[singlepic id=5 w=420 float=right]Homily for the 25th Anniversary of Priesthood of Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB.
St. Thomas Aquinas Chapel of the Newman Centre of Toronto, June 11, 2011, Feast of St. Barnabas
Today's memorial of St. Barnabas presents us with one of Paul's great collaborators who played a very significant role in the initial evangelization. I would like to share with you some reflections about Paul and Barnabas and Peter and John. First some thoughts from today's reading from the Acts of the Apostles 11:21b-26; 12:1-3. Barnabas means "son of encouragement" (Acts 4:36) or "son of consolation". He was a Levite Jew and a native of Cyprus. Having settled in Jerusalem, he was one of the first to embrace Christianity after the Lord's Resurrection. With great generosity, he sold a field, which belonged to him, and gave the money to the Apostles for the Church's needs (Acts 4:37).
Barnabas spent a whole year with Paul in Antioch, dedicated to the evangelization of that important city. In the Antioch Church, Barnabas was known as a prophet and teacher (cf. Acts 13:1). At the time of the first conversions of the Gentiles, Barnabas realized that Saul's hour had come. As Paul had retired to his native town of Tarsus, he went there to look for him. We could say that Barnabas was in some way Paul's agent! He presented Paul back to the Church as the great apostle to the Gentiles.
The Church of Antioch then sent Barnabas on a mission with Paul, which became known as the Apostle's first missionary journey. In fact, it was Barnabas' missionary voyage since Barnabas was in charge and Paul had joined him as a collaborator as they visited the regions of Cyprus and Central and Southern Anatolia in present-day Turkey, along with the cities of Attalia, Perga, Antioch of Pisidia, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe. A wonderful friendship between Paul and Barnabas was born on that journey. Later on, when a second campaign was planned, Barnabas proposed taking Mark as a helper, but Paul resisted the idea.
The New Testament indicates that a "sharp contention" developed between Paul and Barnabas (Acts 15:36-41). They could not reach an agreement, and so they split up. As far as we know, these two remarkable men never saw one another again. It is a sad story that can teach us much. Who was right - Paul or Barnabas? We simply don't know. Some argue that Paul was just too stubborn to give in. We read that the church in Antioch "commended" Paul and Silas (Acts 15:40), but nothing is said about any commendation of Barnabas and Mark.
This dissension between Paul and Barnabas was not over a doctrinal issue. The rupture involved a personal dispute based upon a judgment call. To their credit, neither Paul nor Barnabas let the conflict distract them from their respective efforts of spreading the Gospel. Even in our day, there will always be times when men and women of good will disagree in matters of opinion. But we must agree to disagree in charity, especially if we are ministers of the Gospel.
Let us turn now to today's Gospel scene (John 21:21-25), one of my favorite stories of the entire bible. It is taken from the last chapter of John's Gospel- a post resurrection story at the Sea of Galilee. Just prior to today's scene, the disciples had been out fishing all night and caught nothing. They came ashore, and noticed a charcoal fire with bread and fish already prepared (9). The only other charcoal fire mentioned in the Gospels is the provocative scene from the Passion Narrative when Peter disowns Jesus (Luke 22:55). That scene presents the fire of denial and betrayal. Today's story speaks about the fire of repentance and recommitment. This intimate, early morning breakfast scene presents us with one of the most personal and moving commissionings in the Bible. Jesus questions Peter and then gives a command, and he does so three times. His question is the ultimate question in life: do you truly love me more than these? (15).
Jesus sums them all up in a single, basic question, repeated with two different verbs in Greek to indicate the different nuances of love and friendship which are being referred to: "Simon, son of John, do you love me? Are you really my friend?" This question goes directly to a person's heart.
Peter is told that he will suffer death because of his discipleship of Jesus. One would think that Peter, having received such a powerful commissioning from the Lord, would have simply remained in awe and silence, meditating on what just took place along the seashore. But no, Peter is compelled to probe the hidden will of God. So he looks over at John, sitting nearby, and asks Jesus, "What about him?" as if to say, "How is he going to die?", "Am I the only one to suffer for you?"
Jesus replies to Peter, "If I decide that John will remain until I come, what is that to you? You, follow Me." Peter wanted to know what was going to happen with John. Why was that Peter's business? Are we not often curious to know the hidden will of God, both about ourselves and about others? "What about them, Lord?" we often ask. "Follow Me," says Jesus.
Whatever time and circumstances we are set in, Jesus invites us to be faithful to the Word, repent of our sins, confess Jesus Christ, and live out our vocation. We do not need to be concerned about what God's secret purpose for our life is. Even if we knew it, how would it do us any good? God has a plan and purpose for them, but that is not for us to know.
