FROM ATHEIST TO BEHOLDING THE PRESENCE OF GOD

Hi everyone, here’s my homily for the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity - SUNDAY - May 26, 2013. The readings for today can be found at http://usccb.org/bible/readings/052613.cfm/ Thanks as always for reading, sharing this blog and your feedback and comments. They’re always much appreciated! Fr. Jim


HOMILY:

Recently I came upon a website called http://whyimcatholic.com/- which is pretty self-explanatory. It has posts from people from all walks of life who share their stories of faith. And it’s hard not to be drawn from one story (or, rather, 'testimony') to another. What inspired me the most was reading stories of those who were "atheists" who then became Catholic.

One such story was from Jennifer Fulwiler, who for most of her life considered herself an atheist.  Believing there was no God, and that there was no meaning to life - even to the point of reducing the things people call heroism or glory or any other great human achievement as simply coming from the firing of a particular neuron in the brain.  Her disbelief, seeing Christianity as simply a fairy tale, she traces back to her father.  She explains, "My dad, [the] parent from whom I got my religious views (or lack thereof), had not raised me to be an atheist as much as he'd raised me to seek truth fearlessly. 'Never believe something because it's convenient or it makes you feel good,' he'd always say. 'Ask yourself: Is this true?'"

That question kept chasing her, gently, yet unrelentingly. First, as she met and fell in love with her husband, Joe, who, although a Christian, didn’t seem overly invested in his faith.  Then as she became pregnant with her first son. After his birth she couldn’t help but start to see this transcendent value in her son’s life, so that, eventually, her old thoughts of life's meaninglessness didn't seem to make sense anymore. Perhaps there was a "spiritual realm" after all. Months later, she stumbled upon a Christian book written by a former atheist. Curiosity got the best of Jennifer.  Even though she thought this author had come to the wrong conclusions, she respected that he was able to explain his beliefs not on emotion but through reason.  She was more intrigued and confesses: 

I had never seen Jesus as anything other than a silly fairytale figure whom people called upon to give a divine thumbs-up to self-serving beliefs; but now I was intrigued by the man as a historical figure. Something happened in first-century Palestine, something so big that it still sends shockwaves down to the present day. And it all centered around the figure of Jesus Christ. As Joe once pointed out when I asked him why he considered himself a Christian, Christianity is the only one of all the major world religions to be founded by a guy who claimed to be God. That's an easy claim to disprove if it's not true.

That’s what caught her off guard, her father’s question– what if it is true. After reading the masterpiece of Christian literature - Mere Christinity by C.S. Lewis - she found herself reading the Bible, trying out different Christian denominations (after being initially convinced there was no way Catholics were real Christians, thinking that Catholics were part of an "archaic, oppressive and sexist institution") But she was stumped to find herself more and more pulled into Catholic theology, saying, "The more I read about Catholic theology, the more sane it seemed."  Even the more controversial teachings regarding abortion and contraception, the more she read and investigated, the more she saw the truth of the Church. 

Eventually this pursuit led to her wanting to follow "the Church" but some of those controversial teachings came into conflict with her own life and her own story. As she was starting to slip back towards atheism and she was starting to give up the whole idea of becoming Catholic, she realized that thing she was accusing religious people of doing - basing their faith on emotional things rather than ‘what is true’ - she found she was doing that same exact thing with her atheistic tendencies. She had been more convinced of the "truth" of Catholicism, but was allowing an emotional, physical and moral crisis make her want to abandon truth because it was going to make her sacrifice too much.    That realization struck her, and she was able to summon the strength to enter into the sacrifice, foregoing what was comfortable to her - the life she had lived - and she began to live as a Catholic, faithful to the Church’s teachings - simply as a way of trying it out so to speak.  From that this atheist and her Protestant/not practicing husband entered into the RCIA, the formation process to become Catholic, where she finally found the "emotional experience" she had often dismissed in those she previously thought of as 'religious wackos.' "The darkness within me was simply not there anymore. In its place was peace, and an unmistakable feeling of love. For the first time, I felt the presence of God."

 

The presence of God. At its core, that’s what today’s celebration - the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity - is all about. Our search, our desire to have that encounter with God.  Not trying to explain away the mystery of how one God is in three Persons, but rather allowing ourselves to be caught up in the mystery. 

- Recognizing how, when we reflect on the search for meaning in life, we come to the truth of God, the Father, as Creator. 

- Remembering how in our moments of struggle, in trial, the truth of God, the Son, brings us the opportunity to experience intimacy with the Lord that the human heart and soul longs for - because He suffered for us, first - He knows what we go through. 

