A moment to breathe

Today marks a day I have been looking forward to - not because of something happening but because of something finishing.  

This fall has been one of those seasons of fairly constant busyness for me. That is not to say that it was bad - absolutely not - but it’s been full. 

I just spend the last three days with around 30 of our high school students on a Kairos Retreat, something that we have been working on for months.  

The preparation has required a lot of time as well as space in my head.  

It went great. I am feeling fulfilled and inspired by what I was privileged to witness on retreat. High school ministry is so meaningful to me and moments like this just affirm to me how important it is.  

But, now I find myself at a good moment to stop and think about everything that’s gone on this fall. This has been as far ahead as I’ve looked for quite a while, so it’s time to look back, look ahead, and see what God is saying.  

Priests are often busy - I’m not alone in that; but I often need to remind myself to look at the big picture: to thank God for what he’s done and to trust in what he will do. 

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time: Family Issues

What exactly did Jesus do during His earthly life?

He preached, He healed people. He performed miracles, made prophecies. He suffered, died, and rose from the dead.

All of this is important; but one other incredibly important part of Jesus' life was forming a community. Right at the beginning of His public ministry, He began gathering a group of people around Him. It started with the Apostles whose names we know well - men He specifically called to join Him; but it kept growing as Jesus traveled the country and proclaimed the Kingdom of God.

Very quickly after Jesus ascended into Heaven, there is a community of disciples living and praying together - a community that still lives today.

We are the Church  - the family Jesus started that has existed ever since He walked the earth. All of this tells us that living as a disciple is never meant to be done alone. We are all in this together.

While we all do have our own individual relationships with Jesus, we also have an ecclesial or communal one - together as a Church.

Being a Christian means being a part of this family; but like any family, sometimes we argue. Sometimes we hurt each other.

What Jesus lays out in today's Gospel is how we should respond to brother or sister Christian who sins against us: first, personally approach them; then, if that doesn't resolve the issue, bring a couple other members of the Church; finally, if that doesn't work, it becomes a matter for the whole Church with repercussions.

There are a few things we need to understand about this process that Jesus lays out:

- For Christians, everything is to be done from the perspective of love. As St. Paul says in today's second reading, "Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law."

None of what Jesus commands us to do here is about seeking retribution, shaming someone, or making ourselves look good. If that is what is in our hearts, we shouldn't be correcting anyone. The fraternal correction Jesus describes is entirely intended to reconcile a sinner to the love of God and the Church. It has nothing to do with revenge

- We should also recognize that Jesus' words have a particular meaning for the clergy of the Church. Following in the footsteps of the apostles, the bishops and the priests who assist them have a responsibility to call people away from sin and back into the communion of the Church.

This is not always a pleasant responsibility. Sometimes we are called to say rather unpopular things - to speak out against what our culture takes for granted as normal in good. In our time, these are usually issues about sexual morality. Or it may take the form of calling Catholics to live the Gospel and not conform themselves to our present age. No matter what it is, it is not easy or fun.

Sometimes this even requires the kind of public correction Jesus describes - that's when we hear the word "excommunication." But even that has been portrayed as some kind of punishment. In reality, telling someone that they have placed themselves outside of the communion of the Church is designed to encourage repentance. It means that we are called to evangelize and reach out to them.

Clergy are often called to be the watchmen Ezekiel heard about in the first reading: warning people when they are leading themselves into destruction. We will be held responsible for not proclaiming the truth.

Please pray for the pope, the bishops, and your priests - that we may always have the courage to proclaim Jesus' words, even when it is hard.

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The point of all of this is that the Lord desires for His children to live in real communion. We are a family - His family - and it should break our hearts to see any one of our brothers or sisters wander away. 

All of us are imperfect, but all of us are on the same journey. Let us support one another in repenting of our sins and always moving forward, more and more deeply into the love of God.

20th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Stranger Danger

When I was growing up and was going to go hang out with friends somewhere, my parents might say to me, "Don't talk to strangers." Even today, when I'm traveling, they say it as a joke - and it's extra funny because, as a priest, I always end up talking to people I don't know.

But I think that idea is pretty common: stay away from strangers. The people we don't know - the people who don't belong to "us" - are somehow dangerous. Now, for my parents to tell me that as a kid is pretty good advice - it keeps a child safe; but it's not the mind of God when it comes to His people.

Our readings today are all about "foreigners" - those outside of God's chosen people of Israel. Isaiah the prophet tells us that one day, not only will these outsiders know God, but they will minister to Him and offer sacrifice in the Temple.

This is a pretty outrageous prophecy. If you look at much of the Old Testament, there is a clear distinction between Israel and the Gentiles. They are often enemies - but God doesn't want things to stay this way. He intends for His people to be a light to all the nations, a beacon that draws in these strangers to a relationship with the true God. As St. Paul says in the second reading from Romans, God wants to have mercy on all people.

We see the echoes of this tension in our Gospel reading from St. Matthew. In it, we find Jesus in the region of Tyre and Sidon - Gentile territory. So it should be no surprise when this Canaanite woman approaches Him. She is clearly an outsider - so, when she asks Jesus for help He doesn't immediately answer her and then when He does, He explains that His first mission is to the children of Israel.

All of this, and their next exchange, seems to be Jesus testing her faith. He is drawing out the belief and trust she has already shown in Him. That is the best way to understand the Lord comparing her and her people to the dogs who eat the children's scraps. She is outside of the community of Israel. She had no claim to the covenant that God has made with His people; but her response shows the trust she has in Jesus: "Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters."

She is throwing herself on His mercy. Even thought she is outside of the chosen people of Israel, she is simply trusting that God will work through this man out of loving kindness. Jesus sees her great faith, and grants what she asks.

What are we to make of all of this?

First, there are no strangers to the love of God.

It's very easy for the Church to become inwardly focused - only worrying about maintaining the buildings and programs we have, and taking care of those of us who are already here. However, God's love is always seeking out more. We should never forget that our Church, from its founding and at its heart, is a missionary one. Our faith is one to be shared and the vast majority of that sharing happens not through the priests, but through you, the faithful people. By being open about your faith and striving to live that faith to its fullest, you welcome more people to the family of the Church.

Second, we should always remember that we are all strangers.

Even if we have been Catholic from the earliest days of our lives, everything we have as members of God's Church is a gift. There's nothing we did or nothing we can do to earn the grace of God. Each one of us is an adopted son or daughter - someone who God chose out of love.

Let's not ever start to think that somehow we deserve this. Everything is a gift - a gift we should constantly be thankful for and one that we should be excited and driven to share. 

14th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Power in Weakness

We live in a world that idolizes power.

It may be physical power - as in the skills of great athletes; or financial power - having the wealth to do whatever you want; or even the power of fame - people knowing you and valuing your opinions.

We hold up people with power as an ideal: "If only I could be like that, then my life would be perfect ... if I had that much money or if people would just listen to me." We can grow envious of people with power, feeling like somehow we've been cheated out of something that we deserve.

The world thinks that way - and because we live in the world, Christians can fall prey to that perspective. It happens when we think that a politician or a country or a party can bring about some kind of heaven on earth. Or when we start using the world's tactics of power to accomplish things we see as good, ignoring the very real people who may be hurt by our actions.

