The Gospel for today brings forward the perennial question which Our Holy Father has made a point of asking many times in his pontificate, Who is a Pharisee? The Pharisees of Our Lord’s time were a class of Jews, careful adherents to the law of Moses, political rebels hoping for the overthrow of the Roman government. Jesus often upbraided them for two things: they added to the Mosaic Law when it suited their interests though it often led to omitting actual items of the Law itself, and they ostracized all who did not adhere to their opinions and practice. Thus the elect were to be found among the Pharisees’ sect and nowhere else.
The publican, in contrast, was in essence a public sinner. They collected taxes from Jews on behalf of the Roman government, and often used their position to make themselves wealthy, charging the Jews more than was actually due. Though most publicans were Jews, they were considered enemies of their own people and were ostracized by their fellow Jews as much as Roman law allowed, pushed to the fringes of society.
Whom does Pope Francis consider to be the Pharisee and the publican in today’s world? The Pharisee is the one who has a moral system in place and operates only within that moral system, not making reasonable exceptions and extending mercy only to the pure according to such standards. Because of this, they also hate those who extend mercy to others and forget that the most practical way to help a sinner is to associate with them in the same way that Christ did when he walked the earth. Oftentimes they live according to fear: fear that if the status quo is overturned, the security they feel in their religion will be lost.
The publican, in contrast, is anyone who finds himself shut out from the Church due to some visible social sin in his life: usually the Pope points to those with marital irregularities such as divorce and remarriage or cohabitation, or to those with homosexual tendencies.
His point is that Pharisees, whether of Our Lord’s time or of today, construct a religious system so they can have clear standards of right and wrong and then believe that by doing the right things, one is saved. Thus the moral life is based solely on externals and it has a Pelagian flavor to it: one man saves himself by doing the right things; another man condemns himself by doing the wrong things; the grace of God does not even enter into the question. As St. Augustine says, “In all the Pharisee’s words seek out for any one thing that he asked of God, and you will find nothing. He went up to pray: he had no mind to pray to God, but to laud himself. … More than this he even mocked him that did pray… Let now those ungodly babblers, whosoever they be, who presume on their own strength, let them hear and see these things: let them hear who say, God made me a man, I make myself just.”
Pope Francis has tried to further his point by making comments that seem to encourage relativism; saying that we cannot judge exteriors. In July of 2013, he famously said, “When I meet a gay person, I have to distinguish between their being gay and being part of a lobby. If they accept the Lord and have goodwill, who am I to judge them? They shouldn't be marginalized. The tendency (to homosexuality) is not the problem.” If you heard this reported in the media, you, like me, perhaps only heard a condensed version, which amounted to “If they accept the Lord and have goodwill, who I am to judge a gay person?” The statement is more nuanced than that, but still is problematic.
He first says that we must distinguish between a gay person and the gay lobby, and that is a very good point. In this very town, there are some who are gay and live that life quietly, and there are some who are part of a vociferous party that strives for social change. They must be treated differently; the one should be kindly received and then spoken to about the truth; the other should be challenged in the public sphere and not allowed to make a mockery of Christ or His Church. It is parallel to someone who struggles with the vice of pornography and someone who promotes and disseminates it. We must make distinctions; it is the mark of error that it simplifies the truth and allows for no nuances or difficulties, whereas truth is open to the full spectrum of reality, and where human morality is concerned, there is much at play.
The Pope goes on to say that if a gay person accepts the Lord and has goodwill, it is not his job to judge him. This is also true, if judge is properly understood. We cannot judge the interior life of a person because we usually have no knowledge of their motivations, and almost always we have no knowledge of how their past has shaped their present. Sexual vice and perversion often has its root in emotional abuse and neglect suffered during childhood and adolescence, and so all the more we cannot put together the reasons why a person is drawn toward disordered sexuality, as it is too complex to explain and becomes part of the nexus that St. Paul speaks when he says in Romans, “That which I wish, that I do not do, but that which I wish not, that I do.”
But we should also ask, What does it mean for a person to accept the Lord and have goodwill? In his excellent book on sexual virtue, Paul Gondreau, professor of theology at Providence College, makes the point that many young men in college are not struggling with incontinence; rather, they are simply unchaste. They have no intention to live an upright moral life in regard to sexuality, and so they should not be considered as repentant sinners. We do have a right and even a duty to judge such behavior as destructive of both individuals and society. Promiscuity of whatever variety never serves the person or the common good.
