Familiar Newness

Around this time of year, amidst the normal things that go on every day at the office, we’re getting ready for the season of Advent and the celebration of Christmas. Even when we get started months ahead of time, there is much we must do to be ready! At this point, we’ve already prepared and printed the Christmas Card, scheduled the Masses for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day (believe it or not, you are allowed to go on Christmas Day!), plan for extra confession times in Advent, and half a dozen other things that are somewhere in the back of my head.

When I start thinking about the seasons of the year, I inevitably end up thinking about the seasons in our Liturgy. When the season changes, lots of things in the church change: the vestment colors, the decorations, and even the music. For example, during Advent and Lent, the use of instruments for music at Mass is supposed to be more subdued and primarily to assist the singers; however, during Christmas and Easter seasons, all these limits are gone so we might have an extremely joyful celebration of the mysteries of salvation. Just like our civil calendar, the cycle of liturgical seasons repeats yearly.

This yearly rhythm is something I’ve come to look forward to. The familiar cycles of the liturgy are a comfort, especially when sometimes we must plan things months away. The consistency of our liturgical cycle through the years reminds me of the consistency of the Church. I don’t remember where I read this, but I recall reading some thoughts on this yearly cycle of our church from a monk who lives at a Benedictine monastery. No matter what happened in the day, the consistent rhythm of life from day-to-day, month-to-month, and year-to-year gave him a sense of the eternity of the place. Long before he came there, there was a monk doing the same thing he was, and long after he meets our Lord, a monk will continue doing it. Similarly, long before any of us were born, Catholics celebrated these feasts and seasons, and long after we meet our Lord, Catholics will continue to celebrate these feasts and observe these liturgical seasons.

To some this might be a bit of a frightening thought: that eternity can be found in our normal practices of loving and serving God, but I find it inspiring. We touch the eternal and receive Him Who Is at Mass, and anything that helps my feeble mind grasp at that is a grace. The beauty of this cycle is that there is one person throughout that moves it forward, day-to-day, month-to-month, and year-to-year: Jesus Christ. When we live our lives with him and work every day to walk in his ways, he moves us forward, and because we grow with Christ every moment, we encounter the familiar rhythm of our year as if everything has been made new again.

Misericordes oculos

There is nothing on this earth that can fully prepare a man for becoming a priest. There is nothing else that is quite like it. Even while I was a deacon, I didn’t expect such a clear distinction between my life before priestly ordination and after. My expectations were very wrong: My experience of life changed at priestly ordination as I began to experience my vocation. The priest stands in persona Christi capitis (in the person of Christ as head of the Body of Christ) during Sacraments. He is the instrument chosen by God to speak Christ’s words and transform bread and wine into his Most Precious Body and Blood, the instrument chosen by God to stand in the breach as both judge and dispenser of merciful forgiveness in the sacrament of Confession, the instrument chosen by God to prepare people for their last moments on this earth as they go to their eternal reward. We are there for God’s people in their moments of greatest joy and their moments of deepest, soul-wrenching sadness. Though this is often painful, it is a great privilege for us priests to walk with God’s people in these moments. In these moments, we are permitted to see God’s love for his people in a way that nobody else does.

Because of our unique view of God’s love for his people and the life-changing experience of being the instrument of God’s sacraments and the ministers of his grace, there is a deep fraternity amongst us priests. We call each other “brother” because through our ordinations we have become brothers in a way that transcends material reality. One way this common brotherhood is visible is what happens when one of us passes to our eternal reward. We make every effort to go to the funeral of our brother who has died, even if that brother died 70 years ago in a Korean prison camp.

I wasn’t sure what to expect during the week when we held the liturgies for Fr. Kapaun and his funeral. In addition to the Rosary, Vigil, and Funeral Mass, the priests had a private gathering for Vespers for Fr. Kapaun. Each one of these events brought me to the brink of tears multiple times. This man who has inspired so many is one of us. And he’s finally home. Even now, it’s hard to contain the tears that well up. I’m so proud of my brother for saving so many lives. I’m overjoyed that so many people have recognized his impact on their lives and that so many continue to be inspired by him. I’m sad that I never met him in person and that his family suffered so much. I feel a sense of wholeness now that our brother is back home, finally laid to rest and accounted for.

