29 July 2016

Homily for the Opening of the TEC Encounter 2016

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

This past Tuesday morning, two jihadists entered the Church of the Gambetta in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, France about 9:45 a.m. while Father Jacques Hamel was offering the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. The two men forced the eighty-five year old priest to kneel near the altar – while still wearing his sacred vestments – and slit his throat in the name of the Islamic State.[1] Father Jacques fell to the ground and died, and – if social media postings are any early indication – will produce great fruit through his martyrdom (cf. John 12:24).

When he met his death, Father Jacques was filling in for another priest. His last act, then, was one of a triple generosity: he helped a brother priest have a few days of rest; he died while offering the Eucharist; and he died defending his congregation as best he could before his attackers killed him. Well could Father Jacques make the words of the Psalmist his own: “zeal for your house consumes me, and the insults of those who blaspheme you fall upon me” (Psalm 69:10).

Too often do we think of the age of the martyrs as an historical period from more than seventeen hundred years ago, but, in reality, we are living in the Age of the Martyrs in a way our forebears in the faith never did. In point of fact,

The high-end estimate for the number of Christians killed for the faith in the world today every year, which comes from the Center for the Study of Global Christianity, is around 100,000. Other observers believe the number is much lower, perhaps closer to 8,000. (Much depends on how one defines a death “for the faith.”)

Even that low-end estimate, however, works out to one new martyr every hour of every day.[2]

If we take the high estimate, it means that 11 Christians shed their blood for Christ every hour of every day. Either way, the statistic is staggering and means that during our time together for this TEC Encounter 2016, between 47 and 517 Christians will die as martyrs because of their faith in Jesus Christ. It is a sobering reality and one to which we give too little consideration.

When Father Jacques first encountered Christ, the Lord ignited a fire in his heart and set it aflame with love for Jesus. Throughout his life, this love burned gently in his heart and, in the end, consumed him as it united him with the one who said, “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25-26).

Is not the goal of the Teens Encounter Christ movement to help our young men and women also encounter the Lord Jesus Christ? Is not our purpose, our mission, to cooperate with the grace of God as we strive to help ignite a fire burning with love for Jesus within the hearts of young men and women? The answer, of course, to both questions is a resounding “yes,” as we can see if we have a little etymological fun.

Our English word “encounter” comes, ultimately, from the Latin word incontra, meaning “in front of,” as in “against.” Curiously, it comes to us through the thirteenth century French word encontrer, meaning to “meet, come across; confront, fight, oppose,” though it is not recorded in English for another three hundred years. We can see, then, that the meaning, the connotation, of the word encounter has changed rather significantly over the centuries. In this change we can see something of the experience of many of the candidates we welcome into the Teens Encounter Christ movement.

How many of our candidates have we watched struggle on Die Day? How many candidates resisted acknowledging their sins? How many fought to keep their hearts closed as we tried to help them examine their ideals, as we sought to help them recognize the experience of God, to understand the Paschal Mystery, and to convert their hearts? In this encounter with the Lord, they felt themselves set against him; they thought themselves to be strong, but found Christ stronger (cf. Matthew 12:29). Some refused to allow their hearts to be pierced and ran away, but others chose to yield to the power of Christ’s love and were overcome by him.

When they finally allowed their hearts to fall to the ground and die, to be pierced by the burning love of the Crucified, was not their joy and peace on Rise Day and Go Day all the greater and their fruit in the Forth Day all the more bountiful? Their encounter with Christ that at first was something of a confrontation became something of a meeting, an encounter – as we use the word today - of one heart with another in sacramental confession. It is in this moment that we hope to assist in the conflagration of hearts, that when the Lord comes with his angels and his saints he will find the earth already burning, having been ignited by us with the fire of his love.

As we gather this weekend, we will hear repeatedly these words of the Master and Teacher: “I came to cast fire on the earth; and would that it were already kindled” (Luke 12:49)! What is this fire but “the saving message of the gospel and the power of its commandments?”[3] We have already opened our hearts to this saving message; our hearts have already been ignited by this fire; and we strive, in ways both large and small, to keep it burning brightly. We received this fire when we were baptized into Christ and when we were sealed with the seven-fold gifts of the Holy Spirit, as did most of our candidates. Even so, we must continually remind ourselves that “with its fire, love makes whatever it has touched better.”[4]

But if this is the case, why are we so often hesitant to yield to the fire of the Lord’s love, to allow it be stirred up into flame? Do we not want to be better? The reason is simple: “These flaming words from the lips of our Lord Jesus Christ reveal the malice of sin.”[5] When the Lord comes in his glory, he will indeed set the world ablaze, as Saint Paul teaches:

for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire (I Corinthians 3:13-15).

