Sunday, January 31, 2016

Homily for 4th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Homily for the
4th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Jan. 31, 2016
1 Cor 12:31—13: 13
Ursulines, Willow Drive, New Rochelle

“Strive eagerly for the greatest spiritual gifts.  But I shall show you a still more excellent way” (1 Cor 12: 31).

Personally, I don’t care whether you call this One Corinthians or First Corinthians,[1] and I use both forms, depending on how the spirit (lower case) moves me.

On the last 2 Sundays we heard St. Paul speak of different spiritual gifts that some members of the Church at Corinth enjoyed, gifts such as wisdom, knowledge, faith, miracles, discernment of spirits, tongues, and prophecy (12:8-10), and of how all these gifts of the Spirit contribute to the benefit of the entire body (12:12-13,27-30).  Now Paul comes to the best part, “a still more excellent way.”

When little Therese in her convent at Lisieux discovered this passage, she tells us in her Story of a Soul, she discovered her “little way” to greatness, to holiness:  the way of love—loving God and her sisters in the smallest and most ordinary details of daily life.  You know very well, sisters, that in any convent those details of daily life are where the proverbial rubber hits the road.  I assure you it’s no different in men’s houses; only the issues that irritate us and challenge us vary.  Therese writes:  “I recognized myself in none of the members which Saint Paul described [in ch. 12], and what is more, I desired to distinguish myself more favorably within the whole body.  Love appeared to me to be the hinge for my vocation. . . .  I saw and realized that love sets off the bounds of all vocations, that love is everything, that this same love embraces every time and every place.  In one word, that love is everlasting.  Then, nearly ecstatic with the supreme joy of my soul, I proclaimed:  O Jesus, my love, at last I have found my calling:  my call is love. . . .  In the heart of the Church, my mother, I will be love….”[2]  That secret of holiness is what has made Therese such an immensely popular saint, I think.  For, apart from Donald Trump, who doesn’t deal with small and ordinary details in our daily lives?

Paul’s famous “hymn to love” is divided into 3 sections:  the inferiority of the other spiritual gifts; the qualities of genuine love; and the permanence of love.

In the 1st section (13:1-3), Paul lists the wonderful gifts of tongues, prophecy, faith, and even martyrdom—but says they’re all worthless without love.  What good is my faith if it doesn’t lead me to charity toward my sisters and brothers?  What good is it if I firmly and unswervingly adhere to the Nicene Creed and the Catechism but am a witch to live with?  What good is glossolalia, or today we might consider one’s facility with foreign languages, if it doesn’t serve the community, if I use my talent just to show off?  What good is dying for a principle, even for Christianity, if it’s an expression of my own will or stubbornness or pride instead of being an act of self-emptying love for God?

In the 2d section (13:4-7), Paul lists some ways in which authentic love reveals itself and some faults that reveal the absence of love.  Paul’s a practical, realistic man.  He’s dealt with a lot of people, made some lifelong friends, and it seems, also alienated some people.  Maybe he’s thinking of some of his own faults and strengths.  How could anyone reading this chapter not become conscious of her own shortcomings!  Anyway, we can find these faults in ourselves with greater or lesser frequency or tendency:  self-importance, rudeness, a short temper, brooding over injuries, etc., and we know we have lots to work on.  We aspire to patience, kindness, long-suffering (not the kind that draws attention to itself of course:  “Oh, what a martyr I am!”), limitless hope, forgiveness, etc.—and to virtues that Paul lists in other letters, like joy, generosity, gentleness, self-control (Gal 5:22-23), chastity, truthfulness (2 Cor 6:6-7), etc.  Our own experience shows us how our faults damage our relationships with each other and our community’s well-being, and how our virtues cement our relationships and build up the community, just as Paul was speaking of thruout ch. 12.

In the 3d section of the chapter (13:8-13), Paul insists that all other virtues and qualities will pass away; they won’t be needed in eternity.  When we’re fully grown up, fully matured, love will be all we need (the Beatles were right, at least linguistically).  When we see God face to face, there will be no need for faith.  When we dwell in eternal light, there will be no more need to hope we attain it.  But God is love, and we’ll be fully absorbed in him—and in all his beloved friends, all our sisters and brothers whom Christ has embraced in his love just as he has us.

