Monday, August 10, 2020

Rector Major Presents 2021 Strenna

Presentation of Strenna 2021
Moved by hope: “Behold, I make all things new” (Rev 21: 5)

As every year, in these weeks, I send to all the provinces of the Salesian Congregation and to all the groups of the Salesian Family the title chosen for the strenna of the new year. Although there are still five months to go before the end of the calendar year, programming for the new educational and pastoral year requires that this communication be brought forward before the calendar deadline. I do all this very willingly.
At the same time, the lines that I offer are not, of course, the commentary on the strenna, but only a few ideas that are the guiding thread of the strenna. I believe they are essential to grasp the development of reflection and some of the pastoral lines.

Thinking of the message that can unite us as the Salesian Family in 2021, it is impossible not to take into account that for many months, to a greater or lesser extent, the world, all nations, have remained, if not paralyzed (although many are), certainly blocked. One cannot travel, and it has not been possible to celebrate some appointments at international and world level. The “global village” has returned to be, once again, and certainly will be for some time, the union of many “villages” that look at each other with suspicion. Walls have fallen, but to “protect oneself,” borders have become even more reinforced.
In front of this reality, we can repeat the thousands of messages that say that this situation will be overcome, that we must have confidence in ourselves, that we are strong, that the pride of each nation has overcome worse situations, etc. Many of these messages, which are also a mentality, a way of interpreting current events, have much of the “Promethean” claim described in the well-known Greek myth in which one person alone is able to rebuild himself, to reinvent himself, to draw strength from his weakness so as to overcome adversity. It is a very pagan mentality. Many of these messages have nothing to do with the meaning of life, of every life, let alone with God and the path we have lived in today’s history.
But this is not our vision, nor is it the message that we want to transmit in the many places where we are present as the Salesian Family.
Our message underlines and reaffirms that, in the face of this harsh and painful reality with its heavy consequences, we continue to express the certainty of being moved by hope: because God in his Spirit continues to make “all things new.”
Pope Francis invited the world to be infected with “the necessary antibodies of justice, charity, and solidarity”[1] for reconstruction after the days of the pandemic.
How much pain is being experienced in the world right now is undeniable. How many millions of poor people have been infected and lost their lives is undeniable. If we are invited to keep a safe distance, how can we imagine that the occupants massed in the favelas, in the slums, near the dumps, can respect social distancing? The loss of work is affecting millions of families; the mourning that could not be done leaves millions of hearts in pain; the poverty that looms (sometimes hunger) affects, disorients, paralyses, and threatens to bury all hope.

Don Bosco and youths from the Oratory tended cholera victims in Turin, 1854
We refer to our Father Don Bosco because throughout his life he himself had to face the harshness of so many situations, so many tragedies and pain. He is a master in showing us how the paths of faith and hope not only illuminate but also give the necessary strength to change unfavorable or adverse conditions, or at least to limit them as far as possible. Our Father distinguished himself for his extraordinary tenacity and for his special and profoundly realistic vision. He knew how to look beyond problems. The cholera situation was a circumstance—on a local level—similar to what is being experienced now in each country. And as an educator and pastor he accompanied these situations together with his boys. While there were people who cared only about themselves and their needs, Don Bosco and his boys, like many others, “worked hard” to help overcome the tragedy. We can affirm that this deep vision of faith and hope manifested itself throughout his life: when he left his mother and his house and went to live as “attendant” at the Pianta Cafe while studying in Chieri, facing loneliness and difficulties; crying and suffering for not knowing where to take and welcome his boys in the afternoons of the Oratory until the meeting with Joseph Pinardi, etc. All this confirms how Don Bosco lived moved by the virtue of hope.

Christian faith continually shows how God, through his Spirit, accompanies the history of humanity, even in the most adverse and unfavorable conditions. That God who does not suffer but who has compassion, according to the beautiful expression of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux: “Impassibilis est Deus, sed non incompassibilis” (God is impassible, but not without compassion).[2] In the history of salvation God never abandons his people; he always remains united with them, especially when the pain becomes very strong: “Behold, I am doing something new: right now it is sprouting, don’t you notice it? (Is 43:19).”[3]
This time and this situation will undoubtedly be propitious for
  • becoming aware of the suffering of many people;
  • paying attention to the many constant and silent epidemics such as the hunger that so many suffer, complicity in wars, lifestyles that enrich some and impoverish millions of people;
  • asking ourselves whether we can live—those among us who have more—with a more sober and austere lifestyle;
  • seriously considering that our world, the whole of creation, suffers, gets sick, while continuing to deny the evidence;
  • realizing how important it is “to unite the whole human family in the pursuit of integral and sustainable development.”[4]

