A speaker at a recent lecture that I attended shared a pretty startling statistic. Ireland, often considered one of the strongest of Catholic countries since the days of St. Patrick in the last decade has seen weekly Mass attendance go from close to 90% of Catholics attending Sunday Mass regularly to about 18% - in one decade. A major reason is attributed to the revelation of the decades long Priest-abuse scandal that had occurred and only recently came to light in the Irish Church. Not being Irish, and looking at where my Grandparents emigrated from didn’t paint a rosier picture - Italians have had a Mass attendance rate in the low 20% range, and have so for years. In a sense it’s sadder than Ireland because there’s not a single identifiable reason for this, just a sense of indifference to religion.
If we’re honest, we can see that indifference to religion, especially to Catholicism throughout our culture. Christianity in particular seems to have taken a beating in public perception. Participation or connectedness to parishes isn’t what it used to be in a lot of ways. This same speaker pointed out that we had a Pope, who after his death because of the outpouring of admiration from around the world, his cause for sainthood moved faster than any in recent history, so we now refer to this Pope as Blessed John Paul II -- well Pope John Paul II was the most traveled Pope in history for one of the longest periods in Church history... And when he traveled around the world and spoke to millions of people one recurring theme was his call to our Church to embrace a “New Evangelization.” For every Christian to recognize their duty to proclaim the Gospel in each of their corners of the world. Our current Pope Benedict has continued in his predecessors example - a man in his mid 80's - who travels, writes, meets, preaches that same message - the need for the Church to evangelize - not just those who aren’t Catholic or Christian, but almost re-evangelize itself... And this speaker made a somewhat sad evaluation – he pointed out that for the most part this has fallen on deaf ears.
Those thoughts are troubling. No doubt there’s researchers and statisticians who will cite a host of reasons why this shift. While that’s important to get to some of the roots of all of this, those things can also distract us, the Church of God from simply analyzing the problem rather than moving forward.
Because when we look at our culture, our world, it seems more and more lost. Motivated by fear, and distrust of one another. People seem to be making bad choices and decisions (and then make more bad choices and decisions to make up for the first ones) which reflects a relativistic “do what you want, just leave me out of it” philosophy. You see that in marriages that fall apart, in legalized abortion killing millions of innocent babies in this nation alone for over 37 years. You see that in horrific examples of war, terrorism. You see that in the collapse of the economy. In so many ways, this distrust, this fear, this sense of lack of connectedness is widespread.
Real happy thoughts huh? On Father’s Day no less... But here’s our hope, here’s our answer, here’s our duty as Christians who are here, who find ourselves in these pews. To hear in this Gospel how Jesus reveals the inner heart of God who’s love is so pure, so perfect He is a unity a trinity of One God in three persons - Father, Son and Holy Spirit. These beautiful words from this Gospel is His answer to all of our deepest questions, confusions, fears... We need to listen again and believe what these words tell us about the Heart of God:
For God so loved the World that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him might not perish but might have eternal life.
What had motivated Jesus to share those words was a question by Nicodemus, a Jewish pharisee who wanted to know what it meant to be a follower of His... He wondered what was it that made Jesus so different that people were only beginning to experience His glory through His Words, through His presence, through His miracles.
And thousands of years later, Jesus’ response to Nicodemus needs to convict our hearts and cause us to do some reflection. Because it’s easy for us to dismiss the problems of the world, the problems of the Church as too big for any of us as individuals. We can tell ourselves that “someone has to do something” or that a committee or leader needs to emerge. But the reality is there is no program or committee.
These problems, these issues have in a sense have always been around. There were failures in government and society during Jesus time that would make Washington look pretty tame. There were people being used, abused and devalued as human beings in just as, if not more, atrocious ways then as there are today.
But here’s the thing, what captivated the minds and hearts of people to begin to address those wrongs to effect real change was when they connected to God, when they heard this revelation by Christ of who God is and lived their lives as if that was the only thing that ultimately mattered was God... which is in fact the case.
Just think about it, because of Jesus Christ, the sick, who when he walked on earth were seen as sinful and people to be avoided and discarded (left on the sides of the road) now mattered because “God so loved the world” - and so the Catholic Church was the first institution to develop a “universal” health care system - where rich and poor were cared for, were healed in the name of Father Son and Holy Spirit. Because of Jesus Christ who spoke of the value, the dignity of every human life, the Catholic Church recognized how important that message needed to be communicated to every corner of the world, so that every human being could learn that they mattered and were apart of the world that God so loved... and so the Church developed the first wide-spread, universal educational system that still teaches millions around the world to this very day.
Those are just two of the many things that were started by Catholics, motivated by that core belief and understanding. What are we doing now? For us, the challenge is to re-evaluate what it is we do:
If we’re not coming to Mass because we believe that God so loved the world
If we’re not sending our children to Religious Education because we believe that God so loved the world
If we’re not gathering in our groups, societies and organizations that all do good things - whether it’s the Knights of Columbus or ICAPS or Campus Ministry because we believe that God so loved the world...
