Saturday, December 24, 2011

What shall I bring to the manger?

Christmas 2011 Midnight Mass
Fr. Paul D. Williams, Jr., Pastor, Saint Joseph's, Dalton GA

St. Therese of Lisieux writes of a powerful experience she had one Christmas. She was attending Midnight Mass when she was about 14 years old (pp. 98-100). Until that time, she had been a child, very touchy, always crying over the littlest things. Her sisters used to tell her, “You cry so much during your childhood, you will no longer have tears to shed later on!” But at Mass that night, something happened. She encountered the child Jesus. She writes, “On that luminous night… I received the strong and powerful God… On that night when Jesus, the gentle, little Child, made Himself subject to weakness and suffering for love of me, He made me strong and courageous.” And from then on, she gave up her childish sensitivities and tearfulness. But more importantly, she discovered something else. She writes, “I felt charity enter my soul, and the need to forget myself and please others; since then I’ve been happy.” After what she calls her “Christmas Conversion”, she entered the convent within a year and lived a beautiful life of self-giving prayer, now a Saint, a Doctor of the Church, and patroness of missionaries.

The Shepherds too encountered Christ on the original Christmas night. And it changed their lives as well. The angel appears to them in the fields and says, “behold I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” It was customary in Jewish times that on the birth of a child, the minstrels would gather to welcome the child into the world with music, which I imagine is one reason we still sing Christmas Carols to this day.. But this was an event of such joy that the angels themselves burst forth in song , “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.

St. Therese and the shepherds knew one thing: that the child born in Bethlehem, lying in swaddling clothes in a manger, was the savior who had come to save them from their sins. As the Scripture says, “This day in David’s city a savior has been born to you, the Messiah and Lord.” So, the greatest gift of Christmas is the gift we receive: the gift of Jesus, whose name means “Savior”, our Emmanuel, who is “God with us.” In that manger in Bethlehem, as St. Paul writes, “The grace of God appeared, offering salvation to all men… our Savior Christ Jesus. It was he who sacrificed himself for us to redeem us from all unrighteousness.”

And the Word was made Flesh, and dwelt among us.” The prophets transmitted the word of God, but Jesus is the Word itself, the Word of God: the incarnate Word who translates God into human language, by revealing his infinite love for man. The prophets had said wonderful things about God's love, but the Son of God incarnates this love and shows himself, living and able to be touched by human hands. (DI 29)

Of this great wonder Saint Augustine asks (Sermon LXIX.5), “Why was it done?” He reminds us of what Saint John said, “to those who believed in Him he has given the power to be the sons of God.” And then he says, “Do not imagine that it was too great a thing for you to become the sons of God; for your sakes He became the Son of Man, who was the Son of God... He descended to us, and shall we not ascend to Him? For us He accepted death, and shall not He give us His Life? For you He suffered evil things, and shall he not give you His good things?

St. Augustine would also say (OOR, Dec. 24), “Awake, mankind! For your sake God has become man. Awake you who sleep, rise up from the dead, and Christ will enlighten you. I tell you again: for your sake, God became man. You would have suffered eternal death, had he not been born in time. Never would you have been freed from sinful flesh, had he not taken on himself the likeness of sinful flesh. You would have suffered everlasting unhappiness, had it not been for this mercy. You would have never returned to life, had he not shared your death. You would have been lost if he had not hastened to your aid. You would have perished, had he not come.

Archbishop Fulton Sheen writes that when the history of the world is written, the saddest line of all will be “There was no room for them at the inn. There was room in the inn for the soldiers of Rome who had brutally subjugated the Jewish people; there was room for the daughters of the rich merchants of the East; there was room for those clothed with soft garments who live in the houses of the king; in fact, there was room for anyone who had a coin to give the innkeeper; but there was no room for Him who came to be the Inn of every homeless heart in the world.” The only room for him in this world, it seemed, was on a Cross. But not yet, for today the manger suffices and the world rejoices.

There was no room for Jesus when he came among us as a child, but in a sense, the same is true today, for our hearts are too crowded with worldly things to receive him. If there is sin in our souls, especially, then we have made no room for him in the Inn of our hearts, where he wants to come and dwell. But there are two things we can do. First, make room for him through repentance, cleansing the house, as it were. And second, inviting him in through prayer. And if we do this, then we can experience the presence of Christ and serve him in so many ways: in the poor, lonely, sick and suffering, in those we encounter in our daily lives, and indeed, in our own hearts. And we encounter Jesus most especially now, in the Eucharist, where he gives us his body and blood, soul and divinity, as food for our earthly journey so that we might reach our heavenly destination.

And what a gift this is. As Isaiah said, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone… For a child is born to us, a son is given us; upon his shoulder, dominion rests. Then name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace.”

This great gift demands a gift in return: the gift of our very selves. There is a beautiful English carol called “Shepherd's Song At Christmas”, which you will sometimes hear played on the radio during this season. It tells of one of the shepherds, who sees the star and hears the angel, “I come to proclaim good news to you – tidings of great joy to be shared by the whole people. This day in David’s city a savior has been born to you, the Messiah and Lord.” But he is worried about what he, a poor shepherd can bring to Jesus. “But what shall I bring as a gift for the king? Shall I bring a song? A song for the king in the manger? What shall I bring as a gift for the child? What shall I bring to the manger? Shall I bring a lamb? Gentle, meek and mild. Very poor I am, but I know there’s a king in Bethlehem. But what, what shall I bring him? Shall I bring my heart, and give my heart to him? Yes, I will bring my heart to the manger. Yes, I will give my heart to him.”

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Rest of the Story

Homily, 4th Sunday of Advent, Cycle B 2011
Fr. Paul D. Williams, Jr., Pastor, Saint Joseph's, Dalton GA

Cathy (our DRE) sent me a YouTube video of her daughter Jenny conducting her High School ensemble playing and singing the great Hallelujah Chorus from Handel's Messiah. I was delighted to see these young people, lead by Jenny, do such a fantastic job with one of the greatest pieces of music in history. The story goes that when Handel composed the great Hallelujah Chorus, his servant walked in on him and found him in tears and Handel exclaimed, “I did think I saw all heaven before me and the great God himself.” And certainly, if you listen to the Hallelujah Chorus in person, you would think you’re in heaven listening to the angels sing. Naturally, the High School students weren't able to play the entire oratorio, but perhaps this whetted their appetites and one day they will.

I once had the privilege of attending a performance of Handel's Messiah by the Atlanta Symphony orchestra and choir, conducted by the great Robert Shaw before he passed. But the funny thing about that particular performance, on Friday night during the Holiday season, was that after the Hallelujah Chorus, a lot of people got up and left – it’s a rather long performance, over two hours, and people thought that was the climax. But that’s not the end of Handel’s Messiah, it’s only the end of the Second Part, there’s still a whole Third part to go.

I think it’s sometimes that way with Christmas in America today: we sing about Christ a lot, but do we remember the rest of the story? We want all the Hallelujah’s, the joys and the fun of Christmas, but not the rest of the song of our salvation. It’s easy to spend a lot of time preparing our homes with lights and streamers and decorations, while forgetting to prepare our hearts to receive our Lord. It’s easy to invite guests into our homes, while forgetting to ask the Divine guest to be the center of our families. Americans have been so caught up in consumerism, materialism, and the pursuit, not of happiness, but of instant gratification, that we’ve forgotten the rest of the song, and wouldn’t know it if we heard it.

In today's Gospel, just a week before Christmas, we read again the story of the Annunciation, reminding us of that moment of great joy and wonder. The angel Gabriel gave Mary an invitation, the invitation to be the mother of the Son of God, her Son, to be named Jesus, who would rule over the house of Jacob, where he would reign without end. But do you think that Mary would have said “yes” if she knew what awaited her? If she knew the rest of the story?

Gabriel's explanation does not tell her all the events to come. She is faced with a great mystery, which she knows to be rich in suffering. She knew from Scripture that the Redeemer would be a man of sorrows, as it was prophesied that the Messiah would have to suffer, as St. Paul says “the gospel which reveals the mystery hidden for many ages but now manifested through the writings of the prophets.” To be the Mother of the Savior, the Son of God, meant to be the Mother of one condemned to death. And the road to that Saving Cross would begin shortly after she said “yes”.

Her child would be born in a stable, attended only by cattle and a few shepherds. King Herod would then seek to kill the child, massacring innocent children by the dozens to find him. And she and Joseph would have to flee their home to seek refuge in a foreign land till it was safe. And then when they returned, she would watch her Son begin his ministry, only to see it end on the Cross. And she would be there, watching all the jeers and insults and blasphemies hurled at her Son as he endured the Cross.

If you were a mother, and knew all that was going to happen to your child, how easy would it have been to say, as Mary did, “Let it be done to me as you say”? But Mary did say yes. She knew that she would share in her son's sorrows, but that these sorrows are redemptive for the whole human race. That is God's plan for her, and Mary accepts it without reserve because her will is perfectly united with the Salvific will of God.

If Handel’s Messiah were a play, and the events of Christ’s life were being played out before us as we listened to the music, you know where the Hallelujah Chorus would be sung? The Crucifixion. We sing Hallelujah because our Redemption has been accomplished on the Cross, by our Lord, who was once a child in Bethlehem. We do know the rest of the story, and our only response can be that of Mary, “let it be done to me according to your word.”

