Homilies - April 2012

Select a homily to read:
Palm Sunday: April 1, 2012 by Abbot James
Holy Thursday: April 5, 2012 by Abbot James
Second Sunday of Easter: April 15, 2012 by Fr. Boniface
Solemnity of St. Anselm: April 21, 2012 by Abbot James
Fourth Sunday of Easter: April 29, 2012 by Fr. Joseph

Palm Sunday

  • April 1, 2012
  • Year B
  • by Abbot James
  • Isaiah 42: 1-7 Philippians 2:6-11 Mark 14:1-15:47
  • Daily Readings

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Back in Advent of last year, specifically on Sunday, December 4, we heard at Mass the opening verses of the Gospel according to Mark. It started with these words: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” A few minutes ago we heard a return to that very theme in a verse from St. Mark’s account of the passion, where the evangelist writes: “When the centurion who stood facing him saw how he breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was the Son of God.”1 It’s worth pondering that verse, asking ourselves what it might have been that would lead a person to make this declaration of faith. What was there in Jesus’ words or demeanor that apparently struck the Roman soldier in so forceful a way? Of the traditional seven last words of Jesus, only one is found in Mark’s gospel, and it is one that at first hearing sounds very much like a cry of desolation: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” To be sure, some scripture scholars suggest that Jesus was here beginning to pray the twenty-second Psalm, which does end on a note of trust in God, but there is no reason at all to think that a Roman centurion would have realized that or have been brought to a confession of faith by it. Indeed, he presumably would not even have understood the first verse, for Jesus would have spoken in Aramaic, not Latin: “Eloi, eloi, lema sabachthani.”

What else could the centurion have seen or heard? In Mark’s Gospel, there is no reference to a “Good Thief,” for this evangelist writes that those who were crucified with Jesus kept abusing him. Likewise, in this Gospel there is no mention of relatives or acquaintances of Jesus standing right beneath the cross. All of his disciples had fled far away, the most important of them, Peter, having denied so much as knowing Jesus, and even Mary Magdalene and two other women are said to be “looking on from a distance.” Moreover, all the passers-by reviled Jesus, “shaking their heads and saying, ‘Aha! You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself by coming down from the cross,” while the chief priests and scribes mocked him with the words, “Let the Messiah, the king of Israel, come down now from the cross that we may see and believe.” In brief, Jesus is here utterly alone, bereft of all human comfort and companionship and seemingly feeling abandoned by the one he called “Abba, Father.” So why does the evangelist write: “When the centurion who stood facing him saw how he breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was the Son of God.”?

I myself don’t think there is any absolutely clear answer to that question. It does, however, begin to make sense if we read that verse in conjunction with our first reading from the book of the prophet Isaiah, one of the so-called “Suffering Servant” songs. Whether or not the evangelist was explicitly conscious of that particular passage in composing his text, he would surely have known of it, for it was part of the overall religious understanding of the early Church. There in Isaiah we also hear of someone who was utterly bereft of human aid, someone of whom the prophet writes: “I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard. My face I did not shield from buffets and spitting,” but he goes on immediately to add: “The Lord God is my help, therefore I am not disgraced.”

In light of those verses, I think we can say that someone who suffers without rebellion, even if he or she expresses some consternation at an apparent loss of divine favor, is in fact a child of God, and that one who does this in a preeminent way, exemplary for all who would one day be his followers, can be called not a son of God but the Son of God. That this expression of belief is found on the lips of a Gentile is surely, among other things, a way of showing us that Jesus is to be revered not simply as “king of the Jews” but as Savior of the world. We, together with Christians throughout the world, are assembled this morning to affirm in our own words what the centurion said at the foot of the cross.

