Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Homily for Solemnity of St. John Bosco

Homily for the Solemnity of
St. John Bosco
Jan. 29, 2017
Ezek 34: 11-12, 15-16, 23-24, 30-31
Holy Cross, Champaign, Ill.

Salesian parishes have the privilege of transferring the “external” observance of Don Bosco’s solemn feast day to the closest Sunday. So we did at Holy Cross’s 4:00 p.m. Mass (followed by some more secular festivities in the parish hall).

“Behold I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out” (Ezek 34: 11).

The words of the Lord spoken thru the prophet Ezekiel ca. 590 B.C. were addressed to an Israelite nation broken by military conquest, the imposition of pagan gods, exile, the danger of religious contamination from their pagan neighbors, moral and national despair.

God promised to remain with this nation and look after them; preserve them, strengthen them, and nourish them.

John Bosco was born into a nation that had just come thru a nasty period of political and social upheaval—occupation by Napoleon’s French armies, exile of the royal family, changes in laws, and much more.  That was in Piedmont in northwestern Italy—a region famous for its wines like Barolo and Asti (John was from the Asti province), where the staple food of peasants like the Boscos was polenta.  Much, much more upheaval was to occur 4 decades later—more revolutions:  the industrial revolution with all its drastic social and demographic changes, and political revolution and wars leading to the unification of the entire Italian peninsula into one kingdom under Piedmont’s royal family, the house of Savoy.  All of that dramatic and at times violent change left many of the sheep confused, disoriented, and wounded, and many of them wandered away from Christ’s sheepfold.

Politically, the scene was outwardly calm when John Bosco was ordained by the archbishop of Turin on June 5, 1841, and he became “Don Bosco.”  After spending the summer as a “baby priest” in his home parish in Castelnuovo d’Asti, at the beginning of November he moved to Turin.  The harvest was over, and people had celebrated All Saints and remembered their dead in the traditional rites of All Souls.  Youngsters fortunate enuf to be able to go to school—meaning with a few lire to pay tuition—could return to their classrooms, no longer needed for hard field work after the harvest.

Don Bosco went to Turin to do “graduate work” in pastoral theology—practical courses in how to preach and hear confessions and minister to school children—and to prisoners in the city’s jails.  If the political scene was quiet, not so the social scene, as hundreds of boys and young men and some women migrated from the countryside into the capital city looking for work in the new factories going up, the building trades, and the shops that catered to a growing urban population.  They didn’t always find work and too often found trouble instead—from crime, from drink, from gambling, from gangs, from immorality.  On a smaller scale, it was quite like Dickens’s London—Oliver Twist was completed in 1839; similar to the situation of the working classes in Northern Europe that would lead Marx to publish The Communist Manifesto in 1848.

Young Don Bosco—he was 26—was extremely blessed to have as his mentor-spiritual guide-professor-confessor the priest perhaps most responsible for the revitalization of the clergy of Piedmont in the 19th century, Fr. Joseph Cafasso—who was himself canonized in 1947 and bears the nickname “Pearl of the Piedmontese Clergy.”  Fr. Cafasso was chaplain of Turin’s 4 jails, and he had a particular gift or charism for accompanying those condemned to death for their crimes, a ministry so appreciated that on the centennial of his death the city erected his statue on the former site of the public gallows.

Fr. Cafasso brought his young protégé, the peasant from the vineyards and fields of Asti, into the jails to meet the prisoners, so many of them young.  Years later Don Bosco wrote:

     Fr Cafasso, who for six years had been my guide, was especially my spiritual director. If I have been able to do any good, I owe it to this worthy priest in whose hands I placed every decision I made, all my study, and every activity of my life. It was he who first took me into the prisons, where I soon learned how great was the malice and misery of mankind. I saw large numbers of young lads aged from 12 to 18, fine healthy youngsters, alert of mind, but seeing them idle there, infested with lice, lacking food for body and soul, horrified me. Public disgrace, family dishonour, and personal shame were personified in those unfortunates. What shocked me most was to see that many of them were released full of good resolutions to go straight, and yet in a short time they landed back in prison, within a few days of their release.

Art by Nino Musio
On such occasions I found out how quite a few were brought back to that place; it was because they were abandoned to their own resources. “Who knows?” I thought to myself, “if these youngsters had a friend outside who would take care of them, help them, teach them religion on Sundays and holy days... Who knows but they could be steered away from ruin, or at least the number of those who return to prison could be lessened?”

