Living with our End in Mind, 7th Saturday of Easter, June 3, 2017

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Visitation Convent of the Sisters of Life, Manhattan
Saturday of the Seventh Week of Easter
Memorial of St. Charles Lwanga and Companions, Martyrs
June 3, 2017
Acts 28:16-20.30-31, Ps 11, Jn 21:20-25

 

To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily please click below: 

 

The following points were attempted in the homily: 

  • Today on this last day of the Easter Season, and on this feast day of the great young Ugandan martyrs St. Charles Lwanga, St. Joseph Mkasa and companions, we learn how to live with our end in mind. I’d like to begin with two smaller points before getting to the main one.
    • The first is about curiosity. St. Peter today, right after the Lord prophesied that he would give his life for him and keep his word that, given a second chance, he would die for him rather than deny him, Peter descends from fulfilling Christ’s demand to “Follow me” to curiosity, asking what would happen to St. John. Jesus told him that it was not his concern. Peter’s business, rather, was to follow Jesus. We, too, can often be distracted by curiosity questions such that we don’t focus on what our task is. Jesus wants each of us to follow him down the path of agapic love by feed and tending his sheep and lambs. The Holy Spirit wants to help us to keep that loving focus.
    • The second thing is about prayer. St. John says at the end of today’s Gospel, “There are also many other things that Jesus did, but if these were to be described individually, I do not think the whole world would contain the books that would be written.” We have only a small portion of Jesus’ life described and many of the scenes are presented concisely. That’s why the same Holy Spirit who inspired the sacred authors wants to help us to fill in some of the gaps through our meditation. He wants to make us aware that not all the libraries on the planet are enough to exhaust the mystery of Jesus, but in prayer we continue to enter into Jesus’ life and he into ours. This is the second thing the Holy Spirit does.
  • But what I want to ponder are the four ends of life with which the Church presents us today and ponder on their meaning.
    • The first is Peter’s, on which we focused yesterday. He would eventually follow the Lord Jesus all the way and join him in crucifixion, stretching out his arms and letting another drag him to the stake in the Circus of Caligula and Nero. But he prepared to be faithful to that supreme witness by the martyrdom of each day, sacrificing himself in order to tend and feed Christ’s sheep and feed his lambs. Each of those self-denials to affirm God and others in love was a preparing for the ultimate test. It’s the same way for us. We prepare for the great witness by the witness of each day, of choosing Christ each day. We do so by the choices we make. We can think about St. Ambrose’s celebrated phrase about St. Agnes and the other virgin martyrs, “Virginity is praiseworthy not because it is found in martyrs; virginity is praiseworthy because it makes martyrs.” By forsaking the beautiful goods of the sacrament of marriage and a family of your own to respond to Christ’s love in a covenantal bond, we are preparing to forsake the whole world and even our life in the world to cling to Christ, enter his kingdom, and share his eternal life. The same thing happens by choosing Christ as our treasure in spiritual poverty, choosing Christ as the Truth that sets us free in holy obedience, choosing Christ the Face of the Beatitudes in living by his life. The Holy Spirit helps us to live this daily martyrdom, whether white or red, dry or wet.
    • The second end is St. John’s, which we see in today’s Gospel. He writes, “It is this disciple who testifies to these things and has written them.” John spent his whole life testifying to Jesus, verbally, with his writing of the Gospel and letters, and his own life in Jesus. He lived to be very old — hence the rumor in the early Church he debunks today that he would live forever! — and St. Jerome says that the story was passed that until he died, the message he proclaimed got increasingly simpler, just repeating, over and over again, “Little children, let us love one another,” saying he never tired of repeating that message because the Lord never did. That’s what he tried to do, to love each other, in imitation of the Lord’s love. That’s what the Holy Spirit wants us to do, too.
    • The third end is St. Paul’s. Today we see the end of the Acts of the Apostles. It doesn’t describe St. Paul’s martyrdom by decapitation in the forest to the south of Rome. It ends with St. Luke’s description of what he was doing under house arrest in Rome awaiting trial: “He received all who came to him, and with complete assurance and without hindrance he proclaimed the Kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ.” He wasn’t complaining about his imprisonment but using it for the Gospel. It shows how hospitable he was, receiving “all who came to him.” It also shows us faith and boldness, proclaiming Christ the King and his Kingdom with “complete assurance and without hindrance.” One would have thought that it was impossible to proclaim a triumphant kingdom of one who was crucified and a kingdom that involves imprisonment, but he did so with great faith. He was helped in giving this witness by the Holy Spirit who was advancing the Gospel in this way — not just then but with the future of the Church in mind — perhaps even more than he would have been had Paul been free. The Holy Spirit wants us likewise to receive everyone as dearly beloved of God and announce Christ to them without fear and full of faith.
    • The fourth end is that of the 22 Ugandan martyrs who died at very young ages between 14-25, and from weeks to a few years after their conversion. Their story, as Blessed Paul VI said at their canonization in 1964, was every bit as moving as that of the heroic martyrs of the early Church, because they were martyrs soon after having received the faith. The story of how they came to know Christ Crucified in all his power and glory needs to be known by Catholics everywhere, so that we may learn how to love and defend the innocent and uphold God’s holy law and simple human goodness with similar courage to what we find in them. When the White Fathers arrived in Buganda, the southern part of what is now Uganda, in 1879, they found the local King Mtesa hospitable to outside influence in the hope of improving his personal and national situation. Mtesa had already welcomed in Anglican missionaries a few years earlier. Because he liked the Christian teaching on the afterlife, he even allowed the missionaries to evangelize the members of his court. One of his young