As Saint Therese of Lisieux says, “when perfection and holiness were set before me, I understood that to become a saint one had to suffer much, seek out always the most perfect thing to do, and forget self. I understood, too, there were many degrees of perfection and each soul was free to respond to the advances of Our Lord, to do little or much for Him, in a word, to choose among the sacrifices He was asking. Then, as in the days of my childhood, I cried out: ‘My God, I choose all! I don’t want to be a saint by halves, I’m not afraid to suffer for You, I fear only one thing: to keep my own will; so take it, for I choose all that You will!’”

Every Christian receives a vocation from God, a purpose, a mission. By our vocations, like Mary, we participate in the redemptive mission of Christ. Each of us receives countless, daily invitations from the Lord to suffer, to sacrifice, to serve, to give of self, to love, and to rejoice. Each of us can be a Saint. And it is very simple: say “yes” to God's will.

The third part of Handel’s Messiah is about the Resurrection. And that’s the rest of the song: we await his return in glory, his Second Coming, where “we shall be changed… and the corruptible will put on incorruptibility and the mortal immortality.” And we will stand around the throne, giving as it is sung in the last song, “blessing and honor, glory and power, unto him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb.” Because he took on our human nature, as a child in Mary’s womb, because he suffered and died for our sins, and because he was raised from the dead, we too can share in his divinity, if we would share in his sufferings, and we too will one day be raised from the dead. And then we shall truly sing Hallelujah, “for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth, and he shall reign for ever and ever.”

Monday, December 12, 2011

Oración del Papa Benedicto a Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe - 2011

"Oración a Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe"
Por El Papa Benedicto XVI, Diciembre 12, 2011 en San Pedro, Vaticano, Roma

Virgen María de Guadalupe,
Madre del verdadero Dios por quien se vive.

En San Juan Diego, el más pequeño de tus hijos,
Tú dices hoy a los pueblos de América Latina:
‘¿No estoy yo aquí que soy tu Madre?
¿No estás bajo mi sombra?
¿No estás por ventura en mi regazo?’

Por eso nosotros con profundo agradecimiento
reconocemos a través de los siglos
todas las muestras de tu amor maternal,
tu constante auxilio, compasión y defensa
de los moradores de nuestras tierras,
de los pobres y sencillos de corazón.

Con esta certeza filial,
acudimos a ti, para pedirte,
que así como ayer vuelvas a darnos a tu Divino Hijo,
porque sólo en el encuentro con Él
se renueva la existencia personal
y se abre el camino para la edificación de una
sociedad justa y fraterna.

A ti, ‘Misionera Celeste del Nuevo Mundo’,
que eres el rostro mestizo de América
y luminosamente manifiestas su identidad, unidad y originalidad,
confiamos el destino de nuestros Pueblos.

A ti, Pedagoga del Evangelio de Cristo,
Estrella de la Nueva Evangelización,
consagramos la labor misionera
del Pueblo de Dios peregrino en América Latina.

¡Oh Dulce Señora!,
¡Oh Madre Nuestra!,
¡Oh siempre Virgen María!
¡Tu presencia nos hace hermanos!

Acoge con amor esta súplica de tus hijos
y bendice esta amada tierra tuya
con los dones de la reconciliación y la paz.


Saturday, December 10, 2011

We Are Only A House of Prayer

Homily, 3rd Sunday of Advent, Cycle B 2011
Fr. Paul D. Williams, Jr., Pastor, Saint Joseph's, Dalton GA

My favorite story from St. Therese of Lisieux, who was a Carmelite nun known as the "Little Flower", is of her first experience in the novitiate when she joined the Convent. When they arrived, all the young nuns would gather together, and the novice master would lead them in the divine office or the rosary. This was their first experience in prayer, public prayer and vocal prayer, and it was designed to train them for the more advanced stages of prayer, meditation and contemplation.

Well, one day the novice master interviewed each of the nuns about what they did during their free time, of which they were given a little each day. St. Therese said, "well, I find a spot between my bed and the window, and I just pull the curtains around me to be alone, and then I just think." The novice master asked, "what do you think about?" She replied, "Well, I think about God, the angels, the saints, heaven, stuff like that." And the novice master had to laugh, because here this young novice was already advancing into the deeper forms of prayer without knowing it. She was engaged in contemplation, which for her, it seemed, came almost naturally.

In today's Second Reading, Saint Paul tells us, “Rejoice Always. Pray without ceasing.” Is it possible to actually do this? To pray without ceasing, to always be filled with the joy of the Lord? As last week, in the Gospel today we see John the Baptist in the desert, preparing the way of the Lord, making “straight the way of the Lord.” What is the “way of the Lord”? Nothing less than prayer, a prayer of friendship and union with the Lord.

Jesus would also tell his apostles, "Come by yourselves to an out-of-the-way place and rest a little." Just as St. Therese who sought a place to be alone. And in several other places throughout the Gospels (CCC 2602), we see Jesus seeking a deserted place like John the Baptist before him. Why? So that he might pray. Sometimes he would spend entire nights in prayer before his heavenly Father.

So, by this example, Jesus teaches us the importance of making time for prayer, of seeking a time and place to be alone with our Lord, to pray without ceasing. And all Christians are called to this way of prayer. In our own experience, however, we believe this to be difficult. We want to find a time and place to pray, but we find ourselves constantly interrupted by the demands of the world: our family duties, our work, the tasks of daily life.

This would happen to Jesus as well, for he was often interrupted. The people heard about where he was going and hastened to get there before he did, so that when Jesus arrived with his apostles, a vast crowd was waiting for him. Though he was weary, he pitied them and began to teach them. And I think this experience is common in our everyday life. Like Jesus who was looking for a place to rest and pray, we often find that the world interrupts us and keeps us from entering into that deeper communion with our Lord which we know we need.

So, I was thinking about St. Therese and what she would do, what advice would she give to those of us caught up in the midst of the world who find it hard to find a time and place to pray, and it occurred to me that perhaps we ought to try a different approach. Rather than let the world interrupt our time in prayer, how about interrupting the world with prayer? How about interrupting our daily duties and obligations with a brief and heartfelt prayer to our Lord?

The catechism defines prayer in this way (CCC 2559), "prayer is the raising of one's heart and mind to God." And there is no reason why we cannot do that in the midst of our everyday life: in the home, in the workplace, on the road, in the middle of our recreation and relaxation. In all these places it takes but a simple decision to raise our heart and mind to the Lord.

And there is a very simple way to do this, a way that has been with us from the very ancient traditions of the Church, (CCC 2667) it's called the Jesus Prayer: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner." The monks in ancient times, especially those in the East, would repeat this prayer throughout the day ("Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner") and they found it a perfect way to "raise their heart and mind to God" in the midst of their daily duties.

This prayer is particularly appropriate because of the many truths it contains. The catechism says, (CCC 2664), "There is no other way of Christian prayer than Christ. Whether our prayer is communal or personal, vocal or interior, it has access to the Father only if we pray 'in the name' of Jesus." And it goes on, (CCC 2666), "The name 'Jesus' contains all: God and man and the whole economy of creation and salvation. To pray 'Jesus' is to invoke him and call him within us." (CCC 2668), "The invocation of the holy name of Jesus is the simplest way of praying always... This prayer is possible at all times because it is not one occupation among others but the only occupation: that of loving God, which animates and transfigures every action in Christ Jesus."

This simple prayer is beneficial because it leads to more advanced forms of prayer, especially that of contemplative prayer. (CCC 2709) St. Teresa of Avila, another great Carmelite, defines contemplative prayer in this way: "Contemplative prayer in my opinion is nothing else than a close sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with him who we know loves us."

If we pray without ceasing, we invite the Lord to be a part of our daily lives, so that he might share in our joys and sorrows, our work and hardships, everything. And when someone knows us that well, what do we call them? A friend. And that's what contemplative prayer is: it is not a form of prayer reserved only for the saints or those in convents, all of us are called to this deep friendship with our Lord.
And the catechism goes on about contemplative prayer: (CCC 2710), "One does not undertake contemplative prayer only when one has time: one makes time for the Lord, with firm determination not to give up, no matter what trials and dryness one may encounter. One cannot always meditate, but one can always enter into inner prayer, independently of the conditions of health, work, emotional state. The heart is the place of this quest and encounter, in poverty and in faith."

You see? It is possible to pray without ceasing, for the one thing the world cannot enter without permission is the heart. And if you reserve a place in your heart for the Lord, he will always be with you and you will always experience his presence. Saint Teresa of Avila said, “If you wish to speak with your Father and enjoy His company, you do not have to go to heaven... you need no wings to go in search of Him but only to find a place where you can be alone and look upon Him present within yourself.” (Way, p28)

There's a very beautiful opera called "Dialogues des Carmelites" (Poulenc), which is based on a novel, which is based on the true story of a group of Carmelite nuns who were martyred during the French Revolution. During the opera, the Prioress says to one of the novices, "We are only a house of prayer! Prayer provides the only reason for our existence. Whoever doubts the force of prayer must regard us all as impostors and parasites. If faith in God is universal, should the same not be true of faith in prayer? And so each and every prayer -- even the prayer of a little shepherd who tends his flock -- is really the prayer of all mankind. And what the little shepherd does from time to time, as his heart prompts him, all of us must do day and night."

