Sunday, December 28, 2014

Homily for Feast of the Holy Family

Homily for the
Feast of the Holy Family
Gen 15: 1-6; 21: 1-3
Heb 11: 8, 11-12, 17-19
Dec. 28, 2014
St. Ursula, Mt. Vernon, N.Y.               

“The word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, saying, ‘Fear not, Abram!  I am your shield; I will make your reward very great” (Gen 15: 1).

Various readings during the church year refer to God’s promise to Abraham and Abraham’s faith in God.  The 1st Eucharistic Prayer, which until 1970 was the only one there was in our Roman Rite but now we don’t use very often, calls Abraham “our father in faith.”  But this morning’s 1st reading is the only Sunday reading in which we hear God make his promise to Abram in its complete context, and Abram respond to the promise—a response of faith with no rational or natural ground for that faith, only the ground of “the word of the Lord”:  “Abram put his faith in the Lord, who credited it to him as an act of righteousness” (15:6).

Our reading from the Book of Genesis is unusual in skipping over 6 chapters.  It starts with God’s promise in ch. 15, then leaps to the promise’s fulfillment in ch. 21.  In between, God renews the promise to Abram with a solemn covenant and changes Abram’s name to Abraham as a sign of the new relationship between them, between God and this man of unshakeable faith.

The 2d reading, from the NT Letter to the Hebrews, gives us additional reminders about Abraham’s faith.  God called him out of his native country to go as a nomadic wanderer “not knowing where he was to go,” following only God’s instructions, to a land that would eventually be the inheritance of his yet-unborn family.  Then the letter cites the passage from Genesis that we just heard about sterile Sarah’s conceiving and giving birth to Isaac.  Finally, it refers to Abraham’s readiness to offer Isaac as a human sacrifice in response to God’s command, and God’s saving Isaac from that fate.

Abraham leading Isaac to be sacrificed
Cathedral of Notre Dame, Tournai, Belgium
In his Letter to the Romans, St. Paul, too, cites Abraham’s faith as the starting point for Christians’ faith in Jesus Christ as our redeemer.

The faith of Abram-Abraham is thus set out before us as a model for our faith in God in general, and our faith in Jesus in particular.  Hebrews connects Abraham and Isaac with God the Father and Jesus when it says that Abraham “reasoned that God was able to raise even from the dead, and he received Isaac back as a symbol” (11:19).  Symbol of what?  Of Jesus risen from the tomb after giving his life in sacrifice for our sins, of course.

But these 2 readings are set out before us on a particular day, the feast of the Holy Family.  So they’re meant to model for us faith as part of how we live as families:  as parents, as children, as spouses.  Faith in regard to family life is a tremendous challenge in our day, probably much more than in Abraham’s day (roughly 1,600 or 1,700 years B.C.).

It takes faith in God’s goodness and God’s plans for our lives—God’s promises for our salvation in Christ—to obey the moral law.  It can be hard for husbands and wives to be faithful to each other.  It’s hard for parents to make sacrifices for the welfare of their children—starting with a life-long commitment to each other in marriage so that children will have a stable home, abundant love, both male and female models of Christian discipleship, and appropriate discipline.

In an age that glorifies sexuality, it’s hard for spouses to practice chastity in their relations by keeping them open to life; in other words, by not using the pill or other forms of contraception.  Chastity calls us to self-restraint, and faith calls us to openness to God’s plan as exemplified in Abraham’s life.

Abram and Sarah were sterile.  As you know, nowadays many couples who have trouble conceiving resort to various forms of IVF in their desire to have kids.  It requires faith to listen to the Church’s interpretation of God’s law, that children should be conceived only in the “natural” way and not as laboratory products—not to mention that embryos conceived in a lab and not subsequently implanted in an attempt to produce a pregnancy will be discarded like so much trash, and not like the human beings that they are, however invisible to the naked eye.

As our children grow, it takes faith for parents to teach them to pray, to worship as part of the Catholic community, to learn the truths of our faith and the moral law.  It takes faith to be patient with teenagers, appropriately strict and appropriately free (giving them freedom to grow and make mistakes).  It takes faith for teens and young adults to respect and honor their parents, however “old-fashioned” they may seem to be.  It takes faith for parents who are aging and becoming more dependent to listen to their kids’ concerns for them—and for the kids to be patient with their parents’ declining physical and mental abilities.

“By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go” (Heb 11:8).  “By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac” (11:17).  By faith we parents, sons, and daughters, brothers and sisters, strive to obey God’s will for us expressed in the commandments, in the teachings of the NT, and in the teachings of the Church that apply those commandments and teachings to the 21st century.  By faith we offer up the sacrifices of our daily lives in families, working together, forgiving one another, supporting one another, caring for one another.  By faith we trust that God will see us thru all the challenges we face, credit our words and actions “as acts of righteousness,” and bring us finally to the inheritance he has promised to his faithful sons and daughters, a place in his own household with Jesus Christ, who was born for our salvation, “raised even from the dead,” and lives and reigns forever and ever.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Homily for Christmas Vigil Mass

Homily for the
Christmas Vigil Mass
Dec. 24, 2014
Wartburg Home, Mt. Vernon, N.Y.