     I talked this idea over with Fr Cafasso. With his encouragement and inspiration I began to work out in my mind how to put the idea into practice, leaving to the Lord’s grace what the outcome would be. Without God’s grace, all human effort is vain.[1]

You all know that Pope Francis wants priests and bishops to “have the smell of the sheep.”  So Don Bosco did—going after those young sheep in so much danger.  He began to gather them on Sundays and the many religious holidays—in those times there were many more than the 5 or 6 holy days we’re used to—in order to offer these youngsters Mass, confession, catechism, and wholesome recreation.  So many of those job-seekers came from other parts of northern Italy, were on their own (without family support), spoke different dialects, didn’t know where their proper parish churches were—or if they did, didn’t find themselves particularly welcome in them or in the catechism classes.  So when they weren’t working, they roamed the streets or hung out in the bars, getting into legal or moral trouble.
Art by Nino Musio
When Don Bosco began gathering these roughnecks and spending all his spare time with them and (horrors!) even playing games with them (races, soccer, probably cards) or demonstrating his juggling and sleight of hand skills or taking them on long hikes, the respectable parish clergy were scandalized.  At one point some of them conspired to have Don Bosco taken away to the madhouse for evaluation—which didn’t work out so well for the conspirators themselves, because Don Bosco smelled out their plot (he could smell rats as well as he could smell sheep), and he sent them to the asylum instead.
Invitation to a carriage ride--to the madhouse.
Art by Nino Musio.

But enuf people saw the social and religious good that Don Bosco was doing and fully supported him:  the influential Fr. Cafasso, the archbishop, some of the nobility, government ministers, and even the royal family.  So gradually this ministry, which in 1844 Don Bosco had placed under the patronage of St. Francis de Sales, flourished.  In the 1850s it developed into a brand-new religious congregation—part of whose basic set-up was suggested by none other than the anticlerical government minister who wrote the laws that suppressed most of the monasteries and traditional religious orders and confiscated their lands.  That new religious congregation, the Society of St. Francis de Sales, spread rapidly beyond Turin and became what is now the 2d-largest religious order of men in the Catholic Church, with about 15,000 members (priests and brothers).  Indeed, Don Bosco’s work grew into a large charismatic family that today includes the largest congregation of sisters in the Church (the Salesian Sisters, whom many of you know), 16 small congregations of sisters, 1 small congregation of religious men, 3 secular institutes (vowed men and women who live on their own in the world instead of in community), the worldwide Salesian alumni associations, and 7 lay associations of the faithful, including the Salesian Cooperators, whom we have right here in our parish, living the spirit of St. John Bosco as husbands and wives, parents, and young (or not so young) singles.  Come meet them after Mass at our Don Bosco social in the parish center.

Salesians at the Marauiá mission among the Yanomami people
in Amazonian Brazil (ANS).
In about 135 countries around the world, on 6 continents, Don Bosco’s religious family continues his work on behalf of poor and endangered young people:  in city slums, in impoverished rural areas, in mission territories like the Amazon and Papua New Guinea and post-Christian Europe, and in First World settings like the U.S. trying to evangelize and catechize youngsters and their families in schools, parishes, youth centers, and retreat houses.  We serve the wider Church by filling offices in the Roman Curia, running the Vatican printing presses, administering the catacombs of St. Callistus (visit them if you ever go to Rome), and operating a pontifical university with campuses in Rome and Jerusalem.  Don Bosco’s youthful, simple, joyful spirituality makes saints—by my count, 121 canonized saints and blesseds, including 2 school children (Dominic Savio and Laura Vicuña) and 102 martyrs of the Communists and the Nazis.  Both Karol Wojtyla in Krakow (JPII) and Jorge Bergoglio in Buenos Aires (Francis) belonged to Salesian parishes as young men.

Not bad for a boy from a little farm in Piedmont who tended cows and hoed weeds in vineyards—but learned to smell the lambs and the sheep of God’s flock and tend them with extreme care, literally wearing out his body in the process.  He was just 72 when he passed into eternal life in 1888, leaving a heritage that, by God’s grace, continues to bring blessings to you and me.

[1] St. John Bosco, Memoirs of the Oratory of St. Francis de Sales, trans. Daniel Lyons (New Rochelle: Salesiana, 2007), pp. 101-102, slightly adapted.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Homily for Funeral of Hazel Cacioppo

Homily for the
Funeral of Hazel Cacioppo
Jan. 24, 2017
John 6: 37-40
Holy Cross, Champaign, Ill.                                      

“This is the will of my Father, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him may have eternal life, and I shall raise him on the last day” (John 6: 40).

