Five tips for a good confession: A homily for the 2nd Sunday of Advent (Year A)

images.jpgEvery Advent we prepare to celebrate once more the first coming of Christ.  We want to be ready for it.  We also know there will be a second coming. We do not know when that will be. But we must be ready for that, too. One way to get ready for both our celebration of the first coming and the second coming is to go to confession. Today’s Gospel speaks to us of the importance of “acknowledging our sins” with a repentant heart. That is, it speaks of the importance of the Sacrament of Confession.  It is a great thing to do in Advent.

I want to offer five tips on how to make a good confession.

  1. USE PAST TENSE:  Often I hear things like this:  “I fight with my sister.” “Sometimes I eat too much.”  “I say God’s name in vain.”  The problem with these things is that you’re speaking in the present tense.  Confession is a time to give to God the mistakes you made IN THE PAST and promise God you’ll do better IN THE FUTURE.  To be repentant means I have every intention of not going this thing again–and that repentance is a requirement in the sacrament of confession.  If we fall again, we fall again and we come back. But we cannot set ourselves up for failure by just saying, “This is who I am, it’s what I do.”  Nope–it’s what you DID and want to put away.
  2. BE PREPARED: Sometimes people will come and say, “It’s been a year since my last confession. I hit my brother and didn’t listen to my mom. That’s it.”  Yeah, right.  That’s it for a year?  I think you’re lying to me. We need to be thorough. There is a list in the narthex after Mass with some things you might want to take in to confession. It might help start your ideas. We need to say everything we can remember.
  3. SAY EVERYTHING….BUT SAY IT BRIEFLY: Often I hear something like this: “These are the sins I want to tell you today.”  OK, great…but you need to tell me the ones you don’t want to say, too.  The Church says we must give it all, that we cannot hold anything back.  We must say it all. If we forget something–honestly forget it–just wait till your next confession. But we have to say everything we can remember. That doesn’t mean we need to share the whole story behind the sin.
  4. BE SPECIFIC–SAY KIND AND NUMBER: Often I hear things like: “I watched something I shouldn’t have.” “I did inappropriate things.” “I broke the sixth commandment.”  I get it–it’s hard to say certain things. But we must name our sin for what it is. When we have to use the word for what we did, we realize how much we messed up, what a mistake we have made. So I say it’s good to name our sins, it is good to have to use the word, it is good not to decorate it with nice verbage.  The Church also asks us to share the number–or at least a ballpark.  Did you gossip one time or five times a day?  Did you miss Mass about once a month?  A ballpark is fine, but keeping a count in our heads is a good plan.  If I am really trying to improve on something, then numbers are important. A basketball player compares how many points he got at this week’s game versus last week’s, last year’s.  He should be getting better, making progress. So must we.
  5. DO A DAILY EXAMINATION OF CONSCIENCE: This is something Msgr and I are both suggesting this weekend. It is best to do as a family as part of night prayers before bed. Msgr and I do this every night. As we begin our prayers at the end of the day, we take a moment of silence and think about our sins from the day. Then we together pray the act of contrition. Families should do this too. If you live alone, do it alone. But there is virtue in considering our sins from the day and then saying the act of contrition. For one thing, it helps us to remember the act of contrition. For another, we are more likely to make more frequent confessions when we consider our sins each day.

The Church teaches every Christian should go to confession at least once a year.  That is a precept of the church. Now…if it’s been a while, don’t be afraid!  I often do a “clear all” option where I go through the commandments and people answer yes or no to things, and about how many times (“once a week, every day, etc).

We ask God’s blessing upon us all as we prepare to celebrate our Lord’s first coming, and as we prepare at the same time for his second coming.

Turning our swords into plowshares: A homily for the 1st Sunday of Advent (Year A)

handgunsToday we begin the sacred season of Advent, that time of preparation before Christmas. Msgr and I have been working on getting the Advent decorations up in the house. I put up a tree in my room and in my office. It’s been nice and gloomy out the last several days. I’ve started the holiday music and have already enjoyed some egg nog with a little something special in it. Our thoughts should be turning towards….towards…..Christmas. And we have some getting ready to do.

