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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20 Sunday in Ordinary Time
LK 12:49-53
August 18, 2019

Last week, I was a guest of my oldest and dearest friends at their summer home on the shore of Lake Superior in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. It was a wonderful few days…actually a reunion…because over the past years, our lives have been so busy that we haven’t been able to spend very much time together.

One evening, they invited their favorite neighbors over. We sat outdoors in a circle on lawn chairs under soaring pine and spruce and birch trees, listening to the waves break on the shore and watching the sun set. There was no actual campfire burning, but we were having that kind of experience. It was a “campfire evening.” It was perfect!

Except…the next day, I felt a pang of regret.

You see, as I was getting acquainted with the other guests, who are wonderful people, the fact that I am a Catholic priest came up. After a little while, and totally out of context, because we certainly were not talking about spiritual matters, the neighbor lady looked across the imaginary campfire directly at me and said: “You know, I was raised Catholic.” It came out of the blue, those words: “I was raised Catholic.”

It seemed to me that she placed a special kind of emphasis on that word “was.” I heard a tone in her voice as she spoke that single word, “was.” But, as I said, we were not talking about spiritual matters, and I had just met this delightful couple. I wasn’t quite certain as to why she highlighted the word “was,” so I simply replied: “Oh? Is that right?” But her “was” stuck with me. It hung with me like the smell of a campfire clings to your clothes.

So, the pleasant “campfire” conversation continued, and after quite a bit of time, the lady again looked over at me, and once more, totally out of context, said: “I had all of the Sacraments.” She continued, almost as if to prove her point by naming them: “Baptism, First Communion, Confirmation…and my brothers did, too. My parents saw to it.”

Because of the circumstances, I felt uncertain as to how to reply and simply said: “It’s good to give kids a faith life.” Pretty lame, if I do say so myself. My bad!

Finally, just as we were about to get up and move into the house because it was getting chilly — as I said, there was no campfire — she looked right into my eyes and said: “Those were good times. Happy times. Things were better then.” She went on with a few more thoughts that I can only paraphrase. Basically, I understood her to say that she missed the certainty and security that she once felt when she “was” Catholic.

I bumbled through something that I intended to be ecumenical, non-judgmental, even pastoral, without sounding too preachy. But, when I woke up the next morning, I felt the sense of regret one feels after a missed opportunity. I had fallen short. And that feeling was only intensified when I sat down to reflect on and pray with today’s Gospel.

One of the most unsettling feelings we humans experience is: I should have said. I should have taken the opportunity to say to this good woman, With Christ, there is no such thing as “was.”

At the very beginning of the Baptism ritual, the priest signs us with the cross and says: I claim you for Christ! And although some people think of their relationship with Christ and the Church in the past tense, with the Lord, there is only “The present” which leads to a future without end. Once Christ claims us, he never rejects us.

No matter how much time might pass between us because our lives have become too busy, or because our feelings have been hurt and we leave the circle, or because we feel that we have “outgrown” the friendship, no matter how much we highlight the word “was,” Christ always claims us as His own.

So I wonder, if when Jesus tells us that he has come to “light a fire,” I wonder if maybe he is talking about a warm and inviting campfire, a fire far more brilliant than anything that can be lit with a match. I wonder if the Lord is talking about the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit — the kind of fire that people can gather around, sitting shoulder to shoulder under a canopy of trees, looking at the sunset and listening to the music of the lake, while sharing thoughts and feelings about “happier times.” Times when we felt totally secure and certain about God’s unconditional love, and the unfailing friendship of Jesus Christ, reassuring one another that there is no “was” with God…only “is” and “will be.”

I should have told that woman all of this…but I missed the opportunity. But now, I am telling you. When Jesus speaks about lighting a fire, I wonder if what he had in mind was a warm and inviting campfire?

19 Sunday in Ordinary Time
LK 12:32-48
August 11, 2019

Last Sunday afternoon, ordinary people were strolling through the Wal-Mart in El Paso, Texas, preparing for various things. Some were preparing for that evening’s meal. Others were preparing for an upcoming vacation, or the birth of a baby. There were young families in that store last Sunday, looking ahead to the fall and buying school supplies in preparation for a new school year. There were as many different occasions to prepare for as there were “Wal-Mart Shoppers.” Each, in their own way, was looking to the future and preparing for something that was important or special to them.