Many are the readings that have been made of this historical moment, a moment that—it is said—occurs every hundred years, with great crises that affect humanity for one reason or another. Not even the bloodiest wars have been as “global” as the situation we are experiencing. In any case, what response can we give? What contribution can we offer as the Salesian Family? What Gospel values, read in a Salesian perspective, do we feel we can offer? How can we, as educators, offer as an alternative an “education to hope”?
4.1.  Alternative processes to the dominant culture. Change of values and vision:
  • from closure to opening
  • from individualism to solidarity
  • from isolation to authentic encounter
  • from division to unity and communion
  • from pessimism to hope
  • from emptiness and lack of meaning to transcendence.
4.2.  God speaks to us through many people who have known how to live with hope:
  • in borderline situations God continues to speak to us through the hearts of people who see and respond in original and different ways.
  • the Salesian holiness of our Family is rich in models who have known how to live moved by hope (Blessed Stephen Sandor, Blessed Madeleine Morano, and others).
4.3.  Nobody saves themselves by themselves.
The meaning of what I want to express is contained in this quote from Pope Francis: “If there is one thing we have been able to learn in all this time, it is that nobody saves themselves, by themselves. Borders fall, walls collapse, and all fundamentalist discourses dissolve before an almost imperceptible presence that manifests the fragility of which we are made.... It is the breath of the Spirit that opens horizons, awakens creativity, and renews us in fraternity to say ‘present’ (or, ‘here I am’) before the enormous and urgent task that awaits us. It is urgent to discern and find the pulse of the Spirit to promote, together with others, the dynamics that can testify and channel the new life that the Lord wants to generate at this specific moment in history.”[5]
4.4.  As the Salesian Family we have tried to give answers in the moment of emergency as a sign of charity and hope, and today we must be alternatives:
  • accompanying young people along the path of existence, opening them to other horizons, to new perspectives;
  • learning to live “within the limits” within a society “without limits.” That is, helping young people and adults to discover the “normality of life” in simplicity, in authenticity, in sobriety, in depth;
  • letting ourselves be challenged by the many voices of hope of young people in difficult times: the ecological movement, solidarity with the needy.

5.1. Faith and hope walk together. We propose faith as an authentic path because “a world without God is a world without hope” (cf. Eph 2:12).
5.2. Prayer as a school of hope and a personal encounter with the love of Jesus Christ, who saves us.
5.3. Action, fatigue in daily life since, ultimately, when human beings move, act to transform a situation, at the base they always have a hope that sustains them. “Every serious and upright act of man is hope in action.”[6]
5.4. The suffering and pain present in every human life as a necessary door to open up to hope. In many cultures people try in every way to hide or silence suffering and death. What allows a human being to heal, however, is not to avoid or hide this suffering and pain, but to mature in it and find meaning in life when it is not immediately or easily visible. In fact, “the greatness of humanity is determined essentially by its relationship with suffering and with those who suffer.”[7]
5.5. The poor and the excluded, who are at the center of God’s attention, must be our privileged recipients as the Salesian Family.
5.6. In the greatest crises, so many things disappear, “certainties” that we thought we had, meanings of life that, in reality, were not such. But, in fact, the great values of the Gospel and its truth remain, when opportunistic or momentary philosophies and thoughts disappear. Gospel values do not vanish, they do not become “liquid,” they do not disappear. That is why as the Salesian Family of Don Bosco we cannot give up showing what we believe in; we cannot lose our charismatic identity in the answers we have to give in any situation.