We may live in the world, but we shouldn't be of the world. We belong to the Kingdom of God, which, as we heard in our readings today, operates from a very different perspective.

In our first reading, from the prophet Zechariah, we heard about a conquering King, returning to Israel; but rather than coming on a war horse, He rides on a donkey - not an animal that you would ride into battle. In fact, he banishes chariots and horses and weapons of war from the land. "He shall proclaim peace to the nations. His dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth."

This victorious King shows us the kind of power that God expects in His kingdom - which is fulfilled in the person of Jesus.

In the Gospel, Jesus praises His Father that His message of salvation isn't something for the powerful and proud - "you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to the childlike."

Jesus, who is that victorious King that Zechariah foretold, rejoices that it is the small and the weak who are able to perceive the Kingdom of God while those who seem strong in the eyes of the world are unable to understand.

That is an incredibly important lesson for all of us.

There may be days when we feel pretty on top of our game - confident in ourselves and happy with who we are; but I suspect that, for most of us, we struggle with feeling inadequate when it comes to our relationship with God.

There are sins that we keep going back to over and over again, no matter how many times we confess it. We have bad habits that never seem to get any better. When we look at the lives of the saints or even other people that we know, we just think, "I'll never be like that."

In short, we feel weak.

Well, today I want to tell you that feeling weak is not a bad place to be. When we recognize our weakness, it's then that we really start to learn to depend on God.

Jesus didn't tell us, "Go! Be holy all on your own. I'll watch." He said, "Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light."

Our Lord came to call those who are imperfect - those who can't make it on their own, and, good news, that is every single one of us. We can't do this alone. We have to be constantly returning to the Lord, in our weakness, and surrendering everything to Him - every single day of our lives. 

For Christians, there is no time when we're suddenly done, no time when we can just put our spiritual lives in auto-pilot. Discipleship - and we are all disciples - is the work of a lifetime. Don't be discouraged that you're not done yet - we're not done until the end.

I learned about a new saint this week - St. Mark Ji Tianxiang. St. Mark was a Christian doctor in 19th century China who used his skills to serve the poor for free. When he became sick with a stomach problem, he began to treat himself with opium - something normal for the time - but eventually became addicted to the drug.

He would confess this over and over again, refusing to surrender to the addiction; but at that time addiction wasn't understood in the way we understand it now. The priest he confessed to saw him as an unrepentant sinner and told him he couldn't keep going to confession if he didn't intend to change his ways. That meant St. Mark couldn't receive the Eucharist either.

In this situation, it would be pretty understandable for him just to give up - to just give in to the hold this drug had on him - but he didn't. He just kept doing his best - he kept showing up and hoping that he would have the chance to lay down his life for the Lord. That chance came in 1900 when the Boxer Rebels arrested foreigners and Christians. Though Mark Ji Tianxiang struggled with his addiction to the end, he also died a martyr, singing a litany to the Blessed Mother.

Being a Christian is not about having the strength and willpower to be holy. It's about recognizing your weakness and relying on the Lord who saves us and makes us holy.

Homily Notes: Christmas

"God makes himself a child so that we may love him, so that we may dare to love him, and as a child trustingly lets himself be taken into our arms."

Pope Benedict said those words in his Christmas homily back in 2012.

And every year, as I prepare my Christmas homily, those words come back to me.

When you look at the history of salvation in the Bible, God's interactions with humanity, you can see that His presence is almost always overwhelming. He comes in fire and thunder; people are afraid that they will die if they see His face; the prophets often describe His coming as something terrifying to experience.

God is so much bigger, so much more than we can handle with our human minds and hearts.

That is why it is such an amazing, radical thing that we celebrate tonight.

We could never reach up to God. He's the One who made everything. The gulf between me and God is infinitely wider than between me and an ant. No matter how smart or how rich or how powerful we become, we could never grasp onto God.

So He came down to us.

And He didn't come in the power and majesty that is rightfully His; He came as a helpless baby.

God made Himself weak and vulnerable so that we could hold Him, so that we could love Him.

That's how much He loves us.

We say it and hear it so often that it's easy to forget the truth of it: God loves us. He loves us more than we could possibly imagine; more than we could ever love anything. He loves us so much that He puts Himself in our hands.

So tonight, or in the days to come, make sure you take some time to accept that love. Sit down with the nativity scene in your home. Quiet your mind, silence your phone, and accept the completely unmerited gift of love that Jesus is offering you.

He came here, to this broken, violent world - for you. With nothing but love for you.

Will you let that love into your heart? Will you let that love change you?

Don't let this Christmas pass by without thanking Jesus for loving you so much.

Mother Teresa's Way of the Cross - 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Early this morning in Rome, Mother Teresa was formally canonized as St. Teresa of Calcutta.

I've spoken about her in many homilies because she stands out for me as someone completely devoted to being a disciple of Jesus.

When she was 18, she left her home in Yugoslavia to join the Loreto Sisters in Ireland - a comunity of missionary sisters who educated young girls. She was later sent to India where she made her first vows and began the work of teaching which she did for 15 years.

But then, while riding on a train to go on a retreat, she heard the voice of Jesus calling her to a new vocation. This call was summed up in one of the last things Jesus said on the cross before He died: "I thirst." For Mother Teresa, this wasn't just a physical thirst; He the thirsted for love, He thirsted for our souls. She was being called to go out into the streets of Calcutta and satisfy Jesus' thirst by loving the poor people she found there.

She spent her life in that service, gathering around her other men and women who were called by God to give themselves to loving the poor. Her new community, the Missionaries of Charity with their distinctive blue and white robes, spread around the world and in every place, carried out Mother's calling of loving service.

As I've said before, you might assume that someone who is working so hard for the Lord and doing it with such joyful energy would have been feeling especially close to Him, but that was not the inner life of Mother Teresa. Soon after she began her work, she experienced a darkness and spiritual dryness that would last to the end of her life. She felt unloved and abandoned by Jesus, all the while desiring to love Him "as He's never been loved before" and not being able to.

Why didn't she quit? If Jesus had called her to this life - and then abandoned her - why didn't she just give up?

The answer is found in today's reading from the Gospel of Luke. Once again, Jesus gives us some extremely challenging and even frightening commands:

"If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother,
wife and children, brothers and sisters,
and even his own life,
he cannot be my disciple."

Why does He say this? It doesn't seem right.

First, we must understand how Jesus is speaking. He's using hyperbole - exaggerated language - to get our attention and make His point. What's the 4th commandment? "Honor your father and mother." Jesus wouldn't contradict the Law - something He says that He has come to fulfill. So what does He mean?

Jesus is telling us that we must love Him first - before our family and even our own life. He is making a claim that would have shocked the crowds listening to Him, because this is something only God can command. He must come first.

Then He goes further:

"Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me
cannot be my disciple."

In loving Him above everything else, we are then called to follow after Him - even in His suffering.

This is where we begin to understand the life of St. Teresa of Calcutta. She understood that following Jesus wasn't about worldly success or pleasure.

Suffering exists in this world and we will all face it.

As Christians, our response must be to join ourselves and our suffering to that of Jesus. Because we are members of the Church - supernaturally joined together as the Body of Christ - every suffering that we experience is connected to Jesus' sacrifice. It is given meaning through His suffering and He uses it for our salvation and the salvation of the world.