Till then, we strive to anticipate eternity, strive to live out a complete relationship with our Lord Jesus, by loving—starting with our sisters (or my brothers) at home, in our every word, facial expression, and action, and beseech the Lord to convert completely our hearts and our attitudes into patient, kind, and truthful hearts and attitudes:  in the words of this morning’s Collect, “that we may honor you with all our mind, and love everyone in truth of heart.”

      [1] Allusion to the contretemps raised by Donald Trump’s citation of Scripture at a recent appearance at Liberty University.
      [2] Autobiography, cited in LOH 4:1451.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Homily for 3d Sunday of Ordinary Time

Homily for the
3d Sunday of Ordinary Time
Jan. 24, 2016
Luke 1: 1-4
Holy Cross, Fairfield, Conn.

“Many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as those who were eyewitnesses from the beginning and ministers of the word have handed them down to us” (Luke 1: 1-2).

Back on the 1st Sunday of Advent—the last Sunday of November—we began a new church year.  This year we’re using what is called Cycle C of the Sunday readings, and most of our gospels will be taken from St. Luke.  After hearing about John the Baptist during Advent, and of course about Christ’s birth during Christmas, and Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan 2 weeks ago, we now turn back to Luke’s prolog.  Then, leaping over what we’ve already heard, we come to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, which we’ll follow with Luke until next November.
St. Luke by Guido Reni
Luke addresses his gospel to an individual named Theophilus.  We know nothing about him, but since Luke calls him “most excellent,” or in some translations, “Your Excellency” (v. 3), he may have been a public official.  Perhaps he was a recent convert, for he has already “received the teachings” (v. 4).

Theophilus is a Greek name, meaning Lover of God.  We could therefore say that Luke is addressing each of us individually.  You’re here today, despite the weather, because you love God.  Thru what he’s about to narrate, he wishes to demonstrate the reliability of the instruction we have received.  Reliable for what?  For our salvation.

When we read Luke, or any of the gospels, we don’t find complete biographies of Jesus, much as we’d like to.  Wouldn’t we love to have the complete story of his life, from birth thru his hidden years, to his ascension!  Dumas Malone’s biography of Thomas Jefferson is 6 vols.  Luke’s gospel is about 45 pages in a standard Bible.  Luke has set out “to compile a narrative” about what Jesus said and did.  But his interest is those things important for our salvation.  His Gospel is an ongoing instruction in what God had done for us in Jesus Christ from which we can draw again and again for our knowledge of God, our prayer, and our moral guidance.

Luke didn’t know Jesus personally during his earthly life.  He wasn’t an eyewitness like the apostles and many others.  He was a 2d-generation or even a 3d-generation Christian; we know he was a companion of St. Paul on some of the Apostle’s later missionary journeys.  There were many Jesus stories in circulation among Christians, of course, and some had already been written down.  E.g., we’re pretty sure that an account of Jesus’ passion and death was written down quite early.  Luke had decided to try to write a unified, orderly account of the whole sequence of events from the beginning, using those earlier stories and writings, which came from the apostles and other “eyewitnesses from the beginning and ministers of the word.”

Note that Luke uses explicit words like “narrative” and “events.” (For Luke and his readers “events” would also include “teachings.”)  He’s not making things up but telling us what actually happened in Galilee and Judea between approximately 6 B.C. (a likely date for the birth of Jesus) and 29 or 30 A.D. (a likely date for the crucifixion).  Our faith rests on real people, real events, real actions of God within human history.

That faith and all that Luke will tell us depends on its having been “handed down” from the original witnesses to each generation of new believers.  Until the letters of Paul were written in the 50s and 60s—2 Corinthians, from which we read today, is dated around 57—this handing down was done almost entirely by word of mouth—by preaching, by catechism classes, by storytelling.  Before printing and the mass production of books, people’s oral memories were generally much better than ours.  Which is a good thing, considering how most of our memories work, huh?  Consider that Homer’s Iliad was transmitted orally for hundreds of years!  People’s memories then had to be powerful because they couldn’t just go to their libraries or the Internet to look something up.  This whole process we call “oral tradition.”

As Luke suggests, others began to compile collections of what Jesus taught and did.  So he drew from the oral tradition and the 1st attempts to put parts of the tradition to papyrus or parchment.  Luke used Mark’s Gospel as one source, and he had some kind of a collection of the sayings and short teachings of Jesus that Matthew, independently, also used in composing his Gospel.  We don’t know where Luke got his unique material, like the stories of the birth of Jesus and his marvelous parables, e.g., the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son.

