Saint Agatha, Virgin Martyr

Today’s readings

Historically speaking, we know almost nothing about Saint Agatha other than the fact that she was martyred in Sicily during the persecution of Decius in the third century.  Legend has it that Agatha was arrested as a Christian, tortured and sent to a house of prostitution to be mistreated. She was preserved from being violated, and was later put to death.  When Agatha was arrested, the legend says, she prayed: “Jesus Christ, Lord of all things! You see my heart, you know my desires. Possess all that I am—you alone. I am your sheep; make me worthy to overcome the devil.” And in prison, she said: “Lord, my creator, you have protected me since I was in the cradle. You have taken me from the love of the world and given me patience to suffer. Now receive my spirit.”

The stories of the early virgin martyrs like Saint Agatha do two things.  First, they remind us of the unsurpassed greatness of a relationship with Christ.  If they could believe in Christ when it would have been so much easier—and life-saving—to do so, then how can we turn away from God in the trying moments of our own lives, those trials which pale in comparison to the martyrdom they suffered?  But even those relatively minor sufferings which we may bear can be the source of our salvation.  We should look to the saints like Agatha to intercede for us that we may patiently bear our sufferings and so give honor and glory to God.  Second, these stories always point to Christ.  Even though we could get caught up in honoring a saint who stood fast for the faith to death, still that same saint would have us instead be caught up in honoring Christ, the one who was their hope and salvation.

Saint Agatha’s martyrdom is a participation in the “sprinkled Blood that speaks more eloquently than that of Abel” of which the writer of the letters to the Hebrews writes.  She was joined inseparably to Christ in both her virginity and her martyrdom.  Her example calls us to join ourselves to Christ inseparably as well, in whatever way we may be called upon to do it.  May our prayer in good times and bad always be the same as that of Saint Agatha: “Possess all that I am—you alone.”

Saints Timothy and Titus, Bishops

Today’s readings

The sign of a good leader is her or his ability to perpetuate their activity.  A good corporate leader is future-minded, and lays the groundwork for his successor to carry the company forward.  A good parent raises children that can be set free one day to be successful and prudent in life, extending their integrity and love into the next generation.  Paul’s ministry was no different.  He knew he wouldn’t be around forever; indeed his ministry marked him for martyrdom.  And so in today’s saints, Timothy and Titus, he invests in leaders who will take the fledgling churches into the next generation.

During the fifteen years Saint Timothy worked with Saint Paul, he became one of his most faithful and trusted friends. He was sent on difficult missions by Paul—often in the face of great disturbance in local churches which Paul had founded.  Paul installed him as his representative at the Church of Ephesus.  Titus has the distinction of being a close friend and disciple of Paul as well as a fellow missionary.  Titus is seen as a peacemaker and capable administrator. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians affords an insight into the depth of his friendship with Titus, and the great fellowship they had in preaching the gospel.  When Paul was having trouble with the community at Corinth, Titus was the bearer of Paul’s severe letter and was successful in smoothing things out.  The Letter to Titus addresses him as the administrator of the Christian community on the island of Crete, charged with organizing it, correcting abuses, and appointing presbyter-bishops.

In today’s first reading from his second letter to Saint Timothy, Saint Paul shows his mentoring.  He reminds Timothy to “stir into flame the gift of God that you have through the imposition of my hands.  For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but rather of power and love and self-control.”  He urges his protégés to be strong and stand fast for the faith.  At the end of the reading, he also reminds them that they would indeed have to bear their share of hardship for the faith.

Just as Jesus said in today’s Gospel reading, Saints Timothy and Titus, along with Saint Paul, were the ones who scattered the seed trusting in God’s power to bring the Kingdom of God to its fulfillment.  Through their intercession, and by their testimony in the Scriptures we read, they beckon us to be those who tend and nurture the seeds of faith growing around us.  It is always our turn to “proclaim God’s marvelous deeds to all the nations.”

Saint John Neumann, Bishop

Today’s readings

Saint John Neumann is one of the first great American saints, the first American archbishop to be beatified.  He is not to be confused with John Henry Cardinal Newman, of state university “Newman Center” fame.

