Following the Good Shepherd

Greetings on this Good Shepherd Sunday! We wanted to share with you some beautiful thoughts from our friend, Fr. Matthew Furgiuele, a priest of the diocese of Gaylord.

What Is Necessary to Listen to the Voice of the Good Shepherd?

Today’s readings may not seem like it, but they actually present us with a great challenge. None of us, myself included, likes to admit this, but, the words of Peter to the Jewish community in Jerusalem apply just as well in our lives. “God has made both Lord and Christ this Jesus whom you crucified.” Peter’s listener’s at least were able to be “cut to the heart”, and it is this one thing above all else that I need, and that you need. If the word of God does not convict us, if the result of participation in the sacramental life of the Church is not to be cut to the heart, then we are missing the point. This has always been a great mystery to me: to try to understand why it is so hard to acknowledge our own flaws, and why it is that we all insist again and again that we are fine, that while, of course in a generic sense I could be better, when it comes to any specific point, I am fine. We all do this, we all have this need for self-justification, and this, more than anything else is the thing that holds us back from the holiness and the peace that God desires for us. Our Lord’s words could not be more clear: “I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.”

These words of our Lord are both simple and out of reach for us at the same time. They are simple because they tell us all that we need to know about God and His love for us, but they are out of reach because they require us to be capable of acknowledging both that we are dead and that something other than ourselves is the cure. As long as we remain closed off, convinced of our goodness, or incapable of acknowledging our shortcomings, we do not really experience salvation. The grace of God cannot function where it is not welcome, and it can never be welcome whenever we chose to deny the need for it.

All of this is true, and I doubt that a single one of us denies it; however, that knowledge alone is incapable of bringing about that which it accepts. In the final analysis, there is one thing that holds us all back: FEAR. When I am afraid of anything, it means that I am closed off, that I am dead, that I have not life in abundance. Fear is the one thing, more than any other that destroys us. Fear is, in a sense, more toxic than sin. We have already seen that Christ is the Lord, that He overcame sin and death, so why then do we continue, day after day, to interfere with that victory?

The answer is simple, we are more afraid of our wretchedness than we are certain of God’s love and God’s power. The more certain we are of God’s love for us, the more we embrace our brokenness, the more we hear the voice of the Good Shepherd. Everything in Scripture points to this fact: those who trust in God are easily corrected, but those who do not cling to their own point of view. Even as he hung on the Cross, Our Lord was faced with this stark contrast: on the one side, a thief who clung to his own point of view, on the other side, a thief who gave thanks for the privilege of encountering his Savior, even though it took the cross to bring it about. Each and every day all of us, myself included, need to ask that question: which thief am I, for thieves we are. If we are able to see Christ, then we are the good thief, but if we see only ourselves, our rights, our perspective, then we are doomed. Look to Christ, speak with Him, worship Him, most of all, listen to Him, He will tell you all that you need to know. Do not be afraid of Him, do not try to justify yourself before Him, it is impossible. Not one of us, and first and foremost me, is justified before God; rather, He is the one who justifies us, not because we deserve it, but because we need it. The price of our salvation is the loss of the fear that makes us hell-bent on saving ourselves.

One of the things which we all fear most, I think, is the discovery that we are nothing special. Each and every one of us, myself included likes to fancy himself important, and for that reason, we increase our fear, and we distance ourselves from The One who can actually give us the importance that we try so hard to give to ourselves. Robert Hugh Benson describes this so well in the chapter on “Christ in the Average Man” and I can think of no better way for us to regain the ability to know the voice of Christ the Good Shepherd than what he describes:

It is not so easy, however, to recognize Christ in the average man — any more than it is easy to recognize the Divine will and guidance in humdrum circumstances. How, we ask ourselves, is it possible for the Unique to disguise Himself under the Ordinary, for the Fairest of the children of men to hide Himself under the merely unattractive, for the One “chosen out of thousands” to be concealed beneath the Average? ‘Yet, if the love of our neighbour means anything, it means exactly this. “Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me”. . . (as well as in the heart of every man who never gives me a thought). “Christ in the mouth of every man who speaks to me. Christ in every eye that sees me. Christ in every ear that hears me…. To do this perfectly and consistently is sanctity. To find Him here is to find Him everywhere….

Two considerations, however, are worth remarking: (1) We have to remind ourselves constantly of the duty, and to remain discontented with ourselves until we are at least attempting to practise it….(2) A second aid to this recognition of Christ lies in an increase of self-knowledge. My supreme difficulty is the merely superficial and imaginative difficulty of realizing how it is possible to discern the Unique beneath the disguise of the Average. Therefore, as I learn to know myself better, and learn therefore how very average I myself am, and, at the same time, discover that Christ still bears with me, tolerates me and dwells within me, it becomes easier for me to realize that Christ is also in my neighbour. As I penetrate deeper and deeper by self-knowledge into the strata of my own character, learning afresh with each discovery how self-love permeates the whole, how little zeal there is for God’s glory, and what an immensity of zeal for my own, how my best actions are poisoned by the worst motives — and yet, all through, that Christ still condescends to tabernacle beneath it all and to shine in a heart so cloudy as mine — it becomes increasingly easy for me to understand that He can with even greater facility lie hid beneath that exterior of my neighbour whom I find so antipathetic, but of whose unworthiness I can never be so certain as I am of my own.