What’s important is that Luke draws from the Christian tradition.  Tradition—what is handed on from teacher to pupil, parent to child, as you do in your own families about some of your family history or your holiday customs—is a critical element of Christianity.   In writing his narrative Luke could draw only from the tradition, either oral or written.

Likewise today, when they instruct us on what is essential for our salvation, the Pope and bishops can draw only on tradition.  They can’t create a new gospel out of whole cloth but must return ever and again to the sacred Scriptures and other teachings handed down since the 1st century, from Jesus and those who were his eyewitnesses.  On the subject of changing the Gospel, St. Paul writes to the Galatians, “If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed” (1:9).  So Pope Benedict repeatedly insisted that the 2d Vatican Council was in continuity with tradition even as it brought forth new perspectives of our faith.  And the recent Synod of Bishops, looking at married life and family issues, was ever mindful of what has been handed down to us in Scripture and the Church’s practice.

Sometimes the tradition, the teaching, consoles us.  Jesus claims to be filled with the Spirit of God for the liberation of the poor and oppressed; he claims to bring us God’s favor.  We heard him make that announcement in the other part of today’s gospel.  We also know that he sent the Holy Spirit upon the Church and sent the Church into the whole world to continue that mission of liberation and the restoration of divine favor thru forgiveness and healing.

Sometimes the tradition isn’t exactly what we want to hear.  Sometimes we get really nervous when the Pope talks about liberating people who aren’t us—like migrants and those taken advantage of by economic injustice.  It’s crystal clear what we must forgive our enemies; that divorce is forbidden; that thieves, liars, adulterers, practicing homosexuals, fornicators, and murderers shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.  2 days ago was the anniversary of Roe v. Wade; let me note that abortion takes an innocent human life.  You know that Christians are often accused of being anti-science.  Well, the science of embryology and fetal development is incontrovertible that what is in the womb is a human being.  We don’t kill a human being without moral justification.

The Gospel arose in the specific culture of 1st-century Palestine.  When the Church tries to adapt the Gospel to new cultures—urban, Western culture of the 21st century (Connecticut!), or Oriental culture, or the culture of a tribe in the Amazon jungle—or when it faces new issues like those raised by modern warfare and biotechnology—it must, like Luke, always begin with the tradition it has received; and like Luke, try to adapt it reliably for today’s Theophili, lovers of God.  What does the Gospel and the Christian tradition say to us today?

St. Paul tells us today we are the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:27).  A body changes over the years as it matures and then declines.  Think of what you were like when you were 12!  But it remains the same body, the same person—you’re the same person you were when you were 12—because of an interior principle or identity, which we call the soul.  For the Church, tradition could be regarded as that principle of identity and continuity. So you and I, Christ’s members, must respect our Christian tradition, our self-identity, while at the same time maturing in our prayer life, our practice of virtue, our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, and in all things that are vital for our salvation.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Homily for Feast of St. Francis de Sales

Homily for the Feast of
St. Francis de Sales

Jan. 23, 2016
Provincial House, New Rochelle

With the proper day of St. Francis’s feast, Jan. 24, falling on Sunday this year, we opted to celebrate the feast among ourselves on Saturday, a “free day” in the liturgical calendar.

Bro. Kevin was wondering why the feast of St. Francis de Sales was moved from Jan. 29 to Jan. 24 when the calendar was reformed after Vatican II.  It’s the Church’s wish that the saints’ feasts and memorials be kept, when possible, on their “heavenly birthday,” as the Martyrology calls the day of their earthly death; and when that isn’t possible for some reason, such as a pre-existing feast, then on some other significant date in the saint’s life.  St. Francis died in Lyons on Dec. 28, 1622, feast of the Holy Innocents.  Scratch off that day!  Those of us of a certain age—old enuf to remember the daily reading of the Martyrology at lunch—recall some days being marked as the date of so-and-so’s “translation,” i.e., the date when the saint’s remains were transferred to a final resting place.  That’s exactly why Francis’s feast was moved to Jan. 24, the date of his burial in the chapel of the Visitation motherhouse at Annecy.

The version of the Collect for the feast of St. Francis for use with the religious community begins with the note that God raised him up in the Church, and then describes him “as a zealous shepherd and gracious tutor.”  Then—with Francis’s intercession implied—it asks that we may be diligent in carrying out “our mission to the young with the same apostolic spirit.”

The shepherding idea comes out strongly also in the gospel passage of the Good Shepherd who protects his flock from the wolves and works hard to keep them together as one flock.