6. MARY of Nazareth, Mother of God, Star of Hope
Mary, the Mother, knows well what it means to trust and hope against all hope, trusting in the name of God.
The Annunciation (James Tissot)
Her “yes” to God awakened all hope for humanity.
She experienced helplessness and loneliness at the birth of her Son; she kept in her heart the announcement of a pain that would pierce her heart (cf. Luke 2:35); she experienced the suffering of seeing her Son as a “sign of contradiction,” misunderstood, rejected.
She knew hostility and rejection toward her Son until, at the foot of his cross on Golgotha, she understood that hope would not die. That is why she remained with the disciples as mother—"Woman, behold your son” (John 19:26)—as Mother of Hope.
“Holy Mary,
Mother of God, our Mother,
teach us to believe,
to hope, and to love with you.
Show us the way to the Kingdom.
Star of the Sea,
shine above us
and guide us on our path.”
Fr. Angel Fernandez Artime, SDB
Rector Major
Rome, August 2, 2020
Memorial of Blessed August Czartoryski

[1] Francis, ”Un plan para resucitar” a la Humanidad tras el coronavirus (PDF), in Vida Nueva Digital, April 17, 2020, pp. 7-11.
[2] Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermon on the Song of Songs, XXVI, 5; PL 183, 906.
[3] Francis, op. cit., p. 11.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid., p. 35.
[7] Ibid., p. 38.

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Homily for 19th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Homily for the
19th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Aug. 9, 2020
Rom 9: 1-5
Holy Name of Jesus, Valhalla, N.Y.
Holy Name of Jesus, New Rochelle, N.Y.

“I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people” (Rom 9: 3).

We come to a new phase in St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans.  He’s already written about our participation in the death and resurrection of Christ and of the Holy Spirit’s working within us.  Now he takes up the mystery of God’s working in the Jewish people and the mystery of their rejection of Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ.

These are Paul’s own people, and as he observes, also Christ’s people “according to the flesh” (9:5).  Both Jesus and Paul were Jews.  Paul feels this relationship, this attachment, very strongly, and he’s greatly distressed that his people haven’t responded favorably to the Gospel of Jesus, which he’s tried to preach to them—and which, of course, Jesus himself had preached thruout Galilee and Judea until his crucifixion.

Paul acknowledges Israel’s place in God’s plan of salvation and, indeed, in God’s love.  God adopted Israel as his own children, glorified them in multiple ways, made covenants with Abraham and Moses, gave them the Law as a guide, showed them how to worship him, made assorted promises to them for their well-being and salvation; and finally, sent Christ to the world thru them.  We Christians acknowledge the Jews as our elder brothers and sisters in God’s family; both the Vatican Council and St. John Paul II affirm that.  We acknowledge that they remain close to God in their fidelity to the covenant of Moses and the Torah.  And, unfortunately, in our day it still needs to be said that hatred for the Jews and any form of anti-Semitism is deplorable.  It’s as wrong as any other kind of racism.  It violates all that Jesus taught and what the Church continues to teach.

The other point in what we hear from Paul today concerns his willingness to sacrifice himself for the sake of his people, even to the point that he would wish himself “accursed and cut off from Christ,” i.e., damned, if that would lead to the conversion of his “kindred according to the flesh” (9:3).  That would be the ultimate giving of one’s own life, i.e., one’s soul; but it’s an impossibility, as Paul implies:  “I could wish” it so, even if it’s illogical to gain souls by giving up one’s soul.

I never served in the armed forces, having entered the seminary in 10th grade.  But I’ve read many times that among soldiers, sailors, and Marines the closest bonds are with their immediate comrades, e.g., at platoon level, with the men and women they serve with, especially in combat.  Stephen Ambrose’s magnificent Band of Brothers testifies to that.  We hold in special honor those who risk their lives or lose their lives to save their brothers.  A ballad from WWII popularized by Burl Ives strikes me as emblematic of that:  the Ballad of Rodger Young, which, Wikipedia declares, “is an elegy for Army Private Rodger Wilton Young, who died after rushing a Japanese machine-gun nest on 31 July 1943, and is largely based on the citation for Young's posthumous Medal of Honor.”  That skirmish happened on the island of New Georgia in the Solomon Islands.  The 1st 3 of the ballad’s 5 stanzas read:

1. Oh, they've got no time for glory in the Infantry.
Oh, they've got no use for praises loudly sung,
But in every soldier's heart in all the Infantry
Shines the name, shines the name of Rodger Young.
Shines the name — Rodger Young,
Fought and died for the men he marched among.
To the everlasting glory of the Infantry
Lives the story of Private Rodger Young.

2. Caught in ambush lay a company of riflemen —
Just grenades against machine guns in the gloom —
Caught in ambush till this one of twenty riflemen
Volunteered, volunteered to meet his doom.
Volunteered — Rodger Young,
Fought and died for the men he marched among.
In the everlasting annals of the Infantry
Glows the last deed of Private Rodger Young.
3. It was he who drew the fire of the enemy

That a company of men might live to fight;
And before the deadly fire of the enemy
Stood the man, stood the man we hail tonight.
Stood the man — Rodger Young,
Fought and died for the men he marched among.
Like the everlasting courage of the Infantry
Was the last deed of Private Rodger Young.

