Fr. Bryan Howard
30th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year C – 27 October 2019
If you read the Bible cover to cover you can’t help but see that the Bible is the story of marriage and family. The Bible begins with a marriage in the 2nd chapter of Genesis and ends with a marriage in the second to last chapter of Revelation. The Old Testament begins with the story of the family of Adam and Eve, continues with the family of Noah, and then focuses on the family of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The New Testament begins in the Gospel of Matthew with the genealogy of Jesus, which connects him to the family of Abraham. The genealogy in the Gospel of Luke takes it all the way back to Adam. We sometimes think of salvation in individual terms, but that’s a modern idea that is foreign to the Bible. You may be judged based on your own actions, but you are only saved as a member of the family of God, and the family of God on earth is the Church.
In the Gospel Jesus compares two people who go into the Temple to pray. About the first person he says, “The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, 'O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity -- greedy, dishonest, adulterous -- or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.'” The Pharisee thinks of his relationship with God as a contract. He thinks that he can justify himself, or earn salvation, by doing good works. But, Jesus said that he spoke this prayer “to himself;” he’s not really even praying to God. He’s focused on himself, on what he can do, and on how good he is. However, you can’t buy salvation or earn God’s love. God already loves you more than you even love yourself, and He wants what’s good for you more than you want it for yourself. God wants to have a real and personal relationship with us.
About the other person, Jesus says, “But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, 'O God, be merciful to me a sinner.'” The tax collector knows that he’s not worthy because he know that he’s a sinner. Sometimes we worry about the same thing; we worry that we’re not worthy of God’s love and that he won’t forgive our sins because they’re too big. It’s not about worthiness! Does a mother wonder whether her children are worthy of her love? No, she loves them because they’re her children. It causes parent’s pain when their children do wrong because they know it will bring them suffering and misery in their lives. Parents punish their children because they love them, not because they’ve stopped loving them. In the same way, God allows us to suffer the consequences of our sins in order to bring us to repentance and conversion.
Finally, Jesus says, “I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former; for whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” If we approach God already assured of our own righteousness, then we won’t recognize that we need His grace in order to be and live as children of God. A mortal sin, or deadly sin, is something that is completely irreconcilable with the love of God. Mortal sin kills our relationship with God. So, we can cast ourselves out of the family of God by committing a mortal sin, but we can’t earn our way in through good works. God is already offering it to us as a free gift, because He already loves us. It’s like our human families. If you suggest that you’ve bought your wife’s love, then you might end up with a hand shape mark on your face, but you can certainly damage or destroy that relationship by betraying her love.
The first thing we can do to strengthen our relationship with God is to pray every day. Set aside some time every day as God’s time, and try to make it the same time every day, so that it becomes a habit. Prayer is having a conversation with God. If you go for days at a time without talking to your husband or wife you’re not going to have a very good relationship. The key to any relationship is honest and sincere communication, and it’s the same with God. Tell God what’s going on in your life, what you’re thinking about, what’s good and what’s bad, and, even more importantly, listen to what God has to say to you. Listen by reading the Bible, by meditating no the truths of the faith, and by simply sitting quietly in the presence of God.
The next thing to do is to go to confession. We sometimes think that we have to get our lives in order before we can go to God, but it’s actually just the opposite. We need God’s grace to give us the strength to overcome our sins and get our lives in order, and confession is the first step in that process. In confession God forgives our sins and strengthens us against them. Many people wonder why they should go to a priest when they can confess directly to God. There are at least three reasons. First, Jesus gave the apostles the power to forgive sins in His name when He appeared to them in the upper room, and they passed on that power to the bishops and priests who succeeded them. So, when the priest absolves our sins we can be sure that they are forgiven.
Second, sin doesn’t just offend God, it harms the entire Church because we are all one family in God. We need to be reconciled with the Church, too. Finally, confessing our sins brings them into the light and breaks the power that they have over us.