And I think her words apply to all of us: day and night, our thoughts ought to turn to the Lord, so that, through contemplation, we might deepen our friendship with him. For one day, when all the trials of this life are over, we will meet him face to face, and only then will we find the place of eternal rest we seek, the Kingdom of Heaven.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Way of Perfection

Homily, 2nd Sunday of Advent, Cycle B 2011
Fr. Paul D. Williams, Jr., Pastor, Saint Joseph's, Dalton GA

Today we are presented with the image of John the Baptist, who “appeared in the desert... [fulfilling Isaiah's prophecy] Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.”

If we want to prepare our hearts to welcome Jesus, we can look to the example of Saint John the Baptist. He leaves everything and goes into the desert to lead of life of penance. He detaches himself from all the goods of the earth, symbolized in his manner of living “clothed in camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He fed on locusts and wild honey.” For us, we are invited to retire into the interior desert of our heart, detaching ourselves from things of the world, preparing room to receive Jesus worthily.

Saint Peter encourages us, “Since everything is to [pass away], what sort of persons ought you to be, conducting yourselves in holiness and devotion...” We are to be holy, where God is first in our lives and all worldly goods are directed by him and towards him. We are to be filled with devotion, or tender love for God, seen in our prayer and work. I see devotion like the love of spouses, who often spontaneously offer small acts of love to their beloved throughout the day. In the same way, our love of God is shown in these tender acts of love for God, expressed in numerous ways each day.

But Jesus gives us a seemingly difficult command when he tells us what is expected of us, this preparation for union with God prefigured in Advent. He says, “Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” Is this call only for a few? John the Baptist, the Twelve, the Saints throughout history? The Catechism says, (CCC 2013): “All Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of charity. All are called to holiness: Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” As Pope Pius XI said, “There are some who say that sanctity is not everyone's vocation; on the contrary, it is everyone's vocation, and all are called to it... Jesus Christ has given himself as an example for all to imitate.” (Divine Intimacy, 2.2)

So this call is for everyone of us, without exception. The better question is: is it possible to be holy, to be perfect? If holiness is demanded of all, it must be possible for all. While there those “great saints” given a special mission accomplish, filled with extraordinary gifts, even the simplest and most humble among us can attain sanctity, sustained by Divine grace.

Remember my definition of sanctifying grace: friendship with God. Lost by sin in the Garden, where Adam and Eve walked and talked with God in friendship, our original friendship with God has been restored by God himself, Emmanuel, God is with us, Jesus Christ, who became man, walked amongst us, befriended us, taught us his way of love, and laid down his life for us in the Cross.

So sanctity is first and foremost a gift from God, a Divine initiative that begins in Baptism. John, as he says, baptized in water, but he who is to come would baptize in the Holy Spirit and power. Baptism has a symbolic meaning, yes, as many came to John acknowledging their sins, but Jesus would bring the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, which not only forgives sins, but also makes us anew.

This makes it possible for us to enter deeper into friendship with God. And here's the key: deeper friendship. Saint Therese of Lisieux says “The more joyfully souls do His will, the greater is their perfection.” In other words, there are degrees of perfection. She says, “each soul was free to respond to the advances of Our Lord, to do little or much for Him, in a word, to choose among the sacrifices He was asking.”

As I have said before, there are an infinity of goods out there from which we can choose, and authentic free will is choosing among those many goods. So it is possible to avoid evil, choose good – the basis for the moral life – and still be on the way of perfection. The way of perfection is not a constant struggle between good and evil. That is the beginning of the spiritual life. The road that follows consists in seeking, knowing, and following God's will more perfectly each day in our lives.

So, St. Teresa of Avila would say, “The highest perfection consists not in interior favors or in great raptures or in visions or in the spirit of prophecy, but in bringing our wills so closely into conformity with the will of God that, as soon as we realize he wills anything, we desire it ourselves with all our might… bitter with the sweet, knowing that to be his Majesty’s will.”

To grow more and more perfect means to unite ourselves more and more to the Will of God. Our perfection can be measured by the degree to which we do the will of God and find happiness in doing so. Sin is not the only thing opposed to God's will, as even attachment to other goods, our self or the world, may prevent us from acting in union with God's will. And this union of our will with God's is not mere obedience, but it is delighting in God's will as a true source of happiness.

So what is God's will for our lives? God's will, in general, is expressed in the commandments of God and the Precepts of the Church. As Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” And in his life, he founded a Church to continue proclaiming the Kingdom to all times and peoples, and the teachings and precepts of the Church are the accumulated wisdom, guided by the Holy Spirit, which continues to deepen our understanding of Christ.

In a more concrete and particular way, God's will for our lives is expressed in the duties of our state in life and the various circumstances of life. The duties of our state in life determine how we are to act in our daily lives. For most of us, that is our responsibility towards family, work, community, and church.

We also discover God's will revealed to us in the circumstances of our lives, important events and even down to seemingly insignificant details. Whether it be health or sickness, poverty or wealth, dryness in our spiritual lives or rich consolation, success or failures, loss or struggle. He also gives us countless opportunities each day to exercise the virtues on a day to day basis, charity, patience, generosity, sacrifice, and courage.

It could be said that sanctity is essentially summed up in the fulfillment of duty. And since we all have our duties, and we all have grace through friendship with God, it is possible for each one of us. And Advent is a great time to make progress in perfection. As Saint Peter concludes, “Therefore, beloved, since you await these things, be eager to be found without spot or blemish before him, at peace.”

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Firm to the End

Homily, 1st Sunday of Advent, Cycle B 2011
Fr. Paul D. Williams, Jr., Pastor, Saint Joseph's, Dalton GA

While our culture has already begun the “Christmas season” with shopping, shopping, Christmas music, shopping, shopping, Christmas decorations and food, the Church celebrates Advent, a time of expectation and hope. We are awaiting the celebration of the birth of our Savior, and so we prepare ourselves accordingly. I suppose this attitude of expectation is present in our secular celebrations of Christmas, as we know, our children are anxiously awaiting that morning they can open their presents. But as adults, we should channel that same enthusiasm into celebrating Christ's first coming as a child in Bethlehem, and waiting in joyful hope for his Second Coming in glory.

The catechism says this about Advent, “when the Church celebrates the liturgy of Advent each year, she makes present the ancient expectation of the Messiah, for by sharing in the long preparation for the Savior’s first coming, the faithful renew their ardent desire for his second coming.” (CCC 524) We pray with Isaiah in the first reading, “Return for the sake of your servants... the tribes of your heritage.
Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down...”

The glory of his first coming should remind us that God is true to his promises. The entire history of Israel was a preparation for the coming of the Messiah, announced by all the prophets. And the Father fulfilled his word by sending his only Son on that Christmas day. And if he was true to his promises then, he will be true to ones he has made, for he will come again in glory at the end of time.

As St. Cryril put it, “His first coming was hidden, in a stable in a small town outside Jerusalem. His future coming will be for all to see as he comes with the Heavenly Jerusalem. At his first coming, he was wrapped in swaddling clothes in a manger, at his second, he will be clothed in light as in a garment. In his first coming, he endured his Passion, despite its shame, enduring the mockery and humiliation by the soldiers; in the second, he will come in glory, escorted by an army of angels.” (Office of Readings, 1st Sunday of Advent)

When he came the first time, he sought to teach us his way of love by gentle persuasion, so that we would freely choose him; but when he comes again, the time for learning and choosing and growing will be complete.

Our Lord says in today's Gospel, “Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come... May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to all: 'Watch!'”

Saint Augustine comments on this passage, wondering if the Lord's Second Coming is something to be feared: “'My brethren, the appointed time is short... But I wish you to be without anxiety' [as Saint Paul says]. He who is without anxiety waits without fear until his Lord comes. For what sort of love of Christ is it to fear his coming? Brothers, do we not have to blush for shame? We love him, yet we fear his coming. Are we really certain that we love him? Or do we love our sins more? Therefore let us hate our sins and love him who will exact punishment for them. He will come whether we wish it or not. Do not think that because he is not coming just now, he will not come at all. He will come, you know not when; and provided he finds you prepared, your ignorance of the time of his coming will not be held against you.” (OOR, 33rd Sunday)

That's why Isaiah prays, “Would that you might meet us doing right, that we were mindful of you in our ways!”

So, if we are to be prepared for his second coming, we must invite him into our lives today. Perhaps some of us will live to see that glorious day, but all of us, without doubt will meet him face to face in the silence of death, and that meeting is something we should prepare for every day. And how do we do this? Well that’s why in Advent we where purple: because it has a penitential character. If we are to prepare for the coming of our Lord, the traditional way is to do penance, and Scripture offers three ways, which Jesus himself taught in the Sermon on the Mount: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.

By prayer, we get to know the Lord so that when we meet him, he won’t be a stranger, but someone we long to see face to face. By fasting, we imitate our Lord Passion, by voluntarily making acts of sacrifice and self-denial. To show that our hope is in heaven, not in things of this earth. And by almsgiving, we give of ourselves for the sake of others in reparation for sin, for as Scripture says, “love covers a multitude of sins.”