Then why are we? What have we made those things? If it’s not motivated out of a belief that God has this love for you and everyone of His creation, then He is not being glorified by these things and they will die.
On this Trinity Sunday, it is easy for us to be transfixed by the mystery of trying to imagine One God in three persons. To get lost in that mystery of who God is and in our highly analytical minds try to figure that mystery out, like it’s a puzzle or a question to be answered. Jesus reminds us God is not a thing, but a Person - three Persons but one God. And offers us the opportunity to go beyond figuring Him out, but to actually participate in the very life of God. If we would but let His love resonate in our hearts – A love which created, redeemed and sanctifies us to this very day. A love the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit needs you and I to share with a world that seems to forgotten how much they matter to Him as well.
- Fr. Jim
I’m sorry, I should be more respectful - Really St. John?
You close your Gospel with a tease? There are many other things that Jesus did that are not recorded here... it’s like when you were in grade school and you had a book report and you got lazy or bored or just wanted to finish it and just said “I don’t want to spoil the rest of the story for you, you’ll have to read the book yourself.”(Did any of you ever do that? Did any of you ever go out and read the book when someone said that? Me neither.)
But back to St. John... here we are, the end of the Easter Season, the last “day of Easter” as we await the Feast of Pentecost tomorrow. The conclusion to this gospel of John with this kind of tease. My curiosity goes off - What did he leave out? Why? What other amazing things did they see? Experience? Hear? Jesus had been risen and among them in His Resurrected body for 40 days - there had to have been all kinds of remarkable things that had happened. My curiosity gets peaked. Maybe even a bit jealous too. How cool would it have been to be there and see and witness and experience it all first hand.
Curiosity, Jealousy... Isn’t it interesting how they seem to come out of left field? Look at Peter in this same gospel, poor St. Peter.. Last night, we heard that dramatic discussion where Jesus asks Peter 3 times “do you love me...” “do you love me more than these?” And Peter has that deep realization within that he does love Jesus... That's where we pick up with this Gospel. And what happens? Peter sort of turns it around asking “Jesus do you love me more than these?” Not in those words but look at what happened. Right after Peter confesses his love for Christ, Peter turns and sees St. John, the one described as the disciple whom Jesus loved and he’s no longer thinking about his past denials, his past failures, or even his realization of his deep love for Jesus, he turns and says “what about him?” curiosity - jealousy...
If there’s a silver lining, it reminds us that we’re in good company. How easy it is for each of us to fall into similar thoughts or feelings even when we’re doing things for the Lord. That curiosity and jealousy seems to come when we least expect it: When we see someone who’s able to get their MPD’s together without any problem... when they got that parish talk... got an assignment that we think is better than the one we received... when our bible study isn’t as well attended as someone elses... When our campus isn’t spiritually multiplying but almost seems to be spiritually subtracting... And just to be fair, it happens to us priests too... I look at this chapel, see what an incredibly thriving Catholic Campus Ministry here at the University of Illinois and see what God has been able to do here and definitely feel a bit jealous – our center looks like a shack compared to this place! It happens to all of us, that we can go from wondering why - what’s missing, what remarkable things are happening for someone else. And in the process, we lose our focus and stop thinking about our relationship with Jesus as we fixate on our curiousity about their relationships with Him. And in that, we can become jealous.
And when or if that ever happens, when we look at those things or experiences and start to feel those feelings – we need to recall what Jesus says to Peter... “WHAT CONCERN OF IS IT OF YOURS? YOU FOLLOW ME.”
It’s that blunt. It’s that simple and complex at the same time. Jesus has called each of us to a special, significant task. Called each of us individually, particularly for this task.
We’re not to be comparing where we are in those tasks to others who’ve experienced similar calls.
We’re not to be simply looking at the many things that Jesus is doing elsewhere.
We are to hear Him say to us YOU FOLLOW ME. When we do, we may come to see how unnecessary it is for John to share any more of the “many things Jesus did” that he didn’t include in his Gospel. Because we’ll be solely focused on what Jesus continues to do with and through you and me.
A few years back, in "Parade" - that mini-magazine thing you find buried inside your Sunday Newspaper had on the cover this story with the headline “MY LAST LECTURE” - with a picture of a man named Randy Pausch (April 6, 2008). Pausch was a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University. He was asked by the school to give what they call a “Last Lecture.” This is a somewhat common event in many universities where professors are asked to present their own reflections to the question What wisdom would you impart to the world if you knew it was your last chance.
