The following Rector's Conference was given on 4 September 2014.
When St. Francis heard the voice of Jesus speak to him from the crucifix in the crumbling church of San Damiano, he set out with a naïve stubbornness, taking the Lord’s command literally: Rebuild my Church!
So he set about literally rebuilding the church of Saint Damien and then the little chapel we now call the porziuncula, the site of both the birth of the Franciscans and the death of their founder.
I have always loved the porziuncula as a prototype of what a church could be. Unpretentious but washed in Grace, beautiful, but with a beauty which points beyond itself, its walls encrusted with the prayers and the tears of generations of folks like you and me.
But what impresses me the most about this impressive little chapel is what it says on the floor at the door as you enter. Hic Locus Sanctus Est. “This Place is Holy.” It is the ultimate Iconium to a building, and the ultimate purpose of each man’s life: to be called holy, beatus, sanctus.
That was so evident a couple years ago when I stood with a quarter of a million folks in Piazza San Pietro, as the Holy Father canonized Saint Kateri Tekakwitha.
It meant so much to me because 34 years ago I was a seminarian in Rome as Kateri was first called beatus, blessed. But now, the Pope solemnly proclaimed her to be known as Sanctus, Holy, St. Kateri, the Lily of the Mohawks.
Of course, only God is truly holy, as the angels who stand before the throne understand.
But the Saints who aspire to join their voices with the heavenly hosts know that they were made by God to reflect his glory, to shine with the splendorous light of the face of God. It may be only a reflection, but we were made for this great work. And we spend our lives polishing our souls and refocusing our hearts that we might be worthy of the work.
The Council fathers wonderfully envisioned the whole world called to holiness: priests and popes, and parents and toddlers, even politicians and pawn brokers, each called to holiness, preparing themselves for an eternal destiny of praising the God whom they have spent a lifetime seeking to reflect (as in a mirror, darkly), day by day.
“...all the disciples of Christ, persevering in prayer and praising God, should present themselves as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God.” (Lumen Gentium, no. 10.)
Seminarians, of course, are especially called to holiness, and tonight I would like to suggest three of the many roads which might help you to get there. These roads are as unpretentious as they are eminently practical. They are three simple ways which this aging cleric has found to be useful in trimming his sails and seeking to be just a little less self-centered and a little closer to God. Three roads to holiness.
Thankful Prayer, the Poor, and Perdurance.
Timothy Dexter is one of the most colorful characters to walk the fields of Massachusetts in the decades following the American Revolution. Born in Malden, he made his first fortune by speculating in Continental currency. His continuing success was due to a combination of audacity and incredible good luck.
Against all odds, he exported wool mittens to the West Indies, at just the time an exporter in that tropical climate began shipping to Siberia. Next, he literally sent coals to Newcastle, at just the moment a British coal miner’s strike made him a fortune there. He exported Bibles to the Muslim East Indies, stray cats to the Caribbean, and having hoarded a warehouse full of whalebone, by necessity invented the whalebone corset, which became all the rage in nineteenth century New England.
He was eccentric, but wise beyond his capacity, and never ceased to attribute his multiple successes to those who helped him along the way. Indeed, gratitude was, in his view, the most important of virtues.
“An ungrateful man,” he would frequently say, ‘is like a hog under a tree eating acorns, who never looks up to see where they came from.’
Remember the nine lepers in the Gospel parable who were just such narcissistic hogs? Only one came back to give thanks, but the nine who were cleansed of their disease, cured of their disability, now set on getting on with their life, with not a smidgen of gratitude and not a word of thanks to the Lord who cured them.
And we are not so very different. Sadly, ingratitude is so rampant in our day and age that we often become surprised by folks who are habitually grateful.
On the day I received my last postgraduate degree I practically sprained my wrist patting myself on the back. But did I think of Miss Lucasak who first taught me cursive in third grade, or Miss Morin who encouraged us to write those one page essays with the pictures two years later. Did I think of the Priest who first inspired me with a love for the Liturgy, or my parents who put me through College, or the inspiring professors I had come to know along the way. Did I think of the scholars who had constructed that world of knowledge in which I had gained some small degree of proficiency, or those who built the institutions which had led me through those mysteries.
No, I thought of none of them, I never gave them a thought or a prayer. I never said thank-you. Just like the ungrateful lepers, I got on with my life and I never looked back.
I was like the cancer patient, who through the chemo and radiation begs God for just a few more years to see her daughter married or her grandchild graduate. She prays with fervor, begging God in the early morning darkness to hear her prayers, bargaining and promising that God will be all that really matters in whatever years he might graciously give her…and when she’s cancer free, things get back to normal...minus the fervent prayer, the desperate search for God, and the repeated pledges to do his will. She gets back to living HER life, and gives God the hour on Sunday, as long as she doesn’t have something more important to do. She gets on with her life and never looks back.