The first reading today offers us an example of how we might get ready for Advent. There, we see Isaiah calling his people to prepare for the Lord by “beat[ing] their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.” This is lovely imagery. A sword and a spear are of course instruments of war, destruction. But a plowshare and a pruning hook—these things are quite the opposite: they bring life to the people. The plowshare is the main cutting blade of a plow; it makes the plow work, makes the harvest possible. And the harvest brings life. The same metal can either bring death or bring life. It is a matter of how it is used.

Our first reading, then, tells us that one way to get ready for Advent is to be people of peace—in order to prepare for the coming of the Prince of Peace. This may require that we repurpose some of the swords and spears in our lives, that is, it may require that we repurpose some of the destructive things in our lives into life-giving things. I want to think about what some of our swords and spears that need repurposing might be….

  • What about the negative words we speak? Sarcasm is a deadly thing. It is intellectualized anger, cynicism. It does not build another up but instead destroys the other and makes us bitter in the process. Gossip, too, tears others down. What if we made a commitment this Advent to watch our mouths? Our tongues, says scripture, are as powerful as knives. Better to use our words to lift others up, raise their spirits.
  • How about anger? There is a lot of this in our houses I fear. It breaks my heart to hear a parent yell angrily at a child, or a child to yell at a parent. The other day I was at Lucas Oil and a father was shouting at his four-year-old son for not walking fast enough. That child is not learning a good lesson there. What if, instead of getting angry with those we love, we were patient with them. What if, instead of being angry, we said a prayer for them or let them win the argument—even if we know they’re wrong.
  • What about excessive alcohol and other illegitimate hobbies? St. Paul talks of these things today. A beer every now and again is fine. Getting drunk is not. And too many people go down this road during pre-Christmas season. Celebrate we must. But we need not sabotage our spirits with too many of the wrong kind of spirits if you get my drift. There are other poisons—drugs and pornography for example. These things are deadly—and they not only kill us. What if, instead of gathering one night at some party where we know we might have too much to drink, we instead called up a church friend and went to dinner? Or went to the adoration chapel?
  • What about our loneliness? I hear from many people that they are lonely this time of year. Some of them are married. Bishop Sheen says that every moment of loneliness is an invitation to intimacy—with God, with others. What if, instead of wallowing away in self-pity, we did something constructive with our loneliness? What if we wrote some cards, invited some people over, prayed in the adoration chapel, helped in the food pantry, rang Salvation Army bells?

Those are just four examples of some swords we have—things that are destructive (negative words, anger, bad hobbies, and loneliness) but that we can repurpose into instruments of peace and life and love. There is a statue in DC, a huge 11 x 19 foot steel sculpture that sits outside a police department. It is in the shape of a plowshare and symbolizes peace. It is made up of some 8000 handguns that police have confiscated. We are meant to build this kind of sculpture—to take all of the destructive things in our lives and let God make something life-giving out of it all.

Msgr made a good point to me yesterday. He said, “You know, if you think about it, it’s a lot harder to make war than it is to make peace.” So true. It is hard to start a war with another country. It costs a fortune. It is hard to start a war in our own families, and to keep that war going takes a lot of energy. It takes work to go out and get drunk: you have to spend a lot of money, worry about your car, and then you have to deal with the hangover. It takes work to do drugs: you have to spend a lot, you have to know the right people, you have to avoid the police. It takes work to go to the wrong place on the internet; it does not just happen. It takes work to keep anger alive in our hearts. It easier and better when to cultivate peace, to live as God invites us to live—and he promises that we will be better, our families will be better, our church, country and world will be better when we do.

And it is into our families, church, country and world where the baby Jesus, the Prince of Peace, wishes to be born this Christmas. Let’s prepare for his coming.

