Homilies - June 2013

Select a homily to read:
Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ: June 2, 2013 by Fr. Boniface
Solemnity of the Sacred Heart: June 7, 2013 by Fr. Gabriel
Tenth Sunday of the Year: June 9, 2013 by Fr. Joseph
Talk: Hospitality: June 10, 2013 by Abbot James
Solemnity of the Nativity of John the Baptist : June 24, 2013 by Fr. Christopher
Saints Peter and Paul: June 29, 2013 by Abbot James

Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ

  • June 2, 2013
  • Year C
  • by Fr. Boniface

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The Lord Emmanuel Walks With Us

After Mass today, you are all invited to take part in our Corpus Christi procession. Processions are a very ancient form of devotion. In Christian liturgical forms they represent our pilgrimage through life to the Lord God seated in majesty and to the altar of the Lamb. In some places the Corpus Christi procession has an especially festive air complete with bands playing hymns, carpets made of flower petals with tapestries and leafy branches lining the way of the procession. I remember especially a Corpus Christi procession in which I took part. The year was 1970, the place a little medieval city in Germany. At one point, one of the altars for benediction was set up against the ancient city walls where the river replete with swans was flowing by. You can’t get more romantic than that! More important, I was conscious of the fact that all those people taking part, and there were many, were taking part because they held to the ancient faith that the Eucharist is truly the body and blood of Christ. The Eucharist carried in the monstrance is witness as well that we do not travel on our pilgrimage alone, but that Christ accompanies us on the way. The Word who became one with us, has bonded with us, and his love will never leave us go.

The first letter to the Corinthians from which our second reading is taken is dated to about the year 50 some fifteen to twenty years before the Gospels. The way Paul speaks of the Eucharist shows that this observance was familiar to the Christians of that time. It was enough for Paul to briefly call to mind their liturgical practice. There was no need for him to repeat each time a detailed account of the Last Supper. Paul recalled only the essentials of the rite.1 Justin Martyr who was executed a century after this letter was written, attests in his writings to the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

In other portions of this letter, we find that Paul is upset because the Corinthians are not behaving at their celebration of the Body and Blood of Christ as they should. Some bring their own food and eat and drink immoderately while others go hungry. The selfishness and comfort of the Corinthians is in contrast to the self-giving of Jesus on the cross. The gift of himself on the cross and the celebration of the Eucharist ought to draw out from us a like response of generosity and self-giving.2 The Word who became one of us although ascended to the Father, still walks with us to be with us and to serve us.

The gospel of the multiplication of the loaves and fish is found in all four evangelists. At first glance its inclusion among all four of the gospels seems to be simply the retelling of an extraordinary miracle. But today’s gospel is written with definite Eucharistic overtones. In the third line of today’s reading are the words “As the day was drawing to a close.” We are put in mind of that fateful evening when Jesus celebrated the Paschal meal with his disciples, the beginning of his own Pasch and the institution of the Eucharist. We also remember those words filled with longing uttered by those Easter travelers: “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening and the day is drawing to a close.” Then there are the same ritual gestures: Jesus took the bread, said the blessing, broke it and gave it to them. These gestures are the same in today’s gospel as well as at the Last Supper and Emmaus. These self same gestures come down through the early church to us today. This is not to imply that the multiplication, the Last Supper and Emmaus are the same, but it points out that St. Luke in his telling gave them a definite Eucharistic connotation.3

Jesus tells his disciples to tell the crowd to sit down in groups of fifty, a rather unexpected detail. Against all expectations this mob of hungry and tired people sits down obediently, even quickly, in neat, orderly groups. The image changes from an unorganized crowd to a well-structured assembly, one no longer in a deserted place but in the immense hall of a solemn banquet presided over by Jesus.4

“They all ate and were satisfied. And when the leftover fragments were picked up, they filled twelve wicker baskets.” Christian tradition has always seen a lesson in this account of the abundance and care with which the fragments were preserved. The Eucharist is the bread reserved by Christ to feed the peoples of all time.4

When we reread the beginning of this gospel, we can see in it a prefiguration of our own Eucharistic celebration. Jesus began by speaking to the crowds about the kingdom of God, and healing those who needed to be healed. This was, of course, the every day activity of Jesus. Within the framework of the Eucharistic connotation of the gospel and the liturgical celebration these words take on added meaning. It begins with the prayer to the Lord asking for salvation, for healing, especially from sin, the greatest of diseases. It continues with the proclamation of the Word that speaks to us about the Kingdom of God and exhorts us to become part of this mystery.5 After this we enter into the Eucharistic offering of Christ to the Father proper.

