Not Presumption, Not Despair. Hope.

El Greco St. Paul in St Louis

In our second reading at Sunday Mass, from chapter four of St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians, we hear St. Paul tell us to “have no anxiety at all.” Philippians 4:6: “Have no anxiety at all.[CLICK por español.]

Now, far be it from us to question the holy Apostle, when it comes to the consistency of his teachings. But any diligent Bible reader knows what St. Paul wrote, two chapters earlier, in Philippians 2:1. “Work out your salvation with… fear and trembling.”

Work out your salvation with fear and trembling. Philippians 2:12.  Have no anxiety at all. Philippians 4:6.

Did our beloved Apostle Paul contradict himself?

Let us try to understand.  Maybe when he said, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling,” St. Paul was thinking about us, the human race–weak sinners that we are.  When he said, “Have no anxiety at all,” he was thinking about our loving and generous Father in heaven.

Okay. Quiz. Haven’t had one in a while. Everyone knows that God helps us get to heaven by infusing three theological virtues into our souls. Right? What is the second theological virtue? Correct! Hope. By hoping in God every day, trusting in His Providence, we become the people He made us to be.

Now, the world throws plenty of stress at us. Fear and trembling come naturally enough.

But that’s not quite what St. Paul means–fearing and trembling about the economy, or Kim Jong Un, or lone-wolf shooters, or any of the other bogeymen of the world. Things can get bad, but one way or another, God will always provide for us in this pilgrim life. Even death can’t do us any harm if we die in God’s friendship.  So when we get right down to it, there is really only one thing for us truly to fear.


The one genuinely frightening thing is:  H—E—double hockey sticks.  When we seriously consider the possibility of winding up there, we really do tremble.  Not a good prospect.  Not at all.

And hell is a real possibility.  We sin against holy hope if we presume on God’s goodness.  Hope is hope, not certainty.  During this pilgrim life, I cannot know for sure that I am going to heaven. I have to get to purgatory first, to know for sure.  Heaven isn’t automatic for anybody.  So my job is to strive every day to do good and avoid evil. I have to confess my sins and beg for mercy.  Being presumptuous with a friend is rude; being presumptuous with God is a sin.

On the other hand, St. Paul also wrote, “Have no anxiety about anything.”  Pray, make your requests known to God, and “the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” The peace of God means no despair and no discouragement. Living the virtue of hope means trusting with confidence.  If it really were all up to us, we would be in trouble, serious trouble.  But it is not all up to us.

The good Lord has a perfect plan to get us all to heaven.  He has a plan to get each of us there, starting right now.  No matter what we have done or failed to do, up till now. Until the moment you and I draw our last breath on this earth, the Lord always has a plan to save us.  He will always forgive us our sins, if we ask Him.  He will give us what we need to persevere.

Pope Francis Mass consecrationAll we have to do is ask.  That is why St. Paul urged the Philippians to pray, right after he told them to have no anxiety. Pray with hope, in the peace of Christ.

And the Lord Jesus has given us the perfect way to pray.

We read a rough parable in our gospel reading on Sunday. But at the heart of that rough Parable of the Tenants, we actually find our greatest consolation, our greatest source of holy hope.

The vineyard owner sent his son to collect the fruit of the vineyard. He sent his son, in peace—even though the tenants had already killed the owner’s servants.

Was this father living in some kind of dream world? ‘Oh, they killed my servants, so they must be vicious murderers. But let me send my son, my heir, my one and only. He won’t have any problems.’

No. The owner knew the danger. That’s precisely why he sent his son. He wanted to make peace with these dangerous tenants. He thought that he could make peace by respecting the tenants and believing in them. But he also knew perfectly well that his son went to them as a lamb ready to be sacrificed.

This is our consolation and our hope, in the face of everything that life can throw at us; our consolation and hope in spite of all our own incorrigible weaknesses: The Lamb of God has been sacrificed for us. The Lamb of God came among us, ready to die, to overcome all our evil. His sacrifice for us is the perfect prayer of Christian hope. And that sacrifice is: The Holy Mass.

