Seeing Beyond the Veil
Jesus climbs Mount Tabor to pray, and while he was praying, He is transfigured before Peter, James, and John. These three glimpse Christ’s true nature in order to be prepared for the scandal of the Crucifixion. “This is my beloved Son,” a voice resounds from within the cloud. This is my Son, blazing forth the radiance of a billion stars.
Our story begins with Father Abraham, though, in the First Reading from Genesis 15. The Lord God directs Abram’s eyes to the night sky: “Count the stars, if you can.” Let’s turn our attention to the night sky for a moment too. On a clear night here at Thomas Aquinas College, you can see hundreds of stars and a few planets, and perhaps the smoky edges of our own galaxy. If you know where to look, you might see the dull smudge of the Andromeda galaxy, 2.5 million light years distant (that’s 10,000 million trillion miles—the Lord owns a lot of real estate). Astrophysicists estimate the Milky Way contains 300 to 400 billion stars. Andromeda has over one trillion stars, each with dozens, perhaps hundreds, of planets and exoplanets. Both galaxies belong to the Local Group of about 50 galaxies, which belongs to a cluster, which makes up filament patterns of superclusters. We can see, with Father Abraham and a little help from the Hubble telescope, at least 100 billion galaxies in the night sky. Hubble took a picture of the night sky the size of your thumb held at arm’s length and found 10,000 galaxies in that small dark spot. If every star were a grain of sand, the box to contain all the observable stars in the universe would have to be two miles high and two miles wide and stretch from New York to Atlanta.
Why did the Lord God ask Father Abraham to look up into the night sky? To show him how many children he would have? Not really: God wanted Abram to glimpse some inkling of his glory. It is I who made all these stars, and I keep them perfectly tuned every day. I and no other, but it is I who am talking with you now. I love you, and I will send my son to die for you. I make a covenant with you and your children, a covenant of love. Father Abraham could hardly believe it. He was transformed by the realization of God’s providence.
I can’t go further without mentioning St. Paul’s affection for the flock entrusted to him in the second reading. “Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and my crown, in this way stand firm in the Lord.” See how God’s servant Paul radiates God’s tender affection for us too.
Now back to the Transfiguration. After six days, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up a steep mountain. While he was praying, his face blazed like the sun and his clothes shone white as light. He spoke with the glorified figures of Moses and Elijah, the greatest men of the Old Testament, representing the Law and the Prophets. Jesus reveals himself in complete majesty, he who commands the sun, Creator of the stars of night. His brightness manifests a quality of glorified bodies, “who will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matt 13:43). No wonder St. Peter wants to stay on that mountain—he has been granted the beatific vision. It is a transformative experience, meant to strengthen the Apostles’ faith. But faith comes more through hearing than through seeing. And so the Father’s voice commands them to “Listen” to his beloved Son. The Father has said all He need and can say, and all we need to hear, in his Son. But how many are listening?
Some have not seen what we have seen, because they refuse to listen and refuse to believe. They do not see anything beautiful in the Holy Mass or in the Church. They do not see the Father’s providential love in the waters of the sea or the lilies of the field or the stars of the night sky. They do not see the image of God in the human person, and so they destroy people—even babies—without a thought, because they have not listened. The Father’s voice begs us, commands us: Listen! In this Year of Faith, let us make certain that we are listening to God’s beloved Son as He speaks through the Church. Having heard His voice and seen His face, may we manifest the radiant and beautiful face of God to every other person by loving them with Christian affection. May Our Lady, the Star of the New Evangelization, show us how to see Christ in others, and to magnify his glory among them.
We are in the pre-Lenten time of the year. Already the altar and priest are clad in purple; already we forgo the alleluia. Ash Wednesday is only ten days away. Please make your Lenten resolutions now, write them down, and prepare to enter Lent running. We must run toward Easter, toward Heaven, with all we have.
An Angel of Satan to beat me
St. Paul had reason to boast, and he had reason to complain. He labored, and he suffered for the Gospel to an extraordinary degree: scourged five times, beaten with rods three times, stoned once, shipwrecked three times, clinging to a piece of wood in the open sea for a day and a night. No man has ever equaled St. Paul in spreading the Gospel. His greatest experience was mystical—an out-of-body experience of the third heaven, hearing “verba arcana,” unutterable words. Because of the “abundance of revelations,” that he might not extol himself, a “thorn in the flesh” was given him. He describes it also as an “angel of Satan to beat me.” It wasn’t just a passing toothache, but a chronic and painful debilitation. Perhaps it was a weakness in his feet or knees, particularly difficult for one who spent his life walking around the Mediterranean region. Maybe it was persistent sexual thoughts. Or perhaps his bad eyes. Or maybe a persistent interpersonal weakness—he was disposed to lose his temper. Maybe it was a tumor, or psoriasis, or insomnia, or alcoholism, or migraines.