Jesus continues to walk with us feeding us with his body and blood for the journey. “On the night he was handed over, [the Lord Jesus] took bread, and, after he had given thanks, broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ As often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.” When we “eat this bread and drink this cup” we make present and proclaim the death of Jesus until the end of time. It is a proclamation that goes beyond the memory of and our inclusion in a past event. It is not a question “as if” we were participating in Christ’s supper; we truly participate here and now in what he did on the night he was handed over. In the Eucharist the body and blood of Christ are once more offered to the Father as they were offered on Calvary. In the Eucharist Christ continues to make that same offering to the Father in heaven, and makes it present for us on earth. And when we participate in its celebration, we offer not only Christ, but in union with him we offer ourselves, our needs, our gifts, and our problems, so that it is our offering as well as his. The celebration of the Eucharist links our lives with the life of Jesus.6

The above are but a few thoughts as we contemplate the great mystery of the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood. When we ponder this great gift of God, we ask ourselves, “Why?” Why does an omnipotent God do such a thing? Why does he stoop so low as to seek our companionship, to want to walk with us? The ultimate answer is hidden in the mystery of God’s love. All we can say is that “Love does such things.”

As we continue with our Eucharist today and as we go forth in procession, I would like to leave you with words written by St. John Chrysostom:

“If we leave this world after having participated in that sacrament, we shall enter with complete confidence into the heavenly sanctuary… And why speak of the life to come? The very earth, here below, becomes heaven through this mystery. Open; Open the doors of heaven, look: and you will see what I announced to you. I am going to show you what the treasures of highest heaven have that is most precious on earth. For, if it is true that in a royal palace what is most august is neither the walls nor the golden paneling but the king on his throne, likewise in heaven itself, it is the king. Now you can see him, today, on the earth. I am not showing you angels or archangels or heaven or the heaven of heavens: I am showing you the master and Lord of all this. Do you understand that what is most precious you see on earth? And not only do you see it but you touch it; but you do even more; you feed on it; you receive it, you take it into your very home.7

Fr. Boniface Von Nell
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1 Days of the Lord, the Liturgical Year, v. 7 (Collegeville, Minn., Liturgical Press, 1994) 59
2 Daniel E. Pilarczyk, Live Letters: Reflections on the Second Readings of the Sunday Lectionary (Cincinnati, Oh., St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2002) 475
3 Days of the Lord, 61
4 Days of the Lord, 62
5 Days of the Lord, 60
6 Pilarczyk, 476
7 John Chrysostom, Homilie 24 sur la Premiere letter aux Corinthiens, in Days of the Lord, 60

Solemnity of the Sacred Heart

  • June 7, 2013
  • Year C
  • by Fr. Gabriel

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“Heart speaks to heart.” That was John Henry Newman’s motto. It applies not only to liturgy, but to daily discourse. Perhaps we could try to speak from the heart to the heart—seriously but not ponderously, sometimes lightheartedly.

The motto derives from Jesus’ words, “from the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12.34). He was actually speaking about the impure heart, with its cruel and careless words. But he may have thought of Jeremiah’s proverb (17.9), “the heart is mysterious above all things; who can understand it?” You must examine your heart to understand it. But when you speak from and then listen, you learn more than you do on your own. So why not try it, when time on earth is limited both for the heart I wish to speak to, and the one I speak from?

These thoughts assume that the Sacred Heart does not belong exclusively to Jesus. He can expand ours so that it incorporates his. The idea derives from the Ezekiel prophecy we hear at Easter vigil (36.26): “I will take from your body your stony hearts and replace them with natural hearts, so that you can be my people and I can be your God.”

It’s easier to have a stone heart because then it will never be broken. The psalms, especially the laments, are very aware of the broken or damaged heart. At the noblest, this applies to the contrite heart—which God will not spurn. But it also includes lesser disappointments, which, it must be admitted, we often cause or contribute to ourselves. These too need healing. St Paul gives a paradigm for the chain reaction of steps to heal the broken heart. “Suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope—and hope does not disappoint us when God’s love is poured into our hearts” (Romans 5.3-5).

That image of pouring, with its lavish and refreshing qualities, is worth pondering. It becomes explicit in an obscure passage of John’s gospel, when Jesus goes to Jerusalem secretly. “On the last and great day of the festival, Jesus stood up and said, ‘let anyone who thirsts come to me and drink.’ As scripture says, ‘out of his heart shall flow rivers of water.’ He said this about the Spirit, which believers were to receive. But as yet there was no Spirit, for Jesus had not been glorified” (John 7.37-39). This passage is difficult, for as far as we know there is no scripture like the one Jesus quotes. And if it describes not just the historical Pentecost, it might mean that there is no Spirit for us until we have been glorified. And the gospels tell us that Christ was not glorified without suffering.

This throws into bold relief the background of the African-American spirituals. The slaves sang because they suffered. “Every time I feel the Spirit moving in my heart, I will pray.” Thomas Merton rightly warned against the very possible distortion that makes Christianity into masochism. Nevertheless, the heart may grow dead, cold, and dry if we close it against the suffering of the world, of our neighbor, of our self.

Today’s story of the lost sheep is prelude to Jesus’ most profound teaching on the heart, the parable of the Prodigal Son. In it we see the greedy heart demanding its inheritance, the foolish heart which gives in to the demand, the hungry heart which takes its shame home, the steadfast heart waiting for this to happen, the intolerant heart which resents the music and dancing, the overflowing heart which sees below the surface and makes the announcement: “you were dead and are alive; you were lost and are found.”

To see below the surface and to become the overflowing heart is a worthy goal. To pursue it, we must mean it when we sing, “Every time I feel the Spirit moving in my heart, I will pray.” We must respond when we feel the Spirit move.

