Sunday, December 30, 2018

The Virtues of Family Life

The Holy Family, by Michelangelo

(Feast of the Holy Family-Year C; This homily was given on December 30, 2018 at St. Paul Church in Cranston, R.I.; See Luke 2: 41-52)

The opening prayer that we say at the beginning of each Mass, in liturgical terms, is called the “collect.”  It’s purpose is to “collect” or gather the congregation together around a central mystery or celebration.  For Christmas, the “collect” focused on the mystery of the Incarnation, God made flesh, and the celebration of the Child born in Bethlehem.  For our Mass this weekend and the celebration of the Feast of the Holy Family, our collect includes not only Jesus, but the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Joseph, as well.  In fact, it even broadens to include each of us and our families!  At the beginning of this Mass we prayed:

O God, who were pleased to give us the shining example of the Holy Family, graciously grant that we may imitate them in practicing the virtues of family life . . . 

The virtues of family life.  A great question we could ask, though, is “Which virtues?”  There are numerous virtues that we see at work in the lives of Jesus, Mary and Joseph in the Sacred Scriptures.  

Certainly the virtue of courage is one obvious example.  What could have taken more courage than for a young girl to say, “Fiat! Yes!” and give birth to the Eternal Son of God?  In the same way, St. Joseph shows tremendous courage when he consents to take Mary and her child, Jesus, into his care.  Specifically, he is told by the angel of God in a dream that King Herod is seeking to destroy the child, and that he will have to flee to a foreign land with Mary and Jesus to avoid this peril.  

Likewise, the virtue of chastity is one we find beautifully embraced and wonderfully exercised in the life of the Holy Family.  Holy Mary remained a virgin, our faith teaches, before, during and after the birth of Christ (in ancient iconography, there are always three stars displayed above the Virgin Mary to express this great mystery).  Mary and Joseph lived together and loved each other deeply, but were never physically together as husband and wife; they lived in chastity and in a state of celibate love.  They teach us much today by their virtue and love for each other and for God.

The Holy Family would have also possessed what Aristotle called the “charioteer” of the virtues, prudence.  In their choices and their actions they were prudent, choosing the good in exactly the right measure and magnificently showing those around them the power of human freedom and the wonders of a virtuous life.

One could fill volumes describing the virtues lived out so gloriously in the life of the Holy Family.  But there are three specific virtues that they would have possessed in abundance, virtues that are central to our own families and to our own Christian lives.  These virtues are called the Theological Virtues, for they unite us most closely to the life of God Himself.  The Theological Virtues are faith, hope and love.  

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that the Theological Virtues form us “for participation in the divine nature...They dispose Christians to live in a relationship with the Holy Trinity” (CCC, #1812).

In other words, when we choose to believe in what God has revealed, when we choose to place our trust in the God who governs all things and to hope in Him, when we love in all the places where it may be difficult or daunting, when we practice these virtues, we participate more completely in the life of the Holy Trinity.  We begin to live more closely united to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  When we choose to act in faith, trust to hope, and will to love, we become more and more open to the power of God working in and through us.

In the Gospel passage for this weekend, the mysterious finding of the Child Jesus teaching in the Temple, we can see these Theological Virtues practiced and developed in the life of the Holy Family. 

The Catechism teaches us that FAITH is to believe in God and what He has revealed (CCC, #1814).  More than that, St. James teaches us in the New Testament that faith is not really faith, but remains just an empty sham virtue unless we act on it: "Faith without works is dead" (James 2:17).  The Holy Family believed all that God had revealed to them, and they acted on what they believed.  

St. Luke relates to us this weekend that “Each year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover” (Luke 2:41).  Why did they do that?  They went to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover each year because God had revealed Himself to the people of Israel specifically through the Passover event.  In saving them from slavery and death in Egypt and bringing them into the Promised Land, God had commanded Moses to commemorate that salvation through a meal in which an innocent lamb was slain, its blood shed, and its flesh eaten.  He commanded that Israel observe a solemn feast of this saving event each year.  The Holy Family  believed what God had revealed and they gladly went to Jerusalem to celebrate it.  

