Sunday, May 30, 2010

Trinity Sunday: "Got Your GPS?"

As a frequent traveler, I spend a fair amount of time in rental cars. In the old days (i.e., until a few years ago) the counter attendants would often ask if I needed a map. Today they are very likely to offer a different option: a GPS device. GPS, of course, stands for Global Positioning Satellite.

It’s a pretty amazing technology. If you are “directionally challenged,” have trouble reading maps, or don’t trust the “turn by turn” instructions provided by some online services, then GPS is for you….

…or maybe not. Like any technology, from cell phones to the ABS (Antilock Brake System) on your car, GPS devices aren’t perfect. They can’t overcome user error or unforeseen environmental conditions.

In order for the GPS to work in a rental car, you must at least know: (1) where you are; and (2) where you’re going. If you put in the wrong information, you will go in the wrong direction; and if you don’t follow directions, you will often end up in the wrong place.

In the biblical readings designated for today’s Mass, the Church asks us whether we have our GPS: God’s Purpose and Spirit. This demands that we know and have three things:

• Where We’re At (Self-Awareness)

• Where We’re Going (Self-Determination)

• How We’re Going to Get There (Self-Discipline)

To know God’s purpose for us and to allow God’s Spirit to work through us, we need to know who God is dealing with—our strengths, our weaknesses, who we are, and whose we are. In our first reading from Proverbs 8, we see a glimmer of divine self-awareness as “the wisdom of God” describes her primordial relationship with God: “I was beside him as his craftsman, and I was his delight day by day” (v. 30). Wisdom is the first of God’s works and has been with God since the dawn of creation.

Wisdom is described here as female. Indeed, the major biblical languages all speak of wisdom in the feminine, as Sophia(Greek) and Hokmah (Hebrew). Even the Latin word for wisdom, Sapientia, is feminine. Because we are so familiar with male images and terms for God (Father, Son, King, Lord, etc.) we can forget that God both encompasses all genders and is beyond gender.

Through the grace of revelation, we can come to know God; but we also realize that God’s ways are also beyond our understanding. As the psalmist so poignantly reflected (Ps. 8:4-5):
When I behold your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars which you set in place—
what is man that you should be mindful of him,
or the son of man that you should care for him?
Today our liturgical calendar calls us to reflect on the Most Holy Trinity—the mystery of God revealed as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In our gospel reading from John 16, Jesus explicitly notes each person of the Trinity and he also notes something that is especially important for us to remember: that God’s very nature is to be in relationship and that the Trinity is a communion of persons.

We can easily lose that basic understanding when we consider the references to the Trinity in the more formal and dogmatic language of the Church. It may be hard to wrap our minds around what we mean when we say in what is popularly known as the Nicene Creed that Jesus is “eternally begotten of the Father” or that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son.”

We should, of course, know the Creed and its significance in the life of our Church. However, we cannot lose the fact that not only is it in God’s nature to be in relationship but even more importantly, God wants to be in relationship with us! We call the state of ultimate fulfillment of that relationship heaven or eternal life. God also wants that relationship to be rooted in freedom and self-determination.

In our gospel reading, Jesus described his relationship with the Father and the Spirit that would glorify him and guide his disciples “to all truth.” We cannot forget that he did so at the Last Supper, as he was freely choosing to give his life for us. As he earlier told his disciples as the Good Shepherd (John 10:17-18):
This is why the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay in down on my own. I have power to lay it down, and power to take it up again. This command I have received from my Father.
Here Jesus also reveals something else that often gets lost in our sometimes exaggerated American notions of independence: we can be free and obedient at the same time! In fact, by fulfilling God’s purpose and being obedient to the Holy Spirit, we are as free as we can be because we are not locked into a battle of wills with God or risking eternal alienation from God—a battle we cannot win and a loss that is horrible to contemplate.

Our journey of obedience is rooted in self-discipline and nourished by hope. In our second reading from Romans 5, St. Paul instructs us that hope is produced by affliction, endurance and proven character. We’ve all got troubles and trials. Sometimes we think that God is testing us; but it’s not God, it is life that tests us.

We can endure the affliction; we can pass the test; and we can complete the journey…if we have our GPS. May we fulfill God’s purpose and allow God to direct our lives—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. +

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Pentacost: Making Bricks and Sharing Gifts

I recently heard a news story about a reporter’s journey along the Grand Trunk Road, the colonial-era highway that connects Pakistan and India, stretching from Peshawar to Calcutta. The reporter was interviewing young Pakistanis to get a sense of their hopes and dreams. For many, sadly, their future prospects appeared bleak.

