The Secret Prayers of the Mass: At the Gospel

It’s been a few weeks since I’ve written, so first, let me say, “Happy Easter!”  A few weeks back, Msgr. Walter and I shared a birthday (only a few years apart), and I was blessed to receive my favorite desert: a delicious tiramisu.  Of course, two tiramisus are way too much for the three of us to eat without having to buy bigger clerical shirts, so we ate them over a few days.  And one of the things we noticed is that tiramisu actually gets better as it sits!  The coffee flavoring has a chance to soak into the ladyfingers and give the dessert a lot of flavor!  Needless to say, they didn’t last too long…

The reason I bring this up has to do with the topic of my column, the prayers that the priest or deacon says quietly before or after the Gospel.  Before the Gospel, making the sign of the cross over our foreheads, mouth, and chest, we pray, “May the Lord be in my mind, on my lips, and in my heart.”

Many times, it can be easy for us to zone out while listening to the Gospel.  We might be tired or uncomfortable, or we might just think, “Oh, I know how this one goes, since I’ve heard it 1,431 times already,” at which point, we stop paying attention.  But really, the more we listen to the Word of God, and the more we pay close attention to what God is trying to say to us specifically, the more we let that Word soak into our hearts and give our lives flavor.  When we read the Gospel, we invite the Lord’s teaching to soak into us, or to use the analogy of Jesus, to take root in us.

After the Gospel, we pray, “Through the words of the Gospel, may our sins be wiped away.”  This is a brief prayer of reconciliation, and while it doesn’t grant sacramental forgiveness like the Sacrament of Penance, the intent is to impress upon us the humility we need to welcome the Lord’s forgiveness into our hearts.  When we do that, we remove those barriers that would keep us from listening to God’s Word, and like the tiramisu, we allow it to soak into us and give our lives flavor.

All of us make the sign of the Cross on the forehead, the mouth, and the chest before the Gospel, so maybe the next time you do so, try to make a conscious effort to open your heart to the Lord’s teaching, and allow his Word to soak into you!

Homily From Divine Mercy Sunday

Does anyone recognize the name Bill Buckner?  He played as a first baseman in the 80’s, where he had a fairly distinguished career.  He won the batting crown in 1980 for the Chicago Cubs, and followed that as an All Star in 1981.  Over his 20 year career, Buckner had 2700 hits – not bad, for a Cub.  But in the midst of all that, what is he remembered for?  He’s known most for playing first base for the Boston Red Sox in the 1986 World Series against the Mets, and making a fatal error in the bottom of the 9th in Game 6, eventually allowing the Mets to go on and win the series, continuing the so-called “Curse of the Bambino” for another 20 years.  After this, he received death threats and insults, and was booed and heckled by his own fans in Boston.  Of all the hard work that he put into his sport, and all the accomplishments he made, that’s what he’s known for, and that’s what defines him.

If you think about it, he’s kind of like Thomas in our first reading.  Poor Thomas.  Of course, what is he known as to everyone?  Doubting Thomas.  The guy followed Jesus faithfully during his public ministry, he witnessed the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, he preached throughout Syria, and eventually went all the way to India spreading the Gospel.  And what do we remember him for?  For doubting Jesus, of course.  As we hear in the Gospel, the claim that Jesus was risen from the dead was just too much to handle for Thomas, so he said, “I’ll believe if I see his hands.  I’ll follow if I see his pierced side.”  And that’s what ends up defining who he is, at least to us.

Thomas is pretty well trashed in his reputation because of this, but really, I think a lot of us are like him.  Like Thomas, we have a tendency to approach Jesus with a kind of conditional love: “I’ll follow you, God, if…” or “I’ll follow you, God, when…”  And then, based on God’s response, or on our own reaction to that, we begin to define ourselves, like Thomas, by our successes and failures.  Our value begins to depend on what we do instead of who we are.  We’re a good student, a good parent, a hard worker.  Or maybe we’re the one with the failing grades, the children that have seemingly turned against everything I’ve taught them, or the one laid off last year, still unable to find the job I want.  That’s what begins to define us.  And then, we go so far even as to then define who God is as well: “God, I’m a failure, and there’s no way you can forgive me.  There’s no way you can love me.”  And then, when we start falling into this, God becomes more of an accessory than our God, and we feel like we have to go alone.