John Neumann was born in what is now the Czech Republic.  After studying in Prague, he came to New York at 25 and was ordained a priest.  He did missionary work in New York until he was 29, when he joined the Redemptorists and became its first member to profess vows in the United States.  He continued missionary work in Maryland, Virginia and Ohio.  Saint John was well-known for his holiness and learning, spiritual writing and preaching.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus calls Philip to be his apostle, and promises that he will see great things.  Philip is amazed by Jesus’ ability to see the best in him.  Saint John Neumann had that kind of vision too, being able to see the kind of people who would contribute well to the cause of Catholic education in the United States.

As bishop of Philadelphia, he organized the parochial school system into a diocesan one, increasing the number of pupils almost twentyfold within a short time.  Gifted with outstanding organizing ability, he drew into the city many teaching communities of sisters and the Christian Brothers.  During his brief assignment as vice provincial for the Redemptorists, he placed them in the forefront of the parochial movement.

We owe much to Saint John Neumann for his ability to organize Catholic education in this country.  So today we are thankful for our teachers and educators and catechists who over the years have led us all to the faith, and given us a glimpse at the light of Christ.

Saint Thomas Becket: Fifth Day in the Octave of Christmas

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 St. 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 Becket 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 Thomas, he ultimately knew that the he must take a stand, no matter what the cost.

In today’s first reading, St. 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 his mother 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. May this Christmas find us changing our hearts and minds so that we can be that Christ for all the world to see, no matter what the cost.

Saint Stephen, First Martyr

Today’s readings

Saint Stephen was one of the first deacons of the Church, chosen to aid in the distribution of food to those in need, so that the Apostles could continue their work.  He was a man who was filled with the Holy Spirit, and was unafraid to speak the truth.  And that, of course, is what brings him to today’s celebration.  His unwillingness to cover over the truth and his powerful, indisputable words, did not make him friends with everyone, to say the least.  He was stoned to death, an event in which we see perhaps the beginning of the conversion of a man named Saul, who of course, we know, later becomes Saint Paul.

The truth may, as Jesus tells us, set us free, but not without cost.  Saint Stephen, and later Saint Paul of course, paid for it with their lives, as Jesus did.  But covering over the truth or refusing to speak the truth would have been death of a far worse kind: a death that had no hope of salvation.  Giving his life for the truth and for the faith united Saint Stephen forever with his God, who was his salvation and his joy.

And so on this Christmas day, we are reminded that Christ came to bring the truth, and that that truth would change everything, which, sadly, is not always a welcome thing.  The gift of this Christmas day is the truth, given to us to guard and proclaim and shout without fear.  It is the Spirit who gives us the words of truth to say in any situation, that same Spirit who gave Jesus to Mary in the first place.  We too rely on that same Spirit to help us fearlessly witness to the truth, fixing our eyes as Saint Stephen did on Christ, the Son of Man, standing at the right hand of God.

Saint John of the Cross, Priest and Doctor of the Church

Today’s readings

A long time ago now, someone once gave my family an ornament for our Christmas tree.  It was very curious: basically just a large nail hung from a green ribbon.  You probably already know the significance of the nail: when looking at the manger, we remember the cross.  When gazing on the Christmas tree, we remember the tree from which our Savior hung.  The nail was a reminder that Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter are all part of the same mystery.

Saint John of the Cross is a good reminder of this truth.  Born in Spain, he eventually became a Carmelite.  He came to know a Carmelite nun by the name of Teresa of Avila, and through her urging, joined her in a reform of the Carmelite order.  His great writings helped to accomplish this and are noted as spiritual masterpieces, and helped him to be recognized as a Doctor of the Church.  But not everyone, of course, agreed with the reform of the order, and he paid the price for it by being imprisoned.  In some ways, Saint John of the Cross reminds me more of Lent than Advent.  But then, so does that nail ornament.

Even as we wrap ourselves in the hope and promise of Advent, we have to pause and remind ourselves of what the promise is all about.  Jesus came to pay the very real price for our many sins.  And that, dear brothers and sisters, is a gift of incomprehensible worth!

Saint Andrew, Apostle

Today’s readings

As is the case for most of the apostles, we don’t know a whole lot about St. Andrew.  And I think that’s appropriate, because what we need to know about them is that they were followers of Jesus, and were devoted to him.  We too are called to that same great devotion.

