Fr. Kelly

Our Sunday Journal is a brief reflection on the scripture readings of the day by Father Kelly, a senior priest in the Diocese of Saginaw.

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Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Luke 9:51-62
June 26, 2016

One of my favorite points of reflection is attributed to Vatican II Jesuit theologian Fr. Karl Rahner, who once wrote in a prayer: You have seized me (Almighty God)…I have not grasped you!

Our Readings this weekend offer examples of God reaching out and “seizing” someone who is needed to take on the work of a prophet. Elisha is willing to accept the very challenging task. The call appears to be “non- verbal.” Elijah simply threw his cloak over Elisha’s shoulders. Elisha, in turn, totally grasped what God asked of him, but asks for the little time it will take to go home and say good-bye to his family before getting down to business. That seems like a reasonable thing to do.

But after that, he does something that seems a little less reasonable. As if to make certain that there can be no turning back, he totally destroys his old way of life. He makes a fire with his farm equipment, and, after slaughtering the farm animals, roasts the meat and feeds his people. Through this gesture, Elisha seems to be completely liberating himself from his old way of life, totally embracing and trusting in God. He is free because he has fully submitted to the will of God.

In the Gospel (Luke 9:51-62), we see three different reactions to God seizing someone. The first is a person who appears to be “captivated” by an experience of Jesus. Maybe he witnessed a great miracle…or heard Jesus preach…or shared in a banquet where thousands were fed by a few fish and a couple of loaves of bread. Whatever it was that drew him to the Lord, it was a powerful enough experience to motivate him to step forward and volunteer.

Jesus, however, seems a little reluctant to bring him on board.

Rather than welcoming the man and putting him to work, the Lord challenges him, as if to say: I don’t think you grasp what it means to follow me. You need to completely liberate yourself…cut yourself off from your old way of life…give yourself over totally and completely to the will of God.

A little ways down the road, The Lord spies someone, and this time it is Jesus Who seized the moment, extending an invitation to follow Him. We aren’t told just what it was that caught the Lord’s attention. Nevertheless, Jesus clearly recognized the potential for discipleship and made the overture. For his part, however, the man did not grasp the urgency of Jesus’s mission and ministry.

The man is willing; he only asks enough time to attend his father’s funeral. It’s a bit unsettling that The Lord demands an immediate response. Why would the Lord deny him a slight delay in order to honor his earthly father?

Possibly to emphasize how little time He has left to prepare disciples to carry on His mission and ministry. Maybe to highlight the urgency of the work of proclaiming the Good News! Possibly, Jesus was testing the man’s ability to commit fully to will of the Heavenly Father by asking him to forego the funeral of the man’s earthly father. Or maybe it was a way of demonstrating how inconsequential death of the earthly body is when compared to eternal life in Christ.

Then there is the final encounter.

It isn’t clear whether this person stepped forward or was called out of the crowd by Jesus. What we see, however, is a qualified commitment. Once again, who would consider the request to say good-bye to family unreasonable? Elijah didn’t. Elisha was given the time we all would want…the time to say good-bye. Jesus seems to see this very human request as an indication that the person is unfit to serve. Seems harsh, doesn’t it?

Luke doesn’t tell us what happened. We don’t know which, if any, of the three chose to follow Jesus. What we do know is that being seized by God is not being enslaved. Once invited, we are free to either grasp onto God or simply go about our business. What would you do?

Consider this:

We are called to the living waters because The Creator recognizes the potential for discipleship within us. The reality of the Sacrament of Baptism is that we are seized by God to live our earthly lives as disciples of Jesus Christ. Elijah placed a cloak over Elisha’s shoulders to anoint him prophet. In Baptism, we put on Christ and are anointed with The Holy Spirit. But, we are not enslaved or pressed into service. We are free to grasp onto the Hand of God, liberating ourselves from material things that tie us down…things that anchor us, so to speak, so that we aren’t able to journey with The Lord.

So then, each of us is left to wrestle with the question of whether we allow the things of this world to enjoy a death grip on us…or…do we reach out in freedom and grasp the Hand of God, Who has reached out to us in love?

Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Luke 9:18-24
June 19, 2016

It is graduation season and the party invitations are flooding the post office. These days, most announcements are a single card with several pictures of the graduate. When I glance at the return address, it raises a mental image of the kid. If the young person is someone who I haven’t seen for a long time, I look to the past…and picture a little girl in her First Communion dress…or a middle school boy sitting in the principal’s office waiting to face the consequences for one of those bad decisions that middle school boys so frequently make. And then I open the envelope and find a beautiful young woman in a prom dress…or a confident young man, maybe sporting a beard…or showing off a “6-pack.”

The transformation never fails to amaze me as my memory of a young child gives way to the present reality of a young adult. The experience also puts me in touch with the harsh reality of time and reminds me of how frail and finite the human body is and how quickly it changes. And then there is the look in the graduate’s eyes, which gets me thinking about the future.