I have to have a warm spot in my heart for someone who was a fan 60of Ki-Ki Cuyler and Gabby Hartnett—who played way before my time but whose baseball cards I owned, from some kind of special Hall of Fame series, when I was a baseball-addicted kid in the early ’60s.

But as good and faithful as Hazel was—as mom, wife, Cubs fan, and disciple of Jesus—we don’t come to her funeral rites to celebrate her accomplishments.  Rather, we come to this Eucharist, like all Eucharists, to celebrate the goodness and faithfulness of God our Father.  We come to celebrate the salvation won for us not by our deeds but by the deeds of Jesus Christ, his cross and resurrection and his gift to us of forgiveness.  We come to ask humbly that the Father receive Hazel into his kingdom of eternal life thru the mercy won for us by Jesus; thru the pardon that she and all of us need for our inevitable moral failures, our sins.

Jesus said repeatedly that he came to do his Father’s will, and as we heard in the gospel a couple of minutes ago, it’s the Father’s will that everyone who believes in the Son, i.e., in Jesus Christ, should share in the eternal life that Jesus enjoys; that all Jesus’ followers should follow him into the resurrection on the last day, the day of judgment.

For there will be a last day—for everyone and, in God’s own time, for the whole created universe.  There will be a day of judgment.  For unrepentant sinners, that day will be, as the old funeral liturgy used to sing in fearful trembling, a dies irae, a day of wrath, a day of doom.

We have better hope, however, for Hazel, who tried to walk faithfully with Jesus thruout her long life.  We have hope that the Holy Spirit given to her in Baptism stayed with her and is saying now, “Let her find rest from her labors, for her works accompany her” (Rev 14:13)—her work of keeping God’s law (it is hard work sometimes, isn’t it?), her work of adhering to Jesus, of daily prayer, of fulfilling her role as wife and mother, as businesswoman and librarian, as catechist, of loving and serving her neighbor.

“Grace and mercy are with his holy ones, and his care is with his elect,” Wisdom says (3:9).  “Elect” means “chosen.”  God chose Hazel in Baptism to receive his grace and mercy, to be a holy one, a saint, by following Jesus—as he has likewise chosen us.  It’s our prayer today that Hazel did that faithfully to the end.  We know that Jesus was faithfully with her to the end thru sacramental anointing and thru the accompaniment and prayers of Charlotte and others.  We pray that Jesus has seen her into her new home, her heavenly home, her place of rest and joy and light.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Homily for 3d Sunday of Ordinary Time

Homily for the
3d Sunday of Ordinary Time
Jan. 22, 2017
Matt 4: 12-23
Holy Cross, Champaign, Ill.

“Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, … the people who sit in darkness have seen a great light…” (Matt 4: 15-16).  (For those who don’t know, Zebulun and Naphtali were 2 of the 12 tribes of Israel, and they were allotted land in the northern part of the country, what later became known as Galilee.)

St. Matthew picks up a prophecy of Isaiah, using a Greek translation that was in general use in the Greek-speaking parts of the Roman Empire in the 1st century; hence the slight variance in wording between our 1st reading, based on Isaiah’s Hebrew, and the gospel reading.  Matthew finds the prophecy’s fulfillment in the ministry of Jesus, which he introduces us to with 2 very general summaries of it sandwiched around the calling of the 1st 4 apostles.

The 1st little summary is that Jesus moved from Nazareth, which was off the beaten track, and “went to live in Capernaum by the sea” (4:13), i.e., the Sea of Galilee, along a principal trade route between Jerusalem and Damascus, north and south, and east-west between the Mediterranean coast and the lands beyond the Jordan River.  And in this little crossroads town, this center of commerce and the fishing business, he “began to preach and say, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (4:17).

The 2d little summary, after he calls 4 fishermen to follow him, is that he went all around Galilee “proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and curing every disease and illness among the people” (4:23).

When Jesus preaches repentance, he uses a word, metanoeite in Greek, that means “to change one’s mind, to be converted in heart, to turn one’s life around.  John the Baptist, too, whose arrest precedes Jesus’ preaching (mentioning that, Matthew sounds an ominous note to his readers), had preached this repentance in view of the coming of the Messiah.  Jesus, on the other hand, calls for repentance in view of the kingdom’s presence.

