Gift of Faith in Latino Catholics

Gift of Faith in Latino Catholics

This weekend Hispanic Catholics from our diocese met at St. Patrick’s parish in Casper for the V Encuentro of Hispanic/Latino Ministry.  This gathering is an opportunity for Hispanic Catholics to speak about their experience in our parishes and communities.  Similar gatherings are happening in dioceses across the United States. I participated on Saturday and celebrated the Mass.  Below is the homily from the Mass.

I am grateful for Fr. Emilio Cabrera & Eva Estorga for their good work in preparing for the V Encuentro.  We are blessed by their presence in this diocese.

I have been looking forward to being with you today.  In September, I had a meeting with the priests of the diocese.  We talked about the needs in our diocese, and I proposed that the top two priorities right now are:  (1) Well-being and Leadership of Priests, and (2) Hispanic Ministry.  I asked them to meet in October and discuss these two topics.  The information that comes from the V Encuentro is important for us, as we discuss Hispanic Ministry.  Fr. Emilio sent me the ‘Working Document’ for the V Encuentro, and I have read what you identified as “Obstacles, Needs and Situations that require pastoral attention and that prevent Hispanics/Latinos living on the periphery from reaching their potential in U.S. society.”

You spoke about language barriers which contribute to a loss of family communication, especially between grandparents speaking Spanish and children who speak only English.  You feel uprooted and isolated, not feeling home in the U.S. or in your country of origin.  There is a sense of being marginalized in political life and ecclesial life with no voice.  People speak about you, but your voice is often not heard.  In the struggle to survive, work becomes the highest priority over family and church.  The lack of legal status limits your work options.  You take the work that others do not want to do.  Not having a Social Security number prevents you from having health insurance.  The youth who are “dreamers” feel threatened.

You identified many other “Obstacles, Needs and Situations” that require pastoral attention and that prevent Hispanics/Latinos living on the periphery from reaching their potential in U.S. society.  This is helpful information for me as your bishop and for our diocese.  We want to listen to you and walk with you.

This September, I was in Rome for a conference for new bishops.  Pope Francis said that we need to listen attentively to our priests and people.  Why?  To discern what God is doing.  God is at work in every person’s life, and we need to hear your stories. I hope to take time next summer to study Spanish so that I can listen better.  To listen attentively includes accompanying you.  To walk together with Christ like the disciples on the road to Emmaus.  We need to tell our stories in faith.  We need to speak about our suffering in faith so that we can see how God is working through us, just like he worked through Jesus in his suffering and death.

Pope Francis told the new bishops that we need to teach people how to discern.  To discern means to sort out what is from God  and what is from the Evil One.  In my discernment, here are some ways that God is working through you.

You have identified the need for Hispanic Leaders.  I encourage you to see that you have the gifts to lead.  God has gifted you with strong faith.  The main thing is to have a lived relationship with God and to speak about that with others.  One great gift that you did not speak much about is your Faith in struggle.  You live with strength and perseverance, despite great difficulty and suffering.  Your faith is a gift to share with the whole diocese of Cheyenne.  Be confident of that gift.

Latino popular devotions are a great gift which we often fail to appreciate in our white culture.  Thank you for helping us see that.  I will work with the leaders of our diocese on this.  Also, Latinos have a strong tradition in the Charismatic Renewal.  This gift can enrich our diocese.  I encourage you to trust this gift and help us learn how to be open to this great treasure from the Holy Spirit.  These are only a few of your gifts.  There are so many more.

Today’s Scriptures talk about being in the Vineyard of God.  The vineyard is a symbol of how God has gifted us, and how he wants us to produce fruit.  The prophet Isaiah says, “The vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, the people of Judah, his cherished plant” (Isaiah 5:7).  We are his “cherished plant.”  God speaks to us about how constantly he loves us as he says, “What more was there to do for my vineyard that I had not done?” (Isaiah 5:4).

Today, remember how deeply God loves you.  Then ask God, “How do you want me to produce FRUIT in your vineyard?”  Every detail of our life is caught up in God’s providential plan.  This applies to the fact that you are here in Wyoming.  God has planted you here in the Diocese of Cheyenne.  You have special gifts to share with us.  Trust that God cares you as his “cherished plant,” as his beloved sons and daughters.  Then ask the Lord, “How do you want me to produce FRUIT in your vineyard?”  

