Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Sancta Maria, Omnibus et Singulis

(Wednesday of the 5th Week of Easter, Our Lady of Fatima-Year B; This homily was given on 13 May, 2009 at the Chapel of The American College of the Immaculate Conception in Louvain, Belgium; See Acts 15:1-6)

What do you need to do to go to heaven? What has to happen for a person to be saved?

Those are the questions being asked in our first reading this morning from the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 15:1-ff). Apparently some believers from Judea had come to the Church where Paul and Barnabas were teaching the Gospel, and had insisted on circumcision as a necessary part of being saved and going to heaven.

Now, before we judge these people too hastily, let us look first at the context of that situation. These were Jewish believers. They had already been circumcised and so they had already met the “requirement” that they were proposing. They were seeking to resolve that question about salvation not for themselves but for the others in that Church who had just come to believe in the Gospel.

Of course, they were wrong! Paul and Barnabas are adamant about that from the beginning. The decision which will come from Jerusalem (this coming Friday’s reading) will clarify the matter for good. But we have every indication that at least some of these Jewish believers were genuinely concerned, and perhaps even deeply so, for the salvation of those around them. Are we?

Jesus says to us in the Gospel this morning: “Remain in me,” and “Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit.”

It is the same beautiful Gospel we heard this past weekend. When we listen to those words, “Remain in me,” it is as if Jesus is speaking them directly to each one of us. Remarkably, God’s word to us is that personal, that intimate.

But the word Christ uses when he offers that invitation is addressed in the second person, plural! He is saying “You, all of you, remain in me!” He is concerned for the salvation of each individual soul, but He offers the promise of salvation and the invitation to eternal life to all of us. There is a wonderful saying that if you were the only one in the world, then Jesus still would have come to suffer and die on the cross to save you. I believe that. But, of course, you are not the only one in the world! Jesus did not come to suffer and die for you alone, nor for just me. He came for us all.

The sacrifice of Calvary-and the sacrifice of the Mass, for that matter-is offered for each individual, and also for all of us collectively. As we say in the sacristy at the end of each Mass, referring to that great sacrifice of Christ:

Priest: Pro sit (May it—this sacrifice—be to your benefit)
Acolyte: Omnibus et singulis (For all and for each one)

We should be concerned for our own salvation, by all means. We should prayerfully consider if we are in the right place before God and being made fit for heaven by a living faith in Christ. But we should also be concerned for the salvation of those around us. For omnibus as well as for singulis.

This morning we celebrate the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima, remembering the appearances of Our Lady—the Patroness of this College—to three children in a small village in Portugal. Our Lady visited them and they—so much like little children—were fascinated by her! They asked her two important questions, one after the other: “Are you really from heaven?”, and then, with childlike wonder and innocence, “Will we be in heaven some day, too?”

Our Lady responded in the affirmative, but then became more serious and made it clear that little Francisco would make it there only after a great many rosaries (apparently Francisco was a tough little customer)! Nonetheless, they were encouraged by that good news. Then she went on to ask them to pray, offer sacrifices and consecrate themselves to her Immaculate Heart. They were to love the hearts of Jesus and Mary with deep devotion and make reparation for the love that was so often neglected and even out rightly refused to God.

You might ask yourself: why would they ever bother to do that? Were they not just told about their place in heaven? What would be the point of prayer, sacrifice and devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary?

But of course they did not ask those questions. Like children, they trusted and gladly offered their lives and prayers for the salvation of those around them. And that is the point of Fatima. It is the point of our readings this morning, and it is the reason why Jesus Christ suffered and died on the cross: not just for my salvation, but for our salvation. Omnibus et singulis.

Today, on this Feast of Our lady of Fatima, may we heed well Our Lady’s request to those three small children, and to all of us:

1. To pray for souls and pray for peace; especially to pray the rosary.
2. To offer sacrifices, fasting in particular.

3. To consecrate ourselves to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and seek to love deeply the hearts of Jesus and Mary.

May we offer ourselves lovingly to God today, not just for our own salvation, but for the salvation of those around us: omnibus et singulis.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Blessed Damien and the Call to Holiness

(5th Sunday of Easter-Year B; This homily was given on 10 May, 2009 at the Chapel of The American College of the Immaculate Conception in Louvain, Belgium; See John 15:1-8)

Five months from now, on October 11, 2009, Pope Benedict XVI will canonize Blessed Damien of Molokai, acknowledging him as a Saint in the Roman Catholic Church. This morning, May 10, the Feast day of Blessed Damien, as we celebrate Mass only a few blocks away from Damien’s tomb, I would like to reflect on one simple question: Why?

