Saturday, March 16, 2019

CELEBRATE WHAT?

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I was ordained a priest on March 22, 1969. After some sophisticated mathematical computation I
concluded that next Friday, March 22, 2019, will be the 50th anniversary of my ordination. We're going to mark the event on the following day, Saturday (one week from today) with a mass and a buffet luncheon in the school dining hall for about 200 relatives and friends.

Now I'm trying to figure out exactly what it is that we'll be celebrating. The obvious answer is that Fr. Albert's been a priest for fifty years. Okay, but why does this fact call for a celebration? I'll start with a list of reasons, some or all of which may be good ones:

Because Albert has made it to his 50th without dying.
Because God has given him the gift of serving as a priest for fifty years.
Because God has been faithful to him.
Because God has given him the grace to be faithful to God in return.

All the good reasons I can think of begin with the word "God." So, this is really a celebration of God's unbounded, mysterious goodness to a certain monk-priest in a small monastery in downtown Newark, New Jersey.

When I hear a person say "I'm not celebrating my anniversary, I don't like making a fuss about myself" I get upset and I think to myself, "It's not about you, darn it! It's a chance for the community to come together and celebrate how good God is, to celebrate the Lord's faithfulness! Are you saying that God doesn't deserve a special celebration now and then for being so kind and loving to us?"

People who know me well know that I have a big fat ego that would enjoy having a big celebration in my honor. But sorry, ego, the party next Saturday can't possibly be about you! After all, what have I had to do with the fact that I've been a priest for fifty years? Any answer you give I can restate it in terms of a gift from God (look at the list I started with above): The Lord has given me the grace to be faithful to my vocation. The Lord has given me health of body and mind so that I can continue to serve as a priest for so many years.


So, I don't see this jubilee celebration as an award ceremony for Outstanding Priestly Achievement. No, it's more like a party thrown by someone who wants to celebrate with his friends that he has won the Mega-Million Dollar Lottery. How lucky can a person be! Let's celebrate!"



"I am grateful to him who has strengthened me, Christ Jesus our Lord, because  he considered me trustworthy  in appointing me to the ministry."  (1 Timothy 1:12)

Saturday, March 9, 2019

EVERYTHING - ALMOST!

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Happy Lent! Remember that you can make the Lenten journey with me and a lot of other virtual pilgrims by reading the selection for each day in my book "Pilgrim Road: A Benedictine Journey through Lent." (I just noticed that when I searched Google Images for "Pilgrim Road Holtz" that someone has posted photos of a lot of the places I write about in the book. Hmmm.)

Here are three loosely connected Lenten thoughts about Lent.

I

First a passage from C.S.Lewis' "Screwtape Letters." You may remember the plot: a senior devil is mentoring a new devil, showing him how to get people to fall away from God. Here's what the elder has to say about the good Christian who is the new devil's first assignment:

"What he says, even on his knees, about his own sinfulness is all parrot-talk. At bottom, he still believes he has run up a very favorable credit-balance in [God's] ledger." (Letter II)


I don't know about you, but I have to admit that the devil is right about me: I think my credit-balance sheet with God is in good shape. That's a red flag! The Tempter loves it when we think that way! Does God keep a credit-balance sheet on you? Do you think he keeps score? If so, then you'll get the fasting thing all wrong, and think that it's a great way to make your credit-balance look even better. 

II

Here's a passage from the assigned gospel selection for today (Saturday):

After this Jesus went out and saw a tax collector named Levi sitting at the customs post. He said to him, “Follow me.” And leaving everything behind, he got up and followed him. (Lk 5:27-28)

A few verses before this he had called James and John, and "When they brought their boats to the shore, they left everything and followed him." (5:11)

Matthew and Mark, when they tell the story of the apostles following Jesus, say that they "left their fishing nets and followed him." Not Luke; he says "they left everything behind." Remember Matthew's remark to the Lord, "We have left everything we had and followed you. (18:28).

So, if I'm tempted to think that my credit-balance sheet with God is pretty favorable, Luke is going to give me a painful poke in the ribs with his account that Matthew and Jon and James "left everything behind" to follow Jesus. My prayer runs something like this: "Lord, I have left a lot of things behind to follow you. I've only held on to a couple of favorite things: one grudge I'm holding against you-know-who, those two pet vices, and one or two other things. Nothing sinful, really, just well, you know... So, please remember that I have left almost everything to follow you."