That passage certainly calls to mind Francis’s early career as the missionary priest in the Chablais region of the Geneva diocese—a diocese so transformed by John Calvin that the bishop couldn’t enter his own episcopal city.  By his writing and preaching, Francis labored to restore unity to the flock whom Calvin and his followers had divided.  Francis’s life was at risk not only from the enmity of the so-called Reformers but even from the wolves in the forests thru which Fr. Francis had to walk.  We remember how he spent one nite in a tree to escape the prowling beasts.  He was truly a good shepherd, not afraid to risk his life to safeguard his flock and to try to guide all of them back into their proper fold, which he had some success at, at least in the Chablais, even if he was never able to reclaim Geneva.

St. Francis preaching
(Painting in the Church of St. Francis de Sales 
at the Oratory of St. Francis de Sales in Turin) 
As a gracious tutor, Francis taught both high and low—taught God’s love and love for God.  His teaching appealed to kings, nobles, bishops, merchants, artisans, peasants; city folk and country folk; Frenchmen and foreigners; even his Protestant opponents.  He preached, he corresponded, he published, both defending the faith and guiding souls.  His teaching was gracious—revealing God’s grace, graceful in style, graced by what’s often called sweetness but we might call humility, gentleness, simplicity, a down-to-earth approach.  In word and deed Francis attracted people to himself and thus to his Gospel message (which must be why he’s the patron saint of Catholic journalists and why the highest honor given by the Catholic Press Association is the St. Francis de Sales Award, fondly nicknamed “the Frannie”).

God raised up Francis for this apostolic ministry of writer, preacher, bishop, spiritual guide, founder of the Visitation.  God called him for this ministry against the odds, as it were, given his noble birth and first-born status; against even the desperate turmoil of his student days when he doubted God’s eternal love for him.  But he allowed God’s grace to touch his heart.  He allowed himself to become God’s instrument.  God’s plan involved Francis’s own salvation—which he was given the grace to realize after that youthful interior struggle—and it involved Francis’s role in that great movement we call the Counter-Reformation; even more, it involves his ongoing role in guiding the spiritual lives of many generations of Christians.  The action is God’s action, the activity of a providential God, a merciful God, a God who continually shepherds his flock thru the shepherds he provides for us.

We speak of ourselves, too, as having been chosen by God, called by God—in effect, raised up by God—e.g., in our formula of profession.  When we pray in the Collect today “that we too may work diligently in our mission to the young,” we’re praying that we may correspond with our divine election, as Francis corresponded with his.  We’re not called, obviously, to correspond to the same mission he had—converting Calvinists, serving as bishop, writing down-to-earth, theologically rich spiritual books, offering spiritual guidance thru hundreds of letters (or emails), advising social elites, etc.

But we have been called to be “zealous shepherds and gracious tutors” in Francis’s spirit, and particularly for the young, the poor, the marginalized of society, those who’ve never heard the Gospel—in Don Bosco’s style; to be “signs and bearers of God’s love,” as the Constitutions say.  For many of us, our days of doing that in the classroom or the parish are over; for others, those days have been suspended while the Congregation gives other responsibilities.  But that doesn’t preclude our remaining “zealous shepherds and gracious tutors”—among our confreres, especially younger ones (which has long been part of our community pastoral plan, which encourages us to get to know the men in formation and let them get to know us); among the house and mission office and school staffs; among any young people we may meet on the grounds or in such outside pastoral work as we may have (altar servers, penitents, et al.); among the people to whom we speak by phone or to whom we write; thru various social media (Web sites, Facebook, blogs, etc.); thru print media if we have that possibility.  If we can’t be in direct contact with the young because of age or the responsibility that Providence has assigned to us, we can offer that sacrifice as our “diligent work” on behalf of the young, and follow up the sacrifice with our prayers.  Many varieties of apostolate remain open to us even here in which we may imitate our patron saint, “zealous shepherd and gracious tutor” of God’s people in 16th/17th-century Savoy and still today, because he opened himself to God’s love; he “let the divine fire of the Holy Spirit burn in his gentle heart,” as the Prayer over the Gifts will say, bursting forth in his words and his manner to “inspire us with God’s compassion and love.”

May we truly be Salesian in our relationship with Jesus our Lord, Salesian in our care for each other; and Salesian in our zeal for the salvation of souls.

