Sunday, November 30, 2014

Homily for 1st Sunday of Advent

Homily for the
1st Sunday of Advent
Nov. 30, 2014
St. Ursula, Mt. Vernon, N.Y.

On the last 2 Sundays, we closed out the liturgical year with 2 of Jesus’ parables of judgment, the parable of the talents and the parable of the separation of the sheep and the goats.  Jesus was addressing us about how to prepare for his return.  We begin a new liturgical year today with 2 readings advising us to be watchful and ready for the Master’s return, and a 1st reading beseeching him to come quickly and deliver us.  The liturgy rolls over smoothly from one year to the next, from one season to the next.  The Collect today links today with last Sunday’s parable (Matt 25:31-46); we prayed that God’s faithful people might be “gathered at [Christ’s] right hand,” an obvious allusion to the sheep at the king’s right hand in that parable.

With the new liturgical year, we also begin a new cycle of Scripture readings.  The cycle is labeled the “B Cycle,” not that that matters.  What will matter is that this year—with the exception of the Easter season and a few weeks in mid-summer, our Sunday readings come from St. Mark’s Gospel.  You may have noticed that a few minutes ago.

(One of the best things that came out of all the liturgical changes after the 2d Vatican Council is the broadening of our weekly exposure to the Bible brought by a 3-year cycle of readings instead of a 1-year cycle, besides having distinct weekday readings for the 1st time ever, and hearing 3 readings on Sundays and major feastdays instead of 2, as had always been the case.  Most of you, like me, are old enuf to remember when we heard the same gospel readings year after year, and if you went to a weekday Mass you often heard the Sunday gospel yet again.)

In a little while you’ll hear this text proclaimed:  “Christ our Lord assumed at his first coming the lowliness of human flesh, … that, when he comes again in glory and majesty …, we who watch for that day may inherit the great promise in which now we dare to hope” (Preface).

Those words come from the 1st Preface of Advent, which we use from the 1st Sunday of Advent till Dec. 16.  It speaks of the 2 comings of Christ to which we look in this season—the season of Advent, which (most of you know) is a word that means “coming.”  One coming of Christ we celebrate as a past, historical event that has vital meaning for us yet today; one coming of Christ we anticipate with eagerness because it hasn’t happened yet, and the meaning of his 1st coming will be incomplete until it does happen.

We speak of these 2 comings of Christ every time we profess the Creed at Mass, at the beginning of the Rosary, or whenever else:  “For us men and for our salvation, he came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man”—that of course is his 1st coming; and “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end”—that’s his 2d coming.

Thus Advent for us Christians isn’t the season of shopping and baking and singing “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.”  It is, rather, the season for getting ourselves ready to welcome our Savior.  Until Dec. 24, we sing “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” rather than “Silent Night.”  We’re on a totally different wave-length than the secular world, which celebrates the season of spending and entertainment ratings and couldn’t care less about either Christ’s 1st coming or his 2d.

You notice that the liturgical color has turned from green to violet.  Advent’s beginnings back in the late Roman era and the early medieval period aren’t entirely clear, but it seems to have adopted, early on, a penitential character, not quite as severe as Lent’s.  Hence the use of violet.  At one time there was also fasting on certain days, most notably Christmas Eve, which was also a day of abstinence—hence the Italian custom of eating fish on Dec. 24.

A certain atmosphere of penance is in order, of course, as we contemplate Christ’s “coming again in glory and majesty” and “everything at last being made manifest”:  our virtues and our sins will be made manifest, as well as “the design [God the Father] formed long ago” for redeeming us (Preface).  Our 1st reading laments that the Lord is “angry, and we are sinful; all of us have become like unclean people” (Is 64:4-5), and it beseeches his mercy.  Jesus tells a parable warning us not to be caught napping when the master returns (Mark 13:33-37).

But the overall atmosphere of Advent is that of a “period of devout and joyful expectation,” as one church document puts it.[1]  St. Paul assures the Corinthians, “God our Father … will keep you firm to the end, irreproachable on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 1:8), i.e., on the day when Christ returns he’ll find his faithful people “irreproachable,” by God’s grace.  In the Collect we prayed that we might “run forth to meet Christ with [our hands full of] righteous deeds at his coming” and so “be worthy to possess the heavenly Kingdom.”  That’s the great hope that we dare to have, as the Preface says—the hope that God will indeed give us an inheritance as his sons and daughters (the Preface again) because he has called us “to fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1:9).