The sacrifice of self for others is truly a heroic act.  That’s what Paul was suggesting.  It is, in fact, what Christ did:  “No one has greater love than to lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).  There are, we all know, innumerable men and women who do put their lives on the line every day.  May God bless and protect them all!

It’s unlikely that many of us will actually need to die for our friends or family or country.  But we are all challenged daily to sacrifice ourselves.  Jesus himself tells us that we must take up our crosses every day if we wish to follow him.  That may be the cross of private, personal suffering of some kind.  Very often, however, it’s a suffering, a cross, a sacrifice for someone else:  the work we put in to support our families, caring for a sick relative or neighbor, reaching out and assisting someone in need, standing up for the oppressed, the weak, and the unborn, holding to the truth when the truth is unpopular, biting our tongue before we speak unjustly or unkindly, wearing a face mask even tho it’s uncomfortable, etc.

Your own daily experience will reveal to you your own cross, your own opportunities to give of yourself alongside our Lord Jesus Christ.  May we all do that with quiet heroism for the sake of our sisters and brothers, for the sake of the people we march among, and for the everlasting glory of God.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Homily for 18th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Homily for the
18th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Aug. 2, 2020
Rom 8: 35, 37-39
Holy Name of Jesus, Valhalla, N.Y.
“What will separate us from the love of Christ?” (Rom 8: 35).
We’re about halfway thru our 13 weeks of readings from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, and are in our 5th consecutive week reflecting on ch. 8.  Having reminded us of God’s abundant love for us revealed in Jesus Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit bestowed upon us, Paul now asks whether there are any limits to the reach of God’s love:  “What will separate us from the love of Christ?”, or more accurately, “Who will separate us from the love of Christ?”
Paul proposes hypothetical possibilities, human and natural and supernatural, and he asserts that no “creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (8:39).  God’s love for us is absolute and all-conquering, no matter how limited may be our perception of it.  It surpasses plagues, natural disasters, human malice, even the power of Satan.  Even in a time of pandemic, Christ continues to offer us the forgiveness of sin and a part in his own victory over death.
The cross reveals the depths of God’s love for us in Christ.  In Romans ch. 6, in our reading for the 13th Sunday of Ordinary Time (Rom 6:3-4,8-11), Paul reminded us that when we were baptized we were baptized into the death of Christ, descending into his grave as we descended into the baptismal waters—in the early Church Baptism was always by immersion—and then rising with Christ to a new, godly life.  That—a new, godly life—was the commitment we made in Baptism, and now as we follow Christ, “we conquer overwhelmingly thru him” (8:37).
When we have to deal with evil in the world, it’s important for us to remember that Christ conquers.  A great many of our brother and sister Christians are suffering persecution and even death in China, Pakistan, India, Nigeria, and other places.  They cling to Christ, certain that nothing and no one “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (8:39).  These brave disciples of our Lord Jesus are doing what tens of thousands of others did in the 20th century at the hands of Nazis, Communists, military dictators, death squads, and others.
Don’t think that persecution and oppression occur only in such situations.  In contemporary Western culture, the principalities that rule our politics, our schools, and our media pressure believers and sometimes mandate that believers separate from Christ, seeking to compel his followers to put their consciences aside and cooperate with abortion (nurses can be fired, doctors have their practices limited); cooperate with funding contraception (which the Little Sisters of the Poor and some others have resisted up to the Supreme Court); cooperate by signaling their approval of deviant sexual practices such as “gay marriage” and transgenderism—which Pope Francis has clearly and often denounced as a false ideology.
For example, a hate crime bill that’s before the Scottish parliament could lead to censorship of Catholic teaching by criminalizing what the Bible and the Catholic catechism teach regarding sexuality.  Such censorship has happened repeatedly on college campuses, even supposedly Catholic colleges like Marquette University.  In social media, it’s called “cancel culture,” intimidating someone with an unpopular, politically incorrect opinion, into shutting up.  And you know that in our country Christian bakers, florists, and photographers have been taken to court for refusing to be involved with homosexual weddings.
Just as Christians in the 1st century, St. Paul’s time, had to be ready to stand up for Christ against the power of the Roman Empire, 
Prisoners' barracks, Dachau (Wikipedia)
and 80 years ago more than 1,000 priests and religious perished at Dachau in the Nazi persecution, we too have to be ready to stand with Christ in defense of the truth of how God has created us in his own image, created us male and female, created us with a dignity that can’t be taken away from us by any law or politically correct trend, regardless of our race, age, national origin, state of health, or any other condition—from the moment of our conception until our natural death.  In fact, our own Declaration of Independence says that our life and liberty and “unalienable rights” with which our Creator has endowed us.  Further, as Christians we know that God has created us for an eternity enjoying his love and friendship “in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Bro. Ky Nguyen Instituted as Acolyte

