Thursday, October 22, 2020

Homily to Seminarians on the Feast of St. John Paul II

 Twenty or so years ago, a friend and I were visiting Rome, and—after a very late dinner—we walked through an almost entirely empty St. Peter’s Square. We stopped and looked up at the Apostolic Palace and were a bit overwhelmed at the thought that behind those windows was John Paul II. I asked my friend, “How is it that this old man from Poland knows me so well? I feel like whenever he speaks, he is speaking directly to me and that he is loving me, not in some vague or general way. But rather, that he knows me personally and loves me personally. How is it possible?” 

I remember quite vividly, my friend paused for a few moments and said, “I think it is because he knows and loves Christ who is the true man. And because he knows and loves the one, true man, he is able to know and love each man.” There are few conversations in my life that I can recall two decades later, but that one remains with me. 

There are so many things that could be said today about St. John Paul II on his feast day, but I want to communicate that which had the greatest impact upon my life. I grew up with a profound sense that the Pope was close to me, that he knew me, and that he loved meAnd, I knew that this closeness, this knowledge, and this love was Jesus Christ being close to me, knowing me, and loving me through the Pope. There was an urgency in John Paul's voice, calling me—calling all of us—to Christ and to His way of life. Although two thousand years had passed since Christ had walked the earth, the pages of the Gospels were not relegated to the past. They were alive. They were happening now. Christ was still calling men and women to himself. He was calling them to true greatness. The Gospel was and is still new. 

I am surprised that I recall a conversation from twenty years ago, but even more surprising is that a conversation with a fisherman two thousand years ago by the seaside still moves us so profoundly and so deeply.


"Simon, son of John." Jesus was close to him. Jesus knew him. Jesus loved him. Jesus addresses each of us by our name. We are not vague or distant to him. He knows his sheep by name. He calls each one by name. 

“Do you love me?” Not just once, but three times Jesus puts this question to Simon, Son of John. This question is placed before us constantly. It causes us to pause. It can sting. Perhaps each time we answer it, we feel even more our own inadequacies, our own failures. We feel the weight of our past and the smallness of our efforts. And yet, Christ keeps asking. “Do you love me?” Each time he asks, he offers us hope. There is always the possibility to grow in our love for him. Each time he asks this question, he is providing us a new moment to begin again, to deepen our love for him, to once again go out into the deep. “Do you love me?” 

“Lord, you know everything,” Peter says! Yes, the Lord knows our heart. He knows of what we are made. He knows our fears, our shame, and our littleness before him. And yet, he knows that—even if it be a weak, flickering, flame—we do love him.  

“Feed my sheep.” Can we even begin to comprehend these words? The shepherd who knows his sheep by name, whose heart was moved with pity for them and for their plight, the shepherd who laid down his life for his sheep, he now entrusts the care of these sheep to Simon, to John Paul, and to us. “Feed my sheep.” Be close to my sheep. Know my sheep. Love my sheep. Lay down your life for my sheep. Do we realize the extraordinary privilege it is that Christ, the Good Shepherd entrusts to us the flock that he loved so much that he died for them?  

Dear brothers, today on the Feast of this great pastor of the Church, let us rededicate ourselves to Jesus Christ. Let us once again hear him intimately calling us by name. Let us—without fear—hear him saying, “Do you love me?” Do not be afraid to hear this question and to answer it. Let us open ourselves to him--all of our wounds and our sins—with serene confidence. “You know everything, Lord. You know me. You know that somewhere in the midst of all of these contradictions, I do love you.” 

And then, let us hear once again the call, the invitation, the plea: Feed my sheep. Let us be men who feel intensely within ourselves the greatness and the urgency of the mission of the Redeemer of Man. Today, as the Good Shepherd feeds us with the Eucharist, let us ask through the intercession of John Paul, that we be men who are not afraid to open our hearts completely to Christ. Men who live life with our eyes fixed on Jesus Christthe sole redeemer of the human race. Today, Jesus Christ is standing by our side. He is close to you. He knows you. He loves you.  

 Love Him. And, feed his sheep. Amen. 

Monday, October 19, 2020

Homily For the Funeral Mass of Thomas Howard: No Longer Me, But Only Jesus

Today I offered the Funeral Mass for a  man who was a friend and a well-known convert to the Catholic Church. He influenced many others in becoming Catholic.. Here is the homily:

Homily for the Funeral Mass of Thomas Howard: "No Longer Me, but Only Jesus."

"Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.” The darkest, gloomiest, and most agonizing moment of that man’s life also became the most consequential moment. He met Jesus and confided himself to JesusThat brief encounter changed his entire eternity. “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” This brief exchange two thousand years ago between a repentant thief and his merciful Savior has not lost any of its newness nor any of its power. This intimate prayer between a dying sinner in need of salvation and a Savior dying to save him is at the very heart of what it means to be a Christian. 

A year ago, if any of us were to imagine the funeral of Thomas Howard, we would have envisioned it occurring in a large and grand church, ranks upon ranks of organ pipes swelling to support the singing of pews packed with people who had travelled from all overThe sanctuary would be filled with priests, perhaps even some bishops. Even though a sorrowful occasion, we would nonetheless have been compelled to feel extraordinary joy at the evidence all around us of the fruitfulness of Tom’s zeal for the Lord. But Covid changed all of that.  