If Galilee has been a land in darkness, as Matthew says, the darkness is that of evil:  of sin and its effects.  Jesus comes as light.  He comes to cast away sin, to heal souls, to forgive.  The prerequisite is repentance:  the willingness, the desire, to be rid of sin and walk in God’s light.  Unless one admits one’s sins and sincerely wants to throw them off, wants to amend one’s life, the grace of God in Jesus Christ is useless; it can’t touch the unrepentant heart.  (But we can pray that unrepentant hearts be converted; or, in the words of Ezekiel, that hearts of stone be turned into hearts of flesh [36:26; 11:19].  That’s one of my own most frequent prayers, for the conversion of my own heart, and when I say to some of you that we priests need your prayers, that’s one of the reasons I have in mind.)

Jesus preaches, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  Unlike John the Baptist, he doesn’t say, “Someone’s coming.”  He says, “It’s at hand.”  Jesus himself embodies the kingdom of God.  He is the gentle hand of God that rules the universe—a rule that he demonstrates in his power to turn fishermen into fishers of men (4:19), courageous apostles (that was a miracle in itself!)—and his power to “heal every disease and illness.”  Matthew says, as if pointing to a parallelism, “He proclaimed the gospel of the kingdom and cured every disease and illness among the people”—“proclaiming” and “curing” running together like 2 rails of track.

The evils of disease and illness are signs of the greater evil of sin, pieces of the realm of the prince of darkness.  They are pieces of the darkness covering the land.  Jesus’ power over sickness is an outward sign of his power over the sickness of our souls.

When people brought their illnesses to Jesus, he healed them.  But 1st they had to come to him, personally or thru an emissary like the Roman centurion (Matt 8:5-13).  No one got healed without some kind of a request, a plea because of need.  Such healing was a sign that the Good News of the kingdom was present.  The light had arrived to conquer the darkness.  The next step for the victory of light was repentance, turning from sin.  It took quite a while for Jesus to get that message across, that he’d come for the forgiveness of sins and the healing of the relationship between God and men (turning the apostles into fishers of men!).

And that kind of healing, too, required an admission of need, an admission of sinfulness—a conversion of heart.

Last Saturday, a columnist in the Washington Post headlined his opinion piece, “Dear God, are we being punished?”  He rehearsed some biblical examples of the punishment of sinners, like Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis and Ananias and Sapphira in Acts before asking what we—whoever his “we” is—have done “to deserve punishment in the form of Trump.”  Then he mentioned our social sins like ignoring the needs of immigrants, education, the social safety net, better wages for workers, attention to our democracy—so many needs that we ignore, such values as the Rev. Martin Luther King stood for; he was writing a column for the King weekend.  And he called for a “fair, just and inclusive America” such as Dr. King and a recent President “fought hard to create.”[1]

Well, yeah, whether you think Trump is “punishment” for our collective sins or have a different opinion on that subject—I’m not going there!—you have to admit there are social injustices in America.  And I suggest that the columnist missed the most egregious examples of the sins of our society, sins that we don’t seem willing to admit, much less to seek remedies for, to seek healing.  Rather, we celebrate our sins and call them progress.  On this anniversary weekend of Roe v. Wade, we recall the gross injustice of killing unborn human beings, which our Washington Post columnist didn’t mention.  We need to mention the injustice our Western society does to children by promoting the breakdown of the family; more and more children being born out of wedlock, being fatherless, being the victims of divorce and therefore being far more likely than children in 2-parent families to drop out of school, to commit acts of delinquency, to join gangs, to do drugs, to get involved in sexual activity at an entirely inappropriate age, and to live in poverty.  Something in our family life and social values breakdown is causing an epidemic of teenage suicide, of which I was reminded in a personal email this morning.[2]

Let us acknowledge and pay homage to the heroic efforts many single parents make to raise their kids to be virtuous, to complete their education, and to become good citizens and even saints.  Our Salesian founder St. John Bosco was raised by a single mother, and many single moms and dads do their jobs well.  But, statistically, the overwhelming tendency is otherwise.  Studies repeatedly show that “the central problem underlying … child poverty is family breakdown”[3]—and family breakdown is largely the result of self-centeredness, individualism, “my freedom at all costs.

A fundamental disregard for the nature and purpose of our sexuality, a disregard that leads to porn, easy sex, contraception, a lack of commitment to marriage, the abuse of others, homosexual activity, confusion about sexual identity—these are sins for which God is punishing us—not with this or that elected official but with chaos and violence in our schools and our streets, and sometimes even with political dysfunction.  The violence of abortion and assisted suicide fosters the “life is cheap” or “expendable” mentality that gives us gang warfare, shootings on our streets and in our schools, assaults on the handicapped as a form of entertainment.