Finally, go to Mass. Here in south Louisiana we understand the importance of the family dinner, and especially of the Sunday dinner. Dinner with my family is one of the memories that I treasure about my childhood. We would all sit down together, turn off the TVs, and focus on one another (there were no cell phones then). The Mass is our Christian family dinner. It’s the one time when we all, throughout the entire world, can gather in our own Churches, hear the same readings and prayers, and remind ourselves that we aren’t alone. We are all here for one another, and God is here for all of us. To deliberately miss Sunday Mass, without a good reason, is a mortal sin. We have to go to Mass on Sundays because Sunday is the day that Jesus Christ rose from the dead to new life and in the Mass we receive the very life of Jesus in the Eucharist. May our celebration of the Mass today remind all of us that we are beloved children of God, brothers and sisters of Christ, and one family in the Church.
Halloween is in just a few days, and then we have Thanksgiving a month later and Christmas a month after that. You may have heard that Halloween and Christmas were originally pagan holidays and that the Church just took them over and Christianized them. This may well be true, and it can teach us a lesson about how the early Church Christianized a culture that it had already evangelized. You see, it’s not enough just to accept the Gospel, we have to live it out in our lives and let it change our culture.
What we call Halloween probably started as a Celtic or Druidic celebration Samhain, which was the Celtic new year. They believed that ghosts of the dead returned to earth on Samhain, so they would light bonfires and wear scary masks to ward off the spirits. When missionaries brought Christianity to Great Britain, they also brought the Catholic feast of All Saints’ Day, which was first already being celebrated on November 1 as early as the 700s AD. They added the feast of All Souls’ Day on November 2 to emphasize to the newly Christianized population that we don’t need to fear the souls of the dead, but that we should pray for them and ask them to pray for us.
We’re not sure about the history of Christmas, but it happens to be around the same day when the Romans would celebrate the feast of Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun. Sol Invictus was originally a relatively unpopular god in Rome until the 3rd or 4th century AD, when some of the Emperors began to promote his cult. Some historians think they did that as a response to Christianity, since the Rising Sun is also a symbol of Jesus. Maybe it’s a coincidence that Jesus’ birth is celebrated on December 25, or maybe not, but it is a sign of the contest between Roman paganism and Christianity.
You see, the ancient Christians had a saying, lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi, meaning, “The law of praying is the law of believing is the law of living.” The way we pray, like the way we celebrate different feast days, will affect what we believe, and what we believe will affect how we live. The ancient Christians instituted Christian feast days, sometimes directly competing with pagan or druidic feast days, in order to reinforce the Christian beliefs that most people were converting to.
Today, these feast days are in the process of changing again. They aren’t going back to paganism; instead, they are becoming more secular. Many people who aren’t really Christians still want to celebrate these holidays that they grew up with, but they don’t really want to think about the Christian meaning of them, so they ignore that part or take it out altogether. We have to remember that the way we celebrate Halloween and Christmas will affect what we believe and how we live, so let’s celebrate them specifically as Christian Catholics and don’t surrender to secular culture. Make sure that you go to Mass together as a family. On Halloween, offer some prayers together for lost family members and friends. On All Saints’ Day look up the story of a saint and on All Souls’ Day go to a cemetery blessing. When we begin to truly celebrate our faith again, and to celebrate our Christian feasts, then we’ll find it much easier to live as faithful followers of Christ.
I was mistaken in saying that Pope Francis added a new solemnity to the calendar; he’s instead dedicated the day to the Word of God without changing the prayers or readings.
Fr. Bryan Howard
29th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year C – 20 October 2019
Pope Francis recently added a new feast day to the calendar. On the third week of ordinary time, which occurs in late January, we’ll celebrate the Solemnity of the Word of God. The purpose of this feast is to focus our attention on the honor that is due to the Revelation of God contained in the Bible, and in particular to see the relationship between the Word of God in the Scriptures and the Eucharist. The purpose of the Bible is to tell us what we need to know to be saved, as today’s second reading says. The Bible contains many different types of writing, including history, philosophy, poetry, parables, and letters, but the purpose of all of them is the same. God gave us the Bible to help us to learn more about Him and to grow in holiness, so we can get to heaven.
So, when we read a difficult part of the Bible, like today’s first reading, we have to keep that in mind. After the Exodus, as the chosen people were still wandering about in the desert, another tribe, the Amalekites, came and waged war on the Israelites. They probably wanted to steal their flocks, kill the men, and sell the women into slavery, so Joshua lead the Israelites into battle. When we read about Moses praying to God for help and God helping them to kill the Amalekites, it’s not the kind of thing most people expect to find in the Bible. Isn’t this glorifying violence? Why not just drive them off?
