24TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, 2020

SIRACH 27:30, 28:7 ROMANS 14:7-9 MATTHEW 18:21-35

Because I was just a young boy at the time, I did not understand at all what we were saying when we Catholics prayed during Holy Week for the “perfidious” Jews. Years later I looked the word up and found that it meant disloyal, treacherous, deceitful, dishonest, untrue and lying. No surprise, of course, since we had been taught that it was the Jews who rejected and killed Jesus. One doesn’t easily forget or grow out of such impressions. As the song from “South Pacific” cleverly reminds us, prejudice is not natural; it must be taught in one way or another and then passed on.

As I was growing through and out of childhood, I was left with confusion, especially because my father’s business associates and lawyers were mostly Jews, with whom he enjoyed friendship and mutual respect. And my mother warmly greeted old Mr. Abramson two or three times a week with his horse-drawn wagon of fresh vegetables and fruit.

How was I to reconcile the decency of these good men with the image of “badness” that I was hearing in my church? Our education in what is called Salvation History contained another notion that escaped the critical analysis of most of us adults; I accepted it without question until not too many years ago.

It was that the Old Testament, the Jewish Bible, presents only a God of justice, a God of anger and retribution, while the New Testament, the Christian Bible, reveals God instead as loving and compassionate. Can anyone read the passage from the Book of Sirach in today’s first scripture selection and fail to find in it loving concern? You may agree that it sounds something like the Lord’s Prayer.

You and I should have no difficulty understanding the deep-rooted prejudices that have kept contemporary Israelis and Palestinians at one another’s throats for so long a time when we consider that many of us Christians have held on to negative biases against Jews for virtually all our lives. It’s been a love/hate relationship with our spiritual siblings, a bittersweet kinship.

No matter how long they have been in the making, or how solidly entrenched they are, will we at last demand of ourselves that we put aside any prejudices we may harbor that are based on whatever nationality or color or religion and instead take a chance on meeting in an open and sincere way any person who comes from that background or bears that color or practices that religion?

Jesus has assured us that eventually we shall all be one in a vast community of mutual love and respect. Then, just as surely we have the moral obligation to anticipate that blessed day now by acting as if we were indeed all sisters and brothers living in peace and harmony.

It’s so easy to slip into discouragement, to give up trying. It’s a great challenge to us followers of Jesus to forgive those who don’t seem to deserve our forgiveness and to accept those we have been rejecting for whatever reason. If the best we can do at the moment is to be open to change as the gift of the Holy Spirit, let’s ask for that gift in spite of any fear.

23RD SUNDAY OF THE LITURGICAL YEAR, 2020

A few decades ago, a then 3-year-old nephew of mine was almost literally caught with his hand in the cookie jar! Summoned to the tribunal of justice that evening when his father, my brother, returned home, he was asked to explain his behavior, especially in the light of Mommy’s clear instruction that he was not to eat anything before his meal. The little one’s response brought concealed laughter and amazement as he said, “Daddy, it was very dark in the kitchen and I couldn’t see what my hand was doing.”

That’s somewhat reminiscent of the fictional Adam’s response to God’s question, “Why did you eat of the forbidden fruit?” His answer, you will recall, was, “It was the woman you put with me. She gave me the fruit to eat.” And then Eve’s self defense: “It wasn’t my fault; it was the serpent that tempted me.” (Such endurable sacred fiction, isn’t it?)

The admission of guilt is generally difficult. It’s quite natural for us to look for someone else on whom to pin the blame. We are proud and very protective of our good name. We don’t like owning up to guilt.

But Jesus calls each of us to repentance for the sins of our life. That doesn’t mean a public confession, although many sincere persons down through the ages have done exactly that as a way of opening their hearts and minds to the immensity of God’s always available forgiveness.

I think the first step toward recovery from our sins is accepting the possibility that we may indeed have deliberately said or done something wrong or hurtful or immoral involving either oneself alone or others, and then admitting to oneself that that is precisely what happened.

