Join us this evening for the final liturgy at 9:00pm & 1:00am ET / 6:00pm & 10:00pm PT. The theme of the homily will be the “The Holiness of Christians flows from that of the Church”.
Examples of Holiness in Everyday Life
Solemn Evening Prayer: Homily for the Second Night of the Cathedral Parish Mission
March 15, 2011
In this evening’s reading from the first letter of Peter [I Peter 2:4-9], we listen to Peter’s stirring invitation to the Church:
Come to him, a living stone, rejected by human beings but chosen and precious in the sight of God, and, like living stones, let yourselves be built 4 into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
Christ is the cornerstone (cf Isaiah 28:16) that is the foundation of the spiritual edifice of the Christian community (1 Peter 2:5). Christians are “a chosen race” indicating their divine election. They are “a royal priesthood” to serve and worship God in Christ, thus continuing the priestly functions of his life, passion, and resurrection. We are “a holy nation” reserved for God, a people he claims for his own in virtue of their baptism into his death and resurrection. “Holy nation” transcends all natural and national divisions and unites the people into one community to glorify the one who led them from the darkness of paganism to the light of faith in Christ. From being “no people” deprived of all mercy, they have become the very people of God, the chosen recipients of his mercy (cf Hosea 1:9; 2:23).
There could be no more powerful words to describe those who have taken God’s words seriously in their lives, those who have responded to his invitation to holiness… those we call saints and blessed in our Catholic tradition.
Life in Christ is holy living
A saint is a friend of God who takes the beatitudes seriously in his or her life. Each of us is called to become God’s friend. We grow in friendship with God as we do with others: by being present to God, talking with God, and being generous with God. Here and now, we can find holiness in our personal experience of putting forth our best efforts in the work place, patiently raising our children, and building good relationships at home, at school and at work. If we make all of these things a part of our loving response to God, we are on the path of holiness. This need for good examples is also important in the area of Christian living.
Many think that sainthood is a privilege reserved only for the chosen few. Actually, to become a saint is the task of every Christian, and what’s more, we could even say it’s the task of everyone! How many times have we thought that the Saints are merely “eccentrics” that the Church exalts for our imitation; people who were so unrepresentative of and out of touch with the human scene? It is certainly true of all those men and women who were “eccentric” in its literal sense: they deviated from the centre, from usual practice, the ordinary ways of doing things, the established methods. Another way of looking at the saints is that they stood at the “radical centre.”
We need the example of these holy women and men who had no moderation but only exuberance! They were people with ordinary affections, who took God seriously and were therefore free to act with exuberance. Not measured or moderate, the Saint’s response to God’s extravagant love is equally immoderate, marked by fidelity and total commitment. G. K. Chesterton said: “[such] people have exaggerated what the world and the Church have forgotten”.
The Roman Catholic Church “canonizes” certain saints, placing them on a list (canon) of those given the seal of its approval, after long study and a process of discernment. There are far more saints not in the canon than there are in it; and many a saint in the canon receives little or no veneration from people today: it is always the people who finally decide that someone is, for them, a hero. And if there was ever an age when young men and women needed authentic heroes, it is our age.
The Church understands that saints, their prayers, their lives, are for people on earth, that sainthood, as an earthly honor, is not coveted by the saints themselves. A saint’s life is always new and surprising on one hand, but always “the same” on the other hand. The lives of the saints are told and retold on behalf of the listeners, in order to clarify the issues for them, to inspire them, and to confront them with choices that only they can make, for themselves.
