Thursday, November 22, 2007

Turn the tide!

The Presentation of Mary
Liturgical Blessing of the First Abbess
of Our Lady of the Assumption
21 November 2007, Castries, St. Lucia

Zechariah 2:14-17.
Ephesians 4:2-3, 7, 11-13, 15.
Matthew 12:46-50.

I’ve set my sites awfully high for this homily today, today being the Feast of the Presentation of Mary as a little girl in the Temple at Jerusalem. My goal is to challenge you, to invite you to join me today in turning the world around. As ambitious as that may sound (turning the world around), it’s really nothing more than another way of stating the scriptural challenge: “Be transformed by the renewal of your mind!” The only realistic way to turn a world around is by turning individuals around and one at a time. Change comes of free choice or it doesn’t come at all with us human beings. An ambitious challenge, well, yes it is, but an impossible task, no!

The Feast of the Presentation of Mary as a little girl in the Temple at Jerusalem is a day when the Church celebrates the total dedication of Mary to God’s service. We celebrate her obedience to God’s plans. It is in this sense that we understand the selection from Matthew’s Gospel chosen for this feast: “Anyone who does the will of my Father in heaven, he is my brother and sister and mother.”

On this day, we are blessing the first abbess of the Benedictine Abbey Our Lady of the Assumption, your very own abbey, here in St. Lucia at Coubaril on the Mount of Prayer.

Everything about today, Mary’s feast, Mother Marianna’s blessing, everything lends itself to big challenges. Maybe for that reason I am not hesitating to speak to your hearts and hope for big things from you. Today, I want to speak first of all to the hearts of the St. Lucian women and girls here present, but really my words are addressed to all West Indian women and girls who can or will hear my voice, women young and old. I say to you, “Turn the tide!”… “Turn the tide!” While we’re at it, let’s not leave the men out of this either and I will say to them too, old and young, “Turn the tide!” Be transformed; be renewed by seeking first what Jesus describes in today’s Gospel as “the will of my Father in heaven”. Jesus is inviting you to become part of his family through obedience; He is inviting you to become a “brother and sister and mother” to Jesus. How?

Turn the tide first and foremost, ladies and gentlemen, by calling forth all the vocations in your midst! Turn the tide by calling forth once again in significant numbers female vocations to the consecrated life. Rejoice today with Mother Marianna Pinto and her sisters, ladies; celebrate with them their joy at becoming a full-fledged Benedictine Abbey and at receiving from the Holy See not just a mother superior but a Mother Abbess. Then, do something more to share in their joy. Humbly claim that joy, which is theirs by reason of their consecration, by reason of their vows as Benedictine nuns, claim that joy as your own. I invite some of you; I challenge certain ones among you to claim that joy for yourself. “Turn the tide!” by giving up your resistance to God’s call to join the sisters on the Mount of Prayer. Don’t be carried off on the winds of fortune or misfortune like so many women in our day and time! “Be transformed by the renewal of your mind!” Take your life confidently in your own hands and give it to God! Give it to the one Bridegroom; give your life, your heart to Jesus, who will never leave you! Entrust your life to the Lord who will never fail or betray you! “Turn the tide!”

Don’t get me wrong. There is absolutely nothing wrong with marriage. It is a great vocation which comes from God, a vocation with its own special sacrament, Holy Matrimony. Marriage and family is meant to bring joy and the fullness of life to our world. But the world must know that not all are called to marriage. Not all are called to found a family. Today, to focus on women in particular and on the monastic life in a special way, it is good that we remind ourselves that God the Father’s will for you may be that you find your joy in the vowed life; God the Father’s will for you may be that you find your joy as a nun on the Mount of Prayer. Think about it! Pray about it and pray about it again!

Today’s blessing which the Archbishop will undertake for Mother Marianna is an act of prayer, it is a fervent request on our part, we acting in the name of the Church, we acting while calling upon the intercession of all the angels and saints, begging God to make Mother Marianna holy! We hope she is holy already, but we pray humbly using the word holy and not holier. Make her holy, Lord, because she and her sisters are up to big things for which they need your grace. Who would have ever thought that women from Zambia would come to St. Lucia to learn about the Benedictine way of life? Who could have imagined that Coubaril would deserve the title of “city on a hill top”, that the Mount of Prayer would be the “light on the lamp stand”? You, St. Lucia, are home to something big, which you need to support in every way possible, by your friendship, by your prayer. Do that and do something more by putting your daughters even yet in their mother’s arms on the way, by putting them on the way with Mary the little girl going up to the Temple in Jerusalem. Love wants the very best for our children. We want them to be happy. “Turn the tide!” Give your girls to Christ as chaste brides!