- And, when perplexed by our own self-awareness and our desire for answers, we see that the truth of God, the Holy Spirit, opens our minds and hearts in a way that compels us not to settle for the easy or the convenient answer, but pushes us, annoys us (as Pope Francis so accurately put it a few weeks ago) to choose the harder path that comes from being a person of faith. 

All these attributes are different; yet they all are the same.  They have the same Source; one grace comes from, and leads to, the other.  The Trinity that we adore is one God - the first line of our creed reminds us of that.  The three Divine Persons - although distinct and really Persons in and of themselves - form a Unity, in a way we cannot fully understand.  But we can grasp that the creative, redemptive and inspirational aspects of the Trinity's members are shared by them all.  

That one Person is not kinder, or greater, or more loving than another;
that one is no less real or responsive to our own love.  

That, if you can imagine one of Them loving you, remind yourself all three love you like that; if you can relate to one member more easily, and speak to Him, remind yourself you can speak to them all like that.  

And if your heart overflows with love for one, yet hesitates over the other two, give yourself permission to love all of them like that.  Because there is no plurality, no 'all of them,' in the end.  Three Divine Persons, yes, but so united that,

    you cannot know one without knowing the others;
    you cannot serve one, without serving the others;
    you cannot isolate your love and only love one of them, without loving all the others, since they all are one.  

And their love for you -
the Father's love in creating you,
      the Son's love in saving you,
            the Holy Spirit's love in sustaining you - is the same love.  

Christ came down to earth to redeem us - and the best part of that redemption is the marvel that the lavish love He showed for us is not just His alone, but the love of His Father, and of the Spirit they sent us.

As we celebrate this Eucharist, caught up in our encounter with the Triune God in whose honor we sign ourselves - Father, Son and Holy Spirit - may all that we’ve come to know as true about God continually cause us to fall deeper in love with Him. So that the reason "why I am Catholic" is the mystery, the truth, and the presence of a God that we know and experience, both in the head and the heart.    

THE HOLY SPIRIT -REDISCOVERING GOD WITHIN US

HAPPY PENTECOST SUNDAY! The great feast to conclude the Season of Easter; The Feast celebrating the Birth of the Church. Here’s the readings for today’s Mass - http://usccb.org/bible/readings/051913-pentecost-mass-during-day.cfm


Thanks as always for reading, commenting, and sharing this blog!

God Bless- Fr. Jim

HOMILY:

Every year we celebrate Pentecost - which we see as the birth of the church. We call it that because it was the day on which the first believers came alive in their faith, the day when the Rock upon which Christ planted his church began to support and uphold an incredible new life. But too often we mark it as a day, an event that happened to a group of 12 some 2,000 years ago and miss the fullness of what God has given us - we miss it because we fail to ask ourselves: "how has God gifted me in particular - as an individual.."

There was this man named Mr. Yates who during the depression owned a sheep ranch in Texas. He did not have enough money to continue paying his mortgage - in fact he was forced like many others to live on government subsidies. Each day as he tended his sheep he worried about how he was going to pay his bills. Sometime later a seismographic crew arrived on his land and said that their might be oil on his land and could they test drill. After a lease was signed they went ahead. At 1115 feet a huge oil reserve was struck - subsequent wells revealed even more oil than the first well revealed. Mr Yates owned it all. He had the oil and mineral rights. He had been living on welfare - yet he was a millionaire. Think of it - he owned all that oil with its tremendous potential, yet he did not realize it.

What we celebrate with Pentecost is God being among us in power making us not just a group of believers but truly Christ in the world unafraid, empowered, bearing the cross out of love, and being raised from the Grave in glory.. What always makes this such an amazing and awesome feast is to see how in Pentecost we come to understand the fullness of God revealing Himself to humanity:

- In the Old Testament we learned of God as Creator, as Law-Giver.

- At Christmas we celebrated how in Jesus Christ - God becomes one of us, becomes one among us.

- What is so awesome to realize is that in Pentecost we celebrate God within us. In our Baptisms, and Confirmations we invited the Holy Spirit to dwell within us, to use us and to move us. But we sometimes forget that. Think of it - Mr. Yates owned all that oil with its tremendous potential, yet for so long he did not realize it. How often are we like Mr. Yate's? Thinking that we are poor and helpless in matters of faith, all the while unaware of the extraordinary power the extraordinary potential that we have available to us - that which is lying just below the surface in our minds and our hearts.