And thus to accept the Lord must mean to turn from sin; to have goodwill must mean openness to the truth about human nature and the change of life that truth asks of us. Just as we make the distinction between a repentant sinner who struggles to overcome his habitual sin and a man who has no intention to change, so can we speak of gay persons who accept the Lord and His call to conversion, even if they still fall into sin, and those who consider their tendencies and actions inherently good and thus pleasing to God. Thus to say, “God made you like this…God loves you like this” not only goes against the best studies on the origin of homosexual tendencies—it is most certainly nurture that produces it, and not nature—it also elevates human tendencies to a divine level, for they are all good. If human sexuality has no purpose and no boundaries to its expression, it is meaningless; the only thing that is open to all determinations is prime matter, and that has no existence of itself.
This, then, is the theory that underlies the Church’s teaching on human sexuality, which is nothing more than the careful consideration of the way God made the human being and the truths that flow from his nature as both rational and animal. Besides adhering to these truths and prayerfully pondering them, being ready to share them with those who have ears to hear, what else can we do? There are two very practical things I will mention, but first it must be said that Pope Francis’ call against marginalization is harder than he makes it seem. It is a worthy notion to have as much social interaction as possible with active homosexuals, for conversion almost always happens through human contact and expressions of kindness and charity. But if they are open about their lifestyle, it is an agent of corruption for society. Just as we would not interface with other sinners who tell us openly of their vices, so it is not as simple as living side by side with those who wish to make their lifestyle known to all. The only way it works, it seems, is if we say up front that we disapprove of their way of life, but we wish to be their friends for the love of God and to save their souls. If such honesty is well received, God be praised. But in most cases it seems such words would be badly taken.
So since social marginalization is often the prudent and the most practical response given the circumstances, our action lies in the realm of prayer. First of all, prayer for the sinner. St. Francis de Sales, in commenting on today’s Gospel, praises the publican for his prayer and recommends the frequent use of short prayers imitating his prayer, asking for mercy. We can make these prayers not only for ourselves, but also for others. Therefore when we see couples in public, we should pray for them as soon as we see them. Let us stop what we are doing, quiet our other thoughts, and pray. Lord, have mercy on them. Though we may have to avoid such persons in our social behavior to protect our children or avoid the impression that we approve of their lifestyle, still we will not be ostracizing them in the spiritual realm, for we will be asking God’s mercy and favor upon them. And when we return home, we can have a Mass said for them, or make a spiritual Communion for them, or fast one day for their conversion. The Pharisee loathes the sinner and wishes to be rid of him; the Christian sees him as a person in need of mercy just as he himself needs God’s mercy.
The second thing we can do again is pray for courageous men and women to preach to the sinners. In the epistle for today, St. Paul speaks of the many gifts the Spirit gives to the Church. Today we need good souls, laity and clergy alike, who are given a charism to minister to practicing homosexuals, and so we should pray that the Lord would send laborers into His harvest, especially invoking the Sacred Heart. Of the promises Our Lord made known to St. Margaret Mary, the tenth is that to priests who are devoted to the Heart of Jesus, He will grant the power of touching the most hardened hearts. And the way for touching such hearts is often made possible by the work of the laity, who gently but firmly share the truth with those they meet at work and in the world. Let us pray for the Holy Spirit to strengthen some hearts to take on this work, and beg God to raise up priests to perfect it; for these prayers are the utmost expression of charity towards sinners. Again, the Pharisee wants that some people be wholly excluded from mercy, for their sins are too great or foul; the Christian realizes that were it not for the grace of God and His Providence, I too could be weighed down by the same confusion and immorality.
And so, on this tenth Sunday after Pentecost, may the Lord, the creator of human nature and the bestower of the grace that elevates and perfects that nature, wounded by original sin, may the Lord give us strength to continue to pursue the truth in charity. During this Mass, let us ask His grace especially upon hardened sinners, and also upon those who strive to follow the Church’s teachings even though it means a great deal of loneliness and heartbreak for them. May the Lord, through our prayers and sacrifices, console them interiorly and grant them the strength to persevere and thus gain a glorious crown, that all of us, at the end of time, may rejoice to look together upon the face of Christ, and be filled with His love and mercy unto the ages of ages.
Beloved, at first hearing today’s readings present us with a very sober image of God’s divine justice. St. Paul tells the early Church at Corinth about some severe punishments visited upon the Israelites, His chosen People and our forefathers in faith, for reason of their infidelity to Him and His Covenant. But Paul hastens to add that these punishments are recorded in the OT for our correction, instruction and formation as we pursue our own path towards salvation. Above all Paul warns us against pride: “He that thinketh himself to stand, let him take heed lest he fall.”