III

In regard to leaving "almost everything," here's a story from the earliest days of the monasticism , when the wisdom of the first monastic men and women was handed down by means of sayings and stories.

Once there was a very holy hermit who lived in a cave high on a cliff overlooking the sea. He owned nothing; his cave was bare except for a straw mat, a bowl, a cup and spoon, and a little clay jug which he used to catch the drops of cool water that dripped from the roof of the cave -- he loved that little jug. He spent endless hours in prayer and fasted constantly. But he realized that despite all of his prayer and fasting, something was missing: Something, he sensed, was keeping him from truly meeting God.

Then, one day as he sat at the mouth of his cave and pondered the sparkling surf hundreds of feet
below, he suddenly received a flash of insight. He sprang to his feet, stepped quickly to the back of his cave and grabbed the jug. He hurried to the front of the cave and threw the jug over the cliff. At that moment he received his wish and was given the gift of union with God. The holy man had given up almost everything, but one thing was holding him back.

You got any little clay jugs in your life?

May your Lenten journey bring you closer to our Redeemer who let go of everything on Mount Calvary.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

THE TRAIL AND THE TRIAL

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My post this week is a video that I came across yesterday. This beautiful 14-minute film looks at the spring Backpacking Project that we at St. Benedict's Prep require of all our freshmen. It is packed with lessons for each one of us, and surely will reward you for the time you invest in watching it, which I urge you to do.

Enjoy it, and pray for us and our kids!

Click here to watch the film.

I

Saturday, February 23, 2019

WHAT GOES AROUND ...

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The first reading and the gospel passage assigned for mass on Sunday, Feb. 24, 2019, have to do with forgiveness. In the first line of the gospel Jesus says "love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you" (Lk 6:27).


It seems to me that this teaching may be among the most neglected parts of the bible these days. Few people even question the wisdom of a favorite national pastime called "payback." I'd  like to offer a simple story that I've posted once before to illustrate how Jesus' gospel of forgiveness can work in our lives. The following is a chapter from my recently-published book,  "Faces of Easter:Meeting the Paschal Mystery in the People Around Us."


During the American Revolutionary War this guy named Michael Wittman is captured and at his trial is proven to be a turncoat who has often given the British invaluable assistance. He is found guilty of spying and sentenced to death by hanging. On the evening before the execution, an old man with white hair asks to see General Washington, giving his name as Peter Miller. Since this Miller has done a lot of favors for the revolutionary army, he is ushered in right away. This time, however, Miller is about to turn the tables by asking for a favor from Washington. After the general greets him cordially, Miller gets directly to the point, and shocks the general out of his chair by asking him to pardon Michael Wittman, the notorious turncoat. Washington is baffled and surprised by Miller’s plea, and explains that to grant his request would be impossible. Wittman had done everything he could to betray his fellow colonists, even offering to join the British to help destroy Washington and his army. Shaking his head, the general apologizes, “In these times we cannot be lenient with traitors; and for that reason, I cannot pardon your friend.” “Friend!” cries Peter Miller, “He’s no friend of mine. He is my bitterest enemy. He has persecuted me for years. He has even beaten me and spit in my face, knowing full well that I would not strike back. Michael Wittman is no friend of mine!”
Washington is puzzled. “And you still wish me to pardon him?”
“I do. I ask it of you as a personal favor.”
“Why?”
“I ask it because Jesus did as much for me.”
Washington turns away and walks into the next room. Soon he returns with a paper on which is written the pardon of Michael Wittman. “My dear friend,” he says, placing the paper in the old man’s hand, “I thank you for this.”  


To be honest, I don’t know if I would have Peter Miller’s strength of character if I were in his shoes. But I do know that I have had a couple of Michael Wittmans in my life whom I needed to forgive, and I surely have been pardoned by people whom I’ve hurt. I’ve even been General Washington's place, too, being edified by some else’s example of forgiveness. 

Saturday, February 16, 2019

WHO DO YOU TRUST?

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For the past few days this week the first reading at mass has been from Chapter 3 of Genesis, the story of "the Fall," when Adam and Eve are expelled from Eden. Reading a footnote on this chapter in the Jerusalem Bible, I came across an interesting take on the events of the Fall: Satan, the deceiver, tricked our first parents into mistrusting God'; it was their fall from "original confidence" in God. 


Satan tells Eve, "No, you won't die if you eat of the fruit of that tree, God is lying to you." When he planted that seed of doubt in their minds, the Deceiver ruined their original confidence in the Lord's goodness and love.

The consequences of the loss of original confidence became quickly apparent , and are still with you and me to this day. God is not completely trustworthy, we can't rely on God for our happiness, so we each have to make our own happiness, our own fulfillment, without reference to a power outside or above ourselves. The Jewish philosopher Spinoza called this our "God project." And we can look around us at the devastation our God projects have caused.


Especially when my problems start to overwhelm me, I don't think about turning to God, the one who lied to Eve in the Garden by telling her that she would die if she ate the fruit of that tree. I have this trust problem with God -- call it a confidence issue. These readings from Genesis occurred at the same time as the horrendous news stories about published lists of priests who have been "credibly accused" of molesting youngsters, or of former Cardinal McCarrick being suspended from the priesthood. These are times when we people of faith need more than ever to return to our "original confidence" in a loving creator who watches over us and who ultimately overcomes every evil that could assail us either as individuals or as the People of God.


While we pray for all of the many people who have been profoundly hurt by these sins, let us pray for ourselves, too, that we we may receive the gift of unshakable confidence in a God who heals every wound and ultimately overcomes every evil.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

QUIT PLAYING AROUND!

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The first and third readings for this Sunday, Feb. 10, 2019, have the same theme: Humans experiencing God's call.


Picture it for a moment. You're a Galilean fisherman. Your whole livelihood is wrapped up in your boat: it's your livelihood, your identity, your prized possession. Then along comes Jesus, who steps into your boat uninvited and tells you to push out from shore. Think of some stranger getting into your car and telling you where to drive.Here's a first principle of the spiritual life: The initiative is always God's. Grace comes unbidden, undeserved, unmerited -- and often unwanted. 


A second bedrock truth about spirituality shows up in both readings. In the first reading Isaiah is in the temple when suddenly God comes to him in a vision and the prophet has the same reaction as Peter does after the miraculous catch of fish: I am a sinful man! In the bright light of the divine presence we become aware of our sinfulness, our unworthiness. This shows an important an often ignored truth: God comes to us even though we don't deserve it. We can't earn God's grace, we can't work ourselves into a position in which we "deserve" God's love.

Then in the gospel passage comes a line that I find truly challenging: "Put out into deep waters!" I think of Jesus challenging me to face a certain problem head on rather than running away or ignoring it. He's saying "I'm in the boat with you; don't be afraid to head into waters that are way over your head."
Of course it's safer to stay on the shore, like we used to do when I was a child, with the ocean up to my ankles, and build sand castles and play with my pail and shovel. But Jesus comes walking along the beach and seeing me, loves me and wants so much more for me. He gently (or not so gently) says to me, "Okay, time to quit playing around at the edge of the ocean. Come with me in to really deep part, where it's way over your head." I, of course don't want to leave the comfort and safety of the water's edge, and I try various excuses, or I drop my bucket and run up onto the beach and try to hide behind the picnic cooler. Here's a third principle of the spiritual life: No relationship with God can work if I'm the one in total control. I have to risk, I have to leave myself open and vulnerable to the Lord. 

There's plenty of food for thought in these readings. Let's pray for the gift of spiritual wisdom to know that God is the one who makes the first move, the movement of grace. Let's pray, too, for the humility to accept the gift of divine forgiveness, and the courage to let God be in control of our lives.

"Lord, I am a man of unclean lips" (Isaiah 6)


Saturday, February 2, 2019

ETERNAL TRAJECTORY

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On Monday, January 28, I celebrated the funeral mass of my 86 year-old brother Richard ("Dick"), and preached the homily. I've decided to post my notes form that sermon, hoping that there might be a useful thought or two in there for you.

Screen writers often talk about a character's "trajectory," the movement or development of someone's life and character over a specific time period, the "plot" of someone's life. I want to reflect this morning on the trajectory of my brother's life. For me, it starts with his role as "big brother" to us three younger siblings. He was ten years older than me, and was always the model of a big brother. When I describe what he was like as a teenager, you'll recognize the Dick Holtz that you all knew as an adult. He was patient with us who were often underfoot, he was generous with his time, he was consistent, someone you could always count on, and very important for me, he was kind to us.

Then the trajectory of his life continued with his marriage to Joan, and from then on he was part of a partnership: "Dick-'n-Joan" became a single word, reflecting the loving union that lasted for the next 62 years. Then he took on the role of father to his children, Bill and Nancy. I remember watching him relate with his young children and realized that he had learned lots of parenting skills by dealing with my brother, my sister and me. 