What can we learn from Thomas?  Well one thing we learn comes from Jesus’ response to him.  A lot of times our love for God is conditional, but what Jesus shows us is that his love for us is completely unconditional.  He doesn’t pop into the room where the disciples are and say, “What the heck, guys?  Where were you when I was dying?”  He doesn’t say, “Well, I guess I’ll love you if…” Instead, he walks into their presence and says, “Peace be with you.”  “I love you when you succeed, but I love you also when you fail.  I love you no matter what.”  You see, God’s love for us doesn’t change when we fail or when we sin.  It remains.  That’s the great mystery that we celebrate today in this second Sunday of Easter – Divine Mercy Sunday.  In 2000, Blessed John Paul II asked us to commemorate this feast as a time to remember what it is that defines us.  It’s not our successes or failures that define who we are.  It’s not our sinfulness or unworthiness that define us.  As St. John Vianney put it so beautifully, “Our sins are nothing but a grain of sand alongside the mountain of the mercy of God.”  What defines us is the unconditional love of God; the fact that he has made us adopted sons and daughters.  That’s who you are by baptism: an adopted son or daughter of God.  Don’t let anyone or anything, not even yourself, tell you otherwise.

God doesn’t give us this love and mercy so that we can just keep sinning.  The Sacrament of Reconciliation isn’t like that unlimited car wash membership at Country Club Carwash – you can wash your car whenever it gets too dirty for you to stand (and for my black car, that is very little).  God’s mercy isn’t there to be taken for granted or abused.  It takes a lot of courage to walk in the door of the confessional back there, but no matter what we confess, if we do so with a longing for God, we know what we’ll receive – his mercy and forgiveness.  He gives us that mercy so that we never have to fear to return to him, so that we can give ourselves as his disciples without hesitation, reservation, or condition.

As we approach Christ in the Eucharist again today, he invites us to see his hands and feet, to touch his risen body with our hands, that body that he gave up unconditionally for us.  May we share the eyes of faith with St. Thomas, seeing in the Eucharist the endless ocean of God’s mercy.  May we embrace that mercy, and say with St. Thomas, “My Lord and my God.”

Homily From Easter Sunday 2012

He was born in Corpus Christi, Texas, but moved to Wildwood, Missouri when he was young and grew up there.  He played baseball for Lafayette High School as a shortstop but gave up the sport after graduation and worked maintenance for Rockwood School District.  Eventually though, he returned and played for St. Louis Community College at Meremac, and then for the University of South Alabama.  It was there as a senior that he his .414, with a .503 on-base percentage, with 73 runs and 73 RBI’s in only 60 games.  Those numbers hearned him a place as a NCAA All American, and he was drafted by the San Diego Padres in 2006, where he played in the minor leagues until he was traded to the St. Louis Cadinals in 2008 for outfielder Jim Edmonds.  Unless you’ve lived under a rock for the past several months, you know who I’m talking about: Cardinals third baseman, David Freese.  Freese was always a good player, but there was one event (really one game) that changed him forever – Game 6 of the 2011 World Series.  Since then, he’s become a celebrity, appearing on shows like Leno and Letterman, and even the Country Music Awards show.  With one game, his life was changed.

Ok, so I’m a bit excited about the Cardinals season getting started, but David Freese isn’t the only person whose life was changed like that.  Lets think about St. Peter.  He was always a pretty faithful guy in the gospels.  He made those professions of faith, saying that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the Living God.  When others couldn’t take Jesus’ teaching and left, Peter turned to Jesus and said, “Lord, to whom shall we go?”  But he had failed.  The last we heard of him, he was hiding in shame after denying to know Jesus three times during his suffering and death.  But then we meet up with him again today.  And by the time we hear him in the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, he is a totally different man!  One moment he’s hiding in fear of persecution, and the next he’s fearlessly preaching in the streets of Jerusalem, proclaiming that Jesus is raised from the dead!  This guy is a fisherman!  How many of us could get up and say something like that!  Like our favorite third baseman, one event changed his life – his encounter with the Empty Tomb.  It had changed everything.