In the Old Testament, the Amalekites, the Canaanites, and other enemies of Israel represent sin and sinfulness. The worship of their gods often included things like fertility rituals and human sacrifice. The Bible wants to show us that sin is completely against God’s holiness. We should treat our sin like we would treat an enemy who’s trying to kill us. We don’t tolerate it’s presence; we destroy it. That’s not what we normally do though. We become attached to our sins. Every time you say yes to temptation, whatever that temptation is, it becomes a little bit easier to fall into it the next time. For example, I have a weakness for ice cream. Some people can keep ice cream in their house and not eat it; I’m not one of those people. If I buy ice cream with the intention to just have a bowl on Sundays after dinner, it probably won’t survive the first week. In order to beat that temptation I have to not buy the ice cream in the first place. We do the same things with our sins, whether it’s gluttony, lust, unforgiveness, greed, jealousy, or any other sin. We let them have a foothold in our hearts and in our lives instead of being utterly ruthless with them, because we want to have it our way. The Bible teaches us to show mercy to people, but to close our hearts to sin and everything that leads to sin.
During the battle against the Amalekites, Moses goes up a nearby mountain to pay. As long as he has his hands raised in prayer, the Israelites win the battle, but whenever he drops his hands, they begin to lose. Remember, if it’s a spiritual battle, then we need to use spiritual weapons. Our weapons in this battle aren’t swords and guns, but Bibles and rosaries. Keep these close and use them often. A soldier on guard must have his rifle at the ready, and practice with it often. We must always be on guard against sin, so let us practice prayer. The Bible is our map or instruction manual for the spiritual life, it can teach us how to defeat sin in our lives and grow in virtue. The Rosary is our sword and shield. The prayers themselves are based on the Bible and biblical teaching, but it’s really the mysteries of the Rosary that make it such an effective prayer. The mysteries, Joyful, Luminous, Sorrowful, and Glorious, go through the life of Christ and the truths of the faith. When you pray the Rosary, try to meditate on those mysteries while you pray the prayer. The daily Rosary, prayed while meditating on the birth, life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus, is one of the most powerful Catholic prayers.
The most powerful prayer, though, is the Mass itself. Holiness is nothing else than closeness to God, or becoming like God in our own lives and trying to imitate His holiness. In the Mass we draw closer to God than at any other time in our lives, and in the Eucharist Jesus Christ, God Himself, is truly present. The Eucharist is the spiritual food that we need to stay in the fight, or, as St. Paul puts it, “Do you not know that the runners in the stadium all run in the race, but only one wins the prize? Run so as to win. Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one” (1 Cor 9:24-25). In this contest, we aren’t competing against other people; we’re competing against the devil who wants to make a wreck of our lives and bring us down to His level. So, let us run so as to win the prize.
Fr. Bryan Recommends
Signs of Life by Scott Hahn
Dr. Scott Hahn is a Bible scholar and convert from Protestantism who writes books and gives talks and conferences helping us to understand the Bible in a way that is accessible but not dumbed down. His talks and books, along with others like Dr. Brant Pitre, Dr. Michael Barber, and Dr. John Bergsma, have helped me to understand the God Word in the Holy Bible in a deeper way and, I hope, helped me to become a better preacher and teacher of the word of God.
I’ve recently started reading Signs of Life and I already know that I want to recommend it to you. In it Dr. Hahn covers 40 different Catholic customs, their roots in the Bible, how they can help us in our spiritual lives, and answers common questions and misconceptions. He covers things like holy water, the sacraments, the liturgical year, incense, relics, devotion to the saints, preparation for death, and more.
Everything we do in Church and in our spiritual lives has a meaning and a purpose, because it comes from God, and knowing the origin and meaning of them can make them more beneficial. For example, the Rosary is basically a very easy prayer but it’s also a very difficult prayer to pray well. If we just recite the prayers while thinking about what we need to do latter in the day, just so we can get it done, then it’s still does a little good, but not nearly as much as it could do. When we know that the Rosary is rooted in the Bible, is meant as a way to meditate on the life of Christ, and that it was developed as a way to teach people the truths of the faith, then we can get much more out of it. It becomes one of the most beneficial prayers in the Church and a powerful weapon against Satan. This book can help us to better understand things we do every day and give us more ways to grow in devotion to God.