Many moments during the week struck me right to the heart. I would like to share two with you.
The first moment was Monday night at the Vespers service. Fr. Eric Weldon, in his homily, pointed out that Fr. Kapaun would have not been able to say Mass on the last Christmas and Easter of his earthly life. I can’t imagine the pain in his heart on those two days. I remember the strangeness and pain I experienced during the first Easter of my priesthood, when COVID regulations forced us to say Easter without parishioners in attendance. It was terrible, and yet, at least I still got to say Mass. How must his heart have ached! It is an important reminder to me that the Mass is a gift, and any time we get to celebrate Mass together, it is a privilege.

The second moment was during the committal service at the Cathedral following the funeral and procession. After we laid Fr. Kapaun’s mortal remains into his tomb in the cathedral, one of the brother priests started singing the Salve Regina, as is tradition when we lay one of our brothers to rest. The sound of our unaccompanied voices echoed loudly through the cathedral, and I don’t even have words to describe it, but it was a perfect and fitting culmination to everything we had all experienced over three days. We brought our brother home, prayed for him, laid him to rest, commended him to God, and pleaded that Mary look at Fr. Kapaun with her misericordes oculos, her eyes of mercy, and show him the way to the fruit of her womb, Jesus Christ.

Pray for us, O holy Mother of God, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

Chaplain Kapaun, pray for us.

Education leads us to God

Last week, we went on a parish pilgrimage to Pilsen, KS. While we were there, we heard a talk on Fr. Kapaun’s life growing up, we learned about the miracles associated with him, and I was able to celebrate Mass on the High Altar that Fr. Kapaun would have used. It was a great day!

During the talk about Fr. Kapaun’s life, we heard that he would walk three miles to school and three miles back every day, and this was after doing all sorts of chores on the farm. At school, the teachers recognized that he was a sharp student. He was diligent in his studies, and it showed. Even when he went to school, the faith that his parents had taught them was very important to him. If the teachers ever lost track of him at recess, they would just go check the church and find him there.

As school is starting, all sorts of thoughts are swirling around in my mind, and they are all coming to the same conclusion: education, to truly be education, must lead us to God. When I was preparing for my talk at the Open House, I was playing around with the Latin word “duc”. Most of the time, the word “duc” means “lead.” It’s the root of many words, the most obvious being, perhaps, “duke.” Much more interesting to me, though, is that the word “educate” is a descendant of the word “duc.” The Latin components of the words literally translate as “to lead out.”

To lead out of what? When we educate, where are we leading one another?

When we look at the example of Fr. Kapaun, we can see where education must lead us: to God. God is the one who created us, who gave us the gift of reason, who gave us curiosity, who gave us the ability to wonder. He did not give us these gifts so that we would hide them. The true situation is quite the opposite, in fact. God wants us to look up at the stars and experience wonder at the cosmos. God wants us to be curious and ask, “how does that happen?” God wants us to think through a problem, even if we already know the answer, so that we can understand why. God wants us to recognize that he created us out of love and wants us to be happy with him, in heaven, forever.

Education leads us out of ourselves so that we might experience the universe God created in all its beauty, so that we can answer some of those questions we ponder every day, so that we can recognize that my true fulfillment comes not from myself, but from another. Education leads us out of ourselves, through wonder and curiosity, into knowledge. Not just book knowledge. Knowledge of reading and writing, history and science, mathematics and religion, all are important, but beyond that, we must have knowledge of life. We can learn in so many ways. We can learn through prayer about God and our relationship with him. We can learn through practice how to play a piano or to tie a knot. We can learn about the beauty of the stars by looking up at the night sky. We must learn in these many ways, because it is through all of ourselves and all of our knowledge—practical and theoretical—that we learn to experience God in all his glory.