Fr. Gabriel Myers
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Tenth Sunday of the Year

  • June 9, 2013
  • Year C
  • by Fr. Joseph

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As we read today's first reading I could see there were two question you were all eager to ask: that is, Where is Zarephath? and why is Elijah staying there with a widow? I see that all of you are nodding! Well, I knew you would be asking me and I didn't have a clue, so I prayed to Elijah for enlightenment. He came to me in a dream last night and said, "First of all, I don't like that `Why were you staying with a widow woman?'business. It sounds kind of accusatory and judgmental." "Oh no," I said "I had nothing like that in mind." So he proceeded, "Zarephath was a town in Sidon, part of Phoenicia--what you now call Lebanon. It was a time of drought and therefore of famine. I approached this widow woman and asked for a small piece of bread. She said, "All I have is a little flour in a jar and some oil in a jug; I was just going to prepare it for my son and myself; after that we will starve to death." So I said, prepare it for you and your son, as you have said, but first make a little piece of bread for me. I am a prophet and I declare, Athus says the Lord, "the flour in the jar and the oil in the jug will not be diminished until the day the Lord gives rain upon the earth." She seemed very doubtful, so I said, "Look, when the great Messiah comes he will immortalize you for this; he will say, "there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah when the sky was closed for three and a half years and a severe famine spread over the entire land. It was to none of these that Elijah was sent, but only to a widow of Zarephath." So the three of us were provided with food for as long as the famine lasted.

"And why did you go to a widow in Zarephath instead of to one in Israel?" I asked. AThat's a longer story, but simply told. Jezebel was promoting the worship of Baal, the god of fertility, in Israel. His worshipers thought that through his obscene rites they could promote fertility. Into this scene I strode and proclaimed, "As the Lord, the God of Israel lives, during these years there shall be no dew or rain except at my word." Then I departed. So there was a drought, and consequently, famine--and the rites of Baal accomplished nothing. Of course everyone in Israel was trying to get their hands on me, so I fled to Sidon. Israel had extradition treaties with all the other nations, so I had to lie low.

Well, I thought, all this was very enlightening, but it wasn't advancing my homily, which I intended to be about the gospel. The obvious connection between the first reading and the gospel is the raising to life of the dead son of a widow by Elijah. Elisha, Elijah's disciple, also raised from the dead the son of a grieving mother. It could be that the miracles of these two prophets explain in part why, when Jesus raises the son of the widow of Nain, the people acclaim Him as a prophet. If so, that is where the similarity ends. Jesus does not share the violent proclivities of these prophetic predecessors. When Elijah returned from Zarephath to Israel, it was in order to challenge the people to sanction a contest between himself and the 400 prophets of Baal: the prophets of Baal would call upon Baal, and Elijah would call upon Yahweh, and the one who answered with fire, Israel would know is God. The prophets of Baal failed miserably, and Elijah, the victor, slit their 400 throats. (He was not very ecumenically minded.) Twice, when the king sent a captain and 50 men to summon him, Elijah called fire down from heaven to consume the captains and their 50 men. Elisha, Elijah's disciple and successor, incited Jehu to usurp the kingship in Israel, knowing he would assassinate the king of Israel, then go on to arrange the death of Ahab's 70 grandsons, have Jezebel thrown to her death from a high window, and slaughter all the worshipers of Baal after he had enticed them into the temple of Baal.

Jesus was a prophet, but it certainly wasn't in the mold of Elijah and Elisha. When James and John wanted to call fire down from heaven on a Samaritan town that would not receive them, in the manner of Elijah, Jesus rebuked them. Jesus did not see humankind as divided into two hostile camps. When the disciples wanted to prevent someone driving out demons in Jesus= name, because he was not of their company, Jesus said, "Do not prevent him; whoever is not against you is for you."

In today's gospel we don't have a typical miracle story. No one implores Jesus on their own or anothers' behalf. There is no demand for faith, nor any reference to faith at all. There are only the tears of the desolate mother taking her son for burial. Jesus sees the tears and His heart is moved to compassion.

As so often, St. Luke is able to move us by depicting Jesus' compassion. St. Luke, of all the gospels, most beautifully depicts the loving tenderness of Jesus. St. Luke it is who tells us the stories of the prodigal son, the good Samaritan, and the rich man and Lazarus, and he alone, in the parable of the good shepherd has him return the lost lamb to the flock by carrying it on his own shoulders. In St. John's gospel, we know, the miracles Jesus worked are told with much detail, and each one becomes a "sign" of great significance. Thus in the story of the raising of Lazarus, Jesus waits three days after the urgent plea from Martha and Mary and then tells His disciples that Lazarus is dead. When He encounters Martha, He tells her, "I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live; and everyone who believes in me will never die." And asks her to believe. Whoever has had to console someone for the death of a loved one is eternally grateful for those words. And we know the whole episode is intended as a "sign" that Jesus gives life to the dead--not only to Lazarus, but to all who believe.

We would not detract in any way from the this important episode in the career of Jesus, yet this does not detract from our gratitude to St. Luke for today's gospel, which illumines another aspect of Jesus' love. Unlike the event in John, in which Jesus waits until Lazarus is dead so He can raise him, this one appears completely spontaneous. Jesus is on the road when He encounters the funeral cortege. Jesus sees the mother=s tears, is moved to pity, and He acts. "Do not weep," He tells her. And then the simple, "Young man, I tell you, arise."

We can be grateful that we have four gospels. Each one presents us with a different facet of Our Lord's character and activity. One of Luke's special contributions is to show in wondrous ways the compassionate side of Jesus; how impoverished we would be without it. What is more, it is a side of Jesus we all can try to imitate. We may not be able to raise the dead to life, but there are many other ways in which we can bring comfort into the world. One way in which all can exercise compassion is be ready with forgiveness, the kind of forgiveness that doesn't hold others hostage because of past injuries. Jesus forgave Peter, He prayed for those who put Him to death, and none of us have suffered that kind of injury. How good it is to remember that every word of comfort we speak is a way of imitating Jesus, and sharing with Him the roll of Supreme Comforter.

Fr. Joseph Jensen
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Hospitality

  • June 10, 2013
  • Year C
  • by Abbot James

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A Talk Given to Volunteers at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

I’ve always been fascinated by words and how they came to be.  As you might guess, the word “hospitality” comes from a Latin word, hospes, which is very interesting inasmuch as it can mean on the one hand “guest, stranger, or foreigner” and, on the other hand, “host,” that is, someone who welcomes, receives, and entertains a guest or a stranger.  In fact, anyone reading a Latin text containing that word could only determine by context which of the two meanings applied in a given case.  For you who are receptionists and tour guides here at the National Shrine, each of you is, of course, a hospes in the sense of “host,” someone who welcomes the numerous people who come here wanting to learn more of the history of the edifice and to imbibe something of the spirituality that is conveyed by the many statues, mosaics, chapels, and the very architecture.  While most visitors are surely Catholics, there are others who are not and who might feel a little strange and ill-at-ease.  This may be even more so in the case of visitors who are literally foreigners, perhaps visiting America for the first time ever.  Part of your important task is to make all visitors feel truly welcome, to answer their questions as thoroughly as time permits, and to encourage them to spend some time in prayer once the actual tour is over.

To help you be convinced of the importance of hospitality in our Christian tradition, I am going to start, as you might guess, with holy scripture.  Perhaps the best-known example of hospitality in the Old Testament is the account in the Book of Genesis, chapter 18, of the three mysterious visitors to Abraham.  The passage goes like this:

1 The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. 2 He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. 3 He said, “My lord[s], if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. 4 Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. 5 Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” 6 And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” 7 Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. 8 Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.

There is, of course, more to the account, namely, the promise that Abraham and Sarah would have a son in their old age, but for now let’s just focus on these opening verses.  They are entirely in accord with the practice of hospitality which one finds regularly in Middle Eastern cultures, where it is actually considered a great privilege to welcome and provide for guests.  The original reason for this is that this part of the world was largely nomadic, with people traveling long distances over very arid landscapes.  Being able to count on hospitality was often literally a matter of life or death.  In such a culture, people were especially willing to offer hospitality to strangers, just as they themselves wanted to receive it when they in turn were traveling across a deserted wilderness.  The promptness with which such hospitality was offered is signaled in our text from Genesis, where we read that Abraham doesn’t simply wait for the three visitors to arrive at his tent.  No, he runs out to meet them and begs them to stay a while with him and his wife.  He then speaks disparagingly about the meal that he gets prepared for them, calling it just “a little bread” (in some translations, “a morsel of bread”), when in fact it is a sumptuous feast:  cakes made from choice flour, a tender and good calf, curds (that is, a kind of soft cheese or yoghurt), and milk. 

One finds the same assumption of hospitality in the New Testament:  Christ’s directions to the apostles to “take nothing for their journey” (Mk 6:8, etc.) presupposes that they were sure of always finding hospitality and would be able to stay at their host’s home as long as they chose.  Indeed, one of the most significant signs that one is worthy of being received into the eternal kingdom is the way one treats strangers.   In the well-known parable of the sheep and the goats in the 25th chapter of Matthew’s gospel, the king will say to those on his right:  “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me….” just as one of the most definite signs of not being worthy of the kingdom is refusal of hospitality, for those placed with the goats on the left include persons to whom the Son of Man will say:  “I was a stranger and you did not welcome me.”

In the days of the early Church as described by St. Luke in the Acts of the Apostles, we regularly find Paul on his missionary journeys finding hospitality in many places.  For example, at one point Luke writes:  “… Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. There he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because [the emperor] Claudius had ordered all Jews to leave Rome. Paul went to see them and, because he was of the same trade, he stayed with them and they worked together” (Acts 18:1-3).  Or a few chapters later, Luke writes:  “When we had finished the voyage from Tyre, we arrived at Ptolemais; we greeted the believers and stayed with them.  The next day we left and came to Caesarea, and we went into the house of Philip the evangelist, one of the seven, and stayed with him” (Acts 21:7-8).  Finally, after Paul and his companions suffered shipwreck and landed on the island of Malta, Luke writes:  “In the neighborhood of that place [where we had come ashore] were lands belonging to the leading man of the island, named Publius, who received us and entertained us hospitably for three days” (Acts 28:7).  So throughout his years as a missionary, Paul was regularly able to count on the hospitality of persons he encountered on his travels, even as Jesus at times received hospitality at the home of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus.

