Homilies - November 2015

Select a homily to read:
Solemnity of All Saints: November 1, 2015 by Abbot James Wiseman
Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed: November 2, 2015 by Fr. Michael Hall
St. Martin de Porres
: November 3, 2015 by Abbot James Wiseman
Thirty-Second Sunday of the Year: November 8, 2015 by Fr. Gabriel Myers
Thirty-Third Sunday of the Year: November 15, 2015 by Fr. Brendan Coffey
Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe: November 22, 2015 by Fr. Joseph Jensen
First Sunday of Advent: November 29, 2015 by Fr. Christopher Wyvill

Solemnity of All Saints

A French writer of the 20th century, Leon Bloy, once wrote: “The only real sadness, the only real failure, the only great tragedy in life, is not to become a saint.” A recognition of the truth of that statement was very likely part of the reason why the Church celebrates each year today’s feast of All Saints, honoring all those men and women, canonized or not, who avoided that tragedy or who, in more positive terms, made a success of their lives, even if from purely worldly standards they seemed to be failures, as indeed many considered Jesus a failure as he hung dying on the cross. I think it is also at least a faint recognition of the truth of Bloy’s statement that was in the background of our very presence here this morning—in other words, we want to be in touch, literally in touch, with the sacramental body and blood of Christ so as to be nourished and strengthened in the call to holiness that each of us once received at the time of our baptism.

But if sanctity is what all of us should rightly want, it is also worth noting that the very notion of sanctity has changed somewhat over the centuries. To go back to the beginning of Christianity, note how St. Paul regularly addresses the recipients of his letters as “the saints, the holy ones, hoi hagioi.” We don’t normally address one another in such terms today, and one reason for the change was pointed out some decades ago by a great Catholic writer, Romano Guardini, in a beautiful little book titled The Saints in Daily Christian Life. He notes that when Paul was writing his letters, to become a Christian was to make a momentous decision, often placing a person at odds with members of his or her own family, not to mention arousing suspicion and even hatred by the leaders of the Roman empire. At Mass two Thursdays ago we heard from the twelfth chapter of Luke’s Gospel Jesus’ words about causing division: “From now on a household of five will be divided against itself, three against two and two against three,” father against son, mother against daughter, and so forth. In other words, in those days it took a lot of courage to enter the community of Jesus’ followers, so it was natural enough for St. Paul to address those who had made that decision as “saints, holy ones.”

But when Christianity not only became permitted but was even made the state religion, the situation changed dramatically. Becoming a Christian could now be a way of social advancement, better employment, prestige, and with that change there came about a corresponding change in the very language of sanctity and sainthood. Now the holy ones were not the Christians en masse, but rather those who had taken special steps to set themselves apart from the common herd, people like Anthony of Egypt, who literally went out from the towns and cities to live much of his life in the seclusion of the desert. Even more strikingly were those who became martyrs, not in the broad sense of “witnessing” to Christ but in the narrow sense of witnessing by the very shedding of their blood. And so, down the centuries, for the most part those whom the Church honored as saints were those who really stood out: no longer just the “red martyrs,” but also those who dedicated their whole life to pondering the word of God and preaching or teaching it to others—like Augustine of Hippo or Thomas Aquinas or our own patron, Anselm of Canterbury. Still others made the huge sacrifice of leaving their native land to bring the Gospel to faraway lands—Patrick to Ireland, Boniface to the German-speaking lands of Europe, Francis Xavier to India and Japan. Others stood out for their truly heroic efforts to care for the poor, like Elizabeth of Hungary or Mother Cabrini or Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, who will surely be canonized before much longer. I think there is no doubt that when most of us were first learning something about Catholicism, these are the kinds of people we thought of when we heard the word “saint.”