The Spirit has been and is being poured out upon us. The gift of God is just below the surface in our minds and hearts. Today in our midst, we hear the gospel in our own language, in our images, with our own metaphors, with our own ears. And ths Spirit directs our understanding of it – Some will leave Mass today encouraged to spend more time in praise and wonder to thank God for blessings, others at this Eucharist will hear that the power that they need for tomorrow's trials and tribulations will come, still others will take heart - knowing that God is present to them at all times. Whatever it is - it is filled with God - and uniquely yours. But we have to be open to recognizing the gifts God has poured out upon us so that we might love and serve our God and our neighbor in the way He has intended especially for us. That is kind of what happened with Mr . Yates - someone helped him to see what lay beneath the surface - and he discovered that he was a rich man - and his life of poverty and desperation was transformed into a life of abundance and of generosity. He found what had always been there - and he used it - and it changed his life. That is what the Holy Spirit is about, what His gifts are about. They are there to be used in the work of God, a work to which we are all called, and which, when we all serve as we are intended - transforms us, our church, and our world - into what God intends us to be.

WHAT ARE YOU SHARING?

Hi everyone - and to all the Mom’s out there, a Happy and Blessed Mother’s Day! Here’s my homily for the SEVENTH SUNDAY OF EASTER - May 12, 2013. The readings for today’s Mass can be found at http://usccb.org/bible/readings/051213-seventh-sunday-easter.cfm


Thanks as always for reading, sharing this blog and all your comments and feedback. God Bless! Fr. Jim

Fr. Jim Chern

HOMILY:

A few months ago, the Mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, proposed a ban against purchasing a 20-ounce container of soda.  The Mayor, through health department regulations, announced this ban on the super-sized varieties of soft-drinks as a way of continuing other policies of his that are part of his campaign to improve the health of New Yorkers (such as bans on smoking, regulating sodium and trans fats). To put it mildly it’s been controversial and the responses have been mixed.

Which is why I was intrigued when I saw a friend had shared on his Facebook timeline on Monday that had the headline that said, "Bloomberg refused a second slice of Pizza at local restaurant." I laughed, thinking to myself, "Here we go - New Yorkers proving their no-nonsense, blunt, frank attitude - their New Yorker-ess." And the story certainly seemed to go as I had expected:   The owners of Collegno's Pizzeria say they refused to serve him more than one piece to protest Bloomberg's proposed soda ban, which would limit the portions of soda sold in the city.

Bloomberg was having an informal working lunch with city comptroller John Liu at the time ...the two were looking over budget documents when they realized they needed more food than originally ordered.  "Hey, could I get another pepperoni over here?" Bloomberg asked owner Antonio Benito. "I'm sorry sir," he replied, "we can't do that. You've reached your personal slice limit."  Mayor Bloomberg, not accustomed to being challenged, assumed that the owner was joking.  "OK, that's funny," he remarked, "because of the soda thing ... No come on. I'm not kidding. I haven't eaten all morning, just send over another pepperoni."  "I'm sorry sir. We're serious," Benito insisted. "We've decided that eating more than one piece isn't healthy for you, and so we're forbidding you from doing it."    

I was kind of amused as I kept reading this report and imaging the embarrassing scene playing out in some local city pizzeria. But then something didn't sound right... The story quoted Bloomberg furiously demanding his pizza as he called the man ugly names, screaming at the owner, dropping curse words as he insisted on being served his pizza. Hmmm... that sounded a bit too unbelievable. As hungry as the Mayor might have been, I couldn’t imagine him being that out of control. So I opened another tab on Firefox, googled the story and sure enough found that the entire story was a fake. It was a hoax that had been circulating online for a few days.  I shared that link to the story that verified this Pizza shop incident was not true, hoping that my friend (who originally posted it) might take it down.  Sadly, by Friday afternoon, there were still people sharing this untrue story online and commenting on it like it had happened. 

The whole incident made me think to myself – What is it we pass along? What do we share?  Because one of the things that episode taught me was how quick people are to believe anything they read online.  And when people share these things online, as they go "viral" - they gain a sense of authenticity (whether they are true or not) with each share, with each comment passionately expressing anger or support to whatever it is that’s being shared. 

This all came to mind praying with this week’s Gospel. On this last Sunday of Easter, as we are in this time where we celebrated Jesus’ Ascension on Thursday and anticipate the celebration of Pentecost next week, when the promised gift of the Holy Spirit comes down upon the Church – we hear a continuation of Jesus’ Prayer at the Last Supper with His Apostles.  And one of the lines that jumped off the page for me was towards the beginning of the passage where Jesus says, "I pray not only for them [the apostles] but also those who will believe in me through their word." 