The supernatural power of thanksgiving: A homily for Thanksgiving Day

Today we gather around this holy altar to give thanks to our Christ. Today is a happy meeting of culture and religion. There ought to be nothing more natural for us Christians to do than what our culture calls us to do today—because God calls us to do it every day. We heard about the ten lepers who were healed, and how only one bothered to come back and thank God. It has been suggested that the rest were perhaps waiting for Thanksgiving Day. But God calls us to give thanks always and everywhere. It is our duty and salvation, as we say at every Mass. God calls us to continual thanksgiving. Scripture is all about thanksgiving. St. Paul begins each of his letters by offering thanks (except Galatians—it was bad day). We see an example of that in his letter to the Church in Colossae, which the Church gives us as our second reading today. Another example: the psalms are ancient texts that were originally songs, songs written largely by David to thank God—songs because words just aren’t enough sometimes.

Giving thanks is quite scriptural and has always played an important part of our Christian tradition. It is at the core of the most important thing we Christians do around the globe each day and have for 2000 years—the Eucharist. (The Greek word “eucharisteo” means “to give thanks,” and so significant was the act of thanksgiving at the Last Supper, that right away that word was used to name the meal we share each Sunday.) But thanksgiving is an important part of our more basic and daily traditions, too. We light votive candles to thank God for this or that person. Young Christians are taught that the first thing they do when they receive a gift is to write a thank you card.

And so we know that giving thanks is a scriptural and traditional thing to do. It is critically important for our spiritual lives. As the saying goes, “Thanksgiving is more than good manners. It’s also good spirituality.” St. Ignatius knew this well. During the summer of 2011, I studied with the Jesuits at Creighton University. There I was introduced to two important insights into thanksgiving that I want to share with you.

First, Ignatius said that at the end of a day, it’s important to examine the day. His idea was is called the Examen. Many of us work it into our night prayers and especially the Divine Office, which Msgr and I pray together each night. The first thing you do is consider God’s presence and thank God for blessings in the day. (Then you review the day, face your shortcomings, and make a resolution for tomorrow.) But it starts with thanksgiving.

That part of Ignatian spirituality is well known. But I remember being a little shocked to read from Ignatius that he believed that ingratitude is “the cause, beginning, and origin of all evils and sins.” Interesting, no? Most say pride, or lust, or anger. But perhaps Ignatius is right. Perhaps, if I were truly and deeply thankful for the people God has given to my life (with their quirks and warts and all), maybe I would be less likely to rank myself as “better” than they, that is, maybe I wouldn’t become so proud so easily. Or, perhaps if I were really thankful for all I have been given that I don’t deserve, perhaps then I would be less likely to fall into anger when the stoplight turns red, or when someone makes a little mistake, or when a child or neighbor tries my patience.

If, as Ignatius says, ingratitude is indeed “the cause, beginning, and origin of all evils and sins,” then it follows that gratitude is the cause, beginning, and origin of all goods and virtues.  Maybe he is right….

• The more thankful a mother is for her son as she gazes upon him sleeping, the better she will treat him when he is running amuck on a three o’clock sugar high
• The more thankful a priest is for his vocation, the better priest he will be.
• The more thankful a child is to God for his lunch, the less he will waste and the less he’ll complain. (We must teach our children gratitude.)
• The more thankful I am for the Holy Mass, the more reverently I will pray it and enjoy it.
• The more grateful we are for the people in our lives, the better we will be to them, the less we will gossip about them, be rude to them, lust after them, the more we will pray for them
• The more I am thankful for God’s rules—the roadmap he has given us—the more I will follow them and embrace them and share them.
• The more thankful I am for my blessings—of money, health, good fortune—the more I will make use of them and the more generous I will be.
• The more I am thankful for the donut, the less I’ll complain about the hole in it.

I want to suggest that we all try to work those two legacies of St Ignatius into our daily prayer lives. That is, what if at the end of the day, we each thanked God with all we’ve got for what we’ve got. And secondly, what if instead of trying to fix individual sins, we work on gratitude and watch all those sins fall away?

