Monthly Archives: November 2014

Watch! 1st Sunday of Advent

To listen to the audio for today’s homily please select file below:

Every once in awhile I watch Jeopardy on television. At one point the host poses a question and waits a few seconds for a contestant to get the answer. Here’s my question. What’s the last of the seven capital sins?

If you got the answer, Sloth, you’re right. Sloth is the last of the capital sins and that’s where you would expect to find it, at the end of the list. It’s sleeping there, because that’s what sloth is. It’s laziness; it’s complacency. It can be spiritual or intellectual or physical laziness or complacency. It could be one or all of them together.

The passage in St. Mark’s gospel we’re reading today begins on the Mount of Olives. Jesus and his disciples have just visited the temple in the city of Jerusalem and one of his disciples points out the majestic  temple across the Kidron Valley.  “Look, teacher, what stones and what buildings!” Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be one stone left upon another that will not be thrown down.”

Can we hear complacency in the disciple’s voice. “ We have everything here, a great place, what more could we want.” Sloth is complacency in that it thinks there nothing more to do; we’ve made it and we don’t need anything more. The Advent season warns us about complacency.

You can see laziness,too, another characteristic of sloth, in the servants Jesus mentions in today’s gospel. The Master goes away and they seem to breathe a sigh of relief. “He’s gone, now we can do whatever we want. We can take it easy.”

The message we hear at the beginning of Advent is the same message Jesus spoke to his disciples on the Mount of Olives. “Watch! Stay awake!” You don’t know when I will knock on your door.

Our first reading  today from the Prophet Isaiah is filled with similar warnings  about not paying attention to God. You’re like dirty rags, withered leaves, he says to them. You’ve become like mud, hard clay that stuck and hardened in place. You need a potter to come along and water the hardness in you and mold you again. You need the potter’s hands to soften you and give you new life.

That’s what the Advent season is about. We asking God to awaken us from complacency, from  laziness, from sloth. The psalm response in our today’s liturgy sums up that prayer so beautifully.

“Lord, make us turn to you, let us see your face and we shall be saved.”

What is the face of God we are to turn to  in this season? It’s the face of Jesus Christ, first as a child, born in Bethlehem. Then as a man, who speaks God’s words to us, who reaches into our lives and shares our sufferings. Then, as our Risen Lord whom we hope to see and who promises us life everlasting.

Advent, the season we begin today, is filled with the grace of God. Let’s watch for it.



Christ, the King

Audio for the homily below:

In one of his songs, Bruce Springteen sings,

“Poor man wanna be rich,

Rich man wanna be king.

And a king ain’t satisfied

Till he rule over everything.”

That’s the normal road power takes, isn’t it? But it wasn’t the road Jesus Christ took. He ended up a poor man on a cross who had nothing. On either side of him were two criminals who also had nothing– except the prospect of death.

Jesus becomes the king of the poor, the God of the needy, our gospel today says. He speaks in their behalf and he judges others by what they have done to them. What’s more, he claims that when we help those in need, we meet him.

“I was thirsty, I was hungry, I was sick, I was in prison, I was a stranger.”

“When did we see you thirsty, hungry, sick, in prison, a stranger?” those who come before him ask–and we are among them. “When you did it to the least, “ Jesus says.

Mother Teresa had a beautiful response for those who wondered how she kept doing so much for the poor. “We must see Christ in disguise,” she said. Her words are good advice for us who wish to do what this gospel says we should.

We have to see Christ in disguise, not simply a figure from some far off past, or a heavenly presence beyond our reach. He is close to us, as close as the one beside us at home or just outside our door, who needs one of the simple gifts we can give.

The Sacrament of Penance

Prodigal son

Penance is a neglected sacrament in our church today. Few Catholics receive it. It was among the last sacramental rites to be revised after the Second Vatican Council and little catechesis accompanied its introduction. The Mass, with its changes in language and form, got most attention after the council. It seems to me that Penance needs to be better known and better celebrated.