As brothers and sisters in Christ, we need to walk together, forgive each other, be patient with each other, learn from each other, and recognize the gifts in each other.  As you continue your journey with Christ, like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, keep in mind the encouraging words from St. Paul.

“Brothers and sisters: Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God.  Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus”  (Phil. 4:6).

Gazing on the crucified Christ.

Gazing on the crucified Christ.

Today, I was at Holy Trinity parish in Cheyenne where seminarian Dylan Ostdiek was instituted in the Ministry of Acolyte.  Below is the homily from that Mass.

The Ministry of Acolyte is one of the steps for seminarians as they prepare for ordination.  Both permanent deacons and priests receive this ministry before they are ordained.  The Ministry of Acolyte includes serving at the altar, distributing the Eucharist at Mass and bringing Communion to the sick.  For Dylan, this is another step closer to priesthood….. and a step closer to the altar.  It is a step closer to standing at the altar as a priest.  The closer you get to the altar, the more you need to become like Christ.

That is true for Altar Servers and for lay Eucharistic Ministers.  To be an Altar Server or a Eucharistic Minister is to draw near to Jesus on the cross. As Catholics, we are required to have a crucifix near the altar.  The two go together.  The sacrifice of the cross is poured out on the altar.  The mystery of the cross is renewed at every Eucharist.  That is why we treasure the Eucharist as the greatest Sacrament.  We call it the most Blessed Sacrament.  It is the most powerful presence of God on earth.

To be near the altar is to be transformed by the mystery of the cross.  As Dylan steps closer to the altar today, he is being called to a deeper transformation in Christ.  That applies to every single person who approaches the altar to receive Communion.  St. Paul helps us to reflect on the mystery of our transformation in Christ.  His letter to the Philippians is one the most beautiful descriptions of Christ’s love and our call to imitate him.

“Though he was in the form of God, Jesus did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. 

Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness . . . .

he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:6-8). 

This is an early Christian hymn.  It was written around the year 50 A.D. and sung by the first Christians.  Even though he was GOD, Jesus emptied himself into weak human flesh.  He lowered himself to be with us in sickness, in the brokenness of sin, in the darkness of death.  As the first Christians looked at the crucified Jesus, they described his love by saying “He EMPTIED himself.”  He poured himself out for us.  He selflessly gave his life for sinful humanity.

“Taking the form of a slave, he humbled himself.”  God’s Son knelt down and washed the feet of those who would deny and betray him.  He washed unfaithful disciples in his Mercy.  He used his power as God to seek out wayward sinners and fill us with divine Life.  “He EMPTIED himself.”  That is the mystery of the cross, which we receive at every Eucharist.

In the summer of 2003, I learned about an Italian saint who as a little boy experienced the mystery of the cross.  Some Italians introduced me to St. Guido Maria Conforti.  As a little boy, Guido would stop in his parish church on the way to school.  He said, “On my way to school, I used to stop at the Church and gaze at the crucifix:  I looked at him and he looked at me, and it seemed as though he was telling me many things.”  This began when he was nine years old!

The crucifix in the church captured his heart.  As a nine-year-old boy, he was being transformed by the love that spoke to him from the crucifix.  Second graders who are being prepared for First Communion are capable of being transformed by the deep love of the crucified Jesus.  All they need to do is be silent and gaze at a crucifix each day.

As I visit homes of young families, I see fewer crucifixes these days.  The tendency seems to be to have decorative crosses like you might buy in a department store, but crosses without the body of Jesus.   The danger is to lose the stark beauty of the crucified Jesus who speaks so powerfully of the Father’s love.  Parents, in your homes do your children have a crucifix to gaze at?

As an adult, St Guido wrote, The Crucifix is the sum total of the wisdom and of the power of God, the summary of the Gospel.”  St. Paul speaks of how the cross should FORM us.  If we are not being TRANSFORMED by the cross, we are failing to be disciples.  St. Paul wrote,

“If there is any encouragement in Christ, any solace in love, any participation in the Spirit,

and any compassion and mercy,complete my joy by being of the same mind . . .

Have the same attitude that is also in Christ Jesus”  (Phil. 2:1-2, 5).

In other words, “If the mystery of Christ’s love has had any effect on you, if you have had any experience of his compassion and mercy, if the Holy Spirit has touched your heart, then have the attitude of Christ.”  EMPTY yourself by serving others.  Take the posture of a SLAVE.  Wash the feet of your enemies.