“Through him the holy exchange that restores our life has shone forth today in splendor:  when our frailty is assumed by your Word not only does human mortality receive unending honor but by this wondrous union we, too, are made eternal” (Preface III of the Nativity).

The Nativity (illus. in a 15th-c. Bible)
We’re all familiar with dress-up occasions.  Last Sunday I did a Baptism, for example, and of course the little one was dolled up in a white gown.  You’ve seen plenty of brides bedecked for their weddings, and probably heard the battle stories about shopping for the perfect dress, paying for it, getting it fitted, all the related paraphernalia and hoopla.  (I don’t have any 1st-hand experience with all that, but I’ve stories.)  Why, weddings are so special that even a guy will dress up!  I suspect that you dressed up special for your commitment to religious life, and many of you still dress special, i.e., in your religious habits, signifying the new creation that you have become by your relationship with Christ your spouse.  At graduations everyone directly involved puts on fancy medieval garments, and of course for the most important event of our day-to-day lives, viz., the Eucharist, the celebrant dresses up in the role of different persona, for he is alter Christus.

Literature has given us some entertaining stories about people changing their dress and thus their personae.  Maybe the best-known example is Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper, in which Prince Edward, future king of England, swaps places with a beggar boy named Tom Canty.

Hollywood in 1983 gave us Eddie Murphy and Dan Ackroyd in Trading Places, with the same theme in story in which—quoting a marketing blurb—“A snobbish investor and a wily street con artist find their positions reversed as part of a bet by two callous millionaires.”  (You can guess which actor plays the “snobbish investor” and which the “street con artist.”)

Today we celebrate a kind of trading places.  We celebrate the prince who became a pauper, who “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness” (Phil 2:7) in order to elevate us, to bestow on us not merely the garb of kingship but the reality of royalty, to make us slaves of sin into “members of the household of God” (Eph 2:19)—not just members, but family members.  The Christmas message that the papal nuncio to Canada wrote to Canadian Catholics cites the Fathers of the Church, who write of a “sacred exchange”—the same phrase that appears in tonite’s Preface; and the nuncio writes, “The Son of God “took on what was ours, so that we might receive what was His and become similar to God.”[1]

Any doubt about who gets the better part of that swap?

Christmas elevates our spirits.  That’s partly because of love, peace, joy, and such sentiments, such hopes.  It’s also because of this truth of the Incarnation:  the Son of God truly does lift up the humanity he has embraced.  We hope, we expect, to become yet more, as St. John says:  “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed” (1 John 3:2).

Dear sisters, in this Year of Consecrated Life that we recently entered, we are reminded that “the first duty of consecrated life is to make visible the marvels wrought by God in the frail humanity of those who are called.  They bear witness to these marvels not so much in words as by the eloquent language of a transfigured life, capable of amazing the world.”  That’s from Vita Consecrata of St. John Paul the Great, and Mother Mary Agnes Donovan quoted it the other day in the press conference connected with the release of the report on the visitation of American nuns.[2]

The coming of God as a human being amazes the world.  When we let the God-man transform us, remake us, clothe us in his grace and his glory, we too amaze the world.  Well, truly it’s not we who amaze the world, but Christ himself alive in us.  May Christmas renew that life in you and me.

                [1] Abp. Luigi Bonazzi, “God took on what is ours to give us what is His,” Catholic Register, Dec. 21, 2014, p. 10.
                [2] Text in National Catholic Register on-line, blog of Joan Desmond, Dec. 17, 2014.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Homily for Christmas Novena, December 22

Homily for the
Christmas Novena
December 22, 2014
“O Keystone”
Provincial House, New Rochelle

“O Keystone of the mighty arch of man, come and save the creature you fashioned from the dust” (Antiphon).

The breviary, the Lectionary, and the Christmas novena give us 3 different versions of today’s O antiphon, which seems a little strange.  Why wouldn’t they all be the same?

I’ve quoted the 2d part of the antiphon from Evening Prayer of the breviary.  Neither the Lectionary nor the novena refers to “the mighty arch of man.”  The novena sees Christ as uniting 2 disparate things into one, while the Lectionary calls him the “keystone of the Church” rather than of mankind.

In any case, “keystone” seems to allude to Psalm 118:22  about the stone rejected by the builders that becomes the cornerstone.  When Jesus cites that in the Synoptic Gospels, a few translations render it as “keystone” rather than “cornerstone”; but most stick with “cornerstone.”

Entrance to the chapel of Colditz Castle illustrating
the keystone directly above the door (Wikipedia)
To be sure, a cornerstone and a keystone aren’t the same thing.  But they share a similarity in that both are essential for the support of their respective structures.  The keystone—according to Merriam-Webster—is “the wedge-shaped piece at the crown of an arch that locks the other pieces in place—see ARCH illustration.”  If you need further explanations about keystones, you should consult the member of the community who comes from the Keystone State.  Both the right and the left sides of an arch lean against the keystone, which not only holds up those sections but can even bear weight above, e.g., over a gate, a door, or a window.  (I hope that’s architecturally correct, lest I hear about it later.)

