28 August 2021

Homily - Saint Augustine on Saint Joseph

The Solemnity of Saint Augustine of Hippo

Dear brothers and sisters,

As we celebrate today this Solemnity of Saint Augustine of Hippo, Bishop and Doctor of the Church, we find ourselves still in the midst of the Year of Saint Joseph. This is a year Pope Francis proclaimed, he said, “to increase our love for this great saint, to encourage us to implore his intercession and to imitate his virtues and his zeal.”[1] With this in mind, I thought it might be good this year to have a look at what our heavenly patron has to say about the one we call Protector of the Holy Church.

Alexandre Cabanel
Detail, Saint Augustine in His Study, 1845

AI do so, in part, taking the lead of the Holy Father. He concluded his Apostolic Letter proclaiming the Year of Saint with a quote from Saint Augustine, who asked, “What they could do, can you not also do?[2] What is it Saint Augustine saw in Saint Joseph that we can also do?

During Saint Augustine’s lifetime, there were some who took offense that the genealogy of Jesus was given not through Mary, but through Joseph. The reason they were offended is because, as we know, Joseph is not the natural father of Jesus, as if this somehow made him less of a father to the Son of God. But Saint Augustine would have nothing to do with this line of thinking; instead, he launched into a staunch defense of Saint Joseph.

While some laughed at Joseph for having been betrothed to a woman who appeared to be an adulteress, Saint Augustine saw Joseph’s response to the news of Mary’s pregnancy as a mark of his virtue. Augustine said:

He [Joseph] is upset as a husband, of course, but as a just man he does not fall into a rage. This man is credited with such a keen sense of justice, that he would neither agree to have an adulteress as his wife, nor venture to punish her by publicizing the matter. He “wished,” it says, “to break off the engagement quietly;” he was unwilling not only to punish her, but even to put her to shame.[3]

In Joseph’s intentions, there is much to learn for our society, which is so eager to shame others and to publicize one another’s private sins. Against this temptation, Saint Augustine teaches us that “those sins … are to be rebuked in front of everybody which are committed in front of everybody,” but “those which are committed less publicly are to be rebuked less publicly. Distinguish between the occasions, and scripture is at peace with itself.”[4] Joseph, then, teaches us to be just, humble, and gentle.

Before saying anything more here, we have to point out that Joseph was incorrect in his initial assessment of the situation. As the angel would reveal to him, Mary had not committed adultery but remained faithful to Joseph; she did not conceive through another man, bur through the Holy Spirit. Reflecting on this revelation, Saint Augustine said, “So while he [Joseph] was made uneasy by human weakness, he was reassured by divine authority.”[5] In effect, he reminds us that we should trust in God more than we trust in our own assessments.

From this observation, Saint Augustine returned to the argument of his opponents who claimed it was not right that the genealogy of Jesus be traced through Joseph.

Augustine pointed out it was this same divine authority who, through the angel, called Joseph the husband of Mary (cf. Matthew 1:20-21). Moreover, Joseph was commanded “to give the child a name, even though it was not born of his own seed,” which Augustine sees as proof that Joseph “is not deprived of his paternal authority.”[6]

Just in case these arguments are not enough for someone to stop questioning the role of Joseph as father to Jesus, Saint Augustine also notes that “the Virgin Mary herself, perfectly aware that she had not conceived Christ by Joseph’s conjugal embrace, still calls him Christ’s father” when she and Joseph found him in the Temple (cf. Luke 2:48).[7] To those who argue that Jesus denied being Joseph’s son when he asked them, “Did you not know I had to be about my Father’s business?,” Augustine points out that Saint Luke tells us Jesus “was obedient to them,” not just to Mary, but to Joseph, as well (Luke 2:51).

As if to crown his argument about the fittingness of tracing the genealogy of Jesus through Joseph and not through Mary, Saint Augustine turns his attention to marriage. He says, “So we can’t say that Joseph wasn’t a father, just because he never slept with the mother of the Lord – as though it were lust that made someone into a wife, and not married love.”[8] Augustine goes on from this argument to say that “a man can have two fathers, one who begot him from his seed, the other who adopted him out of love.”[9] Here Augustine highlights the importance of love within a family.

