December 16, 2018

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

As we enter the third week of Advent, we are reminded to rejoice, for the Lord’s arrival in time and history is very near. His forerunner, John the Baptist, gives a powerful prescription for finding joy. The people come to him as he baptizes at the Jordan and ask what they ought to do. Having heard his call to repentance and received baptism, they want to know how they can continue their conversion and stay strong in their resolve. John gives a twofold answer. First, he tells them to share what they have, to live generously. Second, he reminds them of the truth that a mighty savior is coming.

To John the Baptist’s first piece of advice, we can all nod in agreement. However, it’s not always so easy to follow that advice. Giving of ourselves and our resources can be a genuine challenge. We tend to plan, to budget, to set things aside just-in-case. We tend also to look for more. But John the Baptist tells us to share, to be satisfied with what we have. Freedom from sin requires a heart that is focused on God. Later in the Gospel, we will see the generosity John calls for lived out by an unlikely figure. As Jesus goes through the city of Jericho, he finds a tax collector named Zacchaeus. Through this encounter, Zacchaeus leaves behind a sinful life and repays all that he has taken from people. Furthermore, he gives half of everything he owns to the poor. And he does it with joy! The Lord’s response? “Today, salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:9). Zacchaeus was isolated by his sin – extortion, greed, theft – and is desperate for freedom and the joy he lacks due to his isolating sinfulness. When he meets Jesus and says yes to the invitation to conversion, he finds true joy.

In our literary tradition, we see a similar conversion take place in Ebenezer Scrooge. Dickens’ famous miser is never satisfied with what he has and absolutely refuses to give anything of his vast fortune. Like Zacchaeus, Scrooge is isolated. When he finally makes the decision to change, he discovers that his generosity breaks down the barriers of isolation that he has built. He finds that giving away what he has results in a payment of joy he could never have imagined. Look at <em>how</em> Scrooge goes about this. He meets the men who had, the day before, asked him for a donation. He apologizes for his earlier rudeness, asking for their forgiveness. Then, he whispers his intention to make a donation. First, he repents. Second, he atones, making an offering almost as a penance.

John the Baptist’s preaching always points toward the coming of Christ, the one who is mightier, the great savior of the nations. Zacchaeus encountered Jesus directly and put John’s preaching into action. Scrooge follows a path that each of us can take. Though very few of us would ever be placed in the same category as Ebenezer Scrooge, we can, if we are honest, see some of his flaws in ourselves. The season of Advent calls us to repent, to atone for our sin. As Christmas approaches, we are reminded again and again of the joy of giving. With Scrooge and Zacchaeus, then, let us turn away from our sin and make restitution. And remember how Scrooge wraps up his Christmas day. After making his donation, he goes to church. He prays for the first time in many years. Having asked pardon he is able to come before the Lord with freedom and without stumbling block. From church, he goes to his nephew’s home and shares in the family celebration. His conversion has broken down the isolation he experienced from his fellow men, from his family, and from his God. So our generosity breaks down the barriers that exist in our world, in our community, in our homes, and allows us to welcome the one whose sandals we are not worthy to unfasten. Jesus, though He is so highly exalted, has humbled Himself. He desires to be among us and for us to experience the joy of His presence. So let us live generously and prepare well for the Mighty One, the Prince of Peace, the King of Kings, whose coming we await with joy.

Peace,

Fr. Sam

December 9, 2018

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

John the Baptist, the great forerunner of the Messiah, is heard in the Gospel today identifying himself with the prophecy of Isaiah: “A voice of one crying out in the desert:’ Prepare the way of the Lord’.” His sacred, prophetic task, is to call all who hear him to prepare their hearts for the coming of Christ. To accomplish this, John calls the people to repentance, to conversion of life, and to baptism. His baptism is the outward sign of a heart that desires to change, of a soul turning away from sin and death and toward the life promised by God.