The second step, as I understand it, is that we confess our sin to God and ask forgiveness, knowing that it will be ours only for the asking.

The third step is to approach the person, or persons, we have hurt in one way or another with our willful sin and humbly ask his or her or their forgiveness.

Going through such disciplined behavior is what gets us on our feet again and points us in the right direction once more. It all adds up to a statement of good purpose and paves the way for the Spirit of God to be alive and creative within and through us. I know of no other way to achieve the peace of mind we crave above everything else.

Hurting each other occasionally is almost inevitable for us humans, I believe. Even our most solemn and joyful worship puts before us the embarrassing reality of our sinfulness. So we must be patient and understanding with each other and be alert to those signs that the other person is trying to change, just as we are, and is struggling to say “I’m sorry.”

If we can cheer each other on, if we too are willing to say “I’m sorry” (however feebly or even begrudgingly at first), if we can and will accept an apology and try to forget the hurt — then the Spirit of God is at work within us and new life is springing up to give joy to all!

I wish you enduring peace!

Photo by Karim MANJRA on Unsplash

22ND SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, 2020

Jeremiah 20:7-9 Romans 12:1-2 Matthew 16:21-27

In one translation of the Old Testament the section from which today’s short passage was taken is sub-titled “Jeremiah’s Interior Crisis”. Jeremiah finds it difficult to understand the Lord’s ways. He sees that God sometimes allows the enemy to prevail, evil persons to gloat with satisfaction, faithful persons to suffer pain and defeat, etc. If God is really all-powerful and all-good, why isn’t everything in the world as it should be?

Jeremiah’s “interior crisis” is ours, too, and for some people a severe test of faith that sometimes leads to a complete loss of belief in God. For most others it’s a disturbing fact of life they find hard to deal with, so they keep it in the background, trying not to think about it. For others, this scandal of evil is so closely related to Jesus’ own suffering and death, that they find consolation in knowing that they follow in his footsteps.

As far as I know, Jesus never gave an adequate explanation of the scandal of evil. He simply said that it was somehow necessary, including even his own suffering and death. But Jesus has made clear to us how we are to respond to this aspect of life. He said we must resolve to carry our unavoidable crosses, not into destruction, but into ultimate security in the loving hands of God — God who sees beyond the present hurt and apparent disintegration and into the glorious new life that arises from this often painfully cultivated ground.

Jesus teaches a paradox that at first may not make much sense: “The person who wants to save his or her life will lose it; but the one who loses his or her life for my sake will find it.” Peter was determined to save Jesus’ life when he was speaking about his approaching death. In fact, he scolded Jesus, insisting that he not talk that way and suggesting that he and the apostles and disciples all put their heads and hands together in preventing it from happening. Peter was convinced that God would never permit Jesus’ death.

To which Jesus answered, “Peter, you’re thinking with the limited wisdom of a human being, but there’s so much more to life and death than you are seeing.” Please, don’t try to influence my thinking the way you are — you’re asking me to give in to the power of darkness. I know that what I am about to experience is the necessary condition for new life for the whole world — and for eternity.

So how shall we experience the unavoidable evils — the deaths, the sicknesses, the violence, the accidents, the sorrows — of our lives here on earth? I believe that no one can assign an adequate and satisfying reason for them; no one understands why they exist. But Christians have learned from the teaching and the experience of Jesus that whenever we can turn a tragedy into a willed sacrifice of love and trust, God will always make from it more beautiful and more abundant life!

Be at peace!

PRAYERFUL THOUGHTS FOR THE 21ST SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME

(Isaiah 22:19-23; Romans 11:33-36; Matthew 16:13-20)

On one of my last retreats at the Trappist Monastery in Massachusetts several years ago, a man approached me out in the grove, a tall, good-looking, young black fellow. He said simply and with a friendly smile, “Hi!” I returned the greeting. He quipped, “Working on a tan, huh?” And then, poking a thumb into his chest, he said, “On this model, color comes standard.” I laughed at his good-natured opener and replied that some guys have all the luck. Our conversation began on this happy note and continued with many exchanges of personal histories that continued through the five days that we were there.