St. Guido wrote, “The crucifix is the master book from which saints were made and from which we also ought to be formed. . . . The crucifix speaks to us with the eloquence that has no equal, with eloquence of sacred blood.”

Let the mystery of the cross transform you.  Gaze at the crucifix each day.  As you share the one Bread of the Eucharist with your brothers and sisters in Christ, so you become one Body with them.  Show a sincere love for Christ’s Mystical Body, God’s holy people, especially for the weak and the sick.

Today’s Gospel reminds us of Jesus ministry to the weak and those despised as hopeless sinners – tax collectors and prostitutes (Matt. 21:28-32).  Ask the Lord Jesus to give you his attitude for his least brothers and sisters.  This is the challenge for all of us who come to the altar.

“If there is any encouragement in Christ, any solace in love, any participation in the Spirit,

and any compassion and mercy, complete my joy by being of the same mind . . .

Have the same attitude that is also in Christ Jesus.”

As Jesus said at the Last Supper, “Love one another, as I have loved you.” 

If he can capture the heart of a nine-year-old boy, who was transformed by gazing at a crucifix each day, then he can transform us.  As you receive Eucharist today, gaze on the crucified Lord who EMPTIES himself into your hands and hearts.  Then ask for the same attitude that is in Christ Jesus.

Joyful and Fruitful Laborers in the Vineyard

Joyful and Fruitful Laborers in the Vineyard

On September 5-15, I was in Rome to attend a course for new bishops.  The course is held every September for the bishops named over the past year.  Some call it “Baby Bishops’ School.” There were 114 bishops with 21 from the U.S.A., 20 from Brazil, 12 Italians, and others from around the world.  We met with Pope Francis who had a black eye from hitting his head in Columbia.  As a young man he worked as a bouncer in a bar.  So he joked about his black eye by saying that someone punched him.

The focus of the course was on the Bishop as one who discerns, or who listens constantly for God’s will.  Pope Francis emphasized a few aspects of this discernment.  First, the Holy Spirit is the protagonist of discernment.  Only the Holy Spirit knows God’s will, so we need to be led by the Spirit.  He said, Only those who are led by God have the title and authority to be proposed as leaders of others.  One may teach and grow in discernment only if familiar with this inner teacher who, like a compass, offers the criteria to distinguish, for himself and for others, the times of God and His grace.”

He emphasized the need to PRAY, to bring the situations of our diocese to prayer.  That has been one of my practices…. to pray over the situations that arise.  People have told me that they are praying for me, and that encourages me.  Please pray that I will be “led by God.”

Second, Pope Francis said that discernment is given by the Holy Spirit as a gift to the whole Church, so as a bishop I need to listen to other bishops, our priests and lay people.  On the one hand, as a bishop I need to listen to others in the Church.  On the other hand, it means that all of you need to be strong in prayer, so that you will speak as people guided by the Holy Spirit.  We need to pray daily, so that together we can help each other walk with the Spirit.

Do you pray every day to be “led by God” in your work or at school?  Do you ask God to lead your family?  Do you pray for God to guide you as a disciple in the Church?

The Pope invited us to cultivate an attitude of LISTENING so that we “grow in the freedom of renouncing our own point of view, and seek God’s point of view.”   We find God’s point of view in the Gospel.  Reading the Gospel keeps correcting my attitude. Do you read the Gospel daily so that you live by God’s point of view?

Francis said, “Discerning therefore means humility and obedience. Humility with regard to one’s own projects. Obedience to the Gospel [is] the ultimate criterion. . .”  Let’s take a few minutes to be obedient to the Gospel so that we are renewed in God’s perspective.

Jesus says that the Kingdom of Heaven is like a landowner who hires workers for his vineyard.  Biblically, to “work in the vineyard” is to belong to the people of God.  It is to live in the covenant of his faithful love and imitate his justice (Is. 5:1-7).  To work in the vineyard is to drink from the chalice of mercy and to pour out his mercy for others. God wants his people to taste the JOY of his wine and commands them to bear fruit by loving one another after the example of Christ (Jn. 15:11-13).