Tonite we call Jesus Christ the keystone of the structure that is the human race.  As a keystone keeps all the other stones of an arch in place, so does our Lord Jesus hold up and support this “structure” that God has reconstructed from the rubble of our sins—from that fallen state that today’s collect in the Missal speaks of.

The antiphon speaks of God’s creating man out of the dust of the earth—the 2d version of creation in Genesis.  How well we remember that we are dust or dirt or clay—however you want to put it—and to that we shall return.  Our personal dissolution mirrors what has happened to our entire race because of sin:  how we lost the glory of being God’s children and heirs of heaven “in the company of our Redeemer,” as today’s collect puts it.  The whole of humanity is heading for what the Brits call the “dustbin.”  You’ve just got to read the headlines or watch the evening news to get the picture of the state we’re in.

That is, until the King of the Nations steps in to put everything back together; to rebuild humanity as, again, the glorious children of God, and to promise to rebuild us individually on the Last Day, restoring our mortal dust into something new beyond our imagining, fully alive, everlastingly alive.

This new and redeemed humanity is a new creature.  God has recreated the world, given us all hope, invited us all to share in the life and virtues of Christ.  When we act in Christ, are we not rebuilding the human race, giving it a little bit more conformity to the divine image?  When we act in Christ, we lean upon him; and truly we need his support to do what is right and just, day in and day out.  He is the keystone to our individual lives as redeemed people, and to our life together as a race.

So we beseech him in this antiphon to come and save us:  to come into our individual hearts, to come into our Church, to come into the entire race and make us new, to reshape our mortal clay and our stony hearts, to recreate us with grace into his own likeness.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Homily for December 22

The Great Days of Advent
December 22, 2014
Provincial House, New Rochelle

Every collect in the missal includes 3 elements: acknowledgment of some attribute of or benefit received from God; a plea for divine assistance or favor in some form; and the invocation of Trinity.

Today’s collect acknowledges God’s willing to redeem the fallen human race thru the incarnation of the Father’s only-begotten Son.  We pay tribute to God’s beneficence and imply that his goodness is effective:  he accomplishes what he wills thru the means that he chooses.  That’s our reason for praising him today; our reason for giving him thanks today.

Then we pray that we who believe humbly may merit to have the Son as our Redeemer; that we may walk in his company; that the Incarnation and Redemption will in fact be effective in our particular cases and not merely in the case of the fallen human race in general.

The Annunciation
Domenico Beccafumi (1486-1551)
Our humble prayer and our humble faith echoes the prayer and faith of the Virgin Mary (Luke 1:46-56).  She calls herself the Lord’s lowly servant and acknowledges that it is the Lord who saves the lowly.  The Lord has not only made a promise to Abraham, but he has acted on his promise, generation after generation right up to his intervention in Mary’s life.  In humility she has acquiesced in that intervention—assuredly without understanding its implications, but trusting him completely.

That trust is the only way that we can “merit” to have her Son keep company with us as our Redeemer—the trust that Mary had opened the door for the Son’s incarnation, and for us it opens the door for the Lord Jesus to enter our lives, direct them, and lead us from fallenness to eternal life.

Homily for 4th Sunday of Advent

Homily for the
4th Sunday of Advent
Dec. 20, 1987
2 Sam 7: 1-5, 8-11, 16
Luke 1: 26-38
Holy Cross, Fairfield, Conn.

This weekend I was with Troop Forty at Camp Seton in Greenwich, Conn., for the annual family Christmas party, sandwiched between 2 nites of indoor “camping.”  My Saturday evening homily was on the gospel but had no written text.  So—here’s a “golden oldie.”

“Your house and your kingdom shall endure forever before me; your throne shall stand firm forever” (2 Sam 7: 16).

King David dancing before the Ark of God (Artist of the Venetian School)
The theme running thru today’s liturgy is house building.  We all know something about that:  we’ve at least built sandcastles at the beach.  Quite possibly we’ve moved into a new house, found its defects, and grumbled, “They sure don’t build houses like they used to.”

Houses, like life, are fragile.  They reflect their materials and their builders—created, weak, mortal, part of a violent world. Ps 127 reminds is, “Unless the Lord build the house, they labor in vain who build it” (v. 1).

King David, who reigned 1,000 years before Christ, united the 12 tribes of Israel into one nation, defeated her enemies, and made Jerusalem her capital.  He gave justice and security to the nation, and he worshipped God reverently.  Israel always looked back to him as the ideal king, much as we look to Washington as the ideal president.  Even today the Star of David graces the flag of Israel.

“When King David was settled in his palace, and the Lord had given him rest from his enemies on every side,” 2 Sam tells us, he proposed to build a worthy house for the Ark of the Covenant, i.e., a temple for the sacred symbol of God’s intimate relationship to his people. (For those of you not so familiar with the Bible, I’ll point out that the ark is what Indiana Jones was looking for in Raiders of the Lost Ark.)

The Ark of the Covenant (Indiana
To David’s surprise and, I suppose, to Nathan the prophet’s, God declines the offer.  Not in displeasure, however, but in grace.  What David proposes to do in gratitude and reverence for God, God proposes to do freely and spontaneously for David and for Israel.