“Three times” Paul asked God to heal him—that means, in Biblical language, he asked God over and over for relief. But the Lord did not heal him. And so what did the great St. Paul do? He stopped complaining. He embraced his weaknesses, for the love of Christ. He said: “God’s grace is enough for me.”
Bad anthropology and greedy pharmaceutical companies have teamed up to promote the fantasy of human life without pain. With enough technology or psychology, we are told, we can eliminate any kind of suffering. But St. Paul tells us, from personal experience, that God’s grace, not medication or psychotherapy, makes suffering bearable, even joyful. Yes, we have to try to reduce pain in our lives within reasonable means. We should take Advil, or undergo surgery, or see a counselor, when we need to. But if we find ourselves obsessed with avoiding pain, when we can’t bear any suffering, then we miss life’s deepest joys. Many beautiful things come only through suffering, self-denial, and humble submission to what we cannot control.
Strength in weakness
Suffering purifies our damning illusions of self-reliance. We learn to trust God, in our flesh, when we suffer. With St. Paul, we say “I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships and constraints, for the sake of Christ. For when I am weak, then am I strong.” It is hard to suffer, to be hemmed in by life, to sustain insult peacefully, to smile on even the worst days. But we can rejoice in our sufferings, if we know that … God’s grace is enough. Lent is the time to embrace unavoidable sufferings, and to load on even extra sacrifices, for the love of God. We cannot love Him very much if we do not suffer for him. We cannot contain our own pride unless we discipline our bodies. “Gladly will I boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may dwell within me.”
Our Lady, of course, is the most beautiful example of human weakness. She was a nobody and owned nothing, at the mercy of the men who drove the political machinery around her. She gave herself up to God, heedless of the shame, and found herself in Him. She found that He can be trusted. Let us pray to Holy Mary to help us sacrifice everything for the surpassing joy of knowing God, our Savior.
Homily: On the Armor of God and on our Impossible DebtExtraordinary Form Homily Oct 21, 2012
21st Sunday after Pentecost
Taking up the Arms of GodEphesians 6:10-17 Put on the armor of God so that you may be able to stand firm against the tactics of the devil. For our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens.
We are in our third week of the Year of Faith. St. Paul’s Epistle today declares that we do not contend with the powers of this earth, but with the powers of the air, with the ruler of darkness. We fight against the World, the Flesh, and the Devil, but it the last of these that we often forget, for like the air he is generally invisible. We are acutely aware of worldly power, and the upcoming national election postures itself as simply a contest between two men. But the battle is more than with the World. We are painfully aware of the powers and weaknesses of the flesh, and daily we battle our own lusts, impulses, and compulsions. But the struggle is more than with the Flesh. We fight Satan, day in and day out, though we seldom reckon the magnitude of his influence.
St. Paul clearly defines it for us: “our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness…”
We must engage the powers of this present darkness both defensively and offensively. Defensively
, we resist in the “evil day” by girding our loins with the belt of truth, by strapping on the breastplate of justice, and maneuvering the shield of faith. Our faith must be without gap, consistent, and whole, if it is to defend us against the thrusts of the Evil One. Offensively
, we shod ourselves with the gospel of peace so as to engage the enemy quickly, and we take into our hands the sword of the spirit, which is the Word of God. No political means, no human means, can win the present contest. We must vote our faith, and we must struggle to overcome carnal vices with brilliant virtues, but ultimately our contest is fought between the powers of the air. We can only prevail by taking on Christ’s armor, his weapons, for the battle is his.An impossible debt Matt 18: 23-35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.
