Saturday, February 23, 2008

Homily on the Transfiguration, Second Sunday of Lent

This painting of the Transfiguration was the painter's last major work andis believed to have been completed by his disciple Giulio Romano shortly after Raphael's untimely death in 1520.

Priests for Life is dedicated to preaching about the sanctity of all human life from the moment of conception to the moment of natural death. We teach, as the Church teaches, that each human being is made in the image and likeness of God. Each human being is unique, precious and unrepeatable.

We hold to a consistent ethic of life, and so, for example, we are opposed to the use of the death penalty. We believe there are more humane ways of protecting society and punishing criminals without resorting to executing people. But, we place our emphasis on the issues of abortion and euthanasia, because these have become the pre-eminent threats to human life and dignity in our time.

Pope John Paul II has said "The Gospel of God's love for man, the Gospel of the dignity of the human person and the Gospel of Life are a single and indivisible Gospel." So then to be unconditionally pro-life is something that all of us are called to believe and proclaim to others. It is not something optional or added on to the Gospel, but rather it is at the heart of the Gospel message.

I would like to reflect on our Gospel today on the Transfiguration in the light of this teaching about the sanctity of human life.

St. Bede the Venerable says that Jesus is transfigured to strengthen his disciples for the suffering they would have to endure in the future. St. Ephrem says that Jesus also wanted to show that he is not powerless to prevent what is happening to him, but rather he is truly God and is laying down his life voluntarily. Many in our society think that suffering is the greatest evil and do everything to avoid it, but it is through the cross that Jesus redeemed the world.
St. Leo the Great said that besides strengthening his disciples and removing the scandal of the cross, Jesus also is revealing to his disciples the glory that they and all the faithful, as the body of Christ, will share some day. By his transfiguration Jesus manifests his glory and reveals to us our destiny. We were created by God to share with him eternal glory.

Human life is sacred because we were created by God. We remain in a special relationship with God throughout our life and we are directed to God as our final end.

In the book of Jeremiah God says to Jeremiah "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, And before you were born I consecrated you; I have appointed you a prophet to the nations." (Jeremiah 1, 5)

Psalm 8 marvels at the incredible dignity of the human person “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor” (Psalm 8:3-5)

Karl Marx, Auguste Comte and other atheists over the centuries have claimed that since Christians were so concerned about going to heaven, they didn’t care about establishing justice on this earth. The charge is unfair, because we believe that it is only through ordering the things of this world according to the plan of God that we can hope to share heavenly glory.
In the Second Vatican Council document on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes) the Church taught ”the expectation of a new earth must not weaken but rather stimulate our concern for cultivating this one. For here grows the body of a new human family, a body which even now is able to give some kind of foreshadowing of the new age.”“Hence, while earthly progress must be carefully distinguished from the growth of Christ's kingdom, to the extent that the former can contribute to the better ordering of human society, it is of vital concern to the Kingdom of God.”

This is especially true as we confront what Pope John Paul II called a ‘culture of death’. On his last visit to the United States in 1999 in St. Louis, he spoke about a “conflict is between a culture that affirms, cherishes, and celebrates the gift of life, and a culture that seeks to declare entire groups of human beings – the unborn, the terminally ill, the handicapped, and others considered "unuseful" – to be outside the boundaries of legal protection.”

Since the unjust Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision of 1973 there have been over 48 million abortions. In fact, today in the United States one out of every five pregnancies ends in abortion. A lack of respect for life in its' beginning stages has also led to a lack of respect for life in its' end stages. Today we here more calls for euthanasia or ‘mercy killing’. What Pope John Paul II called ‘a false mercy’. In 1997, Oregon became the first state to legalize physician assisted suicide. This has put the poor, minorities, frail, depressed, those who lack insurance and those who could be branded as an economic liability most at risk. While Oregon will pay to help a person to commit suicide they won’t pay for adequate pain management, living assistance or some life saving treatments.

Sometimes we might feel that we're powerless to overcome the culture of death, but I don't believe that's true. All of us can do something. In your bulletins today you will find a pamphlet from Priests for Life entitled You Can Save Someone’s Life Today. It will give you practical suggestions that you can use to put an end to the tragedy of abortion in our nation.