Early in my priesthood, one of my mom's best friends died... I celebrated her funeral fifteen years ago today right before Thanksgiving. She was diagnosed with cancer before my father was, and the two of them struggled with it together for a long time. Well, on a Saturday night after the joy of a wedding, I had a chance to visit her and her family a few hours before she died. We all gathered around and prayed together, laughed a bit and cried a bit. And then the husband says to me: “Paul, remind me to give you a present that Ann bought for your new niece.” And I was amazed, for here she was, struggling with cancer for over two years, and in the final days of her life, all she could think of was giving of herself to others. And she lived her whole life that way: they used to say of her, “You can’t out-nice her.”

One of the oncology nurses at the hospital, who has certainly seen a lot of people die, remarked that she had rarely seen so much love around a woman, that she must have been a remarkable person. And she summed it up very simply by saying, “people die like they live.” And my friend died surrounded by the love she had so freely given all those years.

My friend was prepared because she was prepared every day. By living the Gospel command to be watchful and ready, to prepare through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, she was prepared when her final moment came. What have you done today to prepare for Jesus’ coming. Have you prayed? Have you made acts of sacrifice and self-denial? Have you given of yourselves to others? Have you made a good confession?

If we trust in the Lord and live in joyful hope of his Coming in Glory, then that day, whether it be at the end of time or at the moment of death, will be a time of rejoicing. For, as Saint Paul says, “God is faithful... He will keep you firm to the end, irreproachable on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Faith Demands Works

Homily, Christ the King, A 2011
Fr. Paul D. Williams, Jr., Pastor, Saint Joseph's, Dalton GA

I once read a reminiscence written by a prominent theologian who taught at a major university. She was traveling across country to give a lecture, and it was an exhausting trip, as she had to change trains a couple times and found it difficult to eat while traveling. As she walked through one terminal, her fatigue and hunger overcame her, and she fainted at the foot of a staircase. Nearby, there was a small group of homeless men. One of them left the group and came over and helped her. He helped her up and gently sat her down on the stair. He then went off for a moment, returned with a cup of water, and stood their anxiously as she drank it up. Then he went off again, got a porter from the train she was headed to, and then helped pile her bags on the carrier. As she was leaving with the porter, she weakly tried to thank him, but he waved off her thanks with the simple words, “Oh, you’d have done the same for me!”

That day, she learned a lesson no book could have taught her: that faith is seen in works, and God is made manifest in his people, especially the most needy in our midst. She never imagined that she would be the needy one and that the least among us would be the servant.

During the Protestant Reformation in the early 1500's, a familiar term regarding salvation was “sola fide,” Latin for “by faith alone.” The reformers, at that time, accused the Catholic Church of departing from the “simple purity of the Gospel” of Jesus Christ. They stated it was faith alone, without works of any kind, that brought a believer to eternal life. They defined this faith as “the confidence of man, associated with the certainty of salvation, because the merciful Father will forgive sins because of Christ's sake.” Martin Luther appealed to passages from Saint Paul to justify his claim. In Romans 3:28, Saint Paul says, “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.” And in Galatians 2:16, he reiterates, “We may be justified by the faith of Christ and not by the works of the law.”

All Christians will be able to agree on the following two truths: salvation is by grace alone, as Saint Paul says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8) and salvation is through Christ alone, as Saint Peter says in Acts, “There is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved” (Acts 4:12). On these key points we agree with our Protestant friends.

But what about works, does faith alone save, do works play no role in our salvation? Is faith nothing more than believing and trusting? Is this enough to be saved?

Well, Saint James was apparently responding to this concern very early in the history of the Church. Perhaps even then, some had put too much emphasis in Saint Paul's words. So Saint James says very clearly, (James 2:14-17) “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”

Another way to look at it: We are justified by faith. Our faith is justified by works. You can't have one without the other. In fact, Saint James says emphatically, (James 2:24,26), “See how a person is justified by works and not by faith alone... For just as a body without a spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.”

Jesus as well would say that there would be people who would claim to know him, but “Not everyone who says Lord, Lord, will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but rather he who does the will of my Father” (Matthew 7:21). Here, Jesus clearly links salvation with doing God's will. And he explains further in today's parable of the Last Judgment.

The King will say to those on his right, the Just, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.”

The Righteous will protest, “Lord, when did we see you...” And the King makes it clear that loving God means loving neighbor, especially the most needy, “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of the least brothers of mine, you did for me.”

The consequence of this is that some will be separated from him, on his left, the wicked, and will be condemned. Why? For not serving him in the needy, as Saint John Chrysostom says: “No one has ever been condemned for not decorating the church for Christmas. But hell awaits those who despise the needy, who are a temple more valuable than any church.”

As the King will say, “Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels... 'Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.' And these will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

Another way to look at it: we are saved by faith, we are judged by works. Saint James would put it this way (James 2:18): “Indeed someone might say, “You have faith and I have works.” Demonstrate your faith to me without works, and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works.”

Last summer, ‎Archbishop Charles Chaput was interviewed about his new assignment in Philadelphia. He was asked about serving the needy, as Christ demands in today's Gospel, and he could not have put it more succinctly, “We can't preach the Gospel and not live it. If we don't love the poor, and do all we can to improve their lot, we're going to go to Hell.”

And this love is a demanding love, after all, it is modeled by Christ on the Cross. The love asks sacrifices of us, loving till it hurts. A good example of this is something that was reported in Chattanooga last summer, in the Times Free Press. [Original story here. Follow up here.]

They told the story of Mary C., a homeless woman who appeared beyond help, “a mentally retarded, epileptic and partially paralyzed woman who spent months homeless on the streets of Chattanooga late last year and the first half of 2011 until she was taken in by Nancy R., a retired organizational psychologist.” When she first saw her, “the woman was slumped, face down on a Market Street park bench. Her arms hung limp, and a filthy, stainless steel walker stood beside her. Plastic bags, stuffed with urine-soaked clothing and blankets, bulged on the sidewalk.” Many thought Mary was a drunk, prone to angry outbursts, and she “had been turned away from nearly every social service help system Chattanooga has to offer.”

But Nancy thought to herself that the woman might be someone's mother, so she stopped to help her. No one had taken the time to get to know Mary, about how as an infant her father threw her on the floor, giving rise to her retardation and epilepsy. She was abused, abandoned, institutionalized, eventually ending up on the streets of Chattanooga, where she suffered robberies, beatings, even rapes.

Over a couple of months, Nancy got to know her, listened to her stories, and believed her. She also began to advocate for her. Mary had an IQ of 51, and even Nancy, with a doctorate, found it difficult to work the maze of requirements and paperwork demanded by various social service agencies. At one point it was so difficult that Mary cried out in despair, “I'm not fit to live. I'm a burden to everyone.”

But they persisted and made it through the dark times. Eventually, Nancy helped Mary reunite with her sisters after 20 years, helped her get the mental health services she needed, and just this past October, helped her get a home, working with another advocacy group for the disabled.

Nancy's motivation for doing so much to help and abandoned homeless woman? “I just wanted a happy ending,” she said. And so does God, in my opinion.

Christ is present in the needy amongst us, often in, as Mother Teresa would say, “in a most distressing disguise”, and our faith demands works.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

It's Not About Me

Priesthood Sunday, October 30th, 2011
Fr. Paul D. Williams, Jr., pastor, Saint Joseph's, Dalton, GA
Click here: Interview with Fr. Paul on

Last night, I had an opportunity to participate in some Georgia Tech homecoming festivities with my fraternity brothers, many whom I haven't seen in many years – we're approaching our 25th anniversary. I was really glad I went, because it was delightful to see how they were doing, hear about their families and careers, and to remember the good times. It was a blessed evening. They were happy that I was a priest and doing well (they got over their surprise about my call to the priesthood years ago), and I bragged a lot about our parish. They, of course, along with family and other long term friends, were not used to calling me “Father”, but that doesn't bother me, because they knew me well, long before I was given the title. But some smiled when they attached my college nickname to the title, so they called me “Father Willie”. Only they can call me that...

This Sunday, the Church celebrates Priesthood Sunday and encourages the faithful to express their gratitude for their priests and pastors, to pray for them, and to reflect a bit on the meaning of the priesthood. Earlier this week, I was interviewed by an Episcopalian priest for his website, “Church Next”, which helps Protestant pastors to build their congregations in this age of Mega Churches, so he wanted to talk to someone from the original Mega Church, the Catholic Church, and I was the first Roman Catholic priest on his site. The Archdiocese referred him to me because we have a very large, growing parish, perhaps the biggest bilingual Catholic parish in the South.

When he asked for any insights to pass onto other pastors about their role in growing churches, I said, “as a pastor, I remind myself each day that 'it's not about me.'” It's about the people of the church, who I serve as the least among them. That's the ideal at least. Jesus reminds the Pharisees of this in today's Gospel. They were fond of titles, being called “Rabbi” or “Father”, “they love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues, greetings in marketplaces.” These things will come, but they are not deserved and are not to be sought as an end in themselves. It's a simple reminder that with positions of honor and authority come great responsibility and obligations to serve, not be served, as Christ himself modeled for us.

In his admonition to the Pharisees, Jesus warned them of the errors they had made, the pits they had fallen into and their attempts to drag others along with them. They were so caught-up in the practices of their religion that they had forgotten its principles. If you remember my sermon from a couple of weeks ago, I spoke of how a Christian should view worldly affairs, starting with our fundamental principles, which guide our general policies, that we then put into concrete practice. Principles are universal, applicable to all, and inviolable. Policies are the guidelines we use to serve those principles and make them present; they are overlying philosophies that can admit different approaches to the same principles. And practice is the level where we apply the principles and policies to individual circumstances, making exceptions and adjustments as necessary.

