In Formation

Saturday, November 2


Another practice homily

My course in homiletics is teaching me the difficulties and the joys of preparing to proclaim the Word of God. We prepare our homilies for our peers, and this time, based on Sunday's readings, my focus was preaching itself.

31st Sunday in Ordinary Time

I heard a certain homiletics professor at a local parish once say that every priest should be able to forgo giving a homily one Sunday a year. If that were the policy and I were a priest, this would be the week I would "pass." I'd simply let the readings speak for themselves. I say that because Christ's words today are aimed at preachers, and he's anything but pleased:

The scribes and the Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses. Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example. For they preach but they do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens hard to carry and lay them on people's shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them.

As always, Christ goes deeper, revealing their selfish hearts. Preachers, he says, often seek honor. They want to be noticed. Then, as now, preaching presents temptations to vanity and pride.

Some today might say the problem is preaching itself: Everyone knows how they should live. Just leave us alone. Stop telling us what to do!

Jesus, of course, isn't condemning preaching. On the contrary, Jesus tells the people to do all that the Pharisees teach. They had authority and responsibility to preach. And someday we will too. In a sense, then, because I'm preaching to you, Christ is saying, "Listen to Steve. Do what he says."

I'll admit that thought makes me pause. But not half as much as my uncertainty about how Jesus would finish the sentence. In my case, would he continue, saying "but do not follow his example"?

Christ's message about hypocrisy is not lost on any of us. It's common in our talk. How often do we hear, how often do we say, practice what you preach; walk your talk; don't be a hypocrite? The fact is, we all hate hypocrites.

For those of us in homiletics, though, Christ's message is about the practice of preaching as much as practicing what we preach. Christ is preaching to us about preaching. What's he telling us?

Jesus says: They tie up heavy burdens hard to carry and lay them on people's shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them.

That is not just a small item on a laundry list of Pharisaical faults. Instead, it reveals a fundamental failure on their part to listen and to love. The problem becomes clear when we contrast their preaching with Christ's. He says:

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 is light.

Or consider Paul's preaching, which he describes in today's second reading:

We were gentle among you, as a nursing mother cares for her children . . . . You recall, brothers and sisters, our toil and drudgery. Working night and day in order not to burden any of you, we proclaimed to you the gospel of God.

That is the pattern for distinctively Christian preaching. Instead of adding burdens, Christian preachers should relieve them.

A few years ago, I spoke with a priest a year after his ordination, and I asked him what was the most important thing he had learned during that year. Actually I think I asked him what surprised him the most. He said he was unprepared for the suffering and pain of the people of God.

Like that priest, all Christ-like preachers know their hearers are always already burdened. They know the faithful often criticize themselves for their shortcomings, for the ways they've failed themselves, their loved-ones, and their God. In short, the faithful bring a load of cares with them to Mass. And they want desperately to find some answers. They come to hear a word of healing, a word of mercy, a word of hope. And that, Jesus says, is our job as preachers.

In order to preach words of hope and words of healing, though, we have to know the Christ of the Gospel. The true preacher bears the Good News of Christ to the people because he knows the Good News. And, because he knows it, he wants to relieve others' burdens through, with, and in Christ.

We who would be preachers must be like Moses, Christ, and Paul, who lived lives of sacrifice for the People of God. They bore the burdens of the people. True, they sometimes spoke stern words, but their motive was always love, to liberate their hearers from slavery to sin and death.

If we want practical help in figuring out how to preach Christ's way, we should meditate on the prophecy of Isaiah that is fulfilled every time Christ speaks:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; He has sent me to bring glad tidings to the lowly, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives; to announce a year of favor from the Lord and a day of vindication by our God, to comfort all who mourn.

That's the outline for Christian preaching. That's the good news. And those are our marching orders as preachers of the Gospel. We've been called to carry burdens, to liberate, to love. Just as Christ did.

We'll only be able to preach Christ's way, we'll only bear the peoples' burdens, if we know the love of Christ. When we've encountered the loving mercy of God, the love of the crucified God who longs to bear our burdens, we will eagerly share that good news. That's what Paul means when he says the love of Christ impels us . . .

One way to simplify the message is: preach love. If we don't know Christ's love for us and for all who will hear us, we shouldn't preach. Otherwise, we're apt to add burdens to the people like the Pharisees instead of bearing their burdens in Christ.

Every day, Christ invites us to follow him, to live as he lives, and to speak his word. And his word is always love. Our vocation--our privilege--as priests and preachers is to bear the burdens of those Christ loves. If we live and preach that way, Jesus will not just tell our hearers to do what we say; he'll tell them to follow our example, too, because we'll be leading them to him.

posted by Fr. Steve | 11/02/2002 |

Friday, November 1


A Saint on the Saints

In today's Office of Readings, we are treated to an All Saints homily by St. Bernard that encourages and exhorts us.

Why should our praise and glorification, or even the celebration of this feast day mean anything to the saints? What do they care about earthly honours when their heavenly Father honours them by fulfilling the faithful promise of the Son? What does our commendation mean to them? The saints have no need of honour from us; neither does our devotion add the slightest thing to what is theirs. Clearly, if we venerate their memory, it serves us, not them. But I tell you, when I think of them, I feel myself inflamed by a tremendous yearning.

