While he was still a catechumen, St. Ambrose was chosen as bishop of Milan and was consecrated on December 7, 374. Ambrose was a classically educated man, a revered Scripture Scholar and a solid preacher. It is his preaching that in some ways influenced St. Augustine to convert to Catholicism, and it was Ambrose who baptized Augustine.
Ambrose was a man not just of great learning, but also great courage. He strongly defended the Church against attacks by the Arians, and also by the empire. Ambrose specifically admonished Emperor Theodosius for the massacre of 7,000 innocent people. The emperor did public penance for his crime.
St. Ambrose’s sermons and his works tell us that he was a very educated man who was willing to roll up his sleeves and get involved in the issues of the day. He practiced what he preached and he was not shy about calling people to repentance. He was able to influence learned men such as Saint Augustine, and won many converts to the Church.
Isaiah says in our first reading this morning “Those who err in spirit shall acquire understanding, and those who find fault shall receive instruction.” Thanks be to God the Church has had men like Saint Ambrose to provide instruction and help people come to understanding in the ways of the Gospel.
Today we celebrate the memorial of Saint Josaphat, who was born in what is now Poland to Orthodox parents. He later became a Basilian monk, and was chosen bishop of Vitebsk, in what is now Russia. His task was to bridge the divide between the Roman and Orthodox Church, but this was not easy, because the Orthodox monks did not want union with Rome; they feared interference in liturgy and customs. But over time, using synods and other instruction, he was able to win many of the Orthodox in that area to the union.
But the fight was far from over. A dissident faction of the church was formed, and they fomented opposition to Josaphat. Eventually the mob murdered him and threw his body into a river. The body was recovered and is now buried in St. Peter’s basilica. Josaphat is the first saint of the Eastern Church to be canonized by Rome.
Josaphat had an insurmountable task to accomplish. But he had faith that God would give him what he needed to accomplish the mission. He knew well Jesus’ message in today’s Gospel: that the smallest seed of faith has power to uproot trees and plant in places where nothing like faith grows. In just the same way, a small seed of faith on our part can cause awesome growth in improbable places, if we let it.
Today, the Church militant – which is all of us – rejoice with the Church triumphant – which is all the Saints in heaven – because of the great glory of God. This glory they can already see; we hope to see it one day. And we will see it if, please God, we perfect ourselves and grow in holiness to the point that we too become saints for the Kingdom of God.
But I think many of us bristle at the very idea of becoming a saint. We might even throw up our hands in some conversations and say something like, “hey, I’m no saint…” Saints are those people in elaborate paintings or statues, who lived lives that we find very remote. Saints just seem out of touch and sainthood seems way past our grasp.
But that’s all wrong. We were all made by God to come back to him one day: we were, in fact, made for heaven. Becoming a saint is the vocation of all of us. That’s what we were put on earth to do. Because the most important thing we know about saints is that they are definitely in heaven, which is our true home, and that’s where we were meant to return some day. To get there, we ourselves have to become more like them. We have to grow in holiness and make our reliance on God’s grace and mercy the central focus of our lives.
It may help to know that most, if not all, of the saints struggled with holiness too. 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 Jesus was still there and led her to heaven.
And so this feast in honor of all the saints is an important one. We celebrate those saints we know of like Mary and Joseph, Peter and Paul, Patrick and Dominic and so many others. But we also celebrate the ones we don’t know of; people whose faith and goodness only God knows. And most importantly, in celebrating them, we vow to become like them: close to Jesus who leads those who believe in him past the gates of death to the glory of heaven, where our reward will be great, as Jesus says in the Gospel today. On that day, we will indeed rejoice and be glad!
St. Isaac and St. John were among eight missionaries who worked among the Huron and Iroquois Indians in the New World in the seventeenth century. They were devoted to their work and were accomplishing many conversions. The conversions, though, were not welcomed by the tribes, and eventually St. 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 zeal for his mission compelled him to return, and to resume his work among the Indians 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.
St. 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.
St. Isaac, St. 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 did. 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.
Today, we celebrate the memorial of Saint Thérèse of Liseaux, the Little Flower, who was one who sought to proclaim the Lord in every simple act of her life. Saint Thérèse had a child-like faith: child-like, that is, in her trusting obedience to God’s will, even in the smallest of matters. She truly believed that small acts of faith and love would work wondrous miracles for the Kingdom of God.
Thérèse was a very sickly young lady. A childhood illness left her weak for the rest of her life, and during her last year on earth, she was dying of tuberculosis. She entered the convent at the age of fifteen, and when she died she was just twenty-four years old. Yet in that short span of time she wrote much about her faith and encouraged others to embrace a simplicity of life and a dedicated obedience to God’s will. In 1997, Pope John Paul II named her a Doctor of the Church, one of just three women to have that special title.
Saint Thérèse was not one who sought the limelight. She did not seek to make a name for herself or become anything other than what God wanted her to be. In her view, even the most menial tasks in the convent could be transformed into great acts of love. And her preference for hidden sacrifice did indeed convert souls. Saint Thérèse is one of the most beloved saints in the Church. Her autobiography, The Story of a Soul, is read and loved throughout the world.
Saint Thérèse’s rule of life, doing little things with great love, is one that can be such a freeing experience for all of us. Today, we pray that we too can find joy in the routine and menial parts of our day, doing them with great love for the glory of the Kingdom of God.
How wonderful for us to celebrate the feast of St. Matthew. Because Matthew was qualified to be a disciple of Jesus in much the same way that we are qualified to be disciples of Jesus-which is to say, not at all. 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 the plague. 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.”
Which brings us back to us. How wonderful 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.
Saint John Chrysostom was known to be a prolific, well-spoken and challenging preacher. The name “Chrysostom” means “golden-mouthed.” He spoke eloquently of the Scriptures, of which he had an extensive understanding, and applied their words to the times of his day. He was known, actually, to often preach for two hours or more! So, in his honor, I thought it appropriate to preach … just kidding!
The emperor schemed to make John the bishop of Constantinople, the capital city, because the he thought he could manipulate John. But he couldn’t. John would often preach against the opulence of the wealthy and the mistreatment of the poor. He deposed bishops who had bribed their way into office. He would only offer a modest meal to those who came to kiss up to the bishop, rather than an opulent table that they had been expecting. He would not accept the pomp and ceremony that afforded him a place above most ranking members of the court.
So, as you can well imagine, not everyone liked John. Many of his sermons called for concrete steps to share wealth with the poor. The rich did not appreciate hearing the challenging words that John was known to preach. When it came to justice and charity, Saint John acknowledged no double standards. I think his preaching would be intriguing, and certainly challenging, even in our own day.
What we should get from Saint John Chrysostom, is that discipleship has to be imbued with fidelity and integrity. We have to practice what we preach. As we go forth from this place, we too have the opportunity to live our faith by giving generously to the poor, and reaching out to those who are marginalized. We have to be those disciples who give lavishly of our personal resources, who forgive from the heart, who avoid judging and love all people deeply. If our living had this kind of integrity, then we could be “golden-mouthed” too, not so much by our words as by our actions.
You’ve probably heard the saying that youth is wasted on the young. I think Saint Augustine might painfully agree with that sentiment. He was a man who thought he had everything figured out at a young age. He was prideful, caught up in the world’s pleasures and focused solely on what could be learned from his own reasoning. He had no room for the religion of his mother, Saint Monica, whose memorial we observed yesterday. But through her tireless prayers, Augustine began to come to know the God she worshipped, and began to respond to grace. He was finally baptized at 33 years of age, became a priest at 36, and a bishop at 41. Grace can work fast in a person’s life.
Saint Augustine’s Confessions are among the best works on the spiritual life. In that work, he reflects, among other things, on his conversion, and how he felt called to repentance, but did not want to give up the world’s pleasures just yet. But throughout the work, he praises God for God’s work in his life. One of the best-known sections speaks of how the beauty of God was near, yet seemed beyond him:
Late have I loved you, Beauty so ancient and so new, late have I loved you!
Lo, you were within,
but I outside, seeking there for you,
and upon the shapely things you have made
I rushed headlong – I, misshapen.
You were with me, but I was not with you.
They held me back far from you,
those things which would have no being,
were they not in you.
You called, shouted, broke through my deafness;
you flared, blazed, banished my blindness;
you lavished your fragrance, I gasped; and now I pant for you;
I tasted you, and now I hunger and thirst;
you touched me, and I burned for your peace.
Saint Augustine was always grateful for the grace he saw at work in the world, and especially in his own life. If anyone was a witness to how God’s embrace can take hold of a person and change their lives, it was Saint Augustine. So today, may we all be mindful and grateful for those gifts in our lives. May we take a moment today and look back on how things are different in our lives and give thanks for the beauty that is so ancient, and so new.
What tradition tells us about St. Bartholomew is that he is often identified with Nathanael in the Gospel. That explains why Nathanael is prominent in the Gospel reading for today. 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.
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. 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.