Because God wants us to taste the JOY of his wine, he urgently hires laborers for his vineyard. I remember the urgency of my dad at harvest time.  We pushed hard from dawn to dusk, which meant that we worked many 12 hour days.   But there is an interesting twist in the Lord’s vineyard.  God works the hardest.  He goes out again and again to find laborers ….. at dawn, at 9 o’clock, at noon, at 3 PM and 5 PM.  God is constantly searching for more laborers.  Why?

Not because he is greedy for grapes.  Rather, he wants everyone to experience the JOY of life in the vineyard.  God doesn’t want anyone to miss out.  He longs for us to drink deeply from the life of his Son.  As Jesus said, “I have come that you may have LIFE and have it in abundance” (Jn. 10:10). Another time he said, “I have told you this so that my own JOY may be in you and your joy be complete (Jn. 15:11).

As a new school year starts and you are busy with so many activities, do you take time to be quiet in prayer each day?  NOT because you have to pray as a duty before God, BUT to rest in his peace … to find strength in turmoil … to be guided by his light.

Jesus tells us that God constantly invites people to work in his vineyard.  He is always seeking to get our attention.  Catherine of Siena said it this way, “Don’t you understand?  God is running after you day and night, as though he has nothing else to do but simply to occupy himself with you.”

Do you see God’s initiative in your life?  The Holy Spirit is constantly whispering in your ear:  “Let me guide you.  Take some time to read the Gospel today.  Stop and pray so that I can help you.”  God takes that initiative with everyone …. even those who have been standing around idle all day.  To be IDLE in the vineyard is to fail to produce fruit (2 Pet. 1:8).  It means to be living without God and acting selfishly.

Even if you are not hired until the last hour of the day, even if you have been idle or living without God, you still get full pay when you agree to work in the vineyard.  This is another parable on Mercy.   God bestows his Life and Mercy on anyone who responds to his invitation.  That makes the workers hired at dawn grumble: “The last ones worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who bore the day’s burden and the heat.”

Do I see myself as an equal with every person?  Or do I see myself as better than others who may not have been raised with the gift of faith that I have known?

Jesus’ response gives us the greatest lesson here.

“What if I wish to give this last one the same as you? 

Am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? 

Are you envious because I am generous?”

Have you let the generosity of Christ sink into your heart?  God keeps on loving you even when you ignore him.  Today at the Eucharist, let that generosity fill you.  Second, ask for the grace to bear fruit in the vineyard – to love selflessly and generously.


Responding to DACA

Responding to DACA

President Trump announced the end of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), which affects roughly 800,000 youth who arrived in the USA prior to their 16th birthday.  Many have lived in this country since they were small children.  Often they know the United States as their only home.

Some will respond with anger and outrage.  Others who support the President’s position will react with satisfaction that he has fulfilled his campaign promise.  However, our country is still suffering from the division experienced in the last election, and fostering greater division will not be helpful.  Nor will it necessarily help the DACA youth.  Reckless speech is the language of fools.  That way of speaking has become popular, even among our leaders.

But we are called to speak in the fiery tongue of the Holy Spirit, not allowing free rein to our wills, but seeking the guidance of the Lord.  Strong words and firm resistance are needed, but in a prayerful spirit which seeks what is best for the youth affected.  Let us use our energy to search for a new solution for this issue through prayer and the hard work of collaboration.

Please pray for the gifts of wisdom, courage and justice for members of Congress.  Contact them and urge them to work together for the good of our nation, and the future of DACA youth.  The USCCB published a statement regarding the cancellation of DACA, which has been posted on our website,

New Bishops in Rome

New Bishops in Rome

Every September in Rome, the Vatican hosts the newly ordained bishops from the past year.  Some refer to this gathering as “baby bishops school.”  I am in Rome for this purpose, along with about 115 other new bishops from around the world.  We begin tonight (Wednesday) at 7:00 PM with an hour of Eucharistic Adoration.

Each day a speaker will present a specific topic.  Over the next three days the topics are as follows.

Thursday:  “Episcopal Ministry as a Journey of Collegial Discernment” with Archbishop Luis Ladaria, Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith.  I remember him from when I was a seminarian in Rome 25 years ago, because he taught one of our theology courses at the Gregorian University.

Friday:  “The Bishop and the Comprehensive Care of Priests” with Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster in England.  I am aware of how important this topic is.  The lives of priests are stressful, and I see their care as a top priority.  I am looking forward to hearing more about this topic.

Saturday:  “Pastoral Discernment in a Media Culture” with Monsignor Lucia Adrian Ruiz, Secretary for Communication.



New beginning for WCC

New beginning for WCC

On Sunday, I celebrated Mass at the Holy Rosary Church in Lander for the opening of the school year with Wyoming Catholic College.  It was a joy to be with the students and faculty.  The freshmen class of 59 students is the largest since WCC began in 2005.  Others who attended the event and interacted with the students said, “I found these young people to be a source of encouragement.  Their faith and goodness are inspiring.”

Molten Rock from the Fire of Mercy

Molten Rock from the Fire of Mercy

This Sunday I celebrated Mass at the Ascension Parish in Hudson where we dedicated a new altar, then I went to Holy Rosary Parish in Lander for the opening Mass of the school year with Wyoming Catholic College.  We had a wonderful celebration for each community, and I enjoyed meeting so many new people.  The homily for Mass, based on Matthew 16, follows below.

St. Peter is an interesting choice for the Rock of the Church.  So often his mouth gets him into trouble because he speaks before he thinks.  At times, Peter is strong, impetuous and proud.   Other times, he is cowardly, humble and repentant.  He is so normal.  If the Lord Jesus could transform him and make him a great witness, he can make any of us into faithful disciples.

Peter professes such confident faith in Jesus as he said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God” (Mt. 16:16).  Another time he asserted, “Lord, to whom shall we go, you have the words of eternal life.  We are convinced and we believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God” (Jn. 6:68).  Yet, rock-solid faith crumbled with a triple denial.  That is whom Jesus chose to be the rock of the Church.

What made Peter the rock?  What is it that formed him into the rock of faith, the rock of the Church?  It is important to reflect on that because it will guide our journey of faith.  It will help us to be rock-solid in the faith, despite our sins and quirky personalities.

First, he is the ROCK because that was his call.  Jesus told him, “Simon, son of Jonah . . . You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church” (Mt. 16:18).  Jesus made SIMON into PETER, the rock.  In a biblical name change, God bestows a mission through a new name.  But his identity and mission as rock would need to mature. It is Peter’s process of maturity which will help us live our faith.  We need to undergo the same process.

Imagine for a moment that Peter was a ‘soft’ rock, but eventually he would become a ‘hard’ rock.  For example, the granite of the Wind River Range is igneous rock.  Igneous rock is literally ‘fiery rock,’ taken from ignis, the Latin word for fire.  Igneous rock is formed from the molten rock in the fire of a volcano.  Peter’s faith became like granite because of the fire of Jesus’ passion.

This fiery transformation is most pointed in John’s Gospel, where Peter denied Jesus at a charcoal fire (John 18:18), then at another charcoal fire Jesus asked Peter if he loved him (John 21:15-17).  Those are the only two charcoal fires mentioned in the Gospels.  So the fires are intentionally linked.  At the first charcoal fire, Peter melted with fear.  At the second charcoal fire, he became molten lava infused with Christ’s mercy.

As Jesus asked him three times, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was like clay being fired in the volcano of God’s fierce love.  That merciful encounter with the Risen Lord hardened his faith like granite.  He became a rock with a deep red vein of mercy running through it.  Now, Peter’s strength was not based on his own stubborn will or quick wit.  Rather it was grounded in Christ’s unfailing mercy.  With steadfast love, Jesus confirmed him as the lead disciple.  It must have blown Peter’s mind.  It definitely transformed his heart.

In the end, Peter was a rock because Christ was his rock.  That is what we find the First Letter of Peter 2:4-5.  There Peter describes Jesus as the rock foundation of the Church, not himself.  He says, “Come to Him, a living stone, rejected by human beings but chosen and precious in the sight of God, and, like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 2:4-5).

 Peter himself speaks of Jesus as the LIVING STONE of the church.  In the Catholic Tradition, Christ the living stone is symbolized by the altar.  The Church directs us to use natural stone for the altar top, as an image of the place of Christ’s sacrifice, and as an image of Christ himself.  Peter had to stay close to the sacrifice of Christ’s mercy in order to be a rock.

Perhaps you know that the bones of Peter are directly beneath the main altar at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.  That is the perfect place for Peter.  He is the Rock of the Church because he is below the Rock of the Altar of Christ.  The early Christians placed the bones of martyrs under the altar, not because the martyrs’ bones make the altar holy, but to remind them that the mystery of the altar makes martyrs.  This tradition is attested to in the Book of Revelation.  “I saw underneath the altar the souls of those who had been slaughtered because of the witness they bore to the word of God” (Rev. 6:9).  Similarly, St Ambrose wrote, “He who suffered for all is on the altar; they who have been redeemed by his sufferings are beneath the altar.”

 In the end, Peter is a rock because Christ is his rock.  He belongs under the altar.  So do we.  The mystery of Christ that we celebrate on the altar molded Peter into a Rock, and it will mold us.  It will make our faith rock-solid.

The ritual for dedicating an altar describes the Christian altar with two images.  It is:

  • A unique altar on which the sacrifice of the cross is perpetuated in mystery
  • A table at which the Church’s children gather to give thanks to God and receive the Body and Blood of Christ.”

 The altar is supposed to be fixed or immovable, attached to the floor.  If possible, the top is to be made of “natural stone.”  Thus, the altar is meant to be solid as rock, a place of sacrifice in biblical imagery.  The Altar of Sacrifice fixes our hearts on the cross.  At every Eucharist, we enter into the mystery of the cross.

Yet, the ritual states that it is also supposed to be “freestanding so that the priest can walk around it facing the people.”  Perhaps this is because it is called the Table of the Paschal Banquet, which recalls not only the Last Supper, but also the meals of the Risen Christ when the disciples felt their hearts “burning” with the fire of Christ’s love and where they “recognized him in the breaking of the bread” (Luke 24:32-34).

 Thus, the paschal banquet goes beyond the Sacrifice of the Cross.  The Risen Christ presides at our paschal banquet, which points beyond to the marriage feast of the Lamb with all the saints in heaven (Rev. 19:9).  Through the Eucharistic mystery, we enter into the mystery of Jesus’ sacrificial death; we are filled with the LIFE of his Risen Christ and we taste the glory of heaven. The Church’s reform of the liturgy at Vatican II recaptured both images, of the ALTAR of Sacrifice and of the TABLE of the Paschal Banquet.  At times, some have overemphasized the table image and have lost the sense of sacrifice.  Other times, the table image has been lost.

As you approach the altar to receive Holy Communion, come like Peter did to that charcoal fire at the Sea of Tiberius.  With humble faith, come aware of your frailty and sin, but more keenly aware of Lord’s steadfast mercy.  Ask Christ to make your heart burn with the fire of his love – burning away all sin, and molding you into a living stone.

Peter gives us so much hope that God can work with our humanity with all of its foibles and make us rock-solid disciples, if only we stay close to the Rock of Jesus Mercy.

Responding to Racism

Responding to Racism

The recent events in Charlottesville revealed a new level of racism in our land.  Consequently, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops today announced the establishment of an Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism.  It will focus on addressing the sin of racism in our society, and even in our Church, and the urgent need to come together as a society to find solutions.  Please pray for the victims and their families in Charlottesville, and for our nation that we may live as brothers and sisters in Christ.

Going to the margins to heal

Going to the margins to heal

For the Feast of the Assumption of Mary (August 15), I traveled to the parishes in Rock Springs, Evanston and Kemmerer.  Last Saturday, I was at the parish of St. Joseph in Rawlins.  On Sunday, I preached at the parishes of St. Ann in Saratoga and St. Joseph in Hanna.  It was a joy to spend time with the priests and people in those parishes in the south and western part of the diocese.  Following is the homily from the weekend Masses.

What is the main job of a Bishop?  What is the most important thing that a pastor needs to do at a parish?  What is the main purpose of a parish?  Sometimes we need to ask the bigger questions.  Otherwise, we spend our time and energy on things that distract us from what is essential.  So let’s take a little time for these bigger questions today.

As a successor of the apostles, a Bishop’s main job is to continue the ministry of Jesus.  Bishops are like modern day apostles.  The word Apostle means “one who is SENT,” in particular, to be sent with the authority of Christ.  Remember when the Risen Lord appeared to the twelve in the upper room and said to them, “As the Father sent me, so I send you.  Then he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.  Whose sins you forgive are forgiven; whose sins you retain are retained” (John 20:21-23). 