The Gospel teaches us a similar lesson about our absolute dependence on God’s power. Let’s try to understand the story: a man owes 10,000 talents—it’s an astronomical figure, in today’s currency, about four billion dollars. It was a debt simply impossible to pay off. This is what the first servant owes his master, and the master forgives the entire debt. We owe God a debt that can never be paid. But he cancels it, with a wave of his hand in blessing. That servant then bumps into a fellow servant who owes 100 denarii—about $5000 in today’s currency. If someone owed you $5000, you would want to get it back, and that kind of debt can be paid back with time and patience. But the first servant will “hear none of it.” He wants his money back immediately. So what does God do to the unrelenting first servant? He throws him in jail, until he would pay off his entire debt—which he never will. He is consigned to an eternal hell, because he did not forgive his brother “from his heart.”
If we do not forgive others, God will not forgive us, and we all have debts to him we can never pay back. The only way to get to heaven is to humbly receive his gift—the cancelation of our entire debt, which makes us forever beholden to him. Then we must likewise cancel the tiny debts others owe us. This means forgiving, from the heart, an ex-husband, an employer who did us great harm, an employee who cheated us, etc.
In this year of faith, let us imitate the Woman of Faith, who received the Incarnate Word, and in her turn gave all that she had back to God. She gave back all that she had—can we not give back at least a part of what we have been given?
Homily: The City of God and the City of Man
Extraordinary Form Homily, October 7th, 2012
19th Sunday after Pentecost
A tale of two cities
Dickens’ great novel about revolutionary Paris and London tells the tale of Two Cities. So our Lord in today’s Gospel tells the tale of two cities: the City of God and the City of Man. You belong to one, or you belong to the other. The Kingdom of heaven is like a King who invited many guests to his Son’s wedding feast. He slaughtered his oxen and fatlings and dressed the great table for his guests, so earnestly does he desire each guest’s salvation. He prepares his table at every Mass, but many guests do not come. They treat the king’s invitation with contempt, and murder his messengers.
Do you know the largest religious group in this country? It is not Catholics, for Catholics attend Mass every Sunday and submit themselves to the apostles’ teaching. The largest religious group in our country is not Catholics, but non-practicing Catholics, for 75% of those who claim membership in the Catholic Church neither attend Mass faithfully nor believe in all the Church’s teachings. They do not come to the Wedding Feast, and they ridicule the Pope and his faithful bishops. What is this mysterious malice, that not only ignores the King’s invitation, but that drives the invited guests to a fury of intolerance?
So the King destroys those murderers and burns their city, the City of Man. The King affords apostates no quarter, and for us, neither is there any third way. Either we enter the City of God, and take our place at the wedding feast of the Lamb, or we obtusely remain in the City of Man to await our certain destruction. But one man did try a third way. He entered the City of God in shabby clothing. St. Gregory the Great writes of this passage: “The marriage is the wedding of Christ and his Church, and the garment is the virtue of charity: a person who goes into the feast without a wedding garment is someone who believes in the Church but does not have charity.”
How terrible to come before God with dirty, stinking, rotten clothing! We observe a dress code in our college chapel. It is a sign that we do not come before the Lord without clothing ourselves, as best we can, with the virtues that God himself provides. God provides grace, but we must put it on, as St. Paul says in the Epistle: “Put on the new man … put away lying … let not the sun set on your anger … steal no more….”
Year of Faith
God intensely desires our happiness, now and forever. He prepares the nuptial feast of his Son, at which we receive the very self-offering of our bridegroom. With his own hand he feeds each of us with himself. Yet how many Catholics believe this? How many, rather, manifest the obstinate malice that ridicules their own Mother, the Church? They have lost the virtue of faith. Faith must be received from another, certainly, but we must develop and practice the faith we receive. Pope Benedict opens a Year of Faith this week, on Thursday, October 11, the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, and the 20th anniversary of the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The “Door of Faith is always open for us,” writes the Pontiff. “To enter that door is to set out on a journey that lasts a lifetime.” But “in large swathes of society, a profound crisis of faith has affected many people.” How will you, college students and college tutors, practice this Year of Faith? The Pope recommends, above all, studying and teaching the Catechism of the Catholic Church. I will say more on the Year of Faith in the coming weeks.