This is why Mother Teresa could say of her own darkness: "If my darkness and dryness can be a light to some soul let me be the first one to do that. If my life, if my suffering, is going to help souls to be saved, then I will prefer from the creation of the world to the end of time to suffer and die."

Mother Teresa took up her cross and followed Jesus - even when she felt alone and abandoned. We each have our own crosses. Let us follow our Lord, trusting that even the worst of our sufferings, even our darkest days, will help others and lead us to new life.

I'd like to close by reading you something St. Teresa wrote to her community a few years before she died:

My Dearest Children—Sisters, Brothers, and Fathers,

This letter being very personal, I wanted to write in my own hand—by there are so many things to say. Even if not in Mother’s hand, still it comes from Mother’s heart. Jesus wants me to tell you again, especially in this Holy Week, how much love He has for each one of you—beyond all you can imagine. I worry some of you still have not really met Jesus—one to one—you and Jesus alone. We may spend time in chapel—but have you seen with the eyes of your soul how He looks at you with love? Do you really know the living Jesus—not from books but from being with Him in your heart? Have you heard the loving words He speaks to you? Ask for the grace, He is longing to give it. Until you can hear Jesus in the silence of your own heart, you will not be able to hear Him saying “I thirst” in the hearts of the poor. Never give up this daily intimate contact with Jesus as the real living person—not just the idea. How can we last even one day without hearing Jesus say “I love you”—impossible. 

Our soul needs that as much as the body needs to breathe the air. If not, prayer is dead—meditation-only thinking. Jesus wants you each to hear Him—speaking in the silence of your heart. Be careful of all that can block that personal contact with the living Jesus. The devil may try to use the hurts of life, and sometimes our own mistakes—to make you feel it is impossible that Jesus really loves you, is really cleaving to you. This is a danger for all of us. And so sad, because it is completely opposite of what Jesus is really wanting, waiting to tell you. Not only that He loves you, but even more—He longs for you. He misses you when you don’t come close.

He thirsts for you. He loves you always, even when you don’t feel worthy. When not accepted by others, even by yourself sometimes—He is the one who always accepts you. My children, you don’t have to be different for Jesus to love you.

Only believe—You are precious to Him. Bring all you are suffering to His feet—only open your heart to be loved by Him as your are. He will do the rest. 

The Ascension of the Lord

The area here in the front of the church - with the altar, the tabernacle, and the ambo - is called the sanctuary. It's an area specifically set aside for the worship of God. It's separated from the rest of the church - sometimes by an altar rail or by steps - not because of the people that minister here, but because of the significance and dignity or what happens here. It's from the sanctuary that we hear the Word of God proclaimed and it's here that we offer the sacrifice of Jesus' body and blood - the Eucharist.

The Catholic Church didn't invent this concept of a sanctuary - like so much of our faith, it flows from our Jewish roots; and if we want to understand the feast of the Ascension which we celebrate today, then we need to understand something of our religious background.

Through Moses, God directed the Israelites to build a place to worship Him while they were in the desert. It was a tent called the Tabernacle and it came from a design revealed to Moses in a vision. In that tent you would find an altar where incense was burned, a lampstand, and a table with special bread on it. Hanging across the inside of the tent was a veil or curtain that separated off a smaller room called the Holy of Holies that contained the Ark of the Covenant.

When Solomon had the Temple built in Jerusalem, it was modeled after the Tabernacle in the desert. It was a stone and wood building with those same rooms inside. This was a place where the people met the Lord and offered sacrifices; and it was especially significant on the Day of Atonement, one of Israel's most important feast days. On that day, the high priest would enter the Holy of Holies and sprinkle blood from sacrifices to atone for the sins of himself and the whole nation for that year

Why am I telling you all of this? It's because the Ascension of Jesus into heaven is much more than Our Lord going home after finishing a job. The Ascension is the completion of Jesus' death and resurrection.

On the cross, Jesus offered Himself to the Father in place of us. He took the weight of our sins on Himself and experienced the death that results from sin, and then He rose. At the Ascension, Jesus takes his humanity and offers his sacrifice to the Father. Rather than a high priest going past the veil and into the Holy of Holies to offer the blood of an animal, Jesus gave Himself. And it doesn't have to happen over and over again because Jesus, as God, makes a sacrifice that is eternal.

What does that mean for us now? Come back to this sanctuary in this church.

When we celebrate the Eucharist every week, we are entering into the heavenly sanctuary where Jesus offers Himself to the Father. When we receive communion, we are joined with His offering. In a very real way, we are experiencing a preview of the life of Heaven.

Though Jesus is no longer bodily present in the world, His ascension ensures that we remain connected to Him and connected to eternity. One day we will see the reality of what we celebrate here every weekend. Jesus ascends from the earth so that one day we can rise with Him as well.

Easter Sunday: If He Is Alive

That is a powerful Gospel reading - and Jesus doesn't even appear in it. He is curiously absent.

We heard details about everything: what time it was, who was there, what she said to the apostles, which apostle got to the tomb first, and even how the burial cloths were arranged.

But no Jesus.

It's almost as if the shock would have been too much for them. The gospel tells us that they "did not yet understand the Scripture that he had to rise from the dead."

Let's imagine that moment. They haven't seen Jesus yet, they don't know for sure - but the tomb is empty. Let's join them there on the edge of hope. Is it possible? Could He be alive?

What were they thinking?

It seems that Mary Magdalene is still deep in grief - grieving over the one who showed her so much love and mercy. We know that she stays at the tomb after the others have left - and is the first one to see the Lord alive.

What about Peter? He had denied Jesus - just as the Lord predicted. He ran away. "What if He's alive? Will He forgive me?"

And John, the author, the disciple whom Jesus loved: he witnessed the crucifixion. He saw how much Jesus had suffered, saw His violent death, and heard His last words from the cross.

We can only guess what these disciples were feeling, how they reacted to the possibility that their friend and master was alive. The tomb is empty and soon He will show Himself to His friends. What does it mean for us that Jesus is alive?

If Jesus is alive, then He really hears me when I pray.

If Jesus is alive, then He is ready to help me when I'm suffering.

If Jesus is alive, then I must make it the purpose of my life to know Him and love Him.

The death and resurrection of Jesus is God's great act of mercy. Jesus did what we couldn't do and went where we couldn't go. He took our sin and death onto Himself in a way we never could - and conquered them. He descended to the very depths of existence - and rose up again.

God has shown us that His response to our weakness and sinfulness is overwhelming mercy. To death and despair He responds with life and hope. In the face of humanity's cruelty, greed, and hatred, He has offered LOVE.

- and so must we!

If Jesus is alive, we must show mercy, we must love.

Those Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy that we've been focusing on in this Year of Mercy aren't just nice suggestions. Our response to God's unbelievable mercy is to show mercy to others: to friends and family, strangers and enemies. The mercy we receive through Jesus' death and resurrection should overflow from our hearts out into the world.

The tomb is empty. Jesus is alive. And so we must live through Him and with Him and in Him.