But for those who remain friendship with the Lord Jesus and keep their lives free of mortal sin, this fire is not to be feared, painful though it may be. Indeed,

the fire which both burns and saves is Christ himself, the Judge and Saviour. The encounter with him is the decisive act of judgement. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves. All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw, pure bluster, and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation. His gaze, the touch of his heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation “as through fire”. But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God. In this way the inter-relation between justice and grace also becomes clear: the way we live our lives is not immaterial, but our defilement does not stain us for ever if we have at least continued to reach out towards Christ, towards truth and towards love. Indeed, it has already been burned away through Christ's Passion. At the moment of judgement we experience and we absorb the overwhelming power of his love over all the evil in the world and in ourselves. The pain of love becomes our salvation and our joy.[6]

Here, again, we see the two meanings of the word encounter, the original meaning and the current meaning. We, as members of the Teens Encounter Christ movement, must strive to first prepare ourselves for this final encounter with Christ, for this final judgment of merciful love, and only afterwards to prepare our candidates, Wheaties, and resources for this encounter.

What gave Father Jacques the strength not to run away from his attackers? It was certainly possible, because one of the Sisters ran for the police. I suspect he did not seek to run away because he had already allowed his heart to be set ablaze with the fire of God’s love and nothing else mattered to him; nothing else mattered but being with Jesus. May the same be said of us! Amen.

[1] See Martin Fricker, Tom Parry, Peter Allen, and Sophie Evans, “ISIS knifemen forced French priest to kneel andfilmed themselves slitting his throat in horror church attack,” Mirror, 26 July 2016. Accessed 27 July 2016.
[2] John L. Allen, Jr., “Memo to WYD:Forget the program, teach youth about the martyrs,” Crux, 27 July 2016. Accessed 27 July 2016.
[3] Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on Luke, Homily 94. In Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament Vol III: Luke. Arthur A. Just, Jr., ed. (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter Varsity Press, 2003), 217.
[4] Saint Ambrose of Milan, Isaac, Or the Soul, 8.77. In ibid.
[5] Saint Basil the Great, Concerning Baptism, 1.2. In ibid.
[6] Pope Benedict XVI, Spe salvi, 47.

18 July 2016

Homily for the Pilgrimage Procession Commemorating Father Tolton's Return to Quincy

Pilgrimage Procession and Evening Prayer
Commemorating the 130th Anniversary of the Return of the
Servant of God Father Augustus Tolton to Quincy

Dear brothers and sisters,

It was one hundred and thirty years ago this morning that the recently ordained Father Augustus Tolton returned to Quincy from Rome. Because I, too, recently returned to Quincy from studies in Rome, it is a day to which I feel a special affinity and a special closeness to Father Tolton.

In order to welcome him home, the priests then in Quincy chartered a special railroad car to bring Father Tolton from Springfield to Quincy. The train was named the “Q,” and when it pulled into the station at Front and Vermont streets, a brass band greeted Father Tolton by playing his favorite hymn, “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name.”

As he disembarked, a large crowd cheered and waved in greeting to the first black priest in these United States of America. Father Tolton climbed into a carriage, drawn by four white horses and decorated with flowers, and a procession with the band and the people moved from the train station to St. Peter’s church, then at Eighth and Maine streets.  As the procession moved along, the people shouted, “Father Tolton, Father Augustus Tolton! Welcome home! Welcome home!”

When the procession arrived at St. Peter’s church, Father Tolton entered the sanctuary, blessed his mother for the first time as a priest, and began giving his blessing to the hundreds of people who came to welcome him. They received him well and welcomed him gladly as a priest, though there was earlier some confusion concerning his person. In a brief notice concerning his return published in The Quincy Journal the day before, we read:

Father Tolton explains the report of his death, which was current a couple of months ago, as having arisen from a mistake in reading the cards he sent out in memory of his first mass. As the notice contained the words ‘In memoriam,’ he supposed it was taken as a death announcement.”[1]

This is but one small example of how, in many ways, his life was fraught with misunderstanding, a circumstance even present at his return to Quincy.

