Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
Tuesday of the Second Week of Easter
Commemoration of St. Catherine of Siena, Doctor of the Church
April 29, 2014
Acts 4:32-37, Ps 93, Jn 3:7-15
To listen to an audio recording of this homily, please click below:
To listen to an audio recording of a different, more catechetical version including an application to the life of St. Robert of Molesmes at a Mass for the Missionaries of Charity with all the women in their New Bedford shelter, please click below:
The following points were attempted in the homily:
- Today in the Gospel, Jesus continues his dialogue with Nicodemus, the “reluctant disciple,” who came to Jesus by night because even though he knew that God was working through Jesus, he wasn’t courageous enough to make a commitment and risk being seen with him during the day because it might compromise his prestige and status among the members of the Sanhedrin. In yesterday’s excerpt of their conversation, Jesus told him that unless one is “born from above” he cannot see the Kingdom of God. But rather than trying to assimilate what Jesus was indicating with images and how the analogy of physical birth related to the mystery of spiritual regeneration, Nicodemus responded by trying to treat the mystery of rebirth as an absurdity: “How can a man once grown old be born again?,” he asked. “Surely he cannot reenter his mother’s womb and be born again, can he?” Nicodemus was too smart not to grasp that that was not what Jesus was implying.
- So Jesus tried to help him to accept the fact of the need for rebirth from above without the necessity of understanding how by means of another analogy, the one that begins today’s reading. “Do not be amazed that I told you, ‘You must be born from above,’” Jesus said. “The wind blows where it wills and you can hear the sound it makes but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” When we feel a cool breeze outside, we don’t spend time wondering whether it originated in Chicago or Montreal or whether it’s on its way to Boston or to Cape Cod. We just accept acknowledge the breeze and are grateful for it. Jesus says we should approach the way the Holy Spirit blows with the same acceptance and not get distracted by how the Holy Spirit is bringing about our spiritual rebirth or where he wants to blow us later. We’re called to acknowledge what he’s doing with trust.
- But Nicodemus doesn’t buy that either. “How can this happen?,” he retorts. That’s where Jesus seeks to humble him because it was his pride that was preventing him from being a true disciple in the light. “You are the teacher of Israel,” a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin, “and you do not understand this?” … If I tell you about earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?” He wasn’t really even buying what Jesus was saying about the wind; how could he accept what Jesus was saying about the divine Ruah (Holy Spirit)? Jesus indicated the reason why he wasn’t understanding: because he wasn’t accepting Jesus as a witness who spoke the truth. “Amen, amen, I say to you, we speak of what we know and we testify to what we have seen, but you people do not accept our testimony.” Because he wasn’t humbly accepting Jesus as a divinely sent witness to these things, he wasn’t accepting what Jesus. Jesus would point to a similar truth elsewhere in the Gospel with regard to his teaching by parables. He taught spiritual truths by using images of mustard seeds, yeast, soil, and wedding banquets so some may understand but others may “hear but not understand [and] look but never see” because their heart was “fat” and didn’t want to convert (Mt 13:10-17). Jesus used images as spiritual litmus tests to expose people’s hearts and would put in the time to search for the truth the images contained, to see whether people really wanted to convert or just to have a “dialogue” or “learn a thing or two.” That was Nicodemus’ essential problem. He didn’t want to convert. His lack of comprehension began in his heart, not his head.
- Jesus finishes the dialogue by describing to Nicodemus and us how we will be born again from above. “No one has gone up to heaven,” Jesus said, “except the one who has come down from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” In order to be born from above, we need to be lifted up with Jesus and that happens, as Jesus alluded, when he would be lifted up on the Cross. It’s from his pierced side flowed the water and blood that is the source of the Sacramental life of the Church, the water of baptism and the blood of the Eucharist. That points to the reality that it’s not merely about being “born” again from above but “living” from above, living by the Holy Spirit. After we’re reborn, the Holy Spirit wants to help us to grow from above. We learn that, too, by being lifted by him with Jesus on the Cross. It’s from Jesus on the Cross that we see our need to convert like the Jews in the desert who had been bitten by saraph serpents since they had been following and worshiping the “serpent” instead of God. It’s from Jesus on the Cross that we learn how to unite all our sufferings, hardships, contradictions and difficulties to God. It’s from Jesus on the Cross, ultimately, that we learn how to live with love, because the Cross is not principally a sign of pain and suffering but of the self-giving love that made even that much pain bearable. Those who believe in Jesus have eternal life in him because by believing in him they open themselves up to receive his love and then begin to share that love with others.
- Once the Holy Spirit leads us to birth and life from above, once he helps us to learn how to love like Christ, everything changes. We see a glimpse of that change in today’s first reading from the Acts of the Apostles. St. Luke tells us, “The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common. … There was no needy person among them, for those who owned property or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds of the sale, and put them at the feet of the Apostles, and they were distributed to each according to need.” Once they were willing, like Christ, to die out of love for God and others, selling and distributing their property was easy. Moreover, because of their rebirth by the Holy Spirit they related to each other differently. They looked at each other as spiritual brothers and sisters, as beloved family members, for whom sacrificing for them in their need was as natural as a parent or sibling’s sacrificing for a beloved family member by blood. We see three characteristics of life from above. First, we see that they were of “one heart and mind,” because the Holy Spirit brings about unity. Second, we see generosity. And third we see the trust that encourages that generosity: they were laying the proceeds at the feet of the apostles, trusting that they would distribute as good stewards for the sake of the whole family like any good father of a big poor family would. The Church is meant to be in every age the type of loving, sacrificial family we see among the early Christians and to the extent that’s not what we find in a particular parish, or diocese or the Church universal, it’s a sign that not everyone has allowed the Holy Spirit to help them grow and live in accordance with the rebirth they’ve received.
- Today we celebrate a great saint who was totally docile to the way the Holy Spirit wanted her to grow. Even though she couldn’t read and write, she became a doctor of the Church because she was “docta” (or instructed by God) before she became a doctor teaching others. St. Catherine of Siena was first someone who lived off of Christ on the Cross. For the last seven years of her life she subsisted off of nothing but Jesus in the Eucharist, whom she received every day. That was a rare privilege in the 1300s, when most religious and non-ordained monks received only a few times a year, because there was the sense that to receive him, you really needed to be detached totally from sin and few were living those types of lives to warrant it. And that love for and of Jesus in the Eucharist overflowed in all her actions. In her Dialogues, which recount what God the Father and God the Son said to her, Jesus once told her, “The Soul, as soon as she comes to know Me, reaches out to love her neighbors” and that souls who receive him “love their neighbors with the same love with which they love me” (Dialogue 89 and 60). That love led her to go out to work in the hospitals, to care for plague victims, to bind the hideous wounds of lepers, and wash and to bury the dead, to be a Good Samaritan to those no one else would care for. She caught leprosy from a woman named Tecca, who often treated St. Catherine badly, but after Tecca died and Catherine buried her, Catherine’s leprous hand was miraculously cured. St. Catherine was also a great agent of the unity Christ came to bring to his Church and through his Church to the world. She was the peacemaker between warring factions within families, within cities, and among battling city-states. She also brought the Church back together after the 70 year Avignon captivity of the papacy, persuading Pope Gregory XI courageously to return to Rome in 1378. Upon his arrival, the Pope, whom she called the “sweet Christ on earth,” summoned her to Rome to be at his side and advise him.
- Today as we come forward to worship God, we ask through St. Catherine’s intercession that we may correspond as fully to the work of the Holy Spirit as she did, as the Holy Spirit seeks to lift us up to be with Christ on the Cross, so that we may live from the blood and water flowing from his side, so that we may unite our whole lives to him including our sufferings, so that we may receive and imitate his self-giving love, sacrifice our things generously and with trust in him working through the Church, and come to be one mind and one heart with Him and with each other in this world so that we may be united in the communion of saints with Catherine and each other forever.
The readings for today’s Mass were:
and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own,
but they had everything in common.
With great power the Apostles bore witness
to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus,
and great favor was accorded them all.
There was no needy person among them,
for those who owned property or houses would sell them,
bring the proceeds of the sale,
and put them at the feet of the Apostles,
and they were distributed to each according to need.Thus Joseph, also named by the Apostles Barnabas
(which is translated “son of encouragement”),
a Levite, a Cypriot by birth,
sold a piece of property that he owned,
then brought the money and put it at the feet of the Apostles.
PS 93:1AB, 1CD-2, 5
The LORD is king, in splendor robed;
robed is the LORD and girt about with strength.
R. The Lord is king; he is robed in majesty.
And he has made the world firm,
not to be moved.
Your throne stands firm from of old;
from everlasting you are, O LORD.
R. The Lord is king; he is robed in majesty.
Your decrees are worthy of trust indeed:
holiness befits your house,
O LORD, for length of days.
R. The Lord is king; he is robed in majesty.
“‘You must be born from above.’
The wind blows where it wills, and you can hear the sound it makes,
but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes;
so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Nicodemus answered and said to him,
‘How can this happen?”
Jesus answered and said to him,
“You are the teacher of Israel and you do not understand this?
Amen, amen, I say to you,
we speak of what we know and we testify to what we have seen,
but you people do not accept our testimony.
If I tell you about earthly things and you do not believe,
how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?
No one has gone up to heaven
except the one who has come down from heaven, the Son of Man.
And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert,
so must the Son of Man be lifted up,
so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”