We know we have to do more than simply say that abortion is wrong. We have to help women. So at the top of the page we list five different pregnancy resource hotline numbers where women can call and get the help that they need before and after they give birth for as long as they need it. These resource centers provide food, clothing, shelter, medical help, legal help, whatever they might need in order to bring their baby to term. There is also information on adoption, a loving alternative to abortion. By sharing this information with a woman in need, you truly can help to save a life. There’s an old Jewish proverb that says if you save one life, it’s as if you saved the entire world.

We also promote post-abortion healing and reconciliation. We don’t condemn people. We want to extend a helping hand. We promote Project Rachel - the post-abortion healing ministry of the Catholic Church and Rachel's Vineyard retreats in order to help both men and women who have been involved in abortions to find healing and peace.

The Church also teaches us that voting is not only our right, it is our duty and we have a duty to use our vote to advance the cause of life, especially the cause of God's children who are unborn disabled or are otherwise vulnerable. Some people have asked me recently “But father, there are other issues, what about the war in Iraq?” The American Bishops have addressed this topic in their recent document “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” released in November of 2007, the Bishops write “We support a ‘responsible transition’ that ends the war in a way that recognizes the continuing threat of fanatical extremism and global terror, minimizes the loss of life, and addresses the humanitarian crisis in Iraq, the refugee crisis in the region, and the need to protect human rights, especially religious freedom.” As we can see, the Bishops position is not consistent with a precipitous withdrawl of troops from Iraq.

The Church clearly puts direct attacks on innocent human life, such as abortion and euthanasia, in a separate category than other issues. While abortion is not the only issue, it can be a disqualifying issue. In “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” the American Bishops state “A candidate’s position on a single issue is not sufficient to guarantee a voter’s support. Yet a candidate’s position on a single issue that involves an intrinsic evil, such as support for legal abortion or the promotion of racism, may legitimately lead a voter to disqualify a candidate from receiving support.” I encourage you to read the document in its entirety.

The transfiguration reminds us of the unique dignity of each and every human being. Just before he left the United States in 1987, in a speech at Detroit Airport, Pope John Paul II said something I think is prophetic about human dignity and America when he said:

Every human person-no matter how vulnerable or helpless, no matter how young or old, no matter how healthy, handicapped or sick, no matter how useful or productive for society-is a being of inestimable worth created in the image and likeness of God. This is the dignity of America, the reason she exists, the condition for her survival--yes, the ultimate test of her greatness: to respect every human person, especially the weakest and most defenseless ones, those as yet unborn.

All of us have a role to play in protecting the lives of the defenseless, being a voice for the voiceless and building a culture of life. Gaudium et Spes speaks to us of the fruits of our efforts:

For after we have obeyed the Lord, and in His Spirit nurtured on earth the values of human dignity, brotherhood and freedom, and indeed all the good fruits of our nature and enterprise, we will find them again, but freed of stain, burnished and transfigured, when Christ hands over to the Father: "a kingdom eternal and universal, a kingdom of truth and life, of holiness and grace, of justice, love and peace." On this earth that Kingdom is already present in mystery. When the Lord returns it will be brought into full flower.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Homily for the First Sunday of Lent

This painting is entitled “Christ in the Desert”. It was painted by Ivan Kramskoy (1837-1887), a Russian, in 1872.

It was the Holy Spirit that led Jesus into the desert to be tempted by the Devil. In our Profession of Faith each Sunday we acknowledge the Holy Spirit as the Lord and giver of life. He leads Jesus into the desert to confront the author of sin and death. By his prayer and fasting he shows us how to overcome temptation. With each temptation he rejects it immediately without brooding over it. He doesn’t let temptation have any place in his thoughts or imagination.

Baptism takes away original sin, but not our tendency to sin. Temptation is inevitable for all of us, but sin is not inevitable.

Jesus was tempted by the Devil, but not all temptations come from the Devil. In the First Letter of John, St. John reminds us that not all temptations come from the Devil when he says,

Do not love the world or the things of the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.

For all that is in the world, sensual lust, enticement for the eyes, and a pretentious life, is not from the Father but is from the world.

Yet the world and its enticement are passing away. But whoever does the will of God remains forever (1 John 2, 15-17).

The world here refers to a disordered desire for power, fame, approval, applause and human respect.

The Bible teaches us that temptations also come from the flesh – a disordered appetite for pleasure, money, alcohol, sleep, sex, food. The Lenten sacrifices we make of abstaining from meat on Fridays and other bodily sacrifices are meant to train our wills to reject these bodily temptations.

Some temptations do come from the Devil. The Church teaches us that the Devil is a real personal being, a fallen angel. He was created good by God, but abused his free will and rejected God. Now he hates God and hates all of those created in his image and likeness. Some people formerly involved in the abortion industry say that many in the industry are involved in occult practices. They see an attack on the unborn child as an indirect attack on God himself, since these innocent human beings are made in his image and likeness.

The Devil is like a crafty, dishonest salesman. All temptation is based on deception. Some temptations like those involving temptations to cowardice in the face of danger must be faced head on, but St. Philip Neri says that with temptations of the flesh, the best defense is to run away. We need not only to avoid sin, but the occasions of sin. These are the persons, places and things that lead us into serious sin. We need to choose friends with good character. If we have a problem with alcohol, we need to avoid bars. To be chaste, young people need to avoid being alone in a house or apartment with someone of the opposite sex. If a person has a problem with internet pornography, they should put their computer in a public place where they won’t be tempted to visit these sites.

All temptation is based on deception and this is especially true with the culture of death. Just as truth and life go together so do lies and death. I once attended a conference in which women told stories about their abortion experiences. They told stories of 1.) having been led to 2.) given no information on fetal development 3.) given no information on alternatives 4.) no information on pain or the possible side effects of abortion 5.) how their fears were manipulated in order for them to be sold an abortion. 6. After some came back to the abortion mill looking for comfort, they were dismissed and told to get over it.

The abortion industry has deceived women for years by telling them that their babies were just blobs of tissue, withholding information of the possible link between abortion and breast cancer – 29 of 39 studies done since 1959 show an increased risk of breast cancer after an abortion. The abortion industry also lies about the abortifacient nature of the so called morning after pill and some forms of contraception like the IUD and the birth control pill.

We need to overcome lies with truth and evil with good. Jesus came to destroy the works of the Devil (1 John 3, 8). The culture of death is a work of the Devil. Ultimately, through the power of Christ, the culture of life will supplant the culture of death. But Christ will act through us to bring about this victory if we turn our lives over to him.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Homily on the Beatitudes Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time

This painting depicts Jesus teaching the people in his Sermon on the Mount. It was painted by Paul Gustave Dore, a French man, in 1865.

This is a link to a video is an excerpt from the 1977 movie "Jesus of Nazareth" directed by Franco Zeffirelli. It was Pope Paul VI who approached Zeffirelli and asked him to make a movie based on the life of Christ.

St. Matthew quotes the Old Testament more than any other Evangelist. Matthew was born as a Jew, and directs his Gospel to his fellow Jews to convince them that Jesus is the expected Messiah. The Pentateuch is the first part of the Old Testament. It is separated into five books. So also St. Matthew divides his Gospel into five parts. Matthew presents Jesus as the new Moses, but he speaks with more authority than Moses since he is “Immanuel” or “God with us”. Several times in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus says “Moses said …., but what I say to you is….” He corrects and supersedes Moses because he is the Word of God made flesh. Jesus is God himself, equal in dignity to the Father. Just as Moses received the Ten Commandments from God on a mountain, so Jesus, the new Moses, gives his teaching on a mountain.

While the Ten Commandment are mostly a list of what we should not do, the Beatitudes emphasize the virtues we need to practice in order to find true happiness. St. Gregory of Nyssa writes "Beatitude is a possession of all things held to be good, from which nothing is absent that a good desire may want. Perhaps the meaning of beatitude may become clearer to us if it is compared with its opposite. Now the opposite of beatitude is misery. Misery means being afflicted unwillingly with painful sufferings."

Jesus begins his Beatitudes by teaching “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” In this beatitude he teaches us that happiness is found through humility and detachment from material things. An unhealthy sense of pride, greed and avarice are contrary to this beatitude. For families this means accepting children lovingly from God, even if that might mean living a less wealthy lifestyle. Abortion, contraception and sterilization are opposed to this beatitude. Humility is recognizing our place in relation to God. A humble person acknowledges that God alone is the Master of human life. Only he has the power to give a human life, only he has “a right to choose” to take an innocent human life to himself, including that life which is unformed in the womb or disabled at the end of life.

“Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” We need to mourn properly and mourn over the right things. Mother Teresa once said “Never let anything so fill you with sorrow as to make you forget the joy of the Risen Christ!" St. Paul says “We do not want you to be unaware, brothers, about those who have fallen asleep, so that you may not grieve like the rest, who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4, 13).

We should mourn over our sins, mourn over injustice and console those who mourn. To mourn is to have compassion. There is a difference between compassion and pity. Compassion comes from two Latin words that literally means “suffering with”. Pity is turning away from the sufferings of another because we can’t bear it. Pity would offer abortion to a woman in a crisis pregnancy, whereas compassion would help the woman to bring her baby to term and offer real assistance to both mother and child. Pity would offer euthanasia to a sick or disabled person, whereas compassion would offer medical help to relieve pain and care until the person dies a natural death.

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” To be meek is not to be weak. Meekness is restrained power. Some of the strongest and most powerful men are also gentle and kind. A meek person shows restraint even when he is rudely treated. St. Francis de Sales said “The highest degree of meekness consists in seeing, serving, honoring, and treating amiably, on occasion, those who are not to our taste, and who show themselves unfriendly, ungrateful, and troublesome to us.” Meekness does not prevent us from speaking up with courage in the face of injustice, and to speak up for those who can not speak for themselves.

“Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” Many today hunger and thirst for righteousness for unborn children who are deprived of their rights and in danger of abortion. There have been over 48 million abortions since the infamous Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision of 1973 in the United States. A lack of respect for life in its beginning stages has led to a lack of respect for life in its end stages. So we hear more calls for euthanasia and physician assisted suicide. We need to hunger and thirst for righteousness and a new culture of life in which human life will be respected.

"Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.” Mercy is God’s greatest attribute. Jesus teaches us to pray “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Priests For Life promotes Project Rachel the post-abortion healing ministry of the Catholic Church and Rachel’s Vineyard Retreats – spiritual exercises for both men and women who have been wounded by abortion to help them find healing and peace.

“Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.” The pure of heart treat others with dignity and respect, not as objects of physical pleasure. Chastity is not an old-fashioned custom, but a virtue which respects God’s plan for sex, marriage and family. Sex is something beautiful created by God as an expression of love reserved for a husband and wife who have committed themselves for life and are open to the transmission of a new human life.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” We need to make peace within our families, between neighbors, the wider community and among nations. We must avoid judging others and questioning their motives. If we disagree, we should learn to do so respectfully. Mother Teresa in her acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 once said “the greatest destroyer of peace is abortion... Because if a mother can kill her own child - what is left for me to kill you and you kill me - there is nothing between.”

“Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” If you are a faithful follower of Christ; if you speak the truth and stand for justice, if you stand for those whose rights are denied like the unborn, you will experience some measure of persecution.

In the United States this mostly amounts to being lied about, some name calling and perhaps social ostracism. But in some other countries Christians are still imprisoned tortured or killed because of their witness for Christ and their refusal to remain silent in the face of injustice. Whatever sufferings we endure in this country are very little compared to them of the early Christian martyrs. Whenever we suffer anything for Christ we should rejoice as the Apostles did when had been found worthy to suffer for the sake of the name of Jesus Christ (cf. Acts 5, 41).

The Beatitudes, which begin the Sermon on the Mount, are widely admired even by non-Christians. Though they widely admired, they are not widely practiced. G.K. Chesterton, a convert to Catholicism in the early twentieth century once said “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.”

Nevertheless, there is a faithful remnant as spoken of by the Prophet Zephaniah who obey God’s commandments and put these teachings into practice. There are faithful and dedicated priests and religious, faithful husbands and wives who accept children generously from God, living quiet lives without fanfare; people who care for the sick and disabled, who stand by women helping them through an unplanned pregnancy offering real help to both mothers and their babies, people who forgive their enemies, work for peace, those who speak up for those who can not speak for themselves, even in the face of ridicule and persecution.

The Beatitudes can only be fully appreciated in the light of eternal life. Nevertheless, if we put these Beatitudes into practice we can create a new culture of life and a civilization of love. We will experience a measure of Christ’s peace on earth and eternal happiness in the life to come.