Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
Saturday of the 25th Week in Ordinary Time, Year II
Memorial of St. Vincent de Paul and day of the Beatification of Blessed Alvaro del Portillo
September 27, 2014
Eccl 11:8-12:8, Ps 90, Lk 9:43-45
To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below:
The following points were attempted in the homily:
- Today’s readings are about death and life, about what really matters and what doesn’t, about wisdom and foolishness, about eternity and evanescence. In the Responsorial Psalm, we prayed to God, “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain wisdom of heart.” It’s only when we know that we don’t have all the time in the world, that our days are numbered, that today may be the last day in our earthly sequence, when begin to live the right way, for what really matters. It’s only when we begin to recognize that God has given us a finite time here on earth that we begin to get our true priorities straight.
- In the first reading, we finish our brief examination of the Book of Ecclesiastes, which focuses on the vanity of living just for this world. “Vanity of vanities,” it concludes, repeating a refrain from earlier in the Book, “All things are vanity!” Vanity means worthless or futile from the Latin word vanus or “empty.” It’s common understanding of “conceited” is derivative, flowing from getting puffed up by worthless things. Through the Book of Ecclesiastes Qohelet describes the various vain things in which human beings place their treasure. Today he focuses on the vanity of youth and he counsels us to remember our Creator in the days of youth, never to forget that we will age and die, and that “God will bring [us] to judgment” for the way we lived. He was encouraging us to live for God, the one type of life that is not vain.
- Jesus teaches us this path in the Gospel by his own example. After he has worked a great miracle of curing a boy whose diabolically-induced attacks would lead him repeatedly to the brink of suicide, “all were amazed at his every deed.” It would have been the time for Jesus to ride the wave of popularity, if that’s what he was seeking. But he wasn’t. At that moment of earthly triumph, Jesus told the disciples: “Pay attention to what I am telling you. The Son of Man is to be handed over to men.” He was telling them for the second time that he was going to die. The first time he told them, Peter, vainly, protested, even rebuking Jesus and telling him that there was no way any such thing would happen to him. This time they didn’t understand it any better, but “they were afraid to ask him about this saying,” because they didn’t want to know the answer, because it seemed to go against the vain desires they had for cabinet positions in his this worldly messianic administration. Jesus was keeping them focused, however, on the vanity even of the gift of human life if not lived for and together with God. He, too, would die, and if they wanted to live for what mattered, they not only needed to accept that fact but live that truth. All of the apostles except Judas eventually got that lesson.
- St. Paul would be the one who would explain it best, when he wrote to the Philippians, “I consider everything as a loss because of the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have accepted the loss of all things and I consider them so much rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, … depending on faith to know him and the power of his resurrection and [the] sharing of his sufferings by being conformed to his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” He recognized that everything was vain, was trash, compared to knowing Jesus and being found in him. That realization changed his life. He wrote write later to the same Church that now his ambition was no longer for vain things but for the fulfillment of his virtuous vocation: “Forgetting what lies behind but straining forward to what lies ahead, I continue my pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus” and he urged them to become “perfectly mature” by “join[ing] with others in being imitators of me, and observe those who thus conduct themselves according to the model you have in us” and instead of worthlessly living as “enemies of the Cross of Christ” making their stomachs their gods and being occupied with earthly things to live rather as friends of Christ on the Cross focused on our heavenly calling and citizenship in exile (Phil 3:20).
- We have two great illustrations today of the type of conversion God is calling each of us to make from vanity to gaining Christ. The first is the one whom the whole Church fêtes today, one of the greatest saints of all time, St. Vincent de Paul (1580-1660). He was the son of poor farmers in southwestern France, the third of six children. His parents struggled simply to make ends meet, but when Vincent’s father recognized how precociously intelligent his son was, he and the family sacrificed many of their animals to provide him an education through the Franciscan Recollects and later the University of Toulouse. Vincent wasn’t particularly grateful, though. One day when his father made a long journey on foot to visit him in his tattered peasant clothing, Vincent didn’t even go out to greet him because he was so embarrassed by his father’s poverty. Vincent’s ambition at the time was to become a priest, not fundamentally because he thought it was his vocation, but because he thought that that might bring him fame and notoriety and he knew that if he played his cards right, he might receive benefices for rich Churches and abbeys that would provide him enough income to permanently get his family out of the poverty that embarrassed him so. Because of his genius and motivation, he raced through university and was ordained a priest at the shockingly young age of 19, even though canon law required one to be 25. He wasted no time vainly trying to climb the ecclesiastical ladder. He became a chaplain to Queen Margaret of Valois and moved to Paris. As a brilliant “baby priest,” he quickly earned the reputation as a talented preacher, which gained him further entrée into French high society.