For each of these reasons, Saint Augustine says

It shouldn’t bother us that the ancestry of Christ is reckoned through Joseph and not through Mary; it’s because, just as she was a mother without carnal desire, so he was a father without carnal intercourse… We should allow that his greater purity confirms his fatherhood, or we might find ourselves rebuked by Saint Mary herself.[10]

Jesus, says Saint Augustine, “was born of the Virgin Mary, to the piety and love of Joseph” and so he is rightly called the father of Jesus.[11]

As we celebrate this Solemnity of our great patron, let us ask Saint Augustine to teach us how to imitate Saint Joseph with him and to implore his intercession. May he teach us to be just, humble, and gentle, to trust in God, and to establish our families on the foundation of love. Amen.

[1] Pope Francis, Patris corde, 7.

[2] Saint Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, VIII.11.27.

[3] Ibid., Sermon 51.9.

[4] Ibid., 82.10.

[5] Ibid., 51.9.

[6] Ibid., 51.16.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 51.21.

[9] Ibid., 51.27.

[10] Ibid., 51.30.

[11] Ibid.

22 August 2021

Homily - On the subordinance of marriage

 The Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

 Dear brothers and sisters,

We have heard for the past several weeks of Jesus’ desire to give himself completely for us, to the point of offering himself on the Cross for our salvation and of giving himself to us as our true food and drink (cf. John 6:1-69). Today, he asks us, “Does this shock you” (John 6:61)?

No doubt there are many today who are indeed shocked at so great a love. In an age of ever-increasing self-absorption and of strident, independent individualism, so self-less a love seems unfathomable. Yet this love is true; it is real. Jesus did - and does - love us with a love greater than we can comprehend. Yet some doubt such a love and others do not desire to be loved so intimately. At what point in this spectrum do we fall? Today, many people’s ability to accept the love of Jesus is related to their upbringing, to the manner in which they received love in their families.

Saint Paul realized this profound relationship between marriage and God’s own love. This is why he said, “This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the Church” (Ephesians 5:32). The portion of his letter to the Ephesians which we have just heard finds little support in society today. For this reason, many marriages have failed because spouses have not rooted their love for each other in the love of Jesus Christ; they have not measured their love according to God’s way of loving.

We strive for independence because of our fallen and sinful condition and long for what we call freedom, but which – in reality - is really mere license. When we attain what we seek we do not find ourselves, but rather slaves to our own desires and passions. Saint Paul shows us the way out of this vicious cycle of self-enslavement and opens for us the path to authentic freedom.

“Follow the way of love,” he says earlier in the same letter, “even as Christ loved you. He gave himself for us” (Ephesians 5:2). Who would say that Jesus was not free? Indeed, he was – and is - freer than any one of us has ever been. It is true that he was obedient to the Father even to the point of death, but it is equally true that he freely chose obedience. His was the obedience not of enslavement, but of love; it is this obedience of love that Saint Paul urges wives to live when he says, “Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:22).

Before we grow angry with Saint Paul and think him a bigot, we must remember what he writes just before this so-called controversial statement: “Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ,” words he addresses to everyone (Ephesians5:21). As Christ loved us, so we are to love one another. Because wives are to love their husbands as they would love Christ, they should be subordinate to them “because the husband is head of his wife just as Christ is head of his body the church” (Ephesians 5:22).

Before saying anything further, we must consider what it means to be “subordinate” to someone.

The Greek verb is hypotasso, which means literally ‘to place or arrange under.’ Here it occurs in the middle voice (hypotassomai) with the meaning ‘to place oneself under,’ or more simply, ‘submit oneself to’ or ‘defer to.’ It is clear from the context that voluntary subordination is intended, like the other voluntary expression of Spirit-filled life mentioned [by Paul].[1]

This voluntary act of deferring to one another is placed by Saint Paul in the context of “reverence for Christ.”

The truly unusual nature of this instruction is that Paul tells his readers to submit themselves to one another, still addressing all the members of the community. At first this seems contradictory. How can two individuals place themselves ‘under’ each other? … The meaning of this unusual instruction becomes clearer in the light of similar texts that teach about relationships in the church… Reciprocal humility and love determine even the relationship that entail authority… Undoubtedly, behind this teaching stands Jesus’ own teaching about leadership as service (Luke22:25-27), which was demonstrated and explained when he washed the feet of his disciples (John 13:13-15), foreshadowing his humbling himself for our sake on the cross.[2]

Here we see clearly that “God’s way of loving becomes the measure of human love.” [3]

The head of the body always looks to the good of the body, to its health, safety, and satisfaction. This is how Christ cares for his Bride, the Church; this is how husbands are to care for their wives. What is more, Saint Paul says, “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the Church and handed himself over for her to sanctify her” (Ephesians 5:25). Every husband, then, must be filled with so selfless a love for his wife that he is ready and willing to lay down even his very life for her. “While on rare occasions dying for one’s wife may be literally necessary, [Paul] means it in the everyday sense of husbands dying to self by prioritizing their wives’ needs and wants before their own. Essentially, Paul is saying, ‘Husbands, seek the good of your wives regardless of the cost to you.”[4] If a husband loves his wife in this way, there is no difficulty in deferring to him. Again, we see clearly that God’s way of loving becomes the measure of human love.

Certainly, to live in this way is no simple task and for this reason, in his goodness, Christ the Lord has raised marriage to the dignity of a Sacrament and has bestowed his grace upon it to enable husbands and wives to live in such a way that the love of Christ for the Church is reflected in their marriage.

Christ’s grace is not an external addition to human nature, it does not do violence to men and women but sets them free and restores them, precisely by raising them above their own limitations. And just as the Incarnation of the Son of God reveals its true meaning in the Cross, so genuine human love is self-giving and cannot exist if it seeks to detach itself from the Cross.[5]

We can say, then, that the love of husband and wife is in some way a Eucharistic love, a love that must imitate the selfless and self-giving love of Jesus Christ. Husbands and wives must give themselves to each other completely, just as Jesus gives himself completely for us. When a husband cares more about himself than his wife, a marriage begins to fail. When a wife cares more about herself than her husband, a marriage begins to fail. This, too, is a hard saying and one largely rejected by our society, to great harm for all.

It is only by following the way of love, it is only by deferring to one another out of reverence for Christ, that we find true freedom; it is only by imitating the self-giving love of Jesus that we find everything we seek in life. May the Lord, then, lead us deeper and deeper into the mystery of his love until our love perfectly reflects his own, until the measure of our love is the measure of his love. Amen.

[1] Peter S. Williamson, Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture: Ephesians (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2009), 155-156.

[2] Ibid., 156-157.

[3] Pope Benedict XVI, Deus caritas est, 11.

[4] Peter S. Williamson, Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture: Ephesians, 166.

[5] Pope Benedict XVI, Address to Participants in the Diocesan Convention of Rome, 6 June 2005.

10 July 2021

Homily on the 124th Anniversary of the Death of Father Tolton


Evening Prayer

The 124th Anniversary of the Death of the

Venerable Servant of God Augustine Tolton


Reverend Fathers and Deacons,

Dear brothers and sisters,

While this form of prayer in which we are now engaged may not be too familiar to most of us, it is a manner of praying with which Father Gus would have prayed each day, albeit in a different form than we have now. It is a manner of praying that the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council hoped would be celebrated regularly in parish churches throughout the world.[1] 

We have gathered for the celebration of Evening Prayer, which is also called Vespers, a part of the
Liturgy of the Hours, which is also called the Divine Office. It is the praying of the Psalms in common, much as Jesus would have done. It is a prayer “which is distinguished from other liturgical actions by the fact that it consecrates to God the whole cycle of day and night, as [the Church] has done from early Christian times.” [2] The Liturgy of the Hours has as its purpose not only “the sanctification of the day,” but also “of the whole range of human activity.”[3]

It is a prayer that invites us to contemplation because what might seem to us to be simply the recitation of Psalms actually involves something much deeper, something much more profound. This form of prayer “is truly the voice of the bride addressed to her bridegroom; it is the very prayer which Christ Himself, together with His body, addresses to the Father.[4] We know that 

Christ Jesus, high priest of the new and eternal covenant, taking human nature, introduced into this earthly exile that hymn which is sung throughout all ages in the halls of heaven. He joins the entire community of mankind to Himself, associating it with His own singing of this canticle of divine praise. For he continues His priestly work through the agency of His Church, which is ceaselessly engaged in praising the Lord and interceding for the salvation of the whole world.[5]


But what, I am sure you are by now asking yourselves, does any of this have to do with Father Tolton? 

Photo: Wayne Wienke

Inasmuch as he was a baptized member of the Body of Christ, Father Tolton was called to conform his life to that of the Lord, to join himself to the Lord’s Jesus life of praise to the Father, just as you and I are called to do. After examining his life, the Church has found that he lived the Christian life to a heroic degree and so calls him Venerable, holding him up as worthy of our imitation. How, then, do we hear the hymn of Christ sung in the life of Father Gus?

