Saint John XXIII

Today’s readings

The firstborn son of a farming family in Sotto il Monte, near Bergamo in northern Italy, Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli was always proud of his down-to-earth roots. After his ordination in 1904, Fr. Roncalli returned to Rome for canon law studies. He soon worked as his bishop’s secretary, Church history teacher in the seminary, and as publisher of the diocesan paper.

His service as a stretcher-bearer for the Italian army during World War I gave him a firsthand knowledge of war. In 1921, Fr. Roncalli was made national director in Italy of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith. In 1925, he became a papal diplomat, serving first in Bulgaria, then in Turkey, and finally in France. With the help of Germany’s ambassador to Turkey, Archbishop Roncalli helped save an estimated 24,000 Jewish people.

Named a cardinal and appointed patriarch of Venice in 1953, he was finally a residential bishop. A month short of entering his 78th year, Cardinal Roncalli was elected pope, taking the name John after his father and the two patrons of Rome’s cathedral, St. John Lateran. Pope John took his work very seriously but not himself. His wit soon became proverbial, and he began meeting with political and religious leaders from around the world. In 1962, he was deeply involved in efforts to resolve the Cuban missile crisis.

His most famous encyclicals were Mother and Teacher (1961) and Peace on Earth (1963). Pope John XXIII enlarged the membership in the College of Cardinals and made it more international. At his address at the opening of the Second Vatican Council, he criticized the “prophets of doom” who “in these modern times see nothing but prevarication and ruin.” Pope John XXIII set a tone for the Vatican II when he said, “The Church has always opposed… errors. Nowadays, however, the Spouse of Christ prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity.”

On his deathbed, Pope John said: “It is not that the gospel has changed; it is that we have begun to understand it better. Those who have lived as long as I have…were enabled to compare different cultures and traditions, and know that the moment has come to discern the signs of the times, to seize the opportunity and to look far ahead.” “Good Pope John” died on June 3, 1963. Saint John Paul II beatified him in 2000, and Pope Francis canonized him in 2014.

Three years ago, I had the opportunity to celebrate Mass at the tomb of Saint John XXIII in Saint Peter’s Basilica. What a privilege to be in the presence of a pastor-saint who loved the Church enough to set her on a course of renewal in what many of us would consider to be our retirement years! It’s a great reminder that we’re always called to be productive disciples no matter what our age.

Saint Francis of Assisi

Today, we celebrate the memorial of one of the most beloved saints of all time, Saint Francis of Assisi. Saint Francis has a conversion that came when he was very young. He had contracted a serious illness, and spent a good deal of time in intense and difficult prayer. In that time of prayer, our Lord called Francis to renounce everything that people who live according to the flesh tend to desire, and to embrace everything that the world tended to shrink from. He did this by embracing an leper, and piled all of his earthly possessions – including the clothes he was wearing – before his father, who had demanded that he give restitution for the gifts he had given to the poor.

Prayer before the cross in the crumbling church of San Damiano led Saint Francis to seek to reform the Church. Our Lord told him to “go out and build up my house, for it is nearly falling down.” Francis saw that our Lord was not merely referring to that church, even though it was nearly in ruins. He saw the ruin of the Church as a whole at a difficult period of history and sought to build it back up by authentically preaching and living the Gospel.

He didn’t seek to found a religious order, but it happened anyway. People were drawn to the way that he lived the faith, and so he wrote a rule of life for his followers which began as a collection of texts from the Gospels. When he was pressed to form the Franciscan order, he did it willingly and did everything he needed to do to create the legal structure the Church required.

During the last years of his life, Saint Francis received the stigmata. During his last hours, he received permission to have his clothing removed so that he could die naked on the earth, as Our Lord died. On his deathbed, he prayed the last addition to his Canticle of the Sun, “Be praised, O Lord, for our sister death.”

Saint Francis is well-known for the Canticle of the Sun, and his famous prayer. But he is also credited with composing the song we began with this morning, “All Creatures of our God and King.” His devotion to the Church, to the gospel, to the creatures of the earth, and most especially to our Lord inspires people even today. And his dedication to rebuilding the Church is one that our current pope took on when he chose his papal name. Through the intercession of Saint Francis, may we all find true joy in following our Lord and his call in all things.

Saint Vincent de Paul, Priest

Mass for the school children.