Bro. Ky Nguyen Instituted as Acolyte

Bro. Ky Nguyen was installed (“instituted,” in technical lingo) as an acolyte on Saturday morning, August 1. Fr. Tim Zak, our provincial, presided over the rite during the community Mass of the provincial house community.  Most of the local Salesian community took part.  Bro. Sal Sammarco represented the formation community of Orange, N.J., to which Bro. Ky belongs while he studies theology at Immaculate Conception Seminary at Seton Hall University.  Bro. Ky is assigned to the provincial house for the summer in order to take some theology courses online.

Liturgically, it was the memorial of St. Alphonsus Liguori, and Fr. Tim chose the optional readings proper to St. Alphonsus, linking the great 18th-century saint to Don Bosco and to us as apostles.  Thru his teaching and preaching, especially on the Eucharist and the Blessed Mother, St. Alphonsus was a light to the people of southern Italy, and subsequently thru his influence on others.  He modeled the mercy of God in his moral theology and in the confessional.  As an acolyte, Bro. Ky will attend carefully to Eucharistic matters, and as a Salesian he, like all of us, is called to be a light to the world and a minister of divine mercy.

The ministries of lector and acolyte are canonical steps toward diaconal and priestly ordination, with a formal rite of installation.

Acolytes can “officially” serve at the sacred liturgy, prepare and clean the sacred vessels, and distribute the Eucharist in the absence of a priest or deacon (they aren't “extraordinary ministers”).

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Homily for 17th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Homily for the
17th Sunday of Ordinary Time

July 26, 2020
Rom 8: 28-30
Holy Name of Jesus, Valhalla, N.Y.

“We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Rom 8: 28).

As I observed to you a few weeks ago, we’re making our way thru 13 weeks of reading parts of St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans.  We’re now on our 4th week considering the 8th chapter of the letter, weighing our sins in the balance of God’s great mercy, weighing our human weaknesses in the balance of the power of the Holy Spirit.

“All things work for good,” Paul affirms.  “Even during a pandemic?” we may ask.  “Even during a crisis in the Church over sexual abuse?”


Put our situation into a wider context.  You remember the story of the apostles and Jesus being caught in a big storm on the Sea of Galilee (Mark 4:35-41).  The apostles were scared out of their wits by the storm’s violence, and Jesus sleeping in the stern of the boat—possibly Simon Peter’s fishing boat.  The apostles woke him up, crying out, “Don’t you care that we’re perishing?  We’re about to founder, and you’re sleeping!”  Jesus rebuked the storm, which ended abruptly, and then he rebuked them as men of little faith.  If Jesus is in the boat with them, how can they think they might go down?  Even so, he implies in his rebuke, is bodily death the worst that can befall us?

OK, the apostles at that point didn’t really know who Jesus was and what great work he was carrying out to conquer sin and death.  For us, if the bark of Peter—the Church—sometimes seems to be foundering, that’s happened more times than we can count in 2,000 years.  Do we forget that Jesus is still in the boat with us?

St. Paul reminds us that God has a purpose, a plan, for all of creation, including us humans, according to which everything will work out well, as we heard 2 Sundays back:  “Creation awaits with eager expectation the revelation of the children of God….  Creation itself [will] be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God” (8:19,21).  God’s directing the plan.

You remember Tevye’s song “If I were a rich man” in Fiddler on the Roof.  He asks God, “Would it spoil some vast eternal plan if I were a wealthy man?”  According to St. Paul, Adam’s fall and all our human sinfulness shall not spoil God’s vast eternal plan.  How much less will illness or natural disaster, not even bodily death, defeat his plan.  His own Son suffered persecution, torture, and a most painful, shameful death; and he rose triumphant from the grave and was raised to the heights of heaven, enthroned at the right hand of the Father.