If we want God’s grace, God’s blessing, as individuals, we have to admit our need and turn to God for healing, with a purpose of amendment, an intention to try to change our ways.  Thank God for the healing offered us in the sacrament of Reconciliation!

“Dear God, why are we being punished?”  As a nation, too, we have to admit our need, admit the sins that have brought us where we are, amend our attitudes and intentions, and seek healing:  in respect for all human life, in treating everyone with decency and fairness, in recognition of the irreplaceable role of marriage for the shaping of a healthy society.  Let us walk in the light and not in the darkness.

[1] Colbert I. King, Washington Post online, Jan. 14, 2017.
[2] Jan. 22.
[3] Russell Shaw, “Child Poverty and Marriage,” The Pilot online, Jan. 18, 2017.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Homily for 2d Sunday of Ordinary Time

Homily for the
2d Sunday of Ordinary Time
Jan. 15, 2017
1 Cor 1: 1-3
John 1: 29-34

I was well into homiletic preparation for today before I remembered that the deacons preach on the 3d Sunday of the month.  I decided to finish and post the homily even tho I didn’t actually preach it.

The revision of the sacred liturgy after Vatican II has been a wonderful thing.  To mention just 2 blessings that the Church has received thru this revision we celebrate God’s Word and worship in language we understand (mostly—sometimes liturgical language even in English is a bit strange); and we hear a much vaster selection from the Sacred Scriptures.

The revision has also left us with some oddities like calling today the “2d Sunday of OT” when it’s the Sunday of the 2d week of OT but not really the 2d Sunday in this season we call Ordinary Time.  So you didn’t pull a Rip Van Winkle and sleep thru the 1st Sunday.

You may have heard me introduce the new liturgical year back on the 1st Sunday of Advent by telling you we’d be listening mostly to the Gospel According to St. Matthew this year.  Before we resume reading Matthew next week with the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, however, we have an interlude this week with St. John’s Gospel (1:29-34), speaking John the Baptist’s identification of Jesus as the one on whom the Spirit of God has come down and whom the Father has missioned to baptize people with the Holy Spirit.  This is John the Evangelist’s version of Jesus’ baptism and his appointment by God to go and sanctify humanity.
Baptism of Christ by Lambert Sustris
Before Jesus ascended into heaven, he handed that mission to his apostles, who were confirmed in the mission by the descent of that same Holy Spirit upon them.  So eventually St. Paul preaches the Gospel to the Jews and the pagans of Corinth in Greece.  Today we hear Paul addressing the little Christian community there with the opening words of what we now know as his 1st Letter to the Corinthians—words that speak of their sanctification, their call to be holy.  He greets them:  “Paul … to the church of God that is in Corinth, to you who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be holy” (1:1-2).

Let’s consider those words.  He addresses the people—his own disciples, converted to Christ by his preaching and his staying among them for over a year; and they are his friends, besides—he addresses them as “church.”  That’s the Greek word ekklesia, meaning “those who have been called out,” an assembly, a gathered community.  And these people have been called out and gathered by God; they are the ekklesia of God.  If they are followers of Jesus, it’s God’s doing, God’s grace.

That’s true wherever and whenever we speak of the ekklesia—same word in Latin—or of iglesia in Spanish, eglise in French, chiesa in Italian.  It’s primarily the assembled people of God, only secondarily the building in which we assemble.  In fact, in Paul’s day and for a quarter of a millennium longer, there were no Christian buildings for the faithful to gather in because the Church was basically illegal, regarded as a subversive organization, people of suspect loyalty to the imperial regime.  (Does that sound at all familiar?  It’s estimated that last year, 2016, some 90,000 Christians were killed because of their faith.)  So we who are the Church today are the Church of God, the people whom God has called together to be his own—we, the Catholics of Holy Cross, the Catholics of the diocese of Peoria, the Catholics of the entire worldwide ekklesia united in apostolic faith with the successor St. Peter.

Why has God called us?  Paul says straightforwardly, “to be holy.”  Of ourselves, we’re certainly not holy.  We’re sinners, sometimes very wretched sinners.  But God wants us to be otherwise, and so he invites us to a share in his very own life, to a share—in some mysterious fashion—in his own nature.  He calls us to be holy as he is holy.  He is “the fount of all holiness,” as the 2d Eucharistic Prayer says, and that fountain gushes with grace pouring out over us—the grace of Jesus Christ (cf. John 4:14; 7:37-38), sanctifying us.