And of course it had!  Sure, Jesus had taught some pretty extreme and groundbreaking stuff: his call to extraordinary mercy and forgiveness for those who sin against us, his promise to give grace through a Church that would endure forever, his invitation to an intimate relationship with God as our Father, and most of all, his claim to be the Son of God, forgiving sin and reestablishing that communion between us and God.

But then, evil had it’s way with God’s Son.  It had done all it could to break down the courage of Jesus.  It had torn his friends from his side, including Peter, and left him alone and broken, both in body and spirit in public execution.  It had exhausted its arsenal of hate, injustice, humiliation, and pain.  But if that was the end, none of us would be here this morning.  I wouldn’t be up here preaching.  You wouldn’t be sitting there in those pews.  None of the things Jesus had taught would be worth listening to.  He would have been another nice guy, a good teacher, who finished last, again.  He would have been one more paragraph in a history textbook, or one more lecture in a philosophy class.  He would have been one more dreamer whose claims were crushed by the reality of life.

But for Peter, when he peered into that tomb and found it empty, when he saw the burial shroud cast away, when he saw the cloth that had once covered Jesus’ broken and beaten head rolled up and neatly placed aside, he knew that Jesus was risen.  He knew that all Jesus had taught was true.  He knew that the power of sin and death was beaten, and that God was triumphant.  He knew that his life was changed.

Today, we’re invited to ask ourselves how it has changed us.  How do we let this great event, this great celebration affect our lives.  Today, we are called to be transformed.  Probably each of us are going to rejoice in some way today, taking time to celebrate the victory that Christ shares with us – whether it be through meals with the family, taking time to rejoice together here at Mass, having the day off from work (maybe), or rotting your teeth with jellybeans or my favorite, Cadberry cream eggs.  But let’s not stop it there.  Let us let this great mystery of the resurrection change our lives, like it did Peter’s.  Probably most of us tried to make an effort to live in a special way during Lent.  Some of us probably gave something up for Lent, or didn’t eat meat on Fridays.  And we did those things to try to make ourselves better followers of Christ.  So why not try to allow the power of the resurrection to continue that within us, to permeate our lives and help us to continue to live the joy of Easter.  Easter will last for 8 more weeks, so maybe rather than giving something up out of penance, we can do something extra to rejoice for those 8 weeks, but for the same purpose as Lent – to make ourselves better followers of Christ, as much in the joyful moments of our lives as when we need him the most.

2000 years after Jesus’ resurrection, we are reminded today of that mystery.  It can be easy for us to see it as one event in history that we sort of recall for a day each year.  But today is about more than remembering.  Today is our encounter with the empty tomb, with the risen Christ.  As we approach his glorified and risen body now in the Eucharist, let us open our hearts to him, so that he might transform us as he did those first witnesses of his resurrection.  And let us pray together today with the whole Church in saying, “Christ is truly risen, Alleluia!”

Homily From Holy Thursday: The Mass of the Lord’s Supper

So, I don’t know if I’ve reminded you of this lately, but I’m relatively new here.  And I’m pretty new at all this.  So this is my first Holy Thursday as a priest.  And as I was reading and preparing for this homily, I thought to myself: “Self, there is a lot of stuff to talk about!”  You’ve got the Institution of the Holy Eucharist, the greatest gift to our faith.  You’ve got the institution of the priesthood, which of course is near and dear to my heart.  You’ve got the washing of feet, a great external sign of what Christ asks of us.  My entire life, I’ve been going to Holy Thursday Mass, soaking it in!  I’ve been studying the mysteries of this day for 8 years in seminary.  I’ve been imagining this for longer than that!  So what should I talk about?  I want to talk about all of them!  So I came to think, well, what is tonight really about?  Ultimately, after a lot of nerves and prayer and procrastination, I think I can sum it all up in one word: Love.

All of us have two essential needs in our lives, needs deeper than any food or drink, deeper even than Cardinal baseball.  Maybe.  Each of us needs, at our very core, to love, and to be loved.  Yes, we need food and water.  Yes, we need shelter.  But if you have that, even in abundance, but you aren’t loved by someone unreservedly, or if you have no one to express love to, your life is nothing but misery.  The love I’m talking about here isn’t feelings or emotions.  It’s not cute butterflies or puppy dogs or fluffy hearts.  That real love is active.  It’s costly.  It’s a gift of self.

Each of us desires in our hearts to be loved, and of all nights, that is offered to us here tonight.  Tonight, we remember the greatest gift of love, the greatest gift of self, that anyone can possibly receive, in the Eucharist.  Take a second and put yourself there at the table during the Last Supper.  Christ knows what’s coming.  He knows that he has to die.  He knows that one of his best friends is about to betray him – with a kiss of all things.  He knows that the rest of his friends, who have travelled with him healing the sick, performing miracles, and listening to his teaching, are about to turn away from him and flee in the end.  And yet, he sits down at supper with them and washes their feet.  Can you imagine how agonizing that must have been?  To look at your friends, enjoying time with them, seeing them laugh and smile, and knowing that in a few hours, they would turn away?  But then, to turn to them, in the midst of suffering, and to say, “This is my body.  This is my blood.”  That is love.  It’s an anticipation and a participation of what would happen in only a few hours with the Cross.  He didn’t pause and clarify, “Well, no, I mean, it’s a symbol of my body.”  It’s not a symbol, it’s not a cute idea, it’s not a commemoration of a time long ago.  If it’s only those things, how do we know it’s real?  Here in the Eucharist, we can see and taste and touch love.  We are assured that it is with us, waiting for us, ready to take us back.  It’s a love that defines us.  And if we’re not centered around this love, if we’re not centered around the Eucharist, then they might as well shut us down and turn us into a community center.  Because that’s the love that makes us Catholics.

Of course, one of the most memorable things of this evening is the washing of the feet.  Now, foot washing in the ancient world was kind of a gross thing.  It was something reserved to slaves, because the feet were so full of grime and dirt from walking those simple roads that it was not a service one looked forward to performing.  But when Christ does this, it’s more than a sign; it’s a commandment – to love others in the same way that Christ has loved us.  What Christ is trying to show us here is that if we really understand what it is that he gives us in the Eucharist, then we are compelled to follow his example.  Our foot washing of others comes in a variety of ways: charity (donating time and energy to those in need), prayer (commending others to the love of God) and maybe even forgiveness.  Remember, Jesus washed Judas’ feet and Peter’s feet, even though he knew what they would do.

It’s easy to give of yourself when things are convenient.  In a few moments, we’ll relive the experience of the washing of the feet at the Last Supper.  But everything is set up so perfectly and comfortably.  The chairs will (hopefully) be set up fine.  They’re even the padded folding chairs, maybe even more comfortable than your pews.  Everyone hopefully knows what to do.  I even paid for each of them to have pedicures before Mass; I guess that’s a business expense.  This foot-washing will be easy.  But it’s when it gets tough when it becomes all the more important.  We know that love is real, and we learn to have it imitate Jesus, but especially when it’s put to the test.

So what is tonight about?  It’s about love.  Self-sacrificing, self-giving, enduring love.  It’s the love that brings together a man and woman who barely know each other at first, and which holds them together for 30, 40, 50, and even 60 years.  It’s the love that embraces new life, sharing and growing to make that child the man or woman God desires them to be.  It’s the love that draws a man to enter the seminary, the love which keeps him there, and the love which empowers him to go before his brothers and sisters in faith and promise to imitate that same love for them.  It’s the love that holds the door for an elderly woman.  It’s the love that helps pick up a bag of groceries spilled on the driveway.  It’s the love that donates time, patience, and energy to the poor.  It’s the love that flows forth from the side of Christ as he gives himself to us as the everlasting covenant of love.  And it’s the love that leads us now to celebrate the Washing of the Feet and the transformation of ordinary bread and wine into Christ’s own Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity.  May we, who desire to follow Christ to Calvary and to the empty tomb, open our hearts to receive that love, and share it with others.  Amen.

The Secret Prayers of the Mass: The Gospel Blessing

There are some people in this world that have wonderful, beautiful voices.  I think of James Earl Jones or Liam Neeson, for example.  And if you can get used to the voice of Darth Vader reading Tom Sawyer or something to you, it can be a lot of fun and a great experience.  These actors or voice personalities bring their voices to the book, and they color the way that the book comes to the listener.

