or thought could really be sinful. This is due, in no small part, to the subtlety of the Evil One – he sows while men sleep and are not paying attention - and to our own pride (cf. Matthew 13:25).

Let me illustrate the Devil’s subtlety with a personal anecdote. One warm summer day, I was returning home from a visit with a few friends (I was dressed in normal people clothes). I stopped at a gas station and, after filling up, went inside the store to pay. As soon as I walked through the door, the cashier said to me, “Will you watch the store? I need to use the restroom?” and with that was gone.

As I waited for her to return, my eyes caught sight of a Snickers ice cream bar, one of the greatest delectables known to man. A thought occurred to me: I could take that bar and nobody would ever know about it. I justified the thought in three ways: 1). I was doing her a favor and it is good to be rewarded; 2). It was a hot day and the ice cream would cool me down a bit; and, 3). I was hungry, and we all know that “Snickers really satisfies.”

Certainly it is good to be rewarded for kind acts (so long as we don’t expect it); it is good to be cooled on a hot day; and it is good to have our hunger satisfied. However, it is never good to obtain these goods by committing a sin. This is way of the Evil One: he present good things to us but tempts us to obtain through an immoral manner. I was tempted to obtain three goods by forsaking that which is fully good, the moral law. (For the record, not only did I not take the ice cream bar, but I also did not buy one as a small penance.)

The Evil One continually roams the fields of the Father sowing the seeds of his weeds. These weeds grow and seek to intertwine their roots among the roots of the wheat sowed by the Father and slowly poison the wheat. Once poisoned, the wheat produces little or no fruit and is worthless, good only to be collected with “all who cause others to sin and all evildoers” and cast into the fire (Matthew 13:41).

It sometimes happens that we give in to the subtlety of the Evil One and accept his lies and do not resist the roots of his weeds; we sometimes live, act, and think more like weeds than like wheat. The roots of his weeds have grown and spread so far that many who think themselves wheat in the Father’s fields no longer acknowledge right and wrong; they do not keep the Father’s commands or, worse yet, do not think them important. In their pride, the false wheat do not acknowledge their own sin, that in their deeds and thoughts, in what they have done and in what they have failed to do, they have fallen short and have not produced the proper fruit.

Several years ago, then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger rightly warned of this danger:

Today, having a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labeled as fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, that is, letting oneself be "tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine", seems the only attitude that can cope with modern times. We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one's own ego and desires.

We, however, have a different goal: the Son of God, the true man. He is the measure of true humanism. An "adult" faith is not a faith that follows the trends of fashion and the latest novelty; a mature adult faith is deeply rooted in friendship with Christ. It is this friendship that opens us up to all that is good and gives us a criterion by which to distinguish the true from the false, and deceit from truth.[2]

How, then, do we distinguish the true from the false? How do we love truly and authentically?

We do so by “be[ing] ready to preserve the grace received from the day of our Baptism, continuing to nourish faith in the Lord that prevents evil from taking root.”[3] It was in Baptism that we rejected Satan and all his works and all his empty promises, yet this rejection must be made again and again throughout our lives. This requires a regular examination of our consciences with one simple question: When did I fail to love today, whether in what I did or in what I did not do?

When we begin to ask this question at the end of every day, our sin will be apparent to us and we will have “good ground for hope” because the Lord is “good and forgiving, abounding in kindness to all who call upon [him]” (Wisdom 12:19; Psalm 86:9). Here we see that his kindness requires that we first call upon him, that we acknowledge our sin and pray, “Turn toward me, and have pity on me; give your strength to your servant” (Psalm 86:16).

All of this, of course, presupposes that we desire to be “fervent in hope, faith, and charity.”[4] Put another way, it presupposes that the primary goal of our lives is that we grow in holiness, that we be true and faithful friends of Jesus, that we produce much fruit and yield a rich harvest (cf. John 12:24).

When we think of growing of holiness, we often grow somewhat ill at ease and uncomfortable because we think it is something beyond us and perhaps not even meant for us. Nothing could be farther from the truth! The Lord desires this for each of us. He desires that we be righteous and “shine like the sun in the kingdom of [our] Father” (Matthew 13:43)!