St. Paul says we’ve already been “sanctified in Christ Jesus.”  Our union with Jesus—the Holy One of God, the Lamb of God—sanctifies us.  In practical terms, Baptism inaugurates us into the divine life, the holiness of Jesus.  Every sacramental encounter with Jesus deepens that union, roots us more deeply into Christ.  That’s why we come regularly to the Eucharist—all of us called to gather to be made holy by Jesus.  That’s why we approach Jesus regularly in Reconciliation—to be restored to holiness, if unfortunately we’ve gone astray, or to be confirmed in holiness by the gentle touch and encouragement of Jesus.

Baptism banner:
Holy Name of Jesus Church, New Rochelle
These vital sacramental encounters occur in and thru the ekklesia, the assembly of God’s people called to be holy, called to be Christ’s presence in the world, called to be Christ’s instrument or his means of contacting individuals and drawing them to himself—to Baptism in the Holy Spirit (cf. John 1:33), to Eucharistic communion, to the forgiveness of sins.

As the assembly of God’s people, we join together to thank the Father for such mercy, for such a calling, to be united to him in Christ, thru the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Homily for Memorial of St. Andre Bessette

Homily for the Memorial of
St. André Bessette
January 6, 2017
Holy Cross, Champaign, Ill.

Can you imagine a million people taking part in a funeral?  You witnessed that at the death of JPII.  Another such funeral, which none of us witnessed, was that of a humble Holy Cross brother in Montreal in 1937.

John the Baptist:  “I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals”—a humility that places him in a position lower than a slave (Mark 1:7-11).  That was the humility of Bro. André Bessette.

St. André (1845-1937) was born into a poor family near Montreal.  His father was a carpenter and woodcutter, which may have influenced his devotion to St. Joseph.  By age 12 he’d been orphaned and had to work to survive—common enuf at that time.  He worked for a while in Connecticut, like many young French Canadians.

But all his early life he had such poor health that the Congregation of the Holy Cross were reluctant to take him in as a candidate. That's the same congregation to which our bishop belongs and to whom the Univ. of Notre Dame belongs.  Poor fellow lived only to the age of 91!

André was uneducated and barely literate.  So Holy Cross had him to menial cleaning work, carry messages, bring in firewood, and answer the door.  But he was extremely sensitive to people, especially the poor and the sick—the lowly of Montreal.  When he became permanent doorkeeper of the HC school, crowds of people came to talk with him.  He listened to their woes, joked with them, prayed with and for them.  Characteristically gentle and patient, sometimes he did get upset, and he confessed he was “only human.”

Altho exhausted from a long day of that, after hours he’d go to visit the sick and the poor in their homes.  He prayed especially thru the intercession of St. Joseph.

People noticed that when he prayed for the sick, often there were healings.  During a smallpox outbreak at the HC house of formation that had killed several of the young men, he went to assist the sick; the epidemic ceased and no one else died.

With a growing reputation as a healer, Bro. André could no longer receive his many visitors at school; the parents complained about the disturbance.  He went to a street car station to receive visitors; the passengers complained.  So he went looking for some land where he could build a little oratory to receive visitors—dedicated to St. Joseph.  He found property atop Mt. Royal—which the HC congregation had been eyeing for some time but which the owners refused to sell.  Bro. André scattered medals of St. Joseph around like seed, and shortly after the owners changed their mind.  The HC superiors told him he could build his oratory if he could raise the money; the money came.

So he built a little oratory, people kept coming, Bro. André kept praying with and for them, and then he raised money to build a new, grander shrine to St. Joseph—which today dominates the whole city of Montreal from the top of Mt. Royal and is the largest church in the world dedicated to St. Joseph.

Lowly, semi-literate Bro. André was a man of prayer and kindness, the faithful servant of St. Joseph and of the sick and the poor.  And a million of them turned up for his funeral rites after he died on Jan. 6, 1937.  He was beatified in 1982 and canonized in 2011.

St. André teaches us to attend to the poor and the lowly and the sick, to people in need, and to treat people with kindness.  He teaches us the importance of the saints, and particularly of some favorite patron saint whose protection we invoke and whose life we seek to imitate.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Homily for the Solemnity of the
Jan. 8, 2017
Matt 2: 1-12
Holy Cross, Champaign, Ill.

“When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem…” (Matt 2: 1).
Adoration of the Magi
Fra Angelico, ca. 1445
Who are these strange visitors, these unusual visitors, these magi “from the east”?  We certainly wish St. Matthew had told us more.  The oral tradition of the early disciples of Jesus, passed down—we presume—from our Blessed Mother to the apostles to the 1st generations of Christians probably had lost track of some of the details of the story; you can think, maybe, of some of your own family stories going back to your grandparents or great-grandparents.  When Matthew, sometime in the 8th decade of the 1st century (we estimate), wrote the story down to introduce his Gospel, he included only information that the Church considered truly important, perhaps all that was remembered with any certainty.

