Fifth Sunday of Easter, April 29, 2018

Fifth Sunday of Easter, April 29, 2018

Fr. Phillip Forlano, St. Stanislaus Parish

From Monday to Thursday of this past week, I attended the Spring Workshop for Priests.  Usually these workshops, as part of our ongoing formation as priests, give us updates on programs and policies in the Archdiocese and practical suggestions on how to deal with pastoral issues we face on a daily basis.  This year’s workshop was on the Sacrament of Marriage, but this workshop was different.  There was no new program that we were being asked to implement.  There was no new translation or update on the Rite of Marriage that we were told we needed to use by a certain date.  Rather, we were being introduced to a new initiative of Archbishop Chaput that is a follow-up to the World Meeting of Families.  It is called, “Remain in my Love.”  The title comes from the Gospel of John, chapter 15, verse 9 – the verse that follows today’s Gospel passage.  But this same theme or exhortation of Jesus to “remain in me” echoes throughout the readings today.  What we are being asked to do is reevaluate our approach to marriage and family life within the context of the parish experience to make sure not only that we are using good catechetical materials but that our engagement with married couples and those preparing for marriage is rooted in a personal encounter with an evangelical and relational approach.

We should look at marriage preparation in a similar way that we look at someone who enters the RCIA – who is interested in becoming Catholic.  It should be less about preparing for the reception of the sacrament – a one-day event, and more about accompanying the couple on a journey of faith to prepare them for marriage as an integration into the life of the Church, for only in union with the life of the church will a couple have the support to live a faithful and fruitful and happy marriage.  We hear Jesus say in today’s Gospel, “I am the vine, you are the branches.  Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing.”  The couple can get all the right teaching at the Pre-Cana, but unless they have the lived experience of encountering couples joyfully living out the church’s teaching, the teaching will remain abstract and disconnected from daily life.  Forming relationships with other married couples – sharing life as married couples, allows them to discover the meaning of the sacrament they have received.

Outside of the notice in the bulletin the several weeks prior to the wedding, do we even know that couples are getting married at this parish?  Are their marriages celebrated by the parish as a whole?  When they come back from their honeymoon, are they welcomed as a newly married couple in the parish?  One presenter spoke about how he and his wife, being a newly married couple in their parish, were invited over for dinner by a couple with several children.     This more mature couple became mentors for them and an inspiration as they began their married life together.  This wasn’t a formal program.  They grew in faith and understanding of marriage through friendship with this couple.  This process takes time.  A weekend Pre-cana or a 4 part catechetical series on marriage, even with great content, is not enough.  It takes time and people willing to accompany others over time.  This is not just the responsibility of the clergy but of the entire community or congregation.  People need to be able to speak about the real challenges of married life – that it is hard – without the stigma or the shame.  Are we willing to listen to couples who are struggling?  Where can we as a parish become more “family friendly” to encourage or to facilitate married couples to participate more in parish life?  If childcare is not provided, surveys tell us, it is very difficult for a couple with young children to participate in parish events or activities as a couple.  Where within parish life can married couples build relationships with other married couples to find support in their vocation?  And do we feel that we can remain in the church when we have sinned or failed or our marriage is broken in some way?  If we are currently in an non-sacramental marriage or other “irregular” situation, do we find in the parish community the encouragement and the welcome needed to return to full communion?  We get a good example from Barnabas in the passage from Acts today.  “When Saul arrived in Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing he was a disciple.  Then Barnabas took charge of him and brought him to the apostles…”  Saul had a pretty bad reputation – a checkered past.  He wanted to join the community, but the disciples were reluctant to receive him.   Barnabas took him under his wing and brought him to the apostles.  I am shocked how often I hear when talking to people who come in to register at the parish or to register for a baptism, that they are in a non-sacramental marriage with no reason not to be married in the church.  “I didn’t think I could get married in the church because my fiance was not Catholic.”  “We didn’t even ask about the possibility because I was married to someone else before.”  They were given bad information and no one brought them to talk to a priest.  The church experiences renewal and peace, not only when there is sound teaching, but when there are people like Barnabas to guide and to encourage those who have had a bad prior experience with the Church or difficulties in their past that make them think they are not welcome.

As St. John says, “Children, let us love not in word or speech but in deed and truth.”  The truth is a person – Jesus Christ – and the truth is communicated through a personal relationship, not simply through having the right words but through a lived experience, through the life of an active and engaged community, filled with the Holy Spirit.  I look forward to sharing this initiative with the parish to help those who are married here, baptized here, and come to various celebrations here, to remain here in His love.  By remaining connected to parish life, God forms us, we bear fruit and become his disciples.  Let’s look to encourage each other to remain connected to the true vine, so Jesus can accomplish the Paschal Mystery within us.

 

Fourth Sunday of Easter: Sunday, April 22, 2018

Fourth Sunday of Easter: Sunday, April 22, 2018

Fr. Phillip Forlano, St. Stanislaus Parish

We see in the news what seems to be a proliferation of public protests in response to innocent suffering – school shootings, discrimination, and the situation with immigrant families with children, just to name a few.  How do we respond to these very real injustices in our society?  We, as Christians, are called to promote justice, to root out injustice, and to care for the poor and the most vulnerable, but our response must be more than just political – fighting for a change in law or campaigning for greater public awareness of these issues.  All those things are good and need to be pursued, but, as Christians, we are called to more.  Changing laws and education are good, protecting the innocent is obligatory, trying to eliminate suffering is noble, but they are not the way we are saved from injustice or the way that we can bring happiness where happiness is not.  We often turn to these noble works when faced with injustice, but in the process forget the path to redemption, what is the essence of Christianity – the mystery of Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection.  Jesus, the Good Shepherd, in today’s Gospel, reveals the Christian response to innocent suffering – how he responds to the attack against the sheep.  “I am the good shepherd.  A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”  This offering of himself in response to sin – his sacrifice on the cross – is something he does freely and consciously.  He is active, not passive.  No one forces Jesus to do it.  “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down on my own.  I have power to lay it down, and power to take it up again.”

