How the Church is Reborn, Seventh Sunday of Easter (A), May 8, 2005

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Francis Xavier Church, Hyannis, MA
Seventh Sunday of Easter, Year A
May 8, 2005
Acts 1:12-14; 1Pet 4:13-16; Jn 17:1-11

1) After the Ascension, as we read in the first reading, the apostles all gathered around Mary and “devoted themselves constantly to prayer.” We can begin by asking two questions: Why to prayer, and why around her?

2) Well, in response to the first: the Lord told them to pray. Before he ascended in heaven, he told his apostles not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” Jesus said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now” (Acts 1:4-5). He told them to pray to receive that gift well, and they were faithful to that command and they prayed. They huddled around Mary and prayed the first day. Then the second day. Then the third. The fourth. The fifth. They prayed all together nine days, until, while praying on that ninth day, the wind blew open the windows of the Upper Room and the Holy Spirit came upon them as tongues of fire on the feast of Pentecost we will celebrate next week. That was the first nine-day novena of prayer in Church history. The Church has been praying novenas ever since.

3) The second question is why they prayed around Mary. There were essentially two reasons.

a. The first is because she is, without a doubt, the greatest example of prayer there is. So many times in Sacred Scripture, we see her listening attentively to the Lord, treasuring his words in her heart and then putting them into action. When a woman cried out from the crowd one day to Jesus, trying to bless his mother on account of her physical relationship to Jesus, “Blessed is the womb that bore thee and the breasts that nursed thee,” Jesus replied with the real reason for Mary’s beatitude: “Blessed rather is she who heard the word of God and kept it” (Lk 11:27-28 ). The woman from the crowd wanted to bless Mary simply for her physical relationship to the Lord, from whom he received his human flesh and blood. Jesus wanted to bless his mother for her real discipleship, for hearing the word, treasuring it and putting it into practice. One of the fathers of the Church used to say that before Mary ever conceived the Word of God in her womb, she had already conceived that Word in her heart. She listened and treasured the Word of God so much that that word became flesh within her. This is the model of prayer: to listen attentively to the Lord, to know that he hears us, to know that he wants to have this dialogue of communion with us, to treasure his words, to trust them and to act on them. The apostles huddled around Mary because she could teach them how to pray with the same attentiveness, receptivity and desire to respond that characterized her prayer.

b. The second reason they grouped around the Mother of God was because she was and is the greatest example of fidelity to the Lord, and prayer is meant to lead to fidelity throughout life. Jesus had told them to pray lest they succumb to temptation (Mt 6:13; 26:41), and she was the model of the one who, through prayer, had always remained true. Mary was the faithful 14-year old girl whose “yes” replied to Eve’s “no” and set in motion the plan of redemption. She was faithful in her mission to raise the Son of God, to protect him, to nourish him. Mary was faithful all the way to the Cross, where she was one of very few to be present, even though it must have been so much more revolting for her to see her Son crucified than it would have been even for his apostles. She watched as the hands that used to grip her finger were hammered to the wood of the Cross; she watched as the feet, which once couldn’t walk, couldn’t walk again. She watched that side which she used to bathe pierced by a lance and bathed in blood. But she was faithful to the very end. The apostles learned from her how to be faithful disciples of her Son, because she was the first and greatest disciple of all. In order to be an apostle, you first have to be a disciple, and they learned how to become better disciples from her. Another way of saying she was faithful is to say that she was always overshadowed by the Holy Spirit, just as she was at Jesus’ conception. She was constantly docile to the Holy Spirit throughout her life, and she could teach the apostles, who were awaiting the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, how likewise to be docile.