These same guidelines can be applied to how we view our life in the Church. The Church has its fundamental truths that it protects, lives and teaches – it's principles that are unchanging and universal. It has its policies, which are guidelines flowing from those principles, that apply them to each age. It has its practices, which allow, for example, an individual parish to adapt to its unique situation, guided by policies and true to principles.

A good example is the upcoming liturgical translation of the Roman Missal that we'll begin using fully on the first Sunday of Advent, just a few weeks from now. The Mass is the Mass, the highest expression of worship of the Church. It has its essential elements, the Word, the Eucharist, the Consecration, Holy Communion, and so on. We have policies that adapt it to different regions and languages and settings and seasons. And we develop individual practices that can change and apply to the whole church or allow adaptation to each local parish.

So with the new translation, the Mass is still the Mass, holy and reverent as always. The language is now adapted to a new policy that includes a more direct translation of the Latin. And we as a parish have chosen a new musical setting for the sung Mass parts, that may differ from our neighboring parishes, but still sings the same Mass that belongs to the whole Church.

And we priests, of course, have some flexibility for individual preferences. We have the honor of celebrating the greatest gift Christ gave to his Church, but it is not our Mass, it is His, given to His people. But we do bring our own style, because we cannot help but be unique individual human beings. As long as this style affirms the Church's universal principles, are within its polices and acceptable practices, then hopefully the different styles of priests will be a source of nourishment, not division.

So, on this Priesthood Sunday, I ask you to appreciate, or tolerate if necessary, these differences. And realize an important aspect of what Jesus teaches in today's Gospel that applies especially to the attitude of the faithful towards priests and the priest's understanding of himself. Jesus says, “call no one on earth your father.” He is using hyperbole (not literal) to remind us that we have only One Father in Heaven, and that our earthly fathers, our parents or our priests, are but instruments of the Divine Father.

I look at it this way: love your priests, appreciate them when they guide you closer the Lord, but do not hang your faith on them. Saint Paul warned the Corinthians (1 Cor. 1:12), do not say “I belong to Paul”, “I belong to Apollos”, or “I belong to Cephas”. In other words, do not put your faith in the one who teaches, but in the One who is Taught, the Teacher of all. Be grateful to the teacher, but do not set yourself up for a fall should he fail you. And that's my concern today. Priests are human instruments of God's Grace, especially in the Word and Sacraments. But like everyone, we are in a continual process of overcoming our weaknesses and growing in virtues. This means that we will inevitably disappoint you, but since we're on the same Path, with your eyes fixed on Christ and not on his instruments, it will not stop you on your Journey. Only our Lord never needs your forgiveness, we priests do need it and are grateful for it.

I'm very grateful to be here at Saint Joseph's, and I hope to be here for many years to come. As I have learned in my 16+ years as a priest, the priesthood is not about me, it's about Christ. We priests will come and go, with our different policies and practices and "style", but the parish will continue no matter the priest or pastor. And it is my hope that you appreciate their gifts, lovingly tolerate their foibles, but most importantly, keep your eyes fixed on Christ, our True and Eternal High Priest.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Believe in Miracles - My Niece's Baby Story

(This is my sister Romi's letter to her oldest daughter, Mary Virginia, on the occasion of her 15th birthday. True story. - Fr. Paul)

Mary Virginia's Baby Story

Where shall your Daddy and I begin? As you well know, your Momma named you after the Blessed Mother in my twenty’s when I became a Roman Catholic. This, of course, was years before I met your handsome Father. When I was dating your Father and I was beginning to ask God for confirmation if he was indeed “The One,” he mentioned that his mother was named “Mary Virginia.” Hmmmm … Isn’t God funny? I always knew in my heart that my first child would be a little girl named “Mary Virginia.”

After we married and after we were told we had a fertility problem, we went through a very difficulty time where our faith was tested. We were challenged by well-meaning people about “invitro fertilization” and “why didn’t we try it, etc …”; however, we stuck by our Catholic beliefs and trusted that God would take care of us in some way. I even imagined a little Chinese “Mary Virginia” but for some reason I couldn’t quite place her face.

My Daddy, your P.D., died in September 1995 after a long painful battle with cancer. He suffered a great deal for his family and offered all of it up for us. I asked him if he would speak with the “fertility” angel in heaven and see if he could do anything for your Daddy and me. He said he didn’t know how Heaven worked but that he would see what he could do.

Finally, in February 1996, we made the decision to adopt an Indian “Mother Theresa” baby. Long story short - The day after we mailed the application off, we discovered we were pregnant. Oh and have I mentioned that same day was my Daddy, your P.D.’s, birthday! Isn’t God Great?

As you are aware, my pregnancy was not an easy one. I firmly believe that I had to suffer for you and your sisters. I don’t know why. But some gifts come at a cost. I was not surprised, however, at the sonogram at 19 weeks that I was carrying a girl. Shocker! I knew you before you were born.

As you are also aware, I developed high blood pressure (pre-eclampsia) and you and I almost died on the operating table during my emergency c-section. I will spare you the details but it was really close there for a while. Again, God is Great and very, very Good.

You and I both went through a difficult time for a while afterwards. I didn’t even get to meet you for the first couple of days because we were both so sick. Finally, a nurse in the middle of the night rolled me down the hall after saying it was time to meet my daughter! How blessed your Daddy and I were to be surrounded by loving family during this difficult time. Meme and Aunt Gi-Gi were there the first night and then everyone else arrived. We were able to celebrate your Daddy’s birthday in the hospital the day after your birthday!

It is also very nice having a priest in the family since Uncle Father Paul was able to give last rites twice to me, once before you were born and again after. Not to mention that you were baptized on your birthday! At first the Doctors told us you had heart problems, then intestinal problems, then breathing problems … Would the Hell ever stop? Eventually though, after 3 ½ weeks, we were able to bring you home on a heart monitor.

How I remember that first night! First, we called the nurses at Northside Hospital because you wouldn’t stop crying (how embarrassing), then your heart monitor went off around 4:30 am and your Daddy jumped up in his underwear to run downstairs to confront the burglar he thought was breaking in the house. Ah, good times! Don’t worry – I won’t bring up your constipation problems! Love those glycerin suppositories!

There was your first bath where you pooped in the tub. Or how our cat Soccer ate through your heart monitor during an ice storm and the hospital sent a courier in the storm with a new one. Baby Kate, blanket, Casa the Barbie, memories … Again good times!

How proud your Daddy and I are of what a lovely young woman you are becoming! You have a confidence that I wish I had at that age. Always know that no matter what, we love you unconditionally. We may get angry with you or not approve of a decision you make but we will always love and support you. There is nothing you cannot tell us; however, know that your Aunt Gigi, Aunt Sharon, Uncle Father Paul or even Meme and Grandma are available to help soften the blow if necessary.

I remember one of the nurses that took care of you when you were born saying not to worry about “premie” babies. They are tough! She is exactly right. What with our moves and changing schools so many times, you hold your head up and just charge straight in. You are kind and funny and giving (if you would just not fight with your sisters so much). By dancing with that shy boy at the Homecoming Dance this past weekend, you showed how confident you are in yourself and how aware you are that there are other people who need a little kindness. It is not hard to be nice, is it?

I often think about P.D.’s promise to talk to the “fertility” angel in heaven and I catch myself getting sad that you didn’t get to meet P.D. – especially when playing volleyball which he loved to watch me play! But then I remind myself there were too many God-incidences that confirmed my Daddy’s intervention on our behalf. Let’s not forget you and P.D. both have that red birthmark on the back of your necks. Meme and I are convinced it was a kiss from your P.D. to you and to us to let us know that he has not missed a thing and that you met him in Heaven before you came down to us.

As we close this letter, we are amazed that it has been 15 years ago that you were given to us! And we look forward to all of the years ahead. Keep making good prayerful decisions. We know that God has got quite a blessed life planned for you!

We love you!

Momma and Daddy
October 18, 2011

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Politics and the Kingdom

Homily, 29 Ordinary Time A (10-16-2011, SJCC, PDW)

This past week, I spent some valuable time with my best friends while I was on vacation. Naturally, when we get together, we discuss the issues of the day, and many of our discussions can be quite animated, and my friends and I have strong opinions. We often disagree on some political issues, but we remain friends. Many of you have probably experienced the same thing: being close friends with someone who has political views that are totally opposite of yours. I call it the “beer and pizza” analogy: with a good friend, you can sit down and argue, disagree, raise your voice and wave your hands in the air, yet still go home at the end of the evening as close friends.

Well, how should a Catholic Christian view politics? What Jesus says in today's Gospel is a guideline that the Church has used throughout the centuries, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” Each has its proper place. The Christian is to be both a good citizen on earth and a good citizen of heaven. The two do not necessarily conflict. But a deeper understanding of what this means is required. For example, the Catholic Church itself does not endorse specific candidates or parties, but we do take stands on issues: respect for life and marriage, social justice, human rights, poverty, and so on.

Why is this? Well a seminary professor of mine explained it to me this way. A Christian looking at worldly matters ought to be guided by three things: principles, policies, and practice. Now principles are those universal truths that guide all of our actions. This is the level of religion, because these truths come from divine revelation (Scripture and the teaching of the Church), or from natural law (those truths that we know from our human nature and the order of creation). These truths form the basis of all that we are and hold dear. Examples of principles would be: belief in the dignity of all human beings, regardless of race, class, nationality, or religious beliefs; respect for life; the call to help the poor and the needy; the need for peace between nations and an end to war; and so on.

Then flowing from those principles are policies which help us make these principles a reality. And this is the level of politics. Different political parties and views can have the same principles, but differ in how they go about achieving them. For example, one party may believe the government ought to help the poor in one way while the other party may believe the government ought to achieve the same goal in a different manner. Neither is right or wrong in the universal sense as both want to help the poor. But, either may be right or wrong in a practical sense. In other words, two good and sincere people can hold different beliefs about the policies necessary to go about serving the poor, and it remains to be seen which one actually succeeds at achieving the goal in a way that respects our principles.

And this leads then to the level of practice. While policies can provide us with general guidelines about how to go about achieving our principles, our policies cannot be absolute and unyielding. There may be certain circumstances and cases where exceptions may need to be made or mercy granted. At the level of practice are those concrete situations on a day to day basis where, guided by our policies we actually go about the work needed to achieve our goals, using our judgment and discretion in individual cases. So, those are the three p’s: principle, policy, and practice.

Looking at it this way, we can see then the role that our Christian faith plays in the political arena. We, as Christians, are guided and motivated by the principles of our faith, and we seek to make those principles a reality in the world by the policies of our various political parties. And our faith demands then that we be active and work on a daily basis for the practical aspect of our political views. We can’t simply sit back and believe and hope in our principles. Instead we need to be active and participate in the political process to bring them about. That’s why the Church encourages us to be good citizens, voting and contributing to society. Thus, in our Church we can have Democrats and Republicans, Libertarians and Independents, all in the same pew, worshiping together, holding the same universal principles, yet perhaps disagreeing on the levels of policy and practice.

Archbishop Chaput reminds us that this is right and a duty of all Christians, "The Church claims no right to dominate the secular realm. But she has every right - in fact an obligation - to engage secular authority and to challenge those wielding it to live the demands of justice. In this sense, the Catholic Church cannot stay, has never stayed, and never will stay 'out of politics.' Politics involves the exercise of power. The use of power has moral content and human consequences. And the well-being and destiny of the human person is very much the concern, and the special competence, of the Christian community." (p. 217, see below)

However, there are a few dangers, a few pitfalls that may trip us up if we’re not careful. C. S. Lewis, in his novel, “The Screwtape Letters”, points them out. If you’ve never read it, I highly recommend it. His book is a fictional collection of letters from a demon supervisor named Screwtape to a demon in training named Wormwood. He tells his young associate how to go about the task of leading their “client”, a person, into the arms of their “father below”, namely the devil in hell. And in one of the letters, he recommends this: tempt the fellow to make his politics a religion. In other words, have him embrace a political party and then elevate it to the level of principle, as if the policies of that party are divinely revealed and absolute. If he can do this, then his political opponents become “the enemy”, enabling him to demonize them as if they’re heretics, violating the law of charity and mutual respect. On the other hand, if that doesn’t work, Screwtape explains to Wormwood, have him reduce his religion to the level of politics. In other words, have him make his Christian faith merely an extension of and justification for his political views, working only for a worldly kingdom, forgetting the goal of our religion, namely preparing ourselves for heaven.

Certainly, we see many people falling into these traps today. When I see one political party or candidate demonizing another, they have elevated their politics to the level of religion, where their political views are absolute and anyone who sincerely disagrees with their policies can be portrayed as the enemy or the devil. Or, when I see someone using their Christian faith to justify their political views, they have reduced their religion to mere politics. And I see this happening on both ends of the spectrum, liberal and conservative, especially when I see politicians speaking in churches. The Catholic church doesn’t allow that, perhaps because we learned our lesson in the Middle Ages when the Church was overly involved in politics. But it seems that sometimes many forget the lessons we learned and the wisdom of the founding fathers who wanted a separation of Church and State. Separation of Church and State doesn’t mean the absolute exclusion of religion from public life. On the contrary, it means that our faith should form the principles we believe in, that we should be active in the public arena with mutual respect.

The keyword in Jesus' expression, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God” is “give”. What lies at the heart of being a good citizen on earth and in heaven is service, “love God and love your neighbor as yourself.” It was through the gift of himself on the Cross that Jesus taught us what true love, true service means: laying down your life for your friends, indeed even for your enemies. As Jesus said, “the Son of man came to serve, not to be served” and “if anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.” So our involvement in worldly affairs should always have service of the good of others at the forefront. Too often, I have observed, politics is reduced to “what is best for me.” A Christian cannot live that way, nor can he separate service of God from service of neighbor.

A good example of a Saint who demonstrated this authentic Christian view of service and politics was King St. Louis of France. Though he was a man of great worldly power and influence, he was a man who knew Christ as his King. He lived a prayerful and devout life and considered sin his worst enemy. He once said that he would rather be a leper than commit a single mortal sin. But he was also a wise and just ruler, who worked to end the political squabbles and feuds among his people. And he knew that to be a Christian meant working to help the poor and the needy, so he established many institutions for doing so. But more importantly, he did it himself, allowing some indigent people to live in his palace and daily serving meals to the poor nearby, often serving them in person.

But I like the story of St. Louis for this reason. Near his room in the palace, he had a chapel built where many of his ancestors were buried. And each morning he would rise to visit the chapel where he himself would one day be buried. He did this simply to remind himself of death, that he would one day be accountable to his Maker and would be judged on how wisely and lovingly he had used his gifts. The story is told that one of his successors wanted the chapel moved, not wanting to be reminded of death, but the workers refused to move the remains of a Saint, so his successor simply built a palace elsewhere. But St. Louis knew why he was on this earth: to prepare himself for the Kingdom of Heaven.

And we can do the same if we live a life of service to others, working for true justice and peace, reconciliation among peoples and respect for the Gospel of Life, then perhaps we may hear the consoling words of our Lord, “Well done, good and faithful servant... inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”

Check out Archbishop Chaput's book, "Render Unto Caesar" Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs In Political Life.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

On the 16th Anniversary of My Father's Death

Homily for the funeral of Dr. Paul Donald Williams
September 15th, 1995. St. Andrew Catholic Church, Roswell, Ga.
Homilist: Father Paul D. Williams, Jr.

When my father was first diagnosed with cancer in late December, it was a trying time for my whole family. We were scared, we were sad, and we didn't want to lose our daddy. And this was a nasty cancer - from the very beginning, there was no hope, no cure, no treatment.

But we are not a people without hope. So my younger sister sent a letter to all of our friends asking them to pray for his healing - to pray a beautiful Catholic devotion called the "Divine Mercy" chaplet, from the diary of a young Polish nun named Blessed Faustina.

After that letter was sent, the most amazing things started to happen. People called, people visited, people wrote. Everyone was praying the Divine Mercy chaplet for my dad - Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, agnostics and even atheists. It was an amazing and beautiful thing.

But he wasn't healed.

Did all those prayers go unheard? No. Let me tell you a little about how those prayers were answered. By the medical books, we probably should have lost him before March, but it seems that God gave us some extra time. And during that time, a lot of wonderful things happened. He saw his oldest son ordained a priest. His youngest daughter give birth to her third child. And he was there when I baptized this grandchild of his, our namesake, baby Paul. And he saw each of his children blessed in so many ways.

He also experienced a small part of his dream - gardening. He completed his home in the mountains and planted orchards and herbs and vegetables. You should have seen how excited he was in the gardens. He was truly happy. And he was there to share it with his wife of 33 years. They were happy.

But there's another thing which that time gave him: time to prepare. I believe that God gave him this time in order to teach him, and us, a few things.

First, I believe, God wanted to show my father his boundless love for him. One day, he expressed to me his amazement at the overwhelming show of love and support he was receiving from all his friends, and he said, “Paul, I'm not worthy of so much love.” And I just replied, “Daddy, if all those people can show their love for you, then how much more must God love you. Their love is but a reflection of the endless depth of God's love for you.”

But also, I believe that God wanted to teach all of us about the meaning of suffering. Following God requires us to be identified totally with his Son, and that includes the Cross of Calvary. The Cross is not easy, and when your Cross is cancer, it is especially hard.

But when that Cross is freely accepted, it becomes glorious, for the Cross of Christ was the instrument of our salvation. And we are called to be united with Christ on the Cross, as St. Paul said, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, the church.” My father understood what that means. He accepted his suffering and offered it, in union with Christ, for all of you - for his family, his friends, and for all those whose lives he has touched. Why? Simply so that all of you would come to know the love and mercy of God, which he came to know through you.

And as the end was approaching, I have no doubt that his acceptance of suffering was efficacious. For during his last few weeks he was so very blessed: he reconciled himself with God and with his people, he said goodbye to his friends, and he was surrounded by his family to the end. And when the time came, I was there to give him last rites with all of us around him. And his last words to each of us were simply, “I love you.”

So, none of you worry about whether your prayers were answered. Believe me, they were, and they were answered abundantly - God's mercy is deep and powerful and wondrous and beautiful.

Now where do we go from here, what about we who are left behind? Well, very simply, we remember.