Saint Vincent de Paul is one of my favorite saints. He knew what it meant to be a priest, and he lived it every day. But he didn’t start out wanting to be like that; he had a conversation experience along the way.

Back in the days when Saint Vincent became a priest, they had a rather easy life and were quite wealthy. This was the expectation he had when he was ordained. That was his goal in some ways until he heard the deathbed confession of a dying servant. That encounter led him to realize the extremely great needs of poor people in France at that time.

That same servant’s Master had been persuaded by his wife to support the creation of a group of missionary priests to serve the poor. The countess asked Father Vincent to lead the group, and although he declined at first, he later returned to do it. That group is now known as the Congregation of the Mission or the Vincentians. They took vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and stability and devoted themselves to serving the poor in smaller towns and villages.

Later, along with Saint Louise de Marillac, he organized the rich women of Paris to collect funds for his missionary projects, founded several hospitals, collected relief funds for the victims of war and ransomed over 1,200 galley slaves from North Africa. Over time, this became a parish-based society for the spiritual and physical relief of the poor and sick. This became the inspiration for the organization now known as the Saint Vincent de Paul Society. You know the Saint Vincent de Paul Society, because we collect clothing for them every year.

Saint Vincent was also very interested in helping with the formation of priests. He wanted the priests to realize the needs of the poor and to know that the idea of becoming rich wasn’t part of priestly life. He converted his attitudes from the cynical and even slothful ambitions of the clergy in those days, and turned instead to follow his true passion, bringing Christ to the needy and the downtrodden.

We too are called to be true servants of our Lord, by looking out for the needs of those who maybe don’t have as many advantages as we do, and by caring for the poor and being true friends of those in need.

Saint Pius of Pietraclina (Padre Pio)

Today’s readings

At the age of 15, Francesco Forgione joined the Capuchins and took the name of Pio. He was ordained in 1910 and was drafted during World War I. After he was discovered to have tuberculosis, he was discharged. In 1917 he was assigned to the friary in San Giovanni Rotondo.

On September 20, 1918, as he was making his thanksgiving after Mass, Padre Pio had a vision of Jesus. When the vision ended, he had the stigmata in his hands, feet and side. Padre Pio rarely left the friary after he received the stigmata, but busloads of people soon began coming to see him. He would hear confessions for as much as ten hours a day; penitents had to take a number so that their confession could be heard. Many of them have said that Padre Pio knew details of their lives that they had never mentioned.

Padre Pio died on September 23, 1968, and was canonized in 2002.

There’s a great little line in the gospel reading today that says, “Take care, then, how you hear.” It almost seems like a throw-away line, but really, I believe, it’s an essential instruction from Jesus. We disciples are to take care how we hear. Not what we hear, although that’s probably part of it, but how we hear.

Do we really hear the Word of the Lord? Does the gospel get into our head and our heart and stir things up? Do the words of Jesus get our blood flowing and our imaginations racing? Does hearing the gospel make us long for a better place, a more peaceful kingdom, a just society? That’s how it worked for Padre Pio, and that’s how it’s supposed to work for all of us disciples.

Psalm 19 says, “your words, Lord, are spirit and life.” We believe that the Word proclaimed is the actual presence of Christ. We are not just hearing words about Jesus, we are hearing Jesus, we are experiencing the presence of God right here, right now, among us. If we open the door of our ears and our hearts, we might just find God doing something amazing in us and through us.

Take care, then, how you hear.

Pope Saint Gregory the Great

Today’s readings

Saint Gregory showed a great deal of promise at a young age.  He had a stellar political career, becoming prefect of Rome before the age of thirty.  After a short time, he resigned his office and dedicated his life to the priesthood. He joined a Benedictine monastery and became abbot, founding several other monasteries during his time there. Eventually he was called to become the Bishop of Rome, the Pope, and he dedicated his papal ministry to reforming the Church, the Liturgy, and its priests.  He is the one for whom Gregorian Chant is named.  He also spent a good deal of time and money ransoming the political prisoners of the Lombards, and helped to stabilize the social climate somewhat during a time of great strife in the medieval world.

Of course, there’s always strife in the world.  Whether we measure that in the secular world, noting the many acts of violence throughout the world, and even in our own cities, or if we measure it in our Church, noting the scandals and sadness that has marred our recent history, a lot of what we deal with on a daily basis needs to be set right.  Reform is always needed, or else good institutions become stagnant, and then corrupt.  We look for the intercession of people like Pope Saint Gregory the Great to lead us back to Christ.

Jesus wishes to make all things new: in today’s Gospel he casts out a demon in order to heal an afflicted soul. Today’s Psalm, which Saint Gregory would have chanted beautifully, calls us to trust in the Lord to become new, so that our world and our Church can be made new:

The LORD is my light and my salvation;
whom should I fear?
The LORD is my life’s refuge;
of whom should I be afraid?

Saint Monica

Saint Monica is the patron saint of persistent prayer warriors and all those who pray for the conversion of family members. This 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.

Saint Bartholomew, Apostle

Today’s readings

What tradition tells us about St. Bartholomew is that he is often called Nathanael in the Gospels. 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. 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.

Saint Dominic, Priest

On a journey through France with his bishop, St. Dominic came across people who espoused the Albigensian heresy. The Albigensians believed in just good and evil – there was no middle ground. For them, anything material was evil, which meant that they denied the Incarnation and the sacraments. On the same principle they abstained from procreation and took a minimum of food and drink. It’s important to see that while the ascetic practices they undertook were good, their ultimate conclusions were deeply flawed.

St. Dominic sensed the need for the Church to combat this heresy, and he was commissioned to be part of the preaching crusade against it. He saw immediately why the preaching was not succeeding: the ordinary people admired and followed the asceticism of the Albigensians. Understandably, they were not impressed by the Catholic preachers who traveled in luxury, stayed at the best inns and had servants. Dominic therefore, with three Cistercians, began itinerant preaching – living simply and depending on the goodness of others to support them – according to the gospel ideal. 

One of the ancient histories of the Dominican order says of him, “Two or three times he was chosen bishop, but he always refused, preferring to live with his brothers in poverty. Throughout his life, he preserved the honor of his virginity. He desired to be scourged and cut to pieces, and so die for the faith of Christ. Of him Pope Gregory IX declared: ‘I knew him as a steadfast follower of the apostolic way of life. There is no doubt that he is in heaven, sharing in the glory of the apostles themselves.’” (Office of Readings) 

Dominic continued his preaching work for ten years, being successful with the ordinary people but not with the leaders. Eventually, he founded his own religious order, the Order of Preachers, or Dominicans, that was dedicated to preaching the Gospel to ordinary people. 

We too are called to preach to every person. We do that not just in words, but mainly by the way we live. When people see our faith at work in our actions, they may well be moved by our example to draw near to God who longs to draw near to them. As we approach the Eucharist today, may we all turn to God for the words to speak and the actions to do, that all the world may come to know that our God is merciful and the source of all grace. 

Saint Martha

Today’s readings

Along with her sister Mary, and brother Lazarus, Saint Martha was a personal friend of Jesus. We have all heard the story about Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet while Martha did all the cooking and serving. Martha quite rightly (in my opinion!) demands that all should lend a hand in the preparation of one’s house for guests. Jesus’ response there is that “Mary has chosen the better part.” This reminds us that everything isn’t always up to us. We are called to do our part and rest in God’s loving care for us.

But today’s Gospel reading is really the great story of Martha’s saintliness. She says three very faith-filled things in and around this passage. The first comes when she runs out to greet Jesus and proclaims a small part of her faith: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” Here her faith is not quite perfect. She is confused that Jesus was detained and her brother died. But there is that aspect of trusting faith that knows that Jesus has power to do whatever he wills. The second great thing she says here comes right at the end of the story we hear today. In this, she proclaims a more perfect faith: “I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.” In this great profession of faith, Martha is just as bold and courageous as Saint Peter who says much the same when Jesus asks him “who do you say that I am?”

The final great thing that Martha says comes in the part of John’s Gospel, right after the story we read today. Having professed her faith in Jesus, Martha now returns to her sister Mary and calls her to come to Jesus. She says, “The teacher is here and is asking for you.” Those who profess their faith in Jesus cannot possibly keep it to themselves. And Martha does not. She goes to retrieve her sister, who once sat at the Lord’s feet, but now for some reason chose to remain at home. Perhaps Mary was hurt that Jesus had not come right away. Whatever the case, Martha’s faith does not leave her sister in the dark. Like Martha, we who believe in Jesus must tell everyone who needs to hear it that the Teacher is asking for them.

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