Turning our attention to the Psalms we have just prayed, the very same Psalms that Christ Jesus not only sang but also lived, we can see how they took form also in the life of Father Gus, particularly in these words from the first Psalm we prayed: “My enemies whisper together against me”; “they all weigh up the evil which is on me” (Psalm 41:7)

There were those who whispered against Father Gus when he was in slavery. There were those who whispered against him when he was a schoolboy. There were those who whispered against him when he was teaching his fellow blacks about the Christian faith. There were those who whispered against him when he wanted to enter the seminary. And there were those who whispered against him when at last he was ordained a priest, forcing his removal from this Gem City. Yet, despite those many whisperings, and even some shoutings, Father Gus neither whispered nor shouted back. Why? Because he knew that the Lord God was his friend and trusted that he would “be unharmed and set in [God’s] presence for evermore” (Psalm 41:11, 12).

Is this not what Christ Jesus did when he “opened not his mouth” during his Passion (Isaiah 53:7)? Father Gus so joined himself to the Passion of the Lord that he could imitate him even in the extraordinarily painful moments of his life; whereas we so often became angry and bitter during our distresses, Father Gus never did. As Archbishop Nelson Perez recently said, “Rather than shrink his heart,” the many distresses Father Gus encountered “made it bigger.”[6] This, it seems to me, is the great lesson Father Gus wants to teach us: not to allow our hearts to become bitter or shriveled, but to be enlarged with love of Jesus Christ to whom this holy priest shows us how to be united.

Turning our attention to the second Psalm we prayed this evening, we prayed, “God is for us a refuge and strength, a helper close at hand, in time of distress” (Psalm 46:1). We know that 

there are many kinds of [distress], and in all of them we must find refuge in God, whether the trouble concerns our income, our bodily health, some danger threatening those we love or something we need to support our life. Whatever it is, there should be no refuge for a Christian other than our Savior.[7] 

Father Gus experienced each of these distresses throughout his life, but he always sought his shelter and his strength in Christ Jesus. And because the refuge of Christ proved true (how could he prove otherwise?), we can well imagine Father Gus asking, “Who would dare refuse you honor, or the glory due your name, O Lord” (Revelation 15:3)?

This same question is one our lips this evening and in our hearts as continue anticipating that day that, may it please God, Father Gus will be proclaimed among the Blessed and among the Saints for his worthy imitation of the Lord Jesus. Commenting on the first Psalm we prayed this evening, Saint Augustine of Hippo said, “God has disposed all things and ordered all things for our salvation. He foretold it before we existed, he has fulfilled it in our time, and what he has not fulfilled yet, he will.”[8] Let us therefore beg the Lord to fulfill what he began in Father Gus and allow the Church to bestow upon him the honor we so greatly desire.

Photo: Gretchen Mason

In the meantime, may Father Gus teach us to join our lives to that hymn of praise which Christ sings to the Father. May he teach us to experience the whispers and shouts of others with patience and gentleness, to find our strength in the shelter of the wounds of the Savior, not to please ourselves but to please Jesus, and to allow our hearts to grow until they are conformed to the Sacred Heart of the Lord (cf. Romans 15:3).

Father Gus, pray for us. Amen.

[1] Cf. Sacrosanctum Concilium, 100.

[2] General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours, 10.

[3] Ibid., 11.

[4] Sacrosanctum Concilium, 84.

[5] SC, 83.

[6] Archbishop Nelson PĂ©rez, Homily, 26 June 2021. In Gina Christian, “Pioneering Black priest a model for healing racism, says Archbishop,” Catholic Philly,301 June 2021. Accessed 4 July 2021. Available at https://catholicphilly.com/2021/06/news/local-news/pioneering-black-priest-a-model-for-healing-racism-says-archbishop/

[7] Saint Augustine of Hippo, Expositions on the Psalms, 46.3.

[8] Ibid., 41.14.

03 July 2021

Homily - 4 July 2021 - How Saint Joseph teaches us the perfection of freedom

The Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Dear brothers and sisters,

Before sending Ezekiel to a rebellious people with the mission to convert them, the prophet tells us that the Holy Spirit entered into him and “set me on my feet” (Ezekiel 2:2). This is a curious phrase he uses, “set me on my feet.” What does it mean?

This phrase can, of course, have several different meanings, either all at once or each in turn. To be set on one’s feet can mean to be strengthened or to be made firm; it can mean to be grounded or set aright or corrected; it can be taken literally, as when a parent stands a toddler up when learning to walk, or it can be figurative.