I began this sermon by saying that giving thanks ought to be the most natural thing for us Christians. It is also the more supernatural thing we can do. It has supernatural powers to it. Perhaps that is why Meister Elkart said that if the only prayer a man ever prays is “thank you,” it might just be enough. The giving of thanks is powerful. It transforms our hearts, our homes, our families, our workplaces, our everything. Let us give thanks to God for everything, always and everywhere. Not just in the great moments, not just on Thanksgiving Day, not just when we seem to have a lot. We thank him always and everywhere.

And the best way to do that is at this holy altar.

Poem I used in Michael Xavier’s funeral Mass homily

After great pain, a formal feeling comes –
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs –
The stiff Heart questions ‘was it He, that bore,’
And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’?

The Feet, mechanical, go round –
A Wooden way
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought –
Regardless grown,
A Quartz contentment, like a stone –

This is the Hour of Lead –
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow –
First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –

Emily Dickinson

Three random thoughts about kings: A homily for the Solemnity of Christ the King (Year C)

king-jesus-throne-w-crossI have three random and short reflections about kings.

I’ve been thinking about Pope Saint Leo the Great, our 45th pope (+Francis is our 266th).  We celebrated Pope Leo the Great’s feast day not long ago, on November 10. A Benedictine monk friend of mine, Fr. Christian Raab, reminded me that Leo the Great was pope at the end of the Roman Empire, during a time of great uncertainty when the future was largely unknown. Many were terrified. What will be our future? Who will lead us? Will my family be okay?  Will there be war now?  There were all sorts of problems.  Pope Leo responded to all that by reminding the faithful that earthly kingdoms, empires, nations, and cities fall apart. Leaders come and go. Presidents come and go. Kings come and go. But Christ the King is the king forever and his Kingdom will have no end—and the policies of Christ the King, of His Kingdom, are mercy, love, and peace. Pope Leo reminded his people that even should their home be invaded, sacked, burned down, or destroyed, they belonged to a kingdom that endures forever. Jesus is King of that Kingdom, and we don’t have to worry about who the next king will be, what he will do or undo.  Christ is the King eternally, and his kingdom will never fall apart, never go to ruins.  As our Preface at Holy Mass says today: Christ’s is “an eternal and universal kingdom, a kingdom of truth and life, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love and peace.”  And thanks be to God his reign is eternal, something to be counted on. Today, at the close of the Year of Mercy, the last line of the Gospel is an invitation to a thief to enter that kingdom. That is mercy.

I’ve also been thinking about how Christ the King is like King Aslan in CS Lewis’ Narnia series.  A week ago we had a lock-in at the school, sponsored by our library.  It was a read-in.  I decided to finally read the Narnia series by CS Lewis.  Now I can’t set it down.  King Aslan intrigues me. He is the king of Narnia, and he is a lion.  There is an important paradox with this fellow.  King Aslan is mighty yet gentle, “terrible and beautiful” as Lewis puts it.  His roar is fierce, and when he uses it, everybody listens. He commands respect, and a healthy fear.  But he is also a teddy bear, a gentlest and kindest being the four human invaders into Narnia could have dreamed of.  Physically, he is big and powerful, but also soft and glorious, beautiful. Is this not like Christ the King?  Jesus Christ is both mighty and merciful, kind but demanding.  We think of him as that gentle, beautiful baby boy in the manger, as the peaceful and good shepherd.  But, as our reading from Colossians today captures well, he is equally mighty, all powerful.  He turns over tables, he commands the storm to cease, he puts the scribes in their place.  That is Our King.  And his throne, according to the Church Fathers, is the Holy Cross. The nails do not bind him there; his love does. This is why a cross without Jesus on it should make no sense to a Christian. He is enthroned eternally on his throne, on his cross—ruling us with his might and with his mercy, and always with his love—the love we see perfectly on the cross.