Enemies of Celibacy

In January 2016, I had the opportunity to speak at St. Vincent Seminary, my alma mater, during a formation session conference about celibacy. These are a cleaned up version of my notes.

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When you hear "enemies of celibacy," you may think of some conspiracy of anti-celibacy theologians or maybe someone waiting in your parish to tempt you into breaking the promises you made at your ordination.

Those may be threats – but they’re not the most dangerous enemies to living a celibate life
The real threats to priests living a healthy, joy filled celibate life come most often from within us. 
They are habits and ways of thinking and acting that undermine the great gift we’ve been given in living the life of a Roman Catholic priest.

When we think of a priest breaking his promise of celibacy, what probably comes to mind is a man leaving the ministry to get married or having a secret relationship while remaining an active priest.

If our measure of living out the promise of celibacy is just not doing those things, then something is going to be missing in our priesthood. The world already defines celibacy as one big NO. “Catholic priests are weird and probably psychologically damaged because they don’t have sex.” That’s all celibacy is to so many people – even some Catholics. We know that there is so much more.

Celibacy, at it’s root, is a way to love.
It’s a way to love God and His people who are entrusted to our care.
And it’s a pathway to Love Himself.

Here’s what the Catechism says in paragraph 1579:
“All the ordained ministers of the Latin Church, with the exception of permanent deacons, are normally chosen from among men of faith who live a celibate life and who intend to remain celibate ‘for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.’ Called to consecrate themselves with undivided heart to the Lord and to ‘the affairs of the Lord,’ they give themselves entirely to God and to men. Celibacy is a sign of this new life to the service of which the Church’s minister is consecrated; accepted with a joyous heart celibacy radiantly proclaims the Reign of God.”

Celibacy is not a rejection – rather it is an embrace of something even bigger. Living a celibate life means devoting ourselves to that end. We give ourselves completely to God and to men to proclaim the Good News, the Kingdom, the Reign of God.

You may be at a different point with this.
Some men feel called to be priests and just take celibacy as an inconvenient or uncomfortable part of the deal … but we are called to embrace this life – to live it fully. Before you are ordained, you have to wrestle with that reality: Am I accepting celibacy because I have to or am I recognizing it as a gift from God that offers me a life of Love?

A couple months ago I watched a movie called Calvary. It’s about an Irish priest, Father James, a good priest, who is is hearing confessions when a man comes in and tells him that is going to kill him in one week because he was abused by a priest.

He says, “There’s no point in killing a bad priest. But killing a good one? That’d be a shock, now. They wouldn’t know what to make of that. I’m going to kill you, Father. I’m going to kill you ‘cause you’ve done nothing wrong. I’m going to kill you ‘cause you’re innocent.”

The rest of the movie shows how this priest spends that week. He encounters sin and goodness in the people of his small town. It’s not easy to watch but I found it incredibly inspiring.

One scene in particular struck me: Fr. James falls into an old temptation and then gets drunk; he then gets beat up by some of the townspeople. He’s cleaning himself up when his parochial vicar comes by his room. His vicar is very concerned about being polite – treating the wealthy with great respect, not causing any kind of trouble - and is taken aback when his pastor curses at him. He says, “we can discuss this in the morning when you’re sober.”

Father James turns around and demands of him: “Why are you a priest at all? You should be an accountant in an insurance firm!”

I certainly don’t condone drunkenness or getting in fistfights or even pastors yelling at parochial vicars, but that question is real and important: why are you a priest at all? Why do you want to be a priest? Why are you planning and studying to be a priest?

Celibacy isn’t just a line in the priesthood contract, something you need to agree to to get where you want to go. It’s right there at the heart of what being a priest means: loving God and loving His people with an undivided heart.

Living as a celibate priest is something we must choose and embrace everyday – probably many times everyday. It isn't a job that's "finished" when you're ordained.

As I said at the beginning, there are enemies of celibacy that we carry within us and if they are left unchallenged, we may find ourselves in a place where we are not living out that call. 
These are the seemingly small habits and behaviors that tear away at that choice for love that we’ve made. I’d like to point out a number of them and look at their symptoms as well as antidotes that will help us overcome them.

I have one note: the most important antidote to all of these vices is prayer. I could mention that again and again in this talk. Even if I don't list it as a specific way to overcome one of these enemies, assume that it is there. I can't overestimate the vital importance of prayer in a priest's life.

1. Isolation

Imagine this scenario: You’ve had a day where you’ve celebrated morning Mass; there was a funeral a little later on; maybe you had to run to the hospital to anoint someone; or maybe someone stopped by the office and wanted to talk. All of that along with answering emails, returning phone calls, and other normal tasks.

That is a solid “priestly day” – a good day.

It’s a normal reaction, at least for me, to come to the end of that day and just retreat to my room to recharge. I don’t want to socialize, I just want to rest.

That’s fine, but what if it becomes my standard reaction? What if retreating to my room is just what I do instead of:
- Spending time with parishioners because they only bring me more things to do.
- Only “making an appearance” at parish functions because it’s just too much work.
- Not spending time with another priest because I’d rather just relax alone.

All of those may seem somewhat harmless, but when we isolate ourselves from other people - parishioners, friends, other priests – we create the opportunity for ourselves to say no to love.
It is a good thing to have our own personal time, especially if you are a more introverted person who needs that space to recharge, but always be aware of times when you make a habit of retreating from other people.

Love always requires sacrifice and I think that especially applies to a priest.

Sometimes it is more important to go to a funeral luncheon with people you don’t know.
Or to accept an invitation to a family’s home even when you’d rather sit quietly at home.

If you find yourself treating your “private time” as something sacred and seeing other people as inconveniences, that is the time to reject isolation. Turning inward like that is a sure way to give into sins like pornography or masturbation. Though we may choose to isolate ourselves, it ultimately leads to feelings of loneliness.

How do we fight isolation? By giving of ourselves in love and breaking out of the selfish bubble we may be tempted to hide in.

There's a rule that I try to follow in my own priesthood: “Always go to the luncheon” It is important to spend time with people - even when you would rather not. God often works in unexpected or mundane situations. We should make a habit of being with the people God has sent to us. Spend time - even waste time with people. Don’t just “make an appearance” – people pick up on that and come to expect their priest to be distant and disconnected.

Cultivate the relationships you have in your life.

- Stay close to your family - they often know you better than anyone else and will remember that you are a person as well as a priest.
- Build relationships with other priests. They will know your joys and frustrations because they have probably experienced them too.
- Maintain and grow your friendships with lay-people. It is so important to have friends who "knew you before." They will support you and also welcome you into family life. Seeing parents love their children will help you to love more fully as a priest.

2. Boredom/Laziness
There is a song from the 90s that has one of my favorite lyrics in it: “If you’re bored then you’re boring.”

The priesthood is not a life to enter into lightly. It is an amazing adventure that requires commitment and enthusiasm – everyday.

That’s important because many of the things priests do, they do over and over again. You will celebrate many masses, hear many confessions … sign many checks, go to many meetings.

You have the choice to see these things as just another Mass, another confession, another meeting – or as a brand new opportunity to encounter God and share His love with the people in your life.