God didn’t will the fall from grace of the 1st human beings.  He didn’t will his Son’s rejection by the Jewish and Roman authorities.  But out of all that evil, God worked good, delivering the salvation of all the men and women who come to Jesus as Lord.

“Those who love God,” those whom God has “called according to his purpose,” God takes the initiative of calling to become disciples of Jesus, calling them “to be conformed to the image of his Son” (8:29).  Our destiny as followers of Jesus is resurrection, eternal life, a sharing in the glory of Jesus.  This is the good that God works out for us.  Jesus Christ is “the firstborn among many brothers and sisters” (8:29), the firstborn from the grave to eternal life.

If God has called us to this purpose, he’ll justify us—give us his grace of holiness—and then glorify us alongside Jesus because we reflect the person of Jesus—are “conformed to his image.”

In the next passage of this letter, still from ch. 8 (vv. 31-39), part of which we’ll hear next week, Paul asks, “If God is for us, who can be against us?”  Can anyone condemn us?  Or any earthly affliction defeat us?  Paul answers emphatically, “No!  In all these things we conquer overwhelmingly thru him who loved us.”  When we adhere to Jesus, everything else, even plague and human depravity, will fall into place in God’s hands.  “All things work for good for those who love God.”

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Homily for Friday, Week 16 of Ordinary Time

Homily for Friday
16th Week of Ordinary Time

July 24, 2020
Jer 3: 14-17
Provincial House, New Rochelle, N.Y.

“I will appoint over you shepherds after my own heart, who will shepherd you wisely and prudently” (Jer 3: 15).

We’ve just begun reading from Jeremiah, by word count the longest book of the Bible.  Most of those words announce doom for Judah and Jerusalem or tell of the prophet’s personal misfortunes—to the extent that the word jeremiad means “a prolonged lamentation or complaint; a cautionary or angry harangue.”

Today’s 4-verse passage is an exception to that tone.  It’s a word of promise, a word of hope.  Judah’s exiles, tho few in number, will be called back to Jerusalem, and there they will prosper:  “When you multiply and become fruitful in the land, says the Lord…” (3:16).  God will give them good shepherds, wise and prudent shepherds (priests and governors) in place of the false, misleading shepherds who brought about Jerusalem’s ruin at the hand of the Chaldeans, aka Babylonians.

The Good Shepherd (fresco in the catacombs of St. Callistus)

In fact, Jerusalem will thrive so much that “all nations will be gathered together to honor the name of the Lord at Jerusalem, and they will walk no longer in their hardhearted wickedness” (3:17).  God’s redemption is forthcoming.  The returned Judeans won’t even miss the ark of the covenant, the sacred sign of God’s dwelling among them—which disappeared when the Chaldeans captured the city and looted the temple—disappeared until Indiana Jones found it.  Instead, the whole city will be the Lord’s throne:  “At that time they will call Jerusalem the Lord’s throne” (3:17).

We hear repeatedly in the gospels and epistles that Jesus of Nazareth fulfilled the words of the prophets and psalms.  So it is with this passage.

The Father appointed Jesus as a shepherd after his own heart, and Jesus in turn appointed shepherds to continue the work his Father appointed for him.  Shepherding, you remember, is one of the key images in Don Bosco’s 1st dream.  We pray God thru Don Bosco’s intercession to make us wise and prudent shepherds after the heart of his Son and like our father Don Bosco.

Jesus Christ became the ark of the new covenant that God made with humanity.  In him the fullness of Deity resides (Col 2:9).  We have no need to think of or remember the ark that Moses made.  In Jerusalem the Lord was enthroned—on a cross, and from that throne he draws all people to himself (John 12:32), to the throne of grace (Heb 4:16).  We have in our midst the living presence of this Lord who gathers all nations to himself, that they may “no longer walk in their hardhearted wickedness” but might be converted into God’s children by grace and “honor the name of the Lord,” from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).  May we be among those who honor the Lord, who glorify our Father in our daily words and actions, who are his witnesses wherever we are.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Homily for the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene

Homily for the Feast of
St. Mary Magdelene 
July 22, 2020
Songs 3: 1-4 
John 20: 1-2, 11-18

Ursulines, Willow Dr., New Rochelle, N.Y.

“I sought him whom my heart loves” (Songs 3: 1).