Fr. Matt celebrating Mass at St. John Nepomucene in Pilsen, KS.

One of the ways Fr. Kapaun learned was by looking at the statues of saints and the windows in his parish church St. John Nepomucene. He is the most prominent saint in the whole church, placed at the top of the high altar. Looking at that statue every day, then-little Emil Kapaun learned that a priest would rather die than violate the seal of the confessional, because that is why St. John Nepomucene gave his life. Rather than betray the seal of confession as the king demanded him, he accepted torture and death by drowning instead. When we look around our church here at Blessed Sacrament, we can learn about the Gospels in the windows, we can learn about Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, and the Divine Mercy of Christ.

None of us can afford to stop learning. There is so much in this universe that is interesting and fascinating if we open our eyes and look for it. For example, even if we already know the stories in our church windows, we can always ponder their meaning and how they can teach me in my life right now. We must always keep learning: Learning helps us grow closer to God. We must help those around us learn, because Christ taught us to love our neighbor as ourselves. Every day we are given the opportunity to wonder at the beauty of God. Let us take inspiration from Fr. Kapaun, and when we get a chance, let’s not be afraid to steal away marvel at God.

Pray like Jesus

I just finished reading Personal Prayer: A Guide for Receiving the Father’s Love. I don’t want to admit how long it took me to finish this book, but in it I found some great insights and a few reminders about prayer.

The first and most important thing that we must always remember is that prayer is always about relationship with God. God has invited us into relationship with him, and prayer is our response to that invitation. We see this exemplified perfectly in Jesus Christ. Jesus, who is God, takes time away regularly in the Gospels to pray. The Gospel writers never hide this. They tell us that Jesus went away to pray, especially when something huge was going on. Jesus, the Son of God, did not need to pray to maintain his relationship to God the Father. The relationship between the two of them drew Jesus to prayer.

As we grow closer to God in our own prayer, we will find something similar happening in our lives. In our prayer, we put in the effort to grow closer to God. It is very challenging at times. To truly grow closer to God, we must grow in humility and vulnerability. We humbly recognize that God is God, and I am not. Through our humility, often a painfully challenging virtue to learn, we can then be vulnerable to God. Our humility before God reminds us that he has the answers and we do not, so the smartest thing we can ever do is bring them to him so that God can heal us. We can present him with those dark corners in our hearts, those dark corners that we really don’t want to admit to anybody—sometimes not even ourselves. This is not fun. It is hard.

True change is never easy, but that is exactly what happens when we bring our vulnerabilities to God in silent prayer. We entrust ourselves, our futures, and our souls to God, knowing that he will never hurt us. Remember what Christ said, “Which one of you would hand his son a stone when he asks for a loaf of bread, or a snake when he asks for a fish? If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him.” (Matthew 7:9-11)

There is so much more in this book that I could share, but I will save it for another article. In Ephesians today, Paul writes, “So be imitators of God, as beloved children.” When we were baptized, we became the children of God. We must imitate him in his love and generosity. If we ever wonder what imitating God looks like, we can go straight to the source and look at the example of Jesus Christ. He brought all of himself to the Father in prayer. We should strive to do the same.

St. Cyril of Alexandria writes that “Prayer is happy company with God.”

May we strive to keep that happy company.

Letting the silence move your heart

A year or so before I entered seminary, I was getting more involved at my home parish in Wichita. One day the gentleman who was in charge of the Adoration Chapel over there, asked me if I’d be interested in taking an hour for him.

My (naïve and overly-optimistic) response, “Sure, what hour do you need filled the most?”

“2am Friday morning.”

“OK…”

I could tell all sorts of stories about my 2am hour. There were the times I got pulled over by the police. (When they asked where I was going, I said “Church, to pray for an hour, you can come too if you want.” Fun fact: I found something you can say that does surprise a police officer!) There were the times I almost didn’t wake up in time. There were the times I sat down and promptly “rested my eyes”… for 45 minutes.