The admonition to fidelity is taken up again in today’s Gospel reading: Our Lord weeps over Jerusalem because of her blindness in not recognizing the salvation which had come unto her: He Who is the Son of God and Daystar from on High as prophesied by old Zachariah at the birth of John the Baptist, was rejected by the very people to whom He had been promised and sent. Looking upon Jerusalem, Our Lord wept and uttered one of His remarkable prophesies: the city would be utterly destroyed – not a stone of it would be left upon stone, and this would be God’s punishment for its refusal to receive its long awaited Messiah.
We would do well to recall that within that very generation, by command of the Romans Vespasian and Titus the imperial armies laid siege to Jerusalem, totally destroying it and the great Temple, once center to the Jewish Covenant and national identity. The city itself was razed to the ground and the sacred treasures of the Temple were carried off as spoils of war. In Rome to this day in the ruins of the ancient Forum one can see the triumphal arch built 2,000 years ago as a pagan commemoration of that military feat over Jerusalem. Sculpted on the inside of the arch are scenes of the sacking of the Temple; the one on the right side shows the carrying off of the great multi branched candle stick, the details for which are so minutely laid down in the ritual prescriptions of the Pentateuch.
Thus it is that the all-seeing eye of divine providence carries forth its plan for our salvation and leaves us signs along the way – often times in unexpected places – urging us along our path to heaven.
So we need to bear in mind that the terrible punishments Paul refers to as being visited upon the Israelites came upon them, not by God’s cruelty, but because of their infidelity to conditions of a Covenant they freely engaged themselves to with Him. The divine vocation which they had received in Abraham’s call – the type and prefigurement of the eternal covenant made with the Catholic Church in Christ and received by us in Baptism – was not, and is not, an assurance of salvation, but rather a privilege and promise by which we can pursue it with God’s help.
Saint Paul urges us therefore, to reflect on these lessons from the history of our ancestors so as to offer us this important consolation: God is always faithful. He does not, therefore, allow us to be tried beyond what we are able; He sends commensurate means by which we may overcome the temptations to sin we may suffer. This help comes through divine grace, and is always given in measure sufficient for our salvation.
Today’s Gospel is a beacon warning us in the face of our temptations and sin: If you had only known, and in this time, the things that are done unto your peace…
True peace, my Beloved, that peace which passes all human understanding, that peace promised to us by Our Lord, lies in the welcome a person gives to God: in his heart, and in his life. And his unhappiness – his destruction both here in time and later in eternity – arises from a person’s refusal of God by resisting His divine message and teachings, or by its rejection after once having accepted it.
By Baptism we have been born again in Christ and our bodies made living temples of the Holy Trinity. But through sin – come unto us in pride and presumption – this temple, called to be given over to prayer and praise of God, we very often turn into that den of thieves our Lord refers to and is capable of the sins cataloged by Paul in today’s epistle and many others besides.
Jerusalem was once destroyed by Kind Nebuchonosor because the Jews refused the call to repentance by Jeremiah. God Himself called Sodom and Gomorrah to repentance and promised to spare them if ten just men could be found. In the Book of Jonas Nineveh was spared because it donned sackcloth and did penance. God is faithful: and so it is that He desires not our ruin but our salvation. In Christ, and through the Church, He has come to us, therefore, with the nourishing milk of sound doctrine and vivifying waters of grace. If we would but take stock of our dependence upon Him, and fix in Him our hearts as in our permanent refuge, He would lead us towards that heavenly Jerusalem for which we have been created. Do we do this?
Dear People of God: be faithful to the Church and her teachings. Seek not to change what is immutable – for true peace and freedom comes our faithful inherence to God’s will, and the living out of all that that implies in the fabric of our daily lives.
“Lord,” we shall soon ask in today’s Post Communion Prayer, “may our participation in your Sacrament both purify us from sin and unite us with one another.” Let us offer this and all our prayers with sincerity; let us renew our desire to follow God’s laws by an even closer fidelity to Him and increased charity towards our neighbor. And may the Virgin Mother of Our Redeemer, who set for us a perfect example of fidelity to God, by her prayers and protection, obtain for us that eternal joy which her Son came into this world to make possible: the vision of God and the midst of His saints, and that, even unto the ages of ages.