That is still in many respects the case today. When Pope Francis was in Washington about six weeks ago, he canonized a man, Junipero Serra, whose prodigious labors in founding missions all along the coast of California far exceeded anything any of us will ever do. However, it is also surely true that Romano Guardini was correct when he claimed in that little book that the very notion of saint has changed rather significantly in recent times. Taking his cue from what a still earlier writer meant by “the sacrament of the present moment,” Guardini wrote that sanctity in our time “is less and less an obvious thing,” for what a truly holy person does “is no longer of ultimate importance, be it great, difficult, or dangerous—these things do not finally matter.” What does matter is that “it is a person who acts with God, and for God. There is nothing to call attention to the person. We might even work beside such a person, walk with him, and note nothing special. But someone whose spirit is attuned to see these things will notice a quiet freedom, a calm assurance, a spirit of love and orientation to the divine, a heart that remains joyous and glad in all cares and trials.”

Hearing that, you may well—and correctly—think of a saint like Thérèse of Lisieux, who (as I have said on other occasions) made so little impression on some of her fellow Carmelites that when she lay dying, she overheard two of them wondering about what they could possibly say about her on the obituary notices they would soon be sending to other Carmels—and yet this was a woman who with good reason has become one of the most beloved saints in the history of the Church. But rather than say more about her, it might be more to the point to talk about two persons whom Pope Francis canonized even more recently than Junipero Serra, namely, Thérèse’s own parents, Louis and Zélie Martin. Although people who lived and worked with them surely considered them rather exemplary Catholics, I expect very few of their acquaintances ever put them into the category of sainthood. In fact, one of the really interesting things about the many letters of Zélie that have been preserved is how down-to-earth they are. To be sure—and as you would expect—there are abundant passages in which, for example, she urges her brother to be more mindful of the things of God, but there are all sorts of other statements that have no religious connotation whatever and some that are not even particularly exemplary. Here are just a few snippets from some of them, all of them written to her brother living some miles away:

We sometimes think of “saints” as persons who never in any way flaunt their talents, but not Zélie. In one letter she writes: “I don’t have enough time to write longer; besides, the more I say to you, the more you will tease me about my style…. I did, however, win first prize in style in the past [when I was at school]. Out of eleven compositions, I won first prize then times, and then I was in the first division [at that school].”

In other letters, she refers to the way she and her brother would often argue with each other, and to the way he doesn’t compliment her for her efforts in staying in touch with him: “Come [visit us] soon if you can. We’ll have a good time together. We’ll argue a little, as we always do, that that will be a diversion. It’s a little way to pass the time…. I would have written to you [sooner], but you see, I wasn’t very happy. You had not said one word to me about my earlier letter, me, who stayed up so late to write it and was so tired.”

Or again, we tend to think of the saints as those who have no fear of death, seeing it only as the gateway to a better life. Not Zélie. She tells her brother: “I confess, death terrifies me. I just came from [the wake] seeing my [deceased] father-in-law. His arms are so still and his face so cold. And to think that I will see my family like that or that they will see me…. You may be accustomed to seeing death, [but as] for me, I had never seen it so close.”

There is no need to refer to still more passages. My main point is that we should not put the saints up on some lofty pedestal thinking that there’s one group of people who do and say everything in a totally exemplary way and then there’s the rest of us down below, admiring them from a distance. No, even those we recognize with the official honors of canonization were in many respects often quite down-to-earth in their words and feelings. The main thing is that they nevertheless had their sights fixed ultimately on the one thing—or better, the one Person—who really matters, and that it was ultimately in God that they put their trust. As we honor all of them on this great feast, may our participation in this Eucharist keep us as well on the way that leads to the kingdom.

Abbot James Wiseman
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Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed

  • November 2, 2015
  • Year B
  • by Fr. Michael

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Fr. Michael Hall
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St. Martin de Porres

  • November 1, 2015
  • Year B
  • by Abbot James

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The following is a homily given at mass when the staff of the superintendant for Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Washington were present at the abbey.