His career as a mechanical engineer working for "Mother Alcoa" took him and his family from New Jersey to Australia, Indiana, Wales and Lebanon Pennsylvania before landing him here at the home office in Pittsburgh. From here, especially after his retirement, he and Joan would happily drive to Massachusetts or Connecticut or New Jersey to visit grandchildren and other family members.

Then his life's trajectory took an unexpected turn with the onset of medical problems such as bypass surgery and kidney transplants. Ultimately he went on dialysis, which meant the end of those trips to see his grandchildren. The last ten years of his life were spend on dialysis, and he became progressively more and more frail with the passing of the years.

But be careful! Don't picture the trajectory of his life at that point as heading downward. No, that would be to miss the whole point. To help you see what I mean, let's turn to this morning's scripture readings.

Road to Emmaus - Rouault
The gospel passage told the story of the two disciples on Easter morning walking home to their village, completely discouraged because they had hoped that Jesus was the one that would deliver Israel. You remember that suddenly Jesus appears, walking along beside them.For the next seven miles he talks with them, explaining all the Old Testament prophecies that show that the messiah must suffer. Remember that the passion accounts in the gospels were written to console and encourage Christians who were being persecuted and even killed at the time. This story of Jesus's teaching on  the road to Emmaus would have been of real comfort to the first readers of Luke's gospel, as they identified their own sufferings with those of their suffering messiah.  

A pastor in the Midwest had renovated the sanctuary of his church, and had replaced the huge crucifix that portrayed Jesus hanging in agony on the cross. He asked the contractor what to do with the lovely old crucifix. "There must be some church that could use this beautiful carved crucifix," he said. "We should be able to sell it to someone." The contractor, a specialist in church renovations, shook his head. "Sorry, father, I'm afraid not. You see, there's no market for a suffering Jesus."

Those two disciples on the road were not in the market for a suffering messiah that morning, and so they had been totally discouraged at the fate of Jesus: they had watched the trajectory of Christ's life take a nosedive into failure.

Our first reading, from Ecclesiastes, speaks of there being a time for everything: a time to be born and a time to die, and so on. But underlying that text is the worldview that everything under the sun is ultimately futile and serves no real purpose. That reflects the crucial fact that when that Old Testament text was written there was as yet no Christ: Jesus had not yet come into the world to show us that our lives, even the tedium and suffering, have ultimate meaning.

The central insight of Christianity is this: suffering is at the center of the plot; it is not some embarrassing interruption of God's plan, but rather is somehow, mysteriously, at the very center of the plot. That's why the crucifix is so important to our spirituality and our devotion and our liturgy: it reminds us that our lives and even our deaths have a meaning.

Jesus, the Son of God, became one of us precisely to take on himself all of our human weaknesses,  sufferings, dialysis and even death. He came to grips with death itself and, in a wonderful, mysterious turn of events, he won! His love conquered even death itself. His love for us forever turned to trajectory of our human lives upside down! Our suffering has now become the means of our salvation, our defeat is turned into victory, and our death becomes life eternal.

To return to my brother. As his earthly trajectory entered a new and final phase with dialysis and increasing disability, his wife Joan walked with him every step of the way: "Dick-'n-Joan" was still a single word. The suffering Jesus became a close friend of Dick's, walking with him on the road home. One day a couple of years ago as he and I were about to end a phone call, he said to me, "I love you!"

I was touched and delighted at the words that would become our ritual and the end of every phone call: "I love you!" He had come to see, perhaps, in the final phase of his earthly life, that it really is all about love. We, even as we mourn here this morning, can look at Dick's life and see the trajectory that he lived: It was all about love. His trajectory was always upward, ever upward, and has taken him onward, ahead of us to where we all hope to be one day. As we thank him for the loving example he was for us, let us close by reflecting on Paul's message in today's reading from the Second Letter to Timothy:

The time of my death is at hand.
I have fought a beautiful fight,
I've finished the race,
I've kept the faith.
From now on the crown of righteousness is waiting for me
which the Lord, the just judge, will give to me on that day.

That's the upward trajectory that Dick has followed; it's not finished at all, but continues in a new way that allows him to continue loving and helping and encouraging each one of us.

May his soul and the souls of all the faithful departed rest in peace. Amen.