I learned from my new acquaintance that he was 20 years old, from Ohio, had come to the monastery three times, was under the spiritual direction of one of the monks, and thought he might have a vocation to the Trappist life. But then he confided to me that there was a negative side to his otherwise good story: he was the only child of his widowed mother and the only Catholic in his Baptist family. He said that his mother could not even begin to understand why he became a Catholic or why he was aspiring to this mysterious monastic life. “That worries me,” he said. “I know I’m hurting her. I see that she’s angry and upset at what I’m doing. I can’t expect her to understand, but I’ve got to do it because I really think that this is what God is calling me to do.”

I reminded him that Jesus had predicted his situation. Jesus had warned that anyone who chose to be his close friend had better be ready and willing to accept the burdens of division and conflict – mother turned against daughter, father against son…, as he put it. In one familiar Gospel passage, we’re told that Jesus watched as large numbers of his hearers were leaving him, unable to accept what he was teaching them. He wasn’t saying what they wanted to hear from him; he was “too far out,” as we would say today. He asked his apostles if they felt the same way and wanted to leave him.

Does this remind you of something in your own life? A conflict, maybe, or at least strained feelings among friends and family members who love each other very much but who are finding themselves at odds because of their religious, spiritual views and practices? You just don’t understand each other as you think you once did. It happens to many of us, I believe; I know it has happened to me. It can hardly be avoided. A world famous theologian, a friend of mine, now deceased, Monica Hellwig, expressed it well, I thought, when she said, “Lord, forgive us for trampling over each other in our pursuit of you.”

We can turn such hurtful situations into new life first of all by naming them for what they really are and by not giving in to the suspicion that they mean the end of a once-close relationship.

Second, we can recall over and over again that this other person with whom we are at odds because of differences in the interpretation of Jesus and the church also loves God and is trying to live according to the values he or she perceives to be authentically Christian.

And third, we must take the matter to prayer, offering it on the cross of our weak humanity, asking God to lead us into new and better life.

Religious conflict among persons who love and respect each other can be the raw material of a harmonious new creation in our lives as long as we remain patient and full of hope.

20TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, 2020

Sometimes it seems that Jesus’ responses to people he was dialoging with were unkind, maybe even cruel. “That’s not possible,” we’d say. And yet today’s Gospel excerpt may suggest exactly that. A distraught mother pleads with him for help. In response, and aware that the woman was a gentile, (wicked and Godless in the eyes of Jews), he at first tells her that it wouldn’t be right to take food from the children and give it to the house pets, the dogs. Apparently, Jesus is saying, “If you were a faithful Jew I would honor your request immediately; but since you are not, how can I do what you ask? You are like a barking dog. But I have come to feed the children.”

At that, the woman reminds Jesus that even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the family table. In another Gospel, he praises her cleverness and grants her request; in this version of the Gospel, by Matthew, we are led to believe that this little dialog would not have seemed harsh at all. It was a common and very respectful manner of conversation. Jesus was not being unfeeling or unkind. He was simply drawing out the encounter to make an important point.

Jesus knew that his mission was to his fellow Jews as the long awaited Messiah. But he had met rejection here and there. “If you can’t make an act of faith in me, can you not believe the works you see me doing?” And then he comes upon a Gentile, a woman, who addresses him as “Lord” and “Son of David” and expresses trust in him. The believing gentile — how is the Master going to regard her? Does his mission in any way embrace her, too? Can she be heir to the Kingdom he so often talked about?

Jesus honored true and sincere faith wherever he found it. If this woman was a believer who recognized the Creator God in both the words and the person of Jesus, it could be only as the gift of the Spirit of Truth and Love.

We Catholics come from a rigid tradition in which there was a pattern of religious belief and practice for all alike. It was a great comfort and joy to us. If we traveled the world, the rules were the same, the creed the same, and the worship the same. This was most certainly a unifying factor.