But no one in the store that day could possibly have been prepared for the powerful blast of evil that broke through the doors and into the lives of these ordinary people. In truth, we should always be prepared to face off against evil. That is the lesson of this Sunday’s readings.

The discussion about the cause of this most recent instance of “domestic terrorism,” while heated, simply continues the debate that began with the first in a now long series of mass murders. Whatever the trigger, at the root is evil. Since the first bad choice (the original sin), evil has had a clear path into our world. Evil has been humanity’s constant stalker.

Moreover, evil does not always take on the form of a shooter in body armor and a ski mask. Evil very often looks to nature to inflict suffering upon us.

I wonder if evil takes as much delight from our pain and grief as from the fallout injury, injury to our faith. When all of these things are reported to us in real time and shocking detail, many who are not in the cross hairs of evil suffer the most devastating of injuries: DOUBT! How can a good and loving and merciful…ALL-POWERFUL GOD EXIST…with all of this evil lurking about, just waiting to strike?

So, we are reminded this week of the faith of Abraham. The faith of the Patriarch was so strong is that it steeled him against every challenge he faced and every test he underwent. This powerful weapon, this strength of faith in our loving God, was passed onto Israel through the generations, enabling the enslaved nation to defy the evil Pharaoh and to prepare as God commanded, to pass over to freedom in the Promised Land.

The sobering truth is that every single human being must prepare for death. Although inevitable, it typically takes us by surprise. To enable us to better prepare for this final challenge, our all-powerful and all loving God broke into human history with an unparalleled force, and in the most unusual way. Through Jesus, God was born into time in order to steel our faith as we face off against anything and everything that threatens our security. Jesus arms us with the weapons of love, forgiveness, and service. Through Christ, we are fully prepared to defeat evil.

Tragically, however, we live in a moment in history when evil shouts out: DROP YOUR WEAPONS AND PUT UP YOUR HANDS! Many people are obeying and are left defenseless. We are reminded today that we are very powerful so long as we remain in faith.

Stay prepared!

18 Sunday in Ordinary Time
LK 12:13-21
August 4, 2019

For almost half a century, people speculated about the identity of the person whose over-the-top vanity was described in a song. Finally, in an autobiography, the singer-songwriter acknowledged who the individual is. I wonder how many people below the age of 50 have ever heard the song. I wonder as well how many younger people even recognize the name of the long anonymous celebrity. Even those old enough to remember (and still have the ability to remember) would probably be shocked by a current picture of this once paragon of vanity.

Exceptionally good looks might lead to wealth and fame, but age is not kind to our bodies. And while wealth might survive a full head of hair and pearly white teeth, there comes a point where there are fewer and fewer things (other than health care) that money can buy which bring true pleasure.

The funny thing is this: vanity has a very long shelf life. Could it be that when the person who, according to the song, was always seen at the “right places, with the right people, and at the right time, wearing the right fashion” hears the song, arrogance overpowers arthritis? After all of these years, is the person still vain?

But vanity is not limited to the rich and famous. In truth, “the song” describes all of us to one degree or another. And the more we fall victim to vanity, the less lasting and authentic peace we enjoy.

During his general audience on June 4, 2014, Pope Francis spoke about walking with true piety. He stressed that this Gift of the Holy Spirit…PIETY…is not to be confused with “pietism,” which can actually be fueled by vanity.

Rather, according to the Holy Father: The gift of piety means to be truly capable of rejoicing with those who rejoice, of weeping with those who weep, of being close to those who are lonely or in anguish, of correcting those in error, of consoling the afflicted, of welcoming and helping those in need. The gift of piety is closely tied to gentleness. The gift of piety, which the Holy Spirit gives, makes us gentle, makes us calm, patient, at peace with God, at the service of others with gentleness. It is a relationship lived with the heart…not the mirror, or the portfolio. The focus of the authentically pious is on God and others, not on self and self-worth and wealth. It would seem then that the cure to vanity is piety.

So if you happen to know the song, sing along…You’re so vain, I bet you think this song is about you…don’t you…don’t you?

Actually…it is! The song and the Scripture passages ARE ABOUT YOU…and me…and serve as a stark reminder to all of us to strive to be less vain and more pious…so that we can live in peace.