Pakistan is a poor country. The median age of its people is under 21 and only about half of the adult population is literate. Many people struggle to get by on the equivalent of a dollar or two a day. The nation is torn by political, ethnic, and religious conflicts and faces increasing threats from various forms of terrorism. Its conflict with India, which goes back to the partition and founding of the nations in 1948, is made even more volatile because both sides have the capacity to manufacture and use nuclear weapons.

Pakistan is not a place where hope comes easily. I was therefore surprised and humbled when I heard the radio reporter interview a young man who is one of an estimated three million who make bricks for a living. It’s hot, dirty, back-breaking and dangerous work. The man, who is 18 years old, said that he earned the equivalent of about $120 per month. He recalled that he had been making bricks since the age of eight, and he added that could not foresee doing anything different for the remainder of his life.

Yet this young man was content and hopeful. He and his fellow laborers, he said, were not merely making bricks. Instead they were building a nation: school by school, mosque by mosque, and house by house. It was their gift to their neighbors and the generations to come.

As we celebrate Pentecost, it is good to ask ourselves: How much more vital and life-giving might our Church and world be if more of us had that same appreciation of our own gifts? Perhaps the problem is that when we consider the gifts of the Holy Spirit, we too often begin with ourselves. That’s when pride, envy, fear, and a lot of other negative things can get in the way.

Pride can cause us to look on our gifts selfishly or to delude ourselves into thinking that they are manifestations of our personal greatness rather than the greatness and grace of God. Envy can cause us to constantly compare ourselves with others, to engage in a spirit of competition rather than cooperation in our ministries, and even to undermine the good that others do and ultimately our community. Fear can cause us to deny, minimize or hide our gifts.

Our scripture readings, by contrast, ask us to consider a different starting point for our reflection on our gifts and ministries. Instead of starting with ourselves, they tell us to start with God and the purpose of our gifts. The psalmist put it very succinctly when he wrote: “Lord, send out your Spirit, and renew the face of the earth.” The Spirit comes from God and has a mission of renewal.

How did the disciples move from being a largely uneducated group of Galileans cowering behind locked doors to boldly proclaiming “the mighty acts of God” in a variety of languages in the middle of a Jerusalem packed with pilgrims to observe the Jewish feast of Pentecost? They were simply open to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit that Christ had promised to give them, as we heard last week in our celebration of the Ascension (Acts 1:1-11, Luke 24:46-53).

This may seem obvious but it’s not. When our focus is on ourselves, gifts are very often things that we think we want to get rather than things we receive from the goodness of others, including God. This is an unfortunate byproduct of our consumer culture. Very often our gift-giving is really another form of shopping. People ask us, “What would you like for your [pick one: birthday, Christmas, wedding, graduation?” We tell them; and they get it for us.

The gifts of the Holy Spirit work differently. In our gospel reading, it is Jesus who confers the Spirit on his disciples by breathing on them, recalling the work of his Father in creation:

The LORD God formed man out of the clay of the ground
and blew into his nostrils the breath of life,
and so man became a living being [soul] (Gen 2:7).

God is in control, not us. We can’t choose our gifts. We can only choose to recognize or deny them, to use them or sit on them, and to use them for godly purposes or selfish purposes. St. Paul eloquently underscores this in our second reading, where he also reveals the “catholic” nature of these gifts, universality reflected both in their diversity and in their fundamental unity (1 Cor 12:4-6):


Diversity                                                        Unity

“different kinds of spiritual gifts”                           “the same Spirit”
“different forms of service”                                     “the same Lord”

“different workings”                                               “the same God” 

Paul also adds two other important characteristics of the gifts of the Spirit: (1) that God produces all of the workings of the spirit “in everyone;” and (2) “to each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit” (1 Cor 12:7). Some are given the gifts to build things. Through the generosity of the Holy Spirit through our rebirth in Baptism, our anointing in Confirmation and our nourishment in the Eucharist, we—each and all of us—have been given the gifts needed to build and be the body of Christ in our world…brick by brick. +

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Homily for Rev. Daniel Anholzer, OFM Cap

(Originally given on May 17, 2010 at St. Joseph Parish  Saginaw, MI)

Dan Anholzer grew up in a part of Wisconsin’s Fox Valley that was very diverse. On one side of the river there were the Little Chute Dutch; and on the other side of the river were the Kimberly Dutch, including the Anholzers. Henry Ford once said that the buyers of his Model T automobile could have any color they wanted…as long as it was Black. In Kimberly and Little Chute, you could find an almost infinite variety of people…as long as they were Dutch.