In hard times, Zechariah (our first reading today) prophesied for God’s People that the Lord himself was coming to dwell in their midst. The Lord is among us; we need only open to him through obedience. He won’t force the door, but He is ours if we let Him be.

Saint Paul speaks to the Ephesians and to us today; he encourages us to recognize the special gift each has received from Christ, a gift given for the sake of the whole, given to each of us that we might contribute through our service to building up his body. We are invited to the Lord’s Table as brothers and sisters. We are invited to share His life through obedience to his call.

In the Gospel today, Jesus corrects the natural impression of some of his listeners about the source of Christian dignity. We have special regard for the relatives of important people, just like the man in the Gospel did for Jesus’ Mother and brethren. Jesus points out the dignity and the closeness to Him of all those who obey his Father’s will: “brother and sister and mother to me”, he says.

You see, the world has it all wrong. If you buy into the world’s message, then it would seem that physical appearance, the ability to sing and dance and put on a show, Hollywood or Bollywood, externals are what count. We know better and yet how often we go with the flow and chase after such illusions! “Turn the tide”! Parents, you worry yourselves sick sometimes about your children’s happiness and yet how often it is you who point them in the wrong direction by your own example or maybe you don’t point them at all or fail to shield them from negative, silly or empty influences. Children, you have a certain responsibility here too. You must surely know that you don’t make life any easier on your poor parents by begging, nagging, insisting on having the latest in clothes and shoes and hair.

Parents and children, join me today in turning the world around by your choice to live in the light and firmly anchored in God! “Be transformed by the renewal of your mind!” Young women, challenge our new Mother Abbess by coming knocking on her door! Say to her, “Mother Marianna, could it be that God is calling me (you, not me!) to be a nun in the ancient monastic tradition of St. Benedict?” How wonderful it would be to be part of a house of prayer, a house of study and hospitality, a place of watching and waiting for Christ the Bridegroom’s return, for His heavenly banquet! “Turn the tide”! Miss World or Mr. Universe… No! You’ve got to be kidding! Our goals have to greater. The grass withers and the flower fades. This world, and all its boasts, is passing away. Choose the path up the hill to the Mount of Prayer. If Mother and the sisters send you home again saying, no your call is elsewhere, well you’re the better for having tried and the surer on life’s journey. The point is to do something constructive in trying to discover God’s plans, which are better than my own without a doubt.

When Jesus was presented in the Temple he was still a babe at arms. The tradition recounts that Mary was walking and talking when she was presented in the Temple. Though a little girl, she showed her eagerness to serve the Lord, to be his handmaid. Later in her life, the angel Gabriel announced God’s plan to this young woman who had shown her readiness to obey from her mother’s arms and so she spoke to the angel in the Annunciation and said: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord! Be it done unto me according to thy word!”

You’ve heard the expression “hidden away in the convent”. Well there couldn’t be anything farther from the truth. Our life is very well described as a journey toward the light, from the shadow of darkness, the valley of tears, into God’s own wonderful light. It’s sad that many people haven’t understood that fundamental truth, but it’s no reason for you for any of us to just go with the flow and to continue to chase after things which are destined to perish. Think for yourself, turn things around, “Be transformed by the renewal of your mind!”, “Anyone who does the will of my Father in heaven, he is my brother and sister and mother.” Share in the joy of these Benedictine ladies and their mother abbess! Share in it today! Then, some of you young women, come to share in it more deeply and for a lifetime as Benedictine nuns! Help me turn the world around, one person at a time and starting with you. “Turn the tide!”

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Choose Life!

Resurrection Day N° 3

The other day on the Solemnity of All Saints (Nov.1) my friend Marion came beaming out of the chapel after Mass. She greeted me saying, “Well, Father, today is the Third Feast of the Resurrection: Easter, the Assumption, and now our day, All Saints!” She stressed the singular purpose demonstrated in the lives of the saints, their longing to be with God and to share life with Christ in the glory of the Resurrection.