Jesus gave the apostles his power, the power of the Holy Spirit.  He gave them explicit authority to forgive sins, to heal the sick, to proclaim the Kingdom.  A Bishop’s job is to continue the ministry of Jesus.  You could say the same for a pastor and for a parish.

 In the gospel for this Sunday (Matt. 15:21-28), Jesus heals the daughter of a Canaanite woman.  The disciples want Jesus to send her away, not only because she keeps bothering them, but probably because she is not a Hebrew.  Why should this outsider share in the salvation of Jesus?  Have you ever noticed how often he healed?  So many gospel stories are about healing, especially healing outsiders – lepers who were outcasts, tax collectors who were despised or Samaritans who were hated and considered heretics.  The list goes on.

In the Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis wrote that we need to go to the margins, and he said that the Church is a Field Hospital.  He didn’t pull those images out of a hat.  He has reflected carefully on the gospels.  He is a man immersed in the Scriptures.  So often Jesus healed people on the margins, and that is why Pope Francis uses those images.

Is your parish a FIELD HOSPITAL to those on the margins?  The danger for a parish is to be insular and parochial, to take care of itself with little concern for those outside, to maintain the status quo.

At the last two parishes where I served, we held Healing Services.  They were not services for the Sacrament of Anointing which we celebrated at other times.  Rather, the Healing Services were for anyone with any kind of ailment.  All people were invited to receive prayers for any purpose.  We opened the services up to the community and encouraged parishioners to bring friends…. Catholic or non-Catholic.

Then we took it one step further, and held MERCY NIGHTS, where we offered healing prayers and confessions at the same service at the Cathedral in Rapid City.  We sent postcards to every household in a two-mile radius of the Cathedral so that it became a community event, not merely a Catholic event.  People who had been away from the Church for decades came simply because they received a postcard.  Over 500 people at each service.  Priests heard confessions and prayer teams offered prayers for up to three hours.

The Healing Services and Mercy Nights were two practical ways that we sought to be a Field Hospital for those on the margins.  Now it’s true that the Church is more than a field hospital.  We also need to teach the faith, and we must celebrate the Sacraments devoutly and faithfully.  But Pope Francis said that many people are so broken that the first thing they need is the healing mercy of God.  Before we can teach them the finer points of doctrine, we need to offer them Christ’s healing mercy.  After all, that is how Jesus ministered.

A Bishop’s job is to continue the ministry of Jesus.  In the tradition of the Church, that involves three main duties:  to sanctify, to preach and to shepherd (or govern).  The duty to SANCTIFY is primarily with the Sacraments.  The duty to PREACH is obviously with homilies, but it involves teaching in faith formation classes and many other ways.  The duty to SHEPHERD or govern involves all of the daily ministry which the Church does – visiting the sick, helping the needy, and being a field hospital on the margins.

But the Bishop cannot do that for the whole diocese, right?  So priests are commissioned as co-workers with the Bishop to keep the VISION of Jesus alive.  And priests need the witness of other disciples who will join him in the ministry of Jesus.  Priests and bishops have to spend time daily with the Scriptures, especially with the Gospel.  Because it keeps us in touch with Jesus and his vision.  The same is true for all who are disciples of Christ.  Otherwise, we get focused on programs, or our own special interests.

Daily prayerful meditation on the Gospel is essential for a healthy church.  Is your parish going to the margins to offer the healing of Christ?  How do your programs serve that mission?  Do you believe in his healing which is available for everyone?  We only need to let the faith of the Canaanite woman instruct us in this truth.

Pushed into the Storm

Pushed into the Storm

The gospel for this Sunday begins with an interesting image.  “After he had fed the people, Jesus MADE the disciples get into the boat” (Matt. 14:22).  Jesus made them get into the boat.   You could say, “He pushed them into the boat.”  In Spanish it says, “Jesus obligated his disciples.”  (Jesús obligó a sus discípulos.)  The Italian translation is, “Jesus ordered the disciples to get into the boat.”  (Gesù ordinò ai discepoli.)

Sometimes, God pushes us right into a storm!

Shortly after ordination, God pushed me into a dark storm.  After I was ordained for three years, I was sent to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in northern South Dakota.  Normally, life on the reservation is rough, but it was intensified by one of the harshest winters ever recorded.  It started snowing in late October and by early December we had close to 30” of snow.  There were two Franciscan Sisters with us, and Sr. Jacque said, “Isn’t the countryside beautiful with all the glistening snow.”  I told her, “You just wait until the wind blows.”  The week before Christmas the wind blew for three days straight, and we were buried.

