Sunday, July 22, 2007

La Festa di Maria Santissima della Civita

(Patronal Feast of Madonna della Civita; This homily was given 21 & 22 July, 2007, at St. Mary Church, Cranston, R.I.; read Luke 1:39-56)

Today we celebrate our patronal feast, La Festa di Maria Santissima della Civita. What is at the heart of our feast is an image of the Blessed Virgin Mary and her Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ. It is an image we have come to know so well: Mary’s hands raised in prayer and adoration, her infant Son seated upon her lap.

The history of that image dates back to nearly apostolic times, finding its roots in the region of Antioch, later known as Constantinople. This beautiful image, lost and found down through the centuries, was finally re-discovered in the 8th Century, more than 1200 years ago, on July 21, 796.

It was then that the deaf and mute herdsman from Itri, that small Italian village, followed a wandering ox to a field atop Mount Civita and came upon the tree that held in its branches that image of Maria Santissima and the child Jesus. Suddenly he was cured and ran back into the town to declare the great things God had done for him.

And so it is this image that, down through the centuries, has gathered together the people of Itri, and subsequently their descendants—so many of you—who have come to settle here in the Knightsville section of Cranston.

As we sing each year with great solemnity during this week of celebration in the beloved hymn Evviva Maria:

Immagine santé che gente raduna.
The holy image that gathers the people.

Of course, that sacred image comes to us from none other than St. Luke himself. Again, as we sing each year:

San Luca dipense l’amabil’ ritratto.
St. Luke painted this loveable portrait.

It is fitting that this painting should come to us from St. Luke, for it is that “dear and glorious physician” who always paints for us the most beautiful portraits of Mary in the New Testament.

The portrait of the Annunciation—that great visit of the angel Gabriel to the Blessed Virgin Mary announcing the child to be born—is found only in Luke.

And the Visitation, which we heard today on our patronal feast, Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth and Mary’s song of praise, the Magnificat, are found only in St. Luke’s Gospel.

In his encyclical on the Blessed Virgin Mary, Redemptoris Mater, John Paul the Great links these two beautiful portraits together. He says that both the Annunciation and the Visitation, together, reveal to us the greatness of Mary as one who both receives the gift of God, and responds to that gift in faith:

“Both of these texts reveal an essential Mariological content, namely the truth about Mary, who has become really present in the mystery of Christ precisely because she “has believed.” The fullness of grace announced by the angel means the gift of God himself. Mary’s faith, proclaimed by Elizabeth at the visitation, indicates how the Virgin of Nazareth responded to this gift.”
—Redemptoris Mater, # 12 (emphasis his)

As we heard in the gospel today, Elizabeth proclaims:

Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.
—Luke 1:45

Mary’s Motherhood, therefore, is not just a physical act; it is first and foremost an act of faith. The great Fathers of the Church, St. Augustine and St. Leo the Great, tell us that Mary conceived Christ in her heart before she conceived Him in her womb.

This is something that we find all throughout the life of Mary. She is constantly conceiving Christ, and then continually giving birth to Him in this world we live in. Even at the hour of His death, Mary stands at the foot of the cross and gives her “Yes” to God. She continues to receive that gift of God which is Christ her son, and by faith she offers Him to the world and participates in His radical gift of Himself for the salvation of us all.

We, as followers of Christ, and as men and women who look to Mary as our Blessed Mother, are called to do the same. We are called to constantly receive the gift of God, in silence and in prayer, and through our faith and our assent to Him, to give birth to Christ; to give flesh to Him in the world we live in.

I think that all of us are quite familiar with the extraordinary life of service and compassion that Blessed Mother Theresa of Calcutta exemplified in our own lifetime. Yet few people know of her total dedication to the spiritual life and prayer as the top priority for herself and her sisters, the Missionaries of Charity.

Blessed Mother Theresa of Calcutta would insist that they begin each day with Mass, and then spend one hour minimum before Christ in the Blessed Sacrament before they ever went out to serve the poor. She would say to them:

Until we can learn to recognize Jesus here in the Eucharist, then we will never be able to recognize Him in the lives of the poor.

Today, on this feast of Maria Santissima della Civita, how is God challenging us to imitate Mary, and Blessed Theresa of Calcutta, in receiving the gift of God in silence and in prayer, and then to respond to that great gift through lives of service and love?

In the year 796, that deaf and mute herdsman from Itri saw an image of Mary and her son, our Lord, Jesus Christ, which healed him. He went in haste to announce that image and the message of Jesus and Mary to all who would listen. May we bring that same message to a world that desperately longs to hear it.

Evviva Maria!

