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Christmas Homilies Saints

The Fifth Day in the Octave of Christmas (Saint Thomas Becket)

Today’s readings

The birth of Christ in our world ought to mean something to us: the birth of Christ ought to mean a change in our attitudes and our behaviors and even in the course of our lives.

Today is a commemoration of Saint Thomas Becket, the archbishop of Canterbury who ultimately lost his life to the man who gave him that prestigious post. When King Henry began to usurp Church rights, Thomas found himself in a bind. Would he be beholden to the king, or would he protect the Church on behalf of the King of Kings? While it was a struggle for him, he ultimately knew that he must take a stand, no matter what the cost.

In today’s first reading, Saint John makes the point very clear. We cannot say we love God and yet defy his commandments. And we certainly cannot love God who is love itself, while at the same time refusing to love our brothers and sisters. Being Christian looks like something, and the world looks at us to see what it is. If the birth of Christ means something to us, we have to share that meaning with the world by loving, no matter what the cost.

Perhaps the one who knew this best was Mary herself. Simeon the prophet knew that he had seen the promise when he looked at the child Jesus. Then he clearly told Mary that this Savior would cost her some happiness in life. Because Jesus would be a contradictory sign in the world, her heart would be pierced with sorrow. But all of this was to make manifest God’s glory.

The birth of Christ in our world and into our lives this Christmas ought to mean something to us. A watching world should be able to look at us and see Christ. On this Christmas Day, may we be found changing our hearts and minds so that we can be that Christ for all the world to see, no matter what the cost.

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Homilies Saints

Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini, Virgin

Today’s readings
Mass for the school children.

Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini, who was called “Mother Cabrini” during her life, was a humble woman of great faith and fortitude.  Because of poor health, she was refused entrance to the Daughters of the Sacred Heart, the religious community that had educated her.  But in 1880, along with seven other young women, Frances founded the Institute of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  The pope sent her to New York, where she intended to found an orphanage.  The house they were to use turned out not to be available, and the bishop advised her to return to Italy.  But she stayed, and eventually founded not only that one orphanage, but 67 institutions dedicated to caring for the poor, the abandoned, the uneducated and the sick. 

Frances worked hard to educate Italian immigrants, providing for their religious education as well.  She established schools and orphanages despite the great obstacles she often faced.  She later traveled all over the world, establishing these institutions in Europe, Central and South America, and all over the United States.  She was relentless in this work until the day of her death.  She died on December 22, 1917 at Columbus hospital in Chicago, which she also founded.  In 1946, she was canonized by Pope Pius XII.  She was the first American citizen to be canonized a saint.  She is the patron saint of immigrants.

Our Gospel today urges us to be working hard for the Kingdom of God, because we don’t know when our Lord will return to the earth and take us home.  We want to be found busy in God’s service and we want to be strong in our relationship with Jesus when that great day comes.  As the end of our Church year comes in just a couple of weeks, the readings right now have us thinking about the end of time, because we don’t know when that will happen.  When it does, we want to be rejoicing because we have worked hard to be able to celebrate that day.  Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini is a great example of a person who did what she could to help those who were in need.  She knew our Lord very well, because she saw his face in the poor immigrants who came to her.  Blessed are we if we meet our Lord in that same way, and he finds us ready to rejoice with him when he returns!

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Homilies Saints

The Solemnity of All Saints

Today’s readings

I think we all bristle, unfortunately, at the idea of being a saint.  Saints are those super-holy folks who are depicted in artwork and glorified in amazing stories.  We are just ordinary people who struggle with our holiness, at best.  But today, the Church is asking us to think about saints in a broader way.  Yes, we include all those “official” saints that have been canonized through the ages.  The Church rejoices in the saints because when someone becomes a saint, the Church recognizes that he or she is definitely in heaven, the goal of all our lives.  That’s what the process of canonization is all about.  And bringing people to heaven is the whole point of the Church.  So, from the many saints of every time and place, we know of thousands of people that are certainly in heaven.  Thanks be to God!

But, as I said, I think the Church wants us to think about saints in a broader way.  There is the story of a schoolteacher who asked her children what a saint was.  One little girl thought about the saints she saw in stained glass windows, and said “Saints are people the light shines through.”  Think about that for a minute – that little girl isn’t far from the kingdom of God there.  Because all people are called to let the light of Christ shine through them, and saints are those people who have made that the business of their lives.