4) During these days between the Ascension of the Lord on Thursday and the celebration of Pentecost next Sunday, the whole Church follows the example of the first disciples, and huddles around Mary in constant prayer beseeching the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Just like that first novena led to the birth of the Church on Pentecost, so this annual novena is meant to lead to an annual rebirth in the Church as a whole, and in each of our hearts in particular. This is supposed to be almost an annual “retreat” in which we get back to basics of what the Church really is. The Church is meant to be fundamentally a “house of prayer,” or, better, as John Paul II said, a “school of prayer.” Some might claim that this is a defective notion of the Church, one which separates us from the problems of the world, but such an attitude would simply betray a false notion of prayer. Prayer is not an escape from the problems of the world, but the means by which God strengthens us and nourishes us to take his saving Gospel and work out into the world. We see this with the first disciples, who, after that first novena around Mary, were strengthened by the Holy Spirit to take the Gospel out with tongues of fire, to proclaim the Good News with ardent passion.

5) The ultimate end of the Church is continue Jesus’ work of the salvation of the world. By Jesus’ own design, in ascending to heaven, giving us the great commission to bring his Gospel to the ends of the earth, and promising the Holy Spirit to help us, we have a crucial role in the salvation of our brothers and sisters, family members, neighbors, colleagues, friends and even strangers. And there is a crucial connection between PRAYER and SALVATION, between the daily intimate communion with God and the life Jesus wants us to have to the full (Jn 10:10) in this world and in the next.

6) Jesus tells us about this connection in today’s Gospel: “This is eternal life, to know you [God the Father], the only true God, and Jesus Christ who you have sent.” Jesus uses the verb “to know” in the Biblical sense, which means to have communion with someone (i.e., “Adam knew his wife and she bore a son” [Gen 4:25]). He’s not talking about an intellectual knowledge, but about a true personal knowledge that comes from love. The way that we come to that intimate communion with God is through prayer and the sacraments, with the sacraments being the greatest form of prayer, in which Christ the priest prays in us. Prayer, in other words, isn’t just “asking for things,” but is a true union with a beloved, who abides in us and us in him (cf. Jn 15:4-10). And the Holy Spirit brings about that communion with God. St. Paul says, “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words” (Rom 8:26). The Holy Spirit helps us to know how to speak to God, and that language is the often ineffable language of love. St. Paul adds that such prayer brings about a communion in love: “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Rom 5:5).

7) In these days in which the Church needs experience a true rebirth, we need to return all the more to prayer. Most of the problems facing the Church, the world, and each of us individually come from a lack of prayer. That’s a startling statement and is meant to be. Most of the problems in the world and in our hearts come from a lack of prayer. Prayer is the means by which we seek to discern God’s will and put it into practice. If we do pray, that it becomes very difficult to know God’s will in concrete circumstances, and therefore it becomes more and more difficult to God’s will. And when we don’t do God’s will, all sorts of problems and lack of peace arise. To make matters worse, when we aren’t praying enough, we’re less equipped to deal with these difficulties when they do arise.

8 ) Pope John Paul II wrote very clearly about this phenomenon in his “Pastoral Plan for the Third Christian Millennium” (Novo Millennio Ineunte), which he published at the end of the Jubilee Year. His words are direct and come from the enormous wealth of his experience as a saintly pastor of souls. He says:

“It would be wrong to think that ordinary Christians can be content with a shallow prayer that is unable to fill their whole life. Especially in the face of the many trials to which today’s world subjects faith, they would be not only mediocre Christians but ‘Christians at risk.’ They would run the insidious risk of seeing their faith progressively undermined, and would perhaps end up succumbing to the allure of ‘substitutes,’ accepting alternative religious proposals and even indulging in far-fetched superstitions (NMI 32).

a. He says first that those who have a “shallow prayer life” are not necessarily bad people, but at most they are “mediocre Christians.” One who settles for a shallow prayer life therefore is settling to be a mediocre disciple. I’ve always thought that any one who truly loves the Lord Jesus would probably feel more pain at the judgment to have Jesus say, “You were a mediocre Christian” than to end up in Hell. Jesus wants us to be a saint. He’ll give us all the help we need to be a saint, but we need to have the desire to become one and never settle for mediocrity. Jesus, the good and gentle Master, has died to give us all the opportunity to get an A on the gift of life he has given us; if we love him, would we ever be satisfied with a D-?. But we will never get an A unless we pray.