That calling to fellowship with the Son of God began with the Son’s incarnation.  So, yes, we do well to celebrate “his first coming” in “the lowliness of human flesh” to “fulfill the design [the Father] formed long ago.”  But that 1st coming at Bethlehem in Judea has meaning, is fulfilled, only when our redemption is completed by our being raised up in Christ and gathered with all the saints around Christ to live with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, forever and ever.  Amen!

                [1] General Norms for the Liturgical Year.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Fr. Francis Desramaut (1922-2014)

Fr. Francis Desramaut (1922-2014)

Fr. Francis Desramaut of the Salesian province of France died on Sept. 1. He was one of the 3 giants of Salesian historical research from the 1950s to the 1990s. Fr. Pietro Stella died in 2007, and Fr. Pietro Braido earlier this month. Your humble blogger counted both Fr. Stella and Fr. Desramaut as professional friends, having worked with the former to get 2 of his books published in English and with the latter to try to get one published (many snags in that long, long story). The following obituary was published in the July-December 2014 issue of Ricerche Storiche Salesiane, which arrived in New Rochelle on Nov. 24.

by Fr. Morand Wirth, SDB
translated and condensed by Fr. Mike Mendl, SDB

His Life’s Course

Francis Alfred Henri Desramaut was born on October 17, 1922, at Tourcoing, Nord Department, France. He was the eldest of six children; two of his brothers, Michel and Dominique, would become Salesians like him, and his sister Thérèse would enter the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians. His father was an office worker at Lille, and his mother was a textile worker. After completing primary school in his parish’s free school, in 1930 he entered the Salesian school at Melles-lez-Tournai, Belgium, where he graduated from high school in 1938.

Photo by Colette Chaumont
From Melles he went directly to the Salesian novitiate at Port-à-Binson and, not quite 17 years old, made his first vows on September 3, 1939. From 1939 to 1944, with war raging, he studied philosophy and did his practical training in the house at Giel. After theological studies, begun at La Guerche in 1944 and completed at Lyons, he was ordained on July 1, 1948, at Coat-an-Doch in Brittany, where he remained for the 1948-1949 school year as prefect of studies and fourth-year teacher.

His career as a theology professor started in 1949 at the Salesian scholasticate at Fontanières (Lyons). At first he taught apologetics, then ecclesiology and Christology. Starting in 1950 he specialized in teaching church history, not only at the Salesian scholasticate but also at the diocesan pastoral Institute of Religious Studies and the Catholic University of Lyons. He stayed at the School of Theology of Lyons and in 1962 published his doctoral thesis, Les Memorie I de Giovanni Battista Lemoyne: Étude d’un ouvrage fondamental sur la jeunesse de saint Jean Bosco,[1] which is considered the first scientific study of the historical sources concerning Don Bosco. At that point he was assigned the course in modern and contemporary church history. In 1969 he became, in addition, director of the library of Catholic University of Lyons.

The focus of Fr. Desramaut’s life was undoubtedly the study of Don Bosco and Salesian history. In testimony of that is an impressive series of studies, publications, and undertakings. This intense intellectual passion must have grabbed him even as a youth. He had known Fr. Augustin Auffray and read his works, in whom he certainly recognized more a journalist and talented lecturer than a critical historian. To prepare his thesis he went many times to Turin, where he met Fr. Eugenio Ceria, whose humanist training, knowledge of Don Bosco, and Salesian simplicity he admired.

The Lyons Team for Salesian Research

For 25 years Fr. Desramaut with his students animated the Lyons Team for Salesian Research, which produced important historical studies, supervised by the teacher. These included books on the Salesian Rule, Salesian spirit, and Salesian missions, and a survey of Salesian history.

In 1966 the team began to publish the little “Notebooks of the Lyons Team for Salesian Research,” whose purpose was to publish “original studies and little known texts concerning Salesian life.”  These were generally short monographs by different authors, including Fr. Desramaut, on a variety of topics, but especially Salesian ones.