Before I even got to Lourdes the word got out that I enjoyed cooking. In fact, some of the parishioners put together a welcome gift of a stainless steel pot, a bunch of vegetables, kitchen towels and pot holders, and an apron. I last used that pot to make some chili. When I cook chili, I only simmer it for 30-45 minutes, just long enough to get everything cooked, because I like to taste all of the different ingredients, the beef and the celery and the bell pepper and the roasted tomatoes. However, when I cook a pot of stew or red beans, they need to be cooked low and slow. This lets all of the ingredients meld together to you taste the same thing with every bite. That type of cooking takes patience while you wait for things to come together over time.
Most of the time the spiritual life is like that. We sit in prayer, often in silence, trying to stay focused on God, but it’s hard because it often doesn’t seem like anything’s happening. That’s because what’s happening is invisible. It’s happening in the soul, and we often don’t even realize that anything is happening at all, when all the while God is working in our soul to heal what’s broken, to shore up what’s weak, and to reinforce what’s already strong.
To use another analogy, St. Teresa of Avila compares prayer to watering a garden. It can seem to be slow and boring, and on the surface nothing appears to be happening, but it’s necessary for the life of the soul, just like water is necessary for a garden. The water is only one thing, the same Holy Spirit, but it produces many types of flower and fruit, which are the different virtues and graces.
We keep busy with so many things that we don’t give God a chance to do His own work in us. We need those times of quiet prayer to let God do His invisible work within us, so that God can bring out the best that we have to offer. You may not feel like your accomplishing anything just sitting in quiet prayer, reading the Bible, or meditating on the life of Christ, but by ourselves we can only do so much. God has given each of us the potential to become something amazing, but we need to give Him a little time for the fire of the Holy Spirit to do His work.
Fr. Bryan Howard
27th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year C – 6 October 2019
We sometimes think of religion like this: if I believe the right things, and say the right things, and do the right things, then I’ll go to heaven, but if I don’t believe, say, and do the right things then I’ll either go to purgatory or hell, depending on how bad it was. It’s like a test at school; just make sure you get at least a D- and you’ll be fine. If I help 60 old ladies cross the street, then I’ll be fine, but if I only help 59, then it’s into the flames. If that’s what people think religion is it’s no wonder so many people are giving up on it. Religion is about relationships. It’s about love of God and love of neighbor. Sin isn’t broken laws, it’s broken relationships, because sin is telling God through our actions, “I don’t love you and I don’t trust you.” Through the Sacraments, especially the Mass and Confession, through prayer, and through the Word of God in the Scriptures we build up a relationship of trust in God, which is what we call faith. Faith isn’t just belief in certain things, it’s trust in the three persons of the Blessed Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
In the first reading we see that even holy people, God’s servants, can have their faith tested. The prophet Habakkuk sees that the wicked seem to prosper while the righteous are persecuted, taken advantage of, and killed. He sees the Assyrian and Babylonian Empires invading their neighboring countries, taking whole peoples off into slavery, doing terrible things to the survivors, and, eventually, coming to attack God people, the Israelites. He wonders why God doesn’t do something to stop it. We see the same things happening today. The powerful grow more powerful, often at the expense of ordinary people, while the poor and lowly are cast aside and trampled on. We wonder why God would allow something like this. God tells Habakkuk, and us, to be patient and trust that He knows what He’s doing, “For the vision still has its time, presses on to fulfillment, and will not disappoint; if it delays, wait for it, it will surely come, it will not be late. The rash one has no integrity; but the just one, because of his faith, shall live,” or as Jesus tells the disciples, “Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven. Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” In other words don’t fall into the trap of imitating the methods of those who increase in power and wealth through sin, but keep your integrity, no matter the cost, as you set your sights on a something far better.
We go on to the psalm, which tells us about those who lose their faith in the midst of trials and hardships, “Harden not your hearts as a Meribah, as in the day of Massah in the desert.” When God lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt into the desert, the people grumbled and complained against God and Moses that they were hungry and thirsty, and that they should go back to Egypt where they always had enough food and drink, even if they were slaves. The psalm encourages us not to be ungrateful, but to recognize the grace of God as the gift that it is, “Come, let us sing joyfully to the LORD; let us acclaim the Rock of our salvation. Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us joyfully sing psalms to him.”