There are two presentations of Andrew’s discipleship in Scripture.  In the Gospel story we have today, Andrew is called at the same time as his brother Peter.  They are both fishermen, and are casting their nets into the sea.  Jesus, of course, has plans for them to cast nets for bigger fish, for souls for the kingdom, and so he calls them.  They immediately drop their nets and leave their father and turn to follow them.

I always wonder what would make them do something like that.  After just one call, they drop everything they have ever known, turn away from their family, and go off to pursue the admittedly greater call to follow Christ.  But why?  Yes, we know who Jesus is, but did they?  Maybe they had heard him preach, or had heard about him in some way, but I often think of my own call, which took years, and am amazed by their seemingly instantaneous decision to drop everything and follow Jesus.

The second presentation of Andrew’s story comes in the Gospel of John.  In John’s Gospel, Andrew is a disciple of St. John the Baptist.  One day, Jesus is passing by and John says, “Behold the Lamb of God.”  Andrew and another one of the disciples follow Jesus and he asks them what they want.  Andrew says, “Rabbi, where are you staying?”  To which Jesus replies, “Come and see.”  So they do, and then it is Andrew who goes to get Peter and present him to Jesus.

Either way, the call is a great one, and the response of Andrew is one of wonder and openness.  We are called often in our lives to follow Jesus in some new way.  May Saint Andrew be our patron in those calls, and may his example lead us to drop what we are doing and follow our Lord.

Pope Saint Leo the Great

Today’s readings

Pope Saint Leo the Great was known to be a wonderful administrator of the Church.  But far from being caught up in purely administrative matters, he was also a very spiritual and prayerful man, many of whose great writings have become part of the lifeblood of our Church.  He was elected to the papacy in the year 440, and he set the tone as a pope who believed in the pontiff’s total responsibility for the flock he led.

His work included extensive defense of the church against the heresies of Pelagianism and Manichaeism and others, he played the role of peacemaker, defending Rome against attacks by the Barbarians, and very significantly helped to settle a controversy in the Church of the east on the two natures of Christ.  His work on that issue was promulgated at the Council of Chalcedon in 451.

Leo was well versed in Scripture and ecclesiastical awareness, and he also had the ability to reach the everyday needs and interests of his people.  We have many of his writings to this day, and some are used in the Office of Readings in the Liturgy of the Hours.  Some of his prayers also exist today in the Roman Missal.

Saint Leo held that holiness consisted in doing the work we were called upon to do in our station in life, but not so much that it costs us our relationship with Christ.  Prayer and spiritual growth are also required of the disciple, and holiness consists of doing both work and prayer in proper balance.  Following that way, we too can say that we have done what we were obliged to do, and trust that God will be pleased with our efforts and bless our lives.

Today’s Gospel sees the steward getting his act together for the next stage of his life.  Knowing he was about to be dismissed, he made agreements with others to make sure that he would have a soft landing.  As we ourselves near the end of the Liturgical year, we too should, according to the example of Saint Leo, examine our work and our relationship with Christ, and set them in proper order if they are not aligned.

The Solemnity of All Saints

Today’s readings

I think we all bristle, mistakenly, 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.  This illustrates that God’s will is done in the end, doesn’t it?

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 the white robes that the saints are wearing are the same ones we receive at Baptism.

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.

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.

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.  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?  We are indeed, as the Psalmist says today, the people who longs to see God’s face!

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!”

All Saints’ Day Eve (All Hallows Eve): Would Jesus Trick-or-Treat?

Today’s readings

Since we’re gathered here on Halloween, All Hallows Eve, I thought I might get your attention by doing a little homily I like to call “Would Jesus Go Trick-or-Treating?” It’s an important topic, because I think a lot of parents wrestle with the message of Halloween and whether or not they should support their children joining in the festivity.

And I think it’s an important thing to wrestle with. On one hand, we don’t want to make a joke out of evil, because evil is real and it’s no joke. But on the other hand, we don’t want to call attention to evil by making a big thing out of it. Exorcists tell us that those are the two common mistakes that we can make about: First, we might say think there is no such thing as the devil. Satan would be happy for us to do that, because then we’re not on guard against him. He is real, he’s out there, and we do have to be on guard. Second, we might look for evil everywhere, and that just shuts us down and keeps us from living the Gospel. Neither of these is a good thing.