We should not be afraid of holiness or shy away from it; rather, we should desire it with all of our heart! It is only by continual growth in holiness that we will find the satisfaction and fulfilment of our every yearning.

Just as at the end of each day we should ask where we failed to love, at the beginning of each day we should ask for the strength to love. We should keep in mind and heart this advice of J.R.R. Tolkien: “To ourselves we must present the absolute ideal without compromise, for we do not know our own limits of natural strength (+grace), and if we do not aim at the highest we shall certainly fall short of the utmost that we could achieve.”[5]


[1] Collect for the Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time.
[2] Pope Benedict XVI, Homily, 18 April 2005.
[3] Pope Benedict XVI, Angelus Address, 17 July 2011.
[4] Collect for the Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time.
[5] J.R.R. Tolkien, Draft Letter to Eileen Elgar, September 1963. In The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien: A Selection Edited by Humphrey Carpenter with the Assistance of Christopher Tolkien (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000), 326.

18 July 2014

A question to prepare for a happy death

Four hundred years and four days ago, Saint Camillus de Lellis died in Rome after spending his life in service to the incurably ill. What strikes me most about him is the title of the religious order he founded: the Fathers of a Good Death.

Today, if a priest - or anyone else - were to establish an order of the same or a similar name, he would be called "morbid," "sick," "insane," or even "depressed." Rather than acknowledging or accepting the simple and unavoidable fact that each of us will die, we prefer to pretend that we can escape death. We do so principally by not talking or thinking about death, much to our detriment.

Saint Camillus and his companions did not shy away from the end of human life as we know it and sought to prepare souls to see the Lord Jesus face to face. What will we do to help prepare ourselves - and others - for this day, which may come tomorrow or forty years from now?

A friend asked an intriguing question on Facebook today: "What is one word that you want people to use at your funeral to describe you?" My first answer - and that also of another priest - was that I be said to be dead (priests have an odd sort of humor).

In all seriousness, though, the answer to her question can be used as a daily examination conscious and as a way to weigh our priorities. What word would I like to be said of me? What did I do today to make that word true?

Now, you ask, what word would I like to be said? It is difficult to choose just one word when three come to mind (though they are somewhat connected together): faithful, loyal, and authentic.

Asking this question each day can help us prepare for a happy death and so look with joy upon the Holy Face of him who died for us.

17 July 2014

Homily - Funeral for Jeanne Marie Behrensmeyer-Harroun



Homily for the Funeral Mass for
Jeanne Marie Behrensmeyer-Harroun

Dear brothers and sisters,

The reality of death is a curious thing, for it has the power both to separate us and to bring us together. It was only a few short weeks ago that it brought many of us together in this same church even as it separated us physically from a member of our family; it has done so again today as we pray and mourn at Jeanne’s death.

Regardless of whether it is expected or not, death, we know, is never easy. The discomfort it causes – the grief, confusion, and questions it causes – reminds us that death is not part of human nature; it was not part of God’s original plan, but since the Fall of Adam it has entered Creation and makes it effects felt.

Each one of us has within us a desire for immortality; we see hints of this desire in our as yet unfulfilled yearnings. It is this hope for immortality with which the souls of the just are full (cf. Wisdom 3:). What is this immortality for which the just hope?

Too often we think of immortality as a mere absence of physical death, of life as we know it without an end. But is this truly that for which we yearn? Is it enough that we simply never die? Some may think so, but, if we are honest, we know that “to live always, without end - this, all things considered, can only be monotonous and ultimately unbearable.”[1]

When he reflected on this notion of immortality following the death of his brother, Saint Ambrose said that

death was not part of nature; it became part of nature. God did not decree death from the beginning; he prescribed it as a remedy. Human life, because of sin ... began to experience the burden of wretchedness in unremitting labour and unbearable sorrow. There had to be a limit to its evils; death had to restore what life had forfeited. Without the assistance of grace, immortality is more of a burden than a blessing.[2]