MY third reflection on Christ the King is about kneeling.  Yesterday I was in Ohio, visiting my brother and his family there.  I got to meet my new niece, Rachel. She is beautiful.  I baptized her after the evening Mass at their parish, and we attended that Mass.  It was the second time since I’ve been a priest that I sat in the pews. (I had had the early Mass here.)  It felt so good to kneel.  I notice that every time I go to confession, I come out wanting to kneel more.  Maybe that is strange. Maybe not. Maybe there is something there. I think we kneel—at Mass, in our confessions, at the sides of our beds, in our holy hours—I think we kneel for two reasons:  we kneel to remind ourselves who is King. It is not me. It is not Donald Trump. It is not Oprah Winfrey, Justin Bieber, Tom Cruise, not even Pope Francis.  Our King is Jesus.  We kneel at his name, we kneel at his throne.  And we kneel, too, to thank God for being so good to us when we don’t deserve it. And we don’t a bit of it.  May we give God thanks on our knees this Thanksgiving.

A priest should end every homily with a challenge.  Here it is.  Get on your knees more. Adore Christ the king. Thank him with all you’ve got, every fiber of your being. Thank him for your children, for their health, their quirks and their energy. Thanks God for your house, your food, even for your crosses.  Most of all thank him for inviting you—like the blasted thief in our gospel—into the Promised Land, into the only kingdom that endures eternally and delivers on its promises of life and love.

As they say in Spanish, Viva Cristo Rey!  Long live Christ the King!

It seems I just keeping giving and giving and giving away: A homily for the 33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year C)

Tod0e973783_child-prayingay we celebrate two things.  We celebrate intention weekend for the United Catholic Appeal.  We do celebrate that. We celebrate that we have been given a chance to be a part of the mission of Jesus and his body the Church here in our archdiocese. You saw the video just now of just how much our diocese is doing. We get to be a part of it. We are a part of it.  That should make us excited.

I will say it does seem like we OLGers have a lot of opportunities to open up our wallets. My goodness. It seems like every weekend there is another pitch of some nature, and there are bake sales and wreath sales and candy sales after most of our Masses.  We even want your blood–blood drive after Mass.  It is good.  Somebody said, “We just had this campaign with a video last year and we get picked all the time!”  Good, I’m glad we’re having it again, glad there are so many chances to give. Not having such occasions would indicate our church has stopped its mission. And that cannot be.

We also celebrate Vocations Sunday today.  Lots of vocations news. My brother and sister in law just had their fourth, born at 8:50am on Wednesday while I was celebrating Mass here. Rachel Rose. God already knows Rachel Rose’s vocation, where her life will take her, and that is happy and beautiful thought.  We start our race for vocations sign ups today.  We have also been talking about vocations all week at the school.  I asked one second grade class how we can know our vocations, and one student said, “Well, it’s kind of like God sets it up for us.” Right on man, right on.  I celebrated an anniversary Mass for a couple at Greenwood Village on Wednesday. They’ve been married 70 years and held hands the whole Mass through. They met by accident. Yesterday evening I prayed over Jamison Henry, a member of our parish who just became Catholic last Easter. Now he is leaving to become a Franciscan.  He became Catholic when he was sick at St Francis Hospital and he called up a random church in the phone book. It was us.  Now he is to become a Friar.  Last night I spent some good times with Fr. Luke Waugh, OSB, a monk from Meinrad and a dear friend. He became a monk rather by accident. He jokes that after he became a monk, they fired the psychologist and the vocation director.  Most of those of you married got married because you met someone at just the right time, rather by chance.

But there is no “just by chance” with God.

Our vocations–like capital campaigns–demand a lot from us. I don’t seem to make it too many nights without a hospital call. I’ve had two hard ones this week.  And after Spanish Mass, I had to laugh because I had so many things to do, meetings, lunch plans, youth group, etc. But someone wanted confession, so I agreed but said we’d have to be fast. Finished with that person and there was a line a mile long out of the confessional!  Parents know this feeling too.  I know parents who haven’t had a good night’s sleep in 10 years.  There is always a dipper to change, a fight to break up, a mess to clean up, a sickness to ease, a meal to make, a heart to console. God asks a lot of us in our vocations.