That winter we had over 100” of snow.  High winds constantly blocked roads.  Ranchers suffered large losses of cattle and struggled with depression.  It was a long dark cold winter ….. and the storm continued right into the next spring when the thawing snow flooded one of the mission churches.   A year later, lightning struck another church and burned it to the ground.  In the meantime, we had a rash of suicides.

Storms come in a variety of flavors.  What kind of storms have you experienced?  Maybe financial uncertainty or losing a job, which can throw an entire family into turmoil.  For some, it is cancer or a life-threatening illness.  The constant battle drains you physically, mentally and emotionally.   It might be leaving for college.  As much as young people look forward to having their own space and being independent, leaving family and friends can be unnerving.  Parents send their kids off to college, but not without apprehension about the storms that they will encounter.

Sometimes, God pushes us right into a storm.  And the storm can last deep into the night.  The disciples spent almost the entire night in the storm before Jesus came walking on the sea.  “During the fourth watch of the night, he came toward them walking on the sea” (Matt. 14:25).  The fourth watch is the last watch – around 4 or 5 am.

Why does God push us into storms?  Why does he leave us there all night long?

First, the storms of life are a place to meet God.  The long night of the storm puts us face-to-face with our nothingness, which humbles us and opens us to God’s power.  Storms are a special place to meet God.  That is what I have found, as I look back on the storms of my life.  For me, coming to Cheyenne as a new bishop is another storm.  Moving to a new state and leaving everything familiar is stressful.  But this Gospel reminds me to see this as a time and place to meet God.

The storms of life are a place to meet God, and the Lord uses storms to deepen our faith.  Jesus said to Peter, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matt. 14:31).  He challenged him to trust in his power over all things.  And he challenges us to trust.  In Matthew’s gospel, the disciples are often described as having ‘little faith’ (cf. Matt. 6:30; 8:26; 16:8; 17:20).  They believe. But their faith is weak.  It is like a flame that flickers in the wind.  When Peter sees how strong the wind is, he begins to sink.  Later during the passion, he wavers in his commitment and denies Jesus.

You might ask: “How could Jesus expect Peter to have faith enough to walk on the stormy sea?  Isn’t that asking too much?”  Yes.  It’s asking a lot for a mere human, but not for someone who believes in Jesus as the Lord of all creation, and as the Risen Lord with power over death.  Thanks to this experience Peter comes to know Jesus as the Lord of creation.  He saw in Jesus the same power as the Lord who opened the Red Sea.

In the Old Testament, Yahweh (translated as “LORD”) shows his power by walking on the sea.  The sea is a place of terrifying power.  And when Yahweh shows his power over the stormy sea, the Hebrew people realize he is Almighty God.

As Jesus walks on water and calms the storm, the disciples realize that he is God.  So the disciples in the boat “did him homage” (Matt. 14:33).  That faith is crystalized after Jesus’ death, when the disciples saw the Risen Lord.  He has power over sin, evil and death.  The only response can be to give him homage.

The Greek word here for homage means to fall face down and kiss his feet.  Matthew’s Gospel ends with that image.  In the last scene of the Gospel as the disciples meet the Risen Christ, it says, “When they saw him, they worshiped (or did him homage), but they doubted” (Mt. 28:17).  Don’t worry if you worship and doubt.  To be a disciple is to keep worshiping with imperfect faith.  The mistake would be to quit worshiping in times of doubt.  To give up in the storm.

When I was on Standing Rock, Paul & Margie Keller lost their house in a fire.  Paul is a deacon.  He and Margie have strong faith, but when they saw their home go up in flames, they were devastated.  Their faith flickered.   Yet, today they describe that experience as a blessing.  The outpouring of help from friends and neighbors was amazing.  The experience of God providing for them during that time of loss deepened their faith.  You might say that they describe the fire as a place where they met God.  Their faith grew stronger because of that stormy night.  It helped them to fall down before Jesus and kiss his feet.

When has God pushed you into a storm?  Or where are you experiencing a storm right now?  Can you see how it was a place to meet God?  How did God invite you to grow in faith through that storm?  Did you respond by giving Jesus homage?