This evening I would like to tell you the stories of some of the living stones of our Catholic tradition, men and women who took God utterly serious at his Word, who were part of that “cloud of witnesses, members of that “chosen race”, of the “royal priesthood” who truly served and worshipped God in Christ, thus continuing the priestly functions of his life, passion, and resurrection. I will speak briefly about these living stones:
St. André of Montreal
Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman
Blessed Franz Jägerstätter
St. Gianna Berretta Molla
St. André of Montreal
André Bessette, C.S.C. Born Alfred Bessette on August 9, 1845, in Saint-Grégoire d’Iberville, Quebec, he was one of 12 children and suffered from a chronic stomach ailment that kept him out of school and often without work. A few years after his father’s death, his mother died, but their piety and trust in God had deeply influenced young Alfred. When he reached the age of 18, he set out for New England in search of employment. He spent four years working in cotton mills and farms in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. In 1867 he returned to Canada and sought the help of his childhood parish priest, Father André Provençal. The priest encouraged the young man to pursue his desire to enter into religious life.
When Alfred entered the novitiate, Father Provençal sent a letter to the novice master saying, “I am sending a saint to your congregation.” The Holy Cross brothers had initially turned the less than five-foot-tall André away from seeking a religious vocation because of his delicate health. In reference to his assignment as doorman, he once quipped, “When I joined this community, the superiors showed me the door.”
For more than 40 years, André contented himself with his humble tasks of welcoming visitors, cleaning the premises and running errands. He put himself at the service of everyone, especially the students, whom he would look after when they were ill. Many visitors would come to the college and ask André to pray for their loved ones who were ill, and many claimed they had been healed. News of his power to heal spread as people began to recover. In response to the many healings and conversions, Brother André would always insist it was the work of St. Joseph, not himself.
Brother André’s special affection for St. Joseph inspired him to build a church in his honor. Using the small sums he received cutting students’ hair, as well as donations, the brother was able to build a modest structure in 1904, which he continued to expand as more funding became available. Brother André was named the oratory’s custodian in 1909 as hundreds and then thousands of pilgrims made their way to Mount Royal to meet Brother André and pray to St. Joseph. Brother André died on January 6, 1937, at the age of 91. Between his death and burial, more than 1 million people came to pay tribute to him. Beatified in 1982 by Pope John Paul II, Brother André, the humble porter of Mount Royal was proclaimed a saint on October 17, 2010 in Rome.
Brother André Besette is a gentle yet powerful witness who reminds us that in the midst of all of our pastoral endeavors, we must strive for humility, practice hospitality, and love the poor.
Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman
The beatification of Cardinal Newman last September 19, 2010 in Birmingham was a very important event for the universal Church. This 19th-century theologian is considered by many to have anticipated the Second Vatican Council. Rather than highlight the brilliance of his theological synthesis and grasp of history, I would like to stress one of his outstanding human qualities: his understanding of friendship.
Friendship is a positive experience in a person’s emotional life. In the Church there is still much fear of friendship. Pathologies are not channeled if one is not helped to develop a healthy life. Unhealthy and negative friendships, which because of this are not proper friendships, must not close us off from the essential value of these bonds of preference that open us to the love of others and help us to understand who God is. Newman truly speaks heart-to-heart — “cor ad cor loquitur” — a phrase that he took from St. Francis de Sales, as his personal motto.
Newman was not afraid to be very close to a few people. He once wrote in a letter: “The best preparation for loving the world at large, and loving it duly and wisely is to cultivate an intimate friendship and affection for those who are immediately about.”
Are we able to foster such friendships today among priests and among the people we serve? Can such intimate friendships exist for us? Men and women often have intense friendships with members of their own sex, friendships that have no sexual component; yet we are at a loss to speak about them or even afraid to do so. Today “friend” is one you add to a social networking profile on the web. You can “friend” someone or “unfriend” them with the stroke of your keyboard. “Friend” is also a euphemism for a sexual partner outside marriage. Can a man nowadays even own up with pride to having a dear and close friend, another man to whom he is devoted?
The French writer François Mauriac once wrote about friendship: “If you are friends with Christ many others will warm themselves at your fire… On the day when you no longer burn with love, many will die of the cold.” I am certain that the “kindly light” and flame in Cardinal Newman’s heart gave and continues to give life and warmth to millions of people. And the source of the unquenchable fire was Newman’s deep friendship with Jesus Christ. We need Newman’s kindly light and brilliant example today more than ever.
Blessed Franz Jägerstätter: Martyr for the Truth
A striking role model and fellow citizen for us is the Austrian farmer and layman Franz Jägerstätter. Born in 1907 in Austria, Franz was a fun-loving youth who chased after girls, rode a motorcycle, and once fathered a child out of wedlock. After marrying, however, his religious faith deepened. Jägerstätter became one of the outstanding figures of Christian resistance to National Socialism and the Anschlüß (annexation of Austria by Germany in March 1938). Franz married and settled down to a typical peasant life. In addition to his farm and household duties, Jägerstätter became sacristan of the parish church of St. Radegund, and was known for his diligent and devout service.
In 1940, at the age of 33, he was conscripted into the German armed forces and underwent basic training. After returning home in 1941 on an exemption as a farmer, he began examining closely the religious reasons for refusing to carry out military service. In 1943 he reported to his army base and stated his refusal to serve. A military court rejected his assertion that he could not be both a Nazi and a Catholic, and condemned him to death for undermining military morale. His offer to serve as a military paramedic was ignored. His refusal to serve in the Nazi army was not supported by his parish priest, his bishop or most of his Catholic friends. Particularly because he had a wife and three daughters, many advised him to think of his family and put aside his conscientious objection to the Nazi war machine.
Early on August 9, 1943, Franz Jägerstätter was taken from Berlin to the concentration camp at Brandenburg/Havel. At midday he was told his death sentence had been confirmed and it would be carried out at 4 p.m. Just before his brutal execution he wrote: “I am convinced that it is best that I speak the truth, even if it costs me my life.” That afternoon at 4 p.m., Franz was beheaded, the first of 16 victims, for his refusal to serve in the armies of the Third Reich. He was martyred on the one-year anniversary of St. Edith Stein’s execution at Auschwitz. Three years later his remains were brought back to his homeland and buried near his beloved parish church in St. Radegund.
His life is a remarkable story, especially in this time when war and violence are raging in many parts of the world. Franz, the humble sacristan of St. Radegund, offers an example of how to live the Christian faith fully and radically, even when there are extreme consequences. “He is a shining example in his fidelity to the claims of his conscience – an advocate of nonviolence and peace,” the Austrian bishops said, praising Jägerstätter for standing up to “the inhuman and godless system of Nazism.”
On October 26, 2007, in the presence of his 94 year-old wife Franziska, his three daughters and 5000 others in the Cathedral of Linz, Austria, Franz Jägerstätter was beatified as a martyr, which means he was killed out of hatred for the faith. May he give us courage and honesty as we seek to live extreme holiness in our day.
Two contemporary women of faith and lovers of life
I wish to tell you about two outstanding, Catholic role models who can help us in our efforts to be prophetic, to be Catholic witnesses, and to be authentically for the cause of life. First, a young Italian pediatrician and mother of a family, Gianna Beretta Molla, who died in 1962 at the age of 39, leaving behind her husband and four young children.
St. Gianna Berretta Molla
In September, 1961, toward the end of the second month of pregnancy with her fourth child, Dr. Molla had to make a heroic decision. Physicians diagnosed a serious fibroma in the uterus that required surgery. The surgeon suggested that she undergo an abortion in order to save her own life. A few days before the child was due, she was ready to give her life in order to save that of her child: “If you must decide between me and the child, do not hesitate: Choose the child – I insist on it. Save the baby.” She gave herself entirely, generating new life.
Gianna was beatified in 1994 and canonized a saint in 2004. Her husband and children were present at each of the ceremonies. Gianna’s husband and family are very close friends of mine. When Gianna’s remaining children, Pierluigi, Laura and Gianna Emanuela, all my age, say: “my mother is a saint,” they mean it.
Dr. Molla was not the typical candidate for one of the Vatican’s most impressive ceremonies and most significant honours. Gianna loved culture, fashion and beauty. She played piano, was a painter, enjoyed tennis, mountain climbing and skiing. She attended the symphony, theatre and Milan’s La Scala Opera. Gianna also had a passion for nice clothes and enjoyed traveling. She loved children, the elderly and the poor.
In an age when permanent commitment is widely discouraged, when human life is cheap and disposable and family life is under siege, when abortion is all too available, when sacrifice and virtue are absent in so many lives; when many in the medical profession have little concern for the dignity and sacredness of every human life; when suffering is seen as a nuisance without any redemptive meaning; when goodness, joy, simplicity and beauty are suspect; St. Gianna Beretta Molla shows this world, gripped by a culture of death, an alternative gospel way of compelling beauty.
In various parts of the world, the media and others have tried to debunk or politicize the Gianna story, stating that her canonization was the Roman Catholic Church’s full frontal attack on pro-choice people and all who support abortion. To reduce her life and vocation to “the first anti-abortion saint” is to misread her powerful story. The church doesn’t beatify or canonize people and use them as arrows or weapons to attack others for error and sin. Rather, the church offers the lives of outstanding women and men such as Gianna to present an alternative gospel vision to what we are enduring in the world today. Saints offer us a way to put the Beatitudes into practice on a daily basis. They are models who inspire and guide us.
Her action at the end of her life, in saving young Gianna Emanuela, her daughter, was heroic in that she prepared for her final action every day of her life. Her final decision for life was the natural flowering and culmination of an extraordinary life of virtue and holiness, selflessness and quiet joy. St. Gianna Molla continues to remind the church and the world of the necessity of a consistent ethic of life, from the earliest to the final moments of human life.
Each of us is called to heroism by our choice of life on a daily basis. Gianna Beretta Molla is certainly not the first laywoman and mother to be canonized, but her contemporary witness is badly needed by so many people around the world today. Her life was truly prophetic. In the simple words of one of St. Gianna’s closest friends, Piera Fontana, “50 years ago, before Gianna, how was it possible that only nuns, priests and friars were raised to the altar? Why were we never raised to the altar? Gianna was raised to the altar. She represents all mothers. A mother has finally arrived.”
Dorothy Day: model of conversion, courage and commitment
Finally, I would like to hold up to you is a very special woman in the Christian tradition, one closer to home for each of us: Dorothy Day. Her story captivated me as a young high school student and I have never forgotten her. She is a remarkable, prophetic woman of our times. Dorothy transmitted the good news by her life and actions, and at times by her words.
Dorothy was born on November 8, 1897 in Brooklyn, New York. She was neither baptized nor raised in the church. After dropping out of college in 1916, she pursued the radical causes of her day: women’s suffrage, free love, labor unions, and social revolution. But when a decade of protest and social action failed to produce changes in the values and institutions of society, Dorothy converted to the Catholic Church and the radicalism of Christian love. The triggering event for Dorothy’s conversion was the birth of her daughter. After an earlier abortion, Dorothy had desperately wanted to get pregnant. She viewed the birth of her daughter as a sign of forgiveness from God.
For 50 years, Dorothy lived with the poor, conducted conferences, and published a newspaper, all-dependent entirely upon donations. Seventy-five houses of hospitality were established during her lifetime, where the hungry were fed, the naked clothed, the homeless sheltered, the sick cared for, and the dead buried. She was put in jail, for the first time, at the age of 20 while marching in support of women’s suffrage. She was put in jail, for the last time, at the age of 75 while marching in support of the United Farm Workers. She was an avid peacemaker and a prolific author. Dorothy died on November 29, 1980. She was an average person who read her bible and tried to live and to love like Jesus. She challenges each of us to take seriously the message of the gospel.
In March 2000, the late Cardinal John O’Connor of New York City, formally announced the opening of the Beatification Process for this great woman of faith, calling Dorothy a Servant of God. In his letter, he wrote: “It has long been my contention that Dorothy Day is a saint – not a “gingerbread” saint or a “holy card” saint, but a modern day devoted daughter of the Church, a daughter who shunned personal aggrandizement and wished that her work, and the work of those who labored at her side on behalf of the poor, might be the hallmark of her life rather than her own self.”
The conversion of mind and heart that she exemplified speaks volumes to all women today on two fronts. First, it demonstrates the mercy of God, mercy in that a woman who sinned so gravely could find such unity with God upon conversion. Second, it demonstrates that one may turn from the ultimate act of violence against innocent life in the womb to a position of total holiness and pacifism. Her abortion should not preclude her cause, but intensifies it.
Cardinal O’Connor said of her: “…Like so many saints of days gone by, she was an idealist in a non-ideal world. It was her contention that men and women should begin to live on earth the life they would one day lead in heaven, a life of peace and harmony. Much of what she spoke of in terms of social justice anticipated the teachings of Pope John Paul II and lends support to her cause.”
Dorothy Day’s life is a model for each one of us who seeks to understand, love, teach and defend the Catholic faith in our day. The Servant of God, Dorothy Day, procured an abortion before her conversion to the Faith. She regretted it every day of her life. After her conversion from a life akin to that of the pre-converted Augustine of Hippo, she proved a stout defender of human life. May this prophetic woman of our own time give us courage to defend our Catholic faith, especially to uphold the dignity and sacredness of every single human life, from womb to tomb. May she inspire us to make a special place in our lives for the poor.
The core of the proclamation of the Saints and Blesseds was always hope, even in the midst of the darkest moments of history. And the core of our own proclamation and announcement must be hope. “Spe salvi” -in hope we were saved, says Saint Paul to the Romans, and likewise to us (Rom 8:24). At the times when the Church hits its low points God raises up tremendous saints to bring the Church back to its real mission. It’s almost as if in those times of darkness the light of Christ shines ever more brightly. We are living through one of those times, and the Lord is still taking applications for his extreme form of holiness and sanctity.
The Lord is watching us tonight: “Ha ha… I will find among those Canadians successors of Sts. Jean de Brébeuf, Noël Chabanel, Anthony Daniel, Charles Garnier, Isaac Jogues, Gabriel Lalemant, René Goupil and Jean de Lalande. I see new agents who will take up the vision and work of Sts. Marguerite d’Youville, Marguerite Bourgeoys, and André Bessette, and their winning team of Blesseds: André Grasset, Kateri Tekakwitha, Marie de l’Incarnation, François de Laval, Marie-Rose Durocher, Marie-Léonie Paradis, Louis-Zéphirin Moreau, Frédéric Janssoone, Catherine de Saint-Augustin, Dina Bélanger, Marie-Anne Blondin, Émilie Tavernier Gamelin, Nykyta Budka, Basil Velychkovsky.” Tonight we must thank God for giving the Church in Canada such impressive founders and models. They challenge us to undertake a new evangelization. They embody holiness in everyday life.
They encourage us by their devotion to Christ, as well as by their courageous zeal and spirit of prayer along the highway to heaven. These Martyrs, Saints, Blesseds and holy ones remind us that on this highway to heaven, we are never finished; we are only and always on the way. When we think of holiness in these terms – as a kind of direction, rather than a destination – we have a sense that what unites us with the saints, our fellow travelers, is much deeper than all that sets us apart.
St. André of Montreal, Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, Blessed Franz Jägerstätter,
St. Gianna Berretta Molla, Dorothy Day… living stones, chosen, royal and holy men and women,
Pray for us.
Fr. Thomas Rosica, C.S.B., is CEO of the Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation and Television Network in Canada. He is a consultor to the Pontifical Council for Social Communications at the Vatican.