Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Birth of St. John the Baptist

(Solemnity of the Birth of St. John the Baptist; This homily was given 23-24 June, 2007, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; read Luke Chapter 1)

Upon my arrival here at Our Lady of Mercy, three years ago, Fr. Lolio told the story about a phone call he received about a month earlier from Monsignor Evans, who at that time was still in Rome. I also was in Rome, completing my exams and preparing for ordination to the priesthood. I had just finished celebrating my birthday and so Monsignor phoned Fr. Lolio to say:

“Congratulations! You are now the proud father of a brand new 34-year-old baby boy!”

It is fitting that on this, my last weekend here at Our Lady of Mercy, we celebrate the birthday of another baby boy: St. John the Baptist.

The celebration of a person’s birthday in the Church’s Liturgical Year is a rare thing. In fact, there are only three such celebrations: The Nativity of Christ (Christmas), the Feast of the Birth of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary on September 8, and today’s Feast: The Solemnity of the Birth of St. John the Baptist.

Keeping company with the Son of God and the Blessed Mother is no small thing! Then again, St. John the Baptist is no ordinary man. Remember it was Christ Himself who said:

Among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist.
—Matthew 11:11

St. Augustine writes about how the Word was coming into the world, and how St. John the Baptist was the Voice announcing that Word. He is the forerunner of the Christ, the one who prepares the entire world for the coming of the Messiah.

If we look at the life and mission of St. John the Baptist, it becomes clear that in many ways he is a very “priestly” figure. To be certain, he was not a priest. John was beheaded long before Christ instituted the priesthood at the Last Supper. Nonetheless, there are a number of aspects about the Baptist’s life that are quite priestly.

St. John’s father, Zechariah, was a priest of the temple. His mother, St. Elizabeth, we hear in the Gospel of St. Luke, was “from the daughters of Aaron” (Luke 1:5). She was a descendant of the priestly family in Israel. And there are three specific aspects about the mission and ministry of St. John the Baptist that I believe every priest should try to emulate. I pray to God that I have been able to do that in these last three years at Our Lady of Mercy.

Firstly, St. John the Baptist is one whose entire life was dedicated to preparing the way of the Lord. His entire vocation was one of clearing the way so that people could be more closely connected to Jesus Christ. The priest, in his life and ministry, is called to do the same.

Pope John Paul II, in his document on priestly formation, talks about how the priest is called to be a bridge connecting others to Christ (Pastores Dabo Vobis, #43). He also warns, however, that the priest may also become—through his own human weakness—an obstacle instead. If that has happened at all in these last three years, I would certainly like to express my apologies at this time. But if I have been able to be that bridge in some small way, connecting you more closely to Jesus Christ and His Church, then I thank and praise God for that grace and opportunity.

I know I have mentioned before that being called to the priesthood is the greatest thing that has ever happened to me. To be able to preach the Gospel and serve the people of God is a tremendous gift in my life, so I am grateful today for the chance to have done that here at Our Lady of Mercy in these past three years.

The second aspect of the ministry and mission of John the Baptist that I would mention today is that he is the one who points out the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29).

In my ministry here at OLM I have tried continually to do just that. In preaching the Gospel, celebrating weddings, baptisms, and even at funerals and moments of tragedy, I have tried to always help the people of God to see Christ in their lives. So many times I have pointed to the cross in our sanctuary and drawn your attention to the Lamb of God, who suffers and dies on the cross to save us from our sins.

But certainly pointing out Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, is a two-way street. It is not the case that I alone have shown you where Christ is in your life; so many of you have shown me where Christ is present and active in my own life. Today I would like to thank you for doing that.

In my very first homily here in June of 2004, I spoke about how I had received already everything necessary for beginning the ministry of priesthood, but that you would be the ones to teach me how to be a good, joyful, and faithful priest. Thank you so much for helping me to do that in these past three years! I am grateful to all of you, and to Fr. Lolio for his help and patience with me in this, my first assignment in the priesthood.

But I also asked you to pray, on that first weekend in June, one specific prayer for me: that I would become a holy priest. Three years later I am still convinced that it is the single most important prayer you could make for any priest, and I ask you to continue to pray it for me.

Which brings us to the final aspect of the life and ministry of St. John the Baptist: that after preparing the way of the Lord, and pointing out the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, he knew how to get out of the way!

Remember that scene in St. John’s Gospel, when people from all over Judea were flocking to Christ after He was made manifest following His baptism by John in the Jordan. The disciples of St. John the Baptist come to him and complain about this newcomer from Nazareth: “here he is baptizing and everyone is coming to him” (John 3:28). Very beautifully the Baptist reassures them all, while at the same time acknowledging his own true identity and mission. He says of Christ:

He must increase and I must decrease.
—John 3:30

It is my sincere prayer that you will not remember so much me personally, or the words that I have spoken here, as much as Jesus Christ and how He is increasing in your families and in your own personal lives. Thanks for a remarkable and beautiful three years here at OLM!