Risen Jesus appears to Mary (by Ivanov)

The little bit that we really know about Mary of Magdala offers us 2 lessons.  The 1st is her seeking Jesus and following him; the 2d is her announcing the Good News, “I have seen the Lord, and he is alive” (cf. John 20:18).

Since the early Middle Ages a mythology has developed around Mary, caused by a false conflation of 3 women who appear in the gospels:  the real Mary, Mary of Bethany (the sister of Martha and Lazarus), and the unnamed sinful woman who fell at Jesus’ feet, anointed them, and dried them with her hair.

According to St. Luke (8:2), 7 demons had gone out of the real Mary, presumably cast out by Jesus; today’s Liturgy of the Hours says explicitly that he did it, however the exorcism is to be interpreted.  Then Mary became one of the Galilean women who followed Jesus along with the 12 and “provided for them out of their resources” (8:3), suggesting that she was a woman of means.

Legends around Mary send her to Ephesus with the Virgin Mary or turn her into a penitent apostle who went with her supposed brother Lazarus and sister Martha to Gaul.

The Mary of the gospels not only followed Jesus but also stayed with him all the way to Golgotha, as all the gospels attest, Luke by implication and the other 3 evangelists by name.  From Golgothat, the 4 gospels agree (Luke by implication, again), she continued to seek him whom her heart loved, coming to the tomb early on Sunday morning with several friends to complete, lovingly, the burial rites for her beloved.

When she finally recognizes her risen Lord, she clings to him.  Most English translations are rather tame, in my opinion:  “Stop holding on to me” (John 20:17); the Vulgate reads, “Noli me tangere.”  I think the Jerusalem Bible’s “cling” is more emphatic, and the Postcommunion prayer goes with that, as well.  Be that as it may, we see the bond of love between Mary and Jesus her Lord.  That’s a model for us as disciples:  to seek the Lord always, to follow him wherever he goes, even to the cross, and to hold him tight and close when we’re with him.

Jesus concludes his meeting with Mary with his commission that she should announce his resurrection.  She becomes the “apostle to the apostles,” in the words of Rabanus Maurus and Thomas Aquinas, the bearer of the Good News to the frightened and skeptical, to Peter and the beloved disciple who have seen the empty tomb but not yet grasped its meaning.  The Lord is risen!  Death is defeated.  All his words of forgiveness and salvation are true.

That’s our commission too—to continue in Mary Magdalene’s footsteps, announcing to everyone that we’ve met Jesus and love him and find salvation in him.  “Thru her intercession and example, may we proclaim the living Christ and come to see him reigning in [the Father’s] glory” (Collect).

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Homily for 16th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Homily for the
16th Sunday of Ordinary Time

July 19, 2020
Rom 8: 26-27
Holy Name of Jesus, Valhalla, N.Y.

“The Spirit comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought” (Rom 8: 26).
Pentecost (Jan Joest)
When the apostles wanted to learn how to pray, it was easy for them to turn to Jesus and ask him to teach them.  And Jesus gave them that most basic of all prayers which we call the Lord’s Prayer.

In the physical absence of Jesus, we can and do still use his prayer.  But often we want more.  We may be unsure of what to pray for, or we may suffer interminable distractions, or we may want some new formula that’s a little less rote, or we may want to be able to put more heart into what we say to God.  There are so many ways in which we feel our prayer to be inadequate, so that “we do not know how to pray as we ought.”

There’s an old Jewish story from Eastern Europe that might encourage us:
When the great Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov saw misfortune threatening the Jews, it was his custom to go into a certain part of the forest to meditate.  There he would light a fire, say a prayer, and the miracle would be accomplished and the misfortune averted.
Later, when his disciple, the celebrated Magid of Mezritch, had occasion, for the same reason, to say the prayer, he would go to the same place in the forest and say:  “Master of the Universe, listen!  I do not know how to light the fire, but I am still able to say the prayer.”  And again, the miracle would be accomplished.
Still later, Rabbi Moshe-Leib of Sasov, in order to save his people once more, would go into the forest and say:  “I do not know how to light the fire, I do not know the prayer, but I know the place, and this must be sufficient.”  Once again, a miracle.
Then it fell to Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn to overcome misfortune.  Sitting in his armchair, his head in his hands, he spoke to God:  “I am unable to light the fire and I do not know the prayer; I cannot even find the place in the forest.  All I can do is to tell the story, and this must be sufficient.”  And it was sufficient.[1]
It’s a story of God’s sufficiency when our own knowledge or resources are insufficient.  It’s a story of grace, if you will.  It’s a story of “the Spirit coming to the aid of our weakness.”