“Cleave the Wood” — look down into your own wooden stupidity of head, “and you shall find me. Lift the stone ” — wrench out that rocky senseless thing that you call your heart “and I am there.” And then, having found Christ in yourself, go out and find Him in your neighbour too.

 

 

Listening to Jesus

A+Prayer+for+those+at+seaWe are happy to share with you today’s homily from our friend Fr. Matthew Furgiuele, priest of the Diocese of Gaylord.  Today’s Mass readings can be found here.

There is a very important lesson for us in today’s readings, especially in light of the ongoing Synod on the Family, as well as the upcoming changes to the process for a declaration of nullity. If you get your information about the Church from the media, and even if you listen to some priests, bishops and cardinals, you might get the impression that things are in flux, and that great changes are upon us. This is not the case and it cannot be the case. As Benedict XVI said, and as Pope Francis himself has repeated numerous times, “Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” Christianity is not a theory, it is not an ideology, it is a way of life, but it is one which is based on a concrete, living, breathing model: Jesus Christ. As we were reminded during the great Jubilee of 2000, Jesus Christ is the same ‘yesterday, today and forever’. The truth cannot change because it is not an abstraction, it is a person. For our faith to have meaning, both for ourselves and for our society, we need to return always to the source: Jesus.

Wisdom is very much linked to prayer, as we see in our first reading, the sacred author prays for wisdom and receives it as a gift. Prayer is necessary for wisdom because Christ is the source of wisdom, and so, we obtain wisdom not by great learning, and not even by experience, but through a relationship. Prayer at its core is dialogue with God, and, most especially with the second person of the Trinity, Jesus. The more we know Jesus, the wiser we become, for it is in knowing Him that we grow in wisdom. As we grow closer to Christ, we see more clearly how everything else pales in comparison, and we see that He alone can satisfy the longing of our hearts. All of creation is good, but nothing created can compare to the Creator. It is not that things lose their value, it is that we value them in the proper perspective: can this or that bring me closer to Christ?  If so, it is not merely good, but good for me.  If it cannot, then, while it may retain its inherent goodness, it is not good for me. There are very few things that are bad in and of themselves; it is usually not the thing itself which is bad, but the inappropriate use of it. Jesus is the One who can teach us how to make proper use of the goods He has provided us in creation.

Deep down we all know that we cannot fool God, but, instinctively, we also know that we cannot fool ourselves. The author of Hebrews knew this so well, and he warned his audience not to play games. This reminds me a lot of the Sheryl Crow song “If It Makes You Happy” in which she says, “If it makes you happy, it can’t be that bad. If it makes you happy, then why are you so sad.” I also think of a poster that one of my co-workers has in her cubicle in Gaylord: “People be like, ‘Only God can judge me.’  I be like, ‘That should scare you.’” There is a great crisis facing the Church, the family and the world, and it is a crisis of listening. We are all so afraid to listen, because deep down we know what God has to say to us. Again, it comes back to the need for prayer: if you don’t spend time with Jesus, then you cannot hear what He is saying, or, if you hear it, you distort it. God is not like we are, He is able to reconcile opposites: in Jesus Justice and Mercy come together: the Cross was the Justice of God, but Christ suffering it became the Mercy of God. In Christ Paul was able to say that when he was weak, then he was strong. One of the most consoling things of all time are the words of today’s Gospel: “For human beings it is impossible, but not for God.

All things are possible for God.” Nothing is impossible for God, so, if it does not happen, it means that we are getting in the way. It is amazing how difficult it is for us to let go and to trust in God, instead of ourselves. I see this in confession all the time, people who struggle and struggle and never seem to make any progress, because they continue to try to do it alone, and so experience over and over the sad reality that, by their own strength, holiness is impossible.

In our Gospel today we see a wonderful example of someone who talks to Jesus but is not able to listen to Him. The rich young man is a good man, he does keep the commandments, and he even recognizes that avoiding sin is necessary, but not enough, and so, he approaches Jesus and he asks Him what must he do to have eternal life. Jesus knows that the man speaks truthfully, and so He looks lovingly upon him, and He tells him “You are lacking in one thing. Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” We have a tendency to think that this was something extraordinary on the part of Jesus, that it is not meant for everyone, but that is not true. Each and every one of you, if you truly speak to Jesus, will hear Him tell you exactly the same thing. Riches are not necessarily material goods, each and every one of us has riches, because we have so many graces and talents from Jesus. The point is not that we have to get rid of our gifts and talents, that would be absurd; rather, the point is that we are all, each and every one of us, called to listen to Jesus and to make sure that every thought word and deed of ours flows from our relationship with Him, and so is according to His desire for us. This is different for each and every one of us, because we are all unique; however, what is common is that we are all called to be disciples of Christ, and to make sure that nothing we do is contrary to that. This is where change is not possible: because Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever, it cannot be the case that something which was Christ-like two hundred years ago is no longer so; neither could it be the case that something which was once an obstacle to being a disciple is now a means of fidelity to the Gospel.