In calling people to repentance and conversion, John must necessarily speak to the consciences of his listeners. He is not afraid to point out sinful inclinations, attitudes, and actions. Note, however, that when John calls to repentance, it is without judgement. To name sin as sin is not the same as to reject persons or to condemn. Rather, identifying the problem – sin – allows John to offer a solution – repentance – and invite people to a different way of life. As a teacher corrects the mistakes of a student without casting them out of the class, so John the Baptist demonstrates the sinfulness of the people, all the while calling them to a new way of living, a renewal in their relationship with God.

In this, we can see a reflection of the mission of the Church and of every Catholic. We can see in ourselves both John the Baptist and the people he baptizes. We have been given the truth of the Gospel for the sake of calling others to conversion and inviting them to a new way of living. At the same time, we must always recognize our sinfulness, our need for repentance and conversion, and the change of life demanded by our fidelity to the Gospel. Our cultural milieu and locale can make this difficult at times. In a high-pressure, socially demanding area, appearances matter. We try to hide our faults. We don’t enjoy hearing that we are imperfect. Yet the voice of John the Baptist, the one crying out in the desert, still calls us to prepare the way of the Lord, to repent, to change our lives.

Ideas that prick the conscience inevitably arise. Our culture would tell us to ignore those ideas, that we’re just fine the way we are. Spiritual writers and commentators have described the religious beliefs of many as “moralistic, therapeutic deism,” that is, an approach to God that acknowledges a vague higher power, holds to certain, often malleable “values,” and generally is positive in tone and makes me feel good. But if religion is meant only to affirm me and make me feel good, there’s a good chance I have begun to worship myself. When those conscience-moving ideas are heard, we should hear them as though they were the voice of John the Baptist. Remember, John’s voice cries out a message of truth and clearly states what is required in order for us to prepare the way of the Lord. All the while, his voice is also inviting to a new way of living.

The season of Advent reminds us that we are people in need of conversion. The voice of John the Baptist does not cry out to condemn us, though. Rather, he invites us to a new life. As our conscience is moved, let us not ignore that challenge. Rather, let us respond with the knowledge that our repentance, our conversion of life, is a step forward in our relationship with God, a movement pleasing to Him, and a response of genuine love for the God who gives us everything, even His only-begotten Son.

Peace,

Fr. Sam

December 2, 2018

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

The year of grace 2019 begins this weekend with the celebration of the first Sunday of Advent. As you know, the Advent season is a time of preparation for the coming of the Lord at Christmas. Additionally, it is a season in which we look forward to His second coming in glory at the end of time. Throughout these four weeks, we are invited to prepare our hearts, minds, and homes to welcome Christ our Savior.

The violet vestment is used throughout this holy season to remind us of our need to spiritually prepare. We typically associate violet in the liturgy with penance—during the sacrament of confession, the priest wears a violet stole; during Lent, a season of penance, violet is worn throughout. In the context of the Advent season, the violet vestment does indeed call us to penance, though not in the same way as it does in Lent. Advent prepares us for our Lord’s arrival on the human scene. Thus, the penance we take on in this time is less of a rigorous spiritual discipline and more focused on preparing for a joyful celebration. Think, for example, of the joyful expectation of a family awaiting the birth of a child. Though pregnancy is difficult and involves the “penance” of certain discomforts, etc., parents look ahead with joy to welcoming new life. Their penance, then, is touched by joyful expectation and hope. Our penance and preparation throughout this season should be touched by similar joy.

We Catholics are among what seems to be a minority. For many, the Christmas season began when Santa Claus passed by Macy’s in the parade on Thanksgiving. The Christmas season ends sometime early on December 27. To a Catholic, this is backwards. The Church recognizes our need to get ready and our need to sustain joy. These weeks are set aside to help us prepare and to recognize in Christmas something greater than an opportunity to give gifts and eat. The famous “spirit” of Christmas ought not, for a Catholic, be confined to being joyful and with others (though this is, of course, very good!). Rather, for Catholics, the spirit of Christmas is none other than the joy of the shepherds and Magi who found the King of Kings, the Prince of Peace, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. The shepherds were taken by surprise, the Magi had time to prepare as they journeyed. We can easily be taken by surprise if we skip Advent. So let us go with the Magi, preparing our hearts for the journey at hand, and let the anticipation of the birth of our Savior build in our hearts.