But as any resident of these two towns would tell you, the people in Kimberly and in Little Chute were different. While they shared a common ethnicity, one town was clearly better than the other. Of course, determining which one was better depended on which side of the Washington St. Bridge you were standing when you asked someone that question!

Two groups of people, very similar yet seemingly worlds apart…and separated by a bridge. Growing up in Kimberly, young Daniel Elmer Anholzer was expected not to question that reality. That’s just the way it was. But I’m not sure that he ever completely accepted it, because he spent much of the rest of his life building bridges, crossing them, and encouraging others to do the same.

As a student at St. Lawrence Seminary, this young man of Dutch stock and from a small town in Central Wisconsin met an African American classmate from Detroit. Dan and Andy Daniels crossed a bridge that, at the time, seemed as wide as Lake Michigan; but they became friends for life: entering the Capuchin novitiate together, and making their religious profession together.

In fact, it was while they were in Rome on a pilgrimage celebrating the 25th anniversary of their first profession that Andy died very suddenly at the age of 44. It was May 13, 1995. Fifteen years later, on the very anniversary of his brother Andy’s death, Dan died very suddenly, too. God, with perhaps a little help from Andy, had prepared a spot for him in the house of many dwelling places…and Dan crossed the bridge that we all must cross one day: from this life to life eternal.

Though Dan held some prominent roles in his life—most notably as Pastor here at St. Joe’s for a total of about twenty years and as our Provincial Minister for six, he didn’t seek the spotlight. In fact, he preferred to be in the background.

After he made his perpetual vows as a friar and then graduated from St. Francis Seminary in Milwaukee, Dan did something that was rather unusual in the late 70’s. Though he had a Master of Divinity degree, the one required for ordination to the priesthood, Dan decided that God had called him to serve the Province and the Church as a lay friar.

With that intent, he went down to Nicaragua. It was during the time of the revolution, a time when villages, the church and even the friars were often split into different camps. It was a painful and often a violent time. Yet Dan continued his work of building bridges between people and within communities.

The people of God in Nicaragua recognized Dan’s gifts and it was they that called him to reconsider his earlier decision and to discern that perhaps God had really called him to serve the Church as a priest. Dan listened, and all of us here today are very glad and have been blessed because he did.

Divisions between people pained and even frustrated Dan. He worked hard to bring them together. He knew that, while folks may dwell in different parts of the Father’s house, they all needed to learn to live together under the same roof. Here at St. Joe’s, he was committed to keeping this Saginaw’s “Rainbow Parish,” a place where diversity was—and is—a sign of strength. Dan recognized that when we allow the light of Christ to shine through the waters of our common baptism, we are blessed with a beautiful spectrum of people and gifts, but one bow.

Over the past several years, particularly with the campaign and election of President Obama, our nation has become familiar with that phrase, Si, se puede! or “Yes, we can!” For Dan, however, that phrase was much more than a slogan, so much so that he personalized it: Si, yo puedo! “Yes, I can.”

In 2002, when the General Minister of the Capuchin Order appointed Dan to be our Provincial Minister, he said, Si, yo puedo! “Yes I can.” He did so knowing that it meant that he would have to leave his beloved St. Joe’s.

When he was asked to serve as President of the North American Pacific Capuchin Conference at a time when it was faced with the delicate task of supporting a common conference novitiate, Dan said, Si, yo puedo. “Yes I can.”

When that same novitiate threatened to break apart over differences in formation philosophies and provincial cultures, Dan held it together almost by the force of his own will. When others wanted to walk away from the project and say, “It’s not worth it, we can’t do this,” Dan said, Si, se puede! “Yes we can.”

When some people invited Dan to abandon his lifelong commitment to the Green Bay Packers and root for the Lions, Bears or Vikings, Dan said….Algunas cosa son imposibles. “Some things are impossible.”

There were some bridges even Dan was unwilling to cross. But looking at most, he said, “Yes, I/we can.”

Five days ago Dan’s earthly dwelling, his body, suddenly collapsed. While he tried to take care of himself, as a heart attack survivor he also understood his own vulnerability and mortality. The possibility of death was never too far away.

But our brother Daniel was more interested in life and living than in death. He loved good food; he loved good scotch; but most importantly, he loved people. He trusted that his name was written on the palms of God’s hands. He walked by faith and not by sight, and he followed Jesus: the Way, the Truth and the Life.

Today we feel grief over his death. May we also be grateful for his life. +

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Stay and Wait: Ascention of the Lord

I’m not very good at waiting.

Like most Americans who came of age with the advent of the microwave oven and personal computer, I’ve become accustomed to getting stuff done within a finite amount of time.

Doing my morning workout? 45 minutes (including stretching).
Shave head and face and shower? 10 minutes.
Pour and eat a bowl of cereal for breakfast? 5 minutes.

You can imagine, then, the frustration that I and over 250 fellow Detroit-bound passengers felt at the airport in Amsterdam last Sunday as it was announced that our flight was going to be delayed for hours. The cause, of course, was the roving ash cloud from the Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland, along with its collicky little brother. It’s bad enough to be held up by something you can’t control, but it’s even worse when it’s also something you can’t pronounce!

I had to count my blessings, however. The delay and subsequent longer route added less than three hours to our arrival time in Detroit; and unlike many others I didn’t have to worry about a missed connecting flight. Still, the experience reminded me of the importance of learning not only how to wait but how to wait well, to not just “grin and bear it” but to even find grace in waiting.

In our gospel reading from Luke 24 on this Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord (celebrated on the 7th Sunday of Easter in all but a handful of dioceses in the U.S.), Jesus addresses his disciples before finally leaving them physically:

“And behold I am sending the promise of my Father upon you;
but stay in the city
until you are clothed with power from on high” (v. 49b).
“Volume II” of St. Luke’s work, the Acts of the Apostles, picks up where his gospel left off, at the same Ascension event:
While meeting with them,
he [Jesus] enjoined them not to depart from Jerusalem,
but to wait for “the promise of the Father
about which you have heard me speak;
for John baptize with water,
but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (1:4-5).

Stay. Wait. Those are tough words for most of us to hear, and they must have been even tougher for the disciples, who seen the risen Lord and received his commission and promise:

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you,
and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem,
throughout Judea and Samaria,
and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

In a recent reflection shared a gathering of the leaders of women’s religious orders in Rome, Religious Sister of the Cenacle Judette Galares used the example of a later follower of Christ, Lydia (see Acts 16:13-15, 40), to invite them to immerse themselves more fully in the process of conversion to which all of us need to submit if we would be more effective disciples and witnesses of the Lord.

Sr. Judette described five phases in that process:

(1) an experience of spiritual darkness, confusion, emptiness or thirst;
(2) an awakening to God’s word and action in our lives;
(3) an inspired response to that awakening;
(4) a period of rest and reflection; and
(5) integration of what we have experienced.

She then highlighted the critical need to heed the call to stay and wait in contemplation:

The period of silence and withdrawal has provided the time to make sense of
what has happened, to integrate the change of attitude, perspective and
belief into one’s history and life, and to form a synthesis of all the parts of
the mystical and prophetic experience of conversion.

That’s what the apostles needed. In a matter of weeks, they had experienced the trauma, dashed hopes and loss of Jesus’ crucifixion and death; the confusion, disbelief, amazement and joy of his resurrection; and the challenge, glory and power of his ascension. They needed time to make sense of it all and to weave what they had seen and heard into the mission that he had given them. Pentecost and the Holy Spirit would come, but they could not be rushed.

In his beautiful prayer for the church in Ephesus, St. Paul asked that God would bless them with “a Spirit of wisdom and revelation resulting in knowledge him,” along with enlightenment, hope, and “the riches of glory in his inheritence among the holy ones.” Such gifts do not normally come to us at once. They are the byproducts of living and loving, succeeding and failing, action…and rest.

The Eucharist itself mirrors this process. Just as it is sometimes called a “dress rehearsal for the kingdom,” it is also a dress rehearsal for life outside the walls of the church. Words and actions, songs and prayers—the “bricks” of the liturgy—are held together by the mortar of silence and rest. Page through a missalette some time in the coming week and notice how many times the assembly is called to silence: before the priest’s prayers; between the readings in the Liturgy of the Word; after communion; and elsewhere.

When the seed of God’s word is planted, we need time to make it grow. When the gift of Christ’s body and blood are given to us, we need time to digest their significance.

Today we enter the last week of the Easter season. As we prepare for Pentecost, may we celebrate the many ways in which the promised gift of the Holy Spirit is still moving in God’s people—in word, in deed…and in waiting. +

Sunday, May 9, 2010

6th Sunday of Easter - Mother's Day

Winston Churchill once said, “I’m always ready to learn, although I do not always like being taught.” I think the same could be said of the Church.

The Second Vatican Council reminded us of the wonderful image of the Church as pilgrim, a community of believers on a journey of faith (see Lumen Gentium 48-50). As part of that journey, we are also ecclesia semper reformanda, a Church always in need of reform. But being a very human institution, we find that idea a lot easier to endorse in the abstract than in practice.

It also helps to explain why the Church, especially those who lead us within a hierarchical system of authority, seems so slow to respond to the various crises that afflict the body of Christ. It is easy for many to point fingers at the Vatican or our bishops. The reality, however, is that almost all of us resist change—especially we have a stake in the status quo or “skin in the game.” Very often, we resist it so strongly that we almost have to be forced to change.

But just as history has demonstrated an often strong resistance to reform within the Church, it also reveals a remarkable capacity for change in response to the signs of the times and the needs of the people. Today’s scripture readings give us reason to trust in Jesus’ words to his disciples: “Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.” They give us a promise, a vision, and a practical incarnation of that promise and vision in the life of the early Christian community.

The promise comes from Jesus. The passage that we read from John 14 is part of what is called the Last Supper Discourse of Jesus, an extended reflection and prayer for his disciples and all who would come after them. Here Jesus assured his disciples that he would not abandon them but would remain with them through two gifts: (1) a peace which the world could not give; and (2) the Holy Spirit to teach them and remind them of all that he had taught them.

The vision comes from John in our second reading from Revelation 21; and it is of a new heaven, a new earth, and a new Jerusalem in which the light would come God, the fullness of wisdom and love. It was this vision that helped sustain an early Church brought to the brink of collapse from persecution, including the brutal attack by Titus and the Roman army that destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem—the visible sign of God’s presence with his people—in 70 CE.

We see the practical incarnation of Jesus’ loving promise and the hopeful vision of disciples like John in our first reading. The Church c. 50 CE found itself facing controversy and division over a fundamental issue: the prerequisites for membership and salvation. The question could be boiled down to this: Must one first embrace the Law of Moses before he or she could embrace the Way of Christ and also be embraced by the Church?

What could have torn the Church apart at a formative and fragile state of its development did not do so. That it didn’t was a testimony not only to the decision that was reached but even more the seven-step process the produced it, which we can find in Acts 15, a portion of which we heard today.

(1) Identification (vv. 1-2a, 5)—An issue—who belonged in the Church and how —needed to be resolved.

(2) Convocation (vv. 2b-4, 6)—“Paul, Barnabas, and some of the others” went up to Jerusalem “to the apostles and elders” (the forerunners to our present-day pope, bishops and priests) for what has become known as the Council of Jerusalem. This spirit of meeting over important issues has continued to this day in ecumenical councils, special synods, and other structures in the life of the Church. In areas as challenging as varied as sexual abuse, ensuring access to the sacraments, and the roles of women, what would happen if the Church gathered and heard from all of those impacted in some way…and at the same time?

(3) Consultation—The apostles and elders in Jerusalem didn’t just hand down an edict but instead listened to what those gathered had to say.

(4) Discussion (vv. 7-12)—The leaders of the Church heard from a variety of voices, including Peter, Paul and Barnabas. There were different voices at the table, even dissenting views, yet all got a hearing.

(5) Discernment (vv.12-13)—It is mentioned twice that the assembly was silent while listening. How easy is it for us to merely pretend we’re listening at a meeting when in fact we’re thinking about our own responses and debating points? This can happen in the Church as easily as it happens in Congress!

(6) Decision (vv. 14-21)—Once he had heard from everyone James, acknowledged as the leader of the Church in Jerusalem, announced a decision that was in fact a compromise.

(7) Communication (vv. 22-31)—This section, which covers the bulk of today’s first reading, not only notes the message that was delivered but how it was delivered: in person, by those who helped make the decision and who had been empowered to carry it out. The result was that when the message was read, the community not only received it but also “rejoiced over its encouragement.” They were strengthened in faith.

Of course, one meeting and one letter didn’t resolve this whole matter (see, e.g., Paul’s reflections in Galatians 2), but they did provide a foundation for the early Christian community to move forward together. It’s a good lesson to learn, along with the dictum attributed to St. Augustine of Hippo: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.” +

Sunday, May 2, 2010

5th Sunday of Easter

The great author Franz Kafka (d. 1924), a Czech Jew who wrote German language classics like The Trial, was walking down the street one day and came upon a little girl who was crying because she had lost her doll. Moved by her tears, he told her that he had only recently seen the doll. He added that although the doll had gone away she promised to write the little girl and stay in touch.