Heaven is that great multitude that John the Revelator tells us about in today’s first reading: that multitude “which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue.”  They are wearing, he tells us, white robes, which have been washed in the blood of the lamb.  That seems very counter-intuitive, doesn’t it?  Everyone knows that blood stains like nobody’s business.  But he’s speaking poetically here, and recognizes that nothing washes us sinners quite as clean as the saving blood of Jesus Christ.

And that’s really the only way.  Because we’re quite right when we bristle a bit at being called saints.  We can’t be saints all on our own.  We aren’t good enough, we can’t make up for our sins with any kind of completeness, and there’s basically no way that we can jump high enough to get to heaven.  But this feast of All Saints recognizes that we don’t have to.  We don’t have to because Christ has saved us through no merit of our own but based solely on God’s love for us.  The fact that we can be called saints is a grace, and we dare not bristle so much that we turn away from that grace.

Our Gospel today gives us some help here.  Because all those saints we know about would probably have protested they weren’t saintly themselves.  But these are people who knew the Gospel and lived it in their lives.  These are the ones who were poor in spirit, who mourned, who hungered and thirsted for righteousness.  These are the clean of heart, the peacemakers, those who were persecuted for the sake of righteousness.  And through it all, they depended on their God who used their hunger for holiness to transform their lives and make them fit for heaven.  And the Good news is that God still does this, and will do this, not just for some people, but for all of us who give our lives to him.

And none of the saints would have said any of this is easy.  Think about Saint Paul himself: he began his career by persecuting Christians and we know that he had a hand in the stoning of Saint Stephen.  Or think about Saint Augustine who was an intellectual man who disdained Christianity, until his mother’s prayers caught up with him.  Or we might think even more recently of Saint Teresa of Calcutta who experienced a very dark time in her life when she could not even communicate with Jesus.  But she trusted in Jesus, who was still there and led her to heaven.

We are all of us on a journey, and we know that our true home is not in this place, however good it may be.  We are on a journey to heaven, and that means that we are in the process of becoming saints.  That journey consists in following the Way who is Jesus the Christ, our Lord and Redeemer.  He has commanded, “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” and there is no way to do that except to follow him.

So, no, of course, not all of us will be canonized.  Most of us will go to the Kingdom rather imperfect in many ways, and will have to work that out in the grace of Purgatory.  We pray for those souls on tomorrow’s feast of All Souls.  But if we look to those canonized saints for inspiration, perhaps our relationship with the Lord will lead us and our brothers and sisters to that place where all the saints worship around the Throne of the Lamb.

Today we, the Church militant, honor the Church triumphant: not only the great saints like Mary and Joseph, Patrick and Benedict, Michael and Gabriel, Francis and Dominic, but also those saints that God alone has known.  We glory in their triumph that was made possible by them joining themselves to Christ.  We take inspiration from their battles and from the faith that helped keep them in Christ when they could have turned away.  If God could do that in their lives, he can certainly do that in ours too.  Perhaps, if we are willing to accept it, he can fill us with saintly attributes: strength in weakness, compassion in the face of need, witness to faith in times when society lacks direction, and so much more.

Those virtues are virtues that we think about when we call to mind those official, canonized saints.  But they are virtues for which we can and should strive as well.  The desire and the grace to attain those virtues comes from God himself, and the reward for receiving that grace and living those virtues is a heavenly relationship with God. What could be better than that?

This is a lot of work, and it’s not easy to live a saintly life, but Jesus makes a promise today to those who strive to do so: “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven!”

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Homilies Saints

Saints John de Brébeuf and Isaac Jogues, Priests and Martyrs, & Companions, Martyrs

Ministry in a culture that is hostile to the faith seems to be a theme of every age and place.  It takes different forms in different places and times, but there is always some hostility to the faith that needs to be fought.  We certainly see this in our own day, when the mere mention of the Catholic faith can bring out accusations that we are hateful and intolerant, despite our offering the grace of God’s love in Jesus Christ.  The culture was different in the seventeenth century, but the hatred of the faith was still there.

