By: Fr. James Gross
I’m sure a number of you know the local Forum columnist Roxanne Salonen, who belongs with her family at Sts. Ann & Joachim Parish. Roxanne set off a minor firestorm in the community last spring with a column entitled, “Can those without God be grateful guests?” Numerous people argued, either in letters to the editor or online comments, that her piece was a not-so-subtle repudiation of atheists. It was a backlash that certainly took her by surprise. Doubtless there are times when she is itching for a fight, but I don’t think that was one of them.
That column has rattled around in my memory since that time because I feel that I knew exactly what Roxanne was trying to say and didn’t consider her point all that inflammatory. She had been a houseguest of two families out of state and, reflecting on the warmth of their hospitality, she simply took stock of how her gratitude redounded to the glory of God as a devout Christian. Maybe there was a more artful way to present the following questions: “How do the godless respond to grace? How do secularists absorb and process love?” Maybe her opponents fixated on those lines too singularly. But the thesis was her experience of the Holy Trinity as the ultimate endpoint of our gratitude. She wrote, “God’s love amplifies the good, true, and beautiful in the world. Without God, the prism dangles but no light shines through to display the brilliant colors within. Those who know God witness the light and all the accompanying colors. Our hearts expanded thus, we can’t help but desire this amplification of love and color for others.” Was her motive in writing this to be condescending? Rather, I see here a motive of charity and heeding a call to evangelize.
For me, the moral of the story is that thanksgiving is sublime for Catholics, an act of worship. The bountiful meal, the football games, spending time with family—all of that is well and good. But I can’t just stop at secular elements. The moment par excellence of thanksgiving for me is at this holy altar, celebrating the Eucharist. How else could I possibly receive Christ Himself, my savior and king, so intimately? How else could I dare to hope for such a privilege?
“But,” someone may say, “Thanksgiving Day isn’t a Holy Day of Obligation.” That may be so, but are you obligated to hug your mom or dad? The good things that we do aren’t good because someone forces us to do them. If I stand before the pearly gates and tell Jesus, “I participated in Mass because you expected it of me as an obligation,” is that what he had in mind?
The lepers who boldly call out to Christ in today’s gospel had lost everything, including their health, their families, and their jobs—but not quite everything. They had faith, and chose to believe that God can perform in them what appeared to be impossible. And the Samaritan, least likely of them all to practice traditional piety, alone comes back to thank Jesus in person.
I’m so glad that there’s a Thanksgiving holiday in our country. Maybe its roots are not directly tied to Catholics in America, but we can relate well to the spirit behind this day. The Puritans of the 17th century were not so different from us in that they took seriously the virtue of humility. They were not about to attribute all the credit to themselves for the success and protection they enjoyed. If anything, they cooperated with the beneficence of Almighty God, who made every last bit of it possible.
Let me leave you with this thought from St. Bernard of Clairvaux: “If we show ourselves to be acknowledging everything that we have received from God, we prepare a greater place in our souls for grace, and we make ourselves worthy to receive it more abundantly. In fact, the only thing that can stop our progress after our conversion is our ingratitude; the giver, regarding as lost all he has given to the ungrateful, will henceforth be more cautious, in the fear of squandering everything else that he might give to them…happy the person who gives thanks from the bottom of his heart, even for the least blessings, regarding everything he receives as a purely gratuitous gift.” Today we give thanks (and we finish the sentence) to the Persons of the Holy Trinity who, in the Church of Christ, live within us.
By: Fr. James Gross
We Americans don’t care very much for the idea of kings and queens. I dare say that an increasing number of people in the world share that viewpoint. Times are a lot different than they were in 1776. Nations that have retained royal families now consider them as ceremonial heads of state. Think, for example, of England or Norway. Their monarchs don’t wield absolute political power. But in Europe in the Middle Ages, monarchs were the rule, not the exception. A good deal of them took their responsibility before God and neighbor seriously. They were just, compassionate, and charitable. A number of them have even been canonized as saints. But history tends to remember the nutcases best—those who were spoiled, flighty, or out of touch with reality. Many people also became weary of tyrannical leaders who were constantly mustering up armies to fight this or that foe. It often got to the point where the citizens said, “Why are we doing this? If our duke has a beef with another duke, what on earth does that have to do with me?”