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Adam, Embryos and the Good Samaritan

(15th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year C; This homily was given 14 & 15 July, 2007, at St. Mary Church, Cranston, R.I.; read Luke 10:25-37)

The parable we hear this weekend—The Good Samaritan—is one of the most familiar parables in the gospel. Even non Christians are quite familiar with the image of the Good Samaritan. We see it in organizations of good will and even in the CVS Samaritan Van that often lends a helping hand to motorists in need.

Precisely because the Good Samaritan is so familiar, there is a risk of losing the meaning Christ intends when He gives us that moving tale; there is a risk of reducing this parable to particular incidents or roadside accidents.

Yet to the particular question asked by the scholar in our gospel: “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29), Jesus Christ offers an answer that is universal: Everyone is my neighbor. Every man, woman and child is neighbor to the follower of Christ.

St. Augustine, commenting on this very parable, says that the victim of the robbers is Adam: He is every single one of us, wounded by original sin. Augustine says that it is Adam who has been attacked by Satan and his legions; as a result of original sin he is stripped of his immortality and lies helpless on the side of the road.

It is Christ who comes along as the Good Samaritan, that Outsider and Divine Visitor, who comes to rescue Adam. He looks upon that fallen and broken man and is moved to compassion.

Think of all the many times we see this replayed in the gospels. Christ looks lovingly upon the sinful woman, caught in the act of adultery, and has compassion. He looks with compassion on the sinners and tax collectors, and constantly seeks to draw them to Himself and heal them as the Divine Physician.

Here in the parable of the Good Samaritan, says Augustine, it is Christ Himself who lovingly picks Adam up and places him on his own animal. He brings him to the inn—which represents the Church—and provides him with refreshment and healing through the Sacraments, symbolized in the oil and wine poured over his wounds.

Our response to this beautiful story of our redemption should be two-fold. First and foremost we should allow Christ to truly become the Good Samaritan in our own lives. Where have our sins, and the sins of others, wounded us and left us broken and in need? Have we allowed Christ to enter deeply into those hurts, those wounds, and to heal us through the sacramental life of the Church?

But more than that, we are called to follow the command that Christ issues at the end of that inspiring parable: “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37). Where do we find Adam, helpless on the side of the road, in our own lives? How is God calling us to care for those who are weak or helpless and in need, those we encounter everyday?

One of the great crises of our culture, one that we cannot help but notice, is the great lack of care that we have for the weak and the vulnerable. What Pope John Paul II referred to as the “Culture of Death” is evident on many levels in the world we live in.

Abortion on demand remains one of the tragic legal choices open to the very mothers and fathers who are most in need of care and support. How many lives have been lost and broken—not just the unborn, but also the mothers and fathers of those children—and all in the name of freedom, in the name of choice.

When we look to the other end of the spectrum, to those who are preparing to enter into eternal life, we find this same lack of respect for the dignity of the human person. Many people facing the twilight of life and the prospect of death are tempted, and even at times encouraged, to consider Euthanasia or “mercy killing.”

It is a false solution and a misplaced compassion which robs the person of the dignity owed them as a child of God. This was once an isolated issue, involving some other country or another state, and one that did not really seem to concern us. The national attention given to the case of Terri Schiavo a few years ago changed all that. That young woman literally died of de-hydration as a result of the choices of supposed caregivers, doctors and lawyers, who never even really seemed to know her. That tragic outcome is one that should concern each one of us.

But much closer to home for us today is the issue of aggressive embryonic stem-cell research. This is something that is in the news constantly, and there is a great lack of understanding for many Catholics and non-Catholics alike when it comes to stem cells and stem-cell research.

Firstly, stem-cell research is a very good thing; it provides a tremendous amount of hope for those with any number of diseases and illnesses and the Church certainly supports it. Stem cells taken from the human body have the potential to regenerate and form new cells which may be able to cure someone who has been afflicted with diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease, to name just a few.

And there are legitimate, ethical ways of obtaining these cells. They can be found in bone marrow, various tissues and organs, and in the umbilical chord after the birth of a child. These are what are commonly referred to as adult stem cells—taken from the bodies of those who willingly offer them—and there have been hundreds of successful cures from these stem cells to date. We should, by all means, thank God for that.

Just yesterday, in the Providence Journal, there was an editorial written by Lieutenant Governor, Elizabeth Roberts, mentioning this hope for breakthroughs in the research and medical application of stem cells. But the Lieutenant Governor greatly confused the issue by failing to distinguish the nature and methods of adult stem cells over and against embryonic stem cells and embryonic stem-cell research. She wrote about both together, and strongly advocated for the research and use of each.

As the name indicates, embryonic stem cells are taken from human embryos, human beings in their tiniest and most vulnerable form. What was also missing from the lieutenant governor’s editorial is what happens to those human embryos after they have been harvested for their stem cells: they are destroyed, discarded as mere medical waste.

