Fr. Roger J. Landry
Retreat for the Priests of the Diocese of Winona
Alverna Center, Winona, Minnesota
Friday of the Second Week in Ordinary Time, Year II
Memorial of St. Francis de Sales, Bishop and Doctor
January 24, 2014
1 Sam 24:3-21, Ps 57, Mk 3:13-19
To listen to an audio recording of this homily, please click below:
This was the text that guided the homily:
Today in the Gospel we see the calling of the first priests by name. Jesus, we know from St. Luke’s account, had prayed all night before, asking his Father for light on who should be chosen. We know that Jesus has likewise prayed about and for us before calling us by name. It was not we who chose him but he who chose us and appointed us to bear fruit that will last. Today as we finish our retreat, we thank God for the gift of our vocation to the priesthood, to our vocation to apostolic chaste celibacy for the kingdom, to our vocation to sanctity. Just as the Lord hasn’t called us to be “bodies” in his vineyard but hard-working diligent laborers taking in a harvest that is white and ripe, so he hasn’t called us just to be priests but holy priests, he hasn’t called us to be mere celibates but joyful celibates burning with love for God and his people, like we see in the priesthood of St. Francis de Sales whom we celebrate today.
In today’s Gospel we see an essential description of the priestly life. Jesus called Simon, James, John, Andrew, Philip and the others, just as much as he has called each one of us, to be “with him” and so that “he might send [us] forth to preach and to have authority to drive out demons.”
The first criterion is that priests are supposed to be with Jesus. This first points to our prayer, that we need to set aside the necessary time to be with the Lord, to converse with him, to listen to him, to pour out our needs and the needs of those we serve, our thanks, our praise and our sorrow. That is something we have been doing throughout this week on retreat and it’s the most important resolution any priest needs to make leaving a retreat, to make that necessary time each day to be with the Lord in prayer, and to be with him intensely and intimately in that daily regenerative conversation that reinforces our attachment to him as branches to his priestly vine and allows the sap of his one priesthood to flow through ours and make it fruitful. .
This call to be “with Jesus,” however, goes well beyond the necessity of spending time with him in prayer. We need to develop a living awareness that, thanks to our priestly ordination, we have become ontologically united with Christ: that who we are, and everything we do, is in mysterious and wondrous communion with him. No matter how many activities we engage in over the course of a day, year or lifetime, they are all meant to be part of our single priestly vocation to be together with Christ, to be yoked to him in priestly life, to act as an instrument in essential communion with him.
At the end of the Year of Priests, Pope Benedict summed up this profound reality, that we are to “become involved in Jesus’ absolutely unique being and speaking with the Father. … From ‘being with him,’ from ‘being with him’ in prayer, derives a knowledge that goes beyond the people’s opinion to reach the profound identity of Jesus, to reach the truth. Here we are given a very precise instruction for the priest’s life and mission: he is called to rediscover in prayer the ever new face of his Lord and the most authentic content of his mission.” Pope Francis said the same thing four days before he was elected, that the world needed a pope — and we could say that the world needs priests — who “from the contemplation of Jesus Christ and from worshiping Jesus Christ will help the Church get out of herself and go to those on the outskirts of existence.” Pope Benedict continued back in June 2010, “Only those who have a profound relationship with the Lord are grasped by him, can take him to others, can be sent out. ‘Abiding with him’ must always accompany the exercise of the priestly ministry. It must be its central part, even and above all in difficult moments when it seems that the ‘things that need doing’ should have priority, wherever we are, whatever we are doing, we must always ‘abide with him.’”
But as both Popes reminded us, once we seek to be with Jesus in prayer and in life, then he can send us out to proclaim his Gospel not the world’s, to teach with his authority not others’, to heal with his power not our own, to battle with him against the work that the devil seeks to do in souls so that he, likewise, can abide in them and them in him.
Today we celebrate a great saint who models for us as priests how to live out this Gospel. He was one who abided in the Lord and, through his classics the Treatise on the Love of God and the Introduction to the Devout Life, taught others to do so. And it was from his own interior union with the Lord, from his own contemplation of the Lord, that he was impelled to go out to the peripheries, not just out of season but in a spiritual arctic vortex, to share that Gospel to bring people back into an abiding union with Christ in the sacraments and in his mystical body. As we finish our retreat and return home strengthened in our union with Christ and impassioned to share the fruits of our contemplation with others, we can turn to this doctor the Church whose priestly life teaches us several lessons that will help to make our priestly work more fruitful. If the Church were to name patron saints of the new evangelization, I think he would be at the top of the list because of what he was able to do in the Chablais region of the French Alps. Let’s focus on five things he teaches us that should flow from our being with Christ:
The readiness and willingness to take a terrible assignment
St. Francis received sustained opposition to his vocation from his father, a nobleman who had already planned out his son’s life from the woman he would marry to the senatorial position he would occupy returning from law school. He regularly refused his son’s desire to become a priest. Finally, he relented when Francis’ priest uncle was able to collaborate with the Bishop of Geneva to have Francis appointed by the pope to be the provost of the chapter of canons of the Diocese, a prestigious position and something unheard of for what would be a newly ordained priest. His father finally relented. After his priestly ordination, in addition to his duties as provost, to teaching the faith and to hearing confessions, Francis also served as the very competent vicar general of the diocese. But he wouldn’t remain in that position for long.
The Diocese of Geneva was in shambles. Decades of scandals among the clergy had made it very easy for Calvinism to spread throughout the region. The people were so poorly catechized that they were not able to respond to Calvinist arguments. They were, moreover, so angry at the hypocrisy and immorality of their local churchmen that they were easily incited to turn on the Catholic faith, run their priests out of town and take up a form of Christianity that at least seemed to be moral. The bishop of Geneva even had to flee the see city and take up residence in Annecy, France. Some reports stated that there were only about 20 Catholics left in the vast region.
The bishop sent a priest to try to re-evangelize the area, but he had failed miserably, was regularly attacked and came back scarred. The Bishop couldn’t assign anyone else under obedience to an assignment that could amount to martyrdom. So, in a meeting with all his priests, he asked for a volunteer. Francis, 9 months after his ordination, said, “Monseigneur, if you think I am capable of undertaking the mission, tell me to go. I am ready to obey and should be happy to be chosen.” His father vehemently opposed the assignment, pleading with his son and with his bishop not to allow his life to be thrown away at such a young age. But Francis reminded the bishop that he had set his hand to the plow and shouldn’t look back. Francis was sent.
The assignment was so dangerous that he had to sleep in a garrison just so that he wasn’t killed at night. Each day, in the wintry Swiss Alps, he needed to walk seven miles to and from Thonon, the capital of the Chablais region, in order to try to win people back to the faith. Sometimes he would be attacked by animals and would have to spend frigid nights in trees. On other occasions he would be hunted by assassins only to escape somewhat miraculously. It was very tough and slow work. Within the span of five years, however, the holy “Apostle of the Chablais” had re-evangelized and reconciled almost the entire region.
No matter what assignments we will have in our priestly work, none will be as bad as the one St. Francis de Sales volunteered for. We should never forget that saying yes to that assignment might be the way by which the Lord will make us a saint as well.
Second, St. Francis teaches us the way to respond to scandals
To those who still harbored anger toward the clerics for their scandalous behavior, he didn’t hesitate to say that what the clerics did was the equivalent of spiritual murder. But just as plainly, he called the residents of the region not to do something even worse, to commit spiritual suicide through focusing on the scandals so much that they cut themselves off from Christ in the sacraments and in the Church he founded. He told the people on Thonon in an apologetic pamphlet that “those who forge scandals for themselves,” who “persuade themselves that they will die if they do not alienate the part that they have in the Church” are “much crueler than the man who gives scandal, because to commit suicide is a more unnatural crime than to kill another.” He reminded the people of the Chablais that Jesus had said, “Scandals are sure to come, but woe to him by whom they come” (Lk 17:1). There will always be scandals, Jesus implied, because there will always be people of influence who commit grave sins. It is appropriate, Jesus continued, for scandalizers “to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and thrown into the depth of the sea” (Mt 18:6). St. Francis added, however, that, if we allow scandals to destroy our faith, we essentially tie a millstone around our own neck — and toss ourselves out of the barque of Peter, where Christ is at the helm, and into the depth of a sea of misery. The worst sin against charity we could ever commit against ourselves, he said, would be to commit spiritual suicide in this way.
St. Francis’ powerful candor and patient explanations of the teachings of the Church in these pamphlets began to have an impact. A steady stream of lapsed Catholics began to seek reconciliation, and he welcomed them with great mercy, meekness and joy.
St. Francis’ thoughts, words, courage, and holy example need to be reiterated and emulated by those in the Church today. There are multitudes who have downgraded their practice of the faith or given it up altogether as a result of the clergy sex abuse scandals. Just as much as he was the Apostles of the Chablais, Christ needs need new apostles of Canton, Conception, Curry and Claremont..
The challenges we face in evangelizing those who have distanced themselves from the Church in recent years likely will not involve sleeping in garrisons or being ambushed by assassins. But the Lord is counting on us in 2014 just as much as he counted on Francis de Sales 420 years ago
Third, St. Francis showed us how to use “honey” in drawing people back to the faith.
He practiced his own axiom, which has since become famous: “A spoonful of honey attracts more flies than a barrelful of vinegar.”
Like we see David do in today’s first reading when Saul was hunting him down to try to kill him, he treated his persecutor with mercy. He could have killed him, but he wouldn’t hurt the Lord’s anointed. The best way to overcome those who have made themselves one’s enemies is to make them your friends. David sought to reconcile himself with the Lord’s anointed and that’s precisely what St. Francis de Sales did with all those Catholics who had become Calvinists, treating them with so much reverence that they remembered who they were.
St. Francis de Sales is so famous for his meekness, gentleness and kindness that many people can think that it was just his temperament. It wasn’t. He needed to learn those virtues painstakingly from Christ over the course of decades. He took seriously Christ’s words, “Learn of me for I am meek and humble of heart.” It took him 20 years to conquer his quick temper, but no one ever suspected he had such a problem, so overflowing with good nature and kindness was his usual manner of acting. His perennial meekness and sunny disposition won for him the title of “Gentleman Saint.”
In the opening prayer of the Mass we prayed, “O God, … graciously grant that, following [St. Francis’] example, we may always display the gentleness of your charity in the service of our neighbor.” It may take us far more than 20 years to become honey rather than vinegar dispensers, but St. Francis’ triumph gives us hope.
Fourth, he used the new media of his day to proclaim the Gospel when traditional means were not sufficient.
Because preaching in the public squares and going door to door were proving so dangerous, St. Francis began to write leaflets patiently setting forth Catholic teaching, charitably explaining the errors of Calvinism, and tackling head on controversial issues. That’s how he eventually reached the people and got them to give Catholicism a second look. It was a means unheard of at the time, but he used any and all means he could.
Likewise, we are called to exercise a similar pastoral creativity. We may not be able to bring people back in traditional ways. They may not come to hear us preach and teach. That’s why we need to be open to Theology on Tap, to homilies and confessions at wakes, and weddings, and baptismal prep classes. We need to be open to using social media — Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Email, Websites and more — to try to reach those. If St. Francis were alive today, he would be using all of these tools in the new evangelization and we can use him as an intercessor as we seek to preach to all those who increasingly inhabit the digital continent.
Finally, he was a catechist and never ceased to be.
In his first nine months as a priest, he regularly gave catechesis in the Cathedral of Annecy. After he became coadjutor and then Bishop of Geneva (with his residence in protected Annecy), he contined himself to give catechesis in the Cathedral. He knew that the people needed to learn the faith, even his priests needed to learn it, and his catechetical sessions were packed with priests and faithful both. This is the paradigm used by other great saints who were bishops: St. Alphonsus Ligouri in St. Agata dei Goti, St. Charles Borromeo in Milan. With all their other responsibilities, they prioritized the personal teaching of the faith.
In our own day, I so much admire Cardinal Thomas Collins or Toronto for leading a Lectio Divina every Sunday for the young people of the Archdiocese of Toronto in the Cathedral, something that is put on YouTube to nourish so many others. Cardinal Carlo Martini of Milan was famous for the same thing.
Today we need pastors who teach, who feed those who are hungry, who form their people in the devout life. We can’t do it all in a Sunday homily when the average American is watching 40 hours of television a week. We need to provide other opportunities. There are so many other resources available to us, videos, DVDs, websites, etc. But we need to show that passion for teaching the faith by our own efforts, giving it greater priority over other things, especially management.
We finish by turning to what gave St. Francis so much strength, where he was “with the Lord” so that he could go out to proclaim him with love and joy to others and form them to live a truly devout and holy life. Talking about the miracle of transubstantiation he used one of his great metaphors: “When the bee has gathered the dew of heaven and the earth’s sweetest nectar from the flowers, it turns it into honey, then hastens to its hive. In the same way, the priest, having taken from the altar the Son of God (who is as the dew from heaven, and true son of Mary, flower of our humanity), gives him to you as delicious food.”
We ask God the Father to send the Holy Spirit down like dewfall, as we take up this nectar of bride and wine and by God’s grace receive from this miracle the food that is “omne delectamentum in se habentem,” the food that has every delicious delight within it!”
The readings for today’s Mass were:
1 SM 24:3-21
and went in search of David and his men
in the direction of the wild goat crags.
When he came to the sheepfolds along the way, he found a cave,
which he entered to relieve himself.
David and his men were occupying the inmost recesses of the cave.David’s servants said to him,
“This is the day of which the LORD said to you,
‘I will deliver your enemy into your grasp;
do with him as you see fit.’”
So David moved up and stealthily cut off an end of Saul’s mantle.
Afterward, however, David regretted that he had cut off
an end of Saul’s mantle.
He said to his men,
“The LORD forbid that I should do such a thing to my master,
the LORD’s anointed, as to lay a hand on him,
for he is the LORD’s anointed.”
With these words David restrained his men
and would not permit them to attack Saul.
Saul then left the cave and went on his way.
David also stepped out of the cave, calling to Saul,
“My lord the king!”
When Saul looked back, David bowed to the ground in homage and asked Saul:
“Why do you listen to those who say,
‘David is trying to harm you’?
You see for yourself today that the LORD just now delivered you
into my grasp in the cave.
I had some thought of killing you, but I took pity on you instead.
I decided, ‘I will not raise a hand against my lord,
for he is the LORD’s anointed and a father to me.’
Look here at this end of your mantle which I hold.
Since I cut off an end of your mantle and did not kill you,
see and be convinced that I plan no harm and no rebellion.
I have done you no wrong,
though you are hunting me down to take my life.
The LORD will judge between me and you,
and the LORD will exact justice from you in my case.
I shall not touch you.
The old proverb says, ‘From the wicked comes forth wickedness.’
So I will take no action against you.
Against whom are you on campaign, O king of Israel?
Whom are you pursuing? A dead dog, or a single flea!
The LORD will be the judge; he will decide between me and you.
May he see this, and take my part,
and grant me justice beyond your reach!”
When David finished saying these things to Saul, Saul answered,
“Is that your voice, my son David?”
And Saul wept aloud.
Saul then said to David: “You are in the right rather than I;
you have treated me generously, while I have done you harm.
Great is the generosity you showed me today,
when the LORD delivered me into your grasp
and you did not kill me.
For if a man meets his enemy, does he send him away unharmed?
May the LORD reward you generously for what you have done this day.
And now, I know that you shall surely be king
and that sovereignty over Israel shall come into your possession.”
PS 57:2, 3-4, 6 AND 11
Have mercy on me, O God; have mercy on me,
for in you I take refuge.
In the shadow of your wings I take refuge,
till harm pass by.
R. Have mercy on me, God, have mercy.
I call to God the Most High,
to God, my benefactor.
May he send from heaven and save me;
may he make those a reproach who trample upon me;
may God send his mercy and his faithfulness.
R. Have mercy on me, God, have mercy.
Be exalted above the heavens, O God;
above all the earth be your glory!
For your mercy towers to the heavens,
and your faithfulness to the skies.
R. Have mercy on me, God, have mercy.
and they came to him.
He appointed Twelve, whom he also named Apostles,
that they might be with him
and he might send them forth to preach
and to have authority to drive out demons:
He appointed the Twelve:
Simon, whom he named Peter;
James, son of Zebedee,
and John the brother of James, whom he named Boanerges,
that is, sons of thunder;
Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew,
Matthew, Thomas, James the son of Alphaeus;
Thaddeus, Simon the Cananean,
and Judas Iscariot who betrayed him.