The Holy Rosary
Today is also October 7th, the Feast of the Holy Rosary. On this day in 1571, 70,000 Christian men came up against the seemingly invincible Ottoman Navy. Each Christian held a rosary in his hand, and so the ensuing victory brought about a new devotion to Our Lady of the Holy Rosary. We too must bear the rosary into our battles. The City of Man wars incessantly against the City of God, and the battle lines cross directly through each human heart. What will save us from the furious secularism of our time, intent with mysterious malice to humble and subjugate the Church of Christ? You and I must pray the rosary, in the words of Blessed John Paul II, “my favorite prayer. A marvelous prayer! Marvelous in its simplicity and its depth.” Nothing bad can touch the family that regularly prays the rosary with devotion. It is one of the great anthems of the City of God, of which, we beseech God and His Holy Mother, we many always be faithful and true citizens.
Extraordinary Form Homily September 30, 2012
18th Sunday after Pentecost
Jesus crossed the lake to his home town of Capernaum. Just as he is getting out of the boat, some men hurry up to the dock to lay down their paralyzed friend, right in front of Jesus. And Our Lord goes to the root of the problem: he cures the man’s sins. Only after healing his sins does he heal his paralysis.
We take two lessons from today’s Gospel.
A Bold Move
Our First Lesson: the paralyzed man’s friends make a bold move by plopping him down right in front Our Lord. They don’t give Jesus any choice but to face their friend, and they don’t give their friend any choice but to face Jesus. St. Thomas writes: “the paralytic symbolizes the sinner lying in his sin; just as the paralytic can’t move, so the sinner cannot help himself.” Those who bring the paralytic to Jesus lead the sinner to God. Most of the time we bring a friend to God by praying to God for his soul. Sometimes more direct action is indicated. A good friend will take a buddy to an AA meeting if circumstances warrant an intervention. A good friend will insist that his brother get to confession if he needs it.
And this brings us to our Second Lesson: the Sacrament of Penance. This sacrament releases paralyzed limbs and hearts. Imagine paralysis in the ancient world, before motorized wheelchairs, handicapped ramps, and automatic doors. A paralyzed man had to lay on his back for the rest of his life, staring blankly up at the sky. So this paralytic lies in front of Jesus, helpless. Does Jesus cure his paralysis? Yes, but only after he forgives his sins. Our Lord points out that mortal sin is worse than paralysis. Indeed, it is sin that paralyzes. It puts us flat on our backs. The first thing in any distress—physical, emotional, or spiritual—is to go to confession. Jesus heals the man’s paralysis with a word, not only indicating his divinity, but showing how external paralysis only manifests the root problem: the internal paralysis of mortal sin. The first thing in any sickness is to get to confession, because the soul is infinitely more important than anything else. If our souls are all right, the rest of us will be perfectly all right. Even it pleases God to permit a persistent bodily infirmity, we will be all right.
A Pure Heart, a Strong Spirit
St. Maximilian Kolbe was sick from the age of 17. Tuberculosis struck him while in the seminary and left him with only 25% lung capacity the rest of his life. But see how this infirm man founded and oversaw the largest friary in the world, Neopokolanow near Warsaw, with 700 men. At the time of his arrest in 1941, he managed the largest printing business in Poland. He survived three months in Auschwitz while giving his food to others, and in the end freely offered his life for another man in the starvation bunker. Where did he get his extraordinary strength? Not from his weak body, which God never cured in his life. Fr. Kolbe’s remarkable strength came from a pure soul, a heart cleansed of sin.
If we are sick in spirit, and even sick in body, let us look first to our souls. If our nation is sick, let it look above all to its soul. Our Lord wishes to cleanse, heal, and strengthen us, but we must get on our knees before him. We must confess our personal sins, and repent of our national sins. Nothing else matters if the soul is diseased. Our souls must be our first concern.
Let us pray to the Blessed Mother, that she also bring our sick and suffering souls to her Divine Son, that we may share her purity, and the glory God has bestowed upon her, and all the saints.
Bishop Blaire is pleased to appoint Fr. Mark Wagner, currently pastor of Sacred Heart in Turlock, as the fifth Pastor of St. Joseph’s Parish. He met with our staff just after his appointment, and is raring to get started. I must say that for several months the question of the new pastor has caused a good deal of angst. That angst has given way to joy as we welcome a fine priest to our parish.
And now a story of grace. Last month I attended a priests’ retreat in Poland with three other local priests, among who was Fr. Mark. Our parish was much on my mind when Fr. Mark and I entered the Shrine of Divine Mercy near Cracow. We knelt for 10 minutes to pray beneath the original Divine Mercy image, which is hung above St. Faustina’s relics. Jesus really spoke to me that day, assuring me that the parish was His, and He would take care of it. I prayed the words in Polish written on the image: “Jezu ufam tobie,” "Jesus, I trust in you," and knew everything would be all right. After leaving the chapel, Fr. Mark noticed a call had come in on his cellphone during our prayer. It was the Bishop’s office, and we knew it meant only one thing: he was to be our next pastor.
