Thursday, August 20, 2015

Homily for 20th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Homily for the
20th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Because of the press of other responsibilities leading up to this weekend (Aug. 15-16), I didn't write out my homily and delivered it without written text at St. Vincent's Hospital in Harrison, N.Y. Here, instead, is one from 15 years ago--very appropriate for St. John Bosco's 200th birthday weekend (he was born Aug. 16, 1815).

Aug. 20, 2000
John 6: 51-58
Our Lady of Mercy, Port Chester (mission appeal)

“Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life” (John 6: 54).

Earlier this year a book called In the Heart of the Sea was published, to critical acclaim.  Apparently it has also sold well, because it’s in its 8th printing.  It’s the story of the whaling ship Essex out of Nantucket.  In 1820, far out in the Central Pacific she was rammed by a whale and sank—providing Herman Melville with part of the eventual plot for Moby Dick.  But, unlike the Pequod’s crew in Melville’s tale, the 20 men of the Essex survived.  In 3 whaleboats they decided to sail for South America, more than 2000 miles east, against the prevailing winds and current, rather than head to the much closer downwind islands of Polynesia, which were rumored (falsely) to be populated by cannibals.  But in a matter of weeks, the sailors began to die of thirst and starvation.  In a cruel irony, the survivors did the unthinkable:  they ate the flesh of their dead shipmates.  In at least one case, the men in one boat drew lots to see who should be killed to provide flesh for the others.  After 3 months at sea in small, open boats, 8 of the Essex crew were rescued.

Anthropologists tell us that most cannibalism is a ritual practice whereby those eating the flesh expect, for instance, to absorb the spirit of their victims.  In a few recorded cases, like that of the Essex, people cannibalized simply to avoid starvation, to stay alive.

Today Jesus is talking about something else, something outside human experience.  The celebrants of ritual cannibalism can’t really absorb the living spirit of their victims, and the Essex survivors eventually died natural deaths.  To those who eat his flesh and drink his blood, Jesus offers resurrection “on the last day” (v. 54) and eternal life.  He doesn’t even say “will have” eternal life, but “has” eternal life—already.  This eternal life is something different, something more, than the avoidance of physical death, which even Jesus underwent.  It’s a seed of divine life planted in the core of our selves, and when the Lord returns “on the last day,” that seed will bear the fruit of resurrection (cf. 1 Cor 15:42-44), reuniting our physical bodies with our immortal souls in imitation of Jesus our Lord’s Easter triumph.  For the body and blood of Jesus, of which we partake in the Holy Eucharist, are food and drink of divine origin.

I come to you today as a Salesian priest, a son of St. John Bosco.  The Holy Eucharist was fundamental to St. John Bosco’s spirituality, to his way of catechizing and educating young people, to his apostolic mission in the Church.  In the 19th century, when it was unusual, he encouraged the early reception of First Communion—as soon, he said, as a child can distinguish between bread and Bread.  When most devout Catholics received Communion just a few times a year, Don Bosco encouraged frequent, even weekly, reception.  For in this sacrament we receive the divine nourishment of Jesus Christ, power to live the Christian life, to practice purity, obedience, humility, and all the other virtues of our state of life—whether we be students or workers or retirees, parents or priests or whoever.  We receive the power to bring our Christian beliefs and practices to bear on our social and public lives—a necessary consideration in this election year, because we are morally responsible before God for our votes, for the public policies we endorse.

Fr. Curcio and the Society for the Propagation of the Faith have invited the Salesians here this weekend to appeal to your generosity.  St. John Bosco had a personal desire to go to the foreign missions, but God had other plans for him.  When he had founded the Salesian Society of priests and brothers, and the Salesian Sisters, he wanted one of our primary apostolates to be preaching the Gospel in foreign lands.  The more people who can be brought to the Lord’s sacred table, the more who can share in the body and blood of Jesus Christ, the more people will have God’s own life within them and will be raised up “on the last day” to live among God’s saints forever.
One of Don Bosco's dreams about his sons' bringing the Gospel to foreign peoples (art by Nino Musio)

When Don Bosco sent the 1st Salesian missionaries to Argentina in 1875, he sent 10 priests and brothers.  Today we have more men serving in the mission lands of South America, Asia, Africa, and the former Soviet Union than any other religious order except the Jesuits.  Overall, we have schools, parishes, youth centers, etc., in 124 countries.  A Salesian bishop, Carlos Belo, won the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1996 for his efforts to safeguard the rights of his people in East Timor, efforts that, unfortunately, were not entirely successful, as you know.

American Salesians are doing missionary work in Chile, mainland China, Ethiopia, Korea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Tanzania—not to mention home mission territory like Birmingham, Ala., Belle Glade, Fla., the Lower East Side of New York (where we arrived in 1898), Harlem, and where I’ve come from, Paterson, N.J.  We came to Port Chester in 1912 as missionaries to the hard-working but impoverished Italian immigrants of Holy Rosary parish, and to those of Corpus Christi in 1930.

If you’ve followed overseas news at all, you know that both Liberia and Sierra Leone have undergone brutal civil wars in the last decade.  The Salesians there have stayed at their posts, protecting their parishioners and schoolchildren and others, even in the face of looting, nearby massacres, and occasional artillery shelling.

One of my high school and college schoolmates, Fr. John Thompson, has been in Africa for 20 years, 1st in Liberia and now in Sierra Leone.  His latest project, about a year old, is a hospice for street boys in Freetown.  Many of these youths are orphans of the war, many of them former child soldiers; all of them need an education, psychological healing, someone who cares about them, and the Gospel.

This is the sort of mission we’re carrying out in many, many places.  Perhaps my Salesian confreres Fr. Naz and Fr. Joe have told you something about our work in India.  If you’re able to contribute something to support our work materially, using the special envelopes you find in the pews, we’ll appreciate that, and so will the good Lord.  If you can support us only with prayer, we much appreciate that too—and so will the good Lord.  May the Eucharist in which we and Catholics worldwide share bring us all closer to Jesus Christ and to the fullness of life.

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