In the Mass, we ask for exactly what we need to get to heaven.  And in the Mass, the Lord gives us everything we ask for, and then some:  He gives us Himself.

If we want to learn how to hope in God and how to pray with hope; if we want to learn how to avoid presumption and avoid despair–all we have to do is ‘tune ourselves in’ to all the prayers of the Mass. All we have to do is make the prayers of the Mass our own.  To pray the Mass is to hope in Christ.

People Don’t Change, Except When They Do

In the second reading at Holy Mass on Sunday, St. Paul tells us to have the same attitude as Christ. [CLICK por español.]

St. Paul in Prison by Rembrandt

Which attitude, exactly? He emptied Himself. He humbled Himself. God Almighty–the Creator, eternal Wisdom–became obedient unto death, in the holy Incarnation. The attitude of humble devotion to the will of the Father.

Now, speaking of attitudes–what’s one rule of thumb that a wise observer of human nature lives by? People don’t change.

The bride who imagines that her obtuse, self-centered, thuggish fiancee will miraculously change into a prince, by virtue of marrying her–that’s a woman living in a dangerous dreamworld.

Or the employer looking to hire someone who thinks: Well, her old boss says she’s lazy, and a complainer, and a gossip–but if she could work here, she could become diligent and creative and motivated! That’s a self-deluded boss asking for misery.

People don’t change. Except…

They do. The prophet Ezekiel:

If he turns from the wickedness he has committed, and does what is right and just, he shall surely live. (Ez 18:27)

Catechism puts it like this:

The human heart is heavy and hardened. God must give man a new heart. Conversion is first of all a work of the grace of God, who makes our hearts turn to Him. God gives us strength to begin anew. When we discover the greatness of God’s love, our heart is shaken by the horror and weight of sin and begins to fear offending Him… [paragraph 1432]

Interior repentance is a return to God with all our heart, an end of sin. Conversion entails a desire to change one’s life, with hope in God’s mercy, and trust in the help of His grace… [paragraph 1431]

The same Holy Spirit who brings sin to light is also the Consoler who gives the human heart grace for repentance and conversion. [paragraph 1433]

People don’t change. But God does change people. By His holy Incarnation, and the Redemption He won for us, by humbly doing the will of the Father.

We encounter an exquisite irony here. Certainly, beyond a shadow of doubt: God does not change. What He is, which is the all-in-all: it’s eternal. We might think grandpa is stubborn and stuck in His ways. But that’s nothing compared to the immovable-rock-like permanence of the divine Being.

That said, what St. Paul declared did, in fact, happen: God took upon Himself an attitude, the attitude of humility and self-sacrifice. God didn’t change by doing this. He did, however, touch our stubborn and weary human nature with His grace by doing it. He touched our stubborn and weary human nature with His grace in order to overcome our stubbornness and weariness. The Unchanging entered the human race to change us–to change us back from bad to good.

So let’s never kid ourselves. Imagine you were the father in the Parable of the Two Sons (which we will read at Holy Mass on Sunday), and you had a son with such a sullen attitude that he simply spitted out No! whenever you asked him to help you. If you had to contend with such a miscreant son, you would want to tread very lightly when it comes to investing such a brat with any real responsibilities. People don’t change.

But: On that particular day, the day of the parable… On that day, this person did change.

Catechism-of-the-Catholic-CHurchThe punk made his usual petulant reply. “Help? No.” But then he thought better of it. Some new vision of things entered into his mind. The son saw what he had never been able to see before: His stubborn self-centeredness was wronging his good and kind father. Not to mention the fact that he was condemning himself to shiftless misery by being too arrogant to take a risk.

For the first time, the son perceived: I don’t have to live like this. It would be better; it would be happier; it would even really be easier, for me just to get up and walk out into the fields and see what’s going on. Let me see what contribution I can make. Maybe I could learn how to do something helpful.