But when they went there, faithfully observing all that God had revealed, they discovered suddenly that they had lost their child!  Recognising that Jesus was not with them in the caravan, they returned to Jerusalem and they sought for the child . . . for three days!  It must have been a harrowing search, indeed.  But they did not give up believing that they would find Him.  They believed all that God had revealed about this child, that He was to be the Saviour, and they acted in faith until they found Him.  They did not think that God had abandoned them or that they were alone in the world, even though they could not see Him and He seemed to be absent from their lives.

Do you and I have that same faith?  Do we also believe, when it seems like Jesus is not present in our families or in our personal lives in the way we had anticipated, that He is very real and very present?  There is one word that hovers over this Christmas Season and seeks to find a home in each of our hearts.  It is the word from the Prophet Isaiah that signals the coming of the Messiah: Emmanuel!  God is with us!  Do we believe that?  Do we act on that belief, everyday?

When it comes to the Theological Virtue of HOPE, our faith indicates that one of the central components is an abiding sense of trust, placing our present circumstances and our entire future in God’s promises, and not simply relying on ourselves.  The Catechism states that “hope is the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ's promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit" (CCC, 1817).

When Mary and Joseph lost Christ, they did not give up or become despondent.  They trusted and hoped in God, believing that somehow, somewhere, they would find Him.  What ever gave them the sense that such a hope was well-founded and not just wishful thinking?  The great spiritual writers teach us that the Theological Virtue of hope is not so much rooted in what we desire to obtain in the future, as much as it is rooted in what has already happened in the past.  In other words, we can hold fast to hope, and trust in the promises of God, because He has already been so very faithful and kind of us in the past.  

God had revealed to the Blessed Virgin Mary that she would conceive and bear a son, and that He would be the Saviour of the world.  She was perplexed by such an annunciation, and exclaimed, “How can this be, since I have no husband?” (Luke 1:34).  It was something that seemed impossible to her, and yet it all came to pass in a beautiful and mysterious way.  

Once the Child was born, Mary and Joseph were confronted with the overwhelming news that King Herod was seeking to destroy Him.  Joseph was instructed to take the Child and His mother and to flee to Egypt.  There would be no army accompanying them, no guide other than God Himself.  But God was faithful.  He brought them through.  It must have been extremely difficult to travel to a foreign land with a newborn child, but God had cared for them and brought them through that arduous trial.

Mary and Jospeh would have remembered these events while they were frantically searching for Christ.  Could the God who had brought them through such strange and frightening trials suddenly forget about them while they were looking for Jesus in Jerusalem?  Not a chance!  Mary and Joseph possessed the Theological Virtue of hope, trusting in the God who had always helped them in the past, and that he would be with them in their present difficulties.  Do we?  Is our hope founded on God?  Are our families founded on this same Theological Virtue of hope?

The final Theological Virtue, and perhaps the one our culture today most misunderstands, is the virtue of LOVE or charity.  The Catechism teaches that “Charity upholds and purifies our human ability to love, and raises it to the supernatural perfection of divine love(CCC #1827).

Mary and Jospeh had great love, for God and for each other.  How painful and challenging for us this weekend, to see that love purified and raised up by God!  They believed that Jesus was in the caravan, and they trusted that He would be with everyone else when the group began to make their way home.  But Jesus, whom they cherished with love perhaps beyond our comprehension, was suddenly lost.  When they finally find Him, Mary expresses her anxious concern: “Son, why have you done this to us?  Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.”

Jesus’ response is perplexing, at first: “Why were you looking for me?  Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”  But reflecting on this remarkable passage we can see that God was purifying their love and raising it to an entirely new level.  To love Jesus is to also love the Father, and the Holy Spirit.  To love in a human way is wonderful and necessary.  But let us not be at all surprised when, in 2019, God begins to purify that love and raise it “to the supernatural perfection of divine love.”  