We remember all the good things: I'll never forget all those years we faithfully suffered through losing season after losing season with the Falcons, or the times we hunted and fished, or the times we'd just sit back and watch a good action movie together. He never pretended to be a saint, but he was, like Scripture says, a “just man”, an honorable man, who did his best to please God. We certainly have an abundance of good memories to hold close to our hearts.

But there is another way we can remember. My birthday was on the Feast of St. Monica, the mother of St. Augustine, and the reading for that day is the famous passage from his “Confessions”. He describes the end of her life and the discussion they had about heaven. They wondered what it would be like, as he says, to “share the eternal life enjoyed by the saints”. And as she is dying, she makes one request of her son, who is a bishop: “Son, as far as I am concerned, nothing in this life now gives me any pleasure. Bury my body wherever you will; let not care of it cause you any concern. One thing only I ask you, that you remember me at the altar of the Lord wherever you may be.”

Well, in my dad's final days, I read him that passage and told him that I too, would remember him always at the altar of the Lord. For, you see, as Catholics, we have been given a tremendous gift: the Eucharist, the body and blood of our Lord in communion. And it is here at the Mass, at the altar, where we most perfectly remember those who have gone before. For in the Mass, we are transported through time, as it were, to the foot of Calvary, where we look up at our Lord Jesus Christ on the Cross and say with the good thief, “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And thus we are united with him, for as Jesus says, “The man who feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him.” And there is the great gift: since we are the Body of Christ, we are truly united, even with those who have died and gone before us.

But not only will we remember him, he will remember us. Shortly before his death, my dad asked my younger sister to read to him from Blessed Faustina's diary, from a passage she wrote as she was approaching her own death. In it, she says, “My day is drawing to a close... The pure love of God draws me to heaven... the heights of heaven have drawn me close... I go to see your glory, which even now fills my soul with joy… In eternal happiness, I will not forget those on earth, I will obtain God's mercy for all, and I will remember especially those who were dear to my heart, and the deepest absorption in God will not allow me to forget them.”

So, you see, as my father has gone to be united with our Savior, he will not forget us, and we will not forget him. He will intercede for us, that we come to know God's love and mercy, and we will intercede for him, especially at the altar of our Lord, in the Eucharist. For in the Eucharist, we are united with him and he with us, all of us united together with our Savior Jesus Christ, and nothing, “neither life nor death, neither angels nor principalities, neither the present nor the future, nor height nor depth nor any other creature, will be able to separate us from the love of God that comes to us in Christ Jesus, our Lord.”

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Sunday Obligation

Homily 22nd Sunday Ordinary Time, Cycle A
Fr. Paul D. Williams, Jr., pastor, Saint Joseph's, Dalton GA

If someone were to ask you why Catholics must attend Mass each Sunday, would you be able to tell them why? You might say, “Well, we’re supposed to keep holy the Lord’s day.” And they might reply, “Yeah, but you can do that anywhere - stay at home, read the bible, listen to a good sermon on television.” Then you might say, “Well, it’s important to pray as a community.” And they might reply “Yes, but you can gather anywhere or just be with your family, why the Mass?” And then you might appeal to authority, “Well, it’s a law of the Church.” Well, why is it the law… the objections and the question why would still keep coming. Perhaps some parents here have had such discussions with your children.

Well, the answer to why is implied in both the reading from St. Paul and in the Gospel. Jesus reminds us that we must deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him to Calvary, and St. Paul says, “offer your bodies as a living sacrifice holy and acceptable to God, your spiritual worship.” And that’s the key: sacrifice.

Of all the things we can do on a Sunday to keep the Lord’s day holy – rest and relaxation as the Lord did on the seventh day, prayer, reading the bible, being with your family and the Christian community – it is only at the Mass that we can do the one thing we must do each week, and that is offer sacrifice – spiritual worship.

What does this mean? St. Paul says, “offer your bodies as a living sacrifice” and Jesus says, “whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” To offer sacrifice means that we must offer our whole lives.

And why must we do this at Mass? Because the Mass is the perfect sacrifice. The Mass is Calvary made present, and it is by the Cross that we are saved (CCC 1366). By participating in the Mass, we unite ourselves with our Lord, as if we were the good thief saying, “Lord, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.” The catechism describes it this way: CCC 1368, “In the Eucharist the sacrifice of Christ becomes also the sacrifice of the members of his Body. The lives of the faithful, their praise, sufferings, prayer, and work, are united with those of Christ and with his total offering, and so acquire a new value. Christ’s sacrifice present on the altar makes it possible for all generations of Christians to be united with his offerings.”

When we participate in the Mass, we are, in a sense, offering him our whole lives. Jesus asks rhetorically, “What can a man offer exchange for his very self?” And the answer is nothing, so you must then offer “your very self”, your whole self. When we come to Mass, we are doing this in time on a continuous basis. We are bringing him the last week, with all of its joys and sorrows, successes and failures, good deeds and weaknesses, and we are giving it to him, offering the past week to him and dedicating the next week to him. Some people do this even daily, each day offering themselves to God, united to Christ's sacrifice and receiving it’s fruits.

And what then do we receive when you make that offering and dedication? We receive the fruits of the sacrifice of Calvary, the Risen Body of our Lord. We unite our sacrifice to his, and he unites himself to us in communion, forgiving our faults, strengthening our weaknesses, consoling our sorrows, while giving us the peace he promises, the joy he gives to his servants.

This is how we are transformed, as St. Paul says, “by the renewal of our minds, so that we might judge what is God’s will, what is good, pleasing and perfect.” Weekly Mass keeps us focused on that time when the Lord will come again to “repay each man according to his conduct.” We continually renew ourselves, hopefully becoming more and more pleasing to him, transformed into the image and likeness of Christ.

The catechism defines our Sunday Obligation this way, 2180: “On Sundays and other holy days of obligation the faithful are bound to participate in the Mass.” It adds, “the faithful are obliged... unless excused for a serious reason (for example, illness, the care of infants) or dispensed by their own pastor.” So please keep in mind that this obligation is very reasonable. I define it as “you are obligated to attend Mass if you are able to attend Mass.” The Church does not want to impose heavy burdens on the people, but it does ask them to take seriously the Sunday Obligation. It also recommends that those who are not able to attend Mass should at least put aside an hour for the Word of God. You should do the same if you miss Mass for a non-serious reason.

Now, if we are able-bodied, and the Mass is available and accessible, and we have no serious obligations of health or caring for others, then not keeping holy the Lord’s day is as if we are telling the Lord, like Peter, “No thanks, Lord, I don’t need that Cross; I can find my own way; I don’t need to follow in your footsteps.”

But if we do understand the “why” behind this obligation, then perhaps we can say with the psalmist, “O God, you are my God, for you I long; for you my soul is thirsting... So I gaze on you in the sanctuary to see your strength and your glory. For your love is better than life; so I will bless you all my life; my soul clings to you; your right hand holds me fast.”

So if anyone should ask why you go to Mass each Sunday, you can ask them in return, “Why would I want to be anywhere else?”

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Quién dicen que soy yo?

Homilía 21 Domingo OT A
Padre Paul Williams, San José, Dalton GA USA

Este fin de semana, el Papa Benedicto se encuentra en Madrid España para la Jornada Mundial de la Juventud. Este maravilloso evento es una oportunidad para los jóvenes de todo el mundo para reunirse y celebrar su fe y escuchar al Papa. Una multitud de jóvenes están orando, confesando, asistiendo en la santa misa, y pasar el rato con otros católicos de tantas naciones - un gran signo de la unidad de la Iglesia Católica.

El Evangelio de hoy nos habla de San Pedro, el primer Papa, precisamente en el momento en que Jesús le anunció la función que tendría dentro de la Iglesia. Además nos informa de cómo Cristo gobernaría esa Iglesia fundada por El, a través de San Pedro y de todos los Papas que le sucedieran.

“Tú eres Pedro y sobre esta piedra edificaré mi Iglesia”, fueron las palabras de Jesús al que antes se llamaba Simón y que ahora llama “piedra” -o más bien “roca”. El Apóstol San Pedro es, entonces, la “roca” sobre la cual Cristo funda su Iglesia.

El Papa Benedicto es el sucesor de Pedro, el primer Papa, y las promesas que hizo a Pedro se siguen cumpliendo en la Iglesia Católica. El Padre se revela a nosotros en la persona de Cristo, y la verdad que Jesús vino a proclamar, las llaves del Reino de los Cielos, se transmite y confiada a la Iglesia y está protegido del infierno por el poder del Espíritu Santo.

Así que cuando el Papa habla a los jóvenes este fin de semana, está hablando sobre la verdad que nos ha transmitido la iglesia durante siglos a nuestro mundo moderno que todavía tiene que escuchar esas verdades. En su Mensaje a los jóvenes , dice, “La cultura actual, en algunas partes del mundo, tiende a excluir a Dios, o a considerar la fe como un hecho privado, sin ninguna relevancia en la vida social. Aunque el conjunto de los valores, que son el fundamento de la sociedad, provenga del Evangelio –como el sentido de la dignidad de la persona, de la solidaridad, del trabajo y de la familia–, se constata una especie de “eclipse de Dios”, una cierta amnesia, más aún, un verdadero rechazo del cristianismo y una negación del tesoro de la fe recibida, con el riesgo de perder aquello que más profundamente nos caracteriza.”