According to renowned New Testament scholar Fr. Raymond Brown, the term magi, or magus in the singular, referred to men who were “engaged in occult arts:  astronomers, fortunetellers, priestly augurers, and magicians of varying degrees of plausibility.  Matthew probably thinks of astronomers.”[1]  I’m not sure why Fr. Brown would call astronomy an “occult art,” but perhaps in the 1st century it was more akin to astrology, which is another art altogether.  Had Fr. Brown been writing a few years later, he might also have mentioned Jedi knights or Dumbledore and his pupils.[2]  Be that as it may, we’ve come to understand the magi as “wise men” in general.  I hope it doesn’t shake anyone’s faith to realize that they weren’t kings at all; that’s a medieval legend, about as reliable as the old English carol “I Saw Three Ships” come sailing into Bethlehem (which isn’t anywhere near the water).

While Matthew says the magi brought 3 gifts to the Christ Child, he doesn’t say how many wise men made the journey “from the east,” i.e., from Babylonia or Persia.  They could have been 2, 3, 5, 10—and a long journey “from the east” would have invited a much larger party than 3 if only for safety.  Matthew doesn’t say clearly when they arrived in Jerusalem, but he does say later, in the story about Herod’s murder of all the male children in and around Bethlehem, that they had 1st seen the star up to 2 years previously (which, by the way, would place the birth of Jesus in 6 or 7 B.C.  Herod died in 4 B.C.).  And he says that they found “the child with Mary his mother on entering the house” where they were (2:11)—not in a stable.

But those sorts of details are secondary.  What’s the message of the magi’s coming to Bethlehem and paying homage to the newborn king of the Jews (cf. 2:2,11)?  1st and most important is that this Child is king of all peoples, both Jews and Gentiles.  Matthew doesn’t tell us anything about Jewish shepherds coming to the manger (that’s St. Luke); he presents these foreigners, these pagans, these Gentiles, as the 1st ones to honor Christ, to submit themselves to his majesty.  Matthew will end his Gospel on a similar note, when Jesus commissions the apostles to go out into the whole world and “make disciples of all nations” (28:19).  The Good News that Jesus “shall save his people from their sins”—the angel’s words to St. Joseph in ch. 1:21—is for all people everywhere.  All people are his people!

These pagan wise men began their discovery of God’s Good News by observing a star.  From ancient times men and women have been able to discover something about God and to worship him in some fashion based on natural reason, on philosophy, on the observance of nature, on the natural instinct for justice that’s in the human heart, etc.  That’s still true today for honest searchers into truth and wisdom.

But the magi couldn’t find this Savior on their own.  The star led them to Jerusalem—the logical place to look for a new king of the Jewish people.  But then they were lost.  They needed some additional help, and this they found in divine revelation, in the Sacred Scriptures, which the chief priests and the scribes had studied and which they revealed to King Herod and the strangers from the East.  While we can know God to some extent from natural reason—nature, philosophy, etc.—we can’t know him fully without revelation.  To know God more completely, we must have the Scriptures opened for us; we must encounter Jesus Christ, the living Word of God; we must listen to the teaching of Christ’s Church, not making new revelation but interpreting the ancient revelation of the Scriptures and the Person of Jesus.

The chief priests and the scribes presented the revelation to the magi and King Herod.  Then all of them had to make a decision.  What would they do about what had been revealed to them?  They all knew about the star and the magi’s understanding of its meaning, and they all heard what the Hebrew prophets had said about the Messiah.

The magi continued on their mission, seeking the One whom God had sent.  They paid him homage, presented their gifts, and submitted themselves to Christ the King.

Not so Herod, the chief priests, and the scribes.  Matthew makes the point that “all Jerusalem” was “greatly troubled” by what the magi reported, and no one—no one!—went along with the Gentile searchers to seek and meet the Messiah.  They were indifferent or even hostile to God’s greatest revelation.  They chose to continue living in their fear, to cling to their fragile earthly power, to do vicious violence upon the innocent, to reject the One who offers to all humanity a heavenly kingdom so much more precious than ruling over Judea.  Here Matthew of course is foreshadowing Jesus’ condemnation 35 years later by the successors of King Herod and these Jewish leaders.