In the face of the cross, in the face of the injustices that we are presented with, we can have three different responses: 1) We can run from it.  This is the response of the “hired man” who is not a shepherd.  He doesn’t have an intimate connection to the sheep – a oneness with the sheep, so he runs away when trouble comes.  We are like the hireling every time we ignore an injustice because we think, “I did nothing to contribute to the problem.”  Or, “that is not in my job description” or “that’s beyond my pay-grade.”  Or “That is not my responsibility.”  With this first option, we can just accept it blindly – “that is just the way things are, there is nothing I can do about it” and just suffer through hoping for things to someday change.  2) We can pull out the proverbial or not so proverbial sword and fight the injustice with a more powerful justice.  It is up to me to fix this problem.  The response to the injustice becomes a grab for power and control.  This is the political solution.  I need to become stronger and take power away from the other.  This is what is played out in the political scene and in our public discourse, but we end up just trying to shout each other down and to beat the opponent at their own game.  3) But there is Christ’s response, which is scandalous to us, that through suffering and the embrace of the injustice, the active and conscious embrace of the suffering and evil, the offering of oneself – laying down one’s life freely for those who suffer, new life comes to the world.  It is striking how in the passion narrative there are many false accusations and injustices thrown at Jesus, but the only one he corrects and tries to stop is Peter’s attempt to stop him from embracing the cross.  “Peter, put away the sword.”  And earlier when Jesus predicts his Passion and death and then Peter tries to stop him from going to Jerusalem, Jesus says to Peter,  “Get behind me Satan.  You are thinking not as God does but as man.”  He is telling Peter, “follow me.  Take up the cross and follow me.  My ways are not your ways.”  Our vocation as Christians is not merely to oppose injustice, but to atone for it, by taking up the cross.  To make our lives an offering for others.  This is why the martyrs are the “seed of Christians”.  The way to get rid of Christianity, is not to kill Christians, but to distract us from the cross, to get us to reject the possibility that suffering can be redeemed and be redemptive for ourselves and for others.  Turning to ideological solutions as the first response to injustice is one way to minimize the faith and its ability to make a difference in our world.

The priest who gave the retreat I attended Easter week recounted his experience as a newly ordained priest in 2002.  He is a religious priest who was assigned to Boston, and as someone getting a graduate degree in higher education, as part of his program, he taught in a Boston public school.  As you might remember, Boston was where the priest scandal exploded in 2002.  There were hardly any Catholics in the school of this Boston suburb and only a few Catholic faculty members.  He said, “I felt despised.  I was insulted because of a sin I did not commit.  And then it dawned on me that I had developed a “they versus me” way of speaking about priests that had abused children as if they were separate from me.  But I am part of the body the Church.  There is no “they versus me” or “us versus them”,  it is only “we.”  And therefore, in as much as I participate in the life of the church, I am called to atone for it and experience the pain and suffering that it carries.  Just thinking more laws and tighter controls are the solution, allows you to deal with the problem from a distance.  We want to avoid the suffering, but what if our pain or suffering plays a greater role than that I can imagine?  Not simply “purifying” myself but saving the world.  This suffering in itself is without value if it is not inserted into the suffering of Christ.  It must be offered.  Otherwise, that suffering is a loss to the one who suffers and to all of humanity.  Fr. Jose, our retreat master, drew from the writings of Fr. Carlo Gnocchi, a priest who worked in a children’s hospital who wrote a short book entitled, “The Pedagogy of Innocent Suffering.”  Fr. Gnocchi wrote: “A Christian is not a man resigned, but a man who takes up suffering with charity and joy, aware of its meaningfulness.  Because of Christ, pain has become the means of resurrection.  And every action, every gesture, even the apparently most insignificant, even the most “against” the goodness of God, can acquire the nobility of a great gesture.  Every gesture is for the salvation of the world.  However, this is only possible if you and I act in the awareness of the ultimate motivation of that gesture, accompanying one another in discovering joy, the resurrection, in those places where happiness was stolen.”  We cannot offer ourselves without Jesus, and it is at the Mass where we offer our sufferings in union with those of Christ crucified.   Love is the law of existence, but its dynamic reality is in offering, the gift of self.  “I give my pain and wretchedness to God in imitation of you, O Christ.”  We don’t offer ourselves as an immolation but as an identification with the one we love.  The crosses we face can’t be seen as our work to do for Jesus, but they are the way Jesus invites us into the Paschal mystery.  We have to agree to be taken there.  I need to allow myself to be embraced by the mystery of the cross.  I will be led to the resurrection, not only as personal fulfillment, but for the salvation of the world.

Everybody in the world knows how the Gospel ends.  He dies. And then is risen.  But we often short-cut the paschal mystery, and therefore we avoid the cross and consequently don’t experience the resurrection.  When we do that, we reduce Christianity to just a noble human attempt to be good and to do good.  Just another ideology.  We pull out the swords when we don’t trust God’s plan and don’t trust how much he loves us.  St. John says with amazement, “See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God.  Yet so we are!  We are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed.”  The cross is the path through which we become like Christ and see him as he is, not in the image we’ve created of God.  There is no other way to be saved.  Let’s ask to be filled with the Holy Spirit, and like Peter, witness to the resurrection by not rejecting the way of the Shepherd.   http://archphila.org/remain/