Whichever of these meanings Ezekiel intended, one thing is certain: he does not speak in the active sense, but in the passive. He does not stand himself up on his feet, rather; he is stood up, which requires a certain docility to the Holy Spirit, something men and women of our day are not much open to.

Ezekiel could not rely on his own strength for the mission given to him, but he could only rely on the strength which comes from the grace of God. This Saint Paul also knew when he heard the Lord Jesus say to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (II Corinthians 12:9). This is the wisdom of the Cross, a wisdom Saint Augustine and so many other Saints both learned and lived. Have we learned this wisdom? Have learned not to rely on our own strength, or courage, or desire, or determination, or ability, or ingenuity? The way and wisdom of the Cross is not the way or wisdom of America; it is not the way of self-reliance.

As we celebrate this weekend our nation’s founding and independence from Great Britain, it is hard not to think of freedom, which can rightly be called the way and wisdom of America. But how wise are we as a country, as a people, as individuals in the way of freedom?

When he thought about freedom some 1,300 years before the Founding Fathers, Saint Augustine said,

The beginning of freedom is to be free from crimes... such as murder, adultery, fornication, theft, fraud, sacrilege and so forth. When once one is without these crimes (and every Christian should be without them), one begins to lift up one's head towards freedom. But this is only the beginning of freedom, not perfect freedom...[1]

Our nation understands this well enough; it knows the beginning of freedom, but it does not know the perfection of freedom.

We think of freedom as the ability – even the right – to do whatever I want, whenever I want, however I want. But the Church knows this is not the perfection of freedom, but rather a very great distortion of freedom, an exaltation of freedom “almost to the point of idolatry.”[2]

Saint Paul told the people of Galatia, “You were called to freedom, brethren, only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another” (Galatians 5:13). We can rightly say, then, that the perfection of freedom is loving service of others; the perfection of freedom is not found in lives of self-absorption.

How much different would our society be if we as individuals, as a people, as a nation, followed these words of the Apostle? How much different would our society be if we lived not as servants of ourselves, with a distorted and idolatrous notion of freedom, but if we instead used our freedom to live as servants of one another, as Saint Paul teaches us? How much more brightly would the light of the love of Christ Jesus shine through us to illumine the darkness of sin and lead men and women into the light of authentic freedom?

If we consider the life of Saint Joseph, we see that
“the logic of love is always the logic of freedom, and Joseph knew how to love with extraordinary freedom. He never made himself the center of things. He did not think of himself, but focused instead on the lives of Mary and Jesus.”[3] In this year devoted to the Head of the Holy Family and the Protector of the Church, we have much to learn about authentic freedom, about human freedom from this man who says little with words but speaks eloquently in deeds. From Saint Joseph, we can learn that

freedom is not unlimited: it must halt before the "tree of the knowledge of good and evil", for it is called to accept the moral law given by God. In fact, human freedom finds its authentic and complete fulfilment precisely in the acceptance of that law. God, who alone is good, knows perfectly what is good for man, and by virtue of his very love proposes this good to man in the commandments.[4]

Indeed, “Christian freedom is never identified with libertinage or with the will to do as one pleases; it is actuated in conformity to Christ and hence in authentic service to the brethren and above all to the neediest.[5]

In the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, we see quite clearly that “freedom is acquired in love, that is, in the gift of self.”[6] As we celebrate our freedom this Independence Day, may we always remember that our freedom is not freedom to do whatever I want, bur rather freedom for love; it is “it is following Christ in the gift of self, right up to the sacrifice on the cross.[7]

Let us, then, embrace the true freedom of the sons and daughters of God. Let us, like Saint Joseph, strive to use our freedom for loving service of Jesus and his Mother and everyone whom they love. Let us use our freedom to open our hearts to the Holy Spirit so that he might enter into us, stand us up, and send us to a rebellious people, to a people bound in false notions of freedom and set them free to live in love, in the perfection of freedom. Amen.

[1] Saint Augustine of Hippo, Tractates on the Gospel of John, 41.10.

[2] Pope Saint John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, 54.

[3] Pope Francis, Patris Corde, 7.

[4] Pope Saint John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, 35.

[5] Pope Benedict XVI, General Audience Address, 1 October 2008.

[6] Pope Saint John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, 87.

[7] Pope Benedict XVI, Angelus Address, 1 July 2007.