It’s like the sad anger of the spouse who stands by the grave of the woman he has loved for sixty years and with bitterness blames God for taking her from him. His God at that moment is a cruel puppet master, who pulls the strings and makes us dance, and causes the dark evil of death and suffering in fulfillment of some perverse scheme of manipulation. And as he stands there he forgets the day that God brought together two young teens as the light of their lives in the dark days of the depression, skating at Elm Park and knowing that nothing could ever be this beautiful. He forgets the first time they wept with perfect joy, cradling their newborn baby in their arms, convinced no God could ever be this good, and no child could ever be so beautiful. He forgets the infinite number of sacrifices, acts of mercy: tiny expressions of exquisite love all made possible by that same God’s unbelievably gracious love for him.
For right now, he is blinded by the pain, and all he can do is cling to the darkness...he has to get on with it and he can’t look back.
It’s like those who were Baptized into Christ, learned to pray, made their First Communion and maybe were confirmed, but who now seem to have forgotten where the Church is, who seldom say a prayer, feed the poor, forgive, or even seek to love others as they were loved. They go about living their lives, happy enough, but never full satisfied, getting along, but still uncertain about what it really means.
Sure they know joy, for a moment, in the money, in the power, in the successful career, in all the thousands of little reflections of God’s goodness which this wonderful world contains. But all they see are glimmers and reflections. Never the full face of him who waits for them, never the splendrous glory of his care for them, never the beauty of listening to him, never the strength of receiving him, never the joy of giving thanks.
For they have things to do, and they will continue to take, without looking back, and never say thank you.
And then there’s you and me. Fickle, self-absorbed, and sinful as we are, we still try to crane our necks to at least look back. To break the bread, to tell the story, and to give thanks as best we are able.
For that is what we do each day in this holy house: We celebrate the Eucharist, the thanksgiving: a memorial of recollection and gratitude, in which we remember all that He has done for us, from our first breath to our last, the love, the mercy, the sacrifice....the faith which makes sense of the darkest days and the mystery which defeats the deadly with eternal joy and eternal life.
Which is why, at Mass, speaking in the person of Christ himself, the priest calls out to us: Lift up your hearts. And we lift them up to the Lord.
And unlike ungrateful lepers or hogs, we will give thanks to the Lord our God. For it is right to give him thanks and praise.
We’ve only been back to school for a couple weeks, which means that in about another seven we’ll have mid-terms. And I am certain that as you will prepare for those exams you would love to have an answer key. Because if you know the answers to the exam, it's very easy to prepare for it.
Well we have the answers to our final exam. Not the one which Father Cessario or Father Van De Moortell gave to their students, but the one which Christ will give to Father Cessario and Father Van De Moortell and Monsignor Moroney and to each one of us. Christ gave us the answers when he told us that we would go to heaven or hell based upon how we treated the least of our brothers and sisters:
I was sick....did you care for me?
I was hungry....did you feed me?
I was in prison.....did you visit me?
I was naked....did you clothe me?
We've got the answers to the final exam. Shouldn't be too hard to prepare for it, then!
Remember when the Lord told us about the rich man who failed the test. Remember Lazarus, the poor wretch who used to beg for food on the front steps of the rich man's house, and how the dogs used to come and lick the sores on Lazarus' body, while the rich man turned his head the other way and stepped over the beggar on his front stoop.
And you remember how Lazarus went to heaven and the rich man went to hell.
Why did the rich man go to hell? Because he was rich? No...there's no sin there. He went to hell because he failed to love his brother. And who is his brother. Well, that was last week's parable.
Hospitality, love for the stranger and the alien, the poor wretch and the one whom everyone else forgets is the only correct answer to get into the Kingdom of Heaven.
That's what Abraham and Sarah teach us when the three strangers go walking by their tent on a stinking hot day. They could have ignored this trinity of strangers, but they did not. They invited them in, bathed their feet, gave them something cool to drink and cared for them. Why? Because they knew they were divine messengers? No. They invited them in because God would have wanted them to. And because they did, God fulfilled his covenant with the elderly and childless couple, promising them a son, Isaac, the son of laughter in their old age.
The first path to heaven, then, is hospitality, for hospitality's sake.
And then remember the other Lazarus, Jesus's dear friend. Lazarus is there along with his sisters Martha and Mary.
Martha understands hospitality. She's cooking the meal, running around the kitchen, setting the table, seating the guests and breathlessly exhausting herself in order that everyone might be at home.
But then she looks over at Mary, who, we are told, is sitting at the Lord's feet, listening to him, deep in conversation with Jesus. The sweaty and exhausted Martha is enraged....so enraged that she goes right up to Jesus, and in words that could only have come from a friend says to him: tell that sister of mine to help me rather than sitting on her....chair chatting with you all day.
And then Jesus tells us something extraordinary. He tells us that there is an even more excellent way, a better part than hospitality. The better part which Mary has chosen, is to spend time alone with the Lord, and that better part shall not be taken from her.