What did John do throughout all of this scene? In him we have the example of the faithful disciple who loved his Lord. This disciple testified of the things he had received. He wrote them down in the fourth Gospel that bears his name. He testified truthfully, without embellishing or giving his own opinions. John was concerned with bearing witness to Christ and His death and resurrection.
While Peter and John were both called as disciples of Jesus, each was given a different task or function. When Peter questions John's role, Jesus retorts: "What is that to you? Follow me!" Peter's given task was to "shepherd the sheep of Christ", and in the end to die for Christ. John's role was preeminently to witness to Christ and to give his testimony to the Gospel.
John lived to a ripe old age and wrote the Gospel as his testimony to the reality of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. He ends his gospel with an astonishing remark: "Human books cannot exhaust the person and work of Jesus Christ." We can never say enough of the power, majesty and glory which belongs to him alone. Do we witness to others the joy of the gospel?
What can we learn from all of these stories of Paul and Barnabas and Peter and John? First of all we know what they had in common. They were all in love with the same man: Jesus Christ, the Lord and Savior of the world. Despite their human frailty and because of it, they kept focused on doing the will of Christ. They took the Gospel message to the ends of the earth.
Even in the midst of human tensions and wounded friendships, because they loved the Lord and were loved by the Lord, even more work was accomplished for the sake of the Gospel because of the manner in which their sinfulness, disagreements and frailty were handled. We learn from them that there can be disputes, disagreements, controversies and sinfulness among the saints! Paul and Barnabas and Peter and John are people like us who often complicate life because of our frailty and problems. Holiness does not consist in never having erred or sinned. Holiness increases the capacity for conversion, for repentance, for willingness to start again and, especially, for reconciliation and forgiveness.
The fact that the personal conflict in the case of Paul and Barnabas, and human failure, pettiness, and weakness in the case of Peter and John, are openly displayed on the pages of the New Testament is evidence that the Holy Spirit guided the evangelists in writing of the story of the early Church. No account, however irrelevant it may appear to be, is without importance. They offer us lessons to be mastered, not only about the New Testament, but also about our own histories.
Allow me to share something personal. We have gathered together this morning to give thanks to God for the gift of the priesthood of Jesus Christ that I have been privileged to share with you for the past twenty-five years. In the greater picture of things, 25 years is a small amount of time. However in today's world and context, every single day of priestly fidelity is cause for thanksgiving and prayer.
[singlepic id=7 w=320 float=left]People have asked me over the past few months "What was the highlight of these past 25 years?" "What was your most significant assignment or moment?" Some close friends and even some acquaintances expected me to say: "World Youth Day 2002 and the Papal visit to Canada." One person even said: "More than that, what could one want?"
It was here, in this place, from 1994-2000, that I feel my most significant work was done during the first 25 years of priestly ministry. When Fr. Barringer, our then-Superior General assigned me here in 1994, I resisted the appointment for four months. I had heard the stories of the famed Newman Centre of Toronto. Finally, Fr. Fabbro, then a member of our General Council, twisted my arm, and more than my arm, telling me that while there might be some small challenges on St. George Street, the place was open to new life. Fr. Fabbro has always been a master of understatement! I have since forgiven him for sending me here! He is a dear friend and brother, now one of the great bishops in this country.
While studying theology for the priesthood, one of my 'heroes' was the late Bishop James Walsh, a Maryknoll Missionary who spent twelve years solitary confinement in a Chinese prison because of his profession of the Christian faith. Upon his release from captivity, he said: "The task of the missioner is to begin in a place where is he needed but not wanted, and end by making himself wanted but not needed." How true those words are for me.
I learned three great lessons here at the Newman Centre during six momentous years. First, I learned about the cross. Francis of Assisi had the cross of San Damiano that spoke to him: "Go and repair my church." The cross that spoke to me was the one hanging above me.
I may have lived on the Via Dolorosa for the four years prior to my coming to Toronto. But I learned about the meaning of the Way of the Cross at the corner of St. George Street and Hoskin Avenue. When I arrived here there was no crucifix in this chapel. The liturgists told me that crucifixes were gender exclusive, so there were two large railroad ties on that wall in the form of a cross.