What is our decision about “the newborn king of the Jews”?  How seriously are we looking for God?  Where do we look for him?  If we think we’ve found him in a cute baby lying in the hay, we haven’t looked far enuf.  When the truth and goodness of Jesus are presented to us in the Gospels, in the rest of the Scriptures, in the teaching of the Church that Jesus commissioned to make disciples of all nations, are we ready to accept that truth and goodness, submit ourselves to them, live by them, practice truth and goodness as God’s revelation shows us?  God’s revealed truth convicts us as sinners because like Herod and his friends in Jerusalem we often choose darkness rather than light, fear rather than love, evil rather than goodness.  God’s revealed goodness, on the other hand, assures us that our repentance brings us the forgiveness and mercy we don’t deserve and can’t earn, thru the passion and resurrection of Jesus.  How much homage do we pay to humanity’s King, and what treasures do we offer him?

[1] An Adult Christ at Christmas. Essays on the Three Biblical Christmas Stories: Matthew 2 and Luke 2 (Collegeville, 1978), p. 11, n. 18.
[2] I’m sure he wouldn’t have done that in his scholarly publications; maybe in a less formal lecture.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Homily for the Solemnity of
Mary, Mother of God
Jan. 1, 1979
Gal 4: 4-7
Luke 2: 16-21
Guardian Angels, Harvey, La.
Our Lady of Prompt Succor, Westwego, La.

This New Year’s Day (2017) I was traveling.  Here’s the 1st homily I ever preached for this special solemnity in honor of the Mother of God.

by Robert Campin (c. 1375-1444)
The Christmas liturgy has for centuries focused on 2 key persons in the history of salvation:  Jesus and Mary.  He is the long-awaited Savior; she is the instrument in the Father’s plan of salvation.  He is the Son of God, made man; she is the most highly favored daughter, become a mother.

Today let us turn our attention briefly to 2 aspects of Mary’s part in the divine mystery of the Incarnation.  1st, St. Paul writes, “God sent forth his Son, born of woman … so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal 4:4-5).  2d, St. Luke records, “Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19).

“God sent forth his Son, born of woman.”  Jesus is fully human. He was born like any other person.  That he should be a complete, genuine member of our race is important, even necessary.  The Fathers of the Church are fond of saying that unless Christ is truly man, we men are not truly redeemed, and likewise, unless he is truly God, we are not truly redeemed either.  And St. Paul implies such divinity quite strongly when he says, “God sent forth his Son … that we might receive adoption as sons.”  By taking on our condition right from the moment of his entry into our lowly history, the Son has raised our status to his own glorious place.  As the early Fathers express it, “God became man in order that man might become God.”  And a key role in this divine plan is the glorious one assigned to and accepted by Mary, the beautiful but demanding role of motherhood, the role without which the Son of God could not have become the son of man.

“Mary kept all these things in her heart.” Luke tells of the wonders surrounding the Savior’s birth and how the shepherds marvel and retell the story and lead others to marvel too; and how Joseph is present.  But only Mary reflects on these things and what they might mean.  She is apparently the only one of all these figures to begin to penetrate God’s mysterious workings.  She is surely the only one to reappear later on in Jesus’ active ministry and in the early days of the Church as one of the believers.  Her place as 1st believer may begin with her “yes” to Gabriel at the annunciation scene in Nazareth.  But what she does now in Bethlehem is no less important.  She stores away in her memory and turns over in her heart what she has seen, heard, and felt.  In a word, she meditates upon God’s workings in her life.  She reflects upon what God is doing for his people through her.  Thus she prepares herself to go beyond the beautiful role of motherhood to the greater one of discipleship.  Remember, it is also Luke who records the episode of a woman in the crowd crying out to Jesus, “Blessed is the womb that bore you,” and of Jesus’ response, “Rather, blessed are they who hear the word of God and keep it” (11:27-28)—which is exactly what Mary is doing.

Perhaps many of you are pondering over New Year’s resolutions.  That marvelous Christian masterpiece, the Imitation of Christ, tells us that if we were to correct one fault each year, we would soon become perfect.  For myself, I don’t know about the “soon” part, but for all of us, I suggest a step in that direction:  To imitate Mary’s discipleship, her meditation, her prayer.  Advice columnist Abby Van Buren yesterday recommended:  “Just for today I will have a quiet half hour to relax alone. During this time I will reflect on my behavior and will try to get a better perspective of my life.”  If we do that each day with the help of God’s holy Word, in the context of prayer, our lives will begin to look more like Mary’s and like her Son’s.

May God’s peace reign in your hearts.