In 1979 Fr. Desramaut launched the great collection of Cahiers salésiens (“Salesian Notebooks”), subtitled “Research and documents to serve the history of the Salesians of Don Bosco in French-speaking countries.”  These surveyed such topics as Don Bosco’s letters, his trips to France, and his controversies with Archbishop Gastaldi; Salesians and liturgical renewal; and studies of individual Salesians and particular Salesian works.

The Symposiums on Salesian Life

His spirit of initiative and skill as an organizer were evident also in his launching the Symposiums on Salesian Life, with which he associated a good number of members of the Salesian Family at international level. The first of these symposiums was held at Lyons in September 1968, the others in different European locales.

In collaboration with Fr. Mario Midali, Fr. Desramaut published the first 11 volumes that came from these symposiums, covering Salesian prayer life, the Salesian mission to the young, Salesian Cooperators, the Salesian Family and social justice, the Salesian Family and communications, and spiritual direction.

He made some notable presentations to later symposiums about Don Bosco’s approach to spiritual direction, Salesian feasts, religious indifference, and the religious formation of the young.

His Major Works

In 1955 Fr. Desramaut published his French translation of Don Bosco’s life of Dominic Savio with an introduction and notes.        In 1958 he brought out his own translation and presentation of Don Bosco’s educational writings.

Fr. Desramaut made a name for himself when Don Bosco et la vie spirituelle (Paris: Beauchesne) came out in 1967. It has been translated into Italian, German, English (Don Bosco and the Spiritual Life[2]), Spanish, and Polish.

He also gave us detailed monographs on two renowned Salesian institutions, the Salesian school at Nice and the orphanage of Adolescent Jesus at Nazareth.

His masterpiece is certainly the 1,450-page Don Bosco en son temps (Turin: SEI, 1996).[3] Thanks to his vast knowledge and his critical work in the sources, we are in a position to penetrate better the story of the great apostle of youth and his personality.

We take note also of his collaboration in various encyclopedias and dictionaries of church history, spirituality, and catechetics and the scholarly Esprit et Vie (“Spirit and Life”) and Richerche storiche salesiane (“Salesian Historical Research”).

Participation in the Life of the Congregation and the Salesian Family

Fr. Desramaut participated in the Salesians’ 20th General Chapter (1971-1972), to which he made a notable contribution as part of the postconciliar renewal, marked by the composition of the new Constitutions. He also took part in the chapter of 1984, which definitively approved those Constitutions. He kept a journal of the two chapters in the form of leaflets for French-speaking Salesians.

In 1978 he became editor-in-chief of Don-Bosco-France, the news bulletin for French-speaking Salesians. For it he composed numerous brief but precise articles on noteworthy persons and events of the Salesian world.

In 1982 he took part in Rome in the Symposium on the Salesian Family and in that of 1989 on Don Bosco the founder, as well as in the first international congress for Don Bosco studies, held at the Salesian Pontifical University that same year.

In 1988 with Guy Avanzini he organized the interuniversity symposium of Lyons on the topic “Don Bosco’s Concept of Education and Pedagogy.”

Asked to use his knowledge to assist the cause of beatification and canonization of Margaret Occhiena, he explained precisely the historical context of St. John Bosco’s mother and evaluated the testimonies about her life and virtues.

Last Years at Toulon

Fr. Desramaut retired to the residence for senior confreres at Toulon in 1997, but he continued to work and publish. In 2000 his big volume Les cent mots-clefs de la spiritualité salésienne[4] appeared, a very useful synthesis for those interested in the themes of Salesian spirituality, and for preachers. In 2003-2004 he gave us a biography of Salesian missionary François Dupont.

In 2009 his last book was dedicated to the life of Fr. Michael Rua for the centennial of the death of Don Bosco’s successor—also translated into several languages.[5] It was, as he put it, his swan song, before a nerve disorder prevented his continuing to work.

When he turned 90 in 2012, the Rector Major, Fr. Pascual Chavez, sent him a congratulatory letter in well-deserved recognition of his accomplishments, particularly at the intellectual level, in service to the Congregation and the Salesian Family.

Fr. Francis Desramaut died at Toulon on September 1, 2014, at 91 years of age, just short of 75 years of Salesian religious life and after 66 years as a priest.

       [1] Giovanni Battista Lemoyne’s Memorie [biografiche] I: A study of a fundamental work on St. John Bosco’s youth; not translated into English. Available in French from Salesiana Publishers.