Maybe it’s the skill of the photographer…but I tend to think it’s something unimaginably greater. I think that the look I see in the faces of these young people is the result of the skill of The Creator. The twinkling eyes of the beautiful girl in her prom dress, or the confident smile of the strong young man put me in touch with that part of being human which is infinite. Those graduation cards mark a passage of time, but the pictures offer a glimpse of the timelessness that God has placed within us.

There is a look of eagerness to be “on with it”…to grab on to freedom and begin to explore the world looking for answers to the big questions. The whole idea of graduation is about moving into the future, but not to the exclusion of the past. The picture of the graduate is an image of what the parents, grandparents, family, teachers, pastors, and coaches…together…helped to mold and form. Now, it is up to these young people to begin the work of forming themselves into what they will be for all eternity.

Truthfully, for me anyway, these announcements, if only for a moment, become prayer cards. I look at the individual whose past and future will be celebrated and pray that we have done enough.

I hope and pray that we have been successful in our efforts to form consciences that will withstand the destructive influences of the dark side of our world, guided by, but not burdened by, guilt and fear.

I pray that we have taught them how to engage the world as authentic Christian disciples, who live in, but at the same time, live above the world.

I pray that they will find someone to love, and through that love, experience and develop an increasing hunger for a deeper relationship for The Source of all love.

I pray that they will keep close to the Christian community…and recognize that they are an important part of the Body of Christ, and will do their part to pass on to the next generation what is handed to them…a love and appreciation for our Church and our Sacraments.

And, most of all, I pray that after long and happy lives, they will understand that death is not simply a matter of the body closing down, but rather, is a spiritual act wherein all of the worthy and beautiful and loving strands of their lives are woven into the eternal tapestry of The Sacred Mystery we call our God.

Finally, the exciting beginnings of these young people remind me that, someday, we will all “graduate” from time and into eternity. And when we stand before the Just Judge, we might well be asked: “Who do people say you are?”

If we have lived up to our full potential…if we have not permitted life to fit us small…if we have done our very best to be all that God created us to be…we can respond truthfully…PEOPLE SAY THAT I AM A FOLLOWER OF YOUR SON JESUS CHRIST!…and we will “graduate” with the highest honors.

Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
LK 7:36—8:3
June 12, 2016

For months now, we Americans have been evaluating, discussing, criticizing, and judging the people who want to be the leader of the “free world.” We should be. This is important work and it should be given thoughtful consideration. Moreover, open and candid discussion among ourselves helps us as individuals, and as a nation, to come to what will hopefully be a decision that will promote the good of our country and the entire world. This is a right that not all people enjoy…the right to evaluate, openly discuss, freely criticize, and then pass judgment on our leaders.

As our focus narrows to the final two, we should take full advantage of that right that is protected by our First Amendment. At the same time, we need to be realistic. We need to understand that whomever we elect come November 2016, that person will be a finite, limited human being, who, like each human being, will make mistakes.

Our First Reading (2Sam 12:7-10, 13) reminds us that even when Almighty God made the choice and elevated David from a humble shepherd to a boy warrior, and, ultimately, King of Israel, God’s chosen one was not immune from the effects of original sin.

The judge, Nathan, read the indictment handed down from God, The Just and ultimate Judge. The guilty deed, so open to public view, could not be disputed. The people, even though there was no First Amendment to protect them, most likely evaluated, discussed, criticized, and judged their king. No trial was needed. The sentence was severe.

But, in an instant, everything seemed to change. With one sentence…I HAVE SINNED AGAINST THE LORD…David was pardoned. God looked into David’s heart and saw that his contrition was sincere and genuine, and so Nathan proclaimed: “THE LORD ON HIS PART HAS FORGIVEN YOUR SIN…YOU SHALL NOT DIE.”

FOR HIS PART…FOR HIS PART! Those words sound almost like a qualification.

Consider that the rest of the story is filled with palace intrigue, plots, conspiracies, and open revolt. It leads one to believe that his subjects were not so quick to forgive him. It seems that they continued evaluating, discussing, criticizing, and judging to the point of revolting against him. As the expression goes…that’s politics!

Wherever there is free speech, leaders…even those chosen by God…are continually being evaluated, discussed, and criticized. (I suspect Pope Francis would readily agree!) The truth is we are social beings who live in community with shared interests and concerns. We learn, progress, advance…and hopefully improve by our ongoing discussions. How grateful we should be to live in a country where we can do this openly and without fear.

BUT FOR OUR PART…

The Gospel makes it quite clear. It is not for us to pass judgment. Politics might be politics…but…in the spiritual realm, The First Commandment trumps the First Amendment. The lesson to be learned from the dramatic encounter between Jesus, a woman whose sin was so public and open that “no trial was necessary”… and the self-satisfied and sanctimonious host, who passed judgment on both the woman…as well as the Lord…is simple. God is quick to forgive a repentant sinner. And only God has that right!