David says, “No, I will build God a house,” i.e., a temple.  God says, “No, I will build you a house,” i.e., a dynasty.  “You were a shepherd boy, and I chose you from the fields.  Now your descendants shall shepherd my people forever.”

The story of David’s royal dynasty reads like a biblical soap opera.  It lasted not forever but a mere 400 years.  “Unless the Lord build the house, they labor in vain who build it.”  Human infidelity wrecked God’s house.

After Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome in turn subjugated the little kingdom of Judea, the Jews kept the Davidic promise alive as a hope—the hope for a messiah who would restore everything:  their freedom, their friendship with God, every man’s original state of paradise.  This Savior would be the Son of David, and his reign would be everlasting.

If the apparent meaning of God’s promise to David was a washout—washed out by human infidelity—God’s providence always surprises us, like his original response to David’s proposal.  The promise is fulfilled, and fulfilled in a miraculous way.  Luke’s Gospel tells us how.  The Virgin Mary will conceive and bear a son.  She will name him Jesus—which means “God saves.”  His earthly family is descended from David, and “the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father.  He will rule over the house of Jacob forever” (Luke 1:32-33).

The promise is fulfilled not in the resurrection of David’s empire, not in Jewish independence, wealth, and national pride.  Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promise to deliver his people from affliction, from wickedness.  He is the embodiment of God’s loving care for mankind.  He is the good shepherd of God’s people.  We are all the house of Jacob, the sheep of his flock, the recreated Israel, children of the resurrection and eternal life.

Which is why Christmas will bring us such joy.  We’re eager to hear those glad tidings, “Today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord.  Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests” (Luke 2:11,14).

Which is why Advent still reminds us that Christ will come again.  We’re eager to welcome him not as a helpless babe but as the Lord of glory, conqueror of sin and death, redeemer of those who’ve put their trust in him, those who’ve been able to say to God, “I’m the Lord’s servant.  Let it be done to me as you say” (Luke 1:38).

And we shall sing the favors of the Lord forever (Ps 89:2).

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Homily for 3d Sunday of Advent

Homily for the
3d Sunday of Advent
Dec. 14, 2014
John 1: 6-8, 19-28
St. Vincent’s Hospital, Harrison, N.Y.

“He came to testify to the light, so that all might believe thru him” (John 1: 7).

Advent points us toward 3 comings of Christ our Savior:  his return on the Last Day as king and judge of the universe; his appearance at the Jordan River and the start of his public ministry; and his birth at Bethlehem.

Two of those comings are historical; they’ve already happened, and we recall them and try to let them become a present part of our lives.  The 3d is somewhere in the future—how far, we have no idea; but we firmly believe that “he will come again to judge the living and the dead.”

Our liturgy in the 1st weeks of Advent stresses Christ’s return in glory as our judge, with his public appearance in Israel as a kind of secondary theme.  But gradually the emphasis shifts.  Thus today our 2d reading, from St. Paul’s 1st Letter to the Thessalonians, refers to “the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” at the end of history; but the 1st reading, from the prophet Isaiah, presents to us the very passage that Jesus read and announced in a synagog as he started his public ministry of preaching, healing, and giving people an experience of God’s personal love for them, while the gospel reading presents to us, for a 2d straight week, the preaching of John the Baptist that prepares the way for Jesus’ coming.

John the Baptist preaching, by Alessandro Allori (1535-1607)
John the Baptist comes preaching a message of repentance and gives people a symbolic way of demonstrating repentance, viz., baptism.  His symbolic action is just to prepare people for “the real deal,” the one who will give them the Holy Spirit (as we heard last week [Mark 1:8]); it’s the Spirit, not John’s water, that effectively takes our sins away and unites us with God as his children.

But the Jewish authorities wonder about John and investigate him:  “The Jews from Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him, ‘Who are you?  Are you Elijah, or the Prophet?  What do you have to say for yourself?’” (John 1:19-22).  Who is this guy?  That’s what we hear in the gospel today.

Some clarifications are in order.  When St. John refers to “the Jews” in his Gospel, he almost always means the official leaders of the Jewish people, the leaders who were hostile to Jesus.  It should be obvious that he doesn’t mean the entire Jewish people; Jesus, Mary, and the apostles, after all, were Jews too, and so were all of his early disciples.

The questions about Elijah and “the Prophet” refer to interpretations of Old Testament passages that seemed to foretell that Elijah would precede the coming of the Messiah.  Later on, Jesus in fact will say that John the Baptist fulfilled that role, and that’s how we today see John.  A “prophet like Moses” also was mentioned as a possible forerunner of the Messiah or even a 2d Moses who would deliver God’s people from their afflictions.

To all of that, as we heard, John says “no” repeatedly.  He’s none of those figures.  He is himself, and he knows just who that is.  A famous political figure once sloganed, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”  John the Baptist passes on that sort of thing.  He has no illusions of grandeur.  He’s not looking to be a celebrity or cultural icon.  “I’m not worthy to untie the sandal strap” of the one who’s coming, which means he sees himself as less even than a slave (slaves had the duty of helping masters with their footwear).