- But the Lord gave him two experiences that helped him to convert from his vanity of vanities. The first happened in 1605, six years into his priesthood. After having gone to Marseilles to acquire an inheritance — another vain pursuit! — he boarded a ship to Narbonne that was captured by African pirates who brought him to Tunis, where he was a slave for two years. God eventually arranged for his escape when he was able to persuade the wife of an ex-priest who had converted to Islam to preserve his own life to convert her husband, give up their illicit arrangement and head back to France. After his release, however, Vincent never forgot the misery these slaves were experiencing. He resolved to help them somehow, someway in the future. He would. There were about 25,000 poor slaves on the Barbary Coast, mostly Christian. He would send many priests and brothers to attend to their spiritual meets and never ceased to raise money to ransom them; by the time of his death, he had purchased the freedom of over 1,200.
- The second experience was a further crucifixion of his ego and pursuit of the esteem of others. After he had returned to Paris, his roommate was robbed of 400 crowns. Convinced Vincent was the thief, he maliciously accused him to the police and to everyone else. Whereas earlier Vincent may have trusted in his own abilities to defend his reputation, now he trusted only in divine Providence, who had just freed him from slavery. “God knows the truth,” he said calmly, as he bore the calumny for six months until the true thief confessed. It cured him of the vanity of seeking human respect.
- From that point forward, he was free of vanity to seek God’s interests in everything, and even though he would continue to walk in and out of French high society, his heart was set firmly on what the Lord wanted, on God’s glory, rather than fleeting this worldly success. He was recruited by the powerful Count of Joigny, Philip de Gondi, to become chaplain to his family and tutor to his children. This was the assignment of the former Vincent’s dreams, but it was now an assignment that he twice laid down in order to become a pastor in rural areas in great need of conversion. Both times, however, Count de Gondi — who with his family loved Vincent — prevailed upon him to return. The latter time they enticed him by promising him that one of his tasks would be to teach the Gospel to the peasants throughout their expansive territory who were in ignorance and moral disarray. Count de Gondi, who was prefect of the French penal system, also arranged for Vincent to be named almoner and chaplain to the convicts in the galleys, which allowed Vincent to bring not just spiritual but material comfort to these prisoners across France. The more work he did among the poor and the outcasts, the more he became aware of how much work needed still to be done. He knew that organization was crucial. He began to recruit priests to help him in the work of preaching the Gospel to the poor; these clerics, drawn by Vincent’s example, became the first members of the Congregation of the Mission. With the help of St. Louise de Marillac, he established the Daughters of Charity, to work in the many hospitals he was founding to care for the sick, incurable, orphaned, aged and abandoned. To help in the relief of the indigent, he instituted the Ladies of Charity, a group of wealthy women who would use their social connections to raise the funds needed not merely for the immediate care of the poor, but for their long-term education and training. In Paris these Ladies helped to run a soup kitchen that fed a staggering 16,000 hungry people a day. Vincent saw how much the Church’s urgent charitable mission in France had been frustrated by incompetent and often immoral priests and bishops. At that time, it was still not required for candidates to the priesthood to go to seminary. So he began to work with the Archbishop of Paris, Count de Gondi’s brother, to ensure that before a man was ordained, he would need to participate in spiritual exercises with Vincent and the priests of his Congregation. At first these retreat courses took two weeks; they eventually extended to two years. Through them Vincent began to form most of the young priests of France. Later, the Vincentians established full-scale seminaries all over France to ensure both that priests knew the Catholic faith well enough to fight against Jansenism and other heresies, but lived it enough to care for the poor and the needy. His work with priests made him ever more aware of the difference between holy, competent bishops and ecclesiastical disasters. In these years after the Protestant Reformation, it was clear that great bishops were needed and bad appointees with inadequate spiritual qualifications could not be tolerated. He therefore used his considerable influence with the king, who at the time wielded enormous power in the appointment of bishops, to set up a Council of Conscience to ensure that those nominated for the episcopacy were worthy of the office. The king made Vincent the head of the Committee and so Vincent had as big an impact on the formation of the French episcopacy as he did the French priesthood. The fuel for all this activity was the same that powered his prayer: deep love for the Lord and, with the Lord, for those for whom the Lord died. Like St. Paul, he continued his pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus, and he helped millions, in all social classes, to learn how to pursue that same goal instead of vain earthly ones. Today he wants to help us in the same way.
- The second model we have today of the conversion we need from vanity to living our Christian vocation and numbering our days aright is Blessed Alvaro del Portillo (1914-1994), who was beatified this morning in Madrid. When he was a young man, he was moral, in fact a daily Massgoer, but he had set his heart fundamentally on being a civil engineer — the most prestigious profession in Spain at the time — getting married and having a family. All of that changed one day at the beginning of July in 1935 when he met a young priest, St. Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei. St. Josemaria explained to him the revelation he had received 7 years before that God was calling all people to holiness, including lay people, not by leaving the world but in the midst of their ordinary daily duties. Having heard St. Josemaria, the 21-year-old Alvaro on the spot decided to dedicate the whole of his life to living and propagating this ideal. It would demand much suffering, both due to the Spanish Civil War that would soon erupt not to mention because of politics and envy in the Church, but he gave himself to this calling with all his heart and soul, becoming a priest in 1944 to care for the spiritual needs of members of Opus Dei, St. Josemaria’s right-hand-man, a friend of the future Pope Paul VI and St. John Paul II, a giant of Vatican II and chief author of its document on the priesthood, a member of 13 different Vatican congregations and so much more. He spent the rest of his life trying to help everyone, but especially lay people, not to live vainly for the things that are passing, but forever. I’d like to share with you some excerpts from a letter he wrote in September 1975, two weeks after he was elected to be St. Josemaria’s successor after St. Josemaria’s passing into eternity. He described that to live for God, to become a saint, is the way to number our days aright:
- “It is the secret [St. Josemaria] revealed to millions of souls: ‘An open secret: these world crises are crises of saints. God wants a handful of men of his own in each human activity. And then [we will have] the peace of Christ in the kingdom of Christ.’ How up-to-date this deep conviction of [St. Josemaria] is! It was something very deep in him and hence a secret, but God had him proclaim it to the world, to spread to one heart and another, until it becomes a passionate cry of vibrant and moving faith, an open secret. The Lord wants us to be saints. On calling to mind such a divine command, we do not imagine it referring to people unaffected by good or evil but rather to ourselves and to many others who, moved by grace, will come to join … God’s work. Each of us knows but little of our inadequacy, though enough to keep us humble, given that we still have a very long way to go before reaching the goal God has set for us. Only in heaven will we truly be saints, if we faithfully struggle here on earth. Down here we always consider ourselves sinners, who struggle to make true what [St. Josemaria] used to say of himself: we are sinners who love Jesus Christ.”
- He went on to say that we can’t live our days aright if we’re only giving fifty percent. We can’t have half of us seeking God and the other seeking the vain things of this world. We need to be all in. “Half-hearted efforts are unacceptable now or at any time. Everyone should be determined to make good use of the talents he has received, for the devil is raving God’s vineyard. Consequently we must really practice the compelle intrare [Jesus’ words to compel people to come into his banquet], first of all with ourselves, because God, despite our stubbornness and our turning a deaf ear, has been waiting a long time — since before creating the world — with wonderful gifts mercifully prepared for his children. So, we must turn again to him at every instant, and help many others to do likewise.”
- Those words aptly summarized his life after meeting St. Josemaria. He let go of seeking the things of this world to seek God and the things of God. He gave all he heart, mind, soul and strength to doing the work of God and to helping many others to do likewise. He knew that the crisis of the world is a crisis demanding saints, those who not only seek God but truly become the instruments of his peace and kingdom for the world, and he aspired to respond to God’s merciful help to let him form him to be one and to be an instrument for the sanctification of others. Today is a day on which the whole Church thanks God for his life and begins publicly to call on his intercession. Today we ask him, and St. Vincent de Paul, to intercede for us that we may number our days aright so that one day we — and many others through our life and participation in God’s work of sanctification — may be numbered with them in the Book of Life. And we make that prayer in the context of the Mass, which was the root and center of their priestly life and work.
The readings for today’s Mass were:
and let your heart be glad in the days of your youth.
Follow the ways of your heart,
the vision of your eyes;
Yet understand that as regards all this
God will bring you to judgment.
Ward off grief from your heart
and put away trouble from your presence,
though the dawn of youth is fleeting.
Before the sun is darkened,
and the light, and the moon, and the stars,
while the clouds return after the rain;
When the guardians of the house tremble,
and the strong men are bent,
And the grinders are idle because they are few,
and they who look through the windows grow blind;
When the doors to the street are shut,
and the sound of the mill is low;
When one waits for the chirp of a bird,
but all the daughters of song are suppressed;
And one fears heights,
and perils in the street;
When the almond tree blooms,
and the locust grows sluggish
and the caper berry is without effect,
Because man goes to his lasting home,
and mourners go about the streets;
Before the silver cord is snapped
and the golden bowl is broken,
And the pitcher is shattered at the spring,
and the broken pulley falls into the well,
And the dust returns to the earth as it once was,
and the life breath returns to God who gave it.
Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth,
all things are vanity!
ps 90:3-4, 5-6, 12-13, 14 and 17
You turn man back to dust,
saying, “Return, O children of men.”
For a thousand years in your sight
are as yesterday, now that it is past,
or as a watch of the night.
R. In every age, O Lord, you have been our refuge.
You make an end of them in their sleep;
the next morning they are like the changing grass,
Which at dawn springs up anew,
but by evening wilts and fades.
R. In every age, O Lord, you have been our refuge.
Teach us to number our days aright,
that we may gain wisdom of heart.
Return, O LORD! How long?
Have pity on your servants!
R. In every age, O Lord, you have been our refuge.
Fill us at daybreak with your kindness,
that we may shout for joy and gladness all our days.
And may the gracious care of the Lord our God be ours;
prosper the work of our hands for us!
Prosper the work of our hands!
R. In every age, O Lord, you have been our refuge.
Jesus said to his disciples,
“Pay attention to what I am telling you.
The Son of Man is to be handed over to men.”
But they did not understand this saying;
its meaning was hidden from them
so that they should not understand it,
and they were afraid to ask him about this saying.