But merely to affirm those words, to stop there, would be so short-circuiting as to fall short of making any of us worthy of even being called a Christian, a disciple of Christ. No, we must go on to pray that if and when any similar situation of aloneness, bereftness, abandonment comes our way, we will likewise be given the grace to endure it without rebellion. That is at least part of what St. Paul is talking about in the opening verse of today’s second reading, from the letter to the Philippians: “Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus.” And this is not merely something for each one of us to do as individuals. The Church as a whole is to some degree mocked and scorned in many circles today, in large part because of problems that members of the Church have themselves caused. A prominent theme of Blessed John Paul II’s final years on earth—namely, his asking forgiveness for the various failings of the Church both past and present, something for which he was at times criticized by members of his own Curia—is a theme that remains needful today. It may be relatively easy to parade one’s Catholicism when everything is rosy, as to some extent it may have been back in, say, the 1950s. What we need today are Catholics who will do whatever they can to help purify the Church, even as they also affirm the immense amount of good that the Church has done and continues to do in the present. It’s worth noting that even some atheist or agnostic authors have recently acknowledged that it is largely Christian values that have helped build up what is best in our civilization and that it is the abandonment of such values in large sectors of society that has led to so many serious problems in economics, politics, and culture. For example, back in the 1960s a prominent Marxist atheist in Poland, Leszek Kolakowski, published an article entitled “Jesus Christ, Prophet and Redeemer,” in which he discussed a number of fundamental values that derive directly from Christianity, such as the supplanting of law in favor of love, the truth that man does not live by bread alone, and the recognition that the world suffers from an organic imperfection. Similarly, and even closer to our own day, a few years ago an Italian atheist, Professor Marcello Pera, published a letter to our current pope, Benedict XVI, that was full of respect for the Catholic heritage. We are called to take rightful pride in that heritage even as we must also express sorrow for ways in which that heritage has at times been betrayed. As we enter this holiest week of the year, and in particular as we prepare to receive the sacramental body and blood of Christ at this Eucharist, may each of us re-commit ourselves to our baptismal promises, which are ultimately no less than promises to be faithful, committed, active followers of the one we, too, confess to be “truly the Son of God.”

Abbot James Wiseman
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1 Mark 15:39. For further quotations consult the text of the readings for this day.


Holy Thursday

What we just heard in our reading from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is the New Testament’s earliest account of the institution of the Eucharist. Its main importance for us, however, lies not in the fact that it is earliest but in the practical import it should have on the way we live, and this cannot be properly understood without some reference to the verses that immediately precede and immediately follow the four verses of our second reading. These surrounding verses are very interesting in their own right, for they tell us a lot about the way the Eucharist was celebrated back in the first century and how that celebration differs from what we do today.

You very likely recall from other liturgies that in the preceding verses Paul severely chastises many of the Corinthians because when they would gather in one place (and that was almost certainly a private home and not what we would call a church), it was, in his words,

When you meet in one place, then, it is not to eat the Lord’s supper, for in eating each one goes ahead with his own supper, and one goes hungry, while another gets drunk.1

What Paul is there describing is what elsewhere in the New Testament is called an agapē or “love feast,” that is, an actual meal taken together in the evening, during which there was supposed to be sharing of food and drink so that poorer persons would not be left hungry but could partake of the more abundant food and drink brought by those of better means. In that sense, it resembled what we would call a potluck supper. Only at the conclusion of this meal would what we call “Eucharist” take place, with all those present partaking of a piece of consecrated bread and what Paul, in the verse immediately following today’s reading, calls “the cup of the Lord.” He was so disturbed at what he had learned about the Corinthians’ selfish behavior at the preceding agapē that he says that in the Eucharist itself they had eaten and drunk God’s judgment on themselves for having participated unworthily. That judgment, he writes, is already being visited upon them in an unusual number of illnesses and deaths, but these are actually God’s merciful chastisements and warnings to reform lest the Corinthians suffer the far worse judgment of utter, eternal condemnation.

When, then, in the verses we heard, Paul says that “as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes,” the real meaning of “proclaim the death of the Lord” includes a proclamation of the life that is ours in and through that death, as Paul explains in his second letter to the same community, where he writes of “carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifest 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” 2. But there is no way, existentially speaking, that one can make such proclamation if his or her behavior is contrary to that of Jesus himself.

This is why it is so totally appropriate that this second reading, with its account of the words of institution—“This is my body; . . . this cup is the new covenant in my blood”3 —should be accompanied by a passage from John’s Gospel in which the account of the Last Supper does not include any words of institution but rather shows their import by the action of Jesus in washing his disciples’ feet. In other words, the whole meaning of the Eucharist is that sharing in the one bread and one cup is directed to sharing and communion in loving service to one another—the exact opposite of what Paul had found the Corinthians doing at their misnamed “love feasts.” Otherwise, the partaking of the sacred elements brings one not to salvation but to condemnation.

This intimate, inextricable connection between ritual action and social behavior is just as eloquently taught by some of the saints of the following generation. Let me mention one in particular, St. Ignatius of Antioch. He is no doubt best known for his letter to the Romans, in which he asked the Christians of that city to do nothing to try to get his death sentence commuted by the pagan government, for he saw martyrdom as the best and quickest way to attain full communion with his Lord and Savior. However, Ignatius wrote six other letters as he was being transported across Asia Minor from Antioch to Rome, and they, too, are very much worth reading in order to gain a vivid sense of the faith and devotion of so many in the early Church. His letter to the Christians in the city of Smyrna is especially fine in the way it shows this close relationship between liturgical celebration and everyday behavior. Of certain heretics Ignatius has this to say:

Pay close attention to those who have wrong notions about the grace of Jesus Christ that has come to us, and note how at variance they are with God’s mind. These [persons] care nothing about love: they have no concern for widows or orphans, for the oppressed, for those imprisoned or released, for the hungry or the thirsty. They hold aloof from the Eucharist and from services of prayer, because they refuse to admit that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, [who] suffered for our sins and [whom], in his goodness, the Father raised [from the dead]4.

Let us ourselves take to heart the warnings of both Paul and Ignatius. It is not enough to come to the table of the Lord’s Supper, even perhaps with feelings of devotion, if the rest of our life does not truly contribute to the building up of the whole body of Christ, the Church, and even extend beyond the Church to serve any persons who are in need of help. May our sharing in the body and blood of Christ on this Holy Thursday deepen our commitment to such service.

Abbot James Wiseman
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1 1 Corinthians 11:20-21
2 2 Corinthians 4:4-10 3
3 1 Corinthians 11:24-25
4 St. Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Smyrnaeans, 6-7

Second Sunday of Easter

Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side, and do not be unbelieving, but believe. (John 20: 27)

The absolutely unbelievable had happened, and the disciples were in shock.  How could anyone, especially someone who had suffered such a horrible death come back from the realm of the dead?  Yes, they had seen Jesus raise several people from the dead, but they, Jairus’ little daughter, the widow’s son at Naim, and Jesus’ friend Lazarus had been restored to a very ordinary life, no different than the one they had lived before.  Lazarus, together with Martha and Mary, even gave a banquet in his honor   Jairus’ daughter returned to playing with her playmates playing the games the girls and boys played in those days, and the widow’s son and Lazarus took up again the occupations by which they earned their bread before they became ill.

But Jesus’ case was different.  First, there was the empty tomb and the vision of angels.  Then he couldn’t be found.  Next Jesus appeared to different people of their company suddenly, without warning, and just as suddenly disappeared.  Locked doors and walls no longer hindered him.  They thought he was a ghost, but he went to great pains to show them it was he, Jesus, flesh and blood, the same they had known intimately for these last three years.  Jesus also seemed more relaxed in their presence.  The mission for which he was sent was completed, that mission which brought about his suffering and death.  It was obvious that he had entered another dimension, the dimension of the kingdom, the presence of which they heard him speak about, but with which they had no direct experience until now.  The shock they felt and the revolution it caused in their lives runs all throughout the gospel accounts.  Jesus appears unexpectedly, chides them for not believing the witness of their eyes, the promises of the prophets, and his own teaching.  “They were incredulous for sheer joy,” says it all.  They were being torn apart by a storm of emotions:  first of all in that inexpressible joy at seeing their beloved Rabboni standing before them, and yet not daring to believe in the witness of their eyes, their ears, and their sense of touch.  How could someone who did not experience him directly believe their excited jabbering?