St. Francis de Sales, Patron of Don Bosco's Work

St. Francis de Sales,
Patron of Don Bosco’s Work

The feast of St. Francis de Sales has been celebrated on January 24 since the post-Vatican II revision of the Roman calendar. That date was chosen, rather than the date of his “heavenly birthday,” December 28, because the latter (1) falls within the Octave of Christmas, and (2) is already occupied by the feast of the Holy Innocents. January 24 is date of his burial in the Visitation convent at Annecy, where pilgrims still come to seek his intercession.

Don Bosco chose St. Francis de Sales as the patron of his foundational work, the Oratory of St. Francis de Sales, and then of the religious congregation he established to continue and spread the work of the oratories—the Society of St. Francis de Sales, aka the Salesians. Since St. Francis is our titular patron, his liturgical day holds the rank of a feast in our calendar.

Unfortunately, this year the 24th falls on a Sunday and, as the Salesian proper ordo, indicates, Festum S. Francisci Salesii  hoc anno omittitur (“This year the feast of St. Francis de Sales is omitted”) because Sundays outrank feast days.

Painting of St. Francis de Sales in Don Bosco’s rooms
at the Oratory of St. Francis de Sales in Turin.
But, the reader may ask, why did Don Bosco choose St. Francis as the patron of his work in the first place?

Don Bosco himself provides a partial answer in his Memoirs of the Oratory (ch. 32 of the English edition; part II, ch. 16 of the Italian edition).
We began to call [the first Oratory church, at the Rifugio of the Marchioness Barolo] after St Francis de Sales for two reasons: 1st, because Marchioness Barolo had in mind to found a congregation of priests under his patronage, and with this intention she had a painting of this saint done, which can still be seen at the entrance to this area [no longer true]; 2nd, because we had put our own ministry, which called for great calm and meekness, under the protection of this saint in the hope that he might obtain for us from God the grace of being able to imitate him in his extraordinary meekness and in winning souls.

We had a further reason for placing ourselves under the protection of his saint: that from heaven he might help us imitate him in combating errors against religion, especially Protestantism, which was beginning to gain ground in our [civil] provinces [of Piedmont], and more especially in the city of Turin.

So we see that Don Bosco gave three reasons for the patronage of St. Francis de Sales: the devotion of his then-financial patroness, the marchioness; the virtuous qualities of the saint that youth ministers ought to imitate; the desire to imitate the saint in resisting the incursions of Protestantism.
Not that Don Bosco’s move to the Rifugio in December 1844 (following the nameless Oratory’s first three years at the Convitto Ecclesiastico and the adjacent church of St. Francis of Assisi) was his first contact with the gentle saint from Savoy. Francis was already a very popular saint in Piedmont, in part because of the royal family’s Savoyard origins (Savoy was still part of the family domains until 1859), in part because Francis had visited Turin more than once in his lifetime, in part because the Vincentians were actively promoting Salesian spirituality in Turin through their preaching, including their preaching of all the pre-ordination retreats of the archdiocesan seminarians.

As early as his years in the seminary John Bosco had noted Francis’s spirit. According to his classmate Fr. John Baptist Giacomelli (who also was his confessor, 1873-1888), our John distinguished himself from a fellow seminarian with the same name, John Bosco, by the other’s calling himself Bosco Nespolo [“medlar,” a hard, knotty wood] while our John called himself Bosco Sales [“willow,” soft and flexible wood] (BM 1:302). Then, before his ordination, John made nine resolutions, the fourth of which was “The charity and gentleness of Saint Francis de Sales are to be my guide” (BM 1:385).

Marchioness Barolo never did found her order of priests, and Don Bosco’s oratory didn’t stay long at the Rifugio (December 1844 to July 1845, when the period of the “wandering Oratory” began). But Don Bosco had found his patron as he became ever more convinced of the patience, kindness, and gentleness that the ministry of the oratories demanded and as he became ever more involved in controversies with the Waldensians. In his apologetics—while clearly presenting Catholic truths and targeting Protestant deviations—he strove to imitate Francis’s moderation and charity and to present himself to potential Protestant readers as their brother and friend.

By 1854 Don Bosco was heavily involved in both the oratories and apologetics. On January 26, shortly before the feast of St. Francis de Sales (on January 29 at that time), he gathered the four clerics on whom he most relied (Rua, Cagliero, and two others) and invited them to form an association committed “with the help of the Lord and St. Francis de Sales” to “performing deeds of charity toward our neighbor.” From then on, they called themselves Salesians. (BM 5:8)

Very early photo of Don Bosco in his room,
with Da mihi animas poster over the window.
At least as early as 1854, Don Bosco took from St. Francis the motto Da mihi animas, caetera tolle, which was printed on a poster hung in his room (BM 5:81).