St. Paul then takes over in the second reading. St. Paul was no stranger to hardship, as he’d been imprisoned, stoned, shipwrecked, starved, and ultimately beheaded for the sake of the Gospel. His advice to us, “I remind you, to stir into flame the gift of God that you have through the imposition of my hands. For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but rather of power and love and self-control.” Saturday was the memorial of Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos, a German priest who came to the US to minister to German Catholic immigrants in the mid 1800s. He eventually found his way to New Orleans, where he became pastor of the Church of St. Mary of the Assumption, which today is the National Shrine of Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos. During the yellow fever epidemic of 1867. He ministered to the sick in the city, comforting them, praying with them, and caring for them, until he himself came down with yellow fever and died from it.
“But,” you may say, “my faith isn’t that strong. I’m no saint. I can’t do those sorts of things.” And Jesus says to you, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” God can do great things even with those whose faith is small, if we place our trust in Him and take that leap of faith. We don’t need to do great things in the eyes of the world; that’s too much for us. Just try to do everything that you can with great love, and let God take care of the rest.
The rest of the reading goes on to ask what master would serve his servant, but, Jesus is the one who said, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.” Jesus Christ is the master who has done for us, what He asks us to do for one another, and He can give us the strength to do it. How, by offering everything that we do to God, knowing that the one Who can take 5 loaves and 2 fish and feed 5000 people can also take my small offerings, my little faith, my weak love, and multiply them 30, 50, or 100 times.
Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos wrote something similar in one of his letters, “Time, in which we have found nothing to offer up to God, is lost for eternity. If it is only the duties of our vocation that we fulfill with dedication to the will of God; if it is the sweat of our faces that, in resignation, we wipe from our brow without murmuring; if it is suffering, temptations, difficulties with our fellowmen—everything we can present to God as an offering and can, though them, become like Jesus his Son. Where the sacrifice is great and manifold, there, in the same proportion, is the hope of glory more deeply and more securely grounded in the heart of him who makes it.”
Why are the sacraments important? What do they do? How do they affect us? The sacraments are symbols of the grace of God that was won for us by Christ on the Cross and that comes into our lives through the Holy Spirit, but they aren’t merely symbols. Since the sacraments were instituted by Christ Himself, they have His authority and carry His power. When the sacraments are performed in the proper way they really bring about what they symbolize. They don’t rely on the holiness of the one performing the sacrament; they rely on the promise of Christ.
Certain sacraments can be received many times, like the Eucharist and Confession, because they give us graces that we need over and over, like the nourishment of God’s grace and the forgiveness of sins. Other sacraments can only be received once, like Baptism, because they give us a grace that tends to stay with us. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says this:
The three sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Orders confer, in addition to grace, a sacramental character or “seal” by which the Christian shares in Christ’s priesthood and is made a member of the Church according to different sates and functions. This configuration to Christ and to the Church, brought about by the Spirit, is indelible; it remains for ever in the Christian as a positive disposition for grace, a promise and guarantee of divine protection, and as a vocation to divine worship and to the service of the Church. Therefore these sacraments can never be repeated. (CCC, 1121)
This seal is permanent. Once someone is baptized, confirmed, or ordained, they are forever baptized, confirmed, or ordained. Since the mark or seal is on the soul it lasts even after death. This seal confirms us to Christ and especially to His Cross and Resurrection. It is a “disposition for grace” and a “promise of divine protection.” God wants to give us grace to protect us against spiritual evils and the activity of the devil and to help us to grow in holiness, but we still have to accept those graces and cooperate with how God wants to work in our lives, which the sacramental seal helps us to do.
Finally, the seal is a “vocation to divine worship and to the service of the Church.” In other words we’re called to make use of the grace that we’ve been given. This grace adheres or sticks to the soul and it’s difficult to get rid of. So we have to ask ourselves, “How am I using the grace of Baptism that I received? The grace of Confirmation? The grace of the diaconate or priesthood?”
Fr. Bryan was pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes from July 3, 2017 to June 2022.