Calling the saints to mind inspires, or rather arouses in us, above all else, a longing to enjoy their company, so desirable in itself. We long to share in the citizenship of heaven, to dwell with the spirits of the blessed, to join the assembly of patriarchs, the ranks of the prophets, the council of apostles, the great host of martyrs, the noble company of confessors and the choir of virgins. In short, we long to be united in happiness with all the saints. But our dispositions change. The Church of all the first followers of Christ awaits us, but we do nothing about it. The saints want us to be with them, and we are indifferent. The souls of the just await us, and we ignore them.

Come, brothers, let us at length spur ourselves on. We must rise again with Christ, we must seek the world which is above and set our mind on the things of heaven. Let us long for those who are longing for us, hasten to those who are waiting for us, and ask those who look for our coming to intercede for us. We should not only want to be with the saints, we should also hope to possess their happiness. While we desire to be in their company, we must also earnestly seek to share in their glory. Do not imagine that there is anything harmful in such an ambition as this; there is no danger in setting our hearts on such glory.
When we commemorate the saints we are inflamed with another yearning: that Christ our life may also appear to us as he appeared to them and that we may one day share in his glory. Until then we see him, not as he is, but as he became for our sake. He is our head, crowned, not with glory, but with the thorns of our sins. As members of that head, crowned with thorns, we should be ashamed to live in luxury; his purple robes are a mockery rather than an honour. When Christ comes again, his death shall no longer be proclaimed, and we shall know that we also have died, and that our life is hidden with him. The glorious head of the Church will appear and his glorified members will shine in splendour with him, when he forms this lowly body anew into such glory as belongs to himself, its head.

Therefore, we should aim at attaining this glory with a wholehearted and prudent desire. That we may rightly hope and strive for such blessedness, we must above all seek the prayers of the saints. Thus, what is beyond our own powers to obtain will be granted through their intercession.

posted by Fr. Steve | 11/01/2002 |

In thanks for All (the) Saints

When I was a Protestant, I understood Hebrews 12:1-2 in a rather limited way. The text reads:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

Of course, these verses follow Chapter 11, where we read accounts of the great witnesses of faith. When I read those accounts I was truly inspired by the witness of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, of Moses, and many more, including those who were martyred for the faith. I tried to appreciate the nameless many who died for the faith, but I wrongly limited the "great cloud of witnesses" to those who died long ago, in the period of the New Testament.

Now that I'm Catholic, the liturgical calendar teaches me that this great cloud of witnesses spans all of time. Throughout the year, I have many more names to add to the list we read in Hebrews. The Church gives us these saints to inspire us to follow their example. And they do inspire us. More than that, we can be assured that these saints are praying with and for us as we strive, by grace, to "lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely . . . " What a great gift! What a comfort in our continuing struggle against sin.

All the angels and saints, pray for us.

posted by Fr. Steve | 11/01/2002 |

Thursday, October 31


Disease of dissent

Janet Smith's mid-October review of George Weigel's Courage to be Catholic provides another reason to mention his book.

Weigel has a name for what the dissenters have been selling and what the bishops have been tolerating, if not promoting, and what seminarians and the laity have been imbibing. "Catholic lite," he calls it. It is a clever moniker and captures something of what has gone on - but I fear that the label is too innocuous. Catholic lite is not simply a bland, unexciting and nonnutritious version of the Catholic faith. It is, in fact, toxic and carcinogenic. Dissent from Humanae Vitae led people to think that sex just for pleasure - sex without respect for the procreative meaning of sexuality - is moral. If heterosexuals can have sex just for pleasure, what's wrong with homosexual sex or masturbation? And if one isn't risking having babies, what's wrong with sex outside of marriage? Sometimes logical consequences become real-life consequences.

In deciding to treat the current crisis as one of policy - as one of the proper treatment of sexual-abuse charges - the bishops are in danger of treating a cancer that has already seriously metastasized through the body of the Church as nothing more than an ugly boil that needs to be lanced. The Vatican discerned one pocket of the cancer: poor formation in seminaries.

The cancer of dissent, of individuals in places of influence and power who do not accept Church teaching is, however, rampant in Catholic educational institutions and hospitals. It's also present in chancery offices. The majority of Catholics contracept and seem not to know about the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist, to cite just two examples of woeful disconnect between Catholics and their Church. In the sphere of Catholic education, it is fairly clear that Ex Corde Ecclesiae's mandatum will not be an effective vehicle for ensuring that Catholic professors teach Catholic doctrine. Perhaps bishops could resort to the personal touch and meet with presidents and boards of Catholic colleges and universities, and impress upon them how important it is that those who study at their institutions will be learning the fullness of Catholic truth and not being initiated into the culture of dissent.

Weigel offers good advice for many areas of the Church needing reform - from selection of bishops to the relationship of bishops to their priests to living situations for priests and more. Were the bishops to take his advice, we would have a much-improved Church. He recommends that the bishops yearly ask every priest a set of questions about their spiritual life and their personal life, such as: "Do you sleep alone?" and "Do you make use of pornography?" The need for this kind of direct confrontation with priests should not be underestimated. No matter what policies are put in place, one-on-one work with priests is essential to restoring the priesthood.