How does John know who he is?  How is he so firmly grounded as a person?  Remember where he came from:  the desert.  What was he doing out there?  The Scriptures don’t tell us precisely.  Luke comes closest, after the story of John’s birth:  “The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the desert until the day of his manifestation to Israel” (1:80).  We associate the desert with prayer, fasting, penance, combat with the devil—such as Jesus underwent after his baptism by John.  So John’s identity is grounded in his relationship with God, which has been formed in the desert by prayer and penance and resisting temptation.

Do you want to be a firmly grounded person?  Do you want to have a secure sense of who you are?  Pray.  Form a strong relationship with Jesus Christ and maintain it.  Be constantly on the alert for Satan’s attempts to lead you astray, and resist them.  “Test everything; retain what is good.  Refrain from every kind of evil,” Paul advises us today (1 Thess 5:21-22).  Every day reaffirm your allegiance to God.  “In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus” (5:18).

John attracted attention from the Jewish people, from the Jewish leaders, and from King Herod because of his message.  His message pointed to “the light,” St. John tells us:  “he came to testify to the light, so that all might believe thru him.”

When we were baptized, we were given a candle.  That candle had been lit from the Easter candle, sign of Christ’s resurrection, sign of Christ’s eternal life, sign that Christ is the light of the world.  We were admonished to keep that light burning brightly.  In other words, we too were charged to testify to the light, the light that is Christ.  Like John the Baptist, that’s what Christians do.

Jesus himself tells his disciples, “You are the light of the world.  A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden.  Your light must shine before humanity, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father” (Matt 5:14,16).  We aren’t the light in our own right, but we reflect the One who is the light of the world thru our good deeds, our Christ-like deeds and words, our Christian presence in the world.

In the words of our 1st reading, “The Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners” (Is 61:1-2).  The world is full of the darkness of poverty and inequality, of broken hearts, of oppression, and even of slavery.  Pope Francis’s message for World Day of Peace this year focuses on slavery in the many forms in which is persists in the 21st century.  John the Baptist came to testify to the light that is Christ, and in the 21st century, we who follow Christ also must testify to him by bringing his light to the people around us and, insofar as we can, to our society, our culture, which is so badly in need of light, joy, peace, truth, faithfulness, and mercy.

Fr. Joseph Occhio, SDB (1923-2014)

Fr. Joseph Occhio, SDB (1923-2014)

Fr. Occhio at province jubilees
celebration 2010--his 70th of
profession, 60th of ordination
Fr. Joseph Occhio made his way to the Father on the evening of Dec. 13.  Announcing his passing to the Salesians of the New Rochelle Province, provincial Fr. Tom Dunne noted that the Church had just begun to celebrate Gaudete Sunday, and “the Lord was calling out for Fr. Joseph to come to him in the joy of heaven.

Fr. Occhio was 91 years old and was a member of the Salesian community at St. Benedict’s Parish, Etobicoke, Ont.

Fr. Occhio had suffered both a stroke and a heart attack in his room in the rectory two days earlier, at an unknown time during the afternoon, and was taken to Etobicoke General Hospital, where he was given emergency care for almost a full day, refused any extraordinary treatment, and was moved to the floor where palliative care is provided.  He was accompanied throughout by members of the Salesian community.

Fr. Joseph Occhio was the son of Giuseppe and Giovannina Spizzi Occhio.  He was born on Nov. 17, 1923, at Gallignano (Cremona), Italy, and was baptized the next day in the parish church.

With his father just before he
sailed for the U.S.
In 1938 Joseph entered the Salesian St. Pius V School at Penango (Asti).  Although the records of Don Bosco College in Newton, N.J., indicate his enrollment there on Aug. 15, 1939, it appears that he actually began his novitiate around that time at Castelnuovo Don Bosco.  A postcard to his parents dated Aug. 18 informs them of his plans to stop a few days in Turin, then go to Naples to sail to America.  In fact, he sailed from Genoa aboard the Rex.  It appears that he reached Newton and entered St. Joseph’s Novitiate around Sept. 14, 1939, because he made his first religious profession on Sept. 14, 1940.

Bro. Occhio graduated from Don Bosco College in Newton, magna cum laude, in 1943 and did his first year of practical training there as Latin and Greek teacher of the aspirants.  In 1944 he moved to Salesian High School in New Rochelle, where he taught general science and French.

He professed perpetual vows in Newton on September 8, 1946.

Bro. Occhio studied theology at the Ateneo Pontificio Salesiano in Turin (Crocetta) from 1946 to 1950.

In "civies" for going out to campaign
for the Christian Democrats in 1948.

Those years in Turin were challenging socially and politically.  Italy discarded the monarchy in favor of a republic, and the 1948 elections threatened to empower the Communists, as had already happened in much of central Europe, right up to Italy’s northeastern border (Yugoslavia).  During the election campaign the theology students, with their cassocks set aside, were sent out into the streets and the countryside to lobby in favor of the Christian Democrats, who managed a victory.