Father Tolton offered the holy sacrifice of the Mass for the first time in Quincy the following day at St. Boniface church, a celebration The Quincy Daily Journal called “the grandest service ever held in Quincy.”[2] It was a day on which, as Father Tolton later recalled, “everyone received me kindly, especially the Negroes, but also the White people: Germans, Irish, and all others. I celebrated Mass on July 18, in the Church of Saint Boniface with more than 1,000 whites and 500 colored people present.”[3]

Father Anselm, the rector of St. Francis College - which would later become Quincy College and then Quincy University - preached a sermon on the priesthood. Taking a text from Saint Paul as his launching point, “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God,” a text very dear to my own heart (and from which I have taken the title of my blog), he expounded on the duties and the necessity of the priesthood (I Corinthians 4:1). Afterwards, he said to those gathered, “Rejoice today because another priest has been given to us. Rejoice, and today when he holds in his hands that of which God has said, ‘This is my beloved son,’ pray for the church and that you may live and esteem and treat him as is due a priest.”[4]

Our celebration today may lack something of the pomp and grandeur of that one one hundred and thirty years ago today and our numbers may not be so high, but our devotion is no less than theirs. We, too, have come to honor the first black priest in our country and to give thanks to God for the gift of his heroic and faithful witness.

Father Tolton ministered in Quincy for nearly three and a half years before he left for Chicago to be away from an intolerable situation of prejudice. After he arrived in Chicago, Father Tolton wrote these words to a friend:

My gratitude to those people of the Gem City is threefold. Some of the white friends and benefactors of St. Joseph’s church did not forget their colored priest Father Tolton. They did not let him go away empty handed from the Gem City, but as a token of respect they have made him a suitable donation, asking him to remember them in his prayers, and promised to do three times more if he would only remain with them. Catholics will love and respect a priest regardless of nationality; at least that is the spirit of those people in the Gem City who knew me for twenty-nine years or more. Never will I forget the happy hours spent in the little St. Joseph church. I wish them all the blessings that can be bestowed upon them, for that charitable spirit that they have always shown toward me and the colored children.[5]

Three days after his departure from Quincy, Father Tolton was voted the second favorite priest in Quincy, despite the fact that he was no longer in the city. In fact, he missed being voted the favorite priest by just eleven and a half votes.[6]

All these years later, we have gathered to keep Father Anselm’s words; we have gathered to esteem Father Tolton and to treat him as is due a priest, to treat with respect and honor one who served so faithfully as a dispenser of the mysteries – of the sacraments – of God. We have come because, as the Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI reminds us,

the true stars of our life are the people who have lived good lives. They are lights of hope. Certainly, Jesus Christ is the true light, the sun that has risen above all the shadows of history. But to reach him we also need lights close by — people who shine with his light and so guide us along our way.[7]

In Father Tolton, we see the light of a good life that illuminates before us the path of Jesus Christ.

Throughout his life, Father Tolton remained “content with weakness, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ” (II Corinthians 12:10). We have no record of him bemoaning the difficulties he encountered. We have no record of him drawing public attention to the harsh treatment he received from a fellow priest. In all things, he seems to have imitated Christ the Lord and remained a humble and long-suffering servant who united himself to Christ. This Servant of God allowed the love of the Lord to motivate his life and to this love he dedicated his life. His fidelity to the Church is a clear proclamation of the Gospel, and an invitation for all people to enter into and to know the merciful love of the Lord.

In this he is a model for each of us; never did he cease his proclamation of the Gospel, not even when he encountered discrimination and prejudice. As Father Roy Bauer has said, “Some people could easily judge that his life was not a success, but God calls His servants to be faithful, not successful!”[8] The fidelity of Father Tolton cannot be doubted, and for this reason he is a model and continual reminder for us that, as Saint Paul says, “when I am weak, then I am strong” (II Corinthians 12:10). This, I suspect, is why he remained so popular in Quincy even after he left for Chicago; this is why we remain attached to him today and have come to commemorate his return to the Gem City.

Father Tolton entrusted himself completely to the Lord and we now pray that he will soon be declared Blessed and raised to the dignity of the altars, a cause which continues to move slowly forward. Let us pray that, through his example and intercession, the Lord will raise up many more such servants of Christ in our Diocese, that each of the Lord’s altars may have a priest to administer the mysteries of God.  Amen!

[1] “Our Colored Priest,” The Quincy Journal, 17 July 1886.
[2] “Solemn High Mass,” The Quincy Daily Journal, 19 July 1886.
[3] Augustus Tolton, Letter to Cardinal Checchi, September 1886.
[4] “Solemn High Mass,” Quincy Daily Journal, 19 July 1886.
[5] Quoted in “Father Tolton,” The Quincy Daily Journal, November 13, 1889, page 4.
[6] “Lucky Ladies,” Quincy Daily Herald, November 17, 1899.
[7] Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi, 49.
[8] Roy Bauer, They Called Him Father Gus, Part Twenty-nine.