And in the previous year he and others had founded the Catholic Readings, which, among other purposes, engaged in polemics with the Waldensians. Their effectiveness quickly aroused the Protestants’ ire and led, first, to attempts to buy him off and then to attempts on his life in the mid-1850s.

Happily, the attempts failed (with some assistance from Grigio) and eventually the polemics subsided. But the need “for great calm and meekness [and] the grace of being able to imitate this saint in his extraordinary meekness and in winning souls” has remained as the Salesian Family continues Don Bosco’s great work on behalf of the salvation of the young, for the glory of God.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Homily for 2d Sunday of Ordinary Time

Homily for the

2d Sunday of Ordinary Time
Jan. 14, 2001

John 2: 1-11

St. Joseph, Passaic, N.J.

FMA Provincialate, Haledon, N.J.

Plans for a Scouting weekend fell thru, and I didn’t have a Sunday Mass assignment. Here’s an old homily for this weekend’s readings.

“And Jesus said to his mother, ‘Woman, how does your concern affect me?  My hour has not yet come” (John 2: 4).

Ancient fragment depicting the wedding at Cana

I suppose that I ought 1st to say something about the way Jesus addresses his mother here.  “Woman” sounds impersonal and almost rude.  He addresses her with the same word at the crucifixion when he entrusts her to the beloved disciple and the beloved disciple to her.  In 1st-century Palestine this was a perfectly respectful way to speak to a woman in public, tho its use by a son to his mother is unique.  By refraining from reference to their relationship, Jesus is showing us that what his Father wants of him—here or on Calvary—supersedes any family tie.  In the Synoptic Gospels he makes the same point when he identifies his mother, brothers, and sisters with whoever does his Father’s will (Mark 3:31-35 + par.).

But let’s turn our attention to the substance of the conversation between Mary and her son.  On the surface, she has simply pointed out to him a problem that has, somehow or other, come to her notice:  “They have no wine” (2:3).  She is not asking anything of him, explicitly.  From her instruction to the waiters, tho—“Do whatever he tells you” (2:5)—it’s evident that her observation implied a request that Jesus do something.

Jesus’ reply is enigmatic.  He says, nicely, “So what?  It’s none of my business.  My Father has other plans for me.”  Jesus refers to “his hour,” the moment when he will be plainly revealed to Israel and to the world as their Savior.  That hour is the time of his passion and resurrection—a single divine moment in which the Father will glorify him and he will redeem the world.  That hour will be the supreme sign that God loves the world so much that he sent his only Son to be its Savior (cf. John 3:16).

Jesus can’t say all that to Mary at this wedding, and no gospel anywhere gives us any hint that she would have understood.  He can only say, “My hour has not yet come”:  doing something for this couple and their families and friends on this occasion is not how God wants me to reveal his love to Israel and the world.  This we may understand to mean that God has a plan for our redemption, and we ought not to be asking him to deviate from it, to make an adjustment, just to make our lives a little smoother.  God’s plan of redemption is not just the master plan of the life, death, and resurrection of our Savior Jesus Christ.  It’s also the particulars by which he means to save each of us and bring us into the death and resurrection of Jesus.  All our mundane, day-to-day concerns must be subordinated to God’s concerns.  He has a plan for each of us—times and places and people and events—that he wishes to bring us to our own share in the “hour” of Jesus.  Should we be asking God to alter his plan for us, as Mary seems to be doing (even if that’s not her specific intention)?

Yet Jesus evidently does accede to what Mary asks.  She asks him to do something about the embarrassing situation the hosts of the wedding banquet are about to be in, and he does, performing “the beginning of his signs,” the beginning of the revelation of his glory as God’s only Son and the Savior of the world.  Even if this wasn’t exactly what he had in mind, he’s flexible in how he goes about his Father’s work in the world—which is the work of our redemption.  So, yes, we may ask God to alter his plan for us, provided that, like Mary, we keep ourselves subject to God’s ultimate will:  “Do whatever he tells you.”  When the waiters without question do what Jesus tells them, the precarious social situation is saved.  Our precarious human situation, always in danger of being overpowered by the Evil One, will be saved, too, by the divine power of Jesus—when we “do whatever he tells” us.