Pope Francis summarized today’s lesson so well when he said: “Who am I to judge?” And for that, the Holy Father was equally applauded…criticized…and judged! Which side were you on? After reflecting on today’s Readings…do you need to cross the aisle?

Tenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
LK 7:11-17
June 5, 2016

Someone recently asked me what brought me the greatest joy as a parish priest. I did not hesitate in responding, explaining that there were far too many happy, fulfilling, and rewarding experiences to do justice to that question. But, for some reason, it kept rattling around in my mind. Later in our conversation, I found both the opportunity as well as what seems to me to have been a proper answer. The privilege to be at the deathbed of an elder of the community, for me anyway, was the most joy-filled experience of pastoral ministry.

Giving witness to the earthly life of a Christian disciple coming full circle is extraordinarily profound. Certainly there are tears as an important chapter in the life of a family, as well as a faith community, comes to an end. But, at the same time, there is an overwhelming sense of excitement, wonder, and awe. It feels as if, when the heavens opened to accept the eternal spirit of the person, the glory of God rains down on those keeping vigil…showering those left behind with a sense of peace…and even joy!

Then, there was a follow-up question. “What was the hardest part of being a parish priest?”

In spite of the fact that “the job” brings with it a long litany of stress, challenges, troubles, and sorrow…I did not hesitate even a second in replying to this question. The hardest thing that I experienced while serving as the pastor of a parish was presiding at the funeral Mass for a child. The deep sense of loss weighs heavily on everyone in the church, making it almost impossible to breathe. To have to call the community to prayer and find “The Good News” in the face of unimaginable tragedy is definitely a heavy task. Still, that somber responsibility helps me to stand in the sandals of both Elijah as well as Jesus…both having to look into the agonized face of a widow who had lost her son. How could they not implore God to restore life to the lifeless body?

Yes! Presiding at the funeral Mass of a young person is indeed the hardest thing that I did as a parish priest, and even reading the passages the Church gives us as we continue our journey through Ordinary Time brings back painful memories of those occasions when I needed to do just that…celebrate a life that had ended far too soon…and under the most tragic of circumstances. Nevertheless, there was one occasion in particular when the “sorrowful mystery” of a child’s death was tempered by the “glorious mystery” reflected in the final loving gesture of the parent.

The community response to the tragedy was unbelievable. The church was overflowing. All were ushered into the worship space leaving only the bereaved parents, the funeral director, and myself in the privacy of the narthex. I raised an urgent prayer for the right words to help the parents through what was to come, but, in fact, it was the mother of the child who helped me move forward into the funeral Mass with a sense of peace.

She asked the funeral director to open the lower half of the casket. He looked to me for guidance. Incapable of denying her any request, I nodded that he should oblige her. When the entire earthly body of this beautiful young person was revealed, the grieving mother calmly stepped forward. Beginning at her child’s head and moving all the way down to the feet, she gently and lovingly caressed the entire earthly body, the body that she had used her own body to give life to. When she had completed this profound expression of love, she stood, turned towards her husband and myself, and, with a radiant look on her face, indicated that she was ready to continue with the liturgy.

I did not ask her what motivated this dramatic expression of love. It was too personal. Neither did I tell her what passed through my mind as she caressed her child for the last time. She was, for me, a perfect image of the unconditional compassion, mercy, and love with which our God celebrates the passage of the faithful from time into eternity.

For me, that gesture offered an image of what happened in Zarephath when Elijah prayed over the lifeless body of a child. That loving gesture in the narthex of my parish church transported me to Nain, as Jesus interrupted a funeral procession. That morning, I was offered a glimpse of what happens when the finite and frail earthly bodies of the faithful have completed their work of hosting that which is infinite and eternal. Our good and loving and merciful…and all powerful God…God of the living and the dead…approaches us and lovingly caresses us…completely embracing us in a life-giving hug …and resurrects us…turning the sorrowful mystery of death into the glorious mystery of eternal joy.

On this Tenth Sunday of Ordinary Time, we hear the stories of two miracles. But, I think possibly I was privileged to give witness to an even greater miracle. The indescribable look on the face of that mother as she took leave of her child was made possible because in the very depths of her being, she heard the words that Elijah spoke. YOUR CHILD IS ALIVE. When we believe that Jesus Christ is the Resurrection and the Life… someday, we will hear Him speak the words He spoke in Nain…I TELL YOU ARISE!

We may be in Ordinary Time, but there certainly is nothing ordinary about our God…God of the living and the dead! Our God visits us in the sorrowful mysteries of our lives, turning them into glorious and joyful mysteries…if only we are wise enough to believe.

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