TWENTY SECOND SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
You can’t turn on the TV in an election year without having to endure numerous campaign ads. And I already dread the campaign ads that will run in the next few months related to the upcoming presidential election. Will Rogers once told a story about two politicians. One said to the other: “I’ll stop telling lies about you if you’ll stop telling the truth about me.”
Given that, Jesus would have been a poor politician. Politicians are always busy telling us how they are going to solve all our problems if we vote for them. Jesus, on the other hand, is telling us that if we follow him, it is going to bring us crosses. As we just heard in today’s Gospel, “Whoever wishes to come after me must take up his cross and follow me.” Crosses are a part of being a follower of Jesus. Crosses are also an inevitable part of being human. And my experience is that following Jesus helps us to embrace our crosses, to carry them and to find the presence of Jesus in them in a way that they can be redemptive and life giving for us and for others.
Let me share an experience of what I am talking about. A couple of years ago I developed a severe case of sciatica. If you have ever suffered from it, you know that is a very painful condition. I would not wish it on my worst enemy. It was a cross that I had to carry. But in the midst of the pain that I had to embrace, I also came to experience my sciatica as a gift.
You might be familiar with the story of Fr. Damian, now St. Damian of Molokai, who volunteered to minister to the lepers on Molokai Island. Many years ago I watched a movie based on his life. In the movie, he would begin his homily at Mass by saying, “You lepers.” After he contracted leprosy, he began his homily by saying, “We lepers.” His understanding of and ministry to them changed dramatically when he became one of them. I share this story because I now better understand what people are going through when they experience acute or chronic pain. I feel a connection with them in a way that has helped me to better accompany and minister to them.
My sciatica also brought with it another gift. Parishioners who have experienced sciatica shared with me what it was like for them and the things that they did that helped their healing process. A parishioner put me in touch with an osteopathic doctor who made a house call to evaluate me and who suggested some exercises that I could do to help promote my healing. People volunteered to drive me to places that I needed to go or to pick up things that I needed to get. Other people told me to call them if there was anything they could do to help me. All through my priesthood I have committed myself to accompanying and ministering to the people who have been entrusted to my care. Given that, I was humbled by and grateful for the support and help that I received from people who reached out to me with their compassion and care. And I experienced the presence of Jesus reaching out to me through these people.
As I mentioned earlier, I would not wish what I went through on my worst enemy. Sciatica is a cross that I would not have chosen to carry. But in carrying this cross, I was blessed because I now have a better understanding of what severe pain is like for people in a way that has helped me better to accompany and minister to them. I have been humbled and blessed by people who have reached out to and cared for me. And I have experienced the presence of Jesus walking with me and helping me to carry my cross through the people who reached out to and cared for me.
In light of that, may the Eucharist that we receive today strengthen us to carry and learn from our crosses. May we encounter Simon of Cyrene’s to help us to carry our crosses, and may we be on the lookout for ways in which we can be a Simon of Cyrene for people who are experiencing significant crosses in their own lives – be they physical, mental, emotional or spiritual – so that we can gift them with our support and our care. – Fr. Paul
TWENTY FIRST SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
I remember reading, many years ago, an essay in ‘America’ magazine, in which the author - a young man, raised a Catholic - reported that he had reached the painful decision to leave the Catholic Church, and stop attending Mass. There was anguish in his words. His reason for leaving, he said, was that ‘he had become a stranger to Jesus Christ. ‘
My first reaction was anger at the priest, or priests, at this young man’s parish. That a person could attend Mass, Sunday after Sunday, and become a stranger to Jesus Christ was - at least to my way of looking at it -a terrible indictment of those men whose job it was to preside at Mass ‘in the person of Jesus Christ.’ But as time passed, my anger gave way to sadness. That young man’s words remind me that it is hunger that brings us together - that insatiable, 2000-year-old, hunger for Christ.
“But you, who do you say that I am?”
The fact that Christ enthusiastically applauds Peter’s answer would seem to suggest that Peter got it right.
“You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”
It’s interesting, though, I think, that this is a name and title that Jesus never claims for himself. He describes himself as ‘the Good Shepherd;’ He describes himself as ‘the True Vine;’ He describes himself as ‘Living Bread, come down from heaven.’ But never, precisely, as ‘the Christ, the Son of the Living God.’ I feel it’s also worth pointing out that Peter’s short profession of faith, here, is preceded, by a chapter or two, by Christ’s challenge to Peter, “Oh you of little faith, why did you doubt?” when Christ had to pull Peter out of the sea; and Peter’s profession is followed, as we will hear next Sunday, by Christ’s reprimand, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are judging, not as God judges, but as human beings judge.’
And, of course, Peter’s short profession of faith here must be weighed against his treacherous assertion, repeated three times, at the end: ‘I do not know the man!’
Of course, St. Peter was answering before Christ’s passion and death; St. Peter was answering before Christ’s resurrection and ascension; and St. Peter was answering before Pentecost.
St. Peter was also answering before the great ‘ecumenical councils’ of the fourth and fifth centuries, that hammered out the Church’s Creed.