If you find yourself feeling bored, think back to when you knew enthusiasm. Pope Francis has encouraged us to, "Remember the joy of your first encounter with Christ” It's also good advice to remember the joy of your first call to the priesthood. Remember the time when you were excited to be a priest; when it was all you could think about, when you couldn't wait to get out there. Draw energy from that and ask the Lord to give you that heart once again.

I feel like laziness often goes hand in hand with boredom. It’s a symptom of not caring – not loving the way that we are called to love. What comes to my mind is the age-old sin of acedia. It is a sin that I never gave much thought to until I recently heard it described as "a monk desiring to leave his cell." That made sense to me - it's something that we should look out for in ourselves.

Do you daydream about another life? Do you catch yourself thinking about how things could have been different if you had traveled a different path? What if I pursued that relationship? What if I decided not to go to seminary? Maybe things would be easier!

That kind of escapism only kills your vocation. Embrace the life that you have.

As with any feelings we have, you don’t have to let these feelings dominate you. It is your choice what you dwell upon in your heart and mind. Choose to reject them and then act.

A fantastic remedy for this kind of thinking is simply doing priestly things: go visit your sick parishioners at the hospital, hang out with your school kids at recess. Find sources of priestly strength that will remind you: this is why I said yes. This is why I answered God's call.

3. Anger/Resentment
Is there anything that pushes people away more than an angry priest?

We’ve all met them. He might be angry at the bishop, or his parishioners, or another priest in the diocese. Whatever the subject of his anger is, there’s a good chance that there is also a lot of anger and resentment towards himself. That anger very quickly stops a priest from fully loving as he is called to do.

Yoda was right when he said that “anger leads to hate.” If we constantly allow ourselves to feel wronged, we stop loving people AND we stop loving God. What is the point of a priesthood like that?

The best way to reject anger is surrender - to surrender everything. Take that weight that you’re carrying and hand it to the Lord. If you find yourself frequently angry, there’s a good chance that you are not praying enough. If we aren't cultivating the most important relationship in our lives, of course we're going to be angry and miserable.

Also: go to confession! It's advice that we give to the people and we should take it ourselves. Find a regular confessor and make use of the sacrament. Don’t allow anger or resentment to fester and grow – allow God to root them out!

It is also important to know yourself. Be aware of the times when you are going to be easily frustrated and take your feelings with a grain of salt. For myself, I know to basically ignore my immediate reactions in the morning - because I'm really not a morning person. I get angry and frustrated more easily when I'm still waking up so I remind myself, "This emotion is being fed by the fact that you're tired. It's not the truth."

4. Emotionalism
When I started at St. Vincent, the priest in charge of spiritual formation had a gift for making great points with short little statements. The one I remember the most was this: “Gentlemen, you will fall in love many times during your priesthood.”

What he was getting at was that it’s not some strange thing for your heart to have a reaction to a person – to have feelings for someone. That is simply part of being human. Priests are not exempt from being attracted to particular people and it shouldn’t surprise us when it happens. The real problem comes when we give into our culture's definition of what love is and what it means we should do.

We see it again and again in stories of priests who left the ministry to be in a relationship with someone – they "fell in love." That means they felt something and decided to follow that feeling.

Emotions are important and good to understand, but they must not rule us. If we make decisions based only on our feelings, we will be constantly tossed about. Real love is “willing the good of another” – an act of the will, a choice – not a fleeting feeling.

There are signs that warn us when we are giving in to emotionalism:
- Do you find yourself infatuated with a particular person? Do you have a crush?
- Are you allowing your thoughts to dwell on that person?
- Do you intentionally spend more time with that person?

This can even apply to families or groups in the parish. Are you allowing your feelings for them to rule you so that you favor them or see them as an “inner circle” rather than striving to love your entire community?

If you see these things in yourself, what do you do?
- Admit to yourself what is going on in your heart. Be completely unemotional for a moment and let reason have a say. What would this look like to another priest? What would your bishop say about what you're feeling? When we are only listening to our own emotions, it's easy to think that we are being perfectly reasonable. Talk to your spiritual director about what you're feeling.

- We are called to a supernatural love. Don’t spend time only with people you naturally like. It is healthy to go against your natural inclinations and love generously.

- Learn to “expand your heart” – especially when you have feelings for a specific person. You are not their priest to love them for yourself, but for God. Love all of who they are, not just how they make you feel.

As always: pray!

5. Unrealistic Idealism
Priesthood is not easy and it does not come automatically.

This is a cliched statement but it is absolutely true: the seminarian you are is the priest you will be. Sure, you will grow, but ordination doesn't suddenly make you a saint. If you are waiting for that day to start striving for holiness, you are going to be disappointed.

How you treat other people now will not automatically change when they start calling you "father." Prayer won't just happen because you are out of school. If you are not enthusiastically embracing where you are right now, you will probably have a hard time doing it after ordination.

So often God’s will for us isn't something we have to go out and find – it's where we are right now. Your celibate life is being formed right now. Your priestly identity is being formed right now.

Say yes to that and make the best use out of the gifts He is giving you now. Don’t make assumptions about “the grace of ordination.” The Lord has given you gifts and an opportunity to grow. Don't waste that!

One of my favorite moments in Star Wars: Episode VII was when Finn, Han, and Chewie were preparing to break into the enemy base. Han is doubtful that they will be able to pull off the plan. Finn says something about how they'll be able to do it if they "use the Force." Han's response is great: “That’s not how the Force works!”

You could say the same thing about the Holy Spirit and grace. If we don't cooperate with what God is doing in us, we can't expect our vocation to be fruitful. Seminary is a time for discerning and then preparing for ordination. Use this time. Prepare now.

Conclusion

When I thought about how to speak on celibacy, the first thing I thought about was avoiding tempting situations, but the path that leads priests out of the priesthood doesn’t start in those moments where priests give in to a temptation.

It starts in his everyday embrace of celibacy as a way to love. In every moment and every situation we should be choosing to love God and love the people He’s put around us.

Celibacy is a gift, a gift from God to us – a path to holiness; but it is also a gift from us to God and the Church.

Don’t hold back.

3rd Sunday of Lent

When we think about some of the famous stories from the Bible, I think we often get our images from our childhood picture bibles and movies we've seen. There's nothing wrong with that, but it is always good to get back to the story itself and look at it with fresh eyes.

What we heard in the first reading today, the story of Moses and the burning bush, has been portrayed in many different ways. You might have in your head scenes from the cartoon The Prince of Egypt or maybe Charlton Heston as Moses in The Ten Commandments - but now we're back to the source, the original.

Moses, an Israelite who grew up in the palace of the Pharaoh has fled Egypt after killing an Egyptian taskmaster. Now he's living with his father-in-law's family and working as a shepherd. While he is working, he sees the burning bush - on fire, yet not consumed - and his curiosity drives him to investigate.

God calls to Moses and gives Moses his mission - to go to Egypt and free his fellow Israelites.

But there is something even more important that God gives to Moses at this meeting: God tells Moses His name. God says, "I am who am ... This is what you shall tell the Israelites: I AM sent me to you.”

I AM.

The whole mystery of God is wrapped up in those words. God is - He is the One who always exists, who always is. He is not only the greatest among the gods of the world, He is the only God who truly exists. God is the one who holds the whole universe in existence - without Him, nothing is. God is in the past, and in the future. He created the world and will be there at its ending.

