Sunday, September 11, 2011

September 11: A Remembrance

(Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given on 10 September, 2011 at Blessed Sacrament Church, Providence, R.I. and 11 September at St. Anthony's Church in Providence, R.I.; See Matthew 18:21-35)

There is a museum in Jerusalem called Yad Vashem and it was established to commemorate the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust during World War II. The name of that museum, Yad Vashem, comes from the Hebrew Scriptures (our Old Testament) and is found in the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. In Chapter 56 of Isaiah, the Lord is comforting and consoling the people of Israel who have seen such devastation and loss after years of exile in the land of Babylon. As they return to their native land, God makes this promise to His chosen people, that for those who now keep His covenant and law, “I will give in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name which shall not be cut off” (Isaiah 56:5).

A monument and a name. In Hebrew, a Yad vashem.

In naming the Holocaust museum Yad Vashem, the message is clear that for those innocent men and women whose lives were tragically taken away, there will always be a remembrance. In fact, God Himself will remember them always for He knows them each by name.

Today we commemorate the thousands of men and women in our own nation whose lives were tragically cut short ten years ago in the terrorist attacks of September 11. It is not the same experience as the Holocaust; we know that. But for those who have lost family members and loved ones; for those who were personally harmed by the events of that fateful day; even for us as a nation, the sense of injustice, pain and sorrow is the same. The words of the Prophet Isaiah call to mind for us today the reality that these lives too will be given a place of remembrance, a yad vashem. The Lord remembers each of these men and women, created in His image and likeness; He knows them each by name.

The sense of memory and remembrance are central themes for us as Catholics. We celebrate Masses of Remembrance for our beloved deceased; we call to mind our identity as people of faith by remembering the history of salvation whenever the Eucharistic Prayer is offered; we recall Christ’s passion, death and resurrection and unite ourselves to Him in the hope of our own resurrection from the dead. We are people of remembrance.

In our Gospel this weekend St. Matthew reminds us of the importance of the memory when it comes to the commandment to forgive as we ourselves have been forgiven. Christ tells the parable of the king whose servant owed him “a huge amount” (Matthew 18:24). In fact, the debt was so great that in order to settle accounts with the king, the servant and his family would have to be sold off, along with all his property and possessions. He was personally and financially ruined, and he knew it. Falling to his knees before the king he pleaded for patience and the chance to pay it all back.

Suddenly the king, in a moment of extreme compassion and mercy, decides to forgive him the entire debt! It was a remarkable and seemingly unforgettable event. Yet immediately after leaving the presence of the king that servant forgets all about it—or choses to forget. He encounters a fellow servant who owes him a much smaller amount and seizes him, demanding that he pay it back immediately.

The point that Christ is making is that our memories and our hearts should be able to retain the great compassion and mercy of God so abundantly and even extravagantly poured out upon us. From that great resource of Divine Mercy, then, we should be able to act in kind to those who owe us so much less. Christ plays the numbers game with St. Peter in the Gospel: not seven times should we fogive, but seventy-seven times (other translations read seventy times seven, i.e., four-hundred and ninety). Whatever translation we are reading or however we calculate forgiveness, few if any of us can think of one person who has injured us four-hundred and ninety times, or even seventy-seven times. But we have all offended God at least seventy-seven times, perhaps even this week. Remember that! Remember what it is like to be loved that much and to be given so great a gift as God’s unconditional mercy and love.

There is a story about a Christian woman named Corrie Ten Boom who, along with her father and sister, helped to shelter Jews in the Netherlands during the Second World War. She would later write a book about her experience called, The Hiding Place. At one point their activity was discovered and they were taken into custody by the Nazis. Corrie’s father died soon thereafter but Corrie and her sister were moved to several places, eventually finding themselves in the concentration camp named Ravensbruk. It was there that Corrie’s sister died shortly before Corrie herself was freed.

Remarkably, Corrie began traveling around the world after the war in order to share the message of God’s merciful love. Her message was that God forgives—even the horrors of the Holocaust—God forgives. As you might imagine, it was a compelling and powerful witness.

She had just finished that talk in a small Church outside of Munich when she saw a man approaching from the back of the room. Her blood ran cold as she recognized him. He had been one of the SS guards at Ravensbruck, and one of the cruelest. He had no idea who she was.

“A fine message,” he said. “How good it is to know that, as you say, our sins are forgiven by God. You mentioned Ravensbruck in your talk. I was a guard there. But since that time, I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from you, as well.”

He held out his hand to her, and at that very moment she thought of her sister, who had died in that place. She later recalled, “I stood there—I whose sins had again and again needed to be forgiven—and could not forgive.”

But she knew the power of forgiveness; she had spoken of it so many times. She knew that forgiveness was above all an act of the will, and that she did not need to feel like forgiving someone in order to actually do so. Suddenly she began to pray: Jesus, help me. I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You do the rest.

And as she shook the hand of that former SS guard, she began to feel a love for him that could only come from God. She said later that she had never known God’s love as intensely as she did that day.

We are called to be people of forgiveness in imitation of Christ who forgives each of us for so very much. Often times that is not an easy thing to do. Perhaps sometimes all we can do is struggle lift up our hands to God, to raise our hearts to Him, asking for the grace to forgive. When we do so, whether it be something small or maybe even as overwhelming as the terrorist attacks on our nation ten years ago, we trust that God is with us, helping us and allowing us to participate in His merciful love. May we have the grace necessary to remember all that He has done for us, all that He has forgiven us, so that the mercy flowing from the cross can continue to work in and through us in our daily lives.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Salvation, Hope & Prayer

(Opening Mass for the Formation Year 2011, Seminary of Our Lady of Providence; This homily was given on 7 September, 2011; See Romans 8:22-27)

Why are we here tonight? Why are we here, gathered together before this altar, celebrating a Mass in honor of the Holy Spirit at the beginning of this formation year?

I would suggest this evening that there is only one answer sufficient to answer completely that question. It is a response and answer found on every page of the Gospel; in every ounce of blood that Christ shed for us on the cross; in all of His pain, sorrow and suffering; in all of His joy, triumph and exaltation; it is a response which is also found in the depths of our own hearts, in a longing and yearning too deep for words.

We are here tonight for salvation.

We gather together tonight to be saved by God. Christ gives Himself to us in the Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist, a foretaste of the eternal life we are called to share with Him. He comes to us to draw us into eternal union with God. It is why He shares with us His body and blood, it is why He instituted the priesthood: for the salvation of souls.

St. Paul, in our first reading this evening, lifts up for us that great mystery of our salvation. He holds it up in all its splendor and beautifully intertwines that mystery with two powerful dimensions of our Catholic faith:

Hope and prayer.

“For in hope we were saved” (Romans 8:24), St. Paul tells us. Our beloved Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI begins his encyclical on hope, Spe Salvi, with these very words of St. Paul.

Spe salvi facti sumus. In Hope we were saved.

The Apostle goes on, in his Letter to the Romans, to speak of our human response to this great hope of salvation. He says that we yearn and long for it “with inexpressible groanings” (Romans 8:26) heartfelt prayers in which the Holy Spirit intercedes for us, drawing us ever more deeply into the mystery of our salvation.

These two, then: hope and prayer.

But the sense that our culture has of these two things, hope and prayer, is one that is very different from what the Apostle calls us to in that Letter to the Romans. Often times people see hope as a deep desire or wish for things to simply “work out well in the end.” But this “wishful thinking” is not hope.

Prayer can also become a wish list which is offered up to God for His ratification: this is what I wish for; please grant it to me.

How different, how deep and remarkably beautiful is the hope and prayer that we are called to embrace as men of God being formed for the priesthood of Jesus Christ.

Hope as a theological virtue is not a mere wish that the future will "pan out" for us. St. John of the Cross, in fact, in is spiritual writings, does not ground hope in the future at all, but more so in the past. He says that hope is linked to the faculty of the soul commonly understood as the memory (see The Ascent of Mount Carmel, Book Three, Ch. 14).

The hope we have for a future with God is rooted in the events of the past and what that means for us today and everyday hereafter. Jesus Christ suffered and died for us on the cross, for love. That happened, and nothing will ever change that. Three days later Christ rose to life again; He made promises to the Church and kept every single one of them. He has promised you and me that if we place our faith in Him, if we put our trust and love in Him, then we will be saved, we will share in eternal life with God. That is the basis for our hope and the rock-solid foundation for everything that we believe. That is what St. Paul means when he writes, “In hope we were saved.” God is faithful. He has always been faithful. We can trust and hold fast to everything He reveals to us through His holy Catholic Church.

But we are not always prepared to respond in faith and trust to so great a hope of salvation; we do not always choose to stand on so solid a foundation. We are in need, every one of us, of holiness and purification. Our hearts need to be prepared to receive so great a gift as God Himself. Pope Benedict XVI speaks of this necessity, in his encyclical Spe Salvi, in terms of hope and prayer. He writes:

Man was created for greatness—for God himself; he was created to be filled by God. But his heart is too small for the greatness to which it is destined. It must be stretched.

—Spe Salvi, #33

Borrowing an image from the writings of St. Augustine, Pope Benedict describes how God wishes to fill or souls with honey, but that is not possible when our hearts are already filled with vinegar.

Think of all the bitterness that sin can bring to the human heart and how necessary it is that God drain from us every ounce of this vinegar. He can then stretch these vessels of ours and increase our capacity to receive the sweetness of real honey, His own Divine life poured out deep within the soul. God wants to purify our hearts and fill us with this sweetness, not only for ourselves but for all the souls we will encounter in our daily lives.

“Through this effort by which we are freed from vinegar and the taste of vinegar,” writes Pope Benedict XVI, “not only are we made free for God, but we also become open to others.”

This is at the heart of the purifying power of prayer. Pope Benedict goes on to say that in order for this purifying power to develop, it necessarily involves two things.

§ First and foremost it involves intimacy with God. We come into this chapel, time and time again, day and night, and spend intimate time alone in prayer with God. We come before the one who is so worthy of our love, all the while painfully aware of our own unworthiness. We acknowledge, time and time again, that we do not deserve so great a love, so great a gift, that we could never earn this indescribable love that God has for us, but that He is always present to us whenever we come before Him in humility and in faith. The purifying power of intimacy with God in prayer is essential to our salvation.

§ Secondly, this purifying prayer “must be constantly guided and enlightened by the great prayers of the Church and of the saints, by liturgical prayer, in which the Lord teaches us again and again how to pray properly” (Spe Salvi, #34). It is not the case that we become expert in the art of prayer and then impose our expertise on the Church and Her liturgy. Rather, we come to the Sacred Liturgy in awe and wonder, we bow before this great Sacrament of our salvation and we learn anew how to pray and offer ourselves to Him. The saints teach us this great act of worship. The Church throughout the centuries has guided the souls of countless men and women in these most sacred mysteries.

As we begin this new formation year, it is my prayer for each one of you that you will grow in the theological virtue of hope, a hope which is rooted on the rock-solid promises of the risen Christ; and through the purifying power of prayer, may God gently and loving allow you to be emptied of all vinegar and stretched out to the capacity to which you can receive so sweet a gift as this honey which is His Divine life within you.

As you continue to be prepared for the day of ordination, may hope and prayer continue to make you more and more like Christ so that, when the people of God approach you as their priest, yearning and longing for salvation with groanings perhaps too deep for words, you will have something beautiful and sweet to offer them.