Doing Our Part

00.159.134_PS1Here is a great homily our priest friend, Fr. Matthew, preached on today’s Gospel (John 6:1-15):

I am sure that you have all heard the story of the man who for years prayed to God asking that he might win the lottery, and, when nothing came of it, he complained bitterly, only to hear a voice from Heaven say ‘John, you have to meet me half way, at least buy a ticket.’ While fictional, it does demonstrate the theme of today’s readings: God works, God loves, God performs miracles, but, we have to do our part for that to happen. As a saint once said ‘pray as though it all depends on God, but work as though it all depends on you.’ Although we might be tempted to think that this is strange or wrong, it is actually quite beautiful. There has always been in the Church this tension between grace and free will. There have always been errors on both sides. In the early Church we had Pelagianism, which held that we could save ourselves through our own efforts, and then, as time went by, we had the opposite view in many different forms, culminating in the many forms of Protestantism, namely that we were so corrupted by original sin that absolutely no good whatsoever could come from us. Both of these views are tempting, and both are wrong. We cannot save ourselves, but, neither are we so corrupt as to be incapable of doing good. As St. Augustine said ‘God who created you without you will not save you without you.’

Our Gospel is amazing because it shows us the way in which Jesus’ love and concern is for the whole of the person, not only the soul. Of course he wants to save us, that is the whole reason that he came and lived amongst us; however, in taking on our human nature, really and truly, not merely as a costume that an actor might wear, he experiences in his own person, the limitations of humanity. Jesus knew what it was like to feel hunger, thirst and exhaustion. That is how he understood that the crowds who had journeyed so far to meet him were starving, not only starving for the Word of God, but also for bodily food. Then we have the next beautiful element of the Gospel: Jesus does not just go ahead and feed them, he asks for co-operation from the Apostles and from the crowd. Even though they are clueless and lacking in faith, remarking that they have not enough money to buy food for all, Jesus still works a miracle, because, the little they are able to do, they in fact do. This is always the way with Jesus: what we have is nothing compared to what he has, and yet, he expects us to do our part, in order that he might do his part.

Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, has proclaimed an extraordinary Jubilee Year, the Year of Mercy, which will begin on December 8th, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, who also happens to be the Patroness of these United States. We should all be grateful to our Holy Father, who is so concerned for our salvation, just like Jesus, whose representative he is, and do all that we can to prepare for this. The Pope has won hearts with his simplicity and his care and concern for the poor and the outcasts, like Jesus, he knows that salvation involves the whole person, not only the soul, but he is just as concerned for the spiritual health and well-being as he is the material well-being, even though, if you limit your knowledge of Francis to what the media says, you would never know that. The Church has long had a list of 14 Works of Mercy: seven corporal and seven spiritual. They are as follows:

The seven corporal works of mercy:

  • To feed the hungry;
  • To give drink to the thirsty;
  • To clothe the naked;
  • To shelter the homeless;
  • To visit the sick;
  • To ransom the captive;
  • To bury the dead.

The seven spiritual works of mercy:

  • To instruct the ignorant;
  • To counsel the doubtful;
  • To admonish sinners;
  • To bear wrongs patiently;
  • To forgive offences willingly;
  • To comfort the afflicted;
  • To pray for the living and the dead.

Both of these lists are important, because, as an Italian Bishop who was formerly the Superior General of his religious order that took care of the orphaned and the sick once said to me, remarking on today’s Gospel ‘Matthew, you cannot save a soul with an empty stomach, even Jesus feeds the crowds before he preaches to them.’ The corporal works of mercy are like the role of John the Baptist: they remove the obstacles to receiving Jesus, they prepare the way of the Lord. Here and now, on Beaver Island, there are those who are hungry and those who thirst, those who have not got the proper clothes, or shelter, those who are sick and have so many more needs. I ask you in the name of Jesus, please do not turn your backs on those who are less fortunate than you are, sometimes God has the face of a beggar. Remember that we are all sons and daughters of God the Father, but some of us have to live in conditions that are unworthy of our Royal status. Do not be afraid to deny yourself a bit so that someone else can have more.

While you are thinking about the way in which salvation embraces the whole human person, even the basic bodily needs, never forget that we are not only our bodies, we are also our souls, and so, as Pope Francis has so often stated ‘the Church is not a Non-Governmental Organization, or a Charity, it is so much more.’ Do look after the material needs of those around you, because they are important, but don’t stop there. There are plenty of people and organizations that minister to the body, as Catholics we have a particular calling to minister to the soul as well. The spiritual works of mercy are in many ways tougher than the corporal, because you could be a bad person and still do charitable things, but, unless your faith is strong, and you are well-formed, you cannot instruct the ignorant, counsel the doubtful, or admonish sinners in a way that is not harsh and judgmental. Also, unless you are very united to Jesus, you cannot possibly bear wrongs patiently or forgive offenses willingly. Fear not, you don’t have to do this alone. Jesus himself will feed you with the bread of life, his flesh and blood, which we will be reflecting on over the next several weeks.