     [2] Available from Salesiana Publishers.

     [3] Don Bosco and His Times; English translation in progress

     [4] 100 Key Words in Salesian Spirituality, not translated into English.

     [5] Life of Fr. Michael Rua, Don Bosco’s First Successor (1837-1910) (Bangalore, 2010); available from Salesiana Publishers.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

2104 Michael A. Boccardi Memorial Trek-o-ree

2014 Michael A. Boccardi Trek-o-ree

The 2014 Michael A. Boccardi Trek-o-ree took place on November 1, based from Durland Scout Reservation in Putnam Valley, N.Y.

This year's trek involved the Algonquin and Manitou districts of the Westchester-Putnam Council of the Boy Scouts of America.

The trek is named in memory of Scoutmaster Michael Andrew Boccardi from Troop 40, Mt. Vernon, N.Y., who was actively involved in the planning of the annual trek-o-ree for WPC's former Four Rivers District.  Mike was among those lost on 9/11.  See NYT obit notice and Remembering and Troop Forty Remembers.

Troop Forty brought a contingent of 12 Scouts, 5 Scouters, and 1 dad up to Durland on Friday nite for our usual fun of pitching tents on a pitch-black campsite (no. 37 in this case)--lit up by car headlights and a few lanterns.  There weren't very many other troops camping out on this nite that had rain and wind in the forecast.
Part of our encampment on Saturday a.m.
We got the tents up--3 for the boys, besides one that had to be discarded because of some problem with it, and individual tents for each adult--before any rain came.  We got a fine fire going, but most of the Scouts retreated to their tents pretty quickly on account of the cold and the occasional spritz of rain.  I'm sure I saw some snowflakes, too.

There was a steady rain for a half hour or so in the wee hours of Saturday morning, and day came cool and raw.  I overslept and said a very quick Mass right inside my tent, fearing the weather outside.  It was in the low 30s inside my tent!

The Scouts got up later than planned, too, and we all had a cold breakfast before hustling ourselves down by car to the Sperling Center around 9:15 a.m.  (The coffee took a long, long time to perk--the propane bottles were seriously affected by the cold.)

We were afraid we'd be late for the trek's start.  True, some hardy souls had departed at 7:30 for Graymoor and a 10-mile northbound hike on the Appalachian Trail.  But we 18 were the 1st crew out for the 5-mile hike that was to start at South Highland Rd.  We got our instructions from the 2 Scouters directing the day--instructions that included leaving fewer cars at the tiny parking spot where the hike was to begin.  So Assistant Scoutmasters Carl and Jim--how reluctantly I can't say!--agreed to skip the hike and stay in camp with a warm fire, after helping to transport the rest of us to the starting point.

As we started, I gave the Scouts a brief orientation to the AT and to how the trail blazes work.  We had both veteran hikers and novices with us.

I'd just been over our 5-mile trail a month earlier (, and in fact we reached my 2d-nite camping spot less than 10 minutes into our hike.  The firewood I'd gathered but not used was still piled next to the little fire ring, which I pointed out to our gang of 12 boys and 3 other adults (Scoutmaster Tunji, ASM Mike, and dad Dave).
Freshening up in a little stream
The day remained mostly cloudy, and it was breezy, but (thank God) there was no rain.  We had no trouble following the AT blazes; the only trouble was one lad who suddenly claimed that he was asthmatic, didn't have an inhaler with him, and needed some extra attention.  (By the hike's end he was doing just fine.)
Are we there yet?

Head waiting for the tail to catch up
We hiked along at a good pace--considerably faster than I'd done with my full pack on Sept. 30--stopping now and then to let the slower folks catch up.  We weren't on the trail an hour before 1 or 2 of the boys wanted to eat lunch, but we held off on that till about 11:30, a short distance before reaching Dennytown Rd. 
At Dennytown Rd. we refilled our water bottles at the spigot.  Then it was another 45 minutes or so, up to and along a long ridge, before we reached Sunken Mine Rd.  Then we had half a mile down the road to the trail back into Durland and another mile to the Sperling Center.  We were done around 2:00 p.m.
The swamp north of Dennytown Rd.
The only other hikers we met on the trail were a troop from northern Westchester, not even one of the 12 supposedly involved with the trek-o-ree.