Instead, we are gathered this morning in a tiny, country-like church with only a hand-full of family and friendsOsome level it seems quite unfaithat the pews today are not overflowing with men and women who were brought closer to Christ and to His Church by the writings, prayers, and friendship of Tom. I would propose, however, that Divine Providence has, in fact, provided something very fitting for Tom. 

I remember learning that when the great emperors of the Habsburg dynasty were brought to their final resting place in the Capuchin church in Viena, there was an elaborate ceremony at the door of the church. Someone would pound on the massive doors of the church and, from the inside, a friar would ask who was there. The man would announce that it was Emperor so and so, and then would read a lengthy list of all of the imperial and royal titles belonging to the deceased. After a few moments, the friar would respond, “We do not know you.”  

Again, the man would bang upon the door and this time, once again having been asked who was there, the man would read out all of the impressive academic credentials and all of the political achievements of the deceased. Again, the friar would say from behind the closed door, “We do not know you.” 

A third time, the man would knock and this time, having been asked who was there, he would respond, “A poor sinner, named Otto, (or Charles, or Ferdinand etc”). At that, the church’s doors would open and welcome the deceased. As I thought about that image over the past few days, I could imagine Tom himself recounting that story with great drama and humor, ad-libbing his own interpretation, hand beside his face calling out, “Oh bother! Go away! We don’t know you!”  

If Tom’s Funeral Mass were filled to overflowing today, we might be tempted to focus our attention on the many things to which Tom could rightfully lay claim: his scholarly accomplishments, his abundant virtues, his love for his family, his great capacity for friendshiphis unparalleled wit, his evangelical zeal, or his extraordinary culture. Focusing upon those things—as wonderful as they are—would have been a bit of a disservice to Tom and what our friend was all about. 

How is it that a man of such talent, knowledge, wit, and class didn’t make the rest of us feel uncomfortable or insecure around him? It’s because Tom was never at the center of Tom’s world. In the very core of his being was a humble man who would say, “I am a poor sinner, named Tom.”  

From his childhood until his death a few days ago, Tom was convinced that he was a poor sinner whom Christ came to redeem, a poor sinner who had been treated mercifully by the Savior. By his humor, gentleness, wit, and instruction, Tom invited everyone he met into a world beyond imagining; a world where God became flesh and made his dwelling among us; a world where water washes away sin and where bread and wine are transformed before our eyes into the very Body and Blood of Christ; a world where the complicated wounds of sin are remedied by the simple words, “I absolve you;” a world where sacred oils strengthen Christian soldiers and heal body and soul; a world where conversion and forgiveness are possible and paradise awaits. It is a world where the believer can more and more say with St. Paul, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” 

Like the good thief in today’s Gospel, Tom also heard Jesus speak from the Cross. He heard Jesus promise him paradise. He heard it in the scriptures that he poured over and loved, and he heard it each time the priest held the Host aloft at Mass and said, “Blessed are those who are called to the Supper of the Lamb.” Tom heard it in his final days upon earth when he received the Eucharist for the last time—food for his final journey and the antidote to death. Tom heard it and he believed it. He heard the Lord, he believed in the Lord, and he loved the Lord, the Lord who loved him and gave himself up for him. 

Even in death—in the forced simplicity of this Funeral Mass—Tom points us beyond himself to what truly matters. He points us to Christ Crucified and Risen. We pray today for Tom, a poor sinner. We pray that his soul be purified and that he be escorted by the armies of angelic hosts (Tom would definitely like that) to the Paradise promised him by Christ. We pray also that on the day when the Archangel sounds the glorious trumpet of the end of time, Tom’s body will be raised in the resurrection. This was the kingdom Tom believed in, hoped in, and served. 

We thank the Lord today for Tom’s life. We thank the Lord for his friendship and for his example. We thank the Lord for Tom’s beautiful marriage and for how that marriage helped us to see Christ more clearly. And we thank the Lord that even in death, the Lord is using Tom to direct our attention not to himself, but to the Lord.  

On October 9th, I brought Holy Communion to Tom for the final time. As Divine Providence would have it, October 9th is the Feast of St. John Henry Newman. This is one of Newman's beautiful prayers: 

Dear Jesus 

Help me to spread Your fragrance everywhere I go. 
Flood my soul with Your spirit and life. 
Penetrate and possess my whole being so utterly, 
that my life may only be a radiance of Yours. 

Shine through me, and be so in me that every soul I come in 
contact with may feel Your presence in my soul. 
Let them look up and see no longer me but only Jesus! 

Stay with me and then I shall begin to shine as You shine, 
so to shine as to be a light to others; The light, O Jesus will be 
all from You; none of it will be mine; 
It will be you shining on others through me. 

I do not know if Tom Howard often or ever prayed that prayer, but Jesus certainly heard it and answered it. In life, Tom directed our gaze toward Christ. And today, at his Funeral Mass, the prayer is once again answered: “Let them look up and see no longer me but only Jesus.”