Saint Isaac Jogues and Saint John de Brébeuf were among eight missionaries who worked among the Huron and Iroquois Indians in the New World in those days. They were devoted to their work and were accomplishing many conversions. The conversions, though, were not welcomed by the indigenous tribes, and eventually Saint Isaac was captured and imprisoned by the Iroquois for months. He was moved from village to village and was tortured and beaten all along the way. Eventually he was able to escape and return to France. But amazingly, zeal for his mission compelled him to return, and to resume his work among the tribes when a peace treaty was signed in 1646. His belief that the peace treaty would be observed turned out to be false hope, and he was captured by a Mohawk war party and beheaded.

Saint John worked among the Iroquois and ministered to them amid a smallpox epidemic. As a scholastic Jesuit, he was able to compose a catechism and write a dictionary in the Huron language, which made possible many conversions. He was eventually captured, tortured and killed by the Iroquois.

Saint Isaac, Saint John, and their companions inspire us to take up the mission: to make Christ known, relying on the treasure of grace he brings us and promises us, and accepting that this world’s glory is not worth our aspirations. This will not be easy, of course, in a culture that largely rejects the promises of heaven in its pursuit of instant gratification. But perhaps the witness of these French Jesuits would help us to bravely witness to the Truth with the same zeal for the mission that they had. Our mission may not be to a culture so different to us as the Indian cultures were to these men, but that mission is none the less vital to the salvation of the world.

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Angels Homilies

The Holy Guardian Angels

Today’s readings: Exodus 23:20-23 | Psalm 91 | Matthew 18:1-5, Matthew 18:10

This is one of my favorite memorial days of the year.  Today we celebrate the Holy Guardian Angels.  Each one of us has a Guardian Angel assigned to us by God.  That angel prays for us and does their best to guide us and keep us close to Jesus.  Our Guardian Angels are powerful spiritual beings who do everything possible to keep us from harm.  If we would pray often to our Guardian Angels, we would really benefit from their advice and care for us.  Today we celebrate that the angels keep us safe and lead us ultimately to God himself.  The gift of our Guardian Angels is one of the most wonderful gifts we have from God!

I love the feast of the Guardian Angels, because my Guardian Angel was probably the first devotion that I learned. I remember my mother teaching me the prayer. Say it with me if you know it:

Angel of God,
my guardian dear,
To whom God’s love
commits me here,
Ever this day,
be at my side,
To watch and guard,
To rule and guide.

Amen.

The Scriptural reference for today’s feast is summed up in the first line of the first reading. Hear it again:

See, I am sending an angel before you,
to guard you on the way
and bring you to the place I have prepared.

From the earliest days of the Church, there has always been the notion of an angel whose purpose was to guide people, to intercede for them before God, and to present them to God at death. This notion was then developed by the monks of the Church, with the help of St. Benedict, St. Bernard of Clairvaux and others. It is during this monastic period that devotion to the angels took its present form.

It used to be that people would move over on their seats to make room for their Guardian Angel!  As amusing as that may be, the having an angel to guard and guide us is essential to our faith.  The gift of the Guardian Angels is a sign of the love and mercy of God.  Devotion to the Guardian Angels, then, is not just for when we are children.  Adults should also, always feel free to call on their angels for intercession and guidance.  We should continue to rely on that angel right up to death, when we strongly believe that our angel will present us to God.  In the Rite of Christian Burial, there is a beautiful prayer for the person that tells us about that.  It says:

“May the angels lead you into paradise;
may the martyrs come to welcome you
and take you to the holy city,
the new and eternal Jerusalem.”

So our Guardian angel is an important intercessor, and guides us all through our lives.  I think people too often forget about their Guardian Angel, and I hope we can change that.  With all the hard things happening in the world right now, I think we need our Guardian Angels more than ever.  So I encourage you to say that Guardian Angel prayer every morning; I know I do!

May the Guardian Angels always intercede for us.  And, as we hear in today’s Gospel, may our angels always look upon the face of our heavenly Father.

Blessed be God in His angels and in His saints.

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Angels Homilies Saints

Saints Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael, Archangels

Today’s readings

This is the beginning of a rather angelic few days for us Catholics.  Today we celebrate the feast of the archangels, and on Friday we will have the joy of honoring our guardian angels.  We celebrate the way the angels protect and guide us and keep us on the path to Christ.

