Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Catherine of Siena Parish, Manhattan
“Mass for Couples Struggling with Infertility and Recurrent Miscarriage”
Thursday of the Fifth Week of Easter
Memorial of St. Gianna Beretta Molla
April 28, 2016
Act 15: 7-21, Ps 96, Jn 15:9-11
To listen to an audio recording of tonight’s homily, please click below:
The following text guided tonights homily:
- Today in the Gospel Jesus says what I believe are the most important words in the history of the world. They’re important whenever anyone says them, but the fact that he said them in the way that he said them, and then put them into his own body language, makes them the most life-changing phrase ever: “I love you,” he tells us. We can never stop enough to ponder the reality of those words! “I love you,” Jesus tells us. But then he puts them into a context that ought to astound us: “Just as the Father loves me, I love you.” The Father loves him perfectly. The Father loves him profoundly and intimately. And Jesus tells us that he loves us in that same way. And he doesn’t merely love us “all” in that way, but he loves each of us in that way, as St. Paul wrote in his letter to the Galatians, “He loved me and gave his life for me” (Gal 2:20). Grasping this reality is essential not only for the Christian life but for human life. “Man cannot live without love,” St. John Paul II wrote in his first encyclical Redemptor Hominis. “He remains a being that is incomprehensible for himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it and make it his own, if he does not participate intimately in it.”
- But this love that Jesus is talking about, this love that John Paul II says we cannot live without, is not saccharine or sentimental. We see in the way the Father loves the Son that love is not incompatible with redemptive suffering. He loves us so much that he gives us a part not just in his creative work but even more importantly in his redemptive work. The latter involves various crosses, and not merely intermittent ones but a participation in his cross each day, through self-denial and following him. Sometimes that Cross involves families being divided, two-against-three and three-against two, as Jesus described would happen as a result of one family member’s making him a priority. Sometimes it will involve others’ persecuting us, hating us, reviling us on account of Jesus. Sometimes it will involve turning the other cheek. Sometimes it will involve forgiving, and not just once, or twice, but seventy times seven times. And often it will involve unmet desires, in which we beg the Lord for something but, like Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, we are helped from above to say, “Not my will but thine be done.”
- I wish I could do justice to the pain involved in child loss by miscarriage or to the holy desire of couples faithfully knocking on the door of heaven without its seemingly being opened, asking without apparently receiving, seeking without outwardly finding. Both child loss and infertility have their ultimate root in the disorder introduced into the universe at the Fall and not in the choices or relationship of couples with God. But to this pain, God gives a response. In some ways it’s the only adequate response. He gives himself. Jesus once said about the prayers we make to God, whether prayers of petition or intercession, prayers of praise or thanksgiving, prayers of sorrow or lament, that God always responds by giving himself. “What father among you,” he asks poignantly, “would hand his son a snake when he asks for a fish? Or hand him a scorpion when he asks for an egg? If you then, who are sinful, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?” (Lk 11:11-13). Notice he doesn’t say, “… give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him for the Holy Spirit.” He gives the Holy Spirit to any son or daughter who prays for anything honest whatsoever. God responds by giving himself.
- That’s what we also see in today’s Gospel, when Jesus says, “Just as the Father has loved me I love you.” We know that God the Father loved the Son not at the level of emotions. He loved the Son by giving all that he eternally “is” to the Son, everything except his relation as Father. And Jesus tells us that he loves us just as the Father first loves him. He loves us not by necessarily finding a magic word to soothe us, not by necessarily giving in to what we want exactly when we want it and how we want it. He loves us by giving us himself even when we suffer something excruciating.