Feast of the Most Precious Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ
Dearly Beloved, over the past several weeks the Church has presented us with a series of liturgical observances which leave a very particular mark on this time of the year. The Easter cycle drew to a close with the celebration of the great Feast of Pentecost with its ancient octave, one of three such festivals in our calendar. That was followed by the Feast of the Most Holy Trinity, sublime and fundamental truth of holy revelation. Then, the following Thursday Holy Church observed the radiant Feast of Corpus Christi – not the institution of the Eucharist which has its necessary framework within the Passiontide liturgies of Holy Week – but the Blessed Sacrament as such, a glorious and joy-filled feast of the Incarnation of God, marking the abiding condescension of God’s love for sinners in the perpetual presence of Our Redeemer in the Sacrament of the Altar until the end of all time. A week later fell the Feast of the Most Sacred Heart, seat of Christ’s love for all mankind, source of the entirety of our life of grace.
Within this framework falls today’s feast of July 1 – exceptionally, this year appearing on a Sunday as I mentioned last week. This is the Feast of the Precious Blood, the liturgical commemoration of the infinite value of the price of man’s redemption.
Beloved we should note that the liturgy not only rehearses by fixed cycle the various mysteries of our redemption, in a more hidden but nonetheless real manner, it marks the whole cycle of human history as well. This is because many of the events of man’s redemption found in our worship are there as hidden commemorations of important events in the history of human affairs. Whereas the Feast of Corpus Christi owes its appearance in the calendar to Pope Urban IV on September 8, 1264 – and that through the efforts of the medieval nun, Blessed Julian of Cornillon, today’s Feast of the Precious Blood was instituted by Pope Pius IX in 1849.
At that time he had been driven from the Rome and his Papal States by the Masonic forces of revolution. In an important battle the French army routed the Masonic enemy of Christ and Pope Pius found himself a refugee of war found in the city of Gaeta. It was there, in order to perpetuate the memory of this battle and its success arising from the merits of Our Lord, the Supremem Pontiff established this Feast as a perpetual memorial of the event. In 1934, on the 19th centenary of Redemption Pope Pius XI raised it to rank of a Feast of the First Class.
As it was the Sacred Heart of Our Redeemer which made this adorable Blood circulate in the physical body of Our Redeemer, the Gospel appointed to for Mass tells of the thrust of that lance which pierced the side of the Crucified One: from that living flesh came a flow of blood and water, the life-giving stream which heralded the birth of Holy Church in the pivotal Sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist. Thus, two living testimonies given by the Holy Spirit of the Messiah were united in this last and brutal act of the Passion: the Spirit’s testimony at Jesus’ Baptism by John in the Jordan River, and its saving culmination in His baptism of Blood upon the altar of the Cross.
And even if it is of recent vintage that the this month of July is dedicated to the Precious Blood, it is of small importance. The liturgy and its attendant culture of personal devotion are both the product of a long development. Holy Church, despite the errors of our times, is ever at pains to present us with the truths of our redemption and this she does through the ongoing and homogenous development of our culture of Catholic worship.
In today’s feast we see that all the works of salvation are gathered together in the Precious Blood of the Lamb of God. Thus this feast is one of grateful remembrance of our mankind having been redeemed by Christ. The introit of today’s Mass introduces the theme when it sings, “Out of every tribe, every language, every people, Thou hast ransomed us, O Lord, with thy blood; Thou hast made us a royal race to serve our God.” The text’s of the liturgy presume us members of the choir of the blessed in heaven calling to the Lamb: “You were slain in sacrifice; You have ransomed us with You blood and given us again to God the Father.”(Apoc. 5:9).
Unlike the high priest of the Old Law who entered the Holy of Holies only one time each year, there to sprinkle to the Ark of the Covenant with the blood of sacrificial animals, Christ, our high Priest, has entered once and for all into His sanctuary (heaven) and “the ransom he has won lasts unto eternity.” (Epistle). This redemptive ransom is effective, therefore, for the duration of all time. It is , therefore, profoundly different from the sacrifices of the Old Law which were its ineffective prefigurings. Christ’s Blood has the power to truly “purify our consciences,” thus giving us a share in the promised eternal inheritance as Paul says in today’s Epistle reading.
“We have found justification through his blood” (Rom. 5:9); from this Blood alone can we be rescued from God’s wrath due to our languishing in sin. The Precious Blood of Jesus gives us the firm hope of our some day entering into the sanctuary of heaven. “He has opened up for us a new, a living way, by way of the veil, I mean, through His mortality,” Saint Paul goes on to say in the following chapter of Hebrews. This veil is none other than Christ’s human flesh given for the life of the world on the Cross, flesh which is symbolized in all its divine humanity in the blood which is offered as the only true ransom for our sins.