Consider this - St. Peter was able to answer Christ’s question, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ with just ten words - ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.’ Whereas the Creed that we recite every Sunday devotes one hundred and thirty-one words to answering that same question - who Christ is. You might remember that the English translation of the texts of the Mass was revised some years back; Pope John Paul II - as well as our own Cardinal George - considered the translation that we had been using for over 40 years, by then to be too imprecise, theologically. Perhaps the most jarring revision that most of remember is the change from professing Christ to be ‘one in being with the Father,’ to being ‘consubstantial with the Father.’ Each of these two translations attempts to render into English the ancient Greek word, ‘homoousios.’ The fact that they had to resort to an English word that no English-speaking person in the world had ever heard before - ‘consubstantial’ - suggests just how seriously words sometimes fail us.
‘The Catechism of the Catholic Church,’ finally, devotes 272 pages to answering the question of ‘who Christ is.’ And every year, dozens of each generation’s finest theologians take their own crack at answering Christ’s question with lengthy books that they hope will provide a more adequate answer.
‘Who do you say that I am?’
Christ is God, of course…So we Christians claim.
And so, ten words or one hundred and thirty-one words or two hundred and seventy-two pages - it hardly matters. Because Christ is God, no number of words will ever be adequate.
But we Christians also claim that Christ is human, like us. Fully human and fully divine.
Sent to redeem us from Adam and Eve’s original sin, Christ is the sacrament of our ‘humanity redeemed.’ Or, to put it another way, Christ is the revelation of what our ‘humanity, perfected,’ looks like.
• Perfected humanity is mercy - Unfailing mercy.
• Perfected humanity is self-emptying - Christ’s humanity emptied, in order to redeem the divine in you.
• Perfected humanity serves God first. “Not my will,” Christ says, “but thy will be done.”
It occurs to me that when Christ asks the disciples, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ he’s not asking for biographers, but witnesses. Witnesses. Virtuous, trustworthy, compelling witnesses who can step to the front of our panicked, world-falling-down and promise, reassuringly, “I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.”
Witnesses. Joyful, generous, Christ-bound witnesses who can reach out their hands to a hungry world and say, “Follow me. I know of a place where there’s always a meal.”
Witnesses. Broken and mended, sinners and saints, witnesses who can kneel at the feet of a sinful world, and whisper, “The Master would like you to dine with him now.”
“Living Bread;” that’s who he is. For us to eat, and never die.
Last week, when Fr. Paul asked whether I might take a few moments at Mass today to make my farewells before the merger of St. Gregory with St. Ita and St. Thomas of Canterbury, a week from Thursday, it occurred to me that I arrived at St. Gregory’s in 2001, just a few weeks after 9 / 11, and I’m leaving nearly nineteen years later, in the midst of a pandemic that has already taken more than 175,000 American lives. One could say that my assignment here has been ‘bookended’ by crises.
But I recognized that there is a flawed inference in that - that the weeks, and months, and years in between have been ‘normal,’ ‘smooth-sailing,’ or free from crisis. In fact, off the top of my head, I can name at least a dozen ‘lesser crises’ that have punctuated my years here.
Afghanistan. Iraq. Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.
Katrina. Harvey. Sandy. Maria.
Lehmann Brothers and the Housing Bubble and the Great Recession.
9 dead at Emmanuel Church in Charleston.
17 dead at a high school in Parkland, Florida.
58 dead at the Harvest Music Festival in Las Vegas.
I read a poll recently that suggested that a majority of Baby Boomers - among whom I count myself – assert that ‘the times were better’ in their youth. But let us remember that ‘our youth’ was spent waging the Cold War, the linchpin of which was ‘mutually assured destruction.’ Our memories sometimes play tricks.
The times have not stood still for the Church, either. Over the past 19 years, we Catholics have known 3 popes, and we Chicagoans have known 2 archbishops. And we have suffered the worst scandal and the worst threat to the credibility of the Church since the Reformation. It will take years for Christ to mend it. And we must humbly submit to Christ’s mending.
When I came to St. Gregory’s, Fr. Winters asked that I make it my ministry here to serve as ‘an advocate for the liturgy.’ Liturgy is what I taught at the seminary before I came here, and so it seemed a natural fit. I want to offer my particular thanks to all of you who have served in our liturgical ministries and served with me as ‘advocates for good liturgy.’
But Fr. Winters also asked me to remember that Vatican II declared the first duty and obligation of priests to be preaching the gospel. To preach Christ’s ‘Good News’ is a priest’s first job.
Thank you all for allowing me that privilege. My plans haven’t been quite firmed up yet. Cardinal Cupich has given me permission to retire, as fragile health will keep me, for the foreseeable future, from any type of ‘active ministry.’ Once Covid is behind us, I’ll re-evaluate.
My siblings are looking for an apartment for me in Oak Park, so that I can be nearer to my Dad, although the retirement home where he lives is still severely limiting visitors.
Once I get settled, I’ll write with my contact information.
And so I want to say thank you. Thank you to Fr. Paul, and all of St. Gregory’s talented staff, and to all of you for your support, across the years, and thank you for your patience. This beautiful church, and you beautiful people have been my vineyard. Please pray for me, as I will pray for you. Allow me to close with some favorite words from the pope of my youth ‘Good’ Pope John XXIII. I’ve shared them with you before.
In describing the Church’s role in the modern world, Pope John XXIII wrote, “We are not put on earth to guard a museum, but to cultivate a flourishing garden of life.’
Flourish in Christliness, St. Gregory’s! In Christ’s life-without-end may you flourish. – Fr. Brian