We retrieved our cars from South Highland Rd., and everyone settled into camp to have a 2d lunch, gather firewood, and enjoy the roaring fire. 

Some serious rain showers passed thru, and we finally decided that we'd better have Mass at the Sperling Center rather than at Site 36A as originally planned.  Word of the change was spread, but in the event only our troop, Crestwood 1, and the trek organizers came to Mass at 4:30--the Mass of All Souls Day, at which appropriately enuf I made sure to mention Mike Boccardi in my homily.

We finished at 5:15 and went back to camp, where the Scouts dithered about supper, which consequently wasn't ready till 7:00, with the further consequence that we were all late for the campfire.  That event had perhaps half a dozen troops in attendance and was relatively short--reasonably enuf, given the wind and the cold.  A couple of the Scouters stayed back to mind our fire.

When we returned to camp at 8:30, a good number of the gang stayed around the fire.  By now there were some serious gusts of wind, and a tarp that Pelham 1, camped above us on the same site, had put up over their kitchen area flapped furiously all nite.  There were still a few rain showers.

I went to bed, tired and not wanting to get any wetter than damp--my condition up till then.

It was a blessing that DST ended overnite, and we got an extra hour of sleep.  Not that I slept very well; seldom do when camping.  The wind whipped all nite, and that Pelham tarp was about 30 feet from my head.  The temperature went down to the low 30s again.  But those things weren't my problem; my back never found a comfortable position, so I just tossed and turned for 9 hours.

I got up at 6:00, a.m. and again the coffee took a long time.  The boys were a little slower getting up.  There was plenty of cold breakfast again (to which I added a couple of packets of oatmeal), and the Scouts broke camp pretty quickly and got the site policed well.  We were ready to leave shortly after 9:00, which I needed to do to get to Mass at St. Vincent's Hospital.  The sun was shining gloriously, and the wind still blowing strong (in fact, ASM Jim had had to chase after his tent after he unstaked it).

No injuries, no quarrels, no one lost, and just about everyone enjoyed the hike.  A good trip.  A good tribute to our friend Mike Boccardi.  May he rest in peace!

Homily for Feast of Christ the King

Homily for the Feast of
Christ the King
Nov. 23, 2014
Matt 25: 31-46
St. Vincent’s Hospital, Harrison, N.Y.

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, … all the nations will be assembled before him” (Matt 25: 31).

The Last Judgment
by William de Brailes (fl. ca. 1250)
The feast of Christ the King is the last Sunday of the Church’s liturgical year.  As the year ends, the Church wants us to think about other endings.  Last Sunday and today we’ve heard gospel parables about God’s final judgment of the world, and of each of us individually.

Last Sunday’s parable of the servants entrusted with investing their master’s money might be read as referring to the disciples of Jesus in particular.  Today’s parable brings “all the nations,” every human being and not just Christians, before the throne of judgment.  There Christ, the Son of Man, sits as king, separating good people from bad, as a shepherd separates sheep from goats at the end of the day to send them to their proper shelters for the nite (25:32), and Christ, the king, decrees the reward of the just and the punishment of the wicked.

We could be shocked at the criterion by which the nations are judged, the sheep set on the right and the goats on the left.  No one is asked, “Do you believe in God?”, which is the 1st question posed to us when we come for Baptism and when we renew our baptismal promises on Easter Sunday; or “Do you claim Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?”, which seems to be the favorite standard of evangelical Christians.  As some ancient Christian writers observed, even the devils believe in God and know that Christ died and rose to save mankind.  Those aren’t the questions that the king asks the nations, are they?

No, the criterion is whether one has acted as a child of God, regardless of whether one has ever acknowledged God’s existence; whether one has acted like a disciple of Jesus Christ, regardless of whether one ever heard his name.  So much for those exclusionists who—falsely—maintain that only Christians will be saved!

The king calls “blessed by my Father” (25:34) those who practiced the works of mercy and calls them to eternal life.  No need for me to repeat the list of those works of mercy, which you just heard 4 times.  You probably could quote them back to me now.  And the king condemns to hell—to “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (25:41)—those who ignored the works of mercy.  If they had any excuses, the king isn’t listening; doesn’t even give them a chance to offer excuses.  “Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire” (25:41).  Is there a more dreadful sentence in the human vocabulary?