Having earned a licentiate in theology (STL), Fr. Occhio was ordained in the Basilica of Mary Help of Christians on July 2, 1950.  His was a renowned class that included Frs.  Paul Avallone, Edward Cappelletti, Arthur Lenti, John Malloy, Armand Oliveri, Gennaro Sesto, Chester Szemborski, Louis Vyoral, and Leo Winterscheidt.

After ordination he continued studies in philosophy in Turin at the Istituto Rebaudengo and came away with a doctorate in 1953.  His dissertation was on Irving Babbitt.

At Don Bosco College, Newton
Fr. Occhio then spent 27 years (1953-1980) back at Don Bosco College Seminary teaching philosophy and at times also serving as dean of students, registrar, director of religious activities, socius of the novices, or dean of the Sons of Mary (older candidates for Salesian life).  He was also an occasional teacher of economics, Greek, and Latin.  He was an effective professor and a popular, approachable one, and his religious life was exemplary for aspirants, novices, and young Salesians alike.

He did post-doctoral studies at St. John’s University (Jamaica, N.Y.), Seton Hall University (South Orange, N.J.), and the Catholic University of America (Washington) and was a visiting professor at Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary in New York.

Fr. Occhio published articles in various learned and popular journals, including the Bulletin of the Albertus Magnus Guild, Catholic Educational Review, Salesianum, Spiritual Life, Our Sunday Visitor, and L’Osservatore Romano.  It seems that his only published books were Perspectives in Christian Humanism (1966) and some autobiographical reflections, Magnificat 2000, described by a friend as “a collection of personal stories that give testimony to the greatness of God in his life.”  Some of his work can now be found in blog form, e.g., “Light from Aquinas” at

For many summers he was the campus minister of Camp Don Bosco on the grounds of Don Bosco College, and many more summers the director of the Sons of Mary summer program in Ellenville, N.Y.  He also preached retreats, guided prayer groups, and carried out weekend parish ministry in the Paterson, N.J., Diocese.

In 1980 Fr. Occhio was assigned to be director of the Salesian Center in Columbus, Ohio, to guide the Salesian students of theology as well as to watch over the Boys Club based there.

In 1985 he was recalled to Newton for two more years teaching philosophy and one year (1986-1987) as acting president of the College.

At that time Fr. Anthony Mastroeni of the Paterson Diocese was a candidate with the Salesians.  He writes that Fr. Occhio “was among the most solid Thomists I have known.  He was a scholar, gentleman and the quintessential Salesian.  I admired him and respected him dearly.”

With a younger generation of Salesians taking up responsibility for seminary formation in Newton, Fr. Occhio took up a new form of ministry in a new country.  He went to Montreal as a parish priest, first as pastor of Mission St. Dominic Savio (1987-1993) and then as assistant pastor at Maria Ausiliatrice Parish and director of the Montreal Salesian community (1993-1996).

In Montreal he still made the occasional foray into academia.  For example, in 1988 he guest lectured at McGill University in a course called Philosophy of Catholic Education taught by former Salesian Spencer Boudreau.  Mr. Boudreau reported that Fr. Occhio’s  presentation of Don Bosco’s method of education deeply impressed his students of “various religious or non-religious backgrounds.”

Helping with orientation for elementary school teachers in New Brunswick, Canada
Three years as assistant pastor at St. Emeric’s Hungarian Parish in Edmonton, Alta., followed (1996-1999) before Fr. Occhio arrived in Etobicoke as director of the community for one term (1999-2002), and as priestly assistant at St. Benedict’s Parish until his last days in many ways, including spiritual direction of the Association of Mary Help of Christians (ADMA) and of the Don Bosco Volunteers, tireless ministry in the sacrament of Reconciliation, the example of his Eucharistic and Marian devotion, and his grandfatherly presence to young and old.

Two of the Don Bosco Volunteers paid this tribute to their beloved mentor:  “Fr. Occhio not only preached Don Bosco’s refrain to live in joy and optimism, he embodied joy and optimism in the everyday events of life.  There’s no doubt he carried great burdens and suffered greatly in body and spirit:  he did all this, though, with a palpable joy in Jesus and an optimism that permeated all his words and actions.  It’s no wonder that the Lord called him to his eternal rest on the 3rd Sunday of Advent, the week of JOY.  Fr. Occhio’s passing occurs on the sixth anniversary of our profession of final vows.  We are forever grateful to Fr. Occhio for his love of our vocation and our Institute and for nurturing our vocations from the earliest stages.”

When Fr. Occhio turned 90 last year, Fr. Pascual Chavez, at the time Rector Major of the Salesians, wrote him a congratulatory and laudatory letter.  Among other things, he said to Fr. Occhio:

A witness that is deeply rooted in prayer and constantly nurtured by your friendship with God. Like the true mystic, Fr. Joseph, your life is a pointer to God’s loving-kindness.

Your life has been and remains one of service, making yourself available to be a channel of God’s grace through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, your readiness to be of service to the Italian community and ready to be a servant to all.

Prophetic continues to be your ministry whether through writing or radio programs. Above all, prophetic remains your daily life within the religious community, giving the witness of one who “stresses what unites rather than what divides” (Pope John XXIII) and through the gentle spirit of St. Francis de Sales in the way you ask for nothing and refuse nothing.