b. The Pope, however, goes even further. He says those Christians without a deep prayer life are “Christians at risk,” in danger of seeing their faith progressive weaken and make them vulnerable to various substitutes. If we’re not getting the nourishment our souls need from God in prayer, then we’ll look for it somewhere else. I’ve seen this over and over again during my six years as a priest. People say they don’t have time to pray, and yet they somehow do have time to watch television. And when it comes to forming their ideas about crucial issues, they’re listening more to Oprah or Dr. Phil or Bill O’Reilly or Larry King than they are to Christ and the Church he founded. Many people who say they don’t have time to read the Bible or good spiritual books seem somehow to find the time each day to read the Cape Cod Times, or Newsweek, or People or view various websites. Is it any surprise that when surveys are down, these Catholics’ ideas are no different from the vast majority of non-Catholic Americans? After all, they’re tuning in much more to these modern pulpits than they are to Christ speaking through prayer. Many can even start to look at God and the Church from the secular perspectives of media commentators rather than with the eyes of faith. When difficulties arise, many of these people our spiritually out-of-shape that their faith can be shaken to its foundations, and rather than find hope in their faith — and “suffer as a Christian” as St. Peter tells us in the second reading — they look elsewhere than God for help.

9) The way off of this slippery slope, the Pope tells us, is to deepen our prayer life to the point that it is capable of “filling our whole life.” The Church exists with this purpose in mind. This is why the Pope concludes:: “It is therefore essential that education in prayer should become in some way a key-point of all pastoral planning.” The key-point of everything we do in a parish — of everything we do at St. Francis Xavier Parish — is meant to help us to learn how to pray better, and better equip us to teach others. All the other things that we do — passing on the faith to young people, care for the poor and needy, community events, equipping people to take the faith into the public square — are meant to flow from a relationship with God, with whom we come into communion by prayer and the sacraments. So each of us needs to ask whether we see this education in prayer as the key-point of our Catholic lives. As a priest I ask myself that question all the time. Since a parish is meant to be a “school of prayer,” it means that every priest must be a teacher of prayer. That’s the reason behind our monthly parish days of recollection, in which I try to pass on to people Jesus and the great saints have taught us about the art of prayer. It’s also the real apostolic impetus to my striving to pray better and more each day, because how could I possibly teach another to pray unless I’m learning from the Master himself? Likewise, every parent and spouse needs to ask whether they’re helping those in their family to pray better, by setting the good example of praying, and by taking advantage of the opportunities offered in the parish, in books, and in various other media to receive this “education in prayer.” The earliest saintly bishops used to call the home a “domestic church,” because it was meant to be, like the Church as a whole, a school of prayer. Today the Lord wants each of us to ask, with great candor, whether our homes are living up to that reality; if not, then this novena is the time to start changing that.

10) The early Church was distinguished by their “constantly devoting themselves to prayer.” The Church today must be marked by the same dedication. Today on this Mother’s day, we give thanks for all that our mothers have taught us about how to listen to God’s voice in this most privileged form of communication and communion. We also huddle around the Mother Jesus gave us out of love as he was hanging upon the Cross and ask her to teach us, as she taught the first disciples, how to pray better. In this month of May dedicated to her, we ask her to teach us how to pray the Mass, how to pray the Rosary, how to pray meditatively over Sacred Scripture. During this great ecclesial novena, we ask her to help us to pray to the Holy Spirit and be docile to his promptings. We ask her to us learn how to respond to the Holy Spirit’s help to give the Word of God our own flesh and to say “yes!” to everything God asks, just as Mary has. This will be the way that the Church as a whole — and each of us in the Church — will experience the true rebirth that the Holy Spirit wants to bring about each Pentecost. And through learning how to pray better, we will come to “know the One true God” in this world and see him face-to-face in the next!