But more & more of us Catholics today do not any longer believe that to be “saved” requires that we be members of the Christian faith. We have learned instead that there are saints of all religions — and of none. To be a good human being — loving, caring, forgiving, helping, giving — is, whether one knows it or not, to be united with and to allow God to work through us.

God is invisible; none of us have seen God. We believe that God lives and loves and works among us all. That is enough. If we are fortunate to have come to know Jesus, we accept the blessing in humility and gratitude.

19TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, 2020

This post was delayed due to power outage and internet disruption caused by Hurricane Isaias.

At this moment, we are all hoping for the good news that a vaccine will very soon be developed to keep us immune from the coronavirus that has killed over 150 thousand of our fellow citizens over the past few months. Our concern is not that it will be found, but rather when, for such is our confidence in the science of modern medicine.

But, as Catholic Christians we hear much about accepting suffering, which may seem to be more & more out of place. Therefore, we may not know how to understand Jesus’ teaching about our joining him willingly in suffering. I knew a priest years ago who said that he prays every day for the grace to be given sufferings to endure with the sufferings of Christ. I rejected that back then and I still do. Human beings were not created by a loving God to suffer, but to live happily. Suffering of any kind is an evil that we do well to put an end to as best we can.

To conquer a disease or to construct a safer vehicle or to fashion a thing of beauty for the enrichment of the spirit, etc., are genuinely religious works, extensions of the intelligence of God. The Christian need not passively accept the painful or unhappy circumstances of his or her life and times; he/she must try to change and improve them in line with the spirit of Jesus, and try to bring them closer to being what the Creator God wants them to be.

But I cannot imagine the day when humans will be free of all suffering, even physical. Pain, I think, will always be with us to one degree or another. The pain of loneliness, dissatisfaction with oneself, the loss of those we love, misunderstandings, opportunities missed, friendships betrayed, etc. They are here to stay. Bodily sickness, deformity, and destructive accidents will always be a part of life, it would seem to me. But Jesus asks us to accept whatever sufferings we cannot eliminate and “blend” them, as it were, with his own suffering on the cross.

If you went to Catholic school as a child, as I did, you will surely remember the Sisters urging us to “offer up” our occasional sufferings to God, not merely as penalty for the sins we had committed, but also as a way of drawing closer to the Christ, who also suffered rather than betray us.

We Christians share the highest aspirations of humanitarians throughout the world and at the same time we celebrate the cross of Christ because with it he has written across the pages of history, I LOVE YOU! We appreciate the connection between that cross and the victory of his resurrection. We emulate his way of life because it is balanced and productive and full of hope.

We try, even in spite of ourselves, to carry the unavoidable burdens of our life with good cheer — in a very real sense, making the best of them!

Photo by Aliyah Jamous on Unsplash

18TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, 2020 FATHER RICHARD G. RENTO

ISAIAH 55:1-3 ROMANS 8:35, 37-39 MATTHEW 14:134-21

What you are about to read cannot be called a homily. It is not, strictly speaking. A homily is a reflection on Scripture readings we hear at Mass. This is not that.

I’ve been following rather belatedly a great adventure that’s been unfolding over the past many years. I wish I knew much more about it, but the little I do know excites me and gives me hope.

What I’m referring to is the sending of rockets to Planet Mars: one from China, one from the United Arab Emirates, and one from the United States — all three during the just ended month of July. The last of them was launched from Cape Canaveral only last Thursday.

The journey, at over 12,000 miles per hour, will take 6 1/2 months to complete. Each of the three will land on the surface of Mars at precisely designated spots. The American rover, called Perseverance, will land in a crater by the name of Jezero, the bed of a lake, now dried up, that existed three billion years ago.

Perseverance is about the size of a small American car, has wheels and is filled with exotic scientific instruments that will enable it to search for evidence of past life that might have existed in or near that lake.

Perseverance also has a tiny helicopter, weighing four pounds (I suppose similar to a drone), that will be released on command to discover and record what is to be found in the area.