It takes only a short period of reflection on life – even with its many joys and pleasures – to know his words are true, that this sort of immortality would be a great burden. This is why J.R.R. Tolkien suggested that death is not simply the Doom of Men, but also the Gift of Men.[3]

If this is so, why is the hope of the just full of immortality? The just hope for immortality rightly and properly considered whereas we too often fall into “the hideous peril of confusing true ‘immortality’ with limitless serial longevity.” We do not make the distinction between “Freedom from Time, and clinging to Time.”[4] True immortality, the immortality for which we hope, is not a clinging to time, but a freedom from time. This freedom from time can only be found in one not bound by time, by the One who created Time, by the One who, in the fullness of time, took on our humanity; this freedom from time can only be found in Jesus Christ, in him who has died and yet now lives.
So very often in his earthly ministry, Jesus went up the side of a mountain - as he does in today’s Gospel - to teach his disciples. He still sits as a teacher today and teaches us from the mountainside about death and about life.

Like so many of his followers before, we have gathered here at this mountain – at this sanctuary of the Lord - with confused emotions and mixed feelings. There is something about Jesus that continually draws us toward him; there is something different about him, about the words he speaks, he teaches with authority and by loving example, and so we know his words to be true. We have seen his power and we have experienced his love. For this reason we follow him and in our grief we come here to this mountain that he might teach us, that he might comfort us, that he might give us peace. 

Jesus sets before us today the characteristics of one who seeks to follow him and so share in his glory. All who follow Christ are called to conform their lives to his, to share not only in his death but also in his Resurrection.

We see in the Beatitudes the example of Jesus, for it was he who became poor for us; it was he who mourned for Jerusalem; it was he who showed us the beauty of being meek; it was he who spent countless days fasting for us; it was he who brought the infinite riches of the mercy and love of the Father for us through his death on the cross. He calls us now to follow him in all things and, having done so, we, too, “will be called children of God” and we will be united with him in Christ (Matthew 5:9; cf. Romans 8:39).

His children are born from the waters that flow from the pierced side of Christ. Entering into the sacred waters, all who are baptized die with Christ and rise with him in newness of life, receiving the promise of the resurrection of the body on the last day by which they will share in his immortality, in his freedom from time, in his eternal life.

Here, though, we often stumble and grope for words. An eternal life as we know it now is not what we desire, yet we know that we long and yearn for something more profound, something deeper, something that we cannot easily put into words. Pope Benedict XVI sought to express what is that we mean by eternal life and clarifies what we mean by a hope full of immortality:

To imagine ourselves outside the temporality that imprisons us and in some way to sense that eternity is not an unending succession of days in the calendar, but something more like the supreme moment of satisfaction, in which totality embraces us and we embrace totality — this we can only attempt. It would be like plunging into the ocean of infinite love, a moment in which time — the before and after — no longer exists. We can only attempt to grasp the idea that such a moment is life in the full sense, a plunging ever anew into the vastness of being, in which we are simply overwhelmed with joy.[5]

This is the joy that cannot be taken away from us, that does not diminish. It is the joy of being loved by God, a love from which the just cannot be separated (cf. Romans 8:37-39).

Today, then, we have come to entrust our sister, Jeanne, to the Lord, to ask him to fulfill the promise of eternal life given to her in Baptism. We pray that she may be plunged into that ocean of infinite love and know nothing but joy and gladness. This is the life promised to those who conform themselves to Christ Jesus, to him “who died, rather, was raised, who also is at the right hand of God, who indeed interceded for us” (Romans 8:35). May she be at peace this day and abide with the Lord in love (cf. Wisdom 3:). Amen.


[1] Pope Benedict XVI, Spe salvi, 10).
[2] Saint Ambrose of Milan, De excessu fratris sui Satyri, II, 47.
[3] Cf. J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter to Milton Waldman, 1951. In The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien: A Selection Edited by Humphrey Carpenter with the Assistance of Christopher Tolkien (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000), 147.
[4] J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter to C. Oubuter, 10 April 1958. In ibid., 267.
[5] Pope Benedict XVI, Spe salvi, 12.