But despite the occasional hiccup or craziness, most of my Friday mornings passed without anything unusual happening. A few weeks into my 2am commitment, I had a good routine for Thursday nights so I wasn’t super tired during my adoration hour, and I began to truly enjoy the time with God. There is simply something different about the world at 2am. You can guess the obvious things: no traffic, not a lot of noise, it’s dark. But describing those mornings in that way never felt right. I never felt that such descriptions did that adoration hour justice. The world “silence” came close to describing the experience, but even that didn’t seem sufficient. I never could find the word to describe that hour on Friday mornings.

It wasn’t until six months into seminary that I stumbled across a word to describe what I felt those mornings in the adoration chapel. I began to read the book Meditations before Mass by Romano Guardini. He begins his book by meditating on stillness, writing:

When Holy Mass is properly celebrated there are moments in which the voices of both priest and faithful become silent. The priest continues to officiate as the rubrics indicate, speaking very softly or refraining from vocal prayer; the congregation follows in watchful, prayerful participation. What do these intervals of quiet signify? What must we do with them? What does stillness really imply?

Later, he writes:

It implies above all that speech end and silence prevail […] People are often heard to say: “But I can’t help coughing” or “I can’t kneel quietly”; yet once stirred by a concert or lecture they forget all about coughing and fidgeting. […] Stillness is the tranquility of the inner life, the quiet at the depth of its hidden stream. It is a collected, total presence, a being all there, receptive, alert, ready. There is nothing inert of oppressive about it.

This meditation moved my heart and gave me the word I had been seeking for years. Stillness is the word for the world at 2am from the perspective of the Adoration Chapel. There is nothing going on. The noises are gone. You can finally focus on the one person that matters: Jesus Christ in the Eucharist.

I have not yet mastered stillness in Adoration or while at Mass, but the pursuit of stillness allows for a tranquility of heart that has been vital to my life. I know where to go when I’m in trouble, need help, am anxious, whatever. More accurately, I know to whom I must go. No matter where I am, whether I’m saying Mass with a lot of exuberant children, standing in the middle of an airport where everyone is on edge because the flight is late, waiting at the bedside of someone who will soon be going to their eternal reward, I can always go back to those moments of stillness and remember who is there to save all of us and who I am meant to bring into the situation. I am meant to join Christ in making his love incarnate. (This is one of the reasons I love Christmas so much: despite the excitement of the season, I feel a great stillness when I am at Christmas Mass celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ.)

It took me a long time to understand what happened to me at those 2am Adoration hours on Friday mornings, but my encounter with Christ in Eucharistic Adoration was a school of interior stillness which has been a source of grace and peace for years.

Sacraments and Stewardship

When I talk about stewardship, I often think of the “time, talent, and treasure” formula that people my age grew learning in Wichita Catholic schools. More recently, the diocese has recognized that stewardship is “the grateful response of a Christian disciple who recognizes and receives God’s gifts and shares these gifts in love of God and neighbor.” We can easily apply this definition to our time, talent, and treasure: After we focus our attention, we recognize the vast multitude of gifts we receive from God every day.

When we try to apply that definition of stewardship to the rest of our lives, though, it gets a little harder. Time, talent, and treasure give us a nice, clean workspace. But if we limit our stewardship to these categories, we run the risk of getting ourselves stuck in a box. In reality, the entirety of our life is a gift from God. The only worthy response is to give ourselves entirely over to God. We can’t settle for just giving God one hour of my Sunday. That’s only 0.6% of the week, for those who are counting. We can’t kid ourselves into thinking that we are giving ourselves back to God by throwing a few bucks in the collection and helping with some charitable activity every once in a while.

Our gift to God must have deeper roots. God demands and desires to be present in our lives at every moment of every day. St. Paul wasn’t joking when he said, “Pray without ceasing.” (1 Thess 5:17) He truly intends for us to lift ourselves to God at every moment of every day. In order to do this, God must be a constant companion in our hearts. His love must be the source of all our action.