It is the crucifix that is our defining symbol as Catholics. Our faith is not in a cross nor in books or documents. It is in a living person and his name is Jesus. We need the body of Christ, our most defining symbol of who we are as a Christian community. After the Knights of Columbus and the Knights and Ladies of the Holy Sepulcher gave us the funds in late 1994 for this beautiful crucifix that hangs above the altar, Jesus drew many people to himself in this place. And he continues to do so. I was one of those persons drawn to him, I came here every single night for six years and prayed, sometimes with loud cries and tears to the one who could save us from death. The Lord heard us, and heard the students and community who prayed and continue to pray here. (Hebrews 5:7)
[singlepic id=6 w=320 float=right]Second, I learned that if we wish to reach out to younger generations, we must not simply do things for them, but to accomplish great things with them, accompanying them, encouraging them, believing in them and handing over to them the hopes, dreams and visions of the Church. [singlepic id=8 w=320 float=right]This is not often the most expedient nor efficient way to get things done! However it is the only way that guarantees a future for the Church and for humanity. All of that was confirmed in spades during one of the many meetings with Pope John Paul II as we prepared for World Youth Day 2002. One August morning in 2000, after we had celebrated Mass together at the Pope's summer villa in Castelgandalfo, I asked him for some words of wisdom as we set out to plan Canada's greatest event. I shall never forget what he said to me: "Keep young people close to you and be close to them. They will keep you young and faithful." That is exactly what Karol Wojtyla did for his entire priesthood, episcopacy and papacy. His funeral in 2005 and his beatification several weeks ago in Rome confirmed that. Both events were nothing more than spontaneous World Youth Days in disguise.
Third, I learned here a lesson that has served me well these past years, what the world needs most in this uncertain time is the witness of heroes, authentic heroes unlike those offered to us by the world of spectacle, sports, cinema and success. Such figures often let us down and leave us empty and flat. The world needs saints and blessed who lift us up and remind us of what it means to love Jesus and lay down our life for our friends. That is why I consider one of the most significant memories of my ministry as a Basilian priest is to have introduced young people to the saints, as portrayed in those magnificent windows, which were our project for the Great Jubilee.
I was able to share with Blessed John Paul II what our Jubilee project was all about. He was thrilled that we had undertaken that project. After all, he gave us 1338 blesseds and 482 saints during his pontificate. Many of them are in those windows: Saints Gianna Beretta Molla, Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, Dr. Thérèse of Lisieux and André of Montréal. Blesseds John XXIII, Jerzy Popieuluszko, Kateri Tekakwitha, Teresa of Calcutta, Pier Giorgio Frassati. And those in waiting: Georges and Pauline Vanier, parents of Jean Vanier and the martyred Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero. They, together with Blessed John Henry Newman, the patron of this great place and St. Thomas Aquinas, whose memory lingers in this chapel, are our friends who will not let us down.
From that cloud of witnesses came forth several patrons of World Youth Day 2002: Blessed Kateri, Blessed Pier Giorgio, St. Gianna and St. Thérèse of Lisieux.
On Sunday morning July 28, 2002, in the final moments of World Youth Day 2002, I stood behind the chair of the presider as he spoke his parting words to us in Toronto. Those words
remain for me and for us, the essence of what priestly ministry is all about. I quote Blessed John Paul II on that unforgettable morning nine years ago:
If you love Jesus, love the Church! Do not be discouraged by the sins and failings of some of her members. The harm done by some priests and religious to the young and vulnerable fills us all with a deep sense of sadness and shame. But think of the vast majority of dedicated and generous priests and religious whose only wish is to serve and do good! There are many priests, seminarians and consecrated persons here today; be close to them and support them! And if, in the depths of your hearts, you feel the same call to the priesthood or consecrated life, do not be afraid to follow Christ on the royal road of the Cross! At difficult moments in the Church's life, the pursuit of holiness becomes even more urgent. And holiness is not a question of age; it is a matter of living in the Holy Spirit, just as Kateri Tekakwitha did here in America and so many other young people have done.
You are young, and the Pope is old, 82 or 83 years of life is not the same as 22 or 23. But the Pope still fully identifies with your hopes and aspirations. Although I have lived through much darkness, under harsh totalitarian regimes, I have seen enough evidence to be unshakably convinced that no difficulty, no fear is so great that it can completely suffocate the hope that springs eternal in the hearts of the young. You are our hope, the young are our hope. Do not let that hope die! Stake your lives on it! We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures; we are the sum of the Father's love for us and our real capacity to become the image of his Son.
For the extraordinary privilege of sharing in priestly ministry, today I give thanks. And I give thanks to God for each and everyone of you who has helped me to be a priest and to be faithful to the promises I made 25 years ago. It takes a village to make a priest, and it takes a priest to hold the village together! If our lives have been able to touch and influence one another over the past years, let us give thanks to God and pray for one another.
Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB
CEO, Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation