Saint Pius X, Pope

Today’s readings

A good starting place for our prayer this morning might be asking ourselves, what is it that holds us back?  The rich young man seemed to have it all together: he acknowledged Jesus as the good teacher, so he must have been familiar with what Jesus said and did.  He says he kept all the commandments, so he certainly had a religious upbringing and was zealous to follow the law.  But, with all that, he still knew that something was lacking.  “What do I still lack?” he asks.  When Jesus reveals that the next step in following the Gospel involves letting go of his worldly possessions, he finds that to be somewhere he can’t go.  He had many possessions, and he wasn’t yet ready to give them up.

Today we celebrate Saint Pius X, a man dedicated to pastoral ministry, and helping people to let go of whatever would hold them back on the journey of faith.  He was born Joseph Sarto, the second of ten children in a poor Italian family.  He became pope at the age of 68, and he wanted to open the banquet for all those who would come worthily.  He encouraged frequent reception of Holy Communion, which was observed sparingly in his day, and especially encouraged children to come to the Eucharist.  During his reign, he famously ended, and subsequently refused to reinstate, state interference in canonical affairs.  He had foreseen World War I, but because he died just a few weeks after the war began, he was unable to speak much about it.  On his deathbed, however, he said, “This is the last affliction the Lord will visit on me.  I would gladly give my life to save my poor children from this ghastly scourge.”

Our God has blessed us with love beyond all imagining and invites us to the table of the heavenly kingdom.  To get there, we have to be ready to let go of whatever holds us back from accepting the life that God wants for us.  What he has is so much better than whatever it is we’re holding on to.  So once again, the question is, will we give up what is holding us back, or will we give up eternal life?  We’re going to have to live with the answer to that question for a very, very long time.

Saint Clare, Virgin

Today we celebrate Saint Clare, who, having refused to marry at 15, was moved by the dynamic preaching of Saint Francis. He became her lifelong friend and spiritual guide.  So at age 18, she escaped one night from her father’s home, in order to flee the pressure to marry, and was met on the road by friars carrying torches. They led her to a little chapel called the Portiuncula, where she received a rough woolen habit, exchanged her jeweled belt for a common rope with knots in it, and had her long hair cut by Saint Francis himself. He placed her in a Benedictine convent, which her father and uncles immediately stormed in rage. She clung to the altar of the church, threw aside her veil to show her cropped hair and remained adamant.

Sixteen days later her sister Agnes joined her. Over time, others joined them too. They lived a simple life of great poverty, austerity and complete seclusion from the world, according to a Rule that Saint Francis gave them as a Second Order, which became known as the Poor Clares. Francis obliged her under obedience at age 21 to accept the office of abbess, one she exercised until her death.

The nuns went barefoot, slept on the ground, ate no meat and observed almost complete silence. Later Clare, like Francis, persuaded her sisters to moderate this rigor, saying: “Our bodies are not made of brass.” The greatest emphasis, of course, was on gospel poverty. They possessed no property, even in common, subsisting on daily contributions. When even the pope tried to persuade her to mitigate this practice, she said to him: “I need to be absolved from my sins, but I do not wish to be absolved from the obligation of following Jesus Christ.”

In the Convent of San Damiano in Assisi, Saint Clare served the sick, waited on table, and washed the feet of the begging nuns. She came from prayer, it was said, with her face so shining it dazzled those about her.

We are all called to the holiness of life that leads us to see God’s glory. For Saint Clare, that meant breaking away from her family’s expectations of marriage so that she could be wed to Christ. For us, there will also be some kind of sacrifice involved. Through the intercession of Saint Clare, please God let us be willing to make the sacrifice so that we can see the glory of God.

Saint Alphonsus Liguori, Bishop and Doctor of the Church

Today’s readings

In today’s first reading, Moses sets about putting up a meeting tent as a place for the Lord to be among his people.  The Lord never abandoned his people; he was present in a column of cloud during the day, and of fire at night.  The presence of God helps us to focus on living a life that keeps us in communion with him.  In today’s Gospel, Jesus points us to God’s presence at the end of time, when he would come in judgment of the nations, separating the good from the bad.

Today is the he feast of St. Alphonsus Liguori, the patron saint of moral theology.  At the age of just sixteen, Alphonsus Liguori received degrees in both canon and civil law by acclamation.  He later gave up the practice of law to concentrate on pastoral ministry, particularly giving parish missions and hearing confessions.  He was noted for his writings on moral theology, particularly against the rigorism of the Jansenists.  The Jansenists were a movement that developed after the Protestant reformation and the Council of Trent and emphasized original sin, human depravity, the necessity of divine grace, and predestination.  Alphonsus’s moral theology was much more accessible to the average person.

In 1732, Alphonsus formed the congregation of the Redemptorists, who had as their special charism the preaching of parish missions.  They lived a common life dedicated to imitating Christ and reaching out to the poor and unlearned.  Although they went through their own struggles as a congregation, they were reunited after Alphonsus’s death and are of course active today.

Alphonsus wanted to be sure the people came to know how to live a life that would lead them to God.  Today’s readings give us that same call.  Whether we are here in our modern-day meeting tent, or out and about in our daily life, it’s important that we continually seek the Lord’s presence.  Then we know that we’ll be in the right place at the end of the age.