Mark your calendar: our American rover, Perseverance, will land on Mars on Thursday, February 18, 2021 at 3:40 p.m. (I’ve marked mine.)

Who knows what steps will follow this breakthrough? How long will it be before humans set foot on the Red Planet? Will we ever colonize it? Does it have treasures it is eager to share with us? Will the collaboration among nations that will have brought about this amazing discovery result in greater and more lasting peace among us here on earth? Might there be intelligent life on Mars? Was there life of any kind on the planet eons ago?…

Even we laypersons instantly recognize how easily things could go wrong in a venture like this. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of brilliant minds have conceived it and will be guiding it over the next 6 1/2 months and far beyond. But the chances of error, mistake, and failure remain high.

In the meantime, the whole project that we are privileged to monitor can fill us with awe as it reminds us that there are trillions of planets and stars and galaxies and black holes and moons and comets that occupy space and that have been created by God through the process of evolution.

It was one of the famous Roosevelt boys and a friend who, more than a century ago, used to lie on their backs at lakeside as the stars came out at night and recite a litany of sorts expressing wonder at what they were seeing. At the end of this “meditation”,
one or the other would routinely say, “OK, we’re small enough now. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Amen.

17TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, 2020

1 Kings 3-5, 7-12 Romans 8:28-30 Matt 13:44-46

Of those three readings the church includes in Masses all over the world today, the 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, my favorite has always been the first, that short passage about King Solomon’s prayer upon being made ruler of the people of Israel.

He doesn’t ask for a long life or even lasting good health, he says nothing about personal riches or victory in battle. Humble man that he must have been, he saw himself as too young and too ignorant to rule wisely. And so he asks God for one thing only: the wisdom and understanding that he would need in order to be a good king, a fair-minded and merciful king, a king in whom his people would always recognize the presence of God’s love and care.

Did you take it seriously and begin remembering it often when someone said to you, “I’ll pray for you”? That’s been said to me many times. In fact, it was only a short while ago that a woman told me that she had prayed for me every day for the past eleven years (that’s when we had first met). The more I think of it, the more impressed and grateful I am.

One of the great ancient Greek philosophers (I’m bad on names!) said that we do not achieve wisdom until we are 50 years old. But we pray, and we know that others pray for us, asking God to guide us in the way of wisdom so that we will be able to interpret the often confusing events of our life more nearly as God sees them. We ask to understand the meaning and eventual purpose of everything we experience. We ask to be confident, patient, peaceful, even in times of great personal stress and bewilderment — in times of sorrow and fear and disappointment. These prayers are answered — always; but we must care enough to voice them.

Will you accept a simple suggestion from me, who’ve been learning to pray all my life? Keep it simple. Let it be on-going, prompted by the nature of the moment. Make it a never-ending conversation between you and the always present God. Cultivate the habit of leaving things in God’s hands after you’ve “stated your case”.

Smile! Be at peace!

16TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, 2020

A few times in the long years of my priesthood I’ve been told in the confessional, “Why should I go to church and be surrounded by hypocrites? They look so pious when they pray and receive Communion, and then they go out for another week of cheating on their employers or cheating on their spouses, and all the rest.”

In most cases, I think that “hypocrite” is too strong a condemnation. On the other hand, I know it is true that few, if any, of us practice completely and without compromise what we say we believe. We are all human, which is to say that we are weak and inconsistent and filled with moral conflicts.

I remember seeing, years ago, the movie, “The Last Temptation of Christ”. It was intended to be, not an historical life of Jesus or a strict presentation of the Gospels, but a parable through which the viewer might be led to a fuller, more personal image of Jesus. A priest friend of mine said that seeing it left him with a new awareness of the humanity of Jesus, in which he struggled mightily and grew in his awareness of his mission of love.