The French have a saying, “God often visits us but most of the time we are not at home.”  Thomas was not at home either on the evening of that first day of the week when the Lord appeared to the others gathered in the upper room.  They tried to convince him, but he was broken by the events of Good Friday.  His dreams of following the long awaited Messiah had been crushed and his disillusionment had made him angry and bitter.  “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nail marks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

Thomas is everyman.  His journey to faith in the Lord is our journey to faith also through moments of doubt and confusion which may weaken or even destroy our trust in God.  It is no different from our anger and lack of faith when our life is broken by a failed marriage, a death in the family, or a loss of a job.  But Jesus respected Thomas’ honesty and the crisis in which he found himself, and met him at the very point of his doubt.  Jesus meets us also at our moments of crisis and despair, and when we respond by touching  Jesus’ wounds in faith; we are healed and made strong.1 “By his stripes, by his wounds, we are healed.”

The disciples were invited to look at Jesus’ wounds on that first Eater evening and Thomas was later invited to probe them. So we too are invited to see, contemplate and probe these same wounds, for the Gospels are written for us:  “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29).

It is through the wounds of the crucified and risen Christ that the world has been redeemed and we are made children of God.  It is the wounds of the crucified and risen Christ that communicate divine life because they are the wounds of divine love made manifest in the Incarnate Word.  They are the gates of not only eternal life, but of an eternally glorious and joyful life. We too are called to rise with Jesus, to be transfigured with him, deified, as the Eastern Church put it.

It is through the wounds of Christ that we become aware of the woundedness of others and become agents of divine healing and wholeness.  We are called to continue the ministry of Christ.  We cannot do this with our own love, but through the wounds of Christ we become channels of God’s love and healing to those around us and to the world.

Today is also called Divine Mercy Sunday, which in a particular fashion proclaims God’s great love and mercy to us.  The image associated with it is that of the risen Christ, hands held aloft in blessing and streams of light pouring from his wounded side. It calls us to a trust in that same divine mercy which out of love for us brought down the Word to become one of us, suffer and die for us.  It teaches us to rely on that love in the midst of our joys and difficulties; it is the same love that once drew the disillusioned Thomas to his side to heal him, to number him with the other disciples as his witness not only of his resurrection but especially of his love. And it now draws us. into the same mystery of that love.

Fr. Boniface Von Nell
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1 Desmond Knowles, Voicing A Thought on Sundays (Dublin, Columbia Press,,
1991)


 

Solemnity of St. Anselm

Unlike so many important figures of the early Middle Ages about whose life we know relatively little, for Anselm we are blessed with the biography that was written by his fellow monk Eadmer, who learned so much from conversations with Anselm himself.  Fortunately, Anselm never tried to present himself in an especially positive light, and nowhere is this so clearly seen than in the section where he discusses a dilemma that he faced when still quite young and that has been a challenge to most young people at all times, including today:  namely, what to do with one’s life. 

To understand the dilemma that Anselm faced, we have to look briefly at the state of education at that time, around the middle of the eleventh century.  Today, there is a multitude of schools available to students:  more than a hundred high schools in our metropolitan area and at least ten colleges or universities.  The scene was far different in Anselm’s Europe.  In what is today France there were then schools of real fame at Orleans, Tours, Angers, and Chartres, along with a newly emerging one at Paris.  There was also a lesser-known school at Avranches in the west of Normandy, where a scholar named Lanfranc had taught for a while before leaving there and going to a Benedictine monastery at Bec.  Lanfranc’s reputation for scholarship was so great that soon there were people coming to Bec from all across Europe simply to study under his tutelage.   Anselm (who had come north across the Alps from Italy) was one of these, studying with other lay students in what was called the monastery’s “external school,” outside the walls of the monastic enclosure.  But soon his earlier desire to become a monk revived, leaving him with various choices that he later described to his biographer Eadmer:  First, he could become a monk there at Bec, but then (he reflected) he would be overshadowed by his famous teacher.   Second, he could apply for admission at the prominent monastery of Cluny, but there the extremely heavy liturgical horarium would leave him little time or energy to shine as a scholar.  Third, he could become a hermit, a way of life that at that time was no longer regarded primarily as a lonely struggle against evil spirits but rather as a way of enjoying quiet, refreshing communion with God.  Or, finally, he said that he might live on what he had inherited and use some of these funds to help the needy and poor. 