I expect some of you watched at least part of the World Series that ended a couple days ago, and perhaps still more of you regularly watch football games on weekends. Sports like baseball and football, even though definitely team sports, readily allow individuals to stand out as star players, whether it be for hitting home runs or throwing or catching passes for touchdowns. There is another sport that doesn’t attract a huge number of fans any more but that can tell us something important about life. I’m talking about eight-oar rowing. A friend recently gave me a book titled The Boys in the Boat, about the young men from the University of Washington who won the gold medal in that sport at the 1936 Olympics, much to the chagrin of Hitler and other Nazi leaders who expected the German team to win.

Now in that sport, it does make a difference just where an individual rower is seated. The one in the bow position (that is, nearest the finish line) has to be not only strong (like all the others) but also technically proficient, capable of pulling a perfect oar for stroke after stroke, sometimes for as far as four miles. The three rowers in the middle (the four, five, and six seats) are often called “the engine room,” for they are regularly the biggest and strongest persons in the boat. The rower in the eight seat is called “the stroke oar,” seated face-to-face with the coxswain and having to row precisely at the rate and with the degree of power called for by the coxswain, who in turn must know when to increase the rate, perhaps from thirty to thirty-four strokes per minute, depending on where the competing boats are and how fast they are going.

But if there are these subtle but important differences among the rowers, there is something more important that they have in common. Perhaps no other sport calls for such selflessness, for the team effort is what most matters. As the author of that book about the crew from the University of Washington puts it, “each man or woman in the boat must recognize his or her place in the fabric of the crew, accept it, and accept the others as they are. It is an exquisite thing when it all comes together in just the right way. The intense bonding and the sense of exhilaration that results from it are what many oarsmen row for…. But it takes young men or women of extraordinary character … to pull it off.”

After that lengthy introduction, I now want to relate all of this to what brings you here today and to what we heard in our first reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, for I think there is a close and important connection. That reading began with the words: “We, though many, are one Body in Christ and individually parts of one another. Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us exercise them.” Paul then lists some of the different gifts. There’s no need to repeat the details of his list, but let us keep in mind that all of us, and indeed all the rest of your colleagues who work for the Archdiocese of Washington, have different gifts, and the key thing is not to think that those of any one individual are the crucial ones. Not at all. Just as in the sport of eight-oar rowing, it is a matter of all working together, harmoniously and with mutual respect, toward a common goal.

We can see this in today’s saint, Martin de Porres. Here was a man who definitely did not stand out in his humble, even disgraceful beginnings, in Lima, Peru. He was born out of wedlock to a father who was a Spanish knight and a mother who was a freed black slave. When Martin was born, the father was so disconcerted at seeing that the infant had the complexion and features of his mother that the father wouldn’t even allow his name to appear on the birth certificate, meaning that Martin was illegitimate in the eyes of the state. And not only of the state but of the Church as well, for his illegitimacy prevented him from becoming a full-fledged Dominican lay brother until a special dispensation had been received, and that took a long while to come through. Before then, and for many years, Martin was a member of the Dominican Third Order and spent much of his time performing the most menial tasks. But he took very seriously the kind of teaching we heard in the final half of today’s reading from Romans, where Paul writes: “Love one another with mutual affection; anticipate one another in showing honor. Do not grow slack in zeal.” As Pope John XXIII said in his homily at the canonization of St. Martin in 1962, Martin “never failed to find excuses for the faults of others…. He made every effort to bring sinners to repentance. He nursed the sick devotedly, procuring food, clothing, and medicine for those too poor to buy them.”

For these and other reasons, we rightly honor Martin de Porres as one of the canonized saints, but he would have been the first to recognize and admit that the gifts he had and used so well were not necessarily the gifts that others have. We need many kinds of people serving in the Church, including each of you with your own particular responsibilities. The main thing is to use your own gifts as faithfully as you can, fulfilling your own duties in a way that doesn’t seek to bring glory to yourself but instead helps bring growth and support to the Church, especially the Church here in the Archdiocese of Washington. I hope that your time together here at the abbey for this day of retreat, with all of you rowing together in the only race that ultimately matters, will lead you ever closer to the finish line of God’s kingdom.