Randy Pausch’s preparations went from a hypothetical thing where he was just reflecting on the question and coming up with some type of words of wisdom to a deeply personal, emotional experience when two weeks later he was told he only had months to live and was dying of pancreatic cancer. Professor Pausch knew he could cancel the lecture and spend time with his wife and three yong children. But instead he said “I knew I could put myself in a bottle that would one day wash up on the beach for my children, Dylan, Logan and Chloe” and then he went on to share the points of his “Last lesson” - They were:
1 - Always have fun - realizing that each of us must make a decision (which he related to Winnie the pooh) - are you a fun loving Tigger or a sad sack Eeyore. For Pausch, he says I could pack a lot of fun into 30 years. If that’s not meant to be, I’ll pack fun into the time I have.
2 - Dream Big - For Pausch, Neil Armstrong walking on the moon inspired him - we have to allow ourselves permission to dream big too.
3 - Ask for what you want - Pausch was at Disney with his 4 year old son and looking at the mono-rail, the little boy wanted to sit in the nose-cone with the driver. Pausch said he and his father thought it would be fun and that’s when his father said “too bad they don’t let regular people sit there”. Randy saud “Actually, I’ve learned there’s a trick to getting to sit up front. With that he walked to the attendant and said “Excuse me, could we please sit in the front car” and she said “Certainly” – Randy’s point - you’d be surprised that more often than you’d suspect, just ask and the answer you’ll get is sure.
4 - Dare to Risk - Randy’s point was not to worry about failing, to take some risk, realizing that experience is what you get when you don’t get what you wanted – and it can be the most valuable thing you have to offer.
5 - Look for the best in Everybody - it might take awhile - you might be frustrated, angry with people, and it might take GREAT PATIENCE and YEARS of time, but peoplew will show you their good side... Just keep waiting, it will come out
6 - Make time for what matters - Time is all you have and you may find one day that you have less than you think, and finally
7 - Let kids be themselves. Randy’s last lesson is the most personal As a professor he says I’ve seen how disruptive it can be for parents to have specific dreams for their children. My job is to help my kids foster a joy for life - I want to be clear: Kids don’t try to figure out what I wanted you to become. I want you to become what you want to become. And I want you to feel as if I am there with you, whatever path you chose.
Since he first penned those 7 points, over 6 million people have either watched the lecture, purchased the book “The Last Lecture” or tuned into one of his many interviews on different TV and radio shows. But as he says - I am honored that my lecture will live on and that people have found it beneficial. Honestly though, the talk was for my kids, and it gives me comfort to know that they will one day watch it.
Last words have incredible weight to them. If you’ve ever lost someone you loved, you probably can recall pretty readily (and with some great emotion) the last conversation you had with them.
As a Church - we’ve celebrated Jesus’ ascension into heaven. After that happened, the apostles had to deal with the fact that once again, Jesus was physically gone from their presence. The last time Jesus was gone from their presence, after he had been brutally killed and they had all failed him in stopping that they were just overwhelmed with grief. There was nothing else they could think about.
Then they experienced Jesus rising from the Dead. This resurrected Jesus stayed with them for 40 days. And kind of suddenly and surprisingly to them, they watched him Ascend into heaven. They’re so stunned, they stand there staring up into the sky until some angels tell them they have to go - While that had to have been a pretty awesome and incredible experience for them - as opposed to the other way Jesus left them - they still were upset that he was gone. So what do they do - they, like we are doing right now - gather together in prayer (first reading) and we focus on Jesus’ last lecture before he died. And in that lengthy, very poetic passage, Jesus’ central point - he says - You know why I came? You know why I’m here? You know what my purpose is? That they should know you - the only true God. And how would they (or we) know the only true God? - through Him - through the one God sent - Jesus Christ.
It’s almost like a brief pause. For 83 days we’ve focused on the Passion - Death - Resurrection and now the Ascension of Jesus. And so now it’s like we take a moment to pause and remember Jesus words before that Passion, Death and Resurrection where he tells the apostles and all of us in his Last lecture - the Glory of this event is the Glory of God done through God’s son. You can almost hear the apostles coming back from the Mount of the Ascension, recalling those words and saying “OHHHH - so that’s what he was talking about” (Sorry to make the Apostles sound like a Surfer from California).
Jesus isn’t done with them (or us!) yet, though. The disciples would soon be participating in glorious things as well as Jesus’ promised Holy Spirit comes upon them on Pentecost - comes upon us in our Baptism and Confirmation and allows us to become part of his glorious story.
Jesus' 'last lecture' and Doctor Pausch's have some startling similarities. Everyday, we need to simply - and directly - ask God for what we want, for what we need to be His people. We are called to look for the best in our neighbor, even when that 'best' is very hard to see. We are challenged to carve time out of our busy schedules for what truly matters - our love-relationship with our Creator, and with our fellow human beings. And if you're going to talk about risk taking, and dreaming big - well, look at Jesus Christ - He had the biggest dream of them all, and He saw it through to fulfillment. We, as His followers, are oblidged - and honored - to try and do the same.