This parable, this teaching of Jesus, brings out the requirement that everyone, regardless of faith, practice love of neighbor, treat everyone with dignity, look after those who are less fortunate.

But it points especially to our obligation as followers of Jesus to do those things.  It’s not sufficient that we come to church on Sundays; not sufficient that we recite the Creed once a week, no matter how firmly we believe what it says.  (And one of the things it says is, “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.”)

The staff and other regulars here have already heard me say more than once what our bishops have been saying for almost 3 years in the face of certain rules imposed by the federal government.  The practice of the works of mercy is an essential part of our faith, not an optional part, not an extracurricular program.  Running hospitals, nursing homes, schools, Catholic Relief Services, etc., is just as much a part of our religious practice as our Sunday worship and our catechism classes.  Under our Constitution, the government has no business telling us which of our practices are religious—and thus exempt from the government mandate to provide immoral services to our employees or patients or clients, or to cooperate in providing immoral services—and which practices are not religious and therefore must cover those immoral services that government officials want to think are part of “health care.”

Jesus’ parable concerns all of us, and not just the Church as an institution with hospitals, schools, nursing homes, orphanages, emergency relief, etc.  All of us are obliged to do works of mercy according to our own means and opportunities.

We might feed the hungry by volunteering in a local soup kitchen or making sandwiches for the teens who are taking part in Midnite Run; by donating money to CRS to that they can feed refugees from the wars in Syria and Iraq; or teaching youths a trade or skill that will help them earn a livelihood.

We might visit the sick—or the elderly—starting with our own families; or take part in some kind of outreach at a hospital or nursing home; or volunteer for blood drives (as donors or workers); or help out at a shelter for battered women or women with a problem pregnancy.  Eucharistic ministers bring Holy Communion to the homebound.  You who work or volunteer here have a privileged opportunity that enables you to live Jesus’ command every day; try to do that mindfully and not just as a job or a task.

How do we welcome the stranger?  What’s our attitude toward immigrants?  toward anyone who’s different from us—different in color, gender, age, religion?  Do we do our best to treat everyone as a brother or sister, not only when we speak to them but when we speak about them when they’re not around?  Are there immigrant kids in our local school who could use a tutor in English or some other subject, whom we might help?  With what manner do we answer someone who asks us for directions in a store or on the street?

We’d go crazy if we felt obliged to be actively involved in every single work of mercy:  feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger, visiting the sick and the prisoner, not to mention works that Jesus doesn’t list, like instructing the ignorant.  No one can do everything.  There’s only one Savior!  But we do have to recognize Jesus in needy people who come our way or whose situation is set before us, e.g., in a special collection at church or after a natural disaster like the earthquake in Haiti; and we have to respond to them as we would to Jesus, within our own circumstances.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Homily for 33d Sunday of Ordinary Time

Homily for the
33d Sunday of Ordinary Time
Nov. 16, 2014
Prov 31: 10-13, 19-20, 30-31
Matt 25: 14-30
Ursulines, Willow Dr., New Rochelle

“Give her the reward of her labors, and let her works praise her at the city gates” (Prov 31: 31).

I dare say that in this congregation you seldom hear a homily on Proverbs 31!  But why shouldn’t you, O spouses of Christ?

Knowing, as we do, how the Lectionary is constructed, we know that the Proverbs reading is paired with the parable from St. Matthew (25:14-30).  In these last Sundays of the church year, the Scriptures are turning our attention to the last days and to the impending judgment—judgment on the world, judgment on us.  So this morning we hear one of Jesus’ parables of judgment, and Proverbs transports us to the ancient world’s place of judgment, the city gates.  Both readings refer to rewards for industrious and faithful people, the servants of a wealthy merchant who invest his money wisely; and “a worthy wife [whose] value is far beyond pearls.”

Both readings also use the word “fear.”  “The woman who fears the Lord is to be praised” (Prov 31:30); i.e., she reverences and obeys him, which is the mark of her wisdom, the incentive for her behavior, and the reason for praising her.  The 3d servant in the parable fears his master in the sense of being afraid of his wrath—and acts so foolishly as to incur that wrath (Matt 25:25-26).

So, how does a wise woman (or man) behave?