Abbot James Wiseman
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Thirty-Second Sunday of the Year

The readings give two very touching stories, remote from the comfort of our middle-class lives. Most of us don’t live hand-to-mouth or on the street. But the person sitting next to us may live more on the edge than we think.

The widow of Zarephath provides for Elijah, who, outside her culture, is not her prophet. We would understand if she said, “I’m sorry, I can’t help you; please go back to your own people; I hope someone there can help.” It is what a sensible person, responsible for her starving young son, would do. But she gives in to Elijah’s badgering and is miraculously rewarded for it. For one year the jar of flour does not go empty; the jug of oil does not go dry.

Flour and oil, body and blood, jar and jug: together these pairs represent the soul, the life-principle, the person, the true self. Even if we don’t know poverty or hunger first-hand, we each know what emptiness feels like, or emotional drought--the depression, the discouragement. For most of us these states are not miraculously overcome. It is significant that the widow is not given a year’s worth of flour and oil all at once. Too much flour and oil might turn, spoil, go buggy. She receives in the precarious terms of the Lord’s prayer: give us this day our daily bread. No hoarding for advance needs, which is the mistake of the man building barns in the parable.

Jesus uses the widow of Zarephath to insult his audience when he begins his ministry in the Nazareth synagogue. He has just read the luminous words of the prophet Isaiah: The spirit of the Lord is upon me. He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor; to proclaim release to captives, sight to the blind; to liberate the oppressed. To declare a year of jubilee. He concludes, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

He then ruins it all by attacking the national pride of his listeners. Foreigners, not you, will get blessings. As di Naaman the Syrian leper, cured by Elisha and the Zarephath widow, fed by Elijah in return for her generosity. Antagonizing your listeners, strange rhetorical technique: I am not brave enough to try it; why did Jesus? The degree of offence taken is excessive. Why did his listeners not shrug and give the Bronx cheer? The crowd tries to throw Jesus over the cliff. But he passes through the midst of them, and slips away. It makes good narrative, even if we can’t understand from this historical distance exactly what is going on.

The widow who gives two mites at the temple is strange too. Why is her gift more valuable and sincere than what the rich people put in? They may be giving sacrificially; a rich person’s heart may be in the right place; he or she is able to spread wider benefits. This is certainly what we believe today. We see such philanthropy in Bill and Melinda Gates. We can be snarky about their privilege, critical they made millions by Microsoft monopolizing the market. But I seriously ask myself, if I were Bill Gates, if I won the million-dollar lottery, would I do as much as he has, in a far-sighted and intelligent way, about the world’s problems? I hope I would do something constructive but I suspect I would treat myself too. The Gates home is said to have an underwater music system in their swimming pool. I wonder, could something similar be piped through my bike wheels?

I hope I would be as self-deprecating as Bill in his interview with Rolling Stone. “The moral systems of religion, I think, are super important. We've raised our kids in a religious way; they've gone to the Catholic church that Melinda goes to and I participate in. I've been very lucky, and therefore I owe it to try and reduce the inequity in the world. That's kind of a religious belief. I mean, it's at least a moral belief.” I like that he doesn’t claim too much. I like his gee-golly-gosh qualifiers: I think, I mean, kind of, very lucky, I participate in a church I don’t belong to, I owe it to try.

Would we hear more humility from the widow of Zarephath, or the two-mite lady at the temple? Could they express things any better than he does?

I like to picture the widow, with her son and Elijah, waiting out the drought. A drought Elijah brought on to punish Ahab who is out to get him for killing the prophets of Baal. It is somewhat like a revenge play, like Hamlet. I wonder whether behind the widow’s coins was an irregular marriage. Was she giving to an institution that considered her a second-class citizen?

