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Sunday, July 5th, 2020

‘Si quid patimini, beati:’ a Homily for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

But if also you suffer anything for justice’ sake, blessed are you. And be not afraid of their fear, and be not troubled. But sanctify the Lord Christ in your hearts (1 Peter 3,14-15).

Dear friends, times as these require extra care on the part of the Catholic people—from priest and laypeople alike. It is difficult to know what to say; it is difficult to know what not to say. But again, in light of present circumstances, and on account of today’s Mass texts, a few things come to mind. 

First, we must all admit that we are undergoing a certain degree of stress and suffering. Regardless of what we tell ourselves about being fine; regardless of what distractions we employ or excuses we make to ourselves; regardless of even our good resolves to persevere—and without prejudice to that good desire—we are growing tired. We are worn down and anxious and perplexed and even afraid in ways we may not fully understand or acknowledge. Dearly beloved, please acknowledge this. In whatever degree you may need to, before this sacred altar admit to yourself and to God that you are suffering and are not entirely well. 

Now I say this not as a way to capitulate, still less to be be condescending. Make no mistake, that is not at all what I mean. To admit that we are not well is not to admit defeat or any such thing. Rather, it is the first step on our way to greater strength in God. You see, we have no more time for subtle forms of pride or evasion before the All Holy, no more time for posturing, if we have been guilty of these. More profoundly, however, is the question of spiritual poverty. All we have is our poverty. Unequivocally, metaphysically, as creatures who receive all from God, poverty is all we have. In truth, it is the only gift—or at least the best gift—we can bring before the altar: our empty hands.            

Yet after all, and in view of this, Catholics have always needed the instruction and comfort of their priests in times of difficulty.—A full one third of the New Testament bears witness to this; because that is how much space St Paul’s epistles account for. Every one his epistles was written for the Catholic people in time of need, whatever that need happened to be. Naturally this is true of the epistles of St Peter, from which we read today. 

And in today’s epistle, what do we find?—Words of gold:       

And who is he that can hurt you, if you be zealous of good? But if also you suffer anything for justice’ sake, blessed are ye. And be not afraid of their fear, and be not troubled: but sanctify the Lord Christ in your hearts.

Or, as another English translation puts it, ‘Enthrone Christ as Lord in your hearts.’

What St Peter is saying here came home to me earlier this week. I began to read some essays of Georges Bernanos (1888 – 1948; he died on this date, 5 July, seventy-two years ago.) In an aside, he describes the task of the lecturer—but also the writer, the philosopher; really, anyone concerned with trying to pass on the truth. He says the lecturer is a little like a snake-charmer: the snakes in his basket are ideas; and so the lecturer appears before an audience, plays his flute, and makes the ideas appear. But in the course of his description, Bernanos says something that speaks to our moment; indeed, speaks to our life as Catholics: 

I am not the master of the ideas that I present, however; it is they who command me, and I am at their service, not they who are at mine. Furthermore, I do not regard them as inoffensive. They may wound you. If they do, remind yourselves that they wounded me before they did you, that I have never been able to play with them. One does not play with truth any more than with fire, and whatever precautions one takes with it, the reward of him who serves it is to feel its sting, sooner or later. . . . Often I would have preferred to do something easier.[1]

‘It is they who command me.’ ‘They may wound you.’ ‘The reward is to feel the sting.’ ‘I would have preferred something easier.’ ‘Who can hurt you if you be zealous for the good?’ ‘Be not afraid of their fear.’ ‘Sanctify the Lord Christ.’ ‘If you suffer, blessed are ye.’

I wonder, dear friends, if we haven’t spent enough time being worried and in pain, and not enough time considering ourselves blessed for the suffering we have to undergo. I wonder if we haven’t begun to hate evil more than we love what is good. 

Yet you may say, ‘But, father, it is the honor of God at stake. It is the spiritual health of ourselves and our children that is in danger. What is most precious to us—the Holy Mass—is also the very thing that has been denied us or been profaned. The world is oppressing Holy Mother Church. There is danger on all sides—where is your fury, father? We have reached the end of our tolerance. What you say is too simple, too naive. We know you have to say such things, father, but we cannot follow you.’

Perhaps such things occur to you. And how would I reply?—Only that I cannot escape St Peter’s words; they pursue me like a hound: Si quid patimini, beati. My reward is to suffer for so great a Master as Christ; for so fair a Mother as the Church. Like Bernanos, ‘Often I would have preferred to do something easier.’ 

I know of a young Italian girl, a Catholic like you and me. She is the middle child of seven, and lived in a very poor family. She lost her father from malaria at the age of nine, which made the family even poorer: so poor that they had to take up with another family in order to make ends meet. The Passionists in the region prepared this young girl for her First Holy Communion—a little earlier than usual because of her devotion. At the time, though, her mother was somewhat against the idea. As if life weren’t difficult enough! Yet she persevered and made her First Holy Communion. You never saw her without her Rosary, though she was always immensely busy with household work. She lived between her Communions. Hers was a simple, hard, and hidden Catholic life.   

But the young man with whom she was forced to live was not of a wholesome character. A number of times he tried to violate her chastity and threatened her with harm for refusing. On a summer day, the young man confronted her for the last time; she refused him as usual, and he stabbed her with an awl. She died a day later, after having forgiven her killer. Later, after having heard her story, a bishop met her mother and said to her, ‘blessed mother, happy mother, mother of a blessed.’ 

That bishop was Pope Pius XII; the young girl, St Maria Goretti. We celebrate her feast day tomorrow. 

 


[1] Liberty: the Last Essays, trans. Joan & Barry Ulanov, (Providence, Rhode Island: Cluny Media, 2019), 192.

 

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