This love starts and is nourished by the sacraments. In Baptism, we are reborn into the life and light of Christ. In Confirmation, we receive the love of the Holy Spirit who gives us the strength and courage to spread and defend our faith. In the Eucharist, the source and summit of our faith (Lumen Gentium no. 11), we receive the love of God in the Eucharist, the Body and Blood of Christ, and allow Him to transform us into the people he created us to be.

Because these sacraments are the source of God’s love in our daily life, we should take great care as Catholics to ensure we do our best to make use of them. Going to Confession regularly, participating at Mass, and following our vocational call to marriage, the religious life, or the priesthood are ways we are stewards of the life that God has given us, because we are returning to God to allow him to live more deeply within us. One of the major points of the council fathers of Vatican II was for the faithful to recognize the incredible importance of the gift of the sacraments and liturgies of the Church. In Sacrosanctum Concilium, they wrote “Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that fully conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations.” (no. 14)

We are bound together by our common worship of God, in which we recognize that all we have been given—our life, our time on this earth, and the salvation won by Christ—is a gift from God. At Mass, we receive this gift, share it with those around it, and offer the depths of ourselves to God in return. The sacraments are where stewardship begins. The Mass is where we learn how to practice stewardship and are gathered as a community to share the love of God. Let us not be afraid to share our gifts in service of the liturgy, whether as readers, servers, ushers, musicians, the faithful gathered in worship, or, for some of us, perhaps as a priest.

For the Greater Glory of God,

Fr. Matt

“Don’t care how. I want it now!”

Veruca Salt, in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, summed up the last decade way back in 1971. Personally, I find it extremely amusing that this movie is available from all the “On Demand” type services, or if I simply must have the 4k Blu-ray, Amazon can get it to me tomorrow.

More and more, we are only content when we get exactly what we want and when we get it now. It’s not just merchandise and movies. We want policy changes in the government now. We want to lose 40 pounds now. (Well, in my case, it’s a little more than 40!) We want an answer to our email/text/phone call/letter now.

Having everything now is not good for us. Our culture’s gospel of immediacy is also a gospel of impatience and, often, vain materialism. There are many ways we can fight these unhealthy tendencies.

One great way is to pick a day every week to do a digital fast. On that day, you’d only use your phone, tablet, and computer for calls, texts, emails, and whatever you’re required to do for work. A digital fast means not getting on social media, avoiding YouTube, Netflix, and all of that. It’s a day to take a step out of the immediacy of modernity and back into a place where we can rest and be in relationship with one another. Let’s be honest: it is much more fulfilling to spend a few hours talking, eating, or doing some sort of activity with a friend than to watch a movie with them, and both are more fulfilling than spending three hours on Facebook or Twitter. Fridays would be a great day to do this digital fast. The Church still calls on us to make some sort of sacrifice every Friday. While not eating meat is an option outside of Lent, another great option is a digital fast.

Why is a digital fast so effective against all these things? Social media, while it can connect, also promotes a strange sort of vanity where self-worth is quantified by “likes.” Online shopping, while it makes all sorts of things more accessible, makes it easy to fall into materialistic tendencies where our self-worth is quantified by “stuff.” Online video, games, and all of that, while they entertain, often gives us an escape from our surroundings so that we can withdraw from reality and completely lose ourselves. All of these things show us that results are possible right now, and they give us the illusion that we are in control of our immediate future.

When we break the stranglehold that our digital culture has on us, we start to recognize how unrealistic and unsustainable our instant-fulfillment culture is. We begin to recognize the beauty of the people around me. We can see that it is not always a big deal if something takes a little while—that sometimes the best things are the ones you wait for.

In the peace of Christ, who made the sloth too,

Fr. Matt

we’re the birds

God tells us today, through his prophet Ezekiel, that he will take a tender shoot from the highest branches of a cedar tree and plant it in the mountains of Israel, making a home for birds of every kind and every sort of winged thing. Christ also mentions a tree to us today, a tree which grows large enough so that all the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade. When we read such things, it is tempting to think we are somehow related to the seeds or the trees. For example, we can understand the mustard seed as a seed of faith planted in our hearts so that virtue, represented by the birds, may find shelter in our souls. This is, certainly, a good way to understand the parable. When we put the parable into a greater Biblical context, I think a somewhat different reality emerges: We are the birds.