But in both our vocations and giving opportunities, I’ve been thinking of this ditty. It comes from Fr. Larry Richards’ grandmother:

“What, giving again?” I said in dismay.
It seems I just keep giving and giving and giving away.
“O no,” said the angel, piercing me through,
“Just give until God stops giving to you.”

Amen.

The ripple effect of a vocation: A homily for the 32nd Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year C)

log-cabin-chapelThe other day I was in the cafeteria in our beloved school at lunchtime.  I sat at one of the third grade tables.  There was a boy there whose mother is a friend of mine and it was her birthday that day, which I reminded him about.  He replied, “Sometimes I like to eat bacon on my hot dog.”  Another child said he was glad that Jesus came to earth because now we can eat pork.  One must admire his Old Testament knowledge!

And that’s what we hear about in our first reading today about the seven Maccabean brothers who preferred to die instead of eat a piece of pork (a sin against God’s law in OT days).  We might look and say, “Why not just eat the pork and bank on God’s mercy?”  Seems a rather small infraction, no?  But Scripture holds these men up as examples.  They died instead of eating a piece of bacon.  They were men of faithfulness and heroic fidelity. They did not compromise, they gave all to their God.

We have examples of this heroic faithfulness in our own day. I want to think about one with you today.

Yesterday evening I went to Saint Mary of the Woods to assist with a retreat.  SMW was founded officially on October 22, 1840.  It dawned on me how many lives have been changed because of that place. There are all the students, current and down through the generations, who have come to the Lord there, developed lasting friendships there, fallen in love there.  There are all those who have retreated there and been given some direction from the Lord there. Then there are the Sisters of Providence of course, the thousands of them who have served and lived there and some still do.  Our school here at OLG and the school I grew up in, all of it was built by those sisters.  It boggles my mind just how many lives have been transformed here at this school, even in just one of those classrooms. I know my life would be drastically different had I not gone to St. Charles School in Bloomington. I do not think I would be standing here right now. But think of all those Sisters have done and do.

And it all started because Sister Theodore Guerin, SP, had the guts to follow God’s plan and dream for her life.  She didn’t really want to come over here from France. She almost didnt’ make it.  She could have been bitter about the difficulties and weight of her cross and simply put her feet up here.  But she gave it all she had.  The result is a crazy, amazing ripple effect.  It is a strange thing to consider that I might not be standing here today if Sister Theodore had not answered her vocation with the courage and might and faith she mustered up.

Today begins National Vocation Awareness Week.  It is a week to celebrate the vocation to priesthood, religious life, and married life.  Everybody has a vocation, God has a plan for us all.  My sister in law was scheduled to give birth to their fourth child on Friday….still not here…pray for them!  But it is wild to consider that God long ago created a plan for that child.  Just as he has for all of the kids at our parish, everyone around the world.  Our job is to figure it out and follow it–with all we got.  Folks, we need more good mothers and fathers.  We especially need more priests and religious.  Our parish should have a seminarian and I know he is calling at least one of you young men to it.  Pray about it and drum up the courage to give it a shot.

It can be a bit daunting, this idea of having to know and follow our vocations as nicely as the examples in scripture and the saints.  Somebody recently came and shared some woes.  He said, “I’m afraid I blew God’s plan for my life.”  I said, “I don’t think you’re that powerful.”  Because God redeems it all, that’s what our readings are about today: the resurrection and its power.  As my seminary rector said once, “God has a way of having his way.”

We pray in thanksgiving today for so much. We thank God for our priests and seminarians and religious. We thank him for redeeming our mistakes and for helping us not to make them. We thank him for all the holy married people and parents we know. And we pray for a greater awareness in the hearts and minds of all our young people that they matter, that God has a plan for them–a plan that, if they are faithful to it, will change as many lives as St Theodore Guerin did.