The stronger these virtues are in us, then the greater we will possess the grace to dwell in relationship with God.  Importantly, the Catechism teaches us that these virtues are not acquired by working really hard for them and they are not the reward of something earned.  If we want an increase in the Theological Virtues, then we need to begin by asking God for them: “They are infused by God into the souls of the faithful to make them capable of acting as His children and of meriting eternal life” (CCC, #1813).

With living faith, certain hope and a deep, abiding love, we pray once again that beautiful prayer from the opening collect:

O God, who were pleased to give us the shining example of the Holy Family, graciously grant that we may imitate them in practicing the virtues of family life.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Angels Among Us

St. Michael the Archangel, by Raffaello (1483-1520)

(Thirty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year B; This homily was given on November 18, 2018 at San Giuseppe del Monastero di Clausura, Rome; See Daniel 12:1-3 and Mark 13: 24-32)

Our readings for this weekend focus on the struggle between light and darkness, between the forces of evil and the power of God.  In the Gospel Jesus talks about the distress that will fall upon the earth in the end times, before He comes again:

In those days after that tribulation the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from the sky, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
—Mark 13: 24-25

But the words of Christ are not words without hope.  He notes how the angels of God will be sent out at that time, to “gather together His elect from the four winds, from the end of the earth to the end of the sky” (Mark 13:27).

This same mystery is described by the prophet Daniel in our first reading.  He also speaks about “a time unsurpassed in distress since nations began until that time” (Daniel 12:1), truly a period of darkness and suffering.  Yet, Daniel is encouraged by the announcement that he will not be alone in the fight: “At that time there shall arise Michael, the great prince, guardian of your people” (Daniel 12:1).

God never abandons us.  He will always remain true to His promises, and He never leaves us without the protection and care of His holy angels.  We thank God this weekend for the myriad of angels that stand ready to follow God’s every command, and who do more for us than we will ever comprehend on this side of heaven.  

Throughout Sacred Scripture, we find three central activities or functions that occupy the angels of God.  Firstly, the angels worship God.  From the Book of Genesis to the Book of Revelation, constantly we see the angels worshipping God in heaven and singing aloud His praises.

Secondly, the angels carry messages.  The word “angel” is taken from the Greek word for “messenger.”  The Archangel Gabriel carried the message of the Messiah to the Blessed Virgin Mary.  The Archangel Michael will carry the message of peace to Daniel when he is tired and weary.  The angels bring us God’s message of encouragement and love in those places where we need to hear it the most.

But thirdly, and there is no denying it, the angels of God are fully engaged in one final cosmic activity: they fight!  They go to battle for the people of God against the powers of darkness, to protect us and to guide us in the paths of peace.   They will stop at nothing to bring us into the eternal light that God is calling us to.  They do not tire and will never cease to defend us and watch over us on our journey home to God.

St. Teresa of Avila, in her autobiography, tries to discourage any attempts to live a spiritual life as if we were already in heaven.  She writes, “We are not angels but we have a body.  To desire to be angels while we are on earth—and as much on earth as I was—is foolishness” (The Book of Her Life, Ch. 22, #10).  Nonetheless, we know very well how she also imitated the angels in the way she lived her life in the body, especially in these three activities we find in Sacred Scripture.  How is God calling us this weekend, not to be angels, but to imitate the angels by the way we live our Christian lives?  

Because we, too, worship God in this place.  Along with the angels, we sing His praises and adore the Lord.  We worship God who comes to us here in the Blessed Sacrament of the altar, and we receive that “Bread of Angels,” strengthened for the work that God has called us to.

Secondly, we also carry God’s message of hope and salvation to a broken world.  By the way that we live and by the way that we love, we carry the message of the Gospel to those around us.  There are so very many people who long to hear that message.

Finally, we follow the example of the angels when we fight for those who cannot speak for themselves, for those who have been marginalized or who are suffering and in great need.  Only at the end of time will we know how much good was done by our fidelity to our Catholic faith and by the fruitfulness of prayer.  The greatest gift we can bring to those around us is to keep living our vocation well, to stay in the fight, and let God do what He wills by the power of His grace.

