Saint Benedict, Abbot, Founder of Western Monasticism

Today’s readings
Rule of Saint Benedict

It is with great fondness that I observe this feast of St. Benedict the abbot, and father of western monasticism.  My own Benedictine roots stem from my college days at Benedictine University in Lisle (which was then called Illinois Benedictine College), and I have a deep fondness for the monks of St. Procopius Abbey, who staffed the college, and in whose monastery I made my Priesthood retreat before I was ordained.  Every now and then I go there for a few days of prayer, which helps me to be ready for whatever ministry is bringing my way.  The motto Saint Benedict chose for his order was “Ora et Labora” – Prayer and Work — and for me it is a constant reminder of the balance we are called to have in life.

A wonderful source of inspiration to me while I was working in the corporate world, and still today, is reading from The Rule of St. Benedict, which is a great reflection on the balance we are called to in life.  It was also one of the most groundbreaking works of spirituality and monastic rule at that time.  It remains a spiritual classic today.  Recently, I read a quote from the rule that spoke of something the abbot of a monastery should bear in mind.  My reflection on it got me to thinking it was also extremely wise counsel for pastors of parishes, and even fathers – and mothers – of families.  It’s from the second chapter of the rule and it goes like this: 

Above all, the abbot should not bear greater solicitude for things that are passing, earthly, and perishable, thereby ignoring or paying little attention to the salvation of the souls entrusted to him. Instead, may he always note that he has undertaken the governance of souls, for which, moreover, an account will have to be rendered. And if perhaps he pleads as an excuse a lack of wealth, then he should remember what is written: ‘First seek the kingdom of God and his justice, and all these things will be added unto you’ (Mt 6:33), and again: ‘Nothing is lacking to those who fear him’ (Ps 34:10).

But it’s the second to last chapter that echoes the Gospel reading today. Jesus calls all of us disciples to stop being afraid to do the right thing and trust God to make things right.  Saint Benedict says it this way: Just as there is an evil zeal of bitterness which separates from God and leads to hell, so there is a good zeal which separates from vices and leads to God and to life everlasting.  This zeal, therefore, the monks should practice with the most fervent love.  Thus they should anticipate one another in honor; most patiently endure one another’s infirmities, whether of body or of character; vie in paying obedience one to another—no one following what he considers useful for himself, but rather what benefits another—; tender the charity of brotherhood chastely; fear God in love; love their Abbot with a sincere and humble charity; prefer nothing whatever to Christ.

Friends, this is advice not just for monks, but for all of us.  When we prefer other things to Christ, when we are afraid to bear witness to the truth, we lose every benefit of relationship with Jesus.  Possessions cannot sustain us; our fears cannot sustain us.  So we have to follow Christ with incredible zeal.  When we follow Christ with this kind of zeal, Benedict says we can look forward to the ultimate reward: And may He bring us all together to life everlasting!

Saints Peter and Paul, Apostles

Today’s readings

Today we celebrate a feast of great importance to our Church.  Saint Peter, the apostle to the Jews, and St. Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, come together to show how the Church is truly universal, that is, truly catholic.  There are similarities between the two men.  Simon’s name is changed to Peter after he professes belief in the Lord Jesus, and Saul’s name is changed to Paul after he is converted.  Both men started out as failures as far as living the Christian life goes.  Peter denied his Lord by the fire and swore that he didn’t even know the man who was his friend.  Paul’s early life was taken up with persecuting Christians and participating in their murder.  And both men were given second chances, which they received with great enthusiasm, and lived a life of faith that has given birth to our Church.

In today’s Gospel, Peter and the others are asked “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”  Both Peter and Paul were committed to the truth about who Christ was.  They had too much at stake.  Having both failed on this early on, they knew the danger of falling into the trap.  So for them Jesus could never be just a brother, friend or role model – that was inadequate.  And both of them proclaimed with all of their life straight through to their death that Jesus Christ is Lord.  We too on this day must repent of the mediocrity we sometimes settle for in our relationship with Christ.  He has to be Lord of our lives and we must proclaim him to be that Lord to our dying breath.