So, hospitality, feeding the poor, forgiving and embracing the stranger, welcoming those rejected by everyone else...are indispensable to those who seek to walk the path to holiness. But one thing more is required, to pray, to listen and to dwell with the Lord.
I have a lot of friends who are great social workers, selfless advocates for the poor and the downtrodden. Indeed, for many years, I used to do spiritual direction with a lot of Catholic Workers and Jesuit volunteers and the like. And you know what one thing they struggle with more than anything else. Its not the getting up in the middle of the night to drive someone to detox, or having the patience to put up with all the stresses of working with the poor...it's shutting up long enough to pray, and stopping “doing stuff” long enough to sit at the feet of the Lord and listen to him. The Martha in them would keep them going, twenty-four hours a day, like the energizer bunny, running in circles. But what they need is contemplation, and quiet and peace with the Lord, if it's all ever going to make sense.
I also have friends in monasteries, like the Trappists in Gethsemane Abbey in Tennessee, where I preached their retreat a couple years back. They are wonderful monks, who pray five times a day with an intensity and a joy which is a marvel to behold. But you know what their struggles are? Forgiving that monk who gave them a dirty look, or putting up with that guy who entered with them thirty years ago whom they've never been able to stand, or seeking out and caring for the monk who is struggling and alone.
For the second road to holiness is paved over two paths: hospitality and prayer, Martha and Mary.
And they are not really two paths at all, but the one path which leads to the cross of Jesus, to the perfect sacrifice of love and devotion, which is our hope, our salvation and the only way to heaven.
And the final key to holiness for the seminarian and the priest is perdurance.
I think I first started to learn the importance of perdurance as a little child. Did you ever read The Little Engine that Could? It’s been among the most popular children’s books since it was first published in 1930.
The story is of the littlest engine in the railroad yard, whose sole job was moving trains back and forth for maintenance but, due to its size, was never deemed appropriate for more ambitious long hauls.
One morning, as the little engine was waiting for its next assignment, it noticed a long line of heavy freight cars and the engine which usually pulled them looking for a replacement. One after another, the bigger engines refused the job with he excuse: "I can't; that is too much a pull for me.” In desperation, the freight cars asked the littlest engine to draw it them up one side of the hill and down on the other.
"I think I can," puffed the little locomotive, and put itself in front of the great heavy train. As it went on the little engine kept bravely puffing faster and faster, "I think I can, I think I can, I think I can."
As it neared the top of the grade, which had so discouraged the larger engines, it went more slowly. However, it still kept saying, "I—think—I—can, I—think—I—can."
It reached the top because it just wouldn’t give up. And as it descended the little engine puffed to itself: "I thought I could, I thought I could."
That little story was my first lesson in not giving up, not limiting God’s grace, not doubting that God will give me whatever I needed to do whatever he asked me to do.
A True Story:
John was twenty years old when Father Balley opened a seminary near his home town. The problem was that John was not very good at academics, having no more than a little arithmetic, history, and geography from his elementary education. His early writings reveal that he found Latin extremely difficult and he and his best friend Matthew would sit up late at night reciting declensions, which he never really mastered.
But if this wasn’t enough, a war broke out and John was drafted into the army. After basic training he lasted less than a week. You see, in the morning his regiment was due to march into battle for the first time, so John got up before the sun rose and snuck off to Church to pray. However, he lost track of time, and when he returned to camp his regiment had already left. While he escaped being punished for that incident, he soon decided that military life for not for him and he joined the resistance, deserting the army and serving as the schoolmaster in a nearby town under an assumed name for over a year. When he eventually contacted his family, his Father, was naturally furious with him. In the end, his brother volunteered to join the army in his place and no charges were ever brought.
So he returned home to try the Seminary again. However, his Latin was still so bad, that he failed the entrance exam the first time around, but kept trying and eventually passed.
Three years later he was ordained a Priest and sent as the associate to Father Balley, the good Priest who first encouraged him before the war. But Father Balley died within a few years and Father John was sent to one of the smallest and most remote parishes in the entire Diocese.
And from that parish, John Baptiste Vianney, the Cure of Ars, transformed the Priesthood and revitalized the Church, which is why Pope Benedict XVI named him the patron of all Priests, for Father John “taught his parishioners [not just by words, but] primarily by the witness of his life.”
If Father John Baptiste, with all his troubles and failings, could do God’s will so well, so can every man who hears my voice right now.
Never be afraid my brothers. Listen carefully for his voice from deep within your heart. And know that they’re waiting for you our there...all those sheep without a shepherd.
So be thankful, love the poor, and hang in there in joyful hope. And you, like Kateri Tekakwitha and the Curé of Ars and all those who dwell in heaven will be holy in God’s sight and live with him forever in glory!
It’s just that simple.
God bless you.