Fr. Mark Wagner was born in San Francisco on Oct. 1, 1960, the Feast of St. Therese of the Child Jesus. He enjoys just about everything in life, and is one of the most committed priests I know. I leave the parish with every confidence in Fr. Mark’s priestly heart, his desire to be a saint. He’s a fun guy, a dear friend, and an inspiring supporter for my own vocation over the years.
Fr. Mark (second from left) with us in Poland last month.
On his scooter in Rome
Homily: God's Grace is Enough
We all complain from time to time. Some people are professional moaners, and others keep life’s disappointments largely to themselves, but we all gripe and wine. Gripenheimers and Winebuckets, all of us. Even St. Paul complained, as he does in today’s second reading. “Three times” he begged the Lord to remove his “thorn in the flesh,” but the Lord did not remove it. And so what did the great St. Paul do? He stopped complaining. He embraced his limitations, in the name of Christ.
Thorn in the Flesh
Let’s look more closely at Paul’s famous “thorn in the flesh.” He describes it also as an “angel of Satan to beat me.” It wasn’t just a toothache, but a chronic, painful debilitation. Perhaps it was a problem with his feet or knees, particularly difficult for one who spent his life walking around the Mediterranean region. Maybe it was persistent sexual thoughts. Or perhaps his bad eyes. Or maybe a persistent interpersonal weakness—he was disposed to lose his temper. Maybe it was a tumor, or psoriasis, or insomnia, or alcoholism, or migraines.
“Three times” Paul asked God to heal him—that means, in Biblical language, he asked God over and over for relief. But what did Paul do when God didn’t heal him? He took a deep breath, pulled himself up straight, and said: “God’s grace is enough for me.”
A great error of our time is to imagine that we can somehow, with enough technology or psychology, eliminate all suffering from life. So if you have a physical problem, just keep trying new meds until the pain is covered over. The pharmaceutical companies will love you! If you have an emotional problem, just jump from one relationship to another until something works. And see a therapist while you’re at it! And if all else fails, there’s always whisky.
But St. Paul tells us today, flat out: God’s grace is enough for us. Yes, we have to try to reduce pain in our lives within reasonable means. I don’t mean we shouldn’t take Advil, or get surgery when we need it. But if we find ourselves obsessed with avoiding pain, when we simply can’t accept the experience of suffering in our lives, then we miss life’s deeper meanings. Because some beautiful things only come through suffering, self-denial, and humble submission to what we cannot control. Pain is necessary for growth. “Growing pains.” In our fallen state, since we suffer from the disorder of Original Sin, we only learn perfection through the school of hard knocks. “But what doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger….”
Strength in weakness
Suffering purifies our illusions of self-reliance. We learn to really trust God when we suffer. Suffering melts our icy hearts and opens them to others who suffer: it develops humility and compassion. “Compassion” in Latin means to “suffer with,” and we cannot know another person in their pain unless we too have suffered with them. A woman philosopher (Alice von Hildebrand) once told an auditorium full of priests: “You men labor under the distinct disadvantage of never having had a baby. When a child is pushing a woman’s body apart, trying to get out, she knows beyond doubt that she is not in control of her life. She gives herself over to Providence.” So we shouldn’t waste our energy obsessing over our sufferings and weaknesses. It is better to say, with St. Paul, that “I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships and constraints, for the sake of Christ. For when I am weak, then am I strong.” Yes, dear brothers and sisters: it is hard to suffer, to be hemmed in by life, to sustain insult with a peaceful demeanor. But we must know that … God’s grace is enough. It is enough!
Mother Teresa would often say, “I am nobody, and I have nothing.” This is really the state of things. We are nobody outside of God’s grace, and nothing we have is ours. It all belongs to Him.
Our Lady, of course, is the most beautiful example of human weakness and poverty. She was nobody and owned nothing, at the mercy of the men and the political machinery around her. “My spirit rejoices in God my savior, because he has looked upon the lowliness of his servant.” She gave herself up to God, and found herself in Him. Let us pray to her to do the same.