This is not, and never will be, ethical or humane. One of the foundational moral principles that applies to all people of all times and cultures is that one cannot do evil so that good may come about. The destruction of a human embryo—human life having both a body and a soul—can never be justified, no matter how hopeful the outcome or possibility of good that it may entail.

The lieutenant governor is undeterred by this sound and clear ethical principle. In fact, she is determined to use our tax dollars to fund research that will deliberately involve the destruction of innocent human life. As she stated unabashedly in that editorial:

“I want to expand Rhode Island’s share of research dollars and scientific contributions immediately.”

It should be the hope and prayer of every Catholic and person of good will in the State of Rhode Island that her wish for aggressive embryonic stem-cell research using our tax dollars never becomes a reality.

But a bit closer to our gospel this weekend, we can ask: How are we called to be Good Samaritans in the face of these challenging issues? Above all else, we should be available to help heal those who place so much of themselves in these poor and unethical choices.

When these terrible abuses of freedom fail…and they will… we need to be there to help people find true meaning and well founded hope for their future with God.

When the choice of abortion fails...and it will, and there are broken persons and broken lives, when people turn to Euthanasia as an option and discover that they have made a terrible and irrevocable choice, or when the empty promise of embryonic stem-cell research fails…and it will …there has not been one single cure from embryonic stem cells. There have been hundreds of cures, tremendous results from adult stem cells, the obtaining of which are perfectly ethical and morally sound, but none whatsoever from embryonic stem cells. So when these choices end in failure and brokenness, then we have to be there to look upon our brothers and sisters with compassion and help them to come here.

We are called not to condemn them, but to love them, to look upon them with compassion and to bring them here, to the one place where Jesus Christ, the Good Samaritan, can pour oil and wine over their wounds and bring them healing, restoration and peace.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Reversal of Fortune

(14th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year C; This homily was given 7 & 8 July, 2007, at St. Mary Church, Cranston, R.I.; read Luke 10:1-20)

We are continuing, in this period called Ordinary Time, to hear from St. Luke’s Gospel. One of the themes we find throughout that gospel is what we could call “reversal of fortune.”

Over and over again, St. Luke shows us how those who are small, insignificant and unimportant in the eyes of this world are often the very people who are great, magnificent and beautiful in the eyes of God.

In the second chapter of his gospel, St. Luke sets the historical scene by mentioning the Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus. At the time, Caesar was the king of the world as they knew it. But the Emperor quickly fades into the background as St. Luke moves on to announce the newborn baby king in Bethlehem. It is Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who is the true king of the world and master of the universe, not Caesar Augustus!

We find the same “reversal of fortune” in the person of the Blessed Virgin Mary. She discovers that she will be the Mother of God. She, the lowly handmaid of the Lord, will be the one to bear Christ in her body and bring Him into this world. St. Luke describes her reaction to that remarkable news as he gives us Mary’s song of praise, her Magnificat (Luke 1:46-56):

The Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name…He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly…He has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent away empty…

God has turned the tables! With the coming of Jesus Christ everything has changed. And one of the greatest reversals of all is the Kingdom of God itself: that we here on this earth can attain to the very heights of heaven.

In our gospel today, Christ sends out the 72 disciples to announce that message. It is a message of hope for those who were in despair and truly the Good News that they longed for. Finally those disciples return to Christ with great rejoicing:

Lord, even the demons are subject to us because of your name.
—Luke 10: 17

Jesus quickly responds:

I have observed Satan fall like lighting from the sky
—Luke 10:18

Yes, the time of the Devil and his minions is at an end. But Christ goes on to say:

Nevertheless, do not rejoice because the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice because your names are written in heaven.
—Luke 10:20

In the upper level of the Basilica of St. Francis in the City of Assisi there is a painting by Giotto of a vision one of the friars had while St. Francis was still alive. In that vision the friar saw numerous thrones set up in heaven. Some were larger and more ornate than others, but one of them stood out among them all. A voice then said to that friar:

“This throne belonged to one of the angels cast out of paradise; now it is reserved for the humble Francis.”

That story is the very image of the great “reversal of fortune” that the gospel brings to our fallen world. God loves us just as we are…but far too much to leave us there!

Today we can ask ourselves: of all the thrones that appeared in that friar’s vision of heaven, which one belongs to us? Which throne is God calling us to occupy when our earthly life is complete? How is God calling us to walk in the footsteps of the humble St. Francis of Assisi and to follow the example of those 72 disciples whose “names are written in heaven” in our Gospel today? We are all called to do the work of the Gospel. We are all called to be saints.

One of the more traditional titles for the Catholic priest is that of alter Christus: another Christ. Because he uses the words of Christ and acts in the person of Christ when celebrating the Eucharist and absolving sins in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and because he is called upon to image Christ throughout his life and ministry, the priest must surrender himself continually so that he may truly be an alter Christus.