Bro. Bernie DubĂ© lived with Fr. Occhio in the Etobicoke community for 14 years.  He described Fr. Occhio as “always positive, cheerful, man of prayer.”

One of St. Benedict’s youths, 18-year-old Joshua Pace, noted Fr. Occhio’s devotion to the Virgin Mary, which “will live on through everyone that he inspired, from the youngsters to the elders.”

Isabel Correa from Montreal addressed Fr. Occhio thus:  “Dear Fr. Occhio friend of the young!!!!  Thank you for your constant witness of joy!  Thank you for all your personal messages of support!  I was always moved and warmly surprised each time I received a note from you.  It meant sooo much to me to know you were praying for me.”

Fr. Mario Cimosa, a professor at the Salesian Pontifical University in Rome, paid this tribute to Fr. Occhio: “He was a great Salesian, and he certainly left his mark on the Salesians of America.  He will be praying for us.  I don’t want to exaggerate, but he ranks among the Salesian saints.”

Fr. Dunne wrote:  Fr. Occhio was a much loved member of [the Salesian] community [of Etobicoke] and the people of St. Benedict Parish.  Undoubtedly, he will be missed by all Salesians in Canada and by all who have come to know Fr. Occhio from his many years of faithful service to the St. Philip Province.”

Fr. Occhio is survived by his brothers Franco, Fede, Tarcisio and Fr. Leone.  He was predeceased by his sisters Angela, Maria, Sr. Celeste, and Natalina and brothers Francesco and Luigi.

Funeral Arrangements

Monday, December 15, wake at St. Benedict’s Church

1:00 – 4:00 p.m. and 7:00 – 9:00 p.m.

Tuesday, December 16, wake continues, 1:00 – 4:00 p.m.

8:00 p.m. Vigil Service (after 7:30 p.m. parish Mass)

Wednesday, December 17, Mass of Christian Burial

11:00 a.m., followed by reception in the church hall

Thursday, December 18, transfer of body to Montreal for burial

Sunday, December 7, 2014

December 8 Anniversary of the Salesian Movement

December 8
Anniversary of the Salesian Movement
for the Salvation of the Young
St. John Bosco began his "work of the festive oratories," which developed into the Salesian Society and then the vast Salesian Family (including other religious congregations, the Association of Salesian Cooperators, secular institutes, and other groups) on December 8, 1841, "with a simple catechism lesson" introduced by a fervent Hail Mary.  He tells the story in the 28th chapter of his Memoirs of the Oratory of St. Francis de Sales.  This is the translation by Fr. Daniel Lyons, published in New Rochelle, with a condensed version of the annotations that your humble blogger wrote for the 1989 edition (now out of print). 

The feast of the Immaculate Conception and the beginning of the festive oratory

Hardly had I registered at the Convitto of St Francis, when I met at once a crowd of boys who followed me in the streets and the squares and even into the sacristy of the church attached to the institute. But I could not take direct care of them since I had no premises. A humourous incident[1] opened the way to put into action my project[2] for the boys who roamed the streets of the city, especially those released from prison.

On the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of Mary (8 December 1841),[3] I was vesting to celebrate holy Mass at the appointed time. Joseph Comotti, the sacristan, seeing a boy in a corner, asked him to come and serve my Mass.

“I don’t know how,” he answered, completely embarrassed.

“Come on,” repeated the sacristan, “I want you to serve Mass.

“I don’t know how,” the boy repeated. “I’ve never served Mass.”

“You blockhead,” said the sacristan, quite furious, “if you don’t know how to serve Mass, what are you doing in the sacristy?” With that he grabbed a feather duster and hit the poor boy about the head and shoulders.

As the boy beat a hasty retreat, I cried loudly, “What are you doing? Why are you beating him like that? What’s he done?”

“Why is he hanging round the sacristy if he doesn’t know how to serve Mass?”

“But you’ve done wrong.”

“What does it matter to you?”

“It matters plenty. He’s a friend of mine. Call him back at once. I need to speak with him.”

Tuder! Tuder![4] he began to shout, as he ran after him. Promising him better treatment, he brought the lad back to me. He came over trembling and tearful because of the blows he had received.[5]

“Have you attended Mass yet?” I asked him with as much loving kindness[6] as I could.

“No,” he answered.

“Well, come to Mass now. Afterwards I’d like to talk to you about something that will please you.”

He promised to do as I said. I wanted to calm down the poor fellow’s spirit and not leave him with that sad impression towards the people in charge of that sacristy. Once I had celebrated my Mass and made due thanksgiving, I took my candidate into a side chapel. Trying to allay any fear he might have of another beating, I started questioning him cheerfully:

“My good friend, what’s your name?”

“My name’s Bartholomew Garelli.”

“Where are you from?”


“Is your father alive?”

“No, my father’s dead.”

“And your mother?”

“My mother’s dead too.”

“How old are you?”

“I’m sixteen.”

“Can you read and write?”[7]

“I don’t know anything.”[8]

“Have you made your first communion?”

“Not yet.”[9]

“Have you ever been to confession?”

“Yes, when I was small.”

“Are you going to catechism classes now?”