Thus, children in Christ, we should be deeply moved with gratitude for the generosity of God’s love in paying with His own life’s Blood what is due to God for the commission of our sins. Not only should we humbly meditate on this truth, we should express our gratitude in “glorifying God” by “making our bodies the shrines of his presence” (cf. I Cor. 6:20). This we do by the humble, worthy reception of Holy Communion and lives of rigorous moral probity.
“It is finished,” says today’s Gospel reading. “Then He bowed His head and yielded up His spirit. . . . And so the soldiers came and broke the legs both of the one and of the other that were crucified with Him; but when they came to Jesus, and found Him already dead, they did not break His legs, but one of the soldiers opened his side with a spear; and immediately blood and water flowed out.”
Our Blessed Savior first shed His sacred Blood at His circumcision; a second time in the Garden of Olives; again when the soldiers scourged Him and rudely thrust the crown of thorns upon His sacred head; a fourth time when, on Calvary, they tore the garments from His lacerated body and nailed His hands and feet to the Cross, there to hang with only the garment of this Precious Blood ceovering His naked flesh. Despite such suffering retained such blood in His lifeless body that even dead, “He still loved those who were his own, whom he was leaving in the world, and he would give them the uttermost proof of his love” And so the last of His Blood came forth under the thrust of the lance: signs of the wonder of this Eucharistic sacrifice and sacrament we celebrate day in and day out, even as we wait for His Second Coming in dread majesty.
As Saint John says of Our Lord, “He it is, Jesus Christ, whose coming has been made known to us by water and blood; water and blood as well, not water alone. We have a threefold warrant in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost, three who are yet one; and we have a threefold warrant on earth, the Spirit, the water, and the blood, three witnesses that conspire in one, that is, they testify to the same truth.” (Gradual). John teaches that Jesus the Savior became man, and that we have a threefold testimony to prove it: 1) the water, that is, the Father’s words at the baptism of Christ; 2) the blood, that is, the Son’s bloody death on the Cross; 3) the Holy Spirit, that is, the Pentecostal grace in the Church and in the hearts of the faithful.
As Christians therefore we offer with Holy Church the most precious gift of Christ’s Blood according to our inward dispositions in the Offertory of every Mass. We are called by God to offer up this Precious Blood, the blood of our divine reconciliation with the Father through the hands of the sacrificing priest. In Holy Communion we receive, under the one form of bread, the whole Christ, His flesh and His blood, which is the pledge of our salvation on the very day when our Lord will come to take us home to His Father and our own (cf. Communion).
The chosen people were commanded to slay the Paschal lamb and to sign their doorposts with its blood. Then: “The Lord will pass on his way smiting down the Egyptians, and when he sees the blood on the lintel and the jambs of a door way he will pass by that house, and will not let the destroying angel enter your homes to do them injury” (Exod. 12:23). This was a figure and a guarantee of the saving power of the blood of the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. As from the side of Adam was made Eve, the mother of our race, and from the side of the ark flowed the new life of a world cleansed from sin, so from the side of Our Blessed Savior has come the saving water of Baptism and the Blood which gives us the new and perfect life of grace, Blood which is communicated to us in the saving Mysteries of the Holy Mass, and Blood which has purchased for us the pledge of eternal life.
Let us place all our trust in the power of this Blood. The opening prayer of this great Feast of our faith we prayed: Eternal, ever-living God, who didst ordain that Thy only-begotten Son should redeem the world and with His blood atone to Thee for man’s offenses; grant, we pray Thee, that we may so worship in this festival rite the ransom paid for our salvation, and find in its power such defense against the evils of this earthly life, that we may enjoy its everlasting fruit in heaven.
Beloved, let us make this prayer our own by lives which are converted to Christ, lives which love our neighbor for the love of Him, lives that are not of this world, but ever on the path to that glory for which we have been wondrously created and more wondrously redeemed, heaven, our home in glory where Jesus shines brighter than the sun, moon and all the stars of this earthly creation.
Today we mark the seventh Sunday after Pentecost. The Gospel is taken from the Sermon on the Mount, and the epistle from the Romans, and both speak of the fruits of good and evil lives. If we use the imagery of a tree as Christ does, each of us is a tree that produces fruit according to the inner principle at work in us, either sin and evil or the Holy Spirit and His grace, and the fruit we produce leads to a reward, either death or eternal life. But whereas a tree cannot choose what fruit it produces, good or bad, and therefore avoid being cut down, we can choose to bring forth fruit that leads to life.
The teaching of St. Paul in the reading from Romans is a stylized way of expressing the classic teaching on human morality: our actions serve as means to achieve some end or goal, and depending on the end we hope to reach, we act accordingly. Thus there are some actions called intrinsically evil, which can never be chosen as a good human action; they lead only to eternal death. Then there are others, the great majority of actions, which are good or neutral in themselves and remain or become good by our doing them with the right intention, love of God being the most perfect intention we can have, but others, like performing our duty, as also acceptable and good.
By way of these actions, we choose what kind of person we will be: either a person worthy of God and of eternal life, or a person deserving of separation from God and everlasting death. For by performing actions repeatedly, we become what we do, and thus we can be called by the name of our virtues or our vices. We say, he is a just man, or she is an angry person. Elsewhere in his letters, Paul gives us lists of things which lead to life and to death: works leading to death are fornication, impurity, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger and selfishness; and, as St. Paul says, “I warn you that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” Paul’s fruits leading to life are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. These lead to eternal life and also help us to share in that happiness even now. If we are honest with ourselves, we realize that we have the potential to engage in all the works of death, and that we struggle to consistently bring forth the fruits of life. So it is appropriate to discuss the moral life in more detail.
Thomas Aquinas teaches that human beings, despite original sin, still have an innate tendency toward good desires and good actions. We all know, for instance, persons who have good hearts and are inclined toward good actions in a natural way, as if they were born with it. Each of us has some of these inclinations; rarely do people have all of them; Saints like Maria Goretti and Aloysius Gonzaga are exceptions in that they possessed all of the virtues at a young age, and were likely prepared for that by being given dispositions to all the cardinal virtues at their conceptions. Instead, most of us have tendencies to some virtues, like temperance and kindness, but lack dispositions to other virtues like chastity and meekness. For each of us it is different, and that is why to despise someone because they lack a natural disposition to a virtue is foolish and vain.
But such natural dispositions to virtue are only inclinations, they are not virtue. Virtue must be purposely chosen, and it is through trial that we learn whether we possess a virtue or only an inclination. For example, a person may be considered temperate because he is thin but when he is put in the presence of an abundance of food, or when he is troubled by other circumstances, he becomes a glutton. Thus he does not possess the virtue, but only the semblance of it. It is also the case that the person who is overweight can be more temperate than the person who is thin due only to a high metabolism rather than to virtue, for appearances deceive and temperance is not about being thin but rather about eating properly for one’s state in life and one’s type of body.
So also many think they are kind and patient but when they have children or enter a monastery they learn they are actually angry and mean. It is revealed to them that they appeared to be virtuous because they could avoid difficult persons and control their lives, but when they face adversity and trying circumstances, they are less holy than they thought. Such self-knowledge is good, because it reminds us that we’ve just begun in the lifelong pursuit of virtue. Better to be a beginner aware that he is just beginning the race than a beginner who thinks he’s already finished.
When faced with one of these revelations, we must set about doing the good action necessary to develop the virtue in us, and that requires grace, hard work, and trials of every sort. Thus temptations and adversities are the means we need to grow and we should be thankful for them as often as possible. And the higher the virtue at stake, the more we should thank God. Sufferings which cause us to develop our faith, hope and charity are the most precious, for they increase in us the most important virtues for the Christian life and most perfectly prepare us to persevere in this life and fully live in the world to come. Thus when a tragedy or an intense trial befalls us, we should strive to see God working in it, bringing us from a weak faith to a stronger one, from worldly hope to supernatural hope, from love of earthly things to love of God and the things to come.
It is also good to consider that the persons who bring adversity into our lives are either knowing or unknowing accomplices in virtue. We grow in holiness both by working together with those who support us and whom we get on well with, and by those who try us and expose our vice and weakness. St. Augustine often made the point in his preaching that evildoers help the just by providing opportunities for them to grow in virtue, and even among good people pursuing holiness together, there are persons we don’t get on well with who still assist by not allowing us to grow stagnant in certain virtues and by keeping us from growing in pride at our supposed accomplishments.