Today the Church asks us to reflect on the Kingship of our Lord Jesus Christ, and on what His Kingship demands of us. There are plenty of scenes one could use from the life of Christ for today’s celebration. We could recall his entrance into the Holy City riding a donkey on Palm Sunday, or his appearance to the Apostles after rising from the dead. For that matter, there’s even a scene from the Gospel of John that you may remember, after Our Lord multiplied the loaves and fishes, in which the adoring crowd wanted to carry him into Jerusalem to declare him king, but then he slipped away from them and went to a private place to pray.
But we heard none of those today. Instead, we are presented with the scene of Calvary. Our Lord is bloodied, beaten, and crucified. To his detractors, he looks like a doomed and defeated man. And yet, today’s Mass shows us that the Lord’s Holy Cross is the most august throne he ever occupied on this earth, and the branches of thorns woven together were his truest crown. The cross was Christ’s altar of sacrifice, and from it was paid the price of our salvation. The Son of God, St. Augustine tells us, received from us the ability to die so that we could receive from him the ability to live forever.
Pontius Pilate ordered that a sign be attached to the Lord’s Cross, and the Latin inscription read “_________________________” (abbreviated to INRI); Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. His enemies vehemently objected to the sign, because it implies that they agreed with this title. For his part, Jesus had told Pilate that very morning that his kingdom was not of this world, or else the hosts of heaven would be fighting to deliver him. But Jesus showed himself the king of mercy in forgiving the criminal at his side who confessed his guilt and begged for the gift God alone can give. Is there any more joyous declaration in the history of the world than these words of Christ: “This day you will be with me in paradise?” St. Cyril of Jerusalem points out that after an hour’s faith and coming to repentance, the good thief was saved: why then could Jesus not do for each of us what Jesus did for him?
If we were to travel to Israel today, we would see that, although churches have been built in their places, the cross has long since been taken down and the tomb stands empty. The battle has been won. It is up to us now to consent to Jesus’ kingship, and to allow him to be our ruler and guide. And his allegiance, his nearness, to the human race makes this easier to do.
Read through any of the Gospels and see how many different kinds of people could relate to the person Jesus was. We are not talking about a machine. Jesus wept in times of sadness and laughed in times of joy. He knew hunger and thirst. His muscles ached at the end of a hard day’s work. The disciples came to know and love him because, despite the mighty deeds he performed, he was so approachable. Very few of the average folks in that time period ever saw a king up close, much less spoke to him. But the Lord Jesus is ours! He is on hand to listen to our joys and troubles, at any time we choose.
This weekend we have put out our parish calendars for 2017. The theme of the artwork is “Saints of the Americas.” I invite each of our households to take a calendar home, and to look upon the examples each month of the people who have made Jesus the king of their hearts in such admirable and heroic ways.
It’s up to each of us to decide if Christ will be reigning in our lives. He already is a king. But will his kingdom reign through you? If you choose to act in the opposite way of the teachings of Jesus, it doesn’t mean that no one or nothing else is in charge of your life. If you follow your every whim, you’re going to feel fancy-free for a while, but you won’t really be free. Someone will be in charge of you. That’s one of the Devil’s dirty little secrets.
The reign of Christ takes charge of our lives, not so much to hem them in, as to lead them to broader horizons. Have you ever thought of it that way? In Christ we can become more, do more, and love better. Most importantly, only in Christ is the burden of sin thrown off our shoulders, and the gifts of his grace offered to us in His Church. Doesn’t that make the trivial things in life seem very small by comparison?
What is the prize we possess in our Catholic faith? I’d like to use this example. For decades the name Rolls-Royce has been synonymous with extreme luxury in automobiles, the finest that money could buy. What if you were to ride up to a Rolls Royce dealership—on a unicycle, and ask the first salesperson you saw, “How about if I trade this unicycle even up for a 2016 Phantom Sedan?” The example is absurd, not only because of the disparity between the two items, but because those who possess these things know the value of what they have.
Guess what? No Rolls Royce can drive you from here to heaven or deliver the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. But these divine gifts, and so much more, God freely gives to you in His Church. How many people do we know who are riding the unicycle or, worse yet, standing still? The Church of Christ is the Rolls Royce in our garage. May the Lord’s Kingly rule be a sure guide for us to eternal blessings.
By: Fr. James Gross
G. K. Chesterton was a well-respected British author and a convert to the Catholic faith. About 100 years ago, the Times of London newspaper asked Chesterton to write an editorial addressing the question, “What’s wrong with the world today?” Chesterton simply responded, “I am.”