From my position in the seminary, it is my sense that dissent is growing outside the boundaries of seminaries more quickly than within. The men who are being formed here embrace the Catholic Faith, as do those who teach us. Can the same be said of the average priest or chancery employee?

posted by Fr. Steve | 10/31/2002 |

Wednesday, October 30


Kyrie Eleison

Just for the record, all the seminarians I know are outraged by the things we're reading in Bishop Daily's recently released deposition. We are incredulous.

Men who are in formation today know that they and their peers cannot live double lives. They know they must live transparently Christian lives. And, though they believe that priestly fraternity is important, they know it must include accountability to the Gospel. Priestly fraternity must never tolerate secrets that protect predators from prosecution.

Our duty must be to the priesthood and the Church it exists to serve. Of course, our ultimate duty is to Christ whose icon priests are called to be. Please pray for your priests and all the men in formation, that we would learn to live lives of love for the sake of Christ's Bride, the Church.

posted by Fr. Steve | 10/30/2002 |

Sunday, October 27


Learning Homiletics

This quarter, I have the privilege of taking my first course in homiletics. It's really a practicum, in which we give homilies each week and get feedback from the priest-professor and the nine other students in the class. One of the principles we've been learning from the class, as well as from the USCCB's document Fulfilled in Your Hearing, is that the homilest should prepare the people to give thanks and praise in the liturgy of the Eucharist. Here's a short homily I wrote for today's readings:

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time

It's 1988, and we see an old man running his daily seventeen miles through the California hills. The camera captures him pounding the pavement in the gold of a cool autumn morning. The screen fades to black, a swoosh, then three simple words. An ad campaign is born: Just do it.

There's power in a good pitch.

If Jesus were an adman, trying to sell something, what would his pitch be?

In our readings, Jesus has been battling with Jewish leaders for weeks now. This week it's the Pharisees' turn. He just silenced the Saducees, and now the Pharisees are taking their best shot. One of them gives Jesus a test, asking which of the commandments is the greatest.

In Jesus' day, the question was up for debate. But Jesus doesn't play their game. Instead of saying which of the 613 commandments he thinks is greatest, Jesus goes right to the heart of the Jews' most sacred prayer:

You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.

Then he adds a second, also from the scriptures: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

His answer wasn't simply an evasion. He meant it. Those really are the two greatest commandments. Love God; love your neighbor. And today Jesus is saying the same two things to us.

The number--two--makes it seem simple. Love God, Love your neighbor.

If we tried, we could even turn them into one: Just Love. Taking a cue from Nike, we might even say "Just do it." But what does that mean--Just do it?

It's an important question, because we never just do anything. What we do is bound up with our very being. The choices we make, the actions we take--they shape our future. It's as simple as the law of the harvest: what we sow, we reap. It matters what we do.

And that brings us to the other theme in today's readings: justice. This morning, Exodus shows us God's heart. We read that God will act with judgment against those who harm the alien, the widow, the orphan, or the poor. When the oppressed cry out for justice, God warns: "I will hear, for I am compassionate."

Justice doesn't contradict God's love. Mercy complements justice. So, if we truly love God, we will love as He loves. We will be both merciful and just.

It matters what we do because God hears the cry of the poor. And for that reason, Nike, the company that gave us Just do it, had better take a hard look at itself. Their success is not just a result of a great advertising campaign. It's built on the backs of the poor--those (as young as 14) who work in the sweatshops of Vietnam, China, and Thailand.

Nike pays pennies to their workers and millions to their pitchmen athletes. Tiger Woods, for example, gets $55,000 per day for wearing the Nike swoosh, while Indonesian workers get $1.25 to make what he wears. It's not hard to conclude that Nike's actions are crying out for justice. It matters what we do.

But sometimes, you say, it's not so clear. It's not always obvious what we should do or how we should love. And, many times, that's true.

That's why it's such good news that Jesus came. He came to show us how to live. He came to show us how to love. We're not left to find our own way. The gospels show us how he lived; they tell us what he said.

Jesus is more than just a pitchman. He is his message. If he had a "pitch," the pitch was his life. Jesus isn't selling anything; he's calling with his life. Gatorade says "Be like Mike." But Jesus says "Come follow me." Be my disciple.

It's even better than that. Jesus not only shows us the way, he gives us food for the journey. He makes our loving possible. We love, John tells us, because he first loved us.

And that's why we're here. We come to Mass to know and experience Christ's love again. Today, right now, Jesus is calling out to you, telling you to love God and love your neighbor. And those are not just commands. They reveal instead God's deepest desire.

God wants us to love. He wants us to become love in him. And love is what he gives us when he offers us himself.

With that in mind, as we continue with the Mass, consider something St. Augustine said about the Eucharist. It's no pitch. It's more an invitation. Or maybe a third commandment. In any case, it's good advice. When you take communion today and everyday, remember these words:

Receive what you are; become what you receive.

posted by Fr. Steve | 10/27/2002 |