Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
Saturday of the Third Week of Easter
Memorial of St. Damien of Molokai
May 10, 2014
Acts 9:31-42, Ps 116, Jn 6:60-69
To listen to a recording of this homily, please click below:
The following points were attempted in this homily:
- Today we come to the dramatic conclusion, the seventh of seven parts, of Jesus’ Bread of Life discourse that the Church has us ponder every Easter season to help us to enter more deeply into Jesus’ risen life through the Holy Eucharist. After Jesus communicates to us that he is the True Manna God the Father gives us each day, that in order for us to have life we must live off of him, that he in the Eucharist is the fulfillment of the miracle of the multiplication of loaves and fish, today we are confronted with three possible responses to all Jesus has said. These responses are those of every age.
- The first response is rejection. Throughout the Discourse, Jesus has been dialoguing fundamentally either with the “crowds” or the leaders of the “Jews.” They struggled with Jesus’ words with gnawing on his flesh and drinking his blood, which — without the Eucharistic context we are now aware of after the Last Supper — sounded cannibalistic and gross. But today Jesus’ dialogue is with the disciples and then the twelve disciples whom he had chosen as apostles. These were the people who had been with Jesus for up to two years, observing him heal lepers, the lame, the blind, watching him cast out demons and raise the dead, hearing his great sermons, and parables, and making the decision to follow him. But many of the disciples slammed on the breaks when it came to what Jesus was saying about the need to eat his flesh and drink his blood to have any life within them. “This saying is hard,” they say in today’s Gospel, “who can accept it?” They were right that the teaching is hard, but let’s face it, many of Jesus’ teachings are hard: to forgive 70 times 7 times, to love our enemies, to pray for our persecutors, to pick up our Cross each day to follow him, to save our life by losing it, to cut off our hands and feet and pluck out our eyes if they lead us to sin, and — most of all — to love the Lord with all our mind, heart, soul and strength. These are all hard. Some are even excruciatingly hard. But who can accept it? Someone with faith can accept it. These disciples seemed to behave as if they didn’t anticipate Jesus would challenge them to leave their comfort zones, not to mention to die to themselves so as to live by Him. But that’s what he was doing. That’s what he was always doing. And that’s what we have to confront. Jesus calls them out on this. He says, “Does this shock you? What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? … But there are some of you who do not believe.” They simply didn’t have the faith to accept something shocking that Jesus would say. Ultimately they didn’t believe in Jesus enough. And St. John tells us later, “As a result of this, many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer walked with him.” They abandoned Jesus because of his teaching about the Eucharist. Note that Jesus didn’t run after them saying that they had misunderstood him. He also didn’t water down the truth. He knew that they had understood him clearly but they just didn’t have the faith to believe in Him enough to believe in what he taught.
- Still today there are many who don’t believe in Jesus’ teaching in the Eucharist, finding it too hard to endure. They have some faith in Jesus, they do follow him to some degree, but they find the teaching on the Eucharist revolting. So many of our Protestant brothers and sisters are in this camp just don’t accept the literal meaning of Jesus’ words throughout the Bread of Life Discourse and separate themselves from this great sacrament. But there are many Catholics, too, who don’t believe in Jesus’ real presence in the Eucharist and their need to enter into Communion with him in order to live. The surveys show this lack of faith, that many Catholics just think that the Eucharist is simply bread and wine. But we see it most in the percentage of Catholics who don’t even make the effort to come to receive Jesus worthily on Sundays. They think that keeping Holy the Lord’s day is “hard” and wonder who can accept putting God first on the Lord’s day. We need to pray in a special way for all those, especially, among the disciples, who find Jesus’ teachings hard.
- The second response we see today is hypocrisy. This we see in Judas. St. John tells us that in response to his teaching, “Jesus knew the ones who would not believe and the one who would betray him.” But Judas didn’t have the courage to admit it at the time. He continued to follow the Lord on the outside. He continued to pretend as if he believed. But his doubts about Jesus really crystallized right here. Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen used to preach about this Eucharistic beginning of Judas’ betrayal in his powerful retreats to brothers priests. “Scripture gives considerable evidence to prove that a priest begins to fail his priesthood when he fails in his love of the Eucharist,” Sheen wrote in his spiritual autobiography, A Treasure in Clay. “The beginning of the fall of Judas and the end of Judas both revolved around the Eucharist. The first mention that Our Lord knew who it was who would betray him is at the end of the sixth chapter of John, which is the announcement of the Eucharist. The fall of Judas came the night Our Lord gave the Eucharist, the night of the Last Supper. The Eucharist is so essential to our oneness with Christ that as soon as Our Lord announced It in the Gospel, It began to be the test of the fidelity of His followers. First, He lost the masses, for it was too hard a saying and they no longer followed Him. Secondly, He lost some of His disciples: ‘They walked with Him no more.’ Third, it split His apostolic band, for Judas is here announced as the betrayer.” Likewise the fall of many of Jesus’ beloved friends happens in this similar way. They continue to follow Jesus on the outside, but not on the inside. They pretend as if they believe, but they really don’t. Often they’ll come to receive Jesus like Judas did during the Last Supper and go out into the night and betray him. They’ll receive him unworthily, believing that they can remain in communion with Christ here and remain obstinately in sin in other parts of their life. This, in a sense, is even worse than outright rejection, because it lacks sincerity. And when we don’t really believe in Jesus here, when we don’t really seek to unite our entire life to him, when we think we should just go with the routine and receive Jesus even though we know that we’ve sinned against him, then it just leads to greater moral schizophrenia and greater betrayals. We need to learn from where Judas’ great betrayal began.
- The third response is the one that the Lord wants from us. After the multitude of his disciples had abandoned him, after he had seen the response of those who didn’t believe and the one who would betray him, Jesus turned to the other members of the twelve and asked, “Do you also want to leave?” It was a question coming from the depth of Jesus’ disappointment, which itself was coming out of the depth of his love for those who were abandoning him in droves, because they thought that his total gift of himself to us in the Eucharist was, rather than the greatest example of divine love, an example of human insanity. But St. Peter shows us what real faith is. Peter replied, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy one of God.” Jesus’ teaching wasn’t any easy for Peter than for the many disciples who had just abandoned Jesus. He wouldn’t understand what Jesus was saying until a year later when he during the Last Supper would totally change bread and wine into his body and blood. But he knew that Jesus had the words of eternal life and so, because of his faith in Jesus, he put his faith in Jesus’ words. Likewise, our Eucharistic faith is based on our faith in Jesus’ words. In the great Eucharistic Hymn, Adoro Te Devote, written by St. Thomas Aquinas, we sing, “I belief whatever the Son of God has said. Nothing is truer than the Word of truth!” Eucharistic miracles can help buttress our faith in the Eucharist, but they can’t substitute for it. We believe that what we’re about to receive is Jesus’ body and blood because Jesus told us that it was and sent out the apostles from the Upper Room with the command to do this in his memory.
- The Eucharistic Lord in whom we believe, from whom we live, wants to bring our whole life into communion with him, so that we may not only “live because of him” but act together with him. We see the consequences of that risen Eucharistic life in St. Peter in today’s first reading. He was allowing Jesus’ risen life to radiate through him as he continued Jesus’ saving mission. We see that first in his healing of Aeneas in Lydda, who had been paralyzed and bedridden for eight years. Echoing the words Jesus said in Capernaum to the paralyzed man lowered through the roof, “Rise, take up your mat, and go home,” Peter said, “Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you. Get up and make your bed.” It wasn’t Peter who was healing Aeneas, but the risen Jesus through Peter. Likewise when Peter was summoned by the disciples to go to Joppa after the death of the little charitable “gazelle,” what the Hebrew name Talitha means, Peter emulated what Jesus did in the healing of the daughter of the synagogue official Jairus. Peter was one of three apostles present in the room when Jesus said, “Talitha, koum,” (“Little girl, arise!”). So here, Peter, praying at her bedside, then says, “Tabitha, rise up.” The word in both circumstances is the same word for “resurrection.” Jesus directly and then indirectly through Peter was telling each girl to share in his resurrection, to arise, to experience newness of life and a foretaste of eternal life. Jesus similarly wants to live through us, to love through us, to preach through us, to minister through us, but for him to be able to do so, we need to be in communion with him and that happens right here at Mass when we learn to live off of him in Holy Communion.
- The last application I want to make is to the saint we celebrate today, St. Damien de Veuster of Molokai. Many of us know at least a little of his story. Born in Belgium in 1840, he followed his brother August into the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts. When he was 24, as his brother was too ill to go as a missionary to Hawaii, Damien took his place. There he was ordained a priest and worked for nine years mostly on the island of Hawaii. He showed early signs of his pastoral zeal in a letter he to his parents, imploring them, “Do not forget this poor priest running night and day over the volcanoes night and day in search of strayed sheep. Pray night and day for me, I beg you.” In 1873, Bishop Louis Maigret briefed the Sacred Hearts Fathers on the need for priestly ministrations in Kalaupapa on the Island of Molokai, which King Kamehameha V had set up seven years earlier to quarantine lepers. Of the 816 with Hansen’s Disease in the enclave, 200 were Catholic, and he had received letters from several of them begging him to send a priest so that they might suffer and die with the consolation of the sacraments. The bishop knew what he was proposing: a slow martyrdom, as chaplain to a walking graveyard. Fully conscious of the consequences, Fr. Damien stepped forward to take the assignment.
- When he arrived on May 10, 1873 — that’s why we celebrate his feast day today, for he died on April 15, 1889, but this was the day he died to himself and began really to allow Jesus’ resurrection to reign within him — Bishop Maigret prophetically introduced him to the colony of lepers as “one who will be a father to you, and who loves you so much that he does not hesitate to become one of you, to live and die with you.” The 33-year old priest got right down to work — every type of work. He built churches, homes and beds. He created farms and schools and worked to enforce basic laws. He fought to have medicine sent and to get his people whatever medical care was possible. At first, it was hard for him to approach the lepers because he had a natural revulsion to the fetid odor given off by their leprous sores. To overcome this olfactory repugnance, he began to smoke a pipe so that the smell of tobacco would make it possible for him to approach the lepers with dignity as he began to dress their ulcers.
- But the way he survived there was because he was living off of Jesus in the Eucharist and he wanted to pass on that same source of life to those whose flesh was being eaten away by Hansen’s disease. “I find my consolation,” he wrote in a letter, “in the one and only companion who will never leave me, that is, our Divine Savior in the Holy Eucharist… Without the Blessed Sacrament a position like mine would be unbearable. But having Our Lord at my side, I continue always to be happy and content.” It is unsurprising that his Eucharistic witness of total self-giving began to win over the members of the colony. Six months after his arrival, he had 400 people preparing for baptism. A cheerful spirit began to radiate in the community in place of the former dejection. In December of 1884, he discovered that he had contracted leprosy. He wrote, “My eyebrows are beginning to fall out. Soon I will be disfigured entirely. Having no doubts about the true nature of my disease, I am calm, resigned, and very happy in the midst of my people.”
- Just as the Lord Jesus loved us enough that he came into our world, took on our human flesh, and redeemed it, so Fr. Damien entered into the lepers’ world, courageously took on their dreaded disease, and united it and them to the Lord. His was a truly Eucharistic life revealing the beauty of his soul that no illness, however repulsive, can disfigure. He gave his body, his blood and all he had for Christ and others.
- Today we ask him to intercede for us that we likewise will give everything for Christ who daily gives everything for us, that we will grow in our faith in all the words of eternal life he preaches us, that we will grow in living off of Jesus as the source and summit of our existence, and will grow in bringing him and his saving love out to everyone, including the most forgotten.
The readings for today’s Mass were:
was at peace.
She was being built up and walked in the fear of the Lord,
and with the consolation of the Holy Spirit she grew in numbers.As Peter was passing through every region,
he went down to the holy ones living in Lydda.
There he found a man named Aeneas,
who had been confined to bed for eight years, for he was paralyzed.
Peter said to him,
“Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you. Get up and make your bed.”
He got up at once.
And all the inhabitants of Lydda and Sharon saw him,
and they turned to the Lord.
(which translated is Dorcas).
She was completely occupied with good deeds and almsgiving.
Now during those days she fell sick and died,
so after washing her, they laid her out in a room upstairs.
Since Lydda was near Joppa,
the disciples, hearing that Peter was there,
sent two men to him with the request,
“Please come to us without delay.”
So Peter got up and went with them.
When he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs
where all the widows came to him weeping
and showing him the tunics and cloaks
that Dorcas had made while she was with them.
Peter sent them all out and knelt down and prayed.
Then he turned to her body and said, “Tabitha, rise up.”
She opened her eyes, saw Peter, and sat up.
He gave her his hand and raised her up,
and when he had called the holy ones and the widows,
he presented her alive.
This became known all over Joppa,
and many came to believe in the Lord.
PS 116:12-13, 14-15, 16-17
How shall I make a return to the LORD
for all the good he has done for me?
The cup of salvation I will take up,
and I will call upon the name of the LORD
R. How shall I make a return to the Lord for all the good he has done for me?
My vows to the LORD I will pay
in the presence of all his people.
Precious in the eyes of the LORD
is the death of his faithful ones.
R. How shall I make a return to the Lord for all the good he has done for me?
O LORD, I am your servant;
I am your servant, the son of your handmaid;
you have loosed my bonds.
To you will I offer sacrifice of thanksgiving,
and I will call upon the name of the LORD.
R. How shall I make a return to the Lord for all the good he has done for me?
“This saying is hard; who can accept it?”
Since Jesus knew that his disciples were murmuring about this,
he said to them, “Does this shock you?
What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?
It is the Spirit that gives life, while the flesh is of no avail.
The words I have spoken to you are Spirit and life.
But there are some of you who do not believe.”
Jesus knew from the beginning the ones who would not believe
and the one who would betray him.
And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me
unless it is granted him by my Father.”As a result of this,
many of his disciples returned to their former way of life
and no longer walked with him.
Jesus then said to the Twelve, “Do you also want to leave?”
Simon Peter answered him, “Master, to whom shall we go?
You have the words of eternal life.
We have come to believe
and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.”