Fr. Roger J. Landry
Catholic Online Homily Series for the Year of Faith
August 27, 2013
As Jesus continues to describe in the Gospel today why many of the scribes and Pharisees are hypocrites, we see a huge contrast between their behavior and the lives of St. Paul and St. Monica on whom the Church has us reflect today.
The word hypocrite comes from the Greek word for “actor.” Jesus’ main issue with the many of the scribes and Pharisees was the incoherence of their life. They were pretenders, doing things for others to see and admire, focused just on the externalism of apparently good deeds while their hearts were wicked.
They do not practice the word of God they preach. They swear false oaths, pretending that if they vow by the altar, or the temple, or the heavens, they can get away with lying, as if God doesn’t care that they use such sacred things in vain. They do all the conspicuous little things, like the tithes on various plants and seasonings, but totally neglect the most important things of all, like fidelity, mercy and judgment. They wear masks, keeping all the proper outside appearances while hiding moral cesspools on the inside.
By his brutal candor, Jesus is trying to call them to conversion in terms that will jackhammer through the pride-induced concrete that their hearts have become. He calls them to cleanse their insides. He summons them to do more than keep appearances, more than getting an Academy Award for playing someone holy, but rather to come to him for healing so that they could change from blind guides to those who walk by faith and lead others into the kingdom.
In the first reading, we see what a converted Pharisee looks like. When he was a young man, St. Paul was a zealous member of the Pharisees excelling most others in religious observance and persecuting those who had entered Jesus’ kingdom. Like his fellow Pharisees, he had a false notion of holiness, based on the extrinsic keeping of the works of the Mosaic law. He would learn that true holiness is not the result of self-initiated efforts, but a grace-filled response in faith to God’s own work. He would spend the rest of life living by faith in the Son of God who loved him, gave his life for him, and called him to love others in the same way.
In today’s passage from his first letter to the Church in Thessalonika, St. Paul reviews his first missionary visit among them. In contrast to the duplicitous pretending of the Pharisees, he exhorted them “not from delusion or impure motives [or] … deception,” not “trying to please men, but rather God.” Full of affection, he share with them “not only the Gospel of God, but our very selves as well.” He didn’t want to pass on to them merely words, but words that he had enfleshed, so that they, too, might receive them as words to be done not just heard and ignored. Unlike his former Pharisaical companions, he both preached and practiced what he preached.
The analogy St. Paul used to describe how he gave himself together with the Gospel was a maternal one. “We were gentle among you,” he wrote, “as a nursing mother cares for her children.” St. Paul tenderly breastfed the Thessalonians on his own faith and anguished with love for their continued growth.
That type of love leads us to the saint whom the Church celebrates today, St. Monica, who after the Blessed Mother is the most famous, loving mother in the history of the Church. She is a tremendous icon for all of us during this Year of Faith and a great witness of how to pass the faith on, together with our very selves, even when that transmission is arduous and brings us routinely to the point of tears.
Saint Monica was born in Tagaste (modern day Algeria) in 332. She was baptized as a young woman shortly before her parents gave her in marriage to a violent and dissolute pagan named Patricius. Though he was rich, he could not take Monica’s generosity to the poor. Though she was as faithful and loving to him as she sought to be toward God, he constantly chastised her piety. If all of that was not hard enough to bear, her cantankerous mother-in-law lived with them and daily multiplied the insults.
All of this could have driven Monica to divorce and despair, but instead it propelled her to even greater devotion to God and them. It would have been easier for her just to reciprocate their vices, but she practiced the prayer and mercy the Church preached. She wasn’t an actress, pretending to be Christian. She was a Christian for real, even and especially when it was hardest.
For 17 years, she joined her sufferings to prayers for her husband’s and mother-in-law’s conversion. Eventually, the power of God’s grace and the example of her Christian virtues penetrated their hardened hearts and they both received baptism. For her husband it was just in time — he died a holy death less than a year later.
But all of that suffering was just a warm up.
The oldest of her three children, Augustine, was then a brilliant teenage rhetoric student living away from home in Carthage. She hoped that he would follow the example of his father’s conversion, but, instead, he went full-steam in the opposite direction. He joined the Manichean heretics. He invited a woman to cohabitate with him and fathered a child out-of-wedlock. When he would come home, he would intentionally blaspheme so much that Monica prevented him from eating or sleeping at home until the budding rhetorician learned to discipline his tongue.
Monica prayed unceasingly for her son’s conversion. She fasted. She got friends to pray. She arranged for priests to argue with him. She flooded her bed and various churches with her tears. When Augustine decided he was going to Rome, Monica, fearing lest he never convert, decided to go with him. While waiting in port before their departure across the Mediterranean, however, Augustine lied to his mother about the departure time and left without her, caring so little about her as to leave his own mother helpless in a busy metropolis, without any word as to his whereabouts.
But she didn’t give up. A bishop, seeing her weeping, assured her on behalf of God, “It is not possible that the son of so many tears should perish.”
So she boarded a ship to Rome to look for Augustine there. She eventually received word that he was among the rhetoricians in Milan, and that’s where she and the Good Shepherd at last found their lost sheep.
Thanks to the help of the bishop of Milan, St. Ambrose, who captivated Augustine first by his oratory and then by his faith and charity, Augustine renounced Manicheanism, accepted the Christian faith, made a promise of celibacy and received the gift of baptism at the age of 32.
Mother and son decided to return home to Africa, but Monica would not make it. She took ill in Ostia and was soon on her deathbed. Augustine was now the one full of tears, but Monica replied, “Son, my hopes in this world are now fulfilled. All I wished to live for was that I might see you a Catholic and a child of heaven. God has granted me more than this in making you despise earthly felicity and consecrate yourself to his service.”
It was because of Monica’s ceaseless prayers and tears that not only did her son “not perish” but became the great Saint Augustine. But it was also because of her persevering prayers and tears for both her son and her husband that she became the great Saint Monica.
She grew in faith precisely because of what she suffered, how much prayed, how much she forgave, and how much she trusted that God loved her loved ones even more than she did. She gave herself totally to them along with what she treasured most, the Gospel that had been given to her. While the scribes and Pharisees lock the kingdom and by their example and words prevent others from entering, St. Monica’s and St. Paul’s lives reveal the secrets of the kingdom and show us how to enter through that door of faith and continue following Christ on the lifelong adventure of faith.
We ask St. Monica in a particular way to intercede for all those among our family and friends most in need of conversion — and we ask her, from heaven, to pray for us and our total conversion as well.