So the son strode out into the field…

God’s grace can convert even the hardened sinner. Because the life that Christ embraced in His incarnation–the humble life, dedicated to obeying the heavenly Father–that life alone offers a human being genuine happiness. Whenever, by God’s gift, we catch a glimpse of the Christ-like life, we want to live it. We want that peace–the genuine, unshakable joy of co-operating with God.

Young ladies–give up the idea that you’re gonna change your man by your own magic arts. It won’t happen.

But may none of us ever give up on the idea that Christ can change people. Christ can, and does, turn sinners into saints.

Favorite Subjects

Okay, fair enough. I have more than one favorite subject. One is St. Polycarp. Another is fist-fights involving clergymen.

St. Polycarp wrote a letter to the Philippians. He gave props to St. Paul. But St. Polycarp added a few edifying words of his own, including:

Serve the Lord in fear and truth, as those who have forsaken the vain, empty talk and error of the multitude, and have believed in Him who raised up our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead, and gave Him glory, and a throne at His right hand…He comes as the Judge of the living and the dead. His blood will God require of those who do not believe in Him. But He who raised Him up from the dead will raise up us also, if we do His will, and walk in His commandments, and love what He loved…Faith is the mother of us all.

…So to return to the metaphysics of morals: Can we deny that the fundamental foundation of morality is faith?

We do not know God. That is, we know that He exists, but we do not know Him as He is. We cannot see that He watches our every move.

Rather, we believe that we will be judged for our actions by the omnipotent Creator. Because we believe what Christ has revealed, we want to please Him.

I appreciate all the responses on this subject so far. Any thoughts on this?

…P.G. Wodehouse is the funniest writer of all time. Only he could successfully narrate a priestly fist-fight, involving Bertie Wooster’s old college chum, the Rev. H.P. “Stinker” Pinker, who intervenes to save Gussie Fink-Nottle from the hands of Roderick Spode:

…It was not, as I was saying when I interrupted myself, pusillanimity that held him back. Under normal conditions lions could have taken his correspondence course, and had he encountered Spode on the football field, he would have had no hesitation in springing at his neck and twisting it into a lover’s knot. The trouble was that he was a curate, and the brass hats of the Church look askance at curates who swat parishioners. Sock your flock, and you’re sunk. So now he shrank from intervening, and when he did intervene, it was merely with a soft word that’s supposed to turn away wrath.

“I say, you know, what?” he said.

I could have told him he was approaching the thing from the wrong angle. When a gorilla like Spode is letting his angry passions rise, there is little or no percentage in the mild remonstrance. Seeming to realize this, he advanced to where the blighter was now, or so it appeared, trying to strangle Gussie and laid a hand on his shoulder. Then, seeing that this, too, achieved no solid results, he pulled. There was a rending sound, and the clutching hand relaxed its grip.

I don’t know if you’ve ever tried detaching a snow leopard of the Himalayas from its prey — probably not, as most people don’t find themselves out that way much — but if you did, you would feel fairly safe in budgeting for a show of annoyance on the animal’s part. It was the same with Spode. Incensed at what I suppose seemed to him this unwarrantable interference with his aims and objects, he hit Stinker on the nose, and all the doubts that had been bothering that man of God vanished in a flash.

I should imagine that if there’s one thing that makes a fellow forget that he’s in holy orders, it’s a crisp punch on the beezer. A moment before, Stinker had been all concern about the disapproval of his superiors in the cloth, but now, as I read his mind, he was saying to himself, “To hell with my superiors in the cloth,” or however a curate would put it; “Let them eat cake.”

It was a superb spectacle while it lasted, and I was able to understand what people meant when they spoke of the Church Militant…(Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves, chapter 15)

…Also, all parents should definitely watch this important public service announcement:

Evening Homily for Second Advent

This is my prayer, that your love may increase more and more, in knowledge and every kind of perception. –Philippians 1:9

These were St. Paul’s words to the Christians in Philippi, when he wrote to them from prison.

Moses with his "horns"
The church in Philippi was the first that St. Paul founded in Europe. It was the community that was most dear to him. The purpose of his letter was to beg the Philippians to comfort him by persevering in faith and love.

Let’s pay careful attention to what the Apostle wrote: “This is my prayer…that you may increase in knowledge and every kind of perception.”

St. Paul did not write to the Philippians to correct them. They had not abandoned the true faith, nor gotten confused, nor slipped back into paganism or into Judaism. The Philippians were on the right track, and St. Paul rejoiced in it.

But he prayed that they might increase in knowledge and discernment. A few moments ago, we made a similar prayer for ourselves. At the beginning of Mass, we prayed: “Father, let us share the wisdom of Christ.” Let us share the wisdom of Christ.

Continue reading “Evening Homily for Second Advent”

Five Autumn Homilies on St. Paul’s Letters

mosaic-saint-paulI won’t be giving sermons for the next two Sundays because of the Archbishop’s Appeal.

It thought it might be helpful to put together a little compendium of the homilies I gave in the fall on St. Paul’s letters to the Philippians and Thessalonians.

Our continuous reading of these letters was interrupted by feasts that we kept in the fall. We wound up reading from Philippians on four Sundays and I Thessalonians once.


St. Paul’s Favorite Church (chapter 1)

Encouraging the Apostle (Philippians 2:1-11)

Tremble and Trust (Philippians 4:6-7)

St. Paul did Correct the Philippians (Philippians 4:12-20)

I Thessalonians

The Beginning of the New Testament

Bonus! The Faithfulness of St. Paul

Bonus #2!! Colossians * “Seek the things that are above.”

Tremble and Trust

Brothers and sisters: Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7)

As we recall, our second readings at Sunday Mass for three weeks now have been taken from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians. We will read from this letter once more next week.

Between last Sunday and this Sunday, our readings from Philippians have skipped a chapter. We missed one of St. Paul’s most famous exhortations: “work out your salvation in fear and trembling.” This is what the Apostle told the Philippians to do at the end of chapter two: “work out your salvation in fear and trembling.” Perhaps this sounds strange, since in our reading today, St. Paul began by telling them to “have no anxiety at all.”

“Work out your salvation in fear and trembling.” “Have no anxiety at all.” Did our beloved Apostle Paul contradict himself?

Let us try to understand it this way. In the first sentence, St. Paul was thinking about us, the human race, weak sinners that we are. In the second, he was thinking about our loving and generous Father in heaven. These two sentences were put together perfectly by St. Ignatius Loyola when he said: Work as if everything depends on you. Pray as if everything depends on God.

When our Holy Father Pope Benedict came to visit us here in Washington and New York, his theme was hope. Hope is one of the three virtues which unite us directly with God. We believe in Him—faith. We hope to be in heaven with Him someday. We love Him because He is absolutely wonderful, and we love ourselves and everyone else because God loves us—charity.

We can fail in the virtue of hope in two ways. St. Paul’s words to the Philippians help us to avoid both.

“Work out your salvation in fear and trembling.” The past couple of weeks a lot of people have been nervous and afraid about our economy. When knowledgeable people warn us of possible economic catastrophe, it is perfectly natural for us to be afraid. May it please God to see us through these difficult times.

But when we get right down to it, there is really only one thing to be truly afraid of. God will always provide for us one way or another, so other than this one thing, we really don’t have anything to fear. Even death can’t do us any harm if we die in God’s friendship.

The one genuinely frightening thing is: H—E—double hockey sticks. When we seriously consider the possibility of winding up there, we tremble. Not a good prospect. Not at all. We are right to take every care to avoid the bad place.

Hell is a real possibility. We sin against hope if we presume with God. Hope is hope, not certainty. I cannot assume I am going to heaven. It is not automatic. I have to strive to do good and avoid evil; I have to confess my sins and beg for mercy. Being presumptuous with a friend is rude; being presumptuous with God is a sin.

On the other hand, St. Paul wrote, “Have no anxiety about anything.” Pray, make your requests known to God, and “the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”

Living the virtue of hope means trusting with confidence in God’s generosity. If it really were all up to us, we would be in trouble, serious trouble. But it is not up to us alone. We can trust God.

The good Lord, in fact, has a perfect plan to get us all to heaven. He has a plan to get each of us there, starting right now. No matter what we have done or failed to do, until the moment you and I draw our last breath on this earth, the Lord always has a contingency plan to save us. He will always forgive us our sins, if we ask Him. He will always give us whatever we need to persevere on our pilgrimage, if we ask Him.

It is a sin to presume; it is also a sin to despair. Despair is a sin against hope. God will provide. He will give us the grace to repent of our sins. All we have to do is ask. That is why St. Paul urged the Philippians to pray. And the good Lord has even given us the perfect way to pray.

At the end of today’s reading, St. Paul wrote, “Keep on doing what you have learned and received.” These words call to mind what St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when He had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you…In the same way the chalice…saying, This is the new covenant in my blood.”

If we hope in God, we pray. The best prayer is the Holy Mass. In the Mass, we ask for exactly what we need to get to heaven. And in the Mass, the Lord gives us everything we ask for, and then some: He gives us Himself.

If we want to learn how to pray with hope, if we want to learn how to avoid presumption and despair, let’s ‘tune ourselves in’ to all the prayers of the Mass, and pray them ourselves. To pray the Mass is an act of perfect hope.

St. Paul’s Favorite Church



Brothers and sisters:  Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me life is Christ, and death is gain.  If I go on living in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. And I do not know which I shall choose. I am caught between the two. I long to depart this life and be with Christ, for that is far better.  Yet that I remain in the flesh is more necessary for your benefit.

(from the first chapter of St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians)


The second readings at Sunday Mass generally come from one of St. Paul’s letters to the early Christian churches.  Through this past summer, we have read from his letter to the Christians in Rome.  Today we begin reading from St. Paul’s relatively short letter to the Philippian Christians.  We will continue reading from this letter in our second reading at Sunday Mass for the next three Sundays.


On his second missionary journey, St. Paul traveled throughout Asia Minor—what is now Turkey—visiting local churches and establishing new ones.  When he had reached the west coast, St. Paul received a vision in a dream.  He saw a Greek man saying to him, “Pass over and help us.”  So the Apostle decided to set sail for Europe.  Sts Timothy and Luke were with him.


The northern part of Greece, where the Apostles landed, is called Macedonia.  In 334 B.C. Alexander the Great departed to conquer the world from the military city named after his father, King Philip.  When the Romans conquered Philippi two centuries later, they found the place to be so beautiful that many of the soldiers retired there.  Philippi became a Roman colony, and by the time of St. Paul, the Philippians enjoyed the full rights of Roman citizens, just like the citizens of Tarsus, St. Paul’s home city in southeast Asia Minor.


When St. Paul arrived in a new city, his custom was to go to the synagogue on the sabbath and preach the gospel.  But there were so few Jews in Philippi there was no synagogue.  St. Paul found the city’s small group of Jews at their meeting place by the river.  Many of them were immediately converted to Christ.


In Asia Minor the Apostle had been well-received by the pagans but persecuted by the Jews; in Macedonia it was the other way around.  He drove a demon out of a pagan girl who had been able to tell fortunes.  The men who made money from her exploits were not pleased.  They had St. Paul beaten and thrown into prison.


At midnight an earthquake shook the prison, leaving the doors open, but the Apostle remained inside to evangelize the guards rather than run away.  This won over the town authorities, and they released him.  St. Paul then left Philippi a free man, and he headed west and south to continue founding churches.  It would be over five years before he was able to return to Philippi.


A quick read of St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians immediately shows us that the church in Philippi was St. Paul’s favorite.  In this letter, he does not correct his readers like he corrected the Corinthians, Galatians, and Thessalonians.  Rather, the Apostle thanks God for the Philippian Christians and congratulates them for their generosity.  The letter to the Philippians is permeated from beginning to end with the sweetness of holy love.  It has been called the ‘jewel’ or the ‘pearl’ of St. Paul’s writings.