Over the next several weeks, the girl received a number of letters in which the doll described in wonderful detail all the adventures and experiences she was having around the world. The girl didn’t know, of course, that it was Kafka who was really writing the letters. There was something else that she didn’t know: he did so even while tuberculosis was steadily consuming his body and his energy. He continued to write the letters until the TB finally took his life.

Love spoken is sweet; but love in action is even more powerful.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus gives his disciples “a new commandment: love one another.” Then he adds an important qualifier: “As I have loved you, so you also should love on another.” Finally, he goes even further by stating that the thing that will most identify them as his disciples is not obeying the rules, remembering the right prayers, tithing, fasting, or even a willingness to be a martyr (though all of these are important) but rather very simply: love.

It is a love revealed in the most humble as well as the most dramatic gestures. Recall that Jesus spoke these words to his disciples during the Last Supper and on the eve of his passion and death, when he would show the greatest love in laying down his life for his friends (John 15:13). It is also important to remember that he spoke these words not long after he revealed his love to his disciples in another way: by washing their feet (John 13:1-20).

L-O-V-E can be written in small letters as well as big ones.

We see another example of love writ large in our second reading, where John witnessed “a new heavens and a new earth” rising from the distress and destruction of what had been. Writing to a church beset by a series of periodic but savage persecutions by an earthly kingdom and emperors who demanded that others worship them as gods, he gave them a hopeful vision of a world in which God would dwell with humanity and end “the old order” suffering and pain. The reign of God—the reign of love—would replace the reign of Caesar.

We are, of course, waiting for that day to come to its fulfillment. In the meantime there are many ways in which we can cooperate with God’s grace in making the reign of love more real. In the wake of Christ’s passion, death, resurrection and ascension, the early church came to appreciate the power and value of the more ordinary but very necessary gestures of love.

Our first reading recounts the building up of the local church through seemingly routine but nonetheless important actions by the disciples: (1) evangelization and encouragement; (2) following up and ensuring continuity through the discernment and appointment of elders or presbyters; and (3) accountability and witness for the ministry.

Having just finished proclaiming the gospel in Derbe and making a new group of believers, Paul and Barnabas then returned to places that they had already been—Lystra, Iconium and Antioch—where “[t]hey strengthened the spirits of the disciples and exhorted them to persevere in the faith….” Evangelizing and helping people to develop a relationship with Christ and join the church are great; but it is also important to follow up and check in.
One of the high points of life in many parishes is to see a group of adults, teens and older children receive the Sacraments of Initiation (Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist). In other parishes, it is when dozens of teens are confirmed by a local bishop and complete their Christian initiation. Unfortunately, studies have also shown that a significant number of these initiates drop out of parish life or church within a year after receiving their sacraments.

The most common cause has little to do with boredom, conflict or even scandal. Too often it is simply a matter of inattention and neglect. As Paul and Barnabas demonstrated so well in Acts 14 and as we know from our own experiences of marriage, family life and even business, relationships need nurturing in order to last. Similarly, the period of Mystagogia (Greek for “education in the mysteries”) is critical to helping those who have just received the sacraments to deepen and solidify their understanding and practice of our faith. It can easily get lost in post-Easter fatigue, First Communion preparations, etc.

Just as we need to encourage and solidify our faith individually, we also need to do so communally. Noticing the rapid growth of the church and realizing that they could not be everywhere at the same time, Paul and Barnabas “appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, commended them to the Lord in whom they had put their faith.” The Greek word for elder is presbyteros, i.e., presbyter. Through centuries of development, this ministry of presbyter eventually evolved into what we in the Roman Catholic tradition now know as the priesthood.
This is the Year of the Priest in the Church. In many places, it is a year of special celebrations to honor and reflect on this vocation, witness and ministry. But given the horrible news that we have lately seen about the misconduct of (some) priests and bishops, perhaps the greatest gift that we can give is that of Paul and Barnabas: to pray for our priests and commend them to the Lord.
At the same time, Paul and Barnabas also demonstrated the importance of accountability. Upon arriving at Antioch, “they called the church together and reported what God had done with them and how he had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles.” We hear a lot these days about accountability in terms of oversight, reporting, arrests, resignations and removals from office. Perhaps it would also be good to also hear more about what God has done with us and all the doors that he, in his grace, has opened for us and for others. +