Most people who knew him and read his writings would have strongly disagreed. But Chesterton took that occasion to argue that the sinful human heart is at the root of all disorder, and not any one philosophy, government, or institution. If we’re not careful, we can launch into an obsession with certain external signs that we think are ushering in the end times, as though the Bible existed only to give a series of predictions. One could fill an entire library with the analyses published on the matter and marketed as “biblical prophecy.” Much of it is fanatical and downright bizarre.
That being said, we shouldn’t diminish the question that Jesus’ disciples pose in today’s Gospel, because it is very logical. They were admiring the Temple, widely considered one of the man-made marvels of the ancient world. Located atop a tall hill in Jerusalem, the temple, with its brilliant white marble and gold ornamentation, was visible for many miles around. The temple was as immense as it was beautiful. It seemed every bit as permanent a structure to the Jews as St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome seems to us today. And when someone indicates that one day the temple will be reduced to a smoldering heap of ruins, that declaration simply defies the imagination.
“When will this happen,” they ask the Lord, “and what sign will accompany it?” As often happens, Jesus doesn’t give the answer they expect. “Look for such-and-such to happen. When it does, then brace yourselves.” Rather, the answer Jesus gives has a lot more to do with us. Whom do we love the most: Christ or ourselves? About what will we have greater cause to worry: the condition of the world or the state of our souls?
Notice that most of the things our Lord listed in his answer have ALWAYS been happening on planet Earth: wars, riots, earthquakes, plagues, famines, etc. Who would be so foolish as to claim that one more of any of those will completely tip the balance? The bigger point is that, as long as our faith in God and love for Him are as they should be, the day or the hour doesn’t matter much at all.
“By your perseverance you shall secure your lives.” One sincere moment of grace in one’s life 25 or 50 years ago is not perseverance. Those who face persecution are accused of what they have done here and now, not in some remote place and time. If we labor for Christ day in and day out, it doesn’t matter when the world ends because all is not lost. On the other hand, a life of selfishness and infidelity can only cling to what it knows—a world which eventually will pass away.
St. Paul echoes this theme of being industrious and watchful in the world with today’s second reading. Central to the consciousness of the early Church was the awareness of the “Day of the Lord;” a joyful eagerness for Christ’s Second Coming. However, some of the Thessalonians were taking Paul’s words too literally. They said, “If Jesus is returning any day now, I’ll clear my schedule for him.” So they quit their jobs and spent each day in idleness, which reverted to gossip, mischief, and mooching off others instead of a prayerful vigil.
Paul was a tent maker and canvas repairer by trade, and fell back on those skills everywhere he went. Paul worked within each community he visited in order to earn his keep and at first preached on his own time, until the faithful became numerous enough that he could dedicate himself solely to priestly ministry. He urged his followers to pay heed to his example of not being a burden to anyone. Instead, the key was to be docile to the Holy Spirit, Who would keep one’s house in order.
One other thing that these readings do today is to remind us that martyrdom is closer at hand than we may think. Although it has not come to bloodshed in America, the concept of suffering for our faith in God is not foreign. Jesus speaks of persecution as something that we not only read about in distant lands, but is likely to befall every Christian who opposes the works of the evil one. In every corner of our country, people are being persecuted simply for teaching what the Church teaches. The late Cardinal Francis George, Archbishop of Chicago, famously predicted, “I will die in my sick bed, my successor will die in prison, and his successor will die a martyr in the public square.” It may sound like a fit of hyperbole to many of us, but he said it with the utmost seriousness.
Pressure is being brought to bear especially regarding issues of sexuality, marriage, and the sanctity of life. The well-known cases of wedding caterers, florists, and photographers are only the tip of the iceberg. Churches and pastors will not remain immune from overreach or intrusion on behalf of the State. A robust religious liberty is waning in the face of such threats, and free speech is being manipulated to serve only those in political power. Ironic, isn’t it, that certain groups so fond of libertarian stances (doing what we want with our bodies, our money, etc.) can also demand such oppressive, rigid conformity of others!
The word martyr literally means “witness,” and was used to describe a person giving testimony at a trial. Every one of us will testify to something by our words and actions. If we refuse to testify to our faith in Jesus, it doesn’t mean we are neutral: it only means we are standing firm in something besides God. But if we choose to stand firm in our Christian identity, Jesus Himself will give us a wisdom in speaking that all our adversaries will be powerless to resist or refute.
G. K. Chesterton refused to blame society’s woes on one government official or cataclysmic event, but instead proposed that each of us seek a lasting remedy for our own ills. If we prove ourselves true, if we continue to feed on the grace of the sacraments, and if we live lives centered around the Lord and His plan for us, we have hope that we shall reign with Him, whenever He comes again.