Yet the first person to be called an alter Christus was not a Catholic priest. The first person who was given that title was St. Francis of Assisi himself. He so lived out the gospel call to holiness and proclaimed God’s saving message in word and deed that when people looked to him they saw another Christ. Is that what they see when they look at us?

We are all called to be Altri Christi: other Christs. The 72 disciples sent out to proclaim the Kingdom of God are representative of all disciples; they could be any one of us. How is God challenging us to walk in their footsteps this week, to announce the Kingdom of God in our own towns, workplaces, and families?

This week might we rejoice in that work of the Gospel that God has called each one of us to…and one day may we also rejoice not only because of what God is doing here on this earth, but also because our names—please, God— will be written in heaven.

Sunday, July 01, 2007


(13th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year C; This homily was given 30 June & 1 July, 2007, at St. Mary Church, Cranston, R.I.; read 1 Kings 19:16-21 & Luke 9:51-62)

It is good to be back at St. Mary’s parish! You may remember me from the time I was here as a seminarian about four years ago…or maybe not. Certainly much has taken place since that time.

I dropped by the parish just a couple of weeks ago and Fr. Angelo took me to a local restaurant to eat. While at table, a gentleman came over and welcomed me back to the parish. He said, “You look like you’ve lost some hair since the last time you were at St. Mary’s.”

While I was still recovering from that comment, he added, “And the hair that is left looks like it’s starting to turn gray.” I tried to make excuses and said, “It’s the priesthood! Three years as a priest and this is what happened. The priesthood will do that to you!”

But if we look at our readings for this weekend we can see that it is not only the priesthood that is tough. Discipleship itself is tough. It is not easy to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. It requires sacrifice. Discipleship can be demanding.

Jesus, in our Gospel today, is demanding! One would-be follower says to Him:

I will follow you wherever you go.
—Luke 9:57

Jesus responds to that wide-eyed enthusiasm with the sobering reality of His own personal life:

Foxes have dens and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head.
—Luke 9:58

Jesus is saying, essentially, “Get ready! Being a disciple is not easy. You will encounter difficulties. You will have to make sacrifices. You will have to make God the top priority in your life, above your own desires and even above the people you love.”

As He says to another would-be disciple:

Let the dead bury their own dead;

but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.
—Luke 9:60

Does that sound harsh? Christ is not saying that we should ignore the needs of those we love, nor is He saying that we should take no heed to bury our deceased loved ones (to bury the dead is, in fact, one of the Corporal Works of Mercy). He is simply saying that the kingdom of God takes precedence even over that! Discipleship places God and His kingdom as priority number one.

But the good news is that when it comes to following Christ and being a disciple, however demanding it may seem, we are never alone. Tertullian, one of the early Church Fathers, said “A Christian alone is no Christian.” We need each other; we are called to encourage and strengthen one another.

The communal aspect of discipleship is one that we see beautifully expressed in our first reading from the First Book of Kings. Elisha the prophet is being called by God to succeed the prophet Elijah. To be a prophet in Israel at that time was demanding! The prophets called the people, and especially the king, to account for their decisions and actions. As one would imagine, they were often quite unpopular. It was a difficult and demanding ministry.

And so when God calls Elisha to be a prophet, He does not give him a letter of appointment. He does not send him an email! He sends him, instead, the prophet Elijah. Very beautifully, we are told how Elijah approached Elisha and “threw his cloak over him” (1 Kings 19:19).

Elijah “clothes” Elisha with his prophetic office. He will remain with Elisha in the days ahead to instruct and encourage him in this new and challenging role as a prophet of Israel.

If you have ever been to a priesthood ordination before then you know how moving the ceremony can be. Four men were recently ordained in our diocese just a month ago, and as they entered the Cathedral they were each wearing a white garment called an alb. Immediately after the priest is ordained he is clothed with the chasuble, the outer vestment that is worn whenever the Eucharist is celebrated.

When I was ordained to the priesthood three years ago, the alb that I wore was a personal gift to me from Fr. James Verdelotti, the pastor of this parish. The first chasuble I ever received was from Fr. Angelo Carusi, the priest who I am replacing here today. There are no coincidences in the work of God. These two men, who have served the parish of St. Mary’s faithfully for the past five years, were instrumental in “clothing” me in the priesthood. They supported me in my time here as a seminarian, as did so many of you. Today it is a joy for me to be your new associate pastor.

Let us continue to pray for and encourage one another as we grow in our own discipleship. Whatever the demands and sacrifices God is calling us to make, might we experience the fullness of what it means to be a follower of Christ as we walk with Him on the way to eternal life.