pages was Mukasa Balikuddembe, who rose in prominence at the palace after he courageously saved Prince Mwanga’s life by capturing and killing with his bare hands a venomous snake threatening him. For 3 years, Mkasa received a very thorough catechumenate at the palace from the White Fathers before being baptized in 1882 with the name of Joseph. After the White Fathers needed to go into exile for a couple of years because the dying king feared outside influences, Joseph Mkasa became the de facto catechist for the converts and hundreds of catechumens. When the priests returned after Mtesa’s death in 1884, they saw that Joseph Mkasa had helped the new converts bring family members to the Lord, renounce slavery, polygamy and other practices against the Gospel, and dedicate themselves heroically to serving those in need. Once Prince Mwanga had succeeded his father, Joseph Mkasa became his majordomo, the top assistant in charge of the king’s palace and court. To be head of the pages, Joseph appointed a young catechumen, Lwanga. What both men soon discovered, however, was that King Mwanga was homosexually-attracted to the teenage boys and solicitous to have them brought into his private company. Through various means, Joseph and Lwanga successfully and repeatedly conspired to thwart the king’s designs, but the king drew increasingly frustrated. After King Mwanga had had an Anglican missionary bishop murdered, Joseph went into his presence and reproved him for the murder as well as for his perverse attraction to the boys in his service. Even though it was technically the majordomo’s traditional responsibility to correct the king, Mwanga would have nothing of it. His anger boiled against Joseph and his fellow Christians whom he knew were training the boys to resist his advances. Under the pretext of Joseph’s disloyalty for putting the commands of another king, “The God of the Christians,” over his own, King Mwanga sentenced him to be burned alive. To the executioner who was having trouble carrying out his orders against the majordomo, Joseph said, “A Christian who gives his life for God has no reason to fear death. Tell Mwanga that he has condemned me unjustly, but I forgive him with all my heart.” After that, the executioner took it upon himself to behead him Joseph and burn his body rather than have him be burned alive. The day of Joseph’s martyrdom, Lwanga and the other catechumens among the pages were baptized. King Mwanga had made it known that he was intending to put to death all the Christians in his court and they wanted to make sure that they were baptized by water and the Holy Spirit before they were baptized in blood. Lwanga took the Christian name Charles. Several months later, after the king returned from a fishing trip and saw one of the routine objects of his sordid desire receiving catechetical instruction, he summoned the catechist, St. Denis Ssebuggwawo, put a spear through his chest and then had his executioners hack him to pieces. The following day, the king, fuming, assembled all the pages and demanded that they make a choice, between God and him, between prayer and the predator, between life and death. “Let all those who do not pray stay here by my side,” he said, waving to his right, and “those who pray” he told to stand by the fence at his left. Charles Lwanga and a group of 26 Christian pages, 16 Catholics and 10 Anglicans, headed toward the fence. He asked them whether they intended to remain Christians. “Until death!,” they replied. “Then put them to death!,” Mwanga responded, sentencing them to be burnt alive in Namugongo, a village 37 miles away. They began the death march, which they turned into a religious procession with hymns, prayers and expressions of joy. This was in the sharpest contracted to the brutality of their “chaperones,” who beat them so fiercely that three of them died along the way. Once in Namugongo, they were forced to watch for days as the pyre awaiting them grew and became increasingly intense. The executioners decided to kill Charles Lwanga first, in the hope that after his death, others might abandon the faith. To increase his sufferings, he was placed in a reed mat and fire was set first to his feet first so that these would be charred to the bone before the flames would reach the other parts of his body. In the midst of his suffering, Charles said to his executioner, “You are burning me, but it is as if you are pouring water over my body,” a reference to the sweet solace of his baptism, the foretaste of his imminent new birth. After he was dead, the others remained steadfast and entered the pyre. One young page said to a priest present who was mourning the death of so many young Christians, “Why be sad? What I suffer now is little compared with the eternal happiness you have taught me to look forward to!” They died on June 3, which was fittingly Ascension Thursday. It’s no surprise that, on the foundation of their heroic faith, the Church has continued to grow in Uganda. Since their martyrdom, Catholics in Uganda have grown from a few hundred to almost 12 million Catholics out of a total population of 26 million. All of these martyrs could have easily chosen another path. They were among the few chosen ones in the king’s service. Joseph Mukasa and Charles Lwanga could have simply looked the other way when King Mwanga was going after the pages, become even more powerful in the kingdom, and saved their lives. The young boys could have chosen to give in to the king’s depravations as a means to satisfy worldly ambition, provide for their families and survive. None did. Even though Christianity was less than a decade old in their kingdom, they had already gotten what it was about, and they were willing to die rather than to sin, to be killed rather than to allow sinful predation to happen to the young and innocent, to be burned alive rather than to betray the faith in the least in order to keep their lives.In canonizing them, the Church has exalted them as models not just for Catholics in Africa, but in Ireland, America and across the globe, of those who unite themselves to Christ Crucified and experience his full power and wisdom not merely in this world but forever.
  • So as we prepare to receive within us Christ as the medicine of immortality and get ready to celebrate the renewed outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, after having pondered the ways St. Peter, St. John, St. Paul, and the Ugandan martyrs lived the end of their lives, it’s a beautiful time for us to ask ourselves: how will we live ours? May we receive God the Son’s and God the Holy Spirit’s power to glorify God the Father throughout our life until the very end so that some day people when people may think of us in ways like they think of Peter, Paul, John, Joseph and Charles!