To help us in our pursuit of virtue, we should remember two final things beyond what I have already mentioned: first, our decisions for virtue or vice are decisions for life and death; while we should not obsess over them, which would not be productive in the long run, neither should we become complacent and satisfied with ourselves. He who despises little opportunities to do good and grow in holiness will lose what he has little by little, and then he will wake up with a vice he can overcome only with great suffering.
Second, the grace of Christ can overcome everything, our vices, our evil tendencies, our weaknesses. How many of us have labored against a principal fault for years and still see little to no progress? We are still angry, lazy, impatient, intemperate, unchaste. So we must rededicate ourselves to the pursuit of God’s grace, to remember that one of the functions of the sacraments is to heal our interior wounds, and the greatest sacrament, the Eucharist, heals our greatest wounds. The Postcommunion prayer testifies to this: “By the medicinal operation of this sacrament, O Lord, mercifully free us from our perversities and lead us to the things which are right.” We are sick, and the liturgy calls the Eucharist our medicine.
What we cannot do of our own power, Christ can do in us; we should not lose hope even when we wake up at the starting line day after day. If we are committed to humility and to never giving up, God will save us. And the Eucharist will be the food that sustains us, whether it seems that we ran with God or He carried us. And so if we can do nothing else, if we are discouraged and wearied by our evil fruits, we can frequent the sacraments. Christ will do in us what we cannot do ourselves, but only if we let Him work in us. Therefore if we sense in ourselves a vice or vices that do not go away no matter what we do, or which we have despaired of ever overcoming, we must commit ourselves to weekly confession and as many Masses a week as our schedules and duties permit. The Lord does want to heal us; we need only admit our illness and make use of the remedies He offers.
Today then as we strive to bring forth good fruit that will lead to eternal life and everlasting union with God and His Saints, let us consider the consoling words of Christ in Revelation: “I know your works. Behold, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut; I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name. Because you have kept my word of patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial which is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell upon the earth. I am coming soon; hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown. He who conquers, I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God; and I will write on him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem.” May we give our weakness to Christ, enter the door He opens to us, and thus be found worthy to bear the name of God and live in His heavenly city forever.
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Today we mark the 4th Sunday after Pentecost. Since these numbered Sundays between Pentecost and Advent do not concern a particular mystery of Our Lord’s life such as His birth, death or resurrection, the Gospels relate various episodes in His life. Today’s Gospel recounts the calling of Peter, James, and John, Jesus’ best loved apostles, by means of a miraculous catch of fish.
There are two miraculous catches of fish in the Gospels: this one from Luke at the beginning of Our Lord’s public ministry, and the other from John after the Resurrection. They have some notable similarities in their details: the apostles fish all night long without any success; then Jesus appears and tells them to try again and then they catch an overwhelming amount. The difference regards Jesus’ location, for in the first occurrence, Our Lord is with the apostles in the boat, while in the second, he is on the shore. As St. Gregory the Great explains, Jesus’ position in the two miracles is relative to his human nature, for in the first occurrence he is toiling with the apostles on the earth, willingly subject to the threat of suffering and death, but after his Resurrection, he is impassible and therefore stands on the land. For the sea represents the changeability of this life and its misery and sorrow, while the land signifies the firmness and peace of the life to come.
The significance of this event for our own lives is that we often seem to labor to no purpose, to fish all night and come up empty. But these accounts of the apostles show us that this is a normal feature of the Christian life and so, with God’s grace, must be accepted and understood as much as possible. Peter, James and John were fishermen; fishing was the way they earned their livelihood; therefore they were doing God’s will in going fishing. Though they caught nothing, if their labor was done with a worthy intention in mind, their labor was pleasing to God, even it was not pleasing to them because of its perceived lack of success.
Then Jesus appears and tells them to resume doing the same thing they had been doing, and in an instant they achieve much more than they accomplished in hours of toil. Moreover, this happened to the apostles twice, at very different stages in their faith in Our Lord, both when they needed a miracle to increase their faith, as we heard today, and when they had sufficient faith to risk their lives for Christ after his Resurrection. So this movement of God’s Providence happens to all, beginners and advanced. Why, then, does God choose to operate in this way?
He acts in this way to counter our pride and to increase our humility. He told Adam that because of his sin his work would occur by the sweat of his brow and that the ground will yield thistles and thorns instead of the crops he desired. Though we are sanctified by grace, we still bear this penalty, even when our intentions are good. This is so we will not attribute the good things that occur to ourselves but to God. And once we believe this with firmness, He can more readily work through us, for He knows we will not attribute the good achieved to ourselves, but to Him, and thus increase in love and gratitude rather than in pride and self-love. The greatest Saints are those who rely most upon God, fully aware of their own weakness and fragility.