Like the Mass, this sacrament has different names. It’s called the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the Sacrament of Penance and also Confession. Each term describes something about it.

It’s called the Sacrament of Reconciliation because God shows us mercy here, a mercy that reconciles us to him and to our world. The prayer the priest prays after the penitent confesses sin explains the sacrament:

“God the Father of mercies through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins. Through the ministry of the church may God grant you pardon and peace. I absolve you from your sin in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”

Reason can point to a God all-powerful and infinitely wise, but faith says God is “the Father of mercies.” God reveals himself as merciful in Jesus Christ who died and rose again from the dead. Appearing to his fearful disciples on Easter Sunday evening he said to them:

“’Peace be with you.’ When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.’” (John 20,19-23)

God is merciful and mercy brings “pardon and peace.” The mercy of God is a favorite theme Pope Francis stresses today in his preaching and ministry. It is a prominent theme in the recent Synod on the Family. We need to believe in it.

Besides the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the sacrament is called the Sacrament of Penance. To do penance is to try to heal the wounds and damage we have caused through what we have done or left undone in life. The penance given the penitent by the priest in confession is part of a life-long way of penance. We’re also part of a church that must be always penitential, a church always needing to be reformed.

The sacrament is called Confession because we look at ourselves in the light of God’s word and try to uncover and express what are our sins and how they prevent us from loving God and neighbor as we should.

Reconciliation, Penance, Confession. The simple steps taken in this sacrament are concrete expressions of these themes. We can confess individually, probably the most familiar way, or as part of a group. There are two ways for celebrating the sacrament in groups, one ending with individual absolution, the other with general absolution.

Briefly, individual confession before a priest can be done either kneeling or face to face. It begins with the Sign of the Cross, a sign of God’s blessing and God’s presence. Then there is a short reflection on God’s word so that we might know our sins and be encouraged to confess them to our God. This step should also take place in our preparation for confession.

We express our sins to the priest, receive a penance from him and pray that God forgive us.

The priest then declares the mercy of God and the grace of pardon and peace in the prayer mentioned above.

The sacrament concludes with an expression of thanksgiving to God, who is merciful.

A fuller treatment of the Sacrament of Penance can be found in The United States Catholic Catechism for Adults,  now free online.

Sloth: the Burial of a Talent

Last Sunday at Mass we read the Parable of the Talents from Matthew 25,14-30 and this week we’ll read it again on Wednesday as it’s found with some differences in Luke’s Gospel. It’s also found in a much shorter version in Mark 13, 34. I like this comment that came to this blog yesterday.

“The parable of the Talents I have always found hard to understand. The most common interpretation always being that we should always use the talents that God gives us and use them to glorify Him. I agree with that wholeheartedly. But I also identify with the third servant. Although his master trusted him, he didn’t really feel worthy. He was afraid. Afraid of failing. Afraid that his master’s money would be lost because of his poor investments. It’s a very human way to feel. So it was hard for me not to see a more compassionate master. Wouldn’t Jesus have forgiven his fear?”

Why is Jesus so hard on the servant with one talent? A crucial point in the parable is that the Master entrusts talents to his servants according to what they can do. He gives to each one “according to his ability,” Matthew says. God certainly doesn’t expect anyone to do what’s beyond one’s ability, but God does expect us to use what we have, to trade till he comes, to live responsibly.

This is a lazy servant, who could do something and doesn’t do it. In a subtle way he blames his Master instead of himself. I suppose we might say, he’s guilty of sloth.

Sloth doesn’t seem to be a big sin. Pride, lust, anger, envy are more notorious. But sloth brings on inertia, uncaring, non-involvement that prevents the coming of the kingdom.