In light of today’s Gospel, with its teaching about humbling oneself and not wishing to be called “Rabbi” or “teacher,” one can see that the young Anselm’s ambition to be a famous scholar and his reluctance to live under the shadow of someone like Lanfranc was not very evangelical.  In any case, since Anselm could not come to a decision himself, he followed the advice of Archbishop Maurilius of the nearby city of Rouen and did become a monk of Bec.  After three years, Lanfranc was called away from that monastery to become abbot at Caen, and Anselm himself succeeded him as the prior at Bec.  Of the next decade or so of his life we know relatively little in detail, but it surely involved a thorough dedication to following both the letter and the spirit of St. Benedict’s Rule, including its longest chapter, that on humility.  In Anselm’s writings, especially his prayers and meditations, we find much about humility and no longer sense anything of his earlier ambition for fame.  Consider, for example, the following lines from his prayer to St. Benedict:

Oh, blessed Benedict, you whom God has favored with such benedictions,
I prostrate myself before you with all the humility I can muster,
fleeing to you in anguish of soul….
I implore your help with all the desire I am able to rouse,
for my need is huge and unbearable.
I profess to lead a life of ongoing conversion,
as I promised when I took the name and habit of a monk,
but so far removed am I from that that my conscience convicts me
of lying to God, to the angels, and to all peoples.
Holy Father Benedict, be with me … as I confess to you,
and grant me greater mercy than I have a right to expect.

If anything, there is in this and in his other prayers what may strike us as an excessive dwelling on his own sinfulness, but what we have here is more likely that trait found so often in persons already well advanced in the way of holiness:  an acute sense of their own frailty and unworthiness when measured against the purity and goodness of God.  And, as we well know, that frailty was more than compensated by the abundant graces that Anselm received both as a monk and later as an archbishop of Canterbury, illustrating so well the truth of what St. Paul said at the end of our second reading:  the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.  By learning little by little to rely on this all-powerful and all-loving God, Anselm became a great saint and a brilliant teacher whose writings can still instruct and inspire us.  We are indeed fortunate to have our monastery placed under his patronage.  St. Anselm, pray for us.

Abbot James Wiseman
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Fourth Sunday of Easter

Today, the Fourth Sunday of Easter is designated "Good Shepherd Sunday." The Fourth Sundays of all three cycles (i.e., Cycles A, B, and C) have gospels from the 10th chapter of St. John; all of them deal with Christ as the Good Shepherd. Today's gospel speaks of the good shepherd as the one willing to lay down his life for his sheep, contrasted with the hireling, who flees at the appearance of danger because the sheep are of no personal concern to him; Jesus speaks of other sheep that He must bring into His flock and of His power to take up His life again once He has laid it down.

The shepherd is, of course, a very important theme in the Bible, whether the real life shepherd or as imagery. It appears already in the fourth chapter of Genesis: Abel, the second son of Adam and Eve, is a keeper of flocks. The Israelites considered the shepherd's life better than the farmer's (represented by Cain), because it was when they took to agriculture that they began to worship fertility deities. That is why Abel's sacrifice was acceptable rather than Cain's.

David, of course, is an important Shepherd. It was while watching over the flock that he was called in to be anointed as king by Samuel. He won renown by defeating Goliath, and in order to persuade Saul that he was capable of battling this mighty warrior, he argued that in watching over his flock he had killed both a lion and a bear in order to bring back sheep that had been carried off. He didn't lay down his life for his sheep, but he did put his life on the line. And it was he who gave us the beautiful 23rd psalm, "The Lord is my shepherd." He was not always a good shepherd. He abused his power to take Bathsheba, a married woman, and to have her husband killed.

In that regard he was like many other of Israel's "shepherds," which gives all the more point to the most powerful "good shepherd" passage in the Old Testament, Ezekiel 34, which proclaims a "Woe" against those shepherds "who have been pasturing themselves."