17th Sunday in Ordinary Time
LK 11:1-13
July 28, 2019

So called “autonomous vehicle technology”…driverless cars…make me very nervous. The very thought of giving complete control of a moving vehicle over to a computer frightens me. I was relieved to learn that automakers were overly ambitious in projecting that thousands of self-driving taxis would take to the highways during 2019. Now stalled in the experimental and testing phase, maybe I will never have to shop for a car, not to drive, but that will drive me.

On the other hand, I very much appreciate the new technology that is now standard on most vehicles that still require a human operator. The camera that projects what’s behind the car on a little TV screen when the vehicle is in reverse is like having “eyes in the back of my head.” The little blinking light that appears in the side view mirror accompanied by a warning signal makes expressway driving a lot less threatening. When someone is sneaking up on my “blind spot,” I am instantly aware of it, even before I see the danger. Not to mention GPS, which makes it next to impossible to get lost.

This technology was thousands of years into the future when Jesus was asked to teach His followers to pray. But if folks had been using “driverless cars” rather than donkeys and chariots as a means of transportation, it would’ve been a good image for Jesus to use in addressing the issue of prayer.

In his reply, the Lord offers us the content. He gave us the words, but prayer involves more than words. The attitude and expectations we bring to prayer are also very important. Just possibly, that was what his disciples were looking for when they asked the Lord: “Teach us to pray.” Having observed Him at prayer, they were eager for the same depth of communion with The Almighty.

Actually, in all that He said and did, The Lord has given us the ultimate example of perfect prayer. At all times, and in every way, Jesus gave total and complete control over to The Father. He came to prayer with an attitude of unwavering acceptance of God’s will and with the expectation that God always answers our prayers in the most loving of ways.

That’s challenging. To relinquish complete control over our lives to God is a bit like getting into a driverless car and telling it where to go, trusting the vehicle to take us there. Except it is much more. When we enter into perfect prayer, as Jesus did, we tell God: Take me to the place You want me to be.

But after He prayed, we see Jesus spring into action. Having accepted The Father’s will, The Son did not just sit back comfortably to enjoy the ride. He accepted the responsibility of moving God’s plan forward. He took the wheel!

Acceptance is key to Christian spirituality. When we enter into prayer, like Jesus, we should try our best to embrace an attitude of complete acceptance of God’s will. When we enter into prayer, we should do so with the expectation that our prayers are received with perfect love and answered with perfect love.

Then, when our prayer is over, we need to take back the wheel with renewed confidence that we are headed where God wants us to be and have been given the ability to get there safely. Through prayer, we can look behind us…identifying past mistakes that threaten to take us off course. Our prayer provides us with warnings that signal dangers hidden in our blind spots. Prayer is a spiritual GPS that monitors our progress, reroutes us when necessary, and keeps us moving toward our final destination…The Kingdom of God.

He has indeed given us the words and demonstrated the right attitude and proper expectations…so that only one thing remains…LET US PRAY!

16th Sunday in Ordinary Time
LK 10:38-42
July 21, 2019

If this Sunday’s Gospel doesn’t trigger at least one childhood memory, chances are pretty good that you are an only child. However, if you have one or more siblings, the little drama between Martha and Mary probably sounds very familiar. Who hasn’t, at least on one occasion…in a whiny tone of voice shouted out…TELL HIM TO HELP ME! Or if you are a parent, odds are good that you have had to come up with an answer to the questions: WHY ME? WHY CAN’T SHE DO IT?

This is typical background noise common in most family homes. Nevertheless, it’s a bit of a surprise to hear this kind of domestic squabble reported in the Gospel. It sure gets our attention. The familiarity of it makes it fairly easy to enter the story. But, rest assured, there is a lot more here than the matter of conflict resolution.

In a way, Jesus was both Guest as well as Host. He played guest to Martha, who was rushing around frantically trying to get a meal on the table. But, at the same time, The Lord was actually hosting Mary, as He nourished her spirit with the Good News. What Jesus provided was food that would sustain her throughout her earthly life and carry her into eternity. No matter how much effort Martha put into the meal she would be serving, her guests would be hungry again. Mary was feasting on truth and truth is eternal…and would never be taken from her.