St. Paul the Apostle saw it as a problem in his community at Thessalonika, it seems. “Anyone who would not work, should not eat. We hear that some of you are unruly, not keeping busy, but acting like busy-bodies. We enjoin all such, and we urge the strongly in the Lord Jesus Christ, to earn the food they eat by working quietly. You must never grow weary of doing what’s right, brothers.” 2 Thessalonians, 3, 10-13)

Sloth buries the talent God gives.

Use Your Talent: 33rd Sunday A


To listen to the homily please play the audio below.

This parable of Jesus could come from today’s world of bankers and accountants and venture capitalists. We can miss what the story means. It’s deceptively simple, so let’s go slowly through it part by part.

First of all, the master of the house is going on a journey, so he calls three of his servants and writes out checks to them. He wants to make some money from what he gives them, and so they’re to trade till he comes back.

Right away, we see that the master of the house is very wealthy, extremely wealthy. He’s writing out big, big checks for his three servants.

The currency then was different than ours, of course. We have dollars; they had talents. One talent was a lot of money then, the equivalent to 6,000 denarii. And one denarius was the usual pay for a days work. So figure it out. My rough calculation is that 6,000 denarii would be what someone might accumulate after working 20 years.

So the one who got 1 talent got about $500, 000. 00. Not a bad amount to work with. The servant with 2 talents, was given about a million dollars. The servant with 5 talents, was about 2 and a half million dollars. That’s what I figure it was.

Whatever it was, it was a very large sum. That might be the first lesson to learn from the story. The Master of the house– God, of course– is very generous with what he gives us. We’re rich. When we were born and baptized we received, not money– most of us came into this world without a cent to our name. But we have gifts, talents. Actually, the word today means more than money. Talents encompass all the gifts of mind and body we have from God

The second lesson is that we have to use the gifts we have. “Trade till I come,” God says. We are God’s servants and what we have is not ours, it’s been given to us, and we have to account for our lives and what we do with them.. “What do you have that you have not received,“ St. Paul says.

That’s a good question. Some today say “I worked for everything I’ve got. I can do whatever I want with my life and what I have.” No we can’t. We’re God’s servants. We may not like to be called servants, but that’s what we are.   The life that pulses through our bodies, health we have, the mind we have, the homes we live in, the cars we have, the jobs we do.

God gives us a great deal of freedom, as he does to the servants in the parable. He’s not standing over us every minute, telling us what to do. No, we’re free to do creatively what we can do. But God wants us to trade till he comes.

The final lesson in the parable is this. Did you notice which servant gets chastized ? It’s the one who was given one talent. His excuse is that he was worried about losing everything and so he buried his master’s money in a field. Actually, from what we know of our Lord’s time, that was the safest place you could keep precious things. Dig a hole and bury them in the fields out of sight.

I always wondered why the Master was so angry with this servant who seems only to be playing it safe. Maybe it’s because he seems to stand for all those with ordinary talents, so ordinary that they bury them and don’t use them.

There’s so much neglect of ordinary talents today, so much belittlement of them, so much of taking them for granted. We think only people with a lot are important. We stand in awe of celebraties and we miss the value of ordinary people and ordinary things and ordinary talents.

Someone sent me this little quiz by email.


  1. Name the five wealthiest people in the world.


  1. Name the last five Heisman trophy winners.


  1. Name the last five winners of the Miss America.


  1. Name ten people who have won the Nobel or Pulitzer Prize.


  1. Name the last half dozen Academy Award winner for best actor and actress.


  1. Name the last decade’s worth of World Series winners.

How did you do? The point is, none of us remember the headliners of yesterday. They are the best in their fields. But the applause dies.. Awards tarnish. Achievements are forgotten. Accolades and certificates are buried with their owners.

Here’s another quiz. See how you do on this one:


  1. List a few teachers who aided your journey through school.


  1. Name three friends who have helped you through a difficult time.


  1. Name five people who have taught you something worthwhile.


  1. Think of a few people who have made you feel appreciated and special.


  1. Think of five people you enjoy spending time with.



The lesson: The people who make a difference in your life are not the ones with the most credentials, the most money, or the most awards. They are the ones that care. Use the talents you have.