By: Fr. James Gross
We’re coming to the point in Luke’s Gospel where several groups are confronting Jesus openly and trying to trap him in his speech. The Sadducees were a subset of the Jewish nation. Many of them were rich and upper-class people who collaborated with the Romans and held onto a minimal portion of the Jewish faith. They didn’t follow very closely the teachings of the prophets, or accept that there were angels, evil spirits, or an afterlife. They restricted themselves to the Law of Moses, and concluded that God’s rewards and punishments only happened here in this life.
So they concocted this bizarre case of a woman marrying seven brothers, even though they knew how outlandish it was. They wanted to use it to mock Jesus and discredit him. By the way, I wonder how the sixth and seventh brothers would have felt when their turn came. “Listen, Sally, I care about you, really I do, but I think I’ll go become a monk for about 40 years.” Maybe by that point she would have told them, “You might want to reconsider. People think that I’m poisoning my husbands’ soup.”
Jesus’ answer is masterful because he breaks through their fallacy without diminishing the marriage covenant. Husbands and wives take part in a holy vocation. Only God can undo their “I dos”. But Jesus is the Divine Bridegroom, and the Church is His Bride. His bond of love with us is an everlasting covenant, and brings the fruit of peace.
It’s not like the first brother is waiting up in heaven to punch the other ones’ lights out. (What do you think you were doing with my girl?) All of us in heaven will be like brothers and sisters, giving of ourselves so as to receive a gift. There will be no room for jealousy or envy.
While we’re on the subject of marriage, we clergy have an obligation to tell you about the importance of our civic duty in the upcoming election. Some of you have voted early; others haven’t voted yet. Regardless, we’ve been entrusted with the ability to have our say according to the values that Jesus and His Church teach us, and we must not take this for granted.
First of all, we do not endorse specific candidates or parties. Besides, those things come and go. What we do is state the non-negotiable issues which every Catholic and person of good will must defend. I will mention three that are highest on the list: the freedom to participate in the covenant of Holy Matrimony as God has instituted it, the defense of people’s religious liberty in the public square, and particularly the protection and preservation of human life in every stage.
Let me give you a quick example that I heard another priest use recently. We can legitimately disagree about the need for a program like affirmative action on college campuses. But suppose a candidate for president or governor promoted a policy that would make it legal for someone to kill a person of color if that person created a hardship for them getting the education they desired. How many of you would be comfortable voting for that candidate? I’m guessing we would recoil in horror at the very thought of it. Whether that endangered person is old, young, disabled, or not yet born makes no difference whatsoever.
Fr. Courtright and I have the exact same advice for you this weekend. It is our duty as pastoral ministers to inform you that your soul will be in grave danger if you vote for a candidate or party that are committed to intrinsic evils such as expanding abortion on demand, especially if you present yourself for Holy Communion after casting such a vote with the full knowledge of what you’re doing.
Maybe you find that statement offensive. Let’s be honest; I have all sorts of Facebook friends who do. My challenge is to ask those of you why you feel that way. Is it because we do not care about your spiritual well-being? Is it because you’re convinced that what you hear at Mass has to conform to your own opinions? Is it because Jesus is no longer relevant or behind the times? Is it because your priest is stubborn and won’t “get with the program?”
At our ordination, the Bishop invited each of us forward, handed us a Book of the Gospels, and instructed us, “Believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practice what you teach.” The gospel reminds us that when a shepherd exposes his sheep to the wolves, it’s as though he weren’t with them at all. Our responsibility as clergy is to the Holy Trinity, and God’s expectations of us are clear. If you have concerns about what I’ve said, please speak with me. We can be civilized and engage in dialogue because, after this Wednesday, we’ll still be neighbors and brothers and sisters in Christ.
Lastly, the love of Christ spurs us on to stand strong in our commitment of faith, even when we face persecution. The siblings who were martyred in today’s first reading, along with their brave mother, demonstrate the valor that comes with life in the Holy Spirit. Every century, and indeed every generation, has its martyrs, and still does. The word martyr literally means “witness.” Like someone testifying at a trial, the martyr declares the whole truth of his or her love for Christ, despite the ridicule or detraction of their enemies.
There are degrees of martyrdom that all of us have the occasion to face, even if we do not give our lives or shed our blood. This community, and the outpouring of love among us, is living proof that we need not go it alone. We draw strength not only from Christ but from each other, too. I pray that every one of us here will feel comfortable telling one another, “You can call on me when times get tough and when you need encouragement, because we are walking with the Lord together.”