After this survey of some of the key passages in Scripture, let me now fast forward five centuries to the time of St. Benedict, who lived in Italy in the sixth century and who wrote the monastic rule according to which I myself live.  As you may know, this same emphasis on hospitality is found there.  Chapter 53 of the Benedictine rule begins with the well-known words: “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say:  ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me.’ … Once a guest has been announced, the superior and the brothers are to meet him with all the courtesy of love.  First of all, they are to pray together and thus be united in peace.”  The emphasis on providing food and drink for the guests that we saw in the account of Abraham is also found here in the Rule, for St. Benedict says that there is even to be a special kitchen for the abbot and guests, and that each year two of the brothers who can do the work competently are to be assigned to this kitchen so that they could prepare a proper meal at whatever time guests might arrive.  Note that not just any of the monks are to be assigned to this kitchen, but only those who can prepare the meals in a competent way.  And note, too, that it is not just any monk who is to eat with the guests, but rather the abbot himself.  There could hardly be a more telling way of noting the importance of hospitality in a monastic setting. 

Let me now bring this even closer to home by recounting some things that guests have experienced at my own monastery, St. Anselm’s Abbey, which is only about a mile and half to the northeast of this shrine.  As you’d expect, we regularly receive warm “thank you’s” when guests get ready to leave after a few days, but occasionally their stay is much more momentous.  A few years ago we received an email from a woman who had been with us a few weeks earlier.  Here is what she wrote:

I’d like to express the deepest thanks to all the monks at St. Anselm’s.  As a guest a few weeks ago, I came to the abbey deeply troubled by personal problems, unable to sleep well, and an emotional shipwreck.  Tears were never far away, and it took only a slight reference to anyone’s sorrow to trigger them.  All of that changed the weekend I spent with you.  Being able to be among you without an obligation for conversation was a relief all in itself—I didn’t have to guard my words or hold up a front.  You trusted me without knowing me, and let me be a part of your lives without any demands.  To see men live happily and so simply and to have all of their needs met showed me how little one really needs to be happy.  Whereas the focus I had prior to arrival was on external things that could make me happy, I realized that weekend that all material things will eventually decay and bring sorrow—and that true joy can only be found inside, in the love of Christ himself.  Your example was more powerful than a million sermons; just a few days with you showed me the way to peace.  I was on tranquillizers before I came, and after I left I didn’t need them any more.  I could sleep, and I could meet the challenges God had in store for me with faith and courage.  I pray for you daily, and I thank you for your dedication to the most honorable way of life I can think of.

Not long after that, we received another very touching letter from a former guest, who wrote the following words: “During the four days I was at St. Anselm’s I was able to recover my conscience.  For men who had never pushed their conscience too far from them, you may not realize what a feat that recovery was.  But it was not my feat.  ‘I’ did not recover anything.  It was God—working carefully and quietly through yourselves—who found me and touched my heart—rather rent it into pieces—and reconstructed it in his image.” The writer of those lines has since made his Profession of Faith at a parish in the part of the country where he now lives.

My third and final example is one that I could easily have missed, for it appeared in a magazine that I do not normally read, even though we subscribe to it at the monastery.  Some of you are no doubt familiar with America magazine, published by the Jesuit fathers in New York.  Someone brought to my attention an article that appeared in one of the issues back in September of 2011, a remarkable piece titled “The Prosecution Rests.”  If you have been keeping up with the news of late, you well know that the issue of the remaining detainees at Guantanamo Bay is a lingering problem.  Indeed, just about a week ago I was speaking with a lawyer who has been going there a few times each year to represent a few of the prisoners.  He said what many others have said, that the way we have held some of those men for years without trial is harming our country’s image in many parts of the world, and this troubles him very much.  Another person who was troubled by it was Lt. Col. Darrell Vandeveld, who worked there as a prosecutor in the Office of Military Commissions and who was interviewed by Fr. Luke Hansen for that issue of America

Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Darrell Vandeveld had served in various dangerous parts of the world, including Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and had friends and comrades who were killed in action in Iraq or Afghanistan.  This had angered him very much, so he had first gone to Guantanamo seeking revenge in the only way open to him:  through the legal system.  But the longer he was there, the more troubled he became by what he saw, such as a boy named Mohammed Jawad, who was only 15 or 16 years old when he was captured for attacking two Americans.  At Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan he was hooded and shackled, thrown down a flight of stairs, and threatened with still worse treatment. Later, at Guantanamo, he was treated in a manner that one of our Army generals called cruel and that led the young man to attempt suicide by the crude method of banging his head against the wall.  Guards saw this and allowed it to continue for a period of time, and an Army psychologist, instead of seeing that Jawad got mental health treatment, said that since he was now in a vulnerable position, it was a good time to interrogate him further.  Lt. Col. Vandeveld tried to convince the chief prosecutor that we should enter into a plea agreement with Jawad that would allow him to serve some additional time, receive rehabilitative services, and ultimately be repatriated to his country of origin, but this suggestion was vehemently rejected.  Receiving advice from a priest to leave Guantanamo and the Army, Vandeveld was hesitant to do this since he was 47 at the time, established in his career, and with a family.  What he did do I recount in his own words:

I went to St. Anselm’s Abbey in Washington, D.C., and stayed there for three days.  In addition to praying the Liturgy of the Hours, I read three books:  John Dear’s A Persistent Peace, Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, and a collection of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches.  I basically spent 72 hours in constant prayer.  I barely slept.  At the end of it, I felt—and this is the first time I have said this—I felt touched by the hand of God.  My path became clear….

Martin Luther King said that we are sometimes faced with great moral questions, and we have the ability to act or to refuse to act.  Reading these books and praying intensely worked an inner transformation.  I have no idea what led me to St. Anselm’s Abbey, but it changed me forever.1

Darrel Vandeveld had become convinced that if the detainees at Guantanamo are not to be tried in regular federal courts, then the only acceptable alternative would be to try them before military courts-martial, since their prolonged and indefinite detention is promoting arbitrariness and a denial of human rights.  Being unable to effect any real change in the system, he resigned from the Office of Military Commissions and now serves as an assistant public defender for Erie County, Pennsylvania.  He concluded his interview with these words: 

In my work with the Public Defender’s Office, I find hope every time I stand up in court and urge the judge to see the human behind the shackled, prison-clothed person in front of him or her, and to seek to do justice.  This is what sustains me.  Each day at work, my desire is to see God in everything and to recognize that all of us are better than the worst acts we commit.  This is the beginning of my spiritual journey.2

Not nearly everyone will have that kind of life-changing experience when spending a few days at a monastery like ours, but even when such a mammoth change is not needed, I am convinced that the hospitality we offer is a precious gift.  It may well be that the relatively limited time you have with visitors here at the National Shrine does not as readily facilitate life-transforming changes in the visitors, but one never knows how much good might come if you do everything in your power to make these visitors feel truly welcome. 

I expect that for the most part this welcoming attitude is not difficult, for most of the visitors are surely very congenial and eager to hear whatever you have to tell them.  There may, however, be times when you will have visitors whose personalities are more difficult, who may object to certain things they see or who keep asking questions that are totally off the point and annoying to the others in the tour group.  There is often no easy way to deal with persons who are really obnoxious, but it’s very important that you keep your cool instead of becoming argumentative in turn.  Even at my monastery there have at times been guests who were very difficult to deal with.   We once hired a person to do some painting and said that as long as the job lasted, he could reside at the monastery.  That was fine, but when he finished the job he refused to leave, constantly finding one or another reason to prolong his stay.  We finally had to threaten to call the police and have him charged with trespassing.  Only then did he reluctantly depart.

In earlier times the same sort of problem could occur.  An ancient document known as the Didache, written around the time of the latest books of the New Testament, recognizes the need to set some limits on the duration of a guest’s stay, for section 12 of that work begins with these words:  “Everyone who comes ‘in the name of the Lord’ is to be made welcome, though later on you must test him and find out about him.  You will be able to distinguish the true from the false.  If the newcomer is only passing through, give him all the help you can—though he is not to stay more than a couple of days with you, or three if it is unavoidable.  But if he wants to settle down among you and is a skilled worker, let him find employment and earn his bread.  If he knows no trade, use your discretion to make sure he does not live in idleness simply on the strength of being a Christian. ”3

Since monasteries were not immune to guests who were merely seeking a convenient place to stay for an indefinite period, there is a rather well-known text that pretends to be part of the Rule of St. Benedict.  Indeed, it begins in a very inspirational tone but then concludes with some frank but humorous realism.  We actually have a framed copy of it hanging in the guest corridor of our abbey.  Known by its Latin title, Benedictum, Benedicte (“Well said, Benedict”), it goes like this:

If any pilgrim monk come from distant parts with the wish to dwell as a guest in the monastery, and if he will be content with the customs which he finds in the place and does not perchance by his lavishness disturb the monastery, but is simply content with what he finds, he shall be received for as long a time as he desires. If indeed he find fault with anything, or expose it reasonably and with the humility of charity, the Abbot shall discuss it prudently, lest perchance God has sent him for this very thing.  But if he be found gossipy and contumacious during the time of his sojourn as guest, not only ought he not be joined to the body of the monastery, but also it shall be said to him, honestly, that he must depart. If he does not go, let two stout monks, in the name of God, explain the matter to him.

My final point is that it is very important for you to emphasize to visitors that this basilica is not primarily a tourist attraction but a place of prayer and worship.  Visitors should be encouraged to spend some time in prayer once their tour is over, perhaps in one of the side chapels that is in accord with their own ethnicity.  When I taught courses in Christian spirituality at Catholic University, I would sometimes have students write personal reflection papers about how they dealt with difficult situations in their own lives, and I was always struck by how often the students would refer to this basilica as a place where they could come for a time of quiet prayer and meditation.  This is one of the great attractions of a place like this.  Visitors should also be made aware of the possibility of receiving the sacrament of penance, for there are priests hearing confessions on this crypt level for many hours each day.  A monk of my own community is one of the regular confessors over here, and he has several times told me how rewarding it is for him to be able to minister in this way to people, many of whom have been away from that sacrament for years.  Similarly, make sure you let the visitors know that Mass is celebrated literally morning, noon, and evening here at the basilica.  The Eucharist will always be at the very center of our Catholic faith, and you have a great opportunity to promote genuine Eucharistic devotion in your work as receptionists and tour guides. 

In sum, there are many ways in which you can touch people’s lives in a positive way through your work here.  It is something you can rightly take pride in.  I hope that my talk and this entire day of recollection have made you more aware than ever of the wonderful opportunity you have each and every time you volunteer your services here.

Abbot James Wiseman
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1 Luke Hansen, “The Prosecution Rests: Why Darrel J. Vandeveld left Guantánamo,” America, Sept. 26, 2011, p. 16-17.
2 Ibid., 17.
3 The Didache, no. 12, in Early Christian Writings: The Apostolic Fathers, trans. Maxwell Staniforth (London: Penguin, 1968), 196.

Solemnity of the Nativity of John the Baptist

  • June 24, 2013
  • Year C
  • by Fr. Christopher

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As the one assigned to give the homily on this solemnity, I find consolation in St. Augustine’s words on a similar occasion. He said: “…If I find myself incapable of plumbing all the depths of [its mystery] either for lack of time or lack of skill, the Holy Spirit will enlighten you. His voice will make itself heard in your heart, without mine; for he is in your mind and heart, you are his temples.” I can now proceed with ease in sharing my limited understanding on so joyous occasion.

The birth of any child has an element of marvel and awe about it. After nine months in the secure dark warmth of the mother’s body, it is pushed to come out into the light of day, and begin to breathe on its own and cry its first sound. The mother forgets her birth pangs as she receives the child in her arms and hold it to her breast. The father, family and friends are both proud and relieved when all turns out well for mother and child.

The birth of John the Baptizer had additional awesome elements about it. His imminent conception was announced by an angel, and by the same angel he was given a name, an unaccustomed one. “His name is John.” He was born of parents who were past the age of childbearing. We have it on good authority that there is no man born of women greater than he. Even in the womb the child gave an indication that he sensed the presence of the one for whom he was destined to prepare the way.

As he grew up, his devout, priestly father helped him understand that his mission was to be prophetic, to go before the Lord to prepare straight paths and call people to repentance. It was in the spirit and power of Elijah that he was to turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the rebellious to the wisdom of the just. By doing that he would fulfill ancient prophecies far in the past history of his people. At a certain age he left home and went to live in the Judean desert. He is silent about what preparation he had there while all alone. When he appeared in public, he was poorly clothed and thin from a sparse diet. So it must have been a harsh life.

His public ministry was apparently brief. He began in the desert calling to any who would listen: Repent because the coming of the kingdom of God is imminent. People instinctively sensed his holiness. Somehow the word got around that he may be a prophet. Soon multitudes were coming to him from all over Judea, to be immersed in the Jordan while they confess their sins as a sign of their repentance. John was stern in his admonitions to those who came to him. You must bear fruits fit for repentance! He told people to share their resources of food and clothing with the poor; he told tax collectors to be honest in what they extracted from citizens; he told soldier to be content with their pay and not use their authority to rob or extort money.

People began to wonder if he was the long-awaited Messiah who would deliver Israel. He denied it, saying, No, I am not the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the one like Moses that is to come. The temple authorities soon got wind of all this and sent agents to ask him on what authority he was doing this baptism ritual. He answered them plainly that his baptizing with water was nothing compared with the mightier one coming after him who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. When Jesus himself came to be baptized in the Jordan, John recognized him and soon was pointing him out to his own disciples: Look, there is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. Some left John to become Jesus’ disciples.

John got himself into trouble when he accused King Herod of his unlawful marriage to Herodias, his brother’s wife while the brother was still living. Herod had John arrested and thrown into prison. Herodias found the opportunity to get John killed. His faithful followers honored his body with proper burial and continued to carry on his practice of baptizing with water.

John the Baptist occupies a most prominent place in salvation history. He came at that junction when the old covenant was to be eclipsed by the new. God gave the law through Moses and Elijah. Grace and truth came through Jesus the Anointed one. The story of John’s life is treasured for his faithfully fulfilling the vocation to be the voice crying in the wilderness preparing the way for the Word made flesh in Jesus. He knew that he was not the real light coming into the world, and that when the true light came his own light would diminish as the stars do when the sun comes up. As he himself said: He must increase and I must decrease.