“Don’t worry about the world coming to an end today. It’s already tomorrow in Australia.” (Charles Schultz)!
















Love Without Calculation

I’ve started reading “Love Without Calculation: A Reflection on Divine Kenosis” by David N. Power, OMI, an Irish Oblate priest who taught for many years at Catholic University in Washington, DC. He wrote this book, a reflection on his own life and times, while teaching after his retirement from CU at a small seminary in French Polynesia.

The faraway island with its colonial history and disturbing past gave Power some metaphors for looking at the world he has experienced as a western Christian theologian, a world that has known two world wars and a number of other hostilities, the Holocaust, increasing poverty, threats to its environment, the failure of international institutions, as well as Vatican II and its aftermath.

As a theologian who talks about God, Power wonders how we can do that today in the midst of so much turmoil and indifference. Our talk about God gets “ disrupted by terrifying memories and by a knowledge of a world situation that deifies all that has been said about the divinity. We are really pressured by too much evil to be coherent.”

Power ends his book, I see, advocating prayer and participating in the liturgy as “the ground of theology” for our time. “Grounding one’s thoughts in prayer and the movement of the liturgy is turning once more to interest in the forms of language used to express faith, to the play of imagination and so to cultural and hermeneutical issues.”

We just celebrated the feasts of Martin of Tours and Leo the Great. Today we have the feast of Mother Cabrini, the fierce defender of poor Italian immigrants who came to the United States at the beginning of the 20th century. The Lord gave us these saints that we might learn from them as we try to make sense of life today. The prayers we say and the rites we celebrate also give us light in dark times.

We all need the learning that comes from prayer and the liturgy. Good advice from Fr. Power.

Memories of a Baptism

I was celebrant at the funeral Mass for Jack Olsen last Saturday morning in Sacred Heart Church in Bay Head, NJ.

My memories of Jack go way back to when the Olsens lived in the house on the corner of Lord Avenue and 3rd Street in Bayonne, NJ. My mother was a friend of Jack’s mother and when we were young she took my sister and me regularly to see the Olsens. We played with their 9 kids. Just down the street from their house was a football field where some of the best local teams played. During the 2nd World War Italian prisoners of war were held in barracks there and many Bayonne Italians went down to talk to them and pass them food. It put a human face to war.

Just beyond the Olsen’s house was the Kill Van Kull, the busy three mile waterway between Bayonne and Staten Island. Bill Olsen, Jack’s father, was a tugboat captain. As a kid, I couldn’t think of a better job in all the world than pushing and pulling big ships and barges around New York harbor.

My mother told me she met my father when she was washing the dishes after a baptism at the Olsens–maybe it was Jack’s baptism, or Fr. Tom’s, or Rita’s. My father was a friend of Jack’s uncle, Dinny, who probably invited him to the baptismal celebration that day.

“What’s your name?” my father said to her. “Rose O’Donnell,” she replied. “I’m Victor Hoagland,” he said. So my sister and I are here 80 or so years later. How connected our lives are by small things, like washing dishes or going to a baptism.

I mentioned at Jack’s funeral some of the small things that took place at his baptism 86 years ago. He was brought to church and signed with the sign of the Cross. That simple sign meant that he was blessed by the mystery of the death and resurrection of Jesus, who would bless him through the course of his life, even the hard months that marked his final sickness.

At his baptism, the priest poured water, the source of life, on his forehead and said (in Latin then) “John, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Life was God’s gift to him, a life that begins at conception and continues beyond the years here on earth.

Jack was a strong believer in God, the Creator, who gives life and Jesus, our Redeemer, who saw life so precious that he gave his life that we might live. He was a firm believer in the Right to Life.