1. “Her husband, entrusting his heart to her, has an unfailing prize” (31:11).  Love binds them to each other.  They trust each other.  They talk intimately to each other.  They prize each other.  That’s a mark of true marriage, whether earthly or mystical, and it’s the goal of every Christian—to attain a complete union of heart, mind, and soul with Jesus, and thru Jesus with the Father.

2. “She brings him good, and not evil, all the days of her life” (31:12).  What do we bring to the Lord?  Whatever our calling in life, we aim to bring him good deeds—to invest his blessings wisely and return them to him with profit (to go along with the message of the parable).  In our Baptism we profess a life of conversion, of renouncing the devil and all his works, and of walking with Jesus, who “went about doing good” (Act 10:38) and giving evidence that God was with him.

3. “She obtains wool and flax and works with loving hands” (Prov 31:13).  Interesting variants in translations here!  The Lectionary gives her loving hands, but the NAB text, and Msgr. Knox’s, read skillful hands; the JB gives us eager hands, and the KJV and RSV willing hands.  The Douay Version translates the Vulgate literally, “she … hath wrought by the counsel of her hands,” which an old commentary interprets to mean “with alacrity,” i.e., with “cheerful readiness.”  The Anchor Bible renders the phrase “delights to work with her hands” and offers an alternate, “of which her hands make beautiful things.”  I’m no Greek scholar, but the LXX seems to say that “she makes useful things.”  (I could show you the Hebrew text too, but I can’t read it or tell you what it means.)  The point would seem to be that “a worthy wife,” or a good disciple, does what she does eagerly and willingly.  In the context of Proverbs, she loves her husband and family, and that love compels her to work diligently and efficiently to provide for them, and not to work like a drudge (compare with the older brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son).  We all have our duties, our responsibilities—in the household of the community, perhaps still in some apostolate.  How do we carry them out?  What willingness, what love, what alacrity do we bring to these tasks?  Are they just chores, or something more, thru which we’re happily serving the Lord?

4. “She reaches out her hands to the poor, and extends her arms to the needy.”  The worthy wife, the faithful disciple, is concerned not only with those in her immediate charge but with the wider community, with the less fortunate, with those whom the OT often refers to as the widow, the orphan, and the stranger; with those whom Jesus will put in front of our noses in his parable next week, the parable that follows this week’s in Matthew 25.  While charity must begin at home, with the people we live with, it must also extend to others; and I’m sure it does for you, who attend to immigrants and the elderly, among others.

5. “Charm is deceptive and beauty fleeting” (Prov 31:30). Well do we know that!  We know what lasts:  “Faith, hope, and love remain; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor 13:13).

6. “The woman who fears the Lord is to be praised” (Prov 31:30).  Not only the woman, of course.  The ultimate praise for a good life is not that one is beautiful or talented or industrious; it is that one has served the Lord in one’s state of life with one’s attributes, talents, and industry, and served him with love or alacrity.

7. “Give her a reward for her labors, and let her works praise her at the city gates” (Prov 31:31).  For all our troubles on earth, a little piece of heaven will be enuf compensation, Don Bosco used to say.  Do we work for the reward—some metaphorical gold star or golden crown?  Perhaps.  Or perhaps we interpret the reward to be simply being with our Beloved.  We’ve all observed couples who are never happier than when in each other’s company.  We might look at Mary sitting at the Lord’s feet, having “chosen the better part” (Luke 10:42).  Is there a better reward than to be with Jesus forever?  Can there be higher praise than hearing the Divine Judge pronounce, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.  Come, share your master’s joy” (Matt 25:21)?

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Homily for the Anniversary of the
Dedication of the Lateran Basilica
Nov. 9, 2014
Iona College, N.R.
St. Ursula, Mt. Vernon

“O God, from living and chosen stones you prepare an eternal dwelling for your majesty” (Collect).

Today we celebrate one of those feasts that supersedes our usual Sunday celebrations.  In the liturgical books it’s titled “Dedication of the Lateran Basilica.”

So, what’s the Lateran Basilica?  What’s a basilica?  Why is this one called the Lateran?  And why celebrate it, or the dedication of any church?  If you can answer those questions, you’re ready for Jeopardy.

Basilica originally indicated certain Roman official buildings; the name itself is Greek and means “king’s hall.”  In Christian usage it refers to Christ, the king of kings.  The term also refers to the architectural style of those old Roman buildings, which I’ll spare you.  Now the word refers not to a style but to a church’s honorary designation as a papal church—a title that might be bestowed because of the church’s particular historical, devotional, or artistic merit.  Local examples include Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral on the Lower East Side and Sacred Heart Cathedral in Newark.  The main campus church at the University of Notre Dame is Sacred Heart Basilica.  A church need not be a cathedral to be named a basilica, nor are all cathedrals basilicas.

In Rome there are 4 major basilicas and many minor ones.  The major ones are the destinations of frequent pilgrimages, especially the most famous:  St. Peter’s in the Vatican.  The others are St. Mary Major, St. Paul Outside the Walls (at Paul’s tomb, outside the ancient city walls), and the one we celebrate today, formally known as St. John Lateran.

(© Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons)
You’d be surprised to learn that the Lateran is the most important of the basilicas.  Why?  Because it’s the cathedral church of Rome, the proper church of the bishop of Rome, the Pope’s own cathedral.  The Lateran Palace, next to the church, was the papal residence from the 4th century until 1309, when a French Pope decided to move to Avignon.  While the Popes stayed at Avignon, until 1377, fire destroyed the Lateran buildings; so when Pope Gregory XI decided to return the papacy to Rome, there was no Lateran to return to, and he settled instead in the Vatican palace, and there the Popes have remained.  Besides, the Vatican was more defensible against Roman mobs and enemy armies; if you know anything about the history of the papacy, you know the significance of that.

The property on which the Lateran church and palace are built, given to the Church by the Emperor Constantine, had once belonged to a noble Roman family named the Laterani; hence part of the name.  The church is dedicated to St. John the Baptist; hence the rest of the name.

Why celebrate the anniversary of a church’s dedication, which every diocese does for its cathedral—in New York we celebrate St. Patrick’s dedication on Oct. 5—and every parish church is supposed to do?  Because the building is a major symbol:  a symbol of the Church proper, i.e., the people of God, and of Jesus Christ himself.

As for the latter, we heard Jesus refer to his own body as a temple (John 2:19).  And for the former, we followers of Jesus are part of his body and thus part of the temple.  St. Paul calls us the body of Christ.  In the reading that we heard this evening/morning, he calls us “the temple of God” and the dwelling place of the Spirit of God (1 Cor 3:16).  It’s not the building itself that we honor, but what goes on in that building:  the forming and the building up of the Body of Christ thru the celebration of the Eucharist and the other sacraments and thru the worship that we offer to the Father thru Christ in the Holy Spirit.

The Collect alludes to the words of 1 Peter 2:5:  “Like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God thru Jesus Christ.”  The Collect calls us “living and chosen stones,” and it says that from these stones God the Father “prepares an eternal dwelling for [his] majesty.”  God plans to dwell eternally in us as his temple—an indwelling that began with our Baptism and that continues thru our life as Christ’s disciples.  The Preface will refer to “this house of prayer”—either the basilica that we celebrate today or this particular church building—and note that God “is pleased to dwell in” it “in order to perfect us as the temple of the Holy Spirit.”

All of that is true of any church building—this chapel, a parish church, a cathedral.  Why are we celebrating the cathedral church of Rome?  Every cathedral represents the bishop’s teaching authority; it’s the site of his cathedra, his chair for teaching and ruling, for shepherding, the People of God.  As bishop of Rome the Pope is Peter’s successor and bears Peter’s responsibilities:  to safeguard the teaching of Jesus handed down to us by the apostles, to guarantee the unity of the faithful around that teaching.  At the beginning of the 2d century, St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote that the Church of Rome “presides in charity” over all the other local churches.  Thus the basilica of St. John Lateran, the cathedral church of Rome, has often been called “the mother church of Christendom.”  It’s the seat of Peter’s authority living today.  From this chair Peter speaks, guarding the truth of the Gospel.  From this chair Peter guides the flock of Christ toward “the holy dwelling of the Most High” (Ps 46:5), “the heavenly Jerusalem” where we shall be the “eternal dwelling” of the Divine Majesty (Collect).
Inscription at St. John Lateran: "Most Holy Lateran Church, the mother and head of all the churches in the city and the world," (© Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons)