Sunday, May 15, 2011

4th Sunday of Easter

The other day I was reading a report about the religious landscape in our country that painted very grim picture about Catholics in America. Here are some statistics for you: In America 1 in 10 people identify themselves as ex-Catholics. If these people were to create their own separate Christian Church, they would become the third-largest Christian denomination in the United States. The report cites many factors for this exodus, but the number one factor given by almost 1 in 4 people who have left the Church was that “their spiritual needs were not been met”.
I’m sure none of this comes as a surprise to many of you, as I’m willing to bet that almost everyone here today has friend or a relative, perhaps a sibling or a child, who has abandoned their Catholic faith for some other faith or just plain stopped going to church.
The thing is… I find such a contradiction between reports of friends and family losing their Catholic faith and the readings of today’s Gospel. Losing the faith does not match with the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd who calls every one of His sheep by name with a voice who promises to satisfy our deepest spiritual hungers. How come then, some people give a lack of spirituality within our Church as the number one reason to abandon their faith? The natural reaction when we hear this reason is to ask: What is wrong? What is missing in the Church that caused this person to move on? And my answer to this question is a simple one: Nothing… Nothing is missing. We know that Christ calls everyone to follow him wherever he will lead. We know that, as imperfect as His church might be, His guidance is given in the teaching of this same Church, because that is His promise. And we also know that those who are suffering and in pain when they hear His voice receive great consolation and strength to deal with their fears and troubles. How can anyone abandon all this?
The thing is, my brothers and sisters that in order to follow the shepherd, a sheep needs to do two things. First they need to hear His voice clearly and then, they need to react to its message. Sheep need to make a decision to respond in a positive way to the call of the shepherd. God’s grace is free and is given to us through voices of all those who Christ has designated with His own authority to teach and preach the Gospel and to celebrate the sacraments he instituted and commanded His shepherds to perform for the good of the flock. But God also gives each one of us free will. He created us free so that we can accept or reject the voice of the shepherds.
In the world in which we live there are many voices who compete with the voice of Christ, the voice of the Church, Voices who disguise themselves as the voice of our divine shepherd, Voices who tell us about how the message of the Church is one of intolerance or even irrational. If we listen very carefully to these voices it does not mater where they come at the end of the day we will realize that they are our own voices. Every one of our brothers and sisters, daughters and sons, mothers and fathers that have abandoned their faith has made a free choice to stop listening to the authority of the Church and start listening to their own voices; they have become an authority in themselves. They have stopped been sheep and now are their own shepherds.
Now it is very easy to think about those people that have left the Church as “them”, as the ones we will never follow. But, and this is a very important point now, we have to be careful because we all run the danger of ending like them. If we are not careful, we are all run the danger of substituting the voice of Jesus for our own personal voices.
If we are to be safe and not let the thieves and robbers, like Jesus calls them, to confuse us and steal us from the divine shepherd, there are two things we must be willing to do. First we should follow his voice by following the teachings of His Church. For two thousand years the Lord has provided shepherds that have been willing to sacrifice their own lives for their flock. Because of them the teachings of the church have been constant since the times of the Apostles so we are certain that their voices have the authority of the Lord. Secondly we should never stop receiving the sacraments. The grace we receive through reconciliation and Eucharist brings us closer to our true shepherd, who commanded us to “Do this in memory of me”.
It is my experience that, those who claim that “their spiritual needs are not been met” by the Church, most likely disagree with what the Church teaches about marriage, the dignity of all human life, from conception to natural death or the roles of women and men in the Church. And they convince themselves that they know better that the two thousand years of reflection the church posses. These are also the people that come to mass, not to worship God but to be entertained by him. If they do not like the music or the preaching they feel they have not encountered God. They forget that when we come to mass we should bring more than what we take with us. If we do not leave our pains, fears, and sufferings here at the foot of the cross, we will have no space within us to take the consolation that comes from receiving the body, blood soul and divinity of Christ in the Eucharist. If we do not come here willing to do or give anything to God in exchange for His divine life, then what we do here has no meaning, it becomes a chore.
Jesus is the good shepherd, we wants to guide us, to green pastures, he wants to give us consolation for our troubles. We just have to listen to his voice and faithfully follow him, while resting on him all of our fears, doubts, worries and sorrows. If we follow this formula, all of our spiritual needs will be fulfilled and to quote Him in the last words of today’s Gospel, he will make sure that “We will have life and have it more abundantly”. Happy Easter everyone.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Easter Sunday

Just before Ash Wednesday, I was invited by one of our Kindergarten Sunday School for a visit. Kids at that age are really shy around strangers especially with someone they see on Sundays right in the middle of all the action at the altar, so during my visit as I expected , I spent most of the time talking to Miss Trish and Miss Maureen while all the kids spent their time coloring. At the end of my visit I asked if we could finish with a prayer, and asked if anyone had any prayer intentions. I was amazed about the reaction I got from this request. Suddenly 5 or 6 hands went up, kids that a few moments ago could not peel their eyes from the picture they were coloring all of the sudden were eager to catch my attention. But what surprise me the most was the type of petitions I heard from these little children. “For my grand pa who has a brain tumor” “For my aunt how is sick with cancer” “For my friends brother who had a car accident and is in the hospital”. All the intensions of this group of angels were not for themselves but someone else. Someone that was either sick, in pain or suffering; and they were praying to Jesus with the certainty that he understood what human pain and sickness is, and the certainty that he could hear our prayers and that he had the power to help.
I left the room that morning asking myself, why? Why, instead of asking for stuff for themselves, they all asked Jesus to help someone else, and it has taken me the whole season of lent to find an answer to this question. These Children understood what Easter morning is all about. They prayed in the way they did because, my brothers and sisters, these children are what I call, People of Easter Morning. For them God is real, Jesus is alive, and it does not matter how bad the medical prognosis is or how much human pain our loved ones are experiencing, for People of Easter Morning, God’s mercy, love and hope is just a prayer away. I have to admit I was humbled by this lesson, after 50 years of life I finally understood what the Lord meant when he said that the kingdom of heaven is here and that it belongs to those who are like children.
The problem we grown-ups encounter is that we get so involved in the problems of everyday life, thinking that we need to somehow solve these by our selves, that we live as if we were stuck on Good Friday!
Many years ago I saw a car sticker that nicely captured this idea it simply said “If you believe in God, why do you live like he does not exist?”, sometimes we want to exert so much control in our lives and the lives of others that we forget that at the end of the day God is the only one that is in control. When you combine this with the fact that our culture operates as if God does not exist; we have to admit we find ourselves in a pretty pathetic situation!
Jesus spent the last three years of his life telling about God’s love and how to experience the joy of Easter in every moment of our lives, and we live our lives as if he is still resting quietly in his tomb. There is not much difference between the apostles that first Easter morning and us! When you are stuck on Good Friday, you do not know where to go or what to do and life becomes just series of struggles we just have to endure alone. It does not matter how much we come to church if we live as if Jesus were still dead, resting quietly in his tomb, we live a lonely life devoid of any hope.
But like the women who received the news from the angel in today’s Gospel, in this glorious Easter morning we are called to be like children again, to be people of Easter. People that have an unbreakable trust in the power of Jesus Resurrected, people convinced that God understands our suffering because of Jesus suffering in the cross, people that have an unyielding hope that God is in control and that at the end, it does not matter how bad our situation is, we too will rise again with Him. And when we become Easter people, we become people who cannot stay quiet, people who need to go out into the world and communicate the good news “CHRIST IS RISEN, HE HAS RISEN INDEED! Like our Kindergarteners we become people of faith and hope in the power of the Risen Christ to resurrect us too.
You know my brothers and sisters, if you ever question if God hears your prayers, or if you ever wander if there is still faith in the world, if you ever feel lonely and that there is not light at the end of the tunnel and that in fact you are not in a tunnel but in a tomb or a sepulcher, I invite you to pay a visit to Miss Trish and Miss Maureen’s Sunday morning class, ask the kids to pray with you, ask the kids to pray for you and you will see what people of Easter Morning look like. Happy Easter everyone!