Baptism is a sacrament of family life, which means, first of all, that we’re members of the family we belong to in this world. Jack, a bachelor, played a big part in his large family of brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews and all their wives and husbands, never missing celebrations, births, deaths and holidays. He was proud of his family and loyal to his own.

Baptism calls us into other families too– the family that’s our neighborhood, our city, our country. Jack was a good neighbor who loved the place where he lived and the people who lived there.

Baptism also calls us into the family of the church. Jack was a true believer; he loved the church. No doubt about his loyalty; the church was his home. He belonged to its societies, like the Holy Name and the Knights of Columbus. He made retreats with the Passionists. The Mass and the sacraments were not formalities, they were real for him. He loved his church in good times and bad.

At Jack’s funeral the other day, it seemed right to remember his baptism. The sacrament is at the heart of our funeral rites, when you think about it. We blessed him with water, the sign of life and made the sign of the cross over him again as his remains were carried into the church and then carried out. A white cloth, a reminder of the white garment he received long ago, was placed over him. The great words of faith were proclaimed: “The souls of the just are in the hands of God.” We heard the account of Jesus’ death and the message of the angel, “He is risen.” We celebrated the mystery of the Bread and Wine, which Jesus said are the food of eternal life.

“Life is changed, not ended,” our prayer said. Rest in peace.

The Lost Sheep

Jordan Valley

A few years ago a woman sent me some pictures from her pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The one above is a picture of some sheep in the Jordan Valley. In the background are mountains that trail off into the dark distance. In his day, Jesus would have passed this way from Galilee to Jerusalem. Probably sheep were grazing in the green pastureland then as they do now.

I think of this picture whenever I hear his parable of the lost sheep, which we heard in Luke’s gospel today at Mass.

Can you imagine searching for one sheep in those mountains? Just looking at them might cause us to say, “Well, that one’s gone,” and give up. But the Good Shepherd doesn’t say that or give up. He searches the mountains till he finds what was lost, then he puts it on his shoulders and rejoices with his friends and neighbors.

“Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep.”

The lost sheep is not only each one of us; it’s also a lost world.

The Black Forest

Black forest

The guide on our visit to the Black Forest in Germany a few weeks ago said it was the Romans who called it “black” because it seemed such a forbidding, dark land. Now, of course, it’s one of the loveliest spots in Europe, where visitors come to enjoy nature and its farms provide some of the best produce on the continent. The Black Forest has also become a model for environmental planning for the people of northern Europe.

Monks settled here first, our guide said, after fleeing from dangerous conditions in the towns along the Rhine River.

Maybe so, but I don’t think it was the only reason the monks came. In the Benedictine tradition, they chose to live in places like the Black Forest because they sought the harmony God intended for creation. Their goal was to create a Garden of Paradise like that in the Book of Genesis, lost but now to be restored in Christ, and so they chose to live close to the earth, their buildings and lifestyle taking on the rhythms of nature.

“Let all the earth, praise the Lord.”

Do the many small chapels found in the Black Forest today (see above) suggest that the people coming after the monks were attracted to and absorbed that same ideal?

Europe and North America have become increasingly secularized. It’s not just that people aren’t going to church; it’s evident also in a way people today see and understand things– past, present and future– without reference to the spiritual.

I noticed this in the explanations given by our guides on our trip along the Rhine a few weeks ago. They were polished, informed, personable presenters, but spiritual realities didn’t have much of a place in their explanations.

An example? Our guide in Strasbourg on the way to the cathedral through the maze of shops and colorful streets suggested that the great cathedral with its exquisite spire was a beacon drawing shoppers to the city’s abundant bazaars. A medieval version of MacDonald’s Golden Arches?


Medieval planners of the cathedral would be jolted by a suggestion like that. They built their great churches as places of splendor to relieve the monotony, squalor and hardships people experienced in their cities. Entering them, they saw a beauty pointing to the heavens and promising a glory beyond this world. The cathedral directs your eyes, not to the shops that surround it, but to the Heavenly Jerusalem.