Click this link to hear my homily for Holy Family Sunday!
Yesterday’s feast of St. Thomas Becket is a great day for:
Thoughts about personal conversion – Thomas’ transformation from “BFF of King Henry II” to “staunch defender of the faith, man of prayer and servant of the poor” is legendary and beautifully portrayed by Richard Burton in “Becket.”
Cheering for the freedom of the Church – Thomas advocated for the freedom of the Church from the interference of the state, and it cost him his life.
Praying for and with Peter…
St. Thomas had a great affection for the Pope. On the one hand, one could easily say that his affection was out of political necessity: The freedom of the Church in England, threatened by the King, depended on the external power of the Pope to keep it safe. On the other, Thomas’ own words look to a deeper appreciation for the Petrine Office. “…the Roman Church remains the head of all the churches and the source of Catholic teaching. Of this there can be no doubt. Everyone knows that the keys of the kingdom of heaven were given to Peter. Upon his faith and teaching the whole fabric of the Church will continue to be built until we all reach full maturity in Christ and attain to unity in faith and knowledge of the Son of God.”
Praying with Thomas’ words yesterday, I️ was taken back to my own time in Rome, studying in the shadow of the dome. That Peter is the principle of unity within the Church cannot be doubted today anymore than in Thomas’ time. But that rock solid certainty doesn’t make the life or job of the Pope any easier. Indeed back in the twelfth century, even though Church authorities knew Thomas was right, they hedged… The Pope took a certain amount of politics into consideration and forced Thomas to negotiate… perhaps more than the saint would’ve on his own. Who was right? We’ll never know… Thomas’ martyrdom took care of that, fundamentally changing the equation. In the same letter quoted above (From Thomas’ Office of Readings), the saint goes on to say, “…many are needed to plant and many to water… Nevertheless, no matter who plants or waters, God gives no harvest unless what he plants is the faith of Peter…”. Peter is essential, but he does not exist in a vacuum. Others are needed to help by “planting and watering.” In Peter’s own time it was Paul, who corrected him about the place of Gentiles in the Church… Andrew his brother who no doubt supported him as only family can… John the fearless beloved who inspired… and Mary the Mother of Jesus who loved and forgave Peter in his weakness. Only by working together did the Church move forward under Peter’s guidance. In St. Thomas’ time the Church only moved forward through unity with Peter, the service of the other bishops, and Thomas’ own supreme sacrifice. Life really isn’t much different today. Peter is absolutely necessary, but it doesn’t make him perfect any more than St. Peter himself or the medieval Popes of St. Thomas Becket’s day. He needs our help and our prayers. In this way, we can all participate -in our own degree- in the collegiality so often called for by the Holy Father. Saint Thomas, pray for us, and for Peter!
Today, Gaudete or Rejoicing Sunday, Scripture advises:
Brothers and sisters:
Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing.
In all circumstances give thanks,
for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.
Do not quench the Spirit.
Do not despise prophetic utterances. (cf I Thess. 5:16-24)
Of all the things Scripture commands, this should be the easiest. After all, who doesn’t want to rejoice. Nonetheless, it can be a challenge. Here in DC folks tend to get very “big picture;” some because it’s their sworn responsibility to keep their eye on the big picture, but for most of us there is a mysterious, mesmerizing allure to anxiety about the “big pictures” of our lives. It could be politics. It could be family. It could be our efforts on behalf of the most benign causes in civil society. It almost inevitably generates a sentiment, “Everything’s falling apart,” that colors our whole outlook. I call it “Big Picture-itis.” It’s the same feeling I got at university starting each semester. I’d look over all my courses’ curricula and feel completely overwhelmed. The only way forward was one reading assignment at a time… little picture.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve just gotten a dog. Puppy that she is, and novice that I am at bing a dog owner, she’s a handful. That said, the “little picture,” focus I’ve been keeping on getting to know my dog has put big picture demons back in their appropriate boxes. Laying on the couch one night, Annie (my puppy) began to lick my face. It tickled and I couldn’t stop smiling even as I struggled to shift her squirmy form away from me. I rejoiced that the Lord had given me a moment of light and joy via my dog… and then I rejoiced even more because I recognized I had been touched by God (again, via my dog… I don’t worship animals). On the flip side, Annie and I were walking yesterday. She leapt into one of the church flower beds, sniffing as she moved. All perfectly normal, but then she tried to eat one of the wood chips… with lightning speed my hands were on her muzzle, gently prying her jaw open and reaching in to remove the choke-hazard… Only it wasn’t a wood chip she’d chomped on, it was another dog’s droppings. I cleared the…material… from Annie’s mouth and cleaned my own hands in a little pile of snow. Humiliation, humility… Lord, you have shown me my smallness! I was, spiritually aware of being on the cross with Jesus. I was angry and frustrated for a moment, but then felt privileged to be with the Lord. I rejoiced. Annie and I walked on.