Why is Blessed Damien being recognized as a Saint? The answer to that question is not as obvious as it may seem. If you asked ten people why Father Damien is being recognized as a Saint I would be willing to bet that many would say something like this: “He was a courageous and generous person who gave his life to serve the lepers on the Island of Molokai.” While those things are certainly true they are not the entire reason why he is being canonized on October 11. A lot of courageous and generous people served the lepers on Molokai. They are not being canonized this fall. Maybe some of them should be. Maybe someday they will be, but on October 11 it will be Father Damien. Why?

There is really only one reason why Blessed Damien will become Saint Damien, and it is the same reason why all the Saints receive that singular distinction: because he was holy.

The word saint, literally, means holy. Sanctus in Latin. Hagios (αγιος) in the Greek. Those words are used—in the Liturgy and in the Scriptures—to describe God Himself. In the Eastern Church they proclaim: Hagios O Theos, Holy is God! Here at this Mass this morning we cry out, “Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus, Dominus! Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord!”

God is holy, and we as believers and followers of Christ are also called to that same holiness. It is the goal of each and every baptized Christian: to be holy. That is what it means to be a saint. That is why the church recognizes men and women as saints; because they were holy.

This past week, the General Superiors of Blessed Damien’s order, the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, sent a letter to their community in preparation for Father Damien’s canonization. In it they acknowledged:

“Holiness is the work of the Lord. His love is what justifies us. From this perspective, the canonization becomes a confession of hope-filled faith. The love of God is at work among us, as it was active in the life of Damien. The love of God can continue to transform us in spite of our weakness and our shadow side.”

There is tremendous hope in that reality for every one of us. Blessed Damien was a courageous and generous man who did great things for God and other people, but he also had a “shadow side,” like the rest of us. Father Damien did not get along well with everyone all the time, and perhaps at times that was not only their fault, but his as well. He had the same struggles that you and I have, but at the very foundation of his life he was holy, and “holiness is the work of the Lord.” He allowed God to work in and through him, in spite of his “shadow side,” and throughout his life the holiness of God shone through. Father Damien was holy.

In our Gospel this morning Jesus teaches us how that happens. He says it happens when we remain in Him:

Remain in me, as I remain in you. Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own unless it remains on the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing.
—John 15:4-5

Nothing? What a remarkable statement! Do we truly believe that? Without God we can do nothing. How’s that for a reality check! Without Christ we can never be saints. Without Him we cannot accomplish anything of lasting value for the Kingdom of God. Jesus is the vine, not us! We are the branches, called to remain in Him. We become holy when we remain with Christ, when we dwell with Christ, when Christ dwells in us and lives in us. We become holy because He is holy, and when we remain in Him, we become like Him and then we bear fruit. That is when we bear much fruit.

Pope John Paul II, in a homily he gave here in Belgium in 1995 on the day Father Damien was beatified (the stage just before one is canonized a saint) said that Damien “lived a particular form of holiness in the course of his ministry; he was at the same time a priest, a religious and a missionary. Through these three qualities he revealed the face of Christ, indicating the way of salvation, teaching the Gospel and being a tireless instrument of development. He organized the religious, social and communal life of Molokai, an island banned from society at that time; yet with him everyone had a place, everyone came to be recognized and loved as his brothers and sisters.”

This is the fruit that Damien de Veuster bore on the Island of Molokai. He surrendered his own will to God over and over again, and became an instrument through which the holiness of God shone through; he was able to do so because he remained in Jesus Christ. He bore great fruit because he was holy.

Pope John Paul II went on to say that we are all called to that same holiness. We are all called to place ourselves before God and at the service of the Church, at the service of our brothers and sisters, like Blessed Damien did. He said:

“Holiness is not perfection according to human criteria. It is not reserved for a select number of exceptional individuals. It is for everyone. It is the Lord who gives us the ability to enter a life of holiness, when we accept that collaboration for the Glory of God and the salvation of the world, in spite of our sin and—at times—our rebellious temperament.”