So what about the Scripture?  Well, some people try to treat the Bible as they might treat Tom Sawyer – as a nice book of stories.  There are many nice lessons to be learned in the Bible stories, just like there are in various works of literature.  But we have to remember that the Scriptures – whether the Old Testament, the New Testament letters, or the Gospels – are so much more than that!

As Catholics, we believe that along with our sacred Tradition, Scripture makes up the core of our faith.  It’s not just some story book that we hope guides our actions, but the Word of God given to us.  It is the voice of God, certainly speaking to the audience of the time (ancient Israelites, the followers of Jesus, communities of Christians), and if understand this, it can help us to explain the seeming discrepancies that we might find.  But the Scriptures are also the voice of God speaking to you and I directly today.  If we believe in God’s love for us, and his provident care, we know that when the Gospels were written, that they were written for us too!

If all this is true, and if the Scriptures are really the Word of God, then those who are called to proclaim the word – lectors, deacons, and priests – need grace and humility to be able to give God’s message.  And so we have a few quiet prayers that the priest prays over the deacon, or before the altar to prepare for that.  Here they are:

(Blessing of the Deacon) – “May the Lord be in your heart and on your lips, that you may proclaim his Gospel worthily and well, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

(If there is no deacon, the priest prays before the altar) – “Cleanse my heart and my lips, almighty God, that I may worthily proclaim your holy Gospel.”

These prayers are simply there so that people don’t hear only the minister (like they would Liam Neeson or Darth Vader James Earl Jones), but the Word of God speaking into their hearts, igniting them with love.  So the next time you listen to the readings at Mass, or even the next time you open your Bible, say a little prayer that you might be open to whatever God has in mind to speak to your heart.

Tune in next week, for more “Secret Prayers”!

The Secret Prayers of the Mass: A Prelude

So let’s talk about some prayers!  One thing to keep in mind in the midst of all this, even the prayers of Mass that we’ve already talked about, is that by “prayer”, I’m not talking about rattling something off just because I’ve been told to.  That should never be the case!

A genuine prayer is one that comes from the heart.  Now, some may take this to mean that the only genuine prayer is the one that’s made up or individualized to make it feel new, but that’s not what I’m saying.  Really, any prayer can come from our hearts: the cry of thanksgiving offered for a great gift from God, the moan of anguish and desire for God to make himself real to us, or even something as simple as a quiet Our Father or Hail Mary prayed under our breath.

So with some of these secret prayers of the Mass, while it might seem like something we have to say just because we’re told to, they are very important, because they are calls to enter into the mystery of what has been handed down to us.  Basically what I want to say here is that these prefabricated prayers that we’re talking about here aren’t intended to be hoops to jump through, but should be prayed from the depths of our souls.

So…all that being said…the first “Secret Prayer of the Mass” isn’t actually during Mass at all – sorry.  Really the first one I want to mention is a prayer before Mass.  Now for a priest getting ready for Mass, this could be a number of things.  It could be a made up little prayer with the servers and lector, or an Our Father prayed together.  It could be the prayers that I as a priest can pray as I put on each vestment, reflecting on what they symbolize and asking for those graces at Mass.  In fact, there’s an entire appendix in the Missal for prayers before Mass!  One of those is a statement of intent, which I was asked to do before my first Mass, basically stating my intention to bring about the Body and Blood of Christ.

There’s no one thing that I have to do, but I have to do something!  Really, it’s a prayer of preparation for what’s about to happen.

Like so many of these “secret” prayers, each of us are invited to do something similar.  If you think about it, it’s so wonderful to walk in and greet each other before Mass, as we’re invited to, but do we greet God before Mass?  Each of us are invited to pray to prepare ourselves for Mass, even if just for a minute or two before, asking the Lord to help us to be open to the message he gives to us in these readings, the grace he gives in his Body and Blood, and the mission he gives us as we go forth.

Maybe the next time you come to Mass, after saying “hello” to all your friends and family, commenting on your disappointment in Mizzou, or remarking how you’re playing golf this week in the 85 degree March weather, consider taking a minute or two to say “hello” to God as well.  I guarantee it will help you get ready for Mass!