On All Souls Day the breviary reading from St. Ambrose struck me in an extraordinary way. Starting from a St. Paul quote (in shorthand: “Life for me is Christ and death is so much gain”), in that homily the great archbishop of Milan urges, among other things, to keep the thought of death a constant part of our life so as not to be carried away by the illusion that life to the full is to be found this side of the grave. I asked those at Mass that morning not to lose the opportunity that day or at some point during the month of November, in which we pray for those who have died while yet in need of the refinement that only the “fuller’s fire” of Purgatory can provide such that they can come before the Lord as pure gold, to share their devotion for the Poor Souls with some young person or child. Even after a millennium and a half St. Ambrose is still capable of inspiring people to realize what is at stake if you or someone you love sells out to “virtuality” or gets lost in the virtual world, whether of the internet or TV or the magazine rack.

Yesterday the Church celebrated St. Martin de Porres. When you think about it, this saint is an eloquent witness for us today. He was born of a forbidden union between a Spanish conquistador and an Afro woman of slave descent. What many might have considered a powerful disadvantage, to say the least, in Martin became a point of contact for him and a supernatural inspiration for the lowly and the “powers that be” whose lives he touched, because of his great humility and unbounded charity, both of which were fueled by his passion for Jesus Crucified and for the Holy Eucharist.

Last evening I made a futile attempt to watch Mel Gibson’s film Apocalypto, but I soon switched it off because I found his art too close to life and what he was saying about the “culture of death” (to use an expression of Pope John Paul II) frightfully insistent. Even the brief encounter inspired some thoughts however.

I remembered what people told me back in the late 1990’s in Bonn, Germany about the elderly people from Holland who had fled almost like refugees to the neighborhood of Kevelaer in Germany for their retirement, to escape the devastation of the Dutch Catholic Church and in the Marian Shrine at Kevelaer find something closer to the religion of their youth. They also fled in fear from Holland’s euthanasia laws, not trusting the State, their children or other relatives who might be tempted to “put them to sleep” should they lose consciousness for a moment. What started in Holland has spread to many places around the globe.

The Holy Father made headlines the other day in a talk to pharmacists by urging what the papers referred to as conscientious objection or civil disobedience by pharmacists in the face of the push to impose what is commonly referred to as the “morning after pill” as a part of emergency room protocol for rape victims. The Aztecs tried to maintain hegemony over a vast region by sacrificing their neighbors, tearing out their hearts, ostensibly to assure that the sun would rise and the rain would fall. An unreflective cross-section of humanity would choose the death of the unwanted child or elderly person to assure their own continuance, sanity or comfort. You can be sure that St. Martin de Porres would have no part of such an approach to life and neighbor.

Two Halloween stories have come my way. The first is from the rector of Sacred Heart Seminary in the old city center of Detroit, Michigan. He told me they were expecting 4,000 children at a Halloween party which has remained popular for years in an inner city where tension and conflict are everyday affairs. We seek safety, life and celebration; we intuitively seek community and all things good, especially for our children.

The other story is actually told by my Mother! Her neighborhood has become the Halloween place to go for parents with small children in that town. Whether the treats are better than elsewhere in Hutch no one is saying. What seems to be true is that people find safety and society in likeminded numbers and wish thereby to assure their children a nice Halloween experience.

When given a chance, be it in the inner city or in a small town environment, people choose life and community. Perhaps because they are caught in a world of illusion they may not get beyond providing for a nice Halloween experience for their children, a Merry Christmas and a series of great getaways or vacations in the course of the year. Nonetheless, the will to life and happiness is there.

St. Martin de Porres could perhaps have openly decried, condemned or explicitly abhorred the injustices and cruelty both toward himself and others in his day and time. He chose to focus on Christ and find nourishment in the Eucharist. Martin was so satisfied by the love of God which came to him in prayer that he had love and strength for doctoring, serving, counseling and loving others whether they loved or respected him or not. “Martin, the charitable” brightened and transformed his world. He was not a victim but rather a protagonist in God’s plan for the salvation of the world.

The “red carpet” Aztecs of our own day and time would love to sell us on the salvation procured through the cutting and pasting done to their bodies by their Beverly Hills plastic surgeons and the seemingly lifelike glow bestowed by their tanning experts. Personal training schemes seem to be more and more the order of the day. Neither have they found the fountain of youth nor can we share their joy over the removal of loose skin, the tightening of that chin or whatever else it is that they have had done to themselves and at a price. They fool themselves and no one else in ignoring Saints Paul and Ambrose: life for me is Christ and death is so much gain.

November is a Catholic month with a mission as we beg the Lord to purify our loved ones and other poor souls in Purgatory for the fullness of life and light in the Resurrection. As you visit your parish church or local cemetery with this intention, see if you can’t free a little hand from the mouse, the joystick or the channel changer which holds them bound and take him or her along on an adventure into freedom and into life, real life which has no end.