Fr. Roger J. Landry
Visitation Convent of the Sisters of Life, New York, NY
Thursday of the Fifth Week of Easter
April 28, 2016
Memorial of St. Gianna Beretta Molla
Act 15: 7-21, Ps 96, Jn 15:9-11
To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below:
The following points were attempted in the 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 need to stop and 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.” This is true for love in general. We need the love of family, the love of friends, the spousal love of a husband or wife (either human or divine), the total self-giving love of someone who values us that much. Without it, we’re lost. We’re an enigma to ourselves. Many people who don’t experience this love spend their lives looking for it in places they can’t find it. If they haven’t experienced the love of a mom or dad, they often get themselves into trouble seeking that love in relationships that will never really substitute. If they’ve suffered violence in relationships that should have been loving, often they’ll get involved in lifestyles that will try to reconstruct the love that should have been present in the first place.
- And what is true in terms of human love is also true in terms of divine. There are many people — and many Catholics — who have never really experienced the love of the Lord. Their notion of the faith is perhaps an angry God, or a distant, negligent God, or a God who is a stern taskmaster making sure they fulfill all their duties lest they be punished, or even an indulgent God who doesn’t care about them enough to concern himself with their self-destructive choices. They haven’t experienced a loving God. Many people are filled with a type of self-pity and self-hatred because they have never experienced God’s love and often don’t believe they are lovable by God or anyone else, that they can never please him, that they’re constantly letting him, themselves and everyone else down. Today Jesus says to them, and to all of us, “I love you … just as my Father loves me!”
- Then Jesus gives us the most important command of the Christian life. “Remain in my love.” As much as he loves us, he knows that many of us run away from that love. That type of burning love can make us uncomfortable because we don’t think we’re worthy of it, because we don’t want to let God down. We know that that love is meant to change us, to lift us up, and many times we don’t want to cooperate with that resurrection. One of the things that we see in life is that when people think they’re less than they are, often they begin to sink to their self-identity so that they can “prove” to others that they’re as “bad” as they believe they are. We can also do that spiritually. We can flee from God’s love because it’s too much for us. That’s why Jesus gives us the imperative to abide in his love, to rest in it, to let it change us and become the defining characteristic of our life.
- Third, he tells us how to remain in that love. “If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love.” We can’t remain in his love if we break 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 that flows from living in the love of God. 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 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 blessings. 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 God has given us. But in this condition to remaining 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 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. Likewise, if we truly love the Lord and remain in his love, we’ll loved what we loves and seek to do what he out of love wills for us and others.
- And then Jesus tells us what remaining in his love leads to: “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. We see this all the time when people fall in love. Being loved and loving others in return changes people for the better. They recognize how good life is. You can’t wipe the smile from their faces. I used to love to see this dramatic transformation in high school students when I was a chaplain at Bishop Connolly High School in Fall River. I still rejoice in it in young couples preparing for marriage, and in older couples who have rekindled their first love.
- But that type of love we see in human relationships is supposed to be even more evident in our life of faith. Jesus has told us of his undying love for us and of the Father’s love for him 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. But Jesus was the most joyful human being who ever lived! He was joyful because he lived in the Father’s love. He was joyful before all in his public ministry, with a joy that attracted people to leave their livelihoods and follow him, because they wanted that joy. His joy was doubtless even more radiant after his resurrection, when he was able to show others the reason for a joy that the world couldn’t give or rob. And Jesus wants us to have that joy! If we experience his love, we will have that joy! The reality, however, is that many Christians don’t live with this joy. Pope Francis has said that joy is meant to be the “sign of a Christian” and therefore, “a Christian without joy is either not a Christian or is sick.… 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. This is a joy that isn’t lost but in fact is intensified in suffering. We see that in the stories of the martyrs who were singing hymns on the road to execution as if they were proceeding to a wedding. And once Christians start living with that type of joy then people will be busting down the doors to experience that same joy. That’s the way we’re called to spread the Gospel, so that they might follow the trail of our joy to the Source of that joy in the love Jesus has for us and has for them.
- We see an application of this love in today’s first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, which concerns the deliberations of the Council of Jerusalem 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 them 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 love of 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 — in other words 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 he has 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. St. James, who had a tremendous reputation about the Judaizing Christians and among the strictest Jews in general for his fasting, prayer and rigorous observance of the Mosaic law fulfilled in Jesus, spoke about how the prophets had foretold that the Lord would bring about that “the rest of humanity may seek out the Lord, even all the Gentiles on whom my name is invoked.” He therefore said that they should accept the Gentiles as God has, but put three conditions on them that are consistent with living in the love of the Lord. They counteract three things that can prevent our remaining in God’s love.
- The first was pride. That’s why he said they should not eat the “meat of strangled animals and blood.” The entire Old Testament was meant essentially to teach the Jews that they were not God. One of the ways God helped them to realize this was by the way he had them prepare food. Blood was the sign of life — if there’s blood flowing in an animal, the animal is alive. To kill an animal with the blood still in it was to play, to some degree, the part of God. So God commanded in the Old Covenant that the animal should be killed in such a way that all the blood would be drained out of it before the Jews would try to prepare the animal for a meal. That way they were not tempted to play the Lord of life and death over animals, but only to eat animals in which there was clearly no life — no blood — left. God would surpass this dietary restriction and pronounce all foods clean in a dream St. Peter would have, but St. James recognized that Jewish and Gentile Christians would never be able to have the communion of shared meals if the Gentiles were eating the meat from strangled animals, because it would be jarring to them as if the Gentiles were playing God.
- The second was to the failure to love one’s neighbor. This is in the background of the command to “avoid pollution from idols.” That wasn’t just idolatry, but from eating the meat sacrificed to idols. In the pagan temples, when a cow for example was sacrificed, a little of the meat would be burned, some would be given to the pagan priests, but most would be returned to the family for a feast in which they would offer themselves to the pagan gods. Jews had always been particularly sensitive to this type of participation in idolatrous sacrifices and Jews and Gentiles would never be able to eat together if the Gentiles were insensitively communing with pagan sacrifices in this way.
- Finally, it was preventing their own love from being corrupted. That’s why he commanded that they should avoid “porneia,” meaning all sexual sin. They would not be remaining in the love of the Lord if they were lusting after others.
- And we’ll see in tomorrow’s reading that this when Judas and Silas, Paul and Barnabas, announced the decision to the Gentile Christians in Antioch, there was great rejoicing, the joy that flows from living in the salvation that Christ has given by his grace, by living in his love that was very much alive in the Christian community.
- Today we have an incredible model of someone who knew that God loved her, lived in his love, and that love because the pattern of her life. St. Gianna Beretta Molla 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 three children. During the summer of 1961, they discovered that God had blessed them with a fourth. 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. 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.
- 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.
- Jesus told us these words, “I love you … just as the Father loves me,” on Holy Thursday. And it’s at Mass, at our daily participation in what he began on Holy Thursday, that Jesus not only says those words but puts them into body language. He’ll tell us in tomorrow’s Gospel that no one has greater love than to lay down his life for his friends, and Jesus gives his life for us — 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. This is the way he loves us each day. By receiving this love and remaining in it, we are filled with God, strengthened to keep his commandments, and ought to be filled with joy. The most joyful man who ever lived comes to live within us. That joy should fill us with contagious excitement to participate in Mass and move us to bring that joy out to a world that in many places of which that joy is absent. This is the joy of the Gospel we receive and are called to radiate. May we, like St. Gianna, bring this “sign” and “seal” of Christian life to all we’ll meet today!
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.”