This is all the more remarkable considering that St. Paul was languishing in another prison when he wrote to the Philippians.  Perhaps he was imprisoned in Rome, perhaps in Ephesus; we cannot say for sure.  What is clear is that, wherever the prison was, he had enough freedom in this prison to preach the gospel to his fellow-prisoners and to receive visitors.


One of the Philippian Christians, Epaphroditus, had come to St. Paul with a monetary offering from the Philippians.  Epaphroditus planned to stay with Paul in prison and take care of him.  But Ephroditus took deathly ill.  As soon as he was healthy enough to travel, St. Paul sent him back to Philippi, and he gave him a letter to take back home.  This is the letter we are reading from these four Sundays.


In the beautiful short section of the letter we heard this today, St. Paul put everything in perspective, including his imprisonment and the dangers he faced in his mission.  He considered the whole situation in the light of his personal union with Christ.  The Apostle reasoned this way:  If he was faithful to Christ, then the Lord would be glorified no matter what happened, whether St. Paul lived or died, suffered or prospered.  All that mattered was doing the Lord’s will.


This message can put everything in perspective for us, too.  The best thing is always to strive to do God’s will.  If God’s will means death, so be it.  If it means fruitful labor for the kingdom of God here on earth, so be it.


We are not the masters of the grand plan.  We do not measure out the length of our lives.  God does the measuring.  Our role is to live each day God gives us for His glory, setting our minds to our tasks, and giving generously in any way we can.


If we fall away from the will of God and sin, then we humbly confess it to a priest, do penance, and move on.  The Lord is more patient and merciful with us than we imagine.  He can even bring good out of our mistakes and failures.


All he asks is that we do the best we can to do our part each day.  He will take care of the rest.  If we can truly say with St. Paul, “for me, life is Christ,” then we have begun to live in eternity already.  Everything we do here on earth is simply a matter of preparing things for the glory to come.


Reading St. Paul during His Holy Year





History has not recorded St. Paul’s exact date of birth, but scolars have narrowed it down pretty well.  We are very likely within one year of the two-thousandth birthday of the Holy Apostle who is the human author of half of the New Testament.  Pope Benedict has set this year aside as a special Pauline Year.


During the Church’s yearly cycle of readings, our second readings at Holy Mass on Ordinary Sundays are taken in sequence from St. Paul’s letters.  Perhaps you have noticed that, through the summer, we have been reading sequentially through Romans at Mass.  (For some homilies on these readings, see:


If there were ever a year to follow through on your resolution to try to read St. Paul’s letters, this is it.  (And if you never made such a resolution, you should have.)  It might be more enjoyable and more stimulating to read them along with the whole Church.  The Sunday Mass readings do not include every verse of the letters, so if you read on your own at the same time, you will be a step ahead of everybody else at Mass, and you could give a little lecture in the parking lot afterwards.


Here is the schedule between now and the end of the Pauline Year, next June 29:


Starting on September 28, we will spend three weeks reading Philippians.


From October 19 until the beginning of Advent, we will spend five weeks reading I Thessalonians.  (Though on two Sundays we will have special readings:  November 2 for All Souls, and November 9 for the Feast of the Dedication of St. John Lateran.)


[During Advent and Christmas season, we break out of our sequential reading of St. Paul, so I am going to have to get back to you on this.]


From January 18 until February 25, we will spend four weeks readings chapters six through eleven of I Corinthians and then two weeks reading the beginning of II Corinthians.


During Lent and Easter season…Very complicated; I will have to get back to you.


From Pentecost to the Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul, we will spend three weeks reading more of II Corinthians.


To summarize all this complexity, here is your St. Paul reading plan for the Holy Year:


Read Romans before September 28.

Read Philippians between September 28 and October 19.

Read First Thessalonians between October 19 and November 30.

Read First Corinthians 6-11 between January 12 and February 24

Read Second Corinthians between June 1 and June 29.


Follow this reading plan, dear reader, and I guarantee that…


1.  You will become smarter.

2.  You will impress people.

3.  God will be pleased.

4.  Good things will happen!