Paul reminds us in his letter to the Ephesians that God has chosen every child of Adam and Eve in Christ, even before the world began, to be holy and blameless in his sight, to be full of love. Yes, that means each one of us was in God’s mind and plan before we were conceived. Our real life is hidden with Christ in God, even while we are still in this world, although not of it. The everyday task is to grow in the womb of God to the full stature of Jesus, the well beloved Son. We are aided by participating in this worship service, this service of praise and thanksgiving to God for the gift of his Son and his saints, who give us hope and the courage to be his witnesses by our faithfulness to our vocation. To the All Holy God be praise and glory forever and ever. AMEN

Fr. Christopher Wyvill
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Saints Peter and Paul

  • June 29, 2013
  • Year C
  • by Abbot James

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Of all the passages written by St. Paul, perhaps the most-loved, the one so frequently proclaimed at weddings, is his praise of love in the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians, where he says that love is patient and kind, not rude and not quick-tempered. If this were all that characterizes love, one might conclude that the greatest saints—like the two we celebrate today—were surely never given to sharp retorts or harsh judgments. How wrong that would be! In one of the most hard-hitting parts of Paul’s letter to the Galatians, he describes one of the few times he was ever in the company of his fellow apostle Peter, and we can only view it as a time when sparks flew. From a meeting that Paul had had somewhat earlier in Jerusalem with the leaders of the early Church, it had become clear to all present at that time—including Peter, Paul, and Paul’s companion Barnabas—that Gentile and Jewish believers could and should share table fellowship. When Peter afterward came to Antioch, where Paul and Barnabas were already residing, he did indeed at first take his meals with Gentiles, but then some strict Jewish Christians arrived from Jerusalem and frowned on this practice, leading Peter to draw back.

What happened next Paul describes in very forthright language: “When [these people] came, he began to draw back and separate himself, because he was afraid of the circumcised. And the rest of the Jews also acted hypocritically along with him, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not on the right road in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of all, ‘If you, though a Jew, are living like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?’” (Gal 2:12-14). It clearly took courage for Paul to act like this, but he knew that there are things far more important than avoiding conflict just to maintain harmonious relations. He was practicing what we sometimes call “tough love,” even as Jesus himself often did in his confrontations with Pharisees when he found them guilty of hypocrisy, even going so far as to call them “whitened sepulchers” and “blind leaders of the blind.”

My reason for noting these things is twofold: first, so that we might have a truer, deeper understanding of what love might require in a given instance, and second, to lead into a further consideration of ways in which Paul was very like his Lord Jesus Christ. Perhaps the most striking instance of the parallel may be found in looking at two other well-known passages in Paul’s writings. The first is almost certainly not original with him but rather is his insertion of an early Christian hymn into his letter to the Philippians. You will recall that the hymn begins with a statement of Christ’s possession of a privileged status or right: “he was in the form of God.” Immediately the passage goes on to say that he did not cling to or exercise this right but rather refused to regard his equality with God as something to be grasped or exploited. The hymn then concludes by referring to the way Jesus emptied or lowered himself to the state of a slave, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Now it is noteworthy that this very same threefold movement from possession of a privilege to a decision not to exercise it, and from there to a slave-like status can be found in Paul’s own life. The best example, as pointed out by one of our country’s leading Pauline scholars, is to be found in the ninth chapter of First Corinthians.1 In Paul’s Mediterranean culture, it was expected that any genuine teacher would be provided with all the necessities of life in gratitude for the teaching he provided. Paul was fully aware that such a right was his, for he says: “My defense against those who would pass judgment on me is this: Do we not have the right to our food and drink? … Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living? … The Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.” But just as Christ did not cling to his rights or privileges, neither will Paul, who goes on to write: “I have made no use of any of these rights, nor am I writing this so that they may be applied in my case…. What then is my reward? Just this: that in my proclamation I may offer the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel.” And finally, just as Christ took the form of a slave, Paul writes of himself: “We endure everything so as not to place an obstacle to the gospel of Christ…. I made myself a slave to all, that I might win more of them.”

When, then, Paul elsewhere urges his readers to be imitators of him just as he was an imitator of Christ, this is the sort of thing he means. Such imitation is not a matter of copying some external model, but rather of putting on the mind of Christ and allowing that to guide one’s conduct in whatever situation one finds oneself. At times this will call for the kind of harsh statement that we found Paul addressing to his fellow apostle Peter, or Jesus lambasting the self-righteous of his day. At other times it will call for words of great kindness and compassion, as when Paul, in his very first letter, tells the Thessalonians: “Although we were able to impose our weight as apostles of Christ, instead we were gentle among you, as a nursing mother cares for her children” (1 Thess 2:7), or when Jesus gently admonishes the woman caught in adultery. At still other times it will mean facing severe, even violent, opposition without losing one’s trust in God, as seen in the way Paul dealt with so many scourgings, stonings, imprisonments, and shipwrecks, or in the way Jesus went to his death, praying that his persecutors be forgiven, “for they know not what they do.” There is no single, one-size-fits-all formula for genuine discipleship, but whoever is open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, whom Paul calls the “first installment” of our future glory (2 Cor. 1:22), will know just what to say or do in even the very difficult situations that led Peter and Paul to martyrdom in Rome. As we celebrate their feast, may these two great saints inspire us to ever greater love of God and one another.

 

Abbot James Wiseman
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1 Michael J. Gorman, Apostle of the Crucified Lord: A Theological Introduction to Paul and His Letters (Grand Rapids, MI and Cambridge, U.K.: Eerdmans, 2004), 68-69.