Both Peter and Paul kept the faith, as Paul says in today’s second reading.  If they hadn’t, it’s quite possible we would never have had the faith today – although that was certainly not God’s plan.  But because they kept the faith, we have it today, and we must be careful to keep the faith ourselves.  Too many competing voices in our world today would have us bracket faith in favor of reason, or tolerance, or success, or being nice, or whatever.  But we can never allow that, we can never break faith with Saints Peter and Paul, who preserved that faith at considerable personal cost.

Perhaps Saints Peter and Paul can inspire our own apostolic zeal.  In this time of pandemic, our apostolic zeal can be to heal the sick: by wearing a mask, and being careful in hygiene, and keeping social distance, so that we can stop the spread of the disease until a cure can be found.  In this time of social unrest, our apostolic zeal can be to embrace the marginalized: to reflect on any traces of racism in our own lives and root them out, and to stand with our brothers and sisters of color, not just in this moment, but from now on, so that they will never be marginalized again.  Our apostolic zeal is similar to that of Saints Peter and Paul: it comes about because Jesus is Lord, and that truth is forever important.

Then, as we bear witness to the fact that Jesus is Lord of our lives and of all the earth, we can bring a banal world to relevance.  Perhaps in our renewed apostolic zeal we can bring justice to the oppressed, right judgment to the wayward, love to the forgotten and the lonely, and faith to a world that has lost sight of anything worth believing in.  To paraphrase Cardinal Francis George, of blessed memory, the apostolic mission still has a Church, and it’s time for the Church to be released from its chains and burst forth to give witness in the Holy Spirit that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Saint Barnabas, Apostle

Today’s readings

Saint Barnabas, a Jew of Cyprus, was not one of the original Twelve apostles, but is honored as an apostle because of his work of evangelization in the early Church.  He was closely associated with Saint Paul, with whom, as we heard in our first reading today, he was sent out on mission.  In this mission, Saint Barnabas served as a kind of mediator between Paul, formerly known as Saul, a persecutor of Christians, and the still understandably suspicious Jewish Christians.

When a Christian community developed at Antioch, Barnabas was sent as the official representative of the Church of Jerusalem to incorporate them into the fold.  He and Paul taught in Antioch for a year, after which they took relief contributions to Jerusalem.

We see in today’s first reading that Saints Paul and Barnabas had become accepted in the community as charismatic leaders who led many to convert to Christianity.  The Holy Spirit set them apart for Apostolic work and blessed their efforts with great success.

Above all, these men hungered and thirsted for righteousness, a righteousness not based on the law or any merely human precept, but instead on a right relationship with God.  Just as they led many people then to that kind of relationship with God through their words and actions, so their witness calls us to follow that same kind of right relationship today.

As we celebrate the Eucharist today, we might follow their call to righteousness by examining our lives and our own lived discipleship.  How willing are we to extend ourselves and reach out to others and not be bound by mere human precepts?  In other words, how willing are we to give of ourselves no matter how other people might interpret that?  How willing are we to do the unpopular thing and stand up for others?  In light of the sad events of the last couple of weeks, are we willing to take a stand against racism and demand that it come to an end?  How do we live our call as believers?  Blessed are we who live in right relationship with God and others.  Blessed are we who follow the example of St. Barnabas and blessed are we who benefit from his intercession.

Saint Joseph the Worker

Today’s readings

Today we celebrate one of my very favorite saints, Saint Joseph.  You might be thinking, didn’t we already celebrate his feast day this year?  And the answer to that would be yes, absolutely!  The feast – or rather the solemnity – of Saint Joseph (it’s a solemnity because he’s a very special and important saint), is on March 19th.  But today we celebrate the memorial of the very same Saint Joseph, this time because he is the patron saint of workers – people who work!

And that, quite frankly, is all of us.  We all have work to do, don’t we?  We have our schoolwork and our chores.  We may have to work on a sport or a musical instrument or develop one of our talents in some way.  And then there are our parents.  They may go to work, so that they can earn money for the family, and so that people who depend on them can thrive.  They also work in our homes, taking care of you, and making the home a place that’s comfortable for the family.  They cook and clean and all those things that are part of a parent’s life.

So all of us work.  And sometimes work is great.  Maybe it’s exciting, maybe it helps us learn new things, maybe it allows us to use our talents in a special way.  But sometimes work isn’t so exciting: sometimes work is, well, work and it makes us wish we can do something else with our time – anything else!  For some people, work can also be oppressive: maybe it’s not work they like to do and maybe it doesn’t help them care for their families enough.  There’s all sorts of work out there.

But Catholic teaching on work is that it is always supposed to be part of the creative work of God.  Our first reading paves the way, doesn’t it?  This reading is from the end of the story of the creation of the world in the book of Genesis.  Here, God has just finished creating everything there is, and as his last, most splendid creation, creates human beings: male and female, famously, Adam and Eve.  Everything he has created is good, and now God gives that goodness to the man and woman and charges them to keep on creating with him: “Be fertile and multiply,” he says to them, “fill the earth and subdue it.  Have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things that move on the earth.”

Our work, all of it is a sharing in the creative activity of God.  Our Gospel today shows us that even Jesus himself was a worker: he was the carpenter’s son (that carpenter would be Saint Joseph!), and Jesus was not ashamed to be known that way.  The people of the time took offense at this, because they thought the Messiah wouldn’t have to be someone who was a laborer.  But they had it all wrong, because work was something that God did in the beginning, and continues to do all the time.  When we work with faithfulness, we are part of God’s creating power!

So for all of this, we have the intercession and patronage of Saint Joseph, who was a worker, a carpenter, and knew all the blessings and drudgeries of labor.  We should always look to him when work is hard or when we don’t have work, so that he might intercede for us.  And when work is great, we should join with him in giving praise to God who gives us the blessing of work.  And so let us pray:

Almighty God,
maker of heaven and earth,
we praise you for your glory
and the splendor of all your creation.

Bless us as we continue to do our work,
and bless all that we do for you.
Help us to carry out all our activities
for your honor and glory
and for the salvation of your people.

Through the intercession of Saint Joseph the Worker,
guide us in all we do,
and help us build your kingdom
and one day, come together to eternal life.
Through Christ our Lord.

Amen.

Saint Joseph

Today’s readings

What a time to be alive, right?  I mean, who among us ever expected anything like this, or would have chosen to walk down this sad path?  Who would choose quarantine or social distancing?  But here we are.  And we know, in our heart of hearts, that it’s not an accident.  God put us here and now for a purpose.  Maybe we are called to be leaders in some way, or called to shepherd our family in uncertain times.  Maybe we are being given an opportunity to pursue greater holiness by slowing down, stepping back, and taking a look at what’s really important.  God never wills the evil going on around us, but he may be allowing it, and using it, to give us gifts we didn’t know we wanted, or needed.

I suspect Saint Joseph could relate to that.

Today, of course, we celebrate the feast of St. Joseph, husband of Mary and foster father of Jesus Christ. He is the patron saint of fathers, of workers, and of the Church. Obviously, he was a very special man. It wasn’t happenstance or an accident that he was put in this very special role. He was, of course, of the line of David, but he was also chosen to be the husband of Mary and the foster father of Jesus for a reason.

In Joseph, we see so many wonderful virtues. We see righteousness. He was a devout follower of the law. Even his initial unwillingness to take Mary into his home shows that he was a man who walked in the way the Law taught. But righteousness means more than that. It means following whatever way puts us in right relationship with God and others. His righteousness went beyond mere observance of the Law, and followed in the way God laid out for him, as uncertain as that must have been.

In Joseph, we see justice. He was a hard worker, and a skilled carpenter. He obviously gave what his customers asked, or he wouldn’t have continued in business for very long. He was also just in his dealings with Mary, accepting her into his house because of God’s command.