Credit: El Golli Mohamed, via Wikimedia Commons

We human beings love to do things. We like to build stuff. (Unless we are 3 year old boys, in which case we like to destroy stuff.) We like to be able to say, “I did that!” and maybe slap our name on the thing. It is no different in our spiritual lives. We like to claim that we are in control. That our hard efforts at prayer and asceticism led to us being good Christians. While this is, to an extent, true, we must recognize one very important thing: We are the birds. We aren’t in control. And that’s OK. God has provided a place for us to find refreshment and rest from our labors. He invites us to stay and make our home with him in the shady branches he has provided for us. The tree is the Kingdom of God, and we are invited to live there.

When we look at what God spoke through Ezekiel, we learn that the topmost branch of the cedar refers to the King of Israel. When God says he will take from the crest of the cedar and plant it on the highest mountain in Israel, (New Jerusalem Bible) he is undoubtedly giving us a glimpse of Calvary, where Jesus the Christ, the Anointed One, was planted on Calvary. God tells us that this cedar he has planted shall put forth branches and bear fruit, and become a majestic cedar. From Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary, the Church gushed forth from his wounded side, and she spread through all the world, giving refuge to all the poor ones suffering from the tyranny of evil and sin. God finishes his speech through Ezekiel by saying I, the LORD, bring low the high tree, lift high the lowly tree, wither up the green tree, and make the withered tree bloom. God wants us to remember that he is in control, no matter what the political powers of this world might want us to think. Our trust belongs in God.

While we are still on this earth, though, we do not see God clearly, and it can be hard to trust him. Many things block our sight of God; so, we must walk by faith. St. Paul exhorts us to be courageous, and we certainly must be courageous. The Christian life is not easy. We stumble and fall constantly. Sometimes we fall flat on our face and lose the way entirely. We must pray always, asking God to show us the way and to have the strength to continue following him. No matter what sin we fight every day, we must bring it to prayer, surrender it to God, and ask for his help in finding our way back to him. For mortal sins, we bring them to confession so that the gaping wound in our soul can be sewn up and healed.

As we work to find our shelter in the Kingdom of God, let us also remember one more thing about birds. Birds help to scatter the seeds as well. As Christians, we are called to take the Good News and bring it to those around us, so that the Kingdom of God might grow. Most of us do this within our marriages. The love of spouses should be an image of the love of God: fruitful and beautiful. There are many, though, called to spread the Good News in a different way. Those of us called to religious life or to the priesthood are called to love just as fruitfully and beautifully. No matter what your vocation, do no be afraid to follow God. Do not let society deter you. If we follow society, we’ll find ourselves in a dead tree with no shade and recognize that we’re just a whole bunch of angry crows.

Instead, let God be in control. Fly into the branches of his kingdom. Let God lead you to his lush garden, full of beauty and peace.

Cedars of Lebanon from Wikimedia Commons

Today’s Readings:
June 13, 2021
Eleventh Sunday of Ordinary Time, Cycle B
Ezekiel 17:22-24; Psalm 92:2-3, 13-14, 15-16; 2 Corinthians 5:6-10; Mark 4:25-34

quick update

I wanted to put out a quick note, since I haven’t been able to post much on here lately.

I do still plan to start updating my site with more resources and helpful materials, and I also plan to continue posting homilies. My intention is for this material to come from the texts I write for these various things. For example: If I were to write a homily, it would get posted after some minor editing. If I were to give a talk on the Eucharist, I would have an outline of the talk. When I get a chance to fill in the outline, I would post it here.

This has all had to take a bit of a back seat. Due to circumstances beyond my control, ministerial demands have required me to focus on in-person things more than online things. Hopefully, as things stabilize, I will be able to start updating my site a little more regularly.

In the meantime, the one thing I’m going to try very hard to keep up to date is the homily podcast.

Thanks.

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