Como Jesús dijo a Pedro: "sobre esta piedra edificaré mi Iglesia", el Papa nos dice, “Es vital tener raíces y bases sólidas. Esto es verdad, especialmente hoy, cuando muchos no tienen puntos de referencia estables para construir su vida, sintiéndose así profundamente inseguros. El relativismo que se ha difundido, y para el que todo da lo mismo y no existe ninguna verdad, ni un punto de referencia absoluto, no genera verdadera libertad, sino inestabilidad, desconcierto y un conformismo con las modas del momento. Los jóvenes tienen el derecho de recibir de las generaciones que les preceden puntos firmes para hacer sus opciones y construir sus vidas.”

La Iglesia nos protege de esta mentalidad del relativismo y las modas del momento a través de su enseñanza. La enseñanza de la Iglesia es una guía segura y cierta en medio de la tempestad del mundo. Nos da ese punto de referencia sólido, Cristo, y nos muestra el camino a la verdadera libertad y la verdadera seguridad y la verdadera felicidad.

Jesús le pregunta a Pedro, “Quien dice que soy yo?” Esa es la cuestión central de nuestra fe, y la respuesta de Pedro ha sido nuestro guía por dos milenios. Dice el Papa “la fe cristiana no es sólo creer en la verdad, sino sobre todo una relación personal con Jesucristo. El encuentro con el Hijo de Dios proporciona un dinamismo nuevo a toda la existencia. Cuando comenzamos a tener una relación personal con Él, Cristo nos revela nuestra identidad y, con su amistad, la vida crece y se realiza en plenitud.”

El Papa Benedicto nos anima, “construye su casa sobre roca. Intente también ustedes acoger cada día la Palabra de Cristo. Escúchele como al verdadero Amigo con quien compartir el camino de su vida. Con Él a su lado será capaces de afrontar con valentía y esperanza las dificultades, los problemas, también las desilusiones y los fracasos.”

Jesús promete a Pedro que “los poderes del infierno no prevalecerán sobre la iglesia.” Y el Papa Benedicto nos señala donde viene los ataques del maligno hoy en día, dice, “En efecto, hay una fuerte corriente de pensamiento laicista que quiere apartar a Dios de la vida de las personas y la sociedad, planteando e intentando crear un “paraíso” sin Él. Pero la experiencia enseña que el mundo sin Dios se convierte en un “infierno”, donde prevalece el egoísmo, las divisiones en las familias, el odio entre las personas y los pueblos, la falta de amor, alegría y esperanza. En cambio, cuando las personas y los pueblos acogen la presencia de Dios, le adoran en verdad y escuchan su voz, se construye concretamente la civilización del amor, donde cada uno es respetado en su dignidad y crece la comunión, con los frutos que esto conlleva.”

Este ideal de "la civilización del amor" se basa en la vida de las personas que saben quién es Cristo y responder por amarlo. En la Iglesia Católica, este conocimiento y el amor es muy concreto y práctico. Lo vemos sobre todo en los sacramentos que Cristo dio a la Iglesia. El Papa dice, “Queridos jóvenes, aprende a “ver”, a “encontrar” a Jesús en la Eucaristía, donde está presente y cercano hasta entregarse como alimento para nuestro camino; en el Sacramento de la Penitencia, donde el Señor manifiesta su misericordia ofreciéndonos siempre su perdón. Reconoce y sirva a Jesús también en los pobres y enfermos, en los hermanos que están en dificultad y necesitan ayuda.”

Y esta es la belleza de la Jornada Mundial de la Juventud. Los jóvenes de todo el mundo, representando todas las naciones y los pueblos están unidos en la fe profesada por Pedro, que se nos da a través de los testimonios de los Apóstoles, transmitido a nosotros por incontables generaciones de los Santos, se celebra con nuestro amado Papa Benedicto. Debemos orar por los jóvenes, que cuando regresan a sus países, encendido con el Espíritu de Cristo, que pueden compartir todos los pueblos de todo el mundo. Como concluye el Papa, “Cristo no es un bien sólo para nosotros mismos, sino que es el bien más precioso que tenemos que compartir con los demás. En la era de la globalización, sean testigos de la esperanza cristiana en el mundo entero: son muchos los que desean recibir esta esperanza.”

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Who Do You Say That I Am?

Homily 21st Sunday Ordinary Time, Cycle A
Fr. Paul D. Williams, Jr., pastor, Saint Joseph's Catholic Church, Dalton, GA

This weekend, Pope Benedict is in Madrid Spain for World Youth Day. This wonderful event is an opportunity for young people from all over the world to gather and celebrate their faith and listen to the Pope. Countless young people are praying, going to confession, attending Mass, and just hanging out with other Catholics from countless nations – a great sign of the unity of the Catholic Church.

Our church is universal because it was founded by Jesus on Peter, who professed his faith in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the Living God, as we read in today's Gospel. Jesus says to him, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven."

The Pope is the successor to Peter, the first Pope, and the promises made to Peter continue to be fulfilled in the Catholic Church. The Father reveals himself to us in the person of Christ, and the truth that Jesus came to proclaim, the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven, is handed on and entrusted to the Church and is protected from the netherworld by the power of the Holy Spirit.

So when the Pope speaks to the youth this weekend, he is speaking that truth handed down to us over the centuries to a modern world that still needs to hear it. In his Message to the youth, he says, “today’s culture tends to exclude God, and to consider faith a purely private issue with no relevance for the life of society... we see a certain “eclipse of God” taking place, a kind of amnesia which, albeit not an outright rejection of Christianity, is nonetheless a denial of the treasure of our faith, a denial that could lead to the loss of our deepest identity.

As Jesus said to Peter “upon this rock I will build my Church”, the Pope says to us, “it is vital to have roots, a solid foundation! Today, many people have no stable points of reference on which to build their lives, and so they end up deeply insecure. There is a growing mentality of relativism, which holds that everything is equally valid, that truth and absolute points of reference do not exist. But this way of thinking does not lead to true freedom, but rather to instability, confusion and blind conformity to the fads of the moment. As young people, you are entitled to receive from previous generations solid points of reference to help you to make choices and on which to build your lives.”

The Church protects us from this mentality of relativism and the fads of the moment through its teaching. The teaching of the Church is a sure and certain guide in the midst of the tempest of the world. It gives us that solid reference point, Christ, and it shows us the way to true freedom and true security and true happiness.

Jesus asks Peter the question, “Who do you say that I am?” That is the central question of our faith, and Peter's response has been our guiding light for two millennia. The Pope says, “Christian faith is not only a matter of believing that certain things are true, but above all a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. It is an encounter with the Son of God that gives new energy to the whole of our existence. When we enter into a personal relationship with him, Christ reveals our true identity and, in friendship with him, our life grows towards complete fulfillment.

So that question is asked to each of us individually, “Who do you say that I am?” Do we define ourselves only by our family background, our place in society, our work and study, our accomplishments? Or do we define ourselves in reference to Christ? Jesus says, “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides.” All the gifts and challenges of life, our family, our work, our achievements, take on their true and greater meaning when seen in Christ.

The Pope encourages us, “Dear friends, build your own house on rock. Try each day to follow Christ’s word. Listen to him as a true friend with whom you can share your path in life. With him at your side, you will find courage and hope to face difficulties and problems, and even to overcome disappointments and set-backs.

Jesus would promise Peter that the “the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against [the Church].” And the Pope points out where the attacks of the evil one come from today, he says, “there is a strong current of secularist thought that aims to make God marginal in the lives of people and society by proposing and attempting to create a “paradise” without him. Yet experience tells us that a world without God becomes a “hell”: filled with selfishness, broken families, hatred between individuals and nations, and a great deficit of love, joy and hope. On the other hand, wherever individuals and nations accept God’s presence, worship him in truth and listen to his voice, then the civilization of love is being built, a civilization in which the dignity of all is respected, and communion increases, with all its benefits.

This ideal of a “civilization of love” is founded on the lives of individuals who know who Christ is and respond by loving him. In the Catholic Church, this knowledge and love is very concrete and practical. We see it especially in the sacraments Christ gave to the Church. The Pope says, “Dear young people, learn to “see” and to “meet” Jesus in the Eucharist, where he is present and close to us, and even becomes food for our journey. In the sacrament of Penance the Lord reveals his mercy and always grants us his forgiveness. Recognize and serve Jesus in the poor, the sick, and in our brothers and sisters who are in difficulty and in need of help.

This individual love of Christ naturally expresses itself in community. The Pope says, “we come to see that our personal faith in Christ, which comes into being through dialogue with him, is bound to the faith of the Church. We do not believe as isolated individuals, but rather, through Baptism, we are members of this great family; it is the faith professed by the Church which reinforces our personal faith.”

And isn't that the beauty of World Youth Day? Young people from all over the world, representing all nations and peoples are united in the faith professed by Peter, given to us through the eyewitness of the Apostles, handed down to us by countless generations of Saints, is now celebrated with our beloved Pope Benedict. We should pray for our youth, that when they come home from this once in a lifetime event, on fire with the Spirit of Christ, they may share it with all peoples throughout the world. As the Pope concludes, “Christ is not a treasure meant for us alone; he is the most precious treasure we have, one that is meant to be shared with others. In our age of globalization, be witnesses of Christian hope all over the world.