“The beginning of his signs,” this miracle at the wedding feast of Cana, is a double sign.  The 1st sign is the obvious one, the transformation of water into wine.  Seeing this, “his disciples began to believe in him” (2:11).  The external sign, the miracle, begins the internal stirrings of faith in what God is about to do for the world.  It’s only the beginning.  Thruout John’s gospel the disciples struggle to grow in faith, and even after the resurrection some are slow to believe.  It’s in John that we read how the beloved disciple the Peter race to the empty tomb; the beloved disciples sees and believes, but nothing is said of Peter (20:1-9).  And you know the story of Thomas (20:24-29).

The context, the wedding celebration, is the 2d part of the sign.  Note the 1st reading today, wherein the prophet Isaiah uses the image of marriage as a sign of the intimate relationship between God and Israel:  “As a young man marries a virgin, your Builder shall marry you; and as a bridegroom rejoices in his bride so shall your God rejoice in you” (62:5).  This “beginning of his signs” is a sign of the intimate relationship God is forming with the human race thru the activity of Jesus—which, John makes clear, means thru “the hour” of Jesus, thru the inseparable passion and resurrection.  The wine of Cana is a sacramental sign of the blood of Jesus that will be poured out for us on the cross.  It is thru the cross of Jesus—his cross on Calvary and our participation in his cross in our own lives—that we become participants in the marriage feast of eternal life.

Fr. Gennaro "Jerry" Sesto, SDB (1921-2016)

Fr. Gennaro “Jerry” Sesto, SDB (1921-2016)

Fr. Jerry Sesto in 2010 at the province jubilees celebration
Fr. Gennaro “Jerry” Sesto, the senior member of the province of St. Philip the Apostle, died on January 15 at Villa Marie Claire Hospice in Saddle River, N.J., following a cerebral hemorrhage suffered on January 5. He was assisted in his last moments by his director, Fr. Jim Heuser.

Fr. Sesto was 94 years old and had been a professed Salesian for 75 years and a priest for 65 years. He was a member of the Don Bosco Prep community in Ramsey.

Jerry Sesto was born in Biddeford, Maine, on August 1, 1921, to Mary and Thomas Sesto and was baptized at St. Mary’s Church there. After the family moved to Portland, he was confirmed at St. Peter’s Church in that city. He recounted that “fascination with Don Bosco, fostered by my pastor [Fr. Teresio Dimingo] during a year in preparation for Don Bosco’s canonization” induced him to enter the aspirantate at Don Bosco Seminary in Newton, N.J., in 1935.

Jerry was impressed immediately by the happiness and family spirit of the Salesians and by a mural in the chapel that quoted St. John Bosco: “I promise you bread, work, and paradise.”

Between 1935 and 1939, he was an A student in the high school seminary. He entered St. Joseph’s Novitiate in Newton on September 7, 1939, and professed vows on September 8, 1940. His was part of the illustrious class that included the future Frs. Paul Avallone, Ed Cappelletti, Joe Occhio, Chet Szemborski, and Leo Winterscheidt from our province and Frs. Salvatore Giacomini, Art Lenti, Larry Lorenzoni, John Malloy, and Armand Oliveri from the West, as well as Bros. Dominic Casiraghi and Roy Vetari. Their master was Fr. Joseph Romani.

He graduated from Don Bosco College in Newton in 1943 with a B.A. in philosophy, summa cum laude.

Three younger brothers—Constantine, Anthony, and Thomas—followed him to the Salesian seminary between 1939 and 1957, but all of them discerned a different calling in life.

Bro. Jerry did his practical training at Salesian High School in New Rochelle from 1943 to 1946; it was strictly a boarding school at the time. He taught geometry, general science, and French, directed the band and choir, and coached baseball in addition to general assistance duties.

Fr. Jerry around the time of his priestly ordination
(Salesian Communications Office photo)
In 1946 Bro. Jerry and many of his classmates were the first postwar class to travel to Turin for theological studies at the Pontificio Ateneo Salesiano (the “Crocetta”). He earned an STL and was ordained in the basilica of Mary Help of Christians on July 2, 1950. He remained in Turin after his ordination to study canon law, completing his JCL in 1952, magna cum laude; his dissertation was entitled “The essence of the Sacrifice of the Mass according to M. Lepin.” He continued his canonical studies at the Catholic University of America, earning a JCD in 1956.