“I don’t dare.”


“Because the other boys are smaller than I am, and they know their catechism. As big as I am, I don’t know anything, so I’m ashamed to go.”

"If I were to teach you catechism on your own, would you come?”

“I’d come very willingly.”

“Would you come willingly to this little room?”

“I’d come willingly enough, provided they don’t beat me.”

“Relax. No one will harm you. On the contrary, you’ll be my friend and you’ll be dealing with me and no one else. When would you like us to begin our catechism?”

“Whenever you wish.”

“This evening?”


“Are you willing right now?”

“Yes, right now, with great pleasure.”

I stood up and made the sign of the cross to begin; but my pupil made no response because he did not know how to do it. In that first catechism lesson I taught him to make the sign of the cross. I also taught him to know God the Creator and why he created us. Though Bartholomew’s memory was poor, with attentive diligence in a few feast days[10] he learned enough to make a good confession and, soon after, his holy communion.

To this first pupil some others were added.[11] During that winter, I concentrated my efforts in helping grown‑ups who needed special catechism, above all those who were just out of prison. I was beginning to learn from experience that if young lads just released from their place of punishment could find someone to befriend them, to look after them, to assist them on feast days, to help them get work with good employers, to visit them occasionally during the week, these young men soon forgot the past and began to mend their ways. They became good Christians and honest citizens.[12] This was the beginning of our Oratory.[13] It was to be blessed by the Lord with growth beyond my imagining at that time.


      [1] Not as funny as it was providential.
      [2] In the last chapter he mentioned that he had already begun to discuss some ideas with Fr. Cafasso. Although he had been at the Convitto barely five weeks at this point, Fr. Cafasso may already have begun taking him into the city jails to offer spiritual counsel, encouragement, and material assistance to youths who had ran afoul of the law; as mentioned in the last chapter, Don Bosco did not yet have faculties to hear confessions. This was one of the older priest’s own special ministries. We may assume that Don Bosco’s fellow students also discussed their various pastoral experiences.
      [3] This holy day of obligation fell on Wednesday.
      [4] A Piedmontese term used in jest or scorn for a German; cf. “Kraut.” Since Lombardy and Venetia were still part of the Austrian Empire, the Germanic peoples were regarded as foes of Italy.
      [5] After his first reception in the sacristy, why did the boy come back at all? Perhaps Don Bosco had shouted loudly enough at Comotti that the boy overheard even as he fled; perhaps once or twice he had been among the “crowd of boys” that followed Don Bosco through the streets and “even into the sacristy.” He must have had an inkling of Don Bosco’s sympathy.
      [6] Amorevolezza, one of the three key words of the Preventive System (together with “reason” and “religion”).
      [7] According to the 1848 census of the Kingdom of Sardinia, half the population of Piedmont, a third of Liguria’s, and a tenth of Sardinia’s were literate—this all within a State where an education reform law in 1822 had mandated free primary schools in every commune. Piedmont was the most literate region in the Italian peninsula. The whole of united Italy was but 26% literate in 1861. Ten years later only 33% of the persons marrying could sign the parish register themselves; in contrast, 77% in England and Wales could do so.
      [8] At this point Lemoyne inserts two further questions, which he must have heard from Don Bosco. These questions shed light on Don Bosco’s psychological and pedagogical approach to the young:
   “Can you sing?”
   Wiping his eyes, the boy stared in surprise at Don Bosco and answered: “No.”
   “Can you whistle?”
   The boy’s face broke into a smile, which was what Don Bosco wanted, because it showed that the boy felt at ease. (BM II, 58)
The first thing was to win the boy’s confidence, both in himself and in his would‑be teacher.
      [9] This was not unusual in the 19th century.
      [10] When Don Bosco speaks of “feast days” and calls his work the “festive” Oratory, he means any day on which Mass was an obligation, the numerous holy days and Sundays alike; these days were also public holidays, meaning that young workers without families were left idle.
      [11] Garelli continued to come to catechism for a time and brought some friends with him. Then he disappeared. All we know about him is that he visited the Oratory even after 1855 (BM II, 59).
      [12] Don Bosco’s classic definition of the objectives of the Salesian work.
      [13] Don Bosco always dated not only his work but even the founding of the Salesian Society from this historic catechism lesson. When he was seeking letters of recommendation from various bishops in order to seek the Holy See’s approval of the Salesian Society, he introduced its history thus: “This Society’s origins are found in the simple catechetical instructions conducted by Father John Bosco in a hall adjacent to St. Francis of Assisi Church...” (BM IX, 35). Echoing this, the Salesian Constitutions today announce: “This Society had its beginning in a simple catechism lesson” (article 34).
      In this account, Don Bosco omitted one detail of great interest. After the sign of the cross, “he recited a Hail Mary, asking our Lady to give him the grace to save that boy’s soul” (BM II, 59). He recalled this in 1884 during a conference for the Salesians: “All the blessings graces that had been showered upon them were thanks to Our Lady and were all the outcome of the first Ave Maria that had been recited together with the young Bartholomew Garelli there in the Church of St. Francis of Assisi with true fervor and the right intention” (BM XVII, 471).