The stories are not so much journalistic reporting as conundrums, koans, brain-teasers. We couldn’t act them out and expect good results. The Zarephath people would turn in the widow for harboring an undocumented immigrant; the temple lady would go on welfare. Is it responsible giving when you could actually earn your keep?

Jesus said, “It is more blessed to give than receive.” …Or did he? There is no evidence in the gospels for this statement. Paul refers to it in a farewell speech when (as so often, I am sorry to say) he is blowing his own horn. See Acts 20.

In his preaching heyday Abbot Aidan often presented the alternatives of pickpocket vs pilgrim. I won’t say this is the only thing I remember him saying (I won’t say this.) It’s a good question to ask. Which am I, giver or taker, as I pass through life? On the other hand (and there is always an other hand), when Jesus sends out the disciples, he says, “Take nothing for the journey, no backpack, walking-stick, no food, no money, no spare jacket. See if they welcome you.” That suggests you shouldn’t take, but you will have to receive. A pilgrim is not isolated, but connected. Therefore we must learn to receive gracefully, thankfully, humbly, not as if we are entitled to it.

Ultimately, giving is a response of gratitude for God’s provision. The widow of Zarephath and the woman at the temple treasury learned this, maybe not instantly, maybe gradually over time. It is worth considering the jug and the jar in our hearts. Are they empty, full--or half-full because we have baked our bread and shared it with someone? In sharing what we have, will we find that the jar does not go empty, that the jug does not go dry?

Fr. Gabriel Myers
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Thirty-Third Sunday of the Year

  • November 15, 2015
  • Year B
  • by Fr. Brendan Coffey
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Fr. Brendan Coffey
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Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe

So often we think of this great solemnity, Christ the Universal King, as an end--the end of liturgical year, and as the culmination of all that has come before, starting with Advent and Christmas, when Jesus first appeared in the world. We think of His public ministry in which He laid the foundation for the coming Kingdom of God and the formation of His disciples. We think of the opposition of the Jewish leaders which led to His passion and death. And finally His triumphant resurrection and ascension, the sending forth of the Holy Spirit to constitute the Church. And that is where we are now--the culmination of all that, singing, "Crown Him with Many Crowns."

That brings us to where we are now. But rather than being a conclusion to what had gone before, it should rather be a beginning, a beginning of where we go from here. Jesus did not come simply to be crowned king of the universe; He came to establish the kingdom of God. When He said, "The Kingdom of God is at hand," we must understand that "at hand" in terms of God's eternity, according to which one day is a thousand years and a thousand years a day.

What does the Bible tell us the final stage will be? There are passages that suggest a fiery conflagration, and there are not lacking people who long for that kind of an ending; any other would disappoint them. Self-satisfied, they are sure they will escape it. Like the ones whose cars bear the bumper stickers: “In case of rapture, this vehicle will be unmanned.” They may be surprised.

But there are other visions of the end. The one I like, from the prophet Isaiah, goes like this:

“In days to come,
The mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest mountain
and raised above the hills.
All nations shall stream toward it.
Many peoples shall come and say:
”Come, let us go up to the Lord’s mountain,
to the house of the God of Jacob,
That he may instruct us in his ways,
and we may walk in his paths.”
For from Zion will go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and set terms for many peoples.
They shall beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks;
One nation shall not raise the sword against another,
nor shall they train for war again.”

Obviously this is not the world in which we live. All we need mention are the words ISIS, Taliban, Syria. In the Holy Land of the Chosen People we see conflict between the Israeli and the Palestinians. Is this the Kingdom of God that Jesus came to proclaim and establish? Would He be happy to return and claim this as His kingdom? I think not. What is the answer? I think the answer is that the Kingdom of God is a work in progress. Like the little kid who says, “Be patient: God hasn’t finished with me yet.” Is this a realistic answer? Don’t underestimate God’s patience. I think we can take evolution as an analogy. God could have created our universe in an instant, but instead He chose the way of self-development that we call “evolution,” a process that took billions of years. The fossil record demonstrates that in this process there were many false starts that led nowhere, requiring many new beginnings, but the universe is now a thing of beauty, the human body, the human brain, for example, a marvel of complexity, of efficiency. Why should history, even salvation history be any different?