That being said, at some point during His visit, even Jesus heard His stomach growl. At that point, Martha’s service was certainly appreciated. We have to feed the body as well as the spirit.

It occurs to me that the same sort of dynamic happens when we gather for Eucharist. We invite Christ into our midst. He arrives as our guest. As the hosts, we prepare a simple meal of bread and wine. But before we set the Communion Table, we do just what Mary did. We sit at Jesus’s feet and listen. Our attention is focused on the Table of the Word as The Guest becomes The Host, serving up Good News…Truth…the words of everlasting life. And like the first course at a fancy banquet, it stimulates our appetite for more. So we move to the Communion Table where The Bread of Life and The Cup of our Salvation is placed before us. At these two Tables, we become what we eat. And what we have been served can’t be taken from us. It nourishes us in this life, and enables us to pass peacefully into the next.

But then we leave.

As we walk through the doors of our church, the “Martha” within each of us is called into action. Strengthened by the Word and The Eucharist, it’s our time to serve!

It’s a bit of a surprise to hear this kind of familiar domestic squabble reported in the Gospel, but it is definitely a story that draws us in and warrants reflection. And what we learn is that it is important to get our priorities straight. There are times when we are expected to just sit and listen to what God has to, say to us, and other times when God expects us to serve.

15th Sunday in Ordinary Time
LK 10:25-37
July 14, 2019

July 30, I will be celebrating 25 years of ordained ministry. For me, this is an occasion to look back over the past quarter century, reflecting on how I put this time to use. A little booklet that was published by Saint John the Evangelist Parish in Ubly, Michigan, provided me with a lot of food for thought. This was my first assignment as a pastor.

The book that triggered many memories, was a brief history of the parish from its foundation in 1887 until 2013. This is what was recorded about me:

In the winter of 1996, Fr. Randy Kelly replaced Fr. John Mullet. Due to the shortage of priests, Fr. Randy’s vision for the parish included parishioners accepting more responsibility for leadership roles in the church. He began training individuals for various leadership roles needed in the parish and set up for Sunday celebration in the absence of a priest.

It pleased me to be remembered for encouraging parishioners to live out their calling as disciples, according to the gifts and talents God has blessed them with. And while it’s an honor to be given credit for having “the vision” to recruit and encourage disciples, the truth is I can’t accept that credit. Anticipating “the priest shortage” was not about prophecy, it was simply a matter of arithmetic…doing the math! However, priest shortage or not…all of the baptized should always be encouraged to share the gifts and talents with which they have been blessed in order to build up the Body of Christ…our Church.

There is one detail about my work at St. John the Evangelist that I feel warrants a clarification. When I arrived, there was already sound, competent and very dedicated “leadership” in place. The parish council and finance committee were terrific. What I felt was needed was for more people to become involved in pastoral ministry.

In my mind, there is a distinction. Leadership often involves authority and control. Pastoral ministry, on the other hand, involves sacrifice and service. So I set out recruiting, training, and coaching people to put themselves at the service of others. In other words, I was looking for Good Samaratins, who were willing to respond to the needs of their neighbors, whether or not there was an emergency situation…and whether or not there was a priest available.

It wasn’t just a matter of recruiting bodies, either. Clearly, there is a skill set for the various ministries that make a parish work and work well. Not everyone can lead a vigil service. Many people are uncomfortable standing up and speaking in front of a room full of people…or should be anyway! Teachers have a special gift and catechesis is all about education.

But no matter what the ministry, or how talented a person might be, there is one quality that is absolutely critical to success…LOVE! Love of God, Church, and neighbor is a requisite to ministry.

A lot has changed at St. John the Evangelist since 1996. Three parishes have now been merged into one. This is the story all over our Diocese. But, what hasn’t changed in Ubly, or Vasser, or Palms, or Linwood, or Alma, or Oakely, or Ryan…or in any of the small communities that are part of The Body of Christ, is that good neighbors live there. So long as there are good neighbors…loving disciples, who are vigilant to the needs of the folks around them…even when there is no life and death emergency…even if there is no priest available…The Body of Christ will remain healthy.

It’s hard to believe that 25 years have passed. What’s even more incredible is how things have changed in our world over this past quarter century. But, the vision remains the same. And it isn’t my vision. It is The Lords! LOVE AND SERVE ONE ANOTHER!

On to the next 25!

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