Saint Ignatius of Loyola, Priest

Today's readings

Saint Ignatius was all set to accomplish great things in the military when his leg was badly injured by a canon ball. As he was convalescing, he asked for romantic novels to read. But nothing like that was available, so he had to settle for books on the life of Christ and the lives of the saints. Reading them, he noticed that those books made him feel differently than the romance novels he was used to. He noted that the pleasure those books provided was fleeting, but that the joy he felt in reading the spiritual books stayed with him, and so he pursued the Christian life and began a process of conversion.

During this time of conversion, he began to write things down, and these writings served for a later work, his greatest work, the Spiritual Exercises. These Exercises became the basis for the Society of Jesus, which he formed with six others to live a life of poverty and chastity and apostolic work for the pope. This was accepted by Pope Paul III and Ignatius was elected its first general. Ignatius’s motto was Ad majorem Dei gloria: All for the glory of God. His Spiritual Exercises have become a spiritual classic and have provided the basis rule for other religious orders over time.

Ignatius’s major contribution to the spiritual life is probably his principles of discernment, which help people of faith to know God’s will in their lives. In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus speaks of the Kingdom of God as compared to a mustard seed, or a measure of yeast. You probably remember those readings, because we had them two Sundays ago. We are called to discern the presence of the Kingdom of God from among the ordinary stuff of our lives. May God grant us, through the intercession of Saint Ignatius, the discernment to do just that.

Saint James, Apostle

Today’s readings

“Can you drink the chalice of which I am going to drink?”

What does that even mean for us?  We know what Jesus’ chalice was like: it led him through sorrow, and abandonment, and ultimately to the cross.  If we have ever been in a situation in which we have felt intense grief, or felt abandoned, or had to stand by and watch the death of one that we loved, well then, we know a little bit of what that chalice is going to taste like.

Being a disciple is messy business.  It means that it’s not all the glory, pomp and circumstance.  It means that our faith sometimes has to move from the mountaintop experiences down into the valleys of despair.  It means that there are times when we will be in situations that are frustrating, infuriating, debilitating, grievous and horrible.  We will have to drink a very bitter chalice indeed.  And Jesus wasn’t just talking to John and James when he said “My chalice you will indeed drink.”  That’s the cup reserved for all of us who would be his disciples.

Very clearly those words of Saint Paul ring true for us:
We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained;
perplexed, but not driven to despair;
persecuted, but not abandoned;
struck down, but not destroyed;
always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus,
so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body.
For we who live are constantly being given up to death
for the sake of Jesus,
so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh.

What is unspoken here but clearly implied is the grace.  Those who abandon their lives to take up the cross, wherever that leads them, will always have at their disposal the grace to live a life that is joyful in the face of affliction, confident in the midst of uncertainty, whole in the midst of destruction.  There is nothing that the world or its evils can throw at us that cannot be ultimately overcome by the grace of God.  We will still have to live through sadness at times, but that sadness can never and must never overtake the joy we have in Christ.

Like Saint James and his brother John, we are all called to drink from the chalice that Jesus drank. That means that we will always bear the dying of Jesus in our own bodies. We can’t explain why bad things happen to good people, but we can explain how good people handle bad situations well: they handle it well because they know Christ and live in Christ every day of their lives. Sometimes the chalice we will have to drink will be unpleasant, distasteful and full of sorrow. But with God’s grace, our drinking of those cups can be a sacrament of the presence of God in the world.

Everyone who is great among us must be a servant, and whoever wishes to be first among us must be our slave. Saint James learned how to do that and still thrive in his mission. May we all be that same kind of sacrament for the world.

Saint Mary Magdalene

Today's readings

Today’s feast of St. Mary Magdalene is a good opportunity to set the record straight.  Mary Magdalene was not the woman caught in adultery, nor was she the unnamed “sinful woman” who anointed the feet of Jesus in Luke’s Gospel.  That said, she is the woman from whom Jesus expelled seven demons, also in Luke’s Gospel.  But the idea that she was possessed by demons does not necessarily make her sinful, as many theologians and Scripture scholars have pointed out.

So in fact, aside from the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Mary Magdalene is perhaps the most honored woman in the New Testament.  She was one of the women who was supporting Jesus and his disciples financially out of her means, and most notably, in today’s Gospel, is the first to have seen the Lord after the Resurrection.  Think about that.  Of all the people to whom Jesus appeared immediately following his resurrection, he chose this particular woman, not one of the men, to spread the message to the rest of them.  For this reason, she is often called the “Apostle to the Apostles.”

So for the last twenty centuries or so, poor Mary Magdalene was a victim of mistaken identity.  What we need to see today is that we owe a great deal to her faith because it was she who was first to proclaim the Good News that Jesus had risen from the dead.

St. Benedict, Abbot

It is with great fondness that I observe this feast of St. Benedict the abbot, and father of western monasticism. My Benedictine roots stem from my college days at Benedictine University in Lisle (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 living life in such a way that it makes possible our salvation. 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 here’s what it says:

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 puts our lives into perspective.  This chapter teaches us to see others with patience and love as well as prioritizing what is truly important in life:  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.

Prefer nothing whatever to Christ.  That’s a real challenge for us.  We have so many things that seem shiny and nice and call out to us.  But none of them can save our souls.  And the real truth is, Christ prefers nothing whatever to us.  So we need to be zealous about our love for the Lord and show it in the way that we treat one another.  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!