Why is this a concern for Jesus? Because, for good or for bad - what we do, what we say has an effect on one another.  Has an effect on what we believe, how we respond - and on what we pass on to those around us. This is true not only in debates about the size of your Coca Cola, but more important things, or rather, the most important thing  - eternal life - our relationship with Jesus Christ.  

Now I'm not against twitter, or Facebook, or posting photos of your dog or your car or the meal you're about to eat.  But we have to stop and think about what it is we're sharing, really sharing - what part of ourselves, of our lives, of our faith in Jesus do we pass on to others - not just in online media, but in our daily lives.  Do we live a life focused on the things of this world - getting trapped in the rat-race of trying to succeed at any cost?  Do we take care of ourselves and our needs (and, maybe, the people we like to have around us), striving to just make our own, insular lives a little more comfortable?  

Or do we truly live, believing that, by our Baptisms, we became members of Christ’s body - and that, in turn, made us citizens of Christ’s kingdom, now and for all eternity? The early Church spread and grew by the apostles sharing what they had experienced in the person of Jesus, and His love for them - and because it was so real, it spread like wildfire, across the Holy Land, then Asia and Europe, until, finally, the spark of that still ignites us, here, today.  

We can make the mistake of thinking spreading our faith just means telling others about the rules, or tenets of our faith, reciting the Ten Commandments or Works of Mercy.  And that is a part, a huge part of our Faith.  But what makes it alive, what makes it contagious, what makes it, again, real to those around us is when we take those beliefs, those standards, those things passed down to us and flesh them out in our lives - when we share what is true and real - what is beautiful: when we touch others with kindness and mercy and love - because when we do, it is Christ acting through us - and it is no longer we alone who are doing those things, but Jesus, too.  Will we allow ourselves to be His hands (and heart) and share His healing and love with our world?

"ANNOYING" HOLY SPIRIT?

Hi everyone, here’s my homily for the SIXTH SUNDAY OF EASTER - May 5, 2013. The readings for today’s Mass can be found at: http://usccb.org/bible/readings/050513.cfm . As always, thanks for reading, sharing, and commenting on the blog. God Bless, Fr. Jim

HOMILY:

I really love Pope Francis. Shocking news, I'm sure... That's not just because I was there in Rome, standing front row the night he was elected Pope (although that was an amazingly awesome experience). Nor does this diminish my love and admiration of Pope John Paul II - the holy father I knew for most of my life, nor of Pope Benedict - one of the greatest theologians and humblest and gentlest men to ever be the successor to St. Peter.

But the thing about Pope Francis that's been so unique and, I think, has endeared him to so many is he's relatable. He has a casualness that is so approachable.  And because, unlike his predecessors, he only speaks Spanish and Italian, and his style is to often preach without a prepared text, he is speaking from the heart. . The night he was elected and first came out to the balcony to great the hundreds of thousands of people waiting to see who would be the next Pope, his first words were a joke:   You all know that the duty of the Conclave was to give a bishop to Rome. It seems that my brother Cardinals have gone almost to the ends of the earth to get him… but here we are.

 

It's just so cool. Which is why I've enjoyed reading his homilies. Usually there's not official texts, or prepared translations of his homilies, so you have to read various translators' versions of what he said if you don't understand Italian (after 4 years of Italian in high school I'm embarrassed how rusty mine is). He's speaking so conversationally, which has the ability to shock and surprise us.  For example, a few weeks ago he said in a homily something that, if you take the one sentence out of context, would be cause for concern - he said the Holy Spirit annoys us.  I was like, did the Holy Father just say the third person of the trinity annoys us? He did, but the whole quote probably fleshes it out a bit more:  

The Holy Spirit annoys us. Because he moves us, he makes us journey, he pushes the
Church to go forward. And we are like Peter at the Transfiguration: 'Oh, how wonderful it is for us to be here, all together!' But let it not inconvenience us. We would like the Holy Spirit to doze off. We want to subdue the Holy Spirit. And that just will not work. For he is God and he is that wind that comes and goes, and you do not know from where. He is the strength of God; it is he who gives us consolation and strength to continue forward. But to go forward! And this is bothersome. Convenience is nicer."


These words have particularly resonated with me the last few months. Back in January, the Archbishop called me into his office and told me he was considering moving me out of campus ministry into the Office of Vocations.  It was something I did not want, did not ask for... Something I was anxious about, just listening to the Archbishop describe it in our conversations. And it was something that the Archbishop remained undecided over for a couple of months.  Because the Archbishop said he was happy having me here at Montclair State as well as stay Director of Campus Ministry... But that he kept coming back to this idea of assigning me to Vocations. He kept saying – let’s keep talking and praying about this. 