One might protest, “Now wait a minute… This isn’t exactly John-the- Baptist-style rejoicing. Can you really claim that ‘the Spirit of the Lord is upon you’ (Is. 61) as you have these ‘little picture’ moments?” The answer is: YES… and so did John.
Think about it… John the Baptist came, today’s Gospel (Jn 1:6-28) tells us, “for testimony.” And to what was he testifying? …That God had touched him and would touch others. This doesn’t exactly require an ad campaign made in Madison Avenue. John proved that too… he lived in simplicity in the desert wearing camel hair, eating locusts and honey. He didn’t begin with a crowd of thousands… more likely he met whoever was passing by and had very normal conversation with them. His listeners then testified and then the crowds got big.
Are we really so very different? This Advent, “don’t quench the Spirit.” Believe that the little picture ways in which God touches you are indeed full of his Spirit and share that story with others. When you do you will have rejoiced and given them the perfect gift.
Friends from around the country will often – half jokingly – lead off conversations with me, “Now father, what you gotta do is tell those people in DC what it’s really like out here…” The assumption is that priests in DC spend most of their time hobnobbing with senators and secretaries from executive departments. Reality couldn’t be farther from the truth. That said, having served on Capitol Hill, I do run into a few familiar faces from the House now and then. All are hard working, remarkably normal people who are struggling just as much as anyone else in America to figure out this thing called life. I ran into one such leader a few days ago. I was happy to see him, and he seemed happy to run into me too. Approaching, however, I was taken aback. The first words out of this person’s mouth were an avalanche of commentary on the tax bills being considered by Congress. My heart was moved with pity. While our representatives in Washington need to be diligent about policy, they can only really do that if they are first and foremost human beings. I felt like my friend had been reduced to a machine-like state, his beautiful personality overridden by concerns of the day, the creator overrun by his creation. “Martha you are worried about many things…” It was a split-second thought process. Replying I Just said, “We’re all praying for you to have the gift of prudence. Now, how are your grandchildren?” His face flickered, something in his eyes changed. We talked for a few minutes; he was off to his next commitment, I to mine, but before we parted my friend said to me, “I’m just so scared.” I told him, “I know, but even if this all ends, it’s not the end.” We exchanged smiles and went our ways. In that moment of expressed vulnerability my friend was his normal self again. The man overrode the machine once more.
Rome too has known many moments such as as these. One was 1527 and the decades following. The Holy Roman Emperor, in a spat with the Pope, had descended from Germany to sack the city. People at the time thought it was literally the end of the world. The Protestant Reformation had begun just ten years prior, and now Catholicism’s two principal leaders were fighting… Rome seemed to be burning. Incidentally, this historical moment was part of the inspiration for Michaelangelo’s Last Judgment. But from the ruins emerged great saints to restore the city and the Church. Philip Neri taught us to be hermits in the city, not to take ourselves too seriously and always to seek first the Kingdom of God. Ignatius and Francis Xavier turned our eyes to the world and missionary possibilities. Camillus and Felix refocused us on the needs of the poor. The list goes on and on, but eventually these holy heavyweights would rebuild the Church, restoring in her the image of Christ for all the world to see. Their effort hinged on that truth the Spirit spoke through me to my friend on the Hill, “even if this all ends, it is not the end.”
Hanging in the National Gallery of Art is an Adoration of the Magi by Sandro Botticelli. You’ll notice that, as often happens in such scenes, the simple wooden framework of the manger/crèche seems to emerge from classical ruins. As usual in renaissance art, this is not an accident. The artist wants to remind us that even as the old world falls apart around us, Jesus is ever and always building up the new world of tomorrow. New structures, fitted to the deepest needs of our humanity will rise from the ashes of the old… until the day when, “the heavens will pass away with a mighty roar and the elements be dissolved by fire.” (II Pt. 3). Until then, what can we do? Be builders!
Here in DC there are many. Our campus ministries and College Knights of Columbus Councils (especially at GW, CUA and UMD) are doing incredible evangelizing work among our student population. The DC Catholic Young Adult Ministry, The Catholic Information Center, Dominican House of Studies, Oratory and downtown parishes are building up the young professional class in Christ. Our parishes are havens of prayer and mercy healing and supplying the needs of all…. Again, the list goes on and on. There are so many involved in building up the manger in DC! For those of us living amidst the hazards of the manger construction zone there are anxieties to be sure… injuries to be sustained along the way. For us there is only St. Peter’s advice, “conduct yourselves in holiness and devotion” with your eyes of what matters most, our heavenly homeland, and our humanity. If we do that, we are assured that even if this all ends, it is not the end. Be aware! Keep watch! The manger emerges.
It’s finally happened… I have become the perfect DC cliche: I am a 30-something professional living in the city with my dog. This past Sunday (on our parish’s patronal feast of St. Francis Xavier as it happens) I brought home a beautiful retriever puppy named Annie. So, just as the Church is beginning a year of new life in this first week of Advent, the Lord breathes new life into my personal story. It’s a new life for Annie as well. She’s a refugee from the hurricane season in Puerto Rico. I’m told that she was abandoned at about 1 month old, along with her brother, on the runway at San Juan airport as other animals were being loaded on a plane for transport to adoption centers on the mainland. Thanks be to God, the airport workers took pity on her. Our first week together has been a revelation as we get to know each other, and as I get to know the ways of canines generally. To this end, I highly recommend, “The Art of Raising a Puppy,” by the Monks of New Skete, NY. These Orthodox monks have become experts at breeding German Shepherds, and have written several excellent books on how to raise dogs. But back to Annie and me…
As I mentioned, this first week has been a revelation: plenty of care, plenty of discipline and self-surrender, and tons of joy! …and it goes both ways. Annie has been learning and thriving in her new life, and so have I. It strikes me as particularly appropriate that all this newness comes about as we celebrate the Immaculate Conception: a day totally dedicated to marking the new beginning of goodness planned by God from before the beginning of time. Man could never have imagined how God would prepare for his entry into the world in Christ. Today’s Office of Readings compares it to the building of the Temple. In Chronicles 17:1-15 David wants to build a house, a place for the Lord to come into the world… but God has other plans. He tells David that it is not he, but his son Solomon who will build the Temple. I never imagined, driving to the adoption event on Sunday that I’d be coming home with a dog! A friend who’s involved in dog rescues called me to tell me that Annie would be at this event. She said, “This dog is perfect for you, can you get out to Tyson’s Corner fast?” I told her that, providentially, I was already on my way when she’d called.” An hour later Annie and I were driving home.
Today, celebrate the Immaculate Conception. Take some time to ask, “Lord how are YOU sending new life into my experience?” It comes in the most unexpected of ways. I’d write more… and will write more, but Annie needs to… well you know… Gotta go!