While doing his studies at CUA, he also served as prefect at Don Bosco College (1953-1955), where he also taught Latin in the college and theology in the novitiate; and then as a respected professor of canon law at the PAS in Turin (1955-1957) and Rome (1957-1963). The Roman campus of the PAS was located at Sacro Cuore in those years.

In 1956 CUA appointed him a corresponding member of the Institute of Research and Study of Medieval Canon Law in view of the “groundwork for the edition of Huguccio’s Summa, one of the foremost objectives envisaged in common by this institute and the Canon Law Institute of Turin,” study that Fr. Sesto was conducting in collaboration with Fr. Alfons Stickler, SDB (who was made a cardinal by St. John Paul II). He was admitted as an advocate/procurator before the Sacred Roman Rota in 1960, entitled to practice Church law anywhere in the world.

Fr. Sesto was recalled to the province in 1963 to serve as director of the Salesian community in Newton and president of Don Bosco College. Following the College’s Middle States accreditation, Fr. Joseph Bajorek became president in 1965, but Fr. Sesto continued as director until 1967. He also taught theology to the novices and was a member of the provincial council during the four years that he was director. For the novices he was adept at explaining what had just occurred at the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).

In 1967 the two U.S. provinces began to send their theology students to the Pontifical College Josephinum in Worthington, Ohio. Consequently, Fr. Sesto went there to teach canon law and be part of the formation team for the Salesian community, in residence first at the PCJ and then at the Salesian Center in Columbus. At the PCJ he also served terms as dean of students (1968-1970) and associate academic dean (1970-1981). He was a popular and highly regarded professor.
Fr. Jerry, standing, speaking at the 1976 provincial chapter
Two phrases that he often repeated while teaching were “Suprema lex salus animarum” (The salvation of souls is the highest law) from the Code, and “Bad theology is bad pastoral practice.” One of his students wondered whether bad pastoral practice was bad theology but never dared to ask in class.

In 1981 Fr. Sesto was named director of Don Bosco Prep in Ramsey, N.J. After completing two three-year terms there, he returned briefly to Don Bosco College as director of religious activities (1987-1988) and treasurer (1988-1989). In 1989 he came to the provincial house in New Rochelle with two responsibilities: coordinator of the Salesian Lay Missioners program and provincial secretary (1989-1995). The SLM program progressed so well that in 1995 it could be turned over to lay leadership.

Fr. Sesto took up the role of coordinator of the Marian Shrine in Haverstraw-Stony Point, N.Y. in 1995, serving until 2003, when he moved to St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Elizabeth, N.J., to serve the Italian apostolate in the area. He remained there until declining health compelled his retirement in 2013. He moved to Don Bosco Prep, where he maintained a lively interest in student and Salesian activities and rendered pastoral assistance when he could.

On January 5 he suffered a major cerebral hemorrhage in his room at the Prep, with paralysis of his left side. He was quickly taken to Valley Hospital in Ridgewood, where efforts to stem his bleeding were not completely successful; three days later he was moved to hospice care at Villa Marie Claire.

Throughout my Salesian life,” Father Sesto wrote at the time of one of the province jubilee celebrations, “I’ve tried to live the spirituality of three devotions: to the Blessed Sacrament, to Our Lady Help of Christians, and to our Holy Father. I’ve experienced daily the love and kindness of the Lord.” He maintained that the highlights of his long Salesian life were “teaching canon law, working with the SLMs, and his years at Don Bosco Prep.”

Fr. Steve Shafran, provincial, said that when he visited Fr. Jerry in his last days, “despite his suffering, his thoughts turned to the boys, to ‘Don Bosco’s boys,’ as he would refer to them. He had them constantly on his mind and in his heart.”

Fr. Shafran added: “Fr. Jerry was always known for his joyful Salesian oratorian heart, his welcome and affection. We all know of his great intellect, capacity for languages, and experience as a wonderful and engaging teacher, but it was his sensitivity to the person, to the confrere, that made him especially endearing. He wanted to be connected, either personally or with a card or email. Like Don Bosco, he was forward thinking. It was not unusual to find him on social media to be present in people’s lives.”

Fr. Sesto is survived by his sisters Lucy Burke, Ann Gribbin, and Virginia LaCroix of Maine and his brother Thomas Sesto of Germany, numerous nieces and nephews, his confreres, and his former students.

The senior member of the New Rochelle Province now is Bro. Gerard Richard, 92, of the Sherbrooke community.