“We are not angels but we have a body.”  True enough!  But in our bodies, we pray for the grace to imitate the heavenly messengers, and to trust that God is doing great things in our midst.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Humility, Queen of the Virtues: Checkmate!

St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582)

(Twenty Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year B; This homily was given on October 21, 2018 at San Giuseppe del Monastero di Clausura, Rome; See Isaiah 53:10-11 and Mark 10: 35-45)

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Jesus and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”  He replied, "What do you wish me to do for you?”  They answered him, “Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and the other at your left.”
—Mark 10:35-37 

The conversation of James and John in the Gospel this morning is always difficult for us to listen to. We may even feel embarrassed for them, but we must admit that we are just as weak, and we prove it many times!  Nonetheless, the Apostles are focused on ambition and are moving in the “opposite direction” than Christ would have them.  The only consolation is that, in the end, they will learn to love and serve as Christ—they will become martyrs, saints—but this morning they are far from that ideal.

Isaiah the Prophet speaks this morning of the attitude of Christ, the Messiah.  Jesus, our Saviour, will not come in an ambitious and proud manner, but in humility and with the desire to serve others. Isaiah writes:

Because of his affliction, he shall see the light in fullness of days; through his suffering, my servant shall justify many, and their guilt he will bear.
—Isaiah 53:11

It is the cross of Jesus Christ that will save the world (more precisely, it is the love of Christ on the cross that saves us). We are exalted, because he was willing to be humiliated. He humbled himself, and in so doing He shows us the way to live a fully Christian life.

In her book, "Way of Perfection," Saint Teresa of Avila writes about the power of humility, a power that can even have an influence on God (as we know it did many times in the life of Saint Teresa!).  She writes, in Chapter 16:

Now realize that anyone who doesn’t know how to set up the pieces for a game of chess won’t know how to play well.  And without knowing how to check the king, one won’t know how to checkmate it either . . . The queen is the piece that can carry on the best battle in this game, and all the other pieces help.  There’s no queen like humility for making the king surrender.  Humility drew the King from heaven to the womb of the virgin, and with it…we will draw him to our souls. 
—St. Teresa of Avila, The Way of Perfection, Ch. 16, #1-2

God cannot resist this “queen of virtues,” Queen Humility!

The holy Mother continues to talk about the three essential virtues: humility, charity and detachment from creatures, but the foundation for Saint Teresa is always, always humility.

There are always opportunities for us to practice this great virtue as we follow Jesus on the way of perfection. The more we grow in humility, Saint Teresa teaches, the more we will grow in charity and in our detachment, allowing us to become more and more like Jesus Christ.

It is Christ who teaches us this morning that we should be ambitious, most zealous for the greatest things imaginable, but He clarifies exactly what we should be ambitious for.  He says:

Whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.  For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.
—Mark 10:43-45

If we are truly ambitious in the Christian life, perhaps we may also become as humble, detached and full of charity as the Apostles, St. James and St. John. Everything is possible with God, the King who loves us and wants us to draw Him into our souls, where He can reign as He should.  Saint Teresa of Avila, pray for us.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

"For He Is Our Peace"

Statue of St. Agnes at the United Nations, New York

(Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year B; This homily was given on July 22, 2018 at Santo Spirito in Sassia, Rome and at the University of Dallas, Rome Campus; See Jeremiah 23:1-6, Psalm 23, Ephesians 2:13-18 and Mark 6: 30-34)

One of the most beloved saints of the Church, particularly here in Italy, is the 3rd century virgin and martyr, St. Agnes.  There are several interesting stories that surround her life and martyrdom.  Agnes was a very beautiful young woman, and many men desired her hand in marriage.  When she refused, declaring that Christ was the only Spouse for her, they resented it.  Turning her over to the Roman authorities, she was condemned for the crime of being a Christian.  One legend notes how she was first sentenced to be dragged naked through the streets, but was spared by a miraculous intervention.  Another story relates how she was to be burned at the stake, but every time they put the flame to the wood it failed to light!  Most accounts tell how she ultimately died by the sword, much like St. James, St. Paul and numerous early Christian martyrs.

The most remarkable story about St. Agnes, however, is that she once survived the detonation of an atomic bomb.  Now, I know that sounds quite impossible.  She lived in the late 3rd Century, long before such things were even conceivable.  But I am referring not to the saint herself, but to her statue.

In the Roman Catholic Cathedral in Nagasaki, there was a statue of St. Agnes that stood less than a kilometre away from the place where the atomic bomb landed on August 9, 1945.  It is estimated that some 60,000 persons died as a result of that horrific event, including a large crowd worshiping in the cathedral that day.  The impact of the blast drove the statue of St. Agnes into the ground and it was subsequently covered over with stone, steel and dirt.  It was later recovered and it stands today, not in the rebuilt Cathedral in Nagasaki, but in the world headquarters for the United Nations in New York City.

The statue of St. Agnes is displayed at the UN to remind the world of the centrality of striving for peace and the devastating results that can happen when we fail in that essential task.  But it is also a poignant reminder for the Church, that we are not only to pray for peace, but to persevere untiringly in the task of working for it on every conceivable level.  Our statue of the beloved St. Agnes belongs in the middle of the political struggle for world peace.  The Church has every right and even a responsibility to be fully involved in the political struggle for peace on earth.  For that very reason, four modern Popes have visited the United Nations in New York City. 

Pope Paul VI (soon to be canonised here in Rome this October), was the first to address the UN General Assembly in 1965.  Pope St. John Paul II addressed the UN twice, in 1979 and in 1995.  Pope Benedict XVI went there in 2008, and Pope Francis addressed the UN General Assembly just over two years ago, in September 2015.  

Pope Francis, like all of his predecessors, spoke passionately about the need to strive for peace in our world.  He likewise emphasised the “urgent need to work for a world free of nuclear weapons.”   The world we live in must never again witness another Nagasaki or Hiroshima.  Just two years after the visit of Pope Francis, to the day, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican’s Secretary for Relation with States, addressed the UN and also signed the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons there. 

This past November, Pope Francis gave the strongest statement to date on nuclear weapons, declaring, “If we also take into account the risk of an accidental detonation as a result of error of any kind, the threat of their use, as well as their very possession, is to be firmly condemned.”   Pope Francis, however, went on to quote the 1963 encyclical from Pope St. John XXIII, Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth), which gets directly to the heart of the matter:

“Unless this process of disarmament be thoroughgoing and complete, and reach men’s very souls, it is impossible to stop the arms race, or to reduce armaments, or – and this is the main thing – ultimately to abolish them entirely”
—Pope St. John XXIII,
Pacem in Terris, # 113

What Pope Francis and Pope St. John XXIII are expressing is the Church’s vision for peace, which is not merely the absence of war (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2304).  St. Augustine, in his City of God, defined peace as “the tranquillity of order.”  But it is not tranquillity of an external order only, as much as a tranquillity that is rooted within the souls of persons.  

All of our readings for this weekend reflect that longing and yearning for the internal tranquillity that alone can bring harmony to our troubled world.  In the first reading from the Prophet Jeremiah we see the dysfunction of a scattered people driven into exile.  Their hearts are deprived of peace.  To them, God promises a Messiah, “a righteous shoot to David” (Jeremiah 23:5), who will not leave them troubled and harassed but will govern and guide them with wisdom, justice and love.  Our responsorial psalm this morning resounds with the “tranquillity of order” that the Good Shepherd comes to bring:

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
In verdant pastures he gives me repose;
beside restful waters he leads me;
he refreshes my soul.
—Psalm 23:1-3

In the Gospel for this weekend, the Apostles recount to Jesus their intense ministerial activity and He immediately calls them away to rest awhile.  Before they arrive at their place of retreat, however, they are met by a veritable crush of people following His every move.  They were pining for His healing presence.   Far from being irritated or put off by the crowd, St. Mark says, “his heart was moved with pity for them, for thy were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things” (Mark 6:34).  They longed for peace in the depths of their souls, and the Prince of Peace gave it to them.