- His telling us that he loves us is not enough, however. Neither is his giving of himself to us in love. Jesus challenges us not only to receive the gift of his love but to remain in it. Many of us can flee from love just like St. Peter did when Christ told him to put out into the deep and he caught a miraculous draught of fish. “Depart from me, O Lord,” he said, “for I am a sinful man.” Many of us can seek to avoid God’s love because, like St. Augustine, we feel unworthy of it. “You were within me,” the Doctor of Hippo wrote in his famous Confessions, “but I was outside. … In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things that you created. You were with me, but I was not with you.” Christ was loving Augustine, but he was not abiding in Christ’s love. If this is the case for Christ’s love in general, it’s all more true that we can resist, we can flee that love when Christ loves us from the Cross and with the Cross. Like the Rich Young Man being called to perfection in love, we can resist that cruciform summons to unite ourselves, to yoke ourselves, to Love incarnate. We can even receive the Cross as a curse instead of a caress, as a hard punishment instead of a holy purification. Yet Jesus from the Cross and with the Cross, tells us, “Remain in my love.”
- Then he tells us how. “If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love.” We can’t remain in his love if we are breaking the commandments, not because he’ll pull his love away from us — his love is everlasting and he’ll never pull away — but because the commandments are all about living in the love of God and the love of neighbor: we can’t love God if we’re worshipping other gods or giving into superstitions, if we’re abusing his holy name, if we’re blowing him off on the day we call the Lord’s day; we can’t be loving him in those whom he loves if we’re dishonoring the parents he gave us, hating or killing those he created, taking advantage of them out of lust, stealing from the goods he gave them, lying to them, or getting envious over the blessings of human love he has given them or of material gifts. All the law and the prophets, Jesus tells us, hang on the two-fold commandment of loving God and neighbor and that’s why we can’t remain in his love if we’re violating the love that is contained in the commandments. But in this condition to remain in his love, Jesus is leading by example. He never says merely “Do what I say!” but always, “Follow me!,” and he does so in this circumstance as well: after telling us that to remain in his love we need to keep him commandments, he adds, “Just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love.” Love, as Pope-emeritus Benedict was accustomed to say, is idem velle, idem nolle, willing and rejecting the same things as the Beloved. If we love God we’re going to love what he loves. Jesus, in loving the Father, loved the Father’s will and, as hard as it was to understand on occasion — as we see with his sweating blood in the Garden — he wanted the Father’s will, not his, to be done. Likewise, if we truly love the Lord and remain in his love, we’ll love what we loves and seek to do what he out of love wills for us and others, even when it is so contrary to what we ourselves would desire.
- What’s the upshot of remaining in the love of God through seeking and keeping his holy will? Jesus describes it at the end of today’s Gospel passage: “I have told you this so that my joy might be in you and your joy might be complete.” The fruit of love is joy. It’s the “infallible sign of God’s presence” within as Leon Bloy made famous. When we know we’re loved and when we love in return, a love that is tried in a crucible and remains faithful, a love that is patient and kind, a love that is not jealous, pompous, inflated, rude, quick-tempered, brooding, or self-seeking, a love that bears, believes, hopes and endures all things, we experience a love that is far greater than all the pleasure of the world combined.
- The type of joy flowing from love that we see in human relationships is supposed to be even more evident in the Christian life of faith. Jesus said that the purpose of his undying love for us and the Father’s love for him was so that we might have his joy in us and our joy may be complete. The first thing to note here is that Jesus was full of joy! Many times our image of Jesus doesn’t have him smiling. We can project onto him our own seriousness, or sadness, or frustration, or pettiness. But Jesus was the most joyful person who ever lived!He was joyful because he lived in the Father’s love. He was joyful throughout his public ministry, with a joy that attracted people to leave their livelihoods and follow him, because they wanted that joy. His joy was particularly radiant inwardly on Calvary, when the happiest man who ever lived experienced his definitive triumph. His joy was doubtless even more brilliant after his resurrection, when he was able to show others the reason for a joy that the world couldn’t give or rob. If we experience and remain truly and fully in his love, we will have that joy, even in the midst of our Crosses, because the tree of joy has cruciform roots. This is a joy that we see in the stories of the martyrs who were singing hymns on the road to execution as if they were proceeding to a wedding. Pope Francis has repeatedly said that joy is meant to be the “sign of a Christian” and “a healthy Christian is a joyful Christian.” He’s calling us all to live our faith with the joy that flows from the Gospel, the joy that flows from knowing we’re loved by God and by living in that love. That’s the way we’re called to spread the Gospel, so that others might follow the trail of our joy to the Source of that joy in the love Jesus has for us and has for them. And once Christians start living with that type of joy, on easy and difficult days, then people will be busting down the doors to come to the font of that same happiness, which is the infinite love of God for each of us in particular.
- In today’s first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we see a glimpse into the joy of the first Christians and how the early Church sought and fought to frame everything with regard to the love of the Lord. The deliberations of the Council of Jerusalem were about what to do with Gentile Christians. The point of their conversation was so that the Gentile Christians would enter into and experience the love of God, rather than the oppression of 613 commandments, many of which were preparatory so that the Jews could receive the love of God and pass it on, but many of which had become idols rather than means. St. Peter stood up and said two things that are really important for us to grasp. The first is that we are “saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus in the same way as they,” reminding everyone of what God had done for the family of Cornelius the Centurion when St. Peter had baptized the whole family. We are saved by the unmerited loveof God, who loved us so much that he sent his own Son so that we might not perish but have eternal life. We’re not saved, in others words, by the “yoke” of all the precepts of the law — by our own actions, “that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear.” The second truth is that to put that yoke or burden on the shoulders of the disciples would be tantamount to “putting God to the test,” to not living in God’s love, since God had obviously accepted them through what Peter testified about the way the Gentiles were accepted and what Paul and Barnabas were themselves saying. Peter’s words, inspired by the Holy Spirit, held the day.
- James, who had a tremendous reputation among the strictest Jewish Christians for his fasting, prayer and rigorous observance of the Mosaic law fulfilled in Jesus, built on what Peter had said and spoke ascetically about how the Lord purified the people of Israel for love. “The words of the prophets,” he began, testify, “After this I shall return and rebuild the fallen hut of David; from its ruins I shall rebuild it and raise it up again, so that the rest of humanity may seek out the Lord.” The suffering of the Jews, just like every personal suffering, including the sufferings of married couples, purifies our desires, transforms them, and gradually elicits from them a fire for the only thing that can truly satisfy the heart: union with God.
- As a friend of mine who with her husband has struggled with both infertility and child loss shared with me a few days ago, “The love of parents who lose a child, or of spouses who know the unfulfilled desire for a family is this kind of purification: it draws us to the depths, and from there, knowing the greatest poverty, we are helped to ascend and begin to see how even the greatest human loves remain incomplete. We begin to seek the end for which every man and woman yearns,” which every loving husband and wife ultimately wish for each other, namely “beatitude.”
- She went on to share with me, “The ruins of infertility and child loss,” like the fallen hut of David, “are the foundation on which to build marriages that seek the kind of unity that only grace can effect in us. … We learn to love our spouses even when things do not turn out as we had hoped. Here the purification of love for a spouse takes the explicit form of the marriage vows: in sickness and in health, in good times and in bad, etc.. We learn also to love God differently: not because of the things we want, but because He himself is good, and loves us first (1Jn 5.19). In being receptive to the grace of purification, we allow Him to refashion us in union with one another after the love of His own Heart. From the ruins He rebuilds, not only rebuilds, but raises up, giving new life; and not only raises up, but gives new life explicitly for a purpose: so that the rest of humanity may seek the Lord. Therefore, the crucible of infertility and child loss gives us a particular participation in the desire God has for the life and salvation of souls. It gives us an insight to understanding the longing of God for our salvation. Our own longing to bring life into the world is analogous to God’s longing for our salvation.”
- It’s also a school that allows us to learn to love with the parental love of God toward his Son and toward us. “Child loss,” my friend continued, “brings us to live a hidden maternity, a hidden paternity, which requires a hidden love, a purified love, a love that loves not simply those we call our children, but their very brief existence itself, the miracle of their creation, the marvel of God’s creative love. When physical life ends, or the desire to give it is frustrated, we are drawn deeper into the mystery, the marvel of maternity and paternity. And this is the ‘purification of the heart by faith’. It is the particular grace hidden in child loss that we can receive in the agony of grief. We then slowly, painfully, realize what it means to abide by His request: ‘remain in my love,’ not our own loves, good as these are, piercing as they are — for our spouses, our children — but his love, wherein alone we shall have peace.”
- This is the path she concluded so that God’s joy might be in us and our joy be brought to perfection.
- Today as we celebrate the feast of St. Gianna Beretta Molla, who herself twice experienced the pain of child loss in marriage and who through that experience of seeking to baptize them through her desire, came to love and treasure the precious love of God to the extent that she was able to imitate the love of Father in Jesus Christ, the love of Christ for us in laying down his life for his friends. Many of you know her story. She was born in 1922. She became a pediatrician and planned to dedicate her life to sick children, but at 33, she met and fell in love with a good Catholic engineer named Pietro Molla, whom she married after a year’s courtship. They sought to live the life of an ordinary Christian couple, combining their careers with their duties to their family. In the first five years of their marriage, God blessed them with five pregnancies, including two miscarriages. But those miscarriages were extraordinary consequential. She lived as her child died and she, like so many mothers here, would have much rather, if it were possible, allow their child to live and they die. God brought good out of that loss and prepared her for a witness to the world that will not be forgotten until the end of time.
- During the summer of 1961, they discovered that God had blessed them with a sixth a pregnancy. Two months into her pregnancy, however, Dr. Molla started to feel abdominal pain. She went to see her brother who was an obstetrician, who with his colleagues discovered she had large malignant fibroma in her uterus that was risking her life and the life of her child. One of her brother’s colleagues presented her the options: The first was a complete hysterectomy, which would save her own life but take the life of her child; the second was to abort the child and then try to excise the tumor while saving the uterus, so that she could have other children; the third was by far the riskiest: to try to extract the tumor alone, conscious that the post-surgical sutures could rupture the uterus later and lead to the death both of mother and child. Without hesitation, Gianna resolutely chose the third option, which was the only one that had any chance of saving her child’s life.
- While she was being prepared for surgery, she insisted with her surgeon to do whatever he needed to do to save the baby’s life, even at the loss of her own, a capacity for prioritization and sacrifice that had doubtless intensified as a result of the child loss. The surgery was as successful as it could be. They got the tumor and the child didn’t miscarry, but both were still at risk. Gianna went on with her life joyfully trusting in the Lord. She kept repeating to worried family members, “Whatever God wants.” She wrote to a friend: “I have prayed so much in these days. With faith and hope I have entrusted myself to the Lord… I trust in God, yes; but now it is up to me to fulfill my duty as a mother. I renew to the Lord the offer of my life. I am ready for everything, to save my baby.”
- On Good Friday, April 20, 1962, she entered the hospital to deliver her fourth child. She told the medical team, many of whom knew and loved her as a colleague: “If you must choose between me and the baby, have no hesitation: choose — and I demand it — the baby, save him!” A healthy little girl was delivered, whom she and Pietro named Giannina, or “little Gianna.” Giannina was placed in her delighted mother’s arms. But very soon Gianna’s post-partum pains and temperature increased. She was diagnosed with septic peritonitis. The doctors did everything they could do — antibiotics, blood transfusions, injections — but nothing helped. Throughout her agony, she kept saying, “Jesus, I love you. Jesus I love you,” until she fell into a coma. A week later, on April 28th, she died.
- “No one has any greater love,” Jesus will tell us tomorrow, “than to lay down his life for his friends.” Dr. Gianna Molla showed in human, very modern terms, what that love really means. When it came to saving her life or saving her child’s, she chose her child’s. She was willing to sacrifice everything — her career, her family, her very life — for the sake of the gift growing within her. Indeed no one has greater love…
- In a love letter to her after her death, her husband Pietro summarized what this type of self-giving love meant: “You made your sacrifice for the sake of love, because of your sense of maternal responsibility, because of the supreme respect you had for the child in your womb … as a gift from God… You loved our three precious children no less than you loved the baby in your womb. For all those months you prayed to the Lord, to Our Lady, and to your own mother that the right and guarantee to life for the baby in your womb might not require the sacrifice of your life, and that you would be spared for the sake of our children and our family. At the same time, if the Lord’s will were different, if it were not possible to save both lives, you explicitly asked me to make sure the child’s life be saved. With your decision, you offered the holocaust of your life. And you offered it with the anguish of a wife and a mother who must leave behind her children and family and everything dear that God had given you… You knew that your maternal obligation to raise, educate and form our children was no less serious than the duty to safeguard their coming into the world after their conception. You knew very well that no one could equal your maternal love in raising, educating and forming our children, but in your humility, you trusted that the Lord would make up for the absence of your visible presence.” She became an icon not just of maternal love but of divine love.
“Just as the Father loves me,” Jesus told us, “I love you.” He said those words on Holy Thursday. And it’s during our daily participation in what he began on Holy Thursday that Jesus not only says those words but enfleshes them. Jesus shows his love, the love that led him to lay down his life for us, as he gives us each day his body, blood, soul and divinity here in the Eucharist, which is our participation in time in his one eternal sacrifice in the Upper Room and on the Cross on Calvary to save us. By receiving this love and remaining in it, we are filled with God, strengthened to keep his commandments, and are led to joy because we receive and carry within as within a monstrance Joy Himself. The most joyful man who ever lived comes to live within us! No matter how great our suffering, Jesus wants to turn our mourning into joy, our darkness into light, even the death of our loved ones into eternal life. That joy should fill us with contagious excitement to participate in Mass and move us to bring that joy out to a world that so much needs that Jesus. This is the joy of the Gospel we receive and are called to radiate. May we, like St. Gianna, remain in this love, live this love, and share this love and the joy to which it leads with all those we meet, especially to those who are still walk in a dark valley, so that with them we might come to the one who will make our joy complete!
The readings for today’s Mass were:
Peter got up and said to the Apostles and the presbyters,
“My brothers, you are well aware that from early days
God made his choice among you that through my mouth
the Gentiles would hear the word of the Gospel and believe.
And God, who knows the heart,
bore witness by granting them the Holy Spirit
just as he did us.
He made no distinction between us and them,
for by faith he purified their hearts.
Why, then, are you now putting God to the test
by placing on the shoulders of the disciples
a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear?
On the contrary, we believe that we are saved
through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they.”
The whole assembly fell silent,
and they listened
while Paul and Barnabas described the signs and wonders
God had worked among the Gentiles through them.
“My brothers, listen to me.
Symeon has described how God first concerned himself
with acquiring from among the Gentiles a people for his name.
The words of the prophets agree with this, as is written:
and rebuild the fallen hut of David;
from its ruins I shall rebuild it
and raise it up again,
so that the rest of humanity may seek out the Lord,
even all the Gentiles on whom my name is invoked.
Thus says the Lord who accomplishes these things,
known from of old.It is my judgment, therefore,
that we ought to stop troubling the Gentiles who turn to God,
but tell them by letter to avoid pollution from idols,
unlawful marriage, the meat of strangled animals, and blood.
For Moses, for generations now,
has had those who proclaim him in every town,
as he has been read in the synagogues every sabbath.”
PS 96:1-2A, 2B-3, 10
Sing to the LORD a new song;
sing to the LORD, all you lands.
Sing to the LORD; bless his name.
R. Proclaim God’s marvelous deeds to all the nations.
Announce his salvation, day after day.
Tell his glory among the nations;
among all peoples, his wondrous deeds.
R. Proclaim God’s marvelous deeds to all the nations.
Say among the nations: The LORD is king.
He has made the world firm, not to be moved;
he governs the peoples with equity.
R. Proclaim God’s marvelous deeds to all the nations.
“As the Father loves me, so I also love you.
Remain in my love.
If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love,
just as I have kept my Father’s commandments
and remain in his love.“I have told you this so that
my joy might be in you and
your joy might be complete.”