"You have fed off their milk, worn their wool, and slaughtered the fatlings, but the sheep you have not pastured. You did not strengthen the weak nor heal the sick nor bind up the injured. You did not bring back the strayed nor seek the lost, but you lorded it over them harshly and brutally."

After proclaiming this judgment on them, He declares,

"For thus says the Lord GOD: I myself will look after and tend my sheep. As a shepherd tends his flock when he finds himself among his scattered sheep, so will I tend my sheep. I will rescue them from every place where they were scattered when it was cloudy and dark."

This is what the Lord proclaimed in the Old Testament, it's what Jesus did in the New Testament.

But the Old Testament affords other instances: for example, Isaiah says, "Like a shepherd he [God] feeds his flock; in his arms he gathers the lambs, carrying them in his bosom."

Just as God is presented as shepherd in the Old Testament, so is Jesus in the New Testament. It is not only in John 10 that Jesus is "Shepherd": He certainly describes Himself when He speaks of the man who leaves the 99 sheep in the desert to seek the one which is lost, and then carries it back on his own shoulders. In the First Epistle of Peter we read, "you have now returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls," and again, "when the chief Shepherd is revealed, you will receive the unfading crown of glory." In the judgment scene of Ezekiel just referred to, the prophet spoke of God separating the sheep from the goats, just as Jesus does in the great judgment scene in Matthew 25. The Book of Revelation has the interesting image of the Lamb as Shepherd: "For the Lamb who is in the center of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to springs of life-giving water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes."

The author of Hebrews speaks of God as "the God of peace, who brought up from the dead the great shepherd of the sheep by the blood of the eternal covenant, Jesus our Lord." Here we have the Shepherd and resurrection together, just as we do at the end of today's gospel, which makes it particularly appropriate for the Easter season. It is interesting because in John's gospel Jesus does not speak explicitly of rising or being raised from the dead. Matthew, Mark, and Luke each have three predictions of the passion, and of the nine, eight are followed with a prediction of His rising or being raised. In John's gospel Jesus speaks of raising others from the dead and does raise them, but He doesn't speak explicitly of rising or being raised. He speaks in veiled terms when He says, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up," which His disciples understand later of His resurrection. And He speaks often of His being "lifted up," by which He refers to His death, resurrection, and ascension, seen as one event in three stages. Remember that after Peter and the Beloved Disciple visit the empty tomb and come to believe, John comments, "For they did not understand the scripture that he had to rise from the dead." In today's passage we have, "This is why the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own. I have power to lay it down, and power to take it up again." As elsewhere in John, Jesus emphasizes His perfect freedom in offering His life for His sheep.

As Christians a chief function should be for us to imitate Christ, to reflect His life in our own. That means we should also be shepherds, especially with respect to fellow Christians. How do we go about doing that? Well, VERY carefully! Certainly not by being bossy or lording it over people, ordering them around. Only those in authority are shepherds--the Abbot, the Prior (and of course the Prior and Prioress of the Oblates). Yet if we teach, we have a flock and must lead them with all care and diligence; this we do by example and by truly caring. But this is true of all those with whom we come in contact. When God asked Cain, "Where is Abel, your brother," Cain answered: "I don't know; am I my brother's keeper?" Some have wanted to make a cute response out of it: "Am I my brother's shepherd?" But the word is not "shepherd" but "keeper," one who guards and watches over. This cheeky reply from the man who has just murdered his brother leads us to think that, in fact, we are our brother's keeper, at least in the sense of being concerned about him.

Of course there are people who don't appreciate our concern. Many years ago I saw the play "The Hasty Heart" about wounded Allied soldiers of World War II in an English hospital. One was a surly Scotsman who was very distrustful ("I put nae value on the human animal"), who, if you said "How are you," would reply "Why diya ask?" He comes around when he is able to understand that the others there really did care about him. We should show that kind of love to all. It is what St Benedict commends at every turn, and it is how we will help Our Lord bring into one fold those other sheep Jesus speaks of.

Fr. Joseph Jensen
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