Thus a certain degree of failure helps us to grow in holiness, and God knowing this, brings it about more than we would like. If we succeeded each time we set out to accomplish something, we would grow further from God rather than closer to Him. Hence the age-old problem of why the wicked prosper is answered in a way by realizing that as they prosper they grow more certain of their own worth and less reliant upon God and thus further and further from Him, which is the worst penalty a human being can suffer. Whenever pride increases, our distance from God also increases. This is also why the self-assuredness and seeming invincibility of youth yields to the struggles and failures of middle age: if it were not for this, no man would be saved. Pride would reign and grace would be despised.
And so it is that fruitless labor is not a sign of rejection but of divine favor, provided we give ourselves over to the mystery. Our failure should remind us that perhaps we did not begin by asking God to bless our work or that we relied too much upon our own strength. And if our intentions were wholly good in undertaking the work, then we should wait patiently for His blessing upon it, and be grateful when it comes.
Therefore it is providential that this Gospel falls on the same liturgical day as Father’s Day. Parenting is both the most important and most difficult task in the world, and it often means one labors night after night and seems to catch nothing. Children are loved and taught good things and disciplined, and yet it often yields bad behavior. But if Christ is allowed to work, that is, if parents give Our Lord the opportunity to dwell in their children’s souls through grace and the sacraments and strive to provide an environment in which they can grow in love of God and in virtue, there will be a miraculous catch.
There will be always be failure in parenting, for sinners are raising sinners, but better that there be failure and subsequent reliance upon God than apparent success and subsequent pride. Better to entrust your fears to the Lord in prayer than rely upon your own ingenuity and prudence. That is also why even Saints have had badly behaved children, to show even them, that as St. Paul says, “I planted, Apollo watered, but God gave the increase.” If we were granted sure success in the formation of minds and hearts, we would have cause for the greatest degree of pride, for there is nothing greater in a human life than to be the cause of the holiness of another person, but it would also be a foolish pride for only God can do such things; we merely give ourselves to Him as willing but damaged instruments. Moreover, it is good for parents to realize that their plan for their children might not be the same as the divine plan; He can make good come out of evil more infallibly than can human parents and so He often does something much more marvelous in the heart of the child than a parent could wish or imagine. Augustine is a case in point: St. Monica only wanted him to be married properly and return to the Faith; instead a sinner and heretic became a monk and one of the greatest theologians the Church has known.
Even for those of us who are not parents, there is still a lesson in the apparently fruitless labor of Peter, James and John. Among the desert fathers, there is an adage that we are our own parents, for we, by our cooperation or rejection of grace, give birth to virtue and vice within our own souls. And there is also the fact that most of us begin to make meaningful, conscious moral choices only when we leave home and realize that if we want to be prudent, just, courageous and temperate we must choose such things; our parents’ suggestions and coercion no longer suffice. In this place where we shape our own character, many times our work to cultivate virtue, seems to be nothing more than a pointless exercise. And if this is the case, we should ask ourselves what God is teaching us through our seeming lack of growth in holiness.
The first question to ask is, do we pray? Do we pray for specific things? How many people go on a diet to lose weight, which is to grow in temperance, and never think to ask God for His grace to practice self-control? And if we do pray, do we pray consistently and from the heart, truly humbling ourselves? And if we have done these things, then we are called to trust in divine Providence—the catch of fish will come, but we may have to go fishing a few more nights before we are given success. This patient waiting on the Lord has many fruitful results: we learn to have mercy on others who struggle to attain virtue, we gain wisdom we can share with others who are discouraged by their seeming lack of progress, and most of all, we learn that when we are weak, we are strong. No less a spiritual giant than St. Paul said when writing to the Corinthians, “And to keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I besought the Lord about this, that it should leave me; but he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Today, then, we should try to imagine the prayer of Peter as coming from the lips of a parent rather than a fisherman, a parent trying to bring forth the fruit of virtue either in his own soul or in the souls of others. “Lord, I have labored all night, but I have had no success. I toiled out of love for you; may you bless my work. Please give your blessing for souls are at stake; forgive my negligence and give glory to your name by overcoming it. Help me to grow in humility and gratitude; make me your instrument.” May the Lord graciously hear our prayer and grant us to be counted among Peter, James, John and all the Saints and thus live with Him forever in the kingdom of heaven, in the New Jerusalem.