To help us on this journey, we are privileged to offer two evenings of prayer and inspiration in our Advent Parish Mission, led by Fr. Luke Joseph Leighton, CFR. You may remember Fr. Luke, a Franciscan Friar of the Renewal, who joined us a few years ago for our Lenten mission. On Monday and Tuesday of this week beginning at 7 PM, he will offer inspiring talks and prayer, with music by Michael Corsini. Each evening will include Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. On Tuesday evening, priests will be available for the sacrament of confession. Please join Fr. Luke and use these nights to enter deeply into the beauty of the Advent season!

Peace,

Fr. Sam

November 25, 2018

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

The last two weeks of November coincide happily with some beautiful reflections the Church offers us as the liturgical year winds to a close. The readings last weekend called our attention to the end of all things, the consummation of the world. We were reminded to be prepared for the end, for the coming in glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. Nationally, we celebrated the great feast of Thanksgiving, a day on which we are invited to join in giving thanks to Almighty God for the blessings of the year. This act of giving thanks transcends race, gender, and creed – all who live in these United States are reminded to give thanks. Today, we come to the solemnity of Christ the King, a feast that reminds us once again of our final destiny and judgment, and that Jesus Christ, by means of the Paschal Mystery, has brought salvation to the world. We are asked: are we ready to meet our King when He comes?

With the close of this month, the traditional season of praying for the dead also draws to a close. As we look to Christ the King, let us reflect one final time on the funeral Mass and see how the Church, in the midst of grief, invites mourners to encounter Christ and place our hope in Him. As the body of the deceased is brought into the church, the priest greets the body and the mourners at the door. There, he sprinkles the casket with holy water, a reminder of baptism. In baptism we receive a new identity, become a new creation, and are brought into the life of the Church Universal. The holy water is a visible symbol of our faith. The casket is then draped in the funeral pall, typically a white cloth. This garment represents the white garment we were given on the day of our baptism, the day we became a new creation in Christ. The procession then moves forward and the casket is placed before the altar with the Paschal Candle burning. This candle, first blessed and lit at the Easter Vigil, stands not only as a reminder, again, of baptism, but also of the light of Christ that shines in the midst of darkness. “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn. 1:5). In some cases, another Christian symbol might be placed on the casket.

The Scripture readings focus our attention on the promise of the Resurrection and new life. They exhort us who mourn to put our faith, hope, and trust in God and His mercy. All of the prayers are directed to asking for God’s merciful forgiveness to be given to the deceased, and for the grace of comfort to be poured out upon those who mourn. The altar is incensed at the offertory as we present to God the sacrifice of thanksgiving that Christ commands us to offer. “Let my prayer rise up before you like incense, the raising of my hands like an evening oblation” (Ps. 141:2). The preface and Eucharistic Prayer remind us that for those who believe, death is not the end, but a new beginning. Indeed, the various symbols of baptism remind us that our faith teaches us of the promise of new life extended to us by Jesus Christ. Throughout the funeral Mass, then, we are invited to renew our faith, to pray that the faith of the deceased would come to its fulfillment. After Communion, the priest incenses the body of the deceased while the In Paradisum is chanted. “May the angels lead you into paradise; may the martyrs come to welcome you and take you to the holy city, the new and eternal Jerusalem.” The incense used at this moment calls to mind the command of God to the Israelites to offer incense in the Meeting Tent before the Ark of the Covenant, “that the cloud of the incense may cover the mercy seat…”(Lev. 16:12). Once more we ask God to be merciful to the deceased and to open the gates of Paradise to them.

The liturgical year guides us through the full range of spiritual experiences. We learn how we are to live the Christian life and are pointed toward our true hope and destiny, eternal union with Christ. The solemnity of Christ the King calls us to prepare to meet Him. The funeral Mass reminds us of all the lessons we learn throughout the year and calls us to place our faith and trust in the God of mercy, that those who have died may have the fulfillment of their hope, eternal life with Jesus Christ, the King of the Universe.

Peace,

Fr. Sam

November 18, 2018

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

Continuing our reflection on the nature of Catholic funerals, I would like to return again to the most essential facet of these rites surrounding death. As a Church, our great spiritual foundation is profoundly sacramental. As death approaches, it is especially appropriate for the Anointing of the Sick to be celebrated. It should be emphasized that this sacrament does not in any way meant that death is imminent – in fact, it is meant to be received anytime one’s physical health suffers, before surgery, during hospital stays, etc. In a particular way though, the Anointing of the Sick is also meant to prepare the soul to meet God. The prayers offered during this sacrament bring comfort to the dying. Most especially, the absolution of sin that can be part of this sacrament is essential. No one should be denied the opportunity to receive this sacrament in their final hours! I suggest that we all communicate to our loved ones that our wish would be for a priest to be called to administer this sacrament should we be in extreme need.

With this sacramental foundation, we turn again to the funeral Mass itself. The celebration of the Mass is the highest form of prayer that the Church can offer. The funeral Mass is offered first and foremost for the repose of the soul of the deceased person. Every Catholic ought to have a funeral Mass! To offer the Eucharist, the Church’s prayer of Thanksgiving, the prayer which unites us most perfectly to the Cross of Jesus Christ, the Cross which is the instrument of death’s defeat, is indeed the most perfect way to pray for those who have died.

Today however, this primary purpose of the funeral Mass is often lost. Many people think of the funeral primarily as a memorial service. Being good-natured and genuinely concerned for their friends and family, many people say that they want the funeral to be a celebration and they want everyone to laugh and have fun. This desire, in itself, is beautiful and generally unobjectionable but for two important things: (1) the funeral Mass is the Church’s prayer for the repose of the soul of the deceased, and (2) the emotion of grief is natural and should not be ignored, delayed, or glossed over. The funeral Mass is not intended by the Catholic Church to be a memorial service. Rather, the memories we hold dear are meant to fuel our prayer – inspired by the memories of our deceased loved one, we pray in thanksgiving for their life. Inspired by the faith that they held – or if they were not particularly devout, the faith that we hold – we pray that the gift of Christ’s Resurrection and mercy would lead them into Paradise.

The tendency to view funerals as memorial services has led to a bad “pastoral” practice, namely the inclusion of eulogies in funeral Masses. A eulogy, by definition, is an oration in praise of the deceased. The Rite of Christian Burial, however, explicitly forbids eulogies (Order of Christian Funerals 27). Rather, words of remembrance may be shared at the wake, during the Mass after Communion, or at the graveside. These words of remembrance are intended to speak briefly about the faith of the deceased person and remind those gathered to allow the faith of the deceased to inspire their own faith. Too often, eulogies become long biographies, detailing an individual’s education, family history, vacations, culinary prowess, personality quirks, and very often include anecdotes that contain details or language simply inappropriate for church. Often, it seems that people are impatient to get through Mass so they can get to the really important thing, the eulogy. Everyone, naturally, wants good things to be said about them after they die. And those memories and stories need to be shared! But the funeral Mass is simply the wrong time and place for them to be shared. They should instead be shared during the wake, or at a reception, or during gatherings of friends and family. There are countless moments when it is appropriate to eulogize. The funeral Mass, however, is not meant to praise the person (as a eulogy is), but to praise God for the gift of life, to pray for His mercy to be poured out abundantly, and to pray that the deceased enjoy eternal rest in God’s heavenly kingdom. Hyper-focus on eulogies deprives us of the fullness of the Church’s true pastoral ministry in prayer and accompaniment.

This may turn out to be the least-popular thing I have ever written. I write it because we have lost sight of what the funeral is meant to be. I hope that we can recover the true meaning of our Catholic celebrations surrounding death. I hope that a proper understanding and practice of words of remembrance can help us to grieve appropriately and to keep our attention fixed on Jesus Christ, the one who promises salvation. I hope that putting eulogies in their proper place (outside of Mass) can help us appreciate more deeply what the sacrament of the Eucharist gives us in times of sadness and how it enables us to pray even in the face of death. I hope that by reflecting on the liturgical rites of the Church, we can better understand the meaning and symbolism of the Church’s prayer and thus receive through that prayer the comfort, healing, and grace that God so desperately wants to give to those who mourn.

Peace,

Fr. Sam