Many people think that when people die, they become angels.  That’s not actually true.  Angels are a different order of creation from human beings.  There is a continuum of creation from things that are pure body, like a plant or a rock or a lump of dirt, all the way to those who are pure spirit, which would be the angels.  We humans are somewhere in between, being the highest and greatest of the bodies, and the lowest of the spirits.  Everything has its place in creation, and was created the way God intended it.

So today we celebrate the highest of the highest of the spirits: Saints Michael, Gabriel and Raphael, the archangels.  Each of these angels is specifically mentioned in Scripture.  Michael is mentioned in the book of Revelation, as the protector of the heavens and the defender of the people of God.  Michael fights the spiritual battle that is going on throughout the ages.  He is the patron of police officers, and the pope.  Gabriel is the announcer of good news, and we know him from the story of the Annunciation to Mary of her pregnancy.  Gabriel is the patron of communications workers.  Raphael is mentioned in the book of Tobit, in what is a beautiful story.  His purpose in that story is to protect Tobit on the journey to recover his family’s fortune and to introduce Tobit to Sarah, curing her of the despair she had over her last seven marriages, which all ended in death on the wedding night.  Raphael also cured Tobiah, Tobit’s father, of blindness due to cataracts.  Tobit and Sarah get married and live happily ever after, which is why it’s such a great story.  Raphael is the patron of travelers and healthcare workers.

We know a little bit about all these angels because of today’s feast. But those stories are not finished just yet.  The angels are still working among us, guiding us, healing us, defending us, and bringing us good news.  The angels are probably working through people you know.  They’re even working through you whenever you help someone else.  The truth is, I don’t think we would live very safe and happy lives if it weren’t for the angels among us.  Today we should thank God for Saints Michael, Gabriel and Raphael, and for all the people who cooperate with those angels in all their important work.

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Homilies Saints

Saint Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist

Today’s readings

Saint Matthew’s call to be an Apostle, and a Saint, was highly improbable.  And that’s good news for us, because our own calls are improbable too. Our God does amazing things with the improbable!  Matthew was a tax collector, working for the Roman occupation government.  His task was to exact the tax from each citizen.  Whatever he collected over and above the tax was his to keep.  Now the Romans wouldn’t condone outright extortion, but let’s just say that they weren’t overly scrupulous about what their tax collectors were collecting, as long as they got paid the proper tax.

So Matthew’s reception among the Jews was quite like they might accept any other kind of bad news.  The Pharisees were quick to lump men like Matthew with sinners, and despised them as completely unworthy of God’s salvation. But Jesus had different ideas.

“Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do.

Go and learn the meaning of the words,

I desire mercy, not sacrifice.

I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.”

So it’s amazing for us to celebrate the call of a man who was anything but worthy. Because he was called, we know that our own calls are authentic, unworthy as we may be. Just as the Matthew spread the Good News by the writing and preaching of the Gospel, so we are called to spread the Good News to everyone by the witness of our lives. Matthew’s call is a day of celebration for all of us sinners, who are nonetheless called to do great things for the Kingdom of God.

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Homilies Saints

Saint Monica

I hope we all know someone in our lives that is a fervent, persistent prayer warrior.  Because we all need people like that who pray for us, especially in bad or trying times.  We very likely have some people like that here in church today.  I know that the persistent prayer warriors in my life are largely responsible for my vocation, and I’m very grateful to them for that.  So for all the prayer warriors out there, today is the memorial of their patron saint, Saint Monica.  Saint Monica was a woman in love with God and the Church, and her family, although the latter was pretty difficult for her.  But her persistent prayer won them for Christ and the Church.

Although she was a Christian, her parents gave her in marriage to a pagan, Patricius, who lived in her hometown of Tagaste in North Africa. Patricius had some redeeming features, but he had a violent temper. Monica also had to bear with a cantankerous mother-in-law who lived in her home. Patricius criticized his wife because of her charity and piety, but always respected her. Monica’s prayers and example finally won her husband and mother-in-law to Christianity. Her husband died in 371, one year after having been baptized.