Is it realistic to expect any real progress toward what the world should be? If we believe in God’s power, His love, His mercy, the answer is “yes.” Let’s take an example from the Old Testament. Israel then was a mere postage stamp on the face of the earth, a tiny country surrounded by mighty empires—the Babylonian, the Assyrian, Egyptian, followed by the Greek and Roman, each with their own pantheon and magnificent temples, yet Israel dared proclaim their God was Lord of all and proclaimed it dozens of times in their psalms “Praise the LORD, all you nations! Glorify him, all you peoples!” “All kings of the earth will praise you, LORD” “Let all the earth fear the LORD” and countless variations. Astounding! And yet there is now no continent, no nation, no people that does not contain worshipers of the God of Israel. This is real progress, humanly inexplicable.

This is the sort of thing projected in the parable of the leaven. A little pinch of yeast can leaven a whole batch of dough, yet it works so quietly, slowly, imperceptibly until we suddenly realize what has been accomplished.

Surprisingly, modern technology comes to our aid: now we can say, in a real sense, the whole earth is one. Somewhere a plane goes down, there’s an earthquake, a flood, and within minutes the whole world knows about it. Not only disasters; it extends also to negotiations, proclamations of leaders, progress toward peace. We are all one in hopes, all one in fears. There may be Muslim extremists, but there are also Muslim leaders to tell the world that that is not the teaching of the Koran.

The League of Nations was one beginning that came to nothing. We now have the United Nations, the European Union, the ecumenical movement. They may all come to nothing, but the movement is toward unity, understanding, peaceful solutions. God is very patient. It took the universe billions of years to evolve whereas humankind has been around for perhaps a million years. And while God allowed evolution to follow its own course, according to the best thinkers, we now have a Universal King who is neither indifferent nor powerless with reference to our world’s progress. There is also hope in the way our new Pope, Pope Francis, is determined to lead us, the way of the gospel, wanting a Church concerned for the poor, for peace, for mercy, and for dialogue.

We should not think that the end of all this is pre-determined. We needn’t, shouldn’t believe it is the will of Our Lord, the God of all mercy, that all should end up in a fiery Armageddon. It could end up that way, but in a certain, very real sense, it is up to us. There is a prayer to Christ, King of the Universe that is worth praying every day: “Lord Jesus, I acknowledge Thee King of the Universe; all that has been created has been made for Thee. Exercise upon me all Thy rights. Lord Jesus, I offer Thee my poor actions that all may acknowledge Thy sacred kingship so that thus Thy peace may be established throughout the universe.” Let us put that prayer into action. What actions do we offer Him? Do we choose leaders whose policies lead to peace or war? Do we, individually, choose belligerence or reconciliation? Do we exercise mercy? Mercy is sort of like leaven: it spreads itself around, can permeate the world. Our actions may be “poor,” but, added to the power of our Almighty King, they are irresistible.

There are those who positively anticipate with longing a fiery ending (for others, that is) and we can sympathize with their disappointment, just as we can sympathize with those sitting on their roofs waiting for the Rapture. We can console them by reminding them that “no one ever said that life is fair.” We, however, can look forward to the end foretold by Isaiah, when “one nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again,” to which the prophet added, “House of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.” We have a King who ardently desires peace and we should pray that He will lead us in the ways of peace, the way the Kingdom of God must end up.

Fr. Joseph Jensen
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First Sunday of Advent

  • November 29, 2015
  • Year C
  • by Fr. Christopher

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Fr. Christopher Wyvill
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