This name is so sacred that the people of Israel didn't use it. It was only spoken aloud by priests in the Temple. It wasn't even written down in the Old Testament: every time you the word LORD in capital letters in the Bible, that is where the Jewish people would substitute "Lord" for the true name of God. We pronounce it as "Yahweh," but that is really only a guess - and Catholics don't use that name in our music or liturgy out of respect for the Lord.

This is God - and He comes to meet humanity. That is important, and it helps us to understand our Gospel.

What we hear from Jesus in the Gospel of Luke today is a warning. He refers to two events that his listeners would be familiar with: some Galileans being killed by Pontius Pilate while they were offering sacrifices in the Temple and a group of people who were killed when a tower collapsed on them.

There would be an assumption that these awful things happened to them because of their sinfulness, but Jesus says that's not necessarily the case. However, all of us should beware: if we don't repent, our sins can lead us to a worse sort of death - spiritual death.

Jesus illustrates this with his parable of the fig tree. The owner has let this tree grow for years, but is has not borne any fruit, so he decides to cut it down. His gardener asks him for one more year, so that he can try his best to make it bear fruit. If that doesn't work, he will cut it down.

We are all given a chance by the God of the universe. The One who made all of this desires for us to know Him - and that means repenting of the things that take us away from Him. It means allowing our lives to be changed so that everything is directed towards Him.

But our lives are limited. This is our chance. Let's not let them go to waste.

To live in communion with the God who holds us in existence, we must bear the fruit of conversion.

The Music of 2015

I know this is almost a month late, but I'd like to share the music that stands out to me from last year.

These are listed in the order in which I heard them.

Putting the Days to Bed - The Long Winters

At the beginning of the year, I was diving deep into the music of John Roderick after getting to know him through his podcast, Roderick on the Line (some episodes are a little ... more challenging, but this recent one about a roadtrip adventure is pretty amazing). I really enjoy most of his songs on most of his band's albums, but it was their most recent album (from 2006!) that I keep going back to.

The song that stands out for me is "Hindsight," mostly because of this great line: If you're my anchor / then I'm throwing you over the side.

 

Carrie & Lowell - Sufjan Stevens

This one is the album of the year. I've been a Sufjan fan for many years now and have eagerly awaited every new release. Carrie & Lowell - a sparse, almost-entirely acoustic meditation on the life and death of his mother - may have surpassed them all. I think I've listened to the album more than anything else in the past year.

Even more than listening to Carrie & Lowell over and over again, what made this album stick was seeing Sufjan perform it live. I was able to see two different shows on his current tour - one towards the beginning and one towards the end. Hearing these songs live was one of the best musical experiences I've ever had. My brother and I even took an awkward picture with Sufjan:

It's hard to pick a single song out of the album - they all move me - but I think "The Only Thing" captures the overall feeling of the whole work. It's heartbreaking and beautiful.

Should I tear my eyes out now?

Everything I see returns to you somehow

Should I tear my heart out now?

Everything I feel returns to you somehow

A recent addition to the Carrie & Lowell experience is this remix of "Blue Bucket of Gold." This is close to the way Sufjan and his band perform the song live. And I can't get enough of it.

 

Blurryface - Twenty One Pilots

Having come across Twenty One Pilots last year through their album Vessel, I was in the perfect position to dive into their newest release. Blurryface was certainly different - at first I was slightly hesitant to embrace the more electronic sounds they chose for this album - but it displays so much of what I love about this band.

The duo simply don't seem to care about fitting in any particular style or genre. On this album they seem to gravitate towards a reggae-tinged sound("Ride," "Lane Boy," "Polarize," "Message Man") but then it swings around to something very pop ("Doubt"), a song that sounds like it might be from the 80s ("Hometown"), or something piano-driven ("Tear In My Heart" or "Goner"). I love their variety.

"Stressed Out" is still the song that stands out for me. It's a perfect example of what these guys do so well - write heartfelt songs without seeking to fit in.

Sometimes a certain smell will take me back to when I was young,

How come I'm never able to identify where it's coming from,

I'd make a candle out of it if I ever found it,

Try to sell it, never sell out of it, I'd probably only sell one,

It'd be to my brother, 'cause we have the same nose,

Same clothes homegrown a stone's throw from a creek we used to roam,

But it would remind us of when nothing really mattered,

Out of student loans and treehouse homes we all would take the latter.

 

The Sun As It Comes - The Lonely Wild

This is an example of when you go to a concert, don't know anything about the opening act, and then are utterly amazed by them. 

I saw The Lonely Wild open for The Family Crest in Pittsburgh. Before the show, someone told us that they sound like "a Quentin Tarantino movie" - that still feels like a good description to me. Their music could be the soundtrack to Kill Bill.

The whole album is good, but the final track - "Buried in the Murder" - is the song I have put on repeat while driving. 

 

The Exitus and Reditus of Andrew Darkstar Parrish - Dear Other

One of the great benefits of The Harmonium Project's work in downtown Steubenville is seeing bands like Dear Other. This group lives in the area and blew me away when I saw them last summer. Since then, I had been waiting for them to release some of their music so I could hear it again.

The Exitus ... (I'm not going to type out the whole name) did not disappoint. With a complex name like that, you shouldn't be surprised by the complexity of the songs - most of them clock in at 6 minutes or more. On an EP with only 5 songs, that provides for a lot of space to do something interesting.

I love the scope of this piece - and it is a complete piece that makes the most sense when you listen to the whole thing. It tells the story of a young man feeling fragmented, assaulted by his own emotions, arguing with reason, and eventually moving towards wholeness - and it all seems to take place in my hometown, providing an emotional connection for me.

Some of my favorite parts are dialogues between the narrator and his neighbors. This section from "The Shadow Cast" is one of the high points of the album:

NEIGHBORS: Boy, get up! 

ANDREW: What? 

N: We think you had a heart-attack! 

A: Impossible, see, I was just, uh- 

N: How many fingers are we holding up? 

A: [pause] Three? 

N: Four! Can't you kids keep away from drugs? 

A: [taking offense] I was just dreaming! 

N: [skeptical] Mhm. 

A: Or possibly the subject of a vision, or a Marian apparition! 

N: Sounds like drugs. 

A: Well it's my condition. But I swear I saw Heaven open up! And furthermore- 

N: We've heard this one before, the one where your eyes see the glory of the coming of the Lord. 

Enter God. 

Exit God. 

A: Yep, that was it. In incomparable cool he sits on ideal geometric shapes and into the ground he spits fire, healing water, blood, the love and life of a Father- 

N: [interrupting] Look, have you got some place to be? 

A: And he said to me- 

BOTH: Son! 

N: We've got things to do besides listen to you. 

A: I am your judge, 

N: the one that you ignore

A: present in the present

N: and at the end of the world. 

A: How'd you guys know? 

N: We've got a lot in common

us and the Lord

equally abused

equally ignored

making minimum wage

at the grocery store

watching you live one life

while you pretend your living more. 

Here's to another year of cool music to discover!

Third Sunday in Ordinary Time: Freedom For

We call the books of Jesus' life and message "the Gospels." Gospel means good news.

But I've heard a complaint from Catholics more than once: that it isn't fair that we, who hear the "good news" and know the commandments, are held responsible for obeying them - while other people just live their lives. Like somehow it would be better if we didn't know about the teachings of Jesus passed down through the Church - then we wouldn't know any better.

I respond to that complaint that this is called the Good News for a reason. Jesus came to offer us more than just a bunch of rules that we struggle to follow. He came to give us freedom, freedom from slavery to sin - but it is also a freedom to live according to God's will.

Knowing God sets us free - but we must live that freedom.

In our first reading, we hear part of the story of the priest Ezra. Ezra is a leader of the people of Judah who returned to their home after being exiled in Babylon. When they return, Jerusalem is in ruins. The Temple is destroyed and the walls of the city are in no shape to stop any threat. So the people work to rebuild their home, but there is a spiritual rebuilding that has to happen as well.

In the ruins of the Temple, someone finds a copy of the Torah - the first five books of the Bible. Ezra gathers all the people together and, from dawn to noon, he reads it to them. The people hear the words of the Torah and they weep.

They weep because they are able to see how far from the Lord's law they are. How different their lives are from what God calls them to be. But Ezra reassures them: "Do not be saddened this day, for rejoicing in the LORD must be your strength!”

Rejoice because you know God’s law. Rejoice because you are His people. Rejoice because He calls you to live for Him. God's law may seem like a burden, but it is actually the path to true freedom.

In the Gospel reading for today, Jesus proclaims a passage from the prophet Isaiah and then gives a short, powerful sermon. He reads to the people in the synagogue:

"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

because he has anointed me 

to bring glad tidings to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives

and recovery of sight to the blind,

to let the oppressed go free,

and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord."

and then says to them: "Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing."

Jesus had read to them the amazing things that would happen when the Messiah came - and then told them that the time had come. The promises were fulfilled. Jesus had come in the power of the Holy Spirit to bring the good news, healing and freedom.

Sometimes we lose sight of that good news. We become to focused on "what we're supposed to do" rather than the great gift that God has given us.

It is a gift to receive forgiveness from our sins. It is a gift to be set free from the slavery of selfish desires. It is a gift to be able to love others as God loves us.

The commandments of God, far from binding us and taking away our freedom or happiness, bring us to what makes us truly free and happy - God Himself.

Let us live out that freedom.

The Baptism of the Lord

“You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”

What would it have been like to be there - to hear those words from heaven?

Many people were being baptized that day. The preaching of John the Baptist had stirred up an expectation in their hearts - the Messiah, the savior, was coming soon. Maybe John was the one they were waiting for!

Among that crowd, Jesus come to be baptized. We know from the Gospel of Matthew that John is hesitant to baptize him: he says, “It’s you who should be baptizing me,” but Jesus insists.

That is when something different happens - heaven opens up, the Holy Spirit comes down on Jesus in the form of a dove, and the Father speaks.

What’s happening here is important for many reasons. This story tells us about who Jesus is, but it also speaks to our identity and our baptism.

First, the baptism of Jesus is a moment when Jesus’ true identity is revealed. He is more than just a teacher, more, even, than a miracle worker - he is the Son of God - and God Himself testifies to that.This is one of a few moments in the Gospels where we see the Trinity revealed: the Son is baptized, the Spirit descends, and the Father speaks. Here, at the very beginning of His ministry, we see Jesus for who He really is, and that identity matters.

During his life on earth and all the time since then, people have tried to put Jesus in a box. They reduce Him to just a wise man or a political idealist or even a fool who got in over His head. But here at His baptism, the Father declares the truth. Jesus is the Son. And if that is who He truly is, then our response to Him truly matters. We can’t just treat Him as one among many people who have some good advice - we either acknowledge Him as our God and Lord or we ignore the very heart of what He came to do.

Jesus’ identity as the Son of God matters because of what He offers to us - what He started with His baptism.

Jesus, who had no sin to repent of, was baptized to show us the way. He made an example of Himself and from the beginning of the Church, baptism has been the way that we enter into our relationship with God. Some of the last words Jesus spoke to His disciples before He ascended into heaven were the command to baptize: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”

Baptism is our gateway - it’s how we enter into a relationship that leads to eternal life. Whether it happened to us as an infant or as an adult, the day of our baptism is one of the most important days of our lives - more important, even, than our birthday. In baptism, we are given a supernatural life - a life that can never die.

When we are baptized the Father claims us as His sons and daughters. We may not hear a voice from heaven, but it is true: You are my beloved son, you are my beloved daughter. From that moment on, that is our identity, and nothing can take it away.

Even if someone abandons the faith and lives their life rejecting God, they are still baptized. They are only denying the truth.

That’s why we can only be baptized once - it does something permanent to our soul. Someone who was baptized in another church and then later becomes Catholic doesn’t need to be baptized again. As long as they were baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and water was poured on them, they are baptized. We are claimed forever as children of God.

However, that doesn’t mean that once we’re baptized we don’t have to make an effort. Just as a child can reject his or her parents and family, we can run away from our Father. We can refuse to accept the love and grace that He offers us - we can deny our identity.

From the day of our baptism until the day of our death, our responsibility is to live up to being children of God. That’s who we are.

When people encounter us, do they see that? Do they recognize the Father in His children? Do they see the way we treat our brothers and sisters and wish that they could join this family?

Remember your baptism - remember your identity. Even if it happened when you were a month old, it changed you. Each one of us is a child of the Father, brought into this family by His Son, and transformed by the power of the Spirit.

Let us live as sons and daughters of the Father. Let us show the world Who we belong to.

Christmas: God's Word and Ours

Every year, when I sit down to think about what to preach on at these Christmas Masses, I think: “What could I possibly say that’s new?” We’ve heard these stories - some of us, for many years.

What is there that Christmas still has to teach us?

Well, every year, I realize that it’s not about finding some new interpretation of this feast. Usually, the most important thing we can learn is returning to a truth we’ve already heard. Tonight, I’d like to briefly talk to you about the message of Christmas.

Depending on where you look, Christmas has many different messages. Movies and Hallmark cards tell us that Christmas is about giving (or receiving); or it’s about family; or it’s about some kind of magical feeling that is created by lights and music and (usually) snow. All of those things may be partly true, but they are not the real message of Christmas - because that message is one that comes from God.

All of our readings tonight speak to us about God’s promise. He promises to redeem His people - to save them. He’s been promising that almost since the beginning, when humanity had fallen into sin and immediately He foretold a savior; and God has promised true salvation from sin and death throughout history. He revealed Himself to the people of Israel. He gave them His commandments to follow. He spoke through the prophets - prophets like Isaiah who we heard tonight. Through Isaiah God promised that one day He would come and rule His people - that He would be like a spouse to them.

God’s message was slowly revealed - but it wasn’t complete. The whole message wasn’t spoken until that night in Bethlehem when Mary had her son. On that first Christmas, God message to the world was finally spoken - and it came in the form of a helpless baby.

What does that message say? Exactly what we should expect if we’ve been paying attention:

“I love you.”

“I love you so much, that I am giving myself to you”

“I love you so much, that I am becoming one of you.”