Monica’s oldest son was Augustine. At the time of his father’s death, Augustine was 17 and a rhetoric student in Carthage. Monica was distressed to learn that her son had accepted the Manichean heresy and was living a rather immoral life. For a while, she refused to let him eat or sleep in her house. Then one night she had a vision that assured her Augustine would return to the faith. From that time on she stayed close to her son, praying and fasting for him. In fact, she often stayed much closer than Augustine probably would have liked!

Augustine, followed by his mother, eventually traveled to Rome and then Milan, where he came under the influence of the bishop, Saint Ambrose, who also became Monica’s spiritual director. There Monica became a leader of the devout women in Milan as she had been in Tagaste.

She continued her prayers for Augustine during his years of instruction. On Easter, in the year 387, Saint Ambrose baptized Augustine and several of his friends. Soon after, his party left for Africa. Although no one else was aware of it, Monica knew her life was near the end. She told Augustine, “Son, nothing in this world now affords me delight. I do not know what there is now left for me to do or why I am still here, all my hopes in this world being now fulfilled.” She became ill shortly after and suffered severely for nine days before her death.

Monica was a woman who accomplished much by her persistent prayer. It might be well for us today to ask for a portion of her spirit of prayer that we might accomplish God’s glory in our own time and place.

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Homilies Saints

Saint Bartholomew, Apostle

Today’s readings

Today we celebrate the feast of a Saint Bartholomew the Apostle, who is referred to in the a Gospel reading we just heard, as Nathanael.  Nathanael – or Bartholomew, take your pick – is singled out of the crowd by Jesus. Nathanael is surprised at what Jesus says about him: “Here is a true child of Israel. There is no duplicity in him.” We should recall that Jesus considered it his primary mission to seek out the lost children of Israel, so seeing Nathanael as a “true child of Israel” with “no duplicity in him” means that Jesus considered Nathanael a role model for his people. He was one whose faith reached beyond mere observance of the Law or the Torah, and extended into the realm of living the Gospel. This was what Jesus came to call people to do.

And that call wasn’t just for the people of that time. That’s where we are all led, of course. When it comes down to it, there is nothing more important than living the Gospel, and every one of us is called to do it. If our spiritual life is not our primary concern, then we have no eternity; nothing to look forward to. We can’t accept duplicity in ourselves if we want to go to heaven. But the good news is that our Lord has given us hope of eternal life, and we hear of that by the intercession and example and preaching of the Apostles and especially Saint Bartholomew today.

As the Psalmist sings today, “Your friends make known, O Lord, the glorious splendor of your Kingdom.” Praise God for such faithful witnesses as Bartholomew, who help us to single-mindedly follow the call of the Gospel.

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Homilies Saints

Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, Abbot and Doctor of the Church

Today’s readings

Learning to follow the path of perfection is the most important goal of the spiritual life.  How do we get our relationship with God right so that we can live with him forever in heaven?  That was certainly the goal of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, whose feast we celebrate today.

In the year 1111, at the age of 20, Bernard left his home to join the monastic community of Citeaux.  His five brothers, two uncles and around 30 of his friends followed him into the monastery.  Within four years, that monastic community, which had been dying, had recovered enough vitality to establish a new house in the nearby valley of Wormwoods, with Bernard as abbot.  The zealous young man was quite demanding, particularly on himself.  A minor health problem, though, taught him to be more patient and understanding.  The valley was soon renamed Clairvaux, the valley of light.

Bernard’s strong support of the Roman See was well known; in fact it was Bernard who intervened in a full-blown schism and settled it in favor of the Roman pontiff against the antipope.  The Holy See then prevailed on Bernard to preach the Second Crusade throughout Europe.  His eloquence was so overwhelming that a great army was assembled and the success of the crusade seemed assured.  The motives of the men and their leaders, however, were not as pure as those of Abbot Bernard, and the project ended as a complete military and moral disaster.  Bernard felt responsible in some way for the degenerative effects of the crusade.  This heavy burden possibly hastened his death, which came on August 20, 1153.

In our Gospel reading today, people are invited to a wedding feast, symbolic of the heavenly banquet. No one comes, with varying responses: some are off to work now, can’t come, others just ignore it, still others murder the messengers. Just like people treated the prophets. Others were invited to the feast, but one was unprepared, refusing to wear a wedding garment. We are those invited to the banquet now. Saint Bernard would have us follow the path of the spiritual life to get there. May we who have his desire for the wedding feast benefit from his intercession.