In today’s Gospel passage (Matthew 13:24-43), we hear again the three parables that apparently Jesus himself made up, each of them about growth. Through them he teaches us that the church is destined to be small in comparison with other institutions and powers of the earth, but that it will have a disproportionate effect on the lives of people and the nations — like the tiny quantity of yeast that makes the bread dough rise. Again, it will be strong and supportive just like the sturdy shrub that develops for the little mustard seed. At the same time, it will be made up of good and bad elements, like wheat and weeds on the same farmland. Heroic and saintly virtue will thrive side-by-side with deceit, insincerity, compromise, half-heartedness.

“The Lord is patient and kind, always eager to forgive.”

What’s true of the church as a community is also true of each of its members, you and me, for example. Even late in life, we may be of small spiritual stature, but God is not finished with us. Despite our weaknesses and woundedness, we are still able to be supportive of others. And we, too, are a combination, each of us, of good and evil.

The elderly mother of a priest in my hometown was accustomed to saying that she had five children, of whom “four are married and one has a vocation.” Well meant, of course, but terribly wrong. I am not a better person than my three siblings because I am a priest and they are not. My siblings are also called to a life of sacramental union and love. Having an official role in the church counts for nothing if I am not attentive to the word of God and trying always to live it in every situation I enter.

That’s why we belong to church — with all those other imperfect people who hold on to the hope that God will yet confirm them in goodness and love and take them, finally, into perfect union in the life that awaits them beyond death.

Be at peace. God loves you just as you are!

15TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, 2020

We don’t hear it as often as we used to, but no one could ever forget that stock-in-trade of the comedian Flip Wilson: “The devil made me do it!” Guilty as sin, the character he played would shift the blame to the ever-lurking devil who overcame his innocent intentions. Of course, neither Wilson nor his writers were the originators of the line: we read it first in the Bible, the Book of Genesis, where the man (the fictional Adam) blames the woman (Eve), who in turn blames the serpent.

Isn’t it convenient to have the devil around as a scapegoat when we need one?

The idea has certainly well served some TV evangelists as a very effective means of control. Get your audience, your congregation, to believe that they are being pursued by evil spirits seeking to corrupt and destroy them, tell them that you can persuade God to be more actively on their side, have them seal the deal with a substantial money offering, and — voila! —Satan has once again been subdued. We have to wonder when such ignorance and gullibility will end; let’s hope it will be sooner than we have reason to expect.

Throughout our Scriptures, both Old and New Testaments, there are countless references to supernatural Satanic powers that infiltrate our lives here on earth, corrupting us and leading us to sin. We’ve all got to learn that these ancient documents were composed by human beings who had very little scientific knowledge — even the most basic, equal to what our children know today: the earth is a sphere, a great big ball; the earth revolves around the sun; rain is the result of evaporation and condensation; disease is caused by bacterial and viral infection; etc., etc. Our ancestors simply assumed that God made all such things happen, some of them as punishment for sin and disobedience.

In that ignorant belief system, what could the apostles and disciples have thought than that they were called to continue the war against the evil powers that hated God and were demonstrating their presence in the miseries of innocent human beings?

All that said, let’s say also that we often speak of “demons” in our lives, not in the same literal sense in which our ancestors used the word, but in an updated sense that is also divinely inspired.

We’ve all heard of addictions referred to as “demons”, meaning areas of one’s life that are virtually out of control, as if they have an independent life of their own — like willful beings apart from oneself: “demons”. And they are not always in the category of chemical substance. There are so many habitual behaviors that reach the same intensity of compulsion that elude our control. By these, too, we are victimized, and against them we can be almost totally helpless when left on our own. We believe that the power of Christ can give us mastery over these “demons”.

They have many forms and sources. Some are of the tongue, such as excessive criticism, put-down and humiliation. Some have to do with denial and default, like withholding affirmation and the failure to listen to others with an open mind and heart. There are demons of insensitivity to the cries of the poor and others that keep us from forgiving, forgetting, and reconciling.

I join you in identifying our demons and presenting ourselves to the ever-compassionate Jesus Christ, that he may do for us what we find almost impossible to do for ourselves.