In truth my prayer was, "Let this chalice pass me by Lord." As challenging as this work can be, I love it.  Each year presents new and different experiences that have definitely stretched me as a person, and especially as a priest. But I know that I made a promise of obedience to the Lord, to His Church – and one way that is expressed is my obedience to the Archbishop (whichever Archbishop it is that the Lord sends us).  So I couldn’t figure out why he wasn’t making the final decision and say, "OK, I’m moving you." He kept hesitating on it.

One morning as I was praying my Holy Hour – I kept having this thought, "Perhaps you could continue on as Campus Minister at Montclair and be the Director of Vocations…" I shook my head and resisted, thinking "That’s crazy… they’re both full-time jobs – it would involve a complete restructuring of things for both offices, plus there’s no way the Archbishop’s going to go along with that." In this interior dialogue in my holy hour, I said "Well before I waste anymore time arguing with myself over whether this is a good idea or not, maybe I should ask the Archbishop if this is something he would even be open to, since these are his assignments to make, not mine to take." So I sent an email saying, tentatively, "This was a thought that came to me during my holy hour, before I keep praying on this, I wanted to see if the Archbishop would even be open to considering this as a possibility." Not two hours later I got an email saying, "OK that sounds great… let’s go with that."  Wait – what??? Uhmmm… - Like Pope Francis said "The Holy Spirit is annoying."

I share that because we hear in tonight’s Gospel Jesus telling us that He and the Father will send us the Advocate – the Holy Spirit who will teach us everything and remind us of everything right before he says Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you  not as the world gives do I give it to you. Which is why it so often appears annoying when the Holy Spirit gets involved in our lives.  Try as we might not to, we often think of Peace in the way that many in the world would describe it -- as the absence of conflict, to be comfortable, not to rock the boat, so to speak… And when we apply it to our following Christ, we start to tell ourselves – I’m praying, I’m trying to avoid sin and be a good person (and even go to Confession when I do sin) I go to Mass on Sunday  so why is peace still so elusive? 

I’m thinking of a lot of questions that various people have shared with me over the last few months – "Father, I know some of the people I’m working with are doing some horrendous things – I know I need to blow the whistle on this, but I’m scared because I could lose my job, it’s going to create a real mess… I feel so stressed…"  "Father, I know I’m called to the religious life, I’ve never felt what I’ve felt each time I visited that convent, but I have to somehow pay off my debts from student loans to do it… how am I going to raise $40,000? (by the way, as of Friday, within only three months, she’s raised a third of that already).  "Father, I know that this guy isn’t the best guy for me and I’ve thought about breaking up with him, but I’m afraid there’s not going to be someone else for me and I’ll never get married." 

If we truly, sincerely, genuinely want to Love Jesus, we have to allow His Advocate, allow the Holy Spirit to dwell within us… To annoy us… To confront us… To challenge us… To move us, out of our comfort zones and comfortableness. To desire Christ’s peace which crushes the illusion of security we so often settle for in favor of the fullness of life that comes from following His will in every aspect of our lives. To remind us of the depth of Love of Christ crucified for you and I; to teach us Christ crucified is the meaning of Love – which isn’t simply a warm fuzzy feeling I have when I’m attracted to something I like or desire – but when we die to ourselves and live for others, for God alone, that is Love.   What is the Lord annoying you with... nudging you about that's calling you out of indifference, apathy?   Challenging you out of the ordinary into something different? Bringing to mind and heart something bigger, bolder - that the devil is trying to lie to you into inaction?  How is the Lord calling you to listen to and respond to His seemingly unfathomable, radical calls to move forward?  To truly embrace that call to love and die to self and live for Him alone?  It's only in responding to those calls that we begin to experience the peace that was so seemingly elusive, as we freely begin to follow where the Holy Spirit leads us. 

  Pope Francis, in that favorite homily of mine, went on to say:

Do not oppose the Holy Spirit. For it is the Spirit who makes us free, with that freedom from Jesus, by that freedom of the sons of God! Do not put up resistance to the Holy Spirit: this is the grace for which I wish we would all ask the Lord; docility to the Holy Spirit, to that Spirit that comes to us and makes us go forward on the path of holiness, that holiness of the Church which is so beautiful. The grace of docility to the Holy Spirit

May you and I desire, pursue, and finally be open to that Freedom that comes from obedience to the Holy Spirit – lovingly annoying us to experience the Peace that God alone can give.