 

The readings for today’s Mass were: 

Reading 1 ACTS 28:16-20, 30-31

When he entered Rome, Paul was allowed to live by himself,
with the soldier who was guarding him.Three days later he called together the leaders of the Jews.
When they had gathered he said to them, “My brothers,
although I had done nothing against our people
or our ancestral customs,
I was handed over to the Romans as a prisoner from Jerusalem.
After trying my case the Romans wanted to release me,
because they found nothing against me deserving the death penalty.
But when the Jews objected, I was obliged to appeal to Caesar,
even though I had no accusation to make against my own nation.
This is the reason, then, I have requested to see you
and to speak with you, for it is on account of the hope of Israel
that I wear these chains.”He remained for two full years in his lodgings.
He received all who came to him, and with complete assurance
and without hindrance he proclaimed the Kingdom of God
and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ.

Responsorial Psalm PS 11:4, 5 AND 7

R. (see 7b) The just will gaze on your face, O Lord.
or:
R. Alleluia.
The LORD is in his holy temple;
the LORD’s throne is in heaven.
His eyes behold,
his searching glance is on mankind.
R. The just will gaze on your face, O Lord.
or:
R. Alleluia.
The LORD searches the just and the wicked;
the lover of violence he hates.
For the LORD is just, he loves just deeds;
the upright shall see his face.
R. The just will gaze on your face, O Lord.
or:
R. Alleluia.

Alleluia JN 16:7, 13

R. Alleluia, alleluia.
I will send to you the Spirit of truth, says the Lord;
he will guide you to all truth.
R. Alleluia, alleluia.

Gospel JN 21:20-25

Peter turned and saw the disciple following whom Jesus loved,
the one who had also reclined upon his chest during the supper
and had said, “Master, who is the one who will betray you?”
When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about him?”
Jesus said to him, “What if I want him to remain until I come?
What concern is it of yours?
You follow me.”
So the word spread among the brothers that that disciple would not die.
But Jesus had not told him that he would not die,
just “What if I want him to remain until I come?
What concern is it of yours?”It is this disciple who testifies to these things
and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true.
There are also many other things that Jesus did,
but if these were to be described individually,
I do not think the whole world would contain the books
that would be written.