So let’s talk about Halloween. Its origins are a bit murky, and lots of people think that what happened is that we sort of baptized a pagan festival. And there is a traditional pagan festival on October 31st, but apparently there is a traditional pagan festival on the last day of every month, so really that’s nothing special. More likely, Halloween was a celebration of the Eve of All Saints – hence the name. All Saints Day originated in the year 609, when it was celebrated in May. But in the ninth century, it was moved to the first of November, which is when the Germanic church celebrated it, and it’s been celebrated then ever since.

The origins of trick-or-treating may have been in Ireland where an ancient Gaelic festival celebrated the harvest and marked the beginning of winter – the time of year when a significant portion of the population would often die. Because of the fear of death that came with winter, these celebrations seemed to have included going door to door asking for treats dressed in costumes, which were thought to disguise the living from life-taking spirits.

So the origins and intent of Halloween are relatively benign, and mostly intended to honor the saints. But in our country, over time, a more sinister tone was added to the celebration. Think of some of the more horrific costumes, extremely elaborate and grotesque “haunted houses,” and parties where more evil customs were brought to the celebration. Add that to some of the more elaborate horror movies that get released this time of year, and you can see how it would be easy to brand Halloween as an evil holiday.

Fundamentalist Christians especially see the evil, and thus throw out the entire holiday. But we are not fundamentalist Christians. So we remember that God is good, and that he is in control, and we do not give the demonic or the evil any power that they don’t already have. Indeed, a lot of people think that there is more demonic activity at this time of year than normal, but exorcists tell us that is not true. It’s just that people tend to open more doors by their worrying and by doing some things they shouldn’t to celebrate the holiday.

So now let’s remember what this holiday is really about. Today we celebrate the feast of all the Saints – those who have been officially canonized over the ages, and those that perhaps we don’t know of, but who God certainly knows. This is the Church Triumphant, those who have conquered evil and have mastered holiness. They have accomplished what they were created for, to take up their rightful place in the Kingdom of Heaven, that place that God has prepared for each one of us. Today we celebrate their triumph, and hope for our own triumph, for we too wish to live forever with our God. We celebrate the example the saints have given us and we celebrate their intercession, which helps to guide our lives and lead us on the path of life eternal. So it is right to celebrate this as we celebrate other holidays, with great festivity.

I think it’s important that we celebrate Halloween and All Saints Day as one, which is the intent. If we do that, we keep our minds on what is positive and turn away from all that bids us evil. So yes, I think it’s okay to trick-or-treat, to celebrate with parties, and to dress up. But I’d skip the more evil costumes, and any party games that summon evil, like Ouija boards. Those are things that open the door to evil, and we always want to avoid that.

Avoiding evil was the glory of the saints. That was part of the path to holiness for them. As we celebrate all the saints today, we might think of some who famously battled evil and won. Saint Michael the Archangel, my middle-name patron, fights the battle of evil that we don’t see, every single moment. He is a wonderful patron, and we should memorize the prayer to him and pray it often. Saint Patrick, my principal patron, famously converted the pagan king of Ireland to Catholicism and exorcised the forces of evil in that country. His famous Breastplate prayer is considered a deliverance prayer and a help to those who feel oppressed by evil. Of course, the Blessed Virgin Mary, Queen of Heaven and Earth, is a powerful protector of all of us, her children. And let’s not forget our Guardian Angels, who do battle for us on a daily basis. That’s just some of the saints who battle for our good.

And in the spirit of their glorious battle, we should dedicate ourselves to joining them one day. We are all supposed to be saints, and as tall an order as that may sound, it needs to be our number one priority. Because there is no one in heaven who is not a saint. So then, we need to take all the help God and His Church gives us: we must dedicate ourselves to the sacraments, particularly the sacrament of Penance and the Eucharist, which together are more powerful than a solemn exorcism. We must put prayer at the beginning, in the middle and the end of our to-do lists, dedicating ourselves to the Blessed Sacrament, to the reading of scripture, and devotions, particularly the rosary. We have to make every effort to live the Gospel, and to give witness to the power of God’s love in our lives and in our world. Because if we honor and witness to Christ in this life, he will surely be our advocate in the life to come.

So yes, I think Jesus might trick-or-treat. But we come to him today for the best of all treats, the saving grace that he offers us that we might join the saints in heaven one day. We come to Jesus rejoicing and full of gladness, because we know that those who belong to him will have great reward in heaven.