St. Paul, in our second reading this morning, describes the age-old conflict that was evidenced throughout Sacred Scripture: the division between God’s chosen people, the Jews, and all non-Jews or “gentiles.”  St. Paul affirms that Jesus Christ has come to reconcile this divide with His own sacrifice on the cross.  The Apostle goes well beyond the claim that Christ gives us His peace, and insists, instead, that Christ is Himself the embodiment of the tranquillity we long for:

For he is our peace, he who made both one and broke down the dividing wall of enmity, through his flesh, abolishing the law with its commandments and legal claims, that he might create in himself one new person in place of the two, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile both with God, in one body, through the cross, putting that enmity to death by it.
—Ephesians 2:14-16

Christ died to give us peace, that tranquillity of order that our world needs so much.  But are we looking for that peace, finding it in the places where God gives it in abundance?  Because He gives us that peace especially here, in the sacraments of the Church, in the teachings of Sacred Scripture, and in the gathering of His faithful.  How very many people today live like sheep without a shepherd, and all the while Christ longs to gather them together and feed them with Himself.

In conclusion, I would like to share a story about perhaps the youngest survivor of the atomic bomb at Nagasaki, not a statue but a little boy.  I say he was one of the youngest because he was not even born yet; he was still a little baby in the womb of his mother.  Fortunately, she was further away from the blast that devastated the city.   Several months later she gave birth to a healthy baby boy whom she named Joseph.  He was a devout and prayerful young man, and it was no big surprise when he eventually felt God calling him to the priesthood.  He went through seminary studies and in 1972 was ordained a Catholic priest.  After many years of faithful service, Fr. Joseph Mitsuaki Takami was ordained a bishop, and in 2003 Pope St. John Paul II appointed him Archbishop of Nagasaki.

It is remarkable to consider that, in the devastation and literal annihilation of nuclear warfare, God was immediately preparing a shepherd to bring healing and help for those who would survive.  He can provide peace for us even in the midst of darkness and difficulties, but He also desires that we extend that peace and establish it in the relationships and activities of everyday life. The broken world we live in longs for God’s peace, for that “tranquillity of order.”  Will we make ourselves available to receive it and then make it known by the way we live?

God, give us the grace to receive this peace that Christ died for and offers in abundance, especially in the sacraments and teachings of our faith, and give us the courage to spread that peace everywhere in the world we live in.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Freedom, Vocation and Joy

(Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year B; This homily was given on July 15, 2018 at La Chiesa di Santo Spirito in Sassia, Rome; See Amos 7:12-15, Ephesians 1:3-14 and Mark 6: 7-13)

What is it about us that makes us most like God?  We are taught from childhood that we are made in the Imago Dei, the image of God.  What, exactly, makes us most like the Father, Son and Holy Spirit?  

Some would say it is our creativity.  God brings the world into existence through an amazing act of love.  Even so, He allows us to share in that same creative power.  We have the ability to co-create with God, to bring new life into the world.  A newborn child is a miracle of grace.  We also have the capacity to combine materials and substances to make medicines that heal and sustain life.  That is an amazing power, to heal even as God heals.  There are countless ways that we can be creative, innovative, imaginative.  Artists, poets and musicians never cease to inspire and motivate us.  Our creativity, then, expresses so beautifully that we are created in God’s image.

Others might say that our capacity for joy is what makes us most like God.  St. Philip Neri indicated that joy is the infallible sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit.  When we encounter a person who radiates joy, we sense the nearness of the Holy Spirit.  It is a clear and unmistakable sign that she is created in the image of God.

The Second Vatican Council, however, teaches us that “Freedom is the highest sign in man of his being made in the divine image and, consequently, is a sign of the sublime dignity of every human person” (Gaudium et Spes, #17).  God is totally free and eternally exercises that freedom in love.  When we act in that same freedom we are never more like God.

Yet our culture so often misunderstands and misrepresents the true meaning of freedom.  When many speak of freedom today, what they actually describe is license.  Freedom is understood as the ability to do whatever I want, whenever I want to.  No one can ever place restrictions on what I desire to be or what I want to do.  But that is not freedom in the classic vision of the Catholic faith.  St. Thomas Aquinas and the Catholic tradition teach us that true freedom entails choosing the right thing, the true path of goodness.  To be totally free means that we choose in accord with the good, and ultimately in accord with God.  The more we choose what is true and good, the more we enjoy the awesome gift of freedom.  The path opens up for us all the more, giving us joy and peace.  

To choose what is contrary to the good that God reveals, to move in the opposite direction than the one that God desires for us, is not precisely freedom at all.  In fact, the more we choose what is contrary to the good, the more restricted and less free we become.  People suffering from addictive behaviors would be the first to admit that sad reality.  The misuse of freedom, in fact, can lead to enslavement.

Freedom, then, is an amazing responsibility and a tremendous gift.  Perhaps for this very reason, there are certain things that we are actually not free to choose at all.  God, in His great love, has simply chosen them for us.  

One of those things, obviously, is the fact that we exist.  Not one of us here today made a decision to be born.  That was something that God chose, and He did so because He loved us.  Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, in a General Audience several years ago, reflected on the amazing gratuitousness of creation and on the God who brought us into life.  It was no accident, not some random act or inconsequential circumstance.  God created us in love, and He also sustains us as a continual act of love.  He wrote:

The fundamental truth that the accounts of Genesis reveal to us is that the world is not a collection of forces that clash with each other; it has its origin and its permanence in the Logos, in God’s eternal Reason which continues to sustain the universe.
—Pope Benedict XVI, General Audience, 6 February 2013

It is as if God were to cease loving us and thinking about us for one moment, we would simply cease to exist.  He continues, “the human being came into existence because God breathed the breath of life into the body he had formed from earth (cf. Gen 2:7). The human being is made in God’s image and likeness (cf. Gen 1:26-27). For this reason we all bear within us the life-giving breath of God and every human life — the Bible tells us — is under God’s special protection.”
God, then, is constantly loving us, constantly sustaining us in life.  What an amazing gift life is!

Secondly, even the meaning and fulfilment of our existence is not something we have decided but has already been chosen for us by God.  Our final end, the reason for which God created us, is to share in eternal life with Him.  He has not made us to find ultimate fulfillment in any other purpose.  There is no Plan B!  We are made to live in eternal happiness with God in heaven.  That was God’s choice, not ours.  What has been entrusted to us is the freedom to choose in accord with that end.  We have the freedom to make decisions that place us squarely on that path and help us to find happiness in our earthly journey on the way to eternal beatitude.  The more we make those decisions, the more free and joyful we become.  

Of course, we can also choose to seek happiness elsewhere.  We can decide that life in Jesus Christ is not happiness for us at all; we can choose to seek ultimate happiness in someone, or something, else.  We can even choose to consistently reject the good that God makes known to us, and choose a life separated from all these things.  We can choose not to be reconciled to God when we wander far from Him; to not be reconciled with those around us. We can choose a life separated even from God Himself.  In the Christian tradition, that is called hell.  It is certainly a possibility for those of us who possess the awesome responsibility of human freedom.

But God gives us so much help to avoid that possibility!  We have the Sacraments of the Church, the examples of the saints, the immeasurable mercy of God.  And to keep us on that path that will best suit us to be totally free and joyful on the journey to eternal life, God chooses something else for each one of us: our vocation.

Vocation comes from the Latin word, vocare, which means “to call.”  It presumes that we are called by another, and not ourselves.  A vocation is something that God chooses for us, and invites us into, always fully respecting our freedom.  For most of us here today, God calls and invites His faithful to the vocation of married life.  For others, it is religious life, or priesthood.  But God is the one who takes the initiative and gives us all that we need to be effective and fruitful in that vocation.  This comes out clearly in our readings for this weekend.

In the first reading, the Prophet Amos receives a sharp rebuke from the Priest of Bethel, Amaziah:

Off with you, visionary, flee to the land of Judah!  There earn your bread prophesying, but never again prophesy in Bethel.
—Amos 7:12-13

At the time, Israel was a divided kingdom.  Amos was from Judah, in the south.  The northern kingdom, however, was rife with corruption.  They neither appreciated nor desired this outsider from the south calling them back to God’s covenant.  Amos, however, makes it perfectly clear that this was not his idea to begin with.

I was no prophet, nor have I belonged to a company of prophets; I was a shepherd and a dresser of sycamores.  The LORD took me from following the flock, and said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’
—Amos 7:14-15

Amos did not decide one day to become a prophet of God, but a prophet of God he was.  Because he cooperated with God and lived courageously and generously this vocation that God called him to, he was tremendously effective in his prophetic ministry.  In fact, today, thousands of years after his death, he continues to speak to the social consciousness of God’s people.  Amos, called by God, is a prophet indeed!

In the Gospel, as well, we hear how Jesus Christ called the Apostles.  St. Mark writes, “Jesus summoned the Twelve and began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over unclean spirits” (Mark 6:7).  God called them.  He sent them out, two by two.   It was not their idea to try to make the world a better place.

Ultimately, though, it is St. Paul this morning that teaches us about the foundation of every vocation and the total gratuitousness of our life in Jesus Christ.  We have been chosen by God, called by God, to be holy and to live for Him:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord, Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavens, as he chose us in him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and without blemish before him.
—Ephesians 1:3-4

Before the world even existed, God chose us!  God calls each and every one of us to holiness of life, and only in answering that call will we be fully equipped and able to embrace our individual vocation in life.  Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, begins his new Apostolic Exhortation—Gaudete et Exultate—with this very quote from St. Paul, seeking “to repropose the call to holiness in a practical way for our own time, with all its risks, challenges and opportunities” (Gaudete et Exultate, #2).  
Pope Francis reflects on the lives of the saints, and how they were able to answer God’s call even amidst mistakes and failures.  He urges us to consider the entirety of their lives as a journey towards holiness, and then he challenges all of us to walk that same path:

This is a powerful summons to all of us.  You too need to see the entirety of your life as a mission.  Try to do so by listening to God in prayer and recognizing the signs that he gives you.  Always ask the Spirit what Jesus expects from you at every moment of your life and in every decision you must make, so as to discern its place in the mission you have received.  Allow the Spirit to forge in you the personal mystery that can reflect Jesus Christ in today’s world.
—Gaudete et Exultate, #23

How desperately the world we live in longs to see the face of Jesus Christ!  Living out our own vocation the fullest, we make Him known to those around us.  Pope Francis continues, encouraging us to allow Christ to speak His saving message to the world in and through us:

Let yourself be transformed.  Let yourself be renewed by the Spirit, so that this can happen, lest you fail in your mission.  The Lord will bring it to fulfilment despite your mistakes and missteps, provided that you do not abandon the path of love but remain ever open to his supernatural grace, which purifies and enlightens.
—Gaudete et Exultate, #24

In every vocation, even within the lives of the saints, there are moments of failure, times of difficulty and struggle.  Perhaps we will fall many times on that path God has called us to follow.  What matters most of all is that we get up!  What is central to the call of God is that we constantly strive to move forward on the path of love and allow the grace of God to transform us along the way.  Pope Francis urges us that this particularly fruitful use of our freedom can purify us, and give us a clearer sense of what God is doing in our lives and in the world around us.

May we all find ourselves firmly on this path in the coming week, seeking to answer, as completely as possible, God’s call in our lives.  Living our own vocation, then, may those we encounter hear God’s voice, see the face of Christ, and find their own way to the path that leads to their final end in God.