In the Our Father we pray that God’s will may be done on earth as it is in heaven.  But we seldom know what his will is.  (Stephen Vincent Benet’s epic poem John Brown’s Body has a magnificent scene in which Lincoln struggles to discern God’s will amid the carnage of the Civil War.)  Too often we try to get God to accommodate himself to our will.  Praying in the Spirit would have us praying like Jesus in the Garden:  “Not my will but yours be done” (Matt 26:39).  We’d leave ourselves open to the apparent frustration of our own hopes and desires.

St. Monica
St. Monica prayed for years and years for her son’s conversion.  When he decided to move from Carthage to Rome in order to pursue his worldly ambitions, she prayed that he’d change his mind or that something would prevent his sailing to Italy, where she was afraid that what was left of his faith and morals would meet complete shipwreck.  God ignored her pleas, and Augustine sailed to Rome.  God had other plans, which became evident when the young rhetoric teacher moved on to Milan—at that time the home of the imperial court and so the place for an ambitious young man to be—and Augustine fell under the influence of Milan’s talented and holy bishop, Ambrose.
  So Monica’s more fundamental prayer, that her son be converted, was heard altho at least one of her intermediate prayers, that he stay in Africa, was not.

So our prayer, if it’s really prayer and not just the projection of our own egos, has to rely upon the ultimate wisdom of God, which is to say, on the Holy Spirit.
Such reliance is the best possible way of praying.  “The Spirit himself intercedes with inexpressible groanings” (8:26).  What we don’t know how to pray for, or what we can’t find the right words for, the Spirit knows and puts before the Father—no words necessary.  The longing of our hearts, the Spirit carries to the Father—whether our hearts are heavy or light, whether they are bursting with praise or collapsed in anguish, whether we need forgiveness or guidance.

Of course we can use words too.  In an old column in Catholic New York, Mary DeTurris Poust recounts how one afternoon she “was complaining about some minor problem,” and Chiara, her younger daughter, 5 at the time, said, “Why don’t you just talk to God?”  Chiara one day had overheard her “frazzled” mom “talking out loud to God” and “picked up on the fact” that Mom often talks to God “not in traditional prayer form but as if I am talking on the phone with a friend—when I’m stressed.”  Without intending it, Mary had taught Chiara a wonderful way to pray—just talk to God like he’s your “good friend, someone who will always listen.”[2]

Because God is our friend.  Jesus assures us that we’re his friends, and he’s given us his Spirit to reassure us.  Just a few verses before the passage that’s our reading today, Paul tells the Christians of Rome that the gift of the Holy Spirit enables them to address God as Abba because, in giving them Jesus’ Spirit, he has adopted them as his own children (8:15).  He’s Dad; Jesus is friend and brother.  If that weren’t enuf for them to read our hearts, the Spirit takes care of whatever more’s needed:  “And the one who searches hearts [the Father] knows what is the intention of the Spirit, because he [the Spirit] intercedes for the holy ones [those made holy because he dwells in their hearts] according to God’s will” (8:27).  The Spirit of Jesus, deep within us, makes our prayer to the Father, uttering what we can’t because our human nature is too ignorant or too frail or too distracted or too overwhelmed by our sins or not bold enuf to come to the Father and demand his attention.

What is required of us for prayer is only 2 things:  1st, that we want to pray, that we make the effort, that we put in the time, that we give God a piece of our schedules; and 2d, that we really want to be open to him, to his will, to his desire to make us holy and bring us into his world—not the other way around.  When Paul speaks of “the intention of the Spirit” and of “how we ought to pray,” he’s speaking in the context of our eternal destiny:  “the glory to be revealed for us” (8:18), “creation set free from slavery to corruption and sharing in the glorious freedom of the children of God” (8:21), “the redemption of our bodies” (8:23), our hope of salvation (8:24).  The Spirit of Jesus most gladly intercedes for us, adds his “inexpressible groanings” to the “groanings of creation in its labor pains even until now” (8:22), that we might be saved despite all our weakness.

     [1] Recounted by Brian Cavanaugh, TOR, The Sower’s Seeds: 120 Inspiring Stories for Preaching, Teaching and Public Speaking (Mahwah: Paulist, 2004), pp. 14-15
     [2] “Building Prayer Into Busy Lives,” CNY, July 14, 2011, p. 35.