In Joseph, we see faithfulness. He practiced his faith and was obedient to God. He protected his family from hardship and oppression, and evil intent. He raised his Son and taught him the Law. He was faithful to Mary.

The real gift of this celebration of St. Joseph is that he is a great model for our faith. Men particularly don’t often have role models of faithfulness and righteousness, but in St. Joseph we have all of that. Joseph is the patron of fathers and of workers for a reason: in him we see both of those vocations raised to glory because St. Joseph was a man who lived his faith in all of his life.

When we find faithfulness difficult, we have Joseph to look to for help. In times of uncertainty like these, we have Saint Joseph’s intercession, he who had to work through all the events of his family’s life without an instruction book or road map, but only with the light of faith. Through his intercession, may our work and our lives be blessed, and may we be found faithful to the word of the Lord. May we all come to know the grace God intends in this season of our lives.

Saint John Bosco, Priest

Today’s readings

Saint John Bosco was a master catechist and a priest who was concerned with the whole person of the young people he taught: he wanted them to fill both their minds and their souls.  John was encouraged to enter the priesthood for the specific purpose of teaching young boys and forming them in the faith.  This began with a poor orphan, who John prepared for First Holy Communion.  Then he was able to gather a small community and teach them the Catechism.  He worked for a time as a chaplain of a hospice for working girls, and later opened an oratory – a kind of school – for boys which had over 150 students.  The needs of teaching them also encouraged John to open a publishing house to print the catechetical and educational materials used in the classrooms.

He was known for his preaching, and that helped him to extend his ministry by forming a religious community – the Salesians – to concentrate on education and mission work in 1859.  He later formed a group of Salesian Sisters to teach girls. By teaching children self worth through education and job training, John was able to also teach the children of their own worth in the eyes of God.

Saint John Bosco was tireless in his devotion to teaching this truth to young people. In today’s Eucharist, may our thanksgiving be for the teachers in our lives. And especially during this Catholic Schools Week, perhaps we can also commend the teachers and catechists of today’s young people to the patronage of Saint John Bosco.

Saint Francis de Sales, Bishop and Doctor of the Church

Saint Francis de Sales was born in the Savoy region of France-Italy in 1567.  His priesthood had him work diligently for the restoration of Catholicism in his homeland, reclaiming it from the clutches of the protestant reformation.  He became bishop of Geneva, and was known for his writings, work and example.  Astonishingly, he says that it took him 20 years to conquer his quick temper, a problem no one ever suspected he had, because he was known for his good nature and kindness.  His perennial meekness and sunny disposition won for him the title of “Gentleman Saint.”

This is a quality that I’m sure we all wish more people had, and perhaps we wish we had it as well.  I know I have to work on that every day, or it would be easy to let the frustrations of running a large place like Saint Mary’s cause me to give in to anger.  So for all of us who seek to overcome a quick temper, or overcome the disposition to say something we wish we hadn’t, or the tendency to press “send” on a tersely-written email, Saint Francis de Sales is our patron.  Saint Francis is also known to be the patron of the deaf, since he devised a kind of sign language in order to teach the deaf about God.  His beautiful writings have inspired many in their faith and earned him the title of Doctor of the Church.

Saint Francis was known to work on behalf of the poor, and even to be something of an ascetic himself.  He encouraged devotion in every person, regardless of their walk in life.  He writes: “I say that devotion must be practiced in different ways by the nobleman and by the working man, by the servant and by the prince, by the widow, by the unmarried girl and by the married woman.  But even this distinction is not sufficient; for the practice of devotion must be adapted to the strength, to the occupation and to the duties of each one in particular.”

In a moment we will offer our gifts, and pray for gifts and grace to lead a holy life.  Following the example of Saint Francis de Sales, maybe we can call on God for meekness, and humility, and patience. As St. Francis de Sales tells us: “The person who possesses Christian meekness is affectionate and tender towards everyone: he is disposed to forgive and excuse the frailties of others; the goodness of his heart appears in a sweet affability that influences his words and actions, presents every object to his view in the most charitable and pleasing light.” Who wouldn’t want to look at the world that way?

Saints Basil the Great and Gregory Nazianzen, Bishops and Doctors of the Church

Today’s readings

Saint Basil the Great was born in Caesarea in Cappadocia in the year 330.  He was known for his learning and virtue, and his fight against the Arian heresy.  He also wrote many wonderful works, the most revered of which is his monastic rule.  He is known as the father of Eastern monasticism.  Gregory Nazianzen was born in the same year.  He too pursued learning and was eventually elected bishop of Constantinople.  Basil and Gregory were friends, and Gregory reflected on their friendship in a sermon, of which I’d like to share some excerpts this morning.

“Basil and I were both in Athens.  We had come, like streams of a river, from the same source in our native land, had separated from each other in pursuit of learning, and were now united again as if by plan, for God so arranged it.

“Such was the prelude to our friendship, the kindling of that flame that was to bind us together. In this way we began to feel affection for each other.  When, in the course of time, we acknowledged our friendship and recognized that our ambition was a life of true wisdom, we became everything to each other: we shared the same lodging, the same table, the same desires the same goal.  Our love for each other grew daily warmer and deeper.

“Our single object and ambition was virtue, and a life of hope in the blessings that are to come; we wanted to withdraw from this world before we departed from it.  With this end in view we ordered our lives and all our actions.  We followed the guidance of God’s law and spurred each other on to virtue.  If it is not too boastful to say, we found in each other a standard and rule for discerning right from wrong.

“Different men have different names, which they owe to their parents or to themselves, that is, to their own pursuits and achievements.  But our great pursuit, the great name we wanted, was to be Christians, to be called Christians.”

Like John the Baptist in our Gospel today, Basil and Gregory sought to point the way to Jesus, the one among us whom people do not recognize.  It was their goal to help all to come to know him rightly, to make straight the way of the Lord.  Their friendship led them deeper in that pursuit.  Today, let’s reflect on our friendships and relationships, and give thanks for those who have led us deeper in our friendship with our Lord.

Holy Innocents, Martyrs

Today’s readings

Right here in the middle of the joy of the Christmas Octave, we have the feast of what seems to be an incredibly horrible event.  All of the male children in the vicinity of Bethlehem two years old and younger are murdered by the jealous and, quite frankly, rather pathetic Herod.  But not only are his plans to kill the Christ Child (and thus remove any threat to his reign) thwarted by the providence of God, but also the horror of this event is transfigured into something rather glorious in terms of the Kingdom of God.

As I said, in some ways, this is a horrible feast.  And we can relate, I think.  Just think about the millions who have been slaughtered by abortion, and the many children who die in inner-city violence every year, and we see just how precarious childhood can be in every time and place.  But the Church, in recognizing the contribution of the Holy Innocents to the kingdom, turns all of this sadness into hope and asserts that this is just the beginning of the world’s seeing the glory of Jesus Christ.  As disgusting and repugnant as Herod’s actions are to our sensibilities, yet these innocent children bear witness to the Child Jesus.  Saint Quodvoltdeus, an African bishop of the fifth century writes of them:

The children die for Christ, though they do not know it.  The parents mourn for the death of martyrs.  The Christ child makes of those as yet unable to speak fit witnesses to himself.  But you, Herod, do not know this and are disturbed and furious.  While you vent your fury against the child, you are already paying him homage, and do not know it.

To what merits of their own do the children owe this kind of victory?  They cannot speak, yet they bear witness to Christ.  They cannot use their limbs to engage in battle, yet already they bear off the palm of victory.

I think the key to making sense of all this is in the first reading.  The line that really catches me, because it seems almost erroneous in light of the horrible event we remember today, is “God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all.”  We can see all kinds of darkness in an event like the murder of innocent children.  Yet only God could turn something that horrible around to his glory.  They may have lived extremely short lives on earth, yet their lives in eternity were secured forever.  They become some of the first to participate in the kingdom that Christ would bring about through his Paschal Mystery.

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