“I love you so much, that I am going to enter into human existence - experience pain, hunger, fear, sadness, betrayal, even death.”

God had revealed Himself before - in thunder and lightning, in power and majesty - but now He comes as a child. Why? So that we can love Him.

The message of Christmas is God telling us that, no matter how messed up things are, how far away we’ve run from Him, how hopeless we may feel - He loves us and is willing to give everything He is so that we can be with Him and know that love.

Christmas is God saying: “Here I am, all of me, all for you.” God has spoken His final Word to the world and it is unconditional love.

That means that there is a Christmas message that comes from us as well. God says He loves us and gives Himself to us - what do we say back?

Do we treat Him like the innkeeper and say that we have not room in our lives for an inconvenience like Him?

Do we treat Him like Herod and say that He’s an enemy to my freedom and my power?

Do treat Christmas as just another pleasant holiday that we enjoy and then move on without acknowledging that what is offered to us is Love beyond anything we could imagine?

Or do we welcome Him like Joseph - who, though he was afraid and confused, made a place for Jesus in His life?

Or the shepherds who saw God in the face of an infant and humbly knelt and worshipped?

How we respond to the unbelievable love of God is our message to Him at Christmas. He’s spoken to us. In Jesus, the Father says, “I offer you nothing but Love - come and be with Me.” 

What will we say back?

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Derek Webb has a song about marriage called, "The Vow." The chorus goes:

Oh, I can't see the day after tomorrow
I don't know the future, even still
I don't promise cause I know I'll always love you
I make my vow to guarantee I will

I love those words because they capture some of the mystery and power of marriage. We should be intimidated by marriage - it should make us a little nervous. Marriage is a promise that people, on their own, can't keep - so it's very good news that the love a married couple, of a family, flows from the love of God. It is He who gives us the strength to keep our promises.

"It is not good for the man to be alone." God speaks those words at the very beginning of humanity and they are still true today. Because we are made by a God who is a relationship - the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit - we are always longing for relationship. It's in the very fabric of our being.

God fulfilled that longing in Adam's heart by making him the perfect partner in Eve. In a very real way, they were made for each other. And so they're relationship is built on an unbreakable commitment. In marriage, Adam and Eve, man and woman, become one flesh.

That explains Jesus' response to the Pharisees in today's gospel. They are trying to trip him up by asking about divorce. They know that Moses permitted divorce; but Jesus calls them to go back before Moses, before everything in fact. He goes back to the beginning when God created man and woman for each other and joined them together in a permanent relationship.

Moses may have allowed divorce because of the "hardness of their hearts," but that was not God's plan. It was a concession to the weakness of humanity. God designed marriage to be an image of his covenant to us - He will love us forever no matter what. That is why Jesus and the Church that He founded takes marriage so seriously.

We all know, however, that we are not perfect - and neither are our marriages. Divorce exists - and Jesus' words here don't mean that people who are divorced should give up on their faith. There are so many misunderstandings about this out there. If you are not sure of your situation in the Church because of being divorced or being remarried after a divorce, please come talk to me. The Lord desires you!

Marriage may be in a rough state in our time, but that doesn't mean we should give up on it. Marriage matters because it comes from God - it's part of His plan for bringing life into the world, for sanctifying those two people, and for building up his kingdom.

God works through marriages. He speaks through the sacrifices that spouses make for each other. He shows the world His love through the love of families.

Couples can only live up to this great calling, however, with His help. Don't try to do it on your own. We all need God's grace to fulfill our vocations. If a priest doesn't pray, doesn't depend on God for everything, He is going to be a miserable failure. Marriages and families need God's grace too.

With his help, we can love each other the same way that He loves us.

Homily for the CCHS Homecoming Mass

This summer, when I was moved to a new set of assignments, I began ministry as chaplain of my high school alma mater in Steubenville. Every year at Homecoming, a Mass is celebrated at the school before the football game. As chaplain, I get to celebrate that Mass.

There's something truly beautiful about how the Church picks readings for each Sunday Mass. The priest has nothing to do with which readings we hear at most Masses - they are assigned through a three-year-long cycle - and I think that's a really good thing because God often speaks in powerful ways through unexpected readings.

About three months ago, I began my new assignments here at Catholic Central as well as at the parishes in Wintersville. I grew up in Steubenville  and I never imagined that I would end up here, especially so early in my priesthood. But being a priest for people you know - and who knew you as a kid - can be interesting, so it was fitting when the Gospel for that first weekend had Jesus saying, "A prophet is not without honor except in his native place ..."

I would have never picked these readings for this Mass if it was up to me. They don't seem to tie directly into what we are celebrating tonight - Homecoming, the CCHS family, young and old, gathering together; but, as the Scriptures always do, they speak to what is most important - our relationship with God - and that is the heart of what Catholic Central High School is about.

Our first reading and Gospel today both speak about God working in an unexpected way.

In the reading from Numbers, Joshua asks Moses to stop two men who are prophesying in the camp. These two, Eldad and Medad, weren't present with the other elders and Moses when the spirit of God came down on them - but they still received the spirit and were showing it. Rather than then making them stop, Moses says, "Would that all the people of the LORD were prophets! Would that the LORD might bestow his spirit on them all!"

We see a similar situation in the Gospel. John comes and complains to Jesus that someone is casting out demons in Jesus' name - but he doesn't belong to the group of the disciples. Again, Jesus doesn't stop the man, but says that, "There is no one who performs a mighty deed in my name who can at the same time speak ill of me. For whoever is not against us is for us."

In both of these readings, God works in unexpected ways - through unexpected people. God works - He still does today; and we should all be very aware that He wants to and can work through us.

The purpose of Catholic Central and all Catholic schools - before success in athletics or even academics - is to help students to grow in their relationship with God so that they can be saints. That's the bottom line.

Being a saint is not only for certain special people - the John Paul IIs and Mother Teresas of the world. It is the calling, the destiny of every human being - to live for eternity in union with God.

Jesus makes that point in a pretty serious way in the second half of this Gospel. All that talk about cutting off your hand or plucking out your eye if the cause you to sin - he is telling us that, while we are on earth, we have our one chance to choose God. That choice takes place over the many years of our lives, but it is the only time we are given. We have to make our choice for God and then live according to that choice. As the great Christian writer C.S. Lewis said, "There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, 'Thy will be done,' and those to whom God says, in the end, 'Thy will be done.'" How we spend eternity is completely up to us.

Like many of you probably have, I've been enjoying watching Pope Francis' visit to the United States. He's made some great speeches and homilies, and something he said at Mass today in Philadelphia jumped out at me.

He wa speaking about St. Katharine Drexel, who was born in Philadelphia and who inherited hundreds of millions of dollars at the death of her father. She had an audience with Pope Leo XIII where she spoke to him about the needs of missions in the United States. Rather than telling her that he would look into what he could do, Pope Leo asked her, "What about you? What are you going to do?"

We should all ask ourselves that question: "What about me? What am I going to do?"

What am I going to do to grow in my relationship with God?

What am I going to do to say no to my sins?

What am I going to do to share God's message of love and mercy with the people in my life?

As sons and daughters of this school, we've all heard the Word of God. Let's hear it again with open hearts. Let's live the faith we proclaim by being Crusaders with everything we are.