We all have a “shadow side,” and at times we all have “a rebellious temperament.” But we also have the ability to cooperate with God and to remain in Him. We all have the desire and the capacity to be holy, and to bear much fruit for God and to make a difference in this world we live in. The people of this world are crying out for the kind of holiness that Blessed Damien lived and the way he allowed the love and mercy of God to shine through him. God is calling each one of us to this, and inviting us this morning: Remain in me. Remain in me. And if you do, “you will bear much fruit.”

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Dynamic Duo: Barnabas and Paul

(Wednesday of the 4th Week of Easter-Year B; This homily was given on 6 May, 2009 at the Chapel of The American College of the Immaculate Conception in Louvain, Belgium; See Acts 12:44-50)

Batman and Robin. Bert and Ernie. Laverne and Shirley. Siskel and Ebert. Sonny and Cher.

Why do we remember these dynamic duos so well, and why were they able to entertain thousands of people for so many years? It was because they were able to work together and had what it takes to stand the test of time (OK, maybe not Sonny and Cher, but the rest of them did!).

In our first reading this morning, from the Acts of the Apostles, we hear of another dynamic duo that far exceeds them all. They were a pair that God Himself had brought together right at the outset of the early Church.

We read in the Acts of the Apostles that the Church in Antioch had gathered together to praise and worship God. Suddenly, right in the middle of their assembly, the Holy Spirit spoke to them and said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them” (Acts 13:2).

We find that combination repeated time and time again in Acts: Paul and Barnabas, Barnabas and Paul. They proclaimed the Gospel to thousands and brought the Christian message to the ends of the earth.

But why were they able to work together so well? We are never really told, exactly, but I think we are given a clue in the fourth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, when Barnabas is first introduced to us. We are told of this generous man who owned a field which he sold, and that he brought the proceeds to the apostles and donated it to the Church. Acts tells us that his name was Joseph, “to whom the apostles gave the name Barnabas (which means ‘son of encouragement’).”—Acts 4:36

That was the kind of person Barnabas was: a man who encouraged those around him. He was able to build up the community; he knew what to say and when to say it. All throughout the Acts of the Apostles we find him doing just that.

Yesterday we heard about the foundations of the Church at Antioch, a new community that was on fire with love for Jesus Christ. But, like any new community, there were bound to be challenges and difficulties. We are told that Barnabas was sent to Antioch by the Church of Jerusalem, and when he arrived there he did two things: He rejoiced in all that God was doing among them, and he encouraged them!

Therefore it is no wonder the Holy Spirit places Barnabas and Paul together in our first reading today. Who would have needed more encouragement than St. Paul, who proclaimed the Gospel message tirelessly, without reservation and with heartfelt conviction; Paul, who was rejected by many of the Jews, and more than a few Christians. Paul, who was rejected time and time again by the Greeks and the Pagans; Paul, who was dragged out of cities, stoned and left for dead; Paul, who was dragged before governors and kings, beaten with rods, and scourged. This man would have encountered overwhelming discouragement on a regular basis! So God sends him Barnabas, son of encouragement. Barnabas knew how to support Paul and help him in the difficult task of founding Churches and spreading the Gospel.

Nowhere in the Acts of the Apostles do we find that Barnabas resented that aspect of his ministry. He was a remarkably gifted man, but undoubtedly he would have stood in the shadow of St. Paul (like everyone else that ever worked with that great Apostle). Nowhere do we find that Barnabas felt the need to compete with St. Paul. He would have understood that the gifts given to Paul were not in competition with his own gifts; they were given to build him up, and Barnabas’ gifts were given to build up those around him.

Competition—while great on the sports field and intrinsic to the business world—is the death of relationships and fruitful ministry in the Church. Competition among followers Christ, whether it be in the seminary, in the parish, or in the domestic Church of the family, sets up walls and barriers that even inhibit the work of God among His people. It can be that damaging.

So what is the antidote to such poison? Encouragement!

The Church desperately needs men and women who are able to grow in this skill of encouragement so masterfully taken up by St. Barnabas. Our seminary, our communities and parishes, are in great need of Barnabites, sons and daughters of encouragement, who are able and willing to build up and encourage the people around them.

Barnabas and Paul, Paul and Barnabas. The dynamic duo of the early Church. Who’s to say that God cannot still work in that way even now, when we are open to this gift of encouragement and willing to use it for the greater glory of God?