Fr. Roger J. Landry
Visitation Convent of the Sisters of Life, Manhattan
Thursday of the 19th Week in Ordinary Time, Year I
Votive Mass of St. John Vianney on the 200th Anniversary of His Priestly Ordination
August 13, 2015
Josh 3:7-11.13-17, Ps 114, Mt 18:21-19:1
To listen to an audio recording of this homily, please click below:
The following points were attempted in the homily:
- Yesterday we focused on fraternal correction in seeking to bring people back into communion from a wayward life. But it’s not enough merely to correct. There needs to be forgiveness offered as well for genuine reconciliation to be effected, so that people can pray and live “into the name” of Jesus. So, picking up on the theme of yesterday, Peter asks how often must he forgive his brother when his brother sins against him. The Rabbis taught, based on a misinterpretation of passages of the Prophet Amos, that we needed to forgive three times, to give someone a forth chance. Peter multiplied that by two and added one and said, “As many as 7 times?” This would be a very high standard, giving someone an eighth chance, before writing someone off as incorrigible. Jesus replies, “No, Seventy Sevens.” Whether that means 70×7 (490) or 70+7 (77) times really doesn’t matter, because seven is a number already with a sense of infinity. It means to forgive without limit.
- To drive home his point, Jesus then gives us a parable that I think is one of the least remembered but one of the most important for us to understand. He describes two debtors. The first is brought into the King for owing what our translation says is a “huge amount.” The actual term used by St. Matthew is “10,000 talents.” A talent was equivalent to 6,000 denarii and a denarius was a full day’s wage. That means that the man owed 60,000,000 days worth of work, something that would take him 164,271 years to pay off. His request, after he had fallen prostrate on the ground and begged for time to pay it back, was totally absurd. He would need to live to be 165,000 years old. To monetize his debt in today’s terms in order to better understand it, if he were making $100 a day (or $12.50 an hour), he would have owed $6 billion. But the text tells us that when the King saw the man on the ground begging absurdly for time, his “heart was moved with pity” (literally, he was sick to his stomach, his viscera exploded with compassion) and he forgave the entire debt. He didn’t even make him pay what he could. He forgave it all. We’re supposed to see in this what God does for us. He forgives our entire debt. He forgives us 7, 77, 490 times and more.
- But then we see that the servant who had been forgiven billions, who was a billionaire in merciful love, went off and met a servant who owed him 100 denarii, something that could be paid off in about 3 months. This second debtor, using the very same words and actions as the first, fell down begging for time to pay it off. The first debtor must have recognized that the phrase and actions being employed reminded him of his own recent condition. But instead of sharing mercy with the second debtor, he went up and started to choke him in anger and threw him into prison until his family was able to raise the 100 denarii (in today’s money $10,000 at $100 a day) to pay him back. At that point the other servants of the King, seeing the behavior of their colleague, were “saddened” and “disturbed” and they went to the Master, not so much to tattle-tale as to let him know of what was happening in his kingdom, that his standard of mercy was not being shown. He called in the first debtor, called him “wicked” and asked the poignant question: “I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to. Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?” Rather than paying the mercy forward, he stifled the flow. And he was sent to prison until she should pay back the last penny, something, because of the size of his debt, was impossible. Because he was unwilling to forgive a small debt, he would be in prison forever; his lack of forgiveness, rather than what he owed, was what got him sent to an unending incarceration.
- We learn two great lessons from this Parable. The first is about the debt we’ve incurred to God because of our sins. It’s unpayable. We owe more to God than the rising U.S. national debt in the trillions. There’s no way we can ever pay it back. That’s why Jesus needed to come to pay it for us. An infinite debt needed an infinite payment, something Jesus himself could do as the sinless God-man but we can never do. It’s key for us to grasp this. Many times we think all our sins are venial, easily forgiven, “peccadillos,” whereas they were what required Jesus’ death to repay in justice. Our sins against God in justice require an infinite punishment. The sin of Adam and Eve at the beginning of time required an infinite punishment. The sin of the Israelites in the desert preventing Moses and his contemporaries from entering the Promised Land required an infinite punishment. The sins of the Israelites after entering the Promised Land that eventually led to the exile required an infinite punishment. Our sins require an infinite punishment. Because of this, we all have to be more grateful to God for the gift of his mercy than someone who has just been forgiven of a $6 billion debt would be to his creditor. In the Psalms we pray, “Do not forget the works of the Lord!,” and the greatest work we should never forget is how much he has forgiven us!
- That leads to the second lesson we learn. We need to pay the mercy forward. We have been made rich in mercy by God’s generosity and we’re called to share it. It’s like God has made us billionaires and he wants us liberally to share that gift with those who owe us because of the debts of their sins toward us. Even when people have amassed big debts to us — they killed a loved one drunk behind the wheel, they’ve abused us, they’ve tortured us or our loved ones, they’ve made it their life’s purpose to spread calumny against us to hurt our reputation — those debts are nothing in comparison with the debt we have made to God. When others come to us asking for our forgiveness, we need to remember that what they’re requesting is $10,000 in comparison with the $6 billion remitted to us. We who have received much need to give much, knowing that what we give is nothing compared to what we’ve been given. Jesus taught us to pray, “Forgive us our debts (sins) as we have forgiven our debtors,” commenting afterward, that unless we forgive our brothers their sins our heavenly Father will not forgive us ours. Jesus made the same point just as emphatically at the end of the parable: “So will my heavenly Father do to you” — send you into prison until you pay back an unpayable debt — “unless each of you forgives his brother from his heart.” We’re supposed to forgive not just with words, but with a compassionate heart, just like God has forgiven us so many times. If we don’t grasp this lesson, we will end up in Hell not so much because of the sins we’ve committed but because of our failure to forgive others their sins against us. We won’t receive God’s mercy unless we first share it, not because he doesn’t want to flood us with his merciful love but because our hearts can’t receive it unless they are in turn forgiving others.
- These lessons about God’s mercy are particularly important today as we celebrate a votive Mass of St. John Vianney, the greatest confessor in the history of the Church, who for 31 years — for the last 11,315 days of his life — heard confessions 12-18 hours a day in his tiny Church in Ars, France, sharing the billions worth of mercy he himself had received from the Lord. It’s true that we celebrated in the Church his feast day just nine days ago on August 4. It’s true that in the universal calendar of the Church today is the feast of Saints Pontian and Hippolytus, which I normally very much enjoy celebrating, because they needed to experience a reconciliation between them before they were united in shedding their blood for the faith. We celebrate a votive Mass of St. John Vianney today because it was 200 years ago on this very date, August 13, 1815 that St. John Vianney, at the age of 29 years and 3 months, was ordained a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek in the Cathedral of Grenoble, France, by Bishop Claude Simon.
- Just as it is one of the great ironies of Catholic history that the future patron saint of priests was dismissed from the seminary three times by priests on the faculty, so, too, it is hagiographically incongruous that the future martyr of the confessional was not given the faculties to hear confessions until months after his priestly ordination. For the first few months of his priesthood, the future “extraordinary apostle of the confessional,” as Pope John Paul II would later call him, needed to tell the people of Ecully who asked him to hear their confessions that he had not yet received proper authorization. That changed when his mentor and first pastor, the saintly and learned Fr. Charles Balley, approached the ecclesiastical authorities in Lyons and persuaded them that his curate was ready. As soon as he returned to give Fr. Vianney the good news, he put him to work. The pastor dropped to his knees at the feet of his parochial vicar and asked Fr. Vianney not only to hear his confession but to become his spiritual director. Once the people of the village discovered that the 29-year old priest they had known for a decade as a seminarian was now a confessor, they began to crowd his confessional, and the sick also began to call for him preferentially to come to hear their confessions at their homes. It’s routine that young priests get more than their average share of work in the confessional because many penitents anticipate that priestly rookies will be easier on them out of inexperience. This was not, however, what was going on in Ecully. They were asking for Fr. Vianney because they knew that there was something extraordinarily special about him, even in comparison to Fr. Balley, their holy and ascetic pastor. Eventually Fr. Vianney’s reputation as a confessor would become renowned during the missions preached by the Carthusians in surrounding parishes to remedy the effects of the French Revolution. And after 10 years of a martyrdom of waiting for his own flock in Ars to come regularly to confession, he became God’s instrument for the healing of an immense multitude of people, up to 100,000 a year, who would come to spend eight days waiting in line to confess to him for about five minutes because it was in him they met God’s lavish mercy.
- On retreats, I generally speak for two hours on what we can learn from St. John Vianney and the confessional. But today I would rather just share a few thoughts.
- The first is how he became rich in God’s mercy through his receiving it. One of the reasons why he was able to become one of the greatest confessors in the history of the Church was because he was a very devout and regular recipient of the sacrament. He knew how much he needed the sacrament; that’s one of the reasons why he was willing to sacrifice so much to make the sacrament available to others who needed it, too. St. John Vianney preached often about his experience as a penitent. One of his favorite stories was of his first confession. It was the time of the persecutions against priests during the French Revolution when priests who hadn’t taken the oath to the civil constitution were being hunted down and guillotined in the squares of major French cities. One of the courageous “refractory” priests, Fr. Groboz, had come to the Vianney home in Dardilly, where he would occasionally take refuge and rest from those who were pursuing him. After blessing each of the kids in the family, he turned to the young John Mary and asked him how old he was. “Eleven,” the boy replied. “How long is it since you last went to confession,” Fr. Groboz queried. “I have never yet been to confession,” the future saint told him. “Well, let us set right this omission at once!” Then, the later extraordinary apostle of the confessional knelt down under the clock in his parlor and confessed the sins he had committed since his baptism. He never forgot the peace he experienced. He never forgot what a grace it was to have priests near so that he could go to confession. For the rest of his life, John Vianney sought to make up for lost time. An even greater illustration of St. John Vianney as penitent happened in 1845. A 37 year-old priest, Fr. Louis Beau, was appointed as the pastor of Jassans. One of the first things this young cleric did upon arriving in his new assignment was to pay a visit to his neighbor in Ars. When he arrived, Fr. Vianney was in the confessional, so Fr. Beau had lunch with the parochial vicar. At the end of lunch, Fr. Vianney returned from the Church. Fr. Vianney was exceptionally delighted to meet him and held his hands in his own for a considerable length of time. Then he asked Fr. Beau to come to his room. When they got there, the famous confessor turned to his much-junior colleague and said, “Friend, your predecessor was kind enough to hear my confession; you will do me the same service, n’est-ce pas?” Before the stunned Fr. Beau was able to say yes or no, Fr. Vianney pointed to a chair, Fr. Beau sat down, and Fr. Vianney, kneeling before him, confessed his sins. Fr. Beau would remain his regular confessor until death. By his actions, Fr. Vianney showed his great faith in the power of the sacrament and always sought to pay forward the mercy he was so grateful to receive.
- The second is how he prayed people into the Confessional, so that they too might receive that gift. He would spend most of the night in his Church alone with the Lord, begging, “O my God, grant me the conversion of my parish! I consent to suffer whatever you wish for as long as I live.” He would fast and do other types of bodily penance in prayerful reparation to God for the sins others were not confessing. He would wait patiently in his confessional, praying for those who should be on the other side, but who, for one reason or another, had not yet come to conversion. He did this for a decade before there was a steady flow of penitents. Even after he began to be overwhelmed by the number of penitents, however, he kept praying and doing sacrifices for the conversion of others. While in most matters he was reticent about his own interior life, in terms of his praying for sinners, he was very open, because he wanted to enlist others in the effort to imitate him in praying for those in need of God’s mercy. “I can’t stop praying for poor sinners who are on the road to hell,” he once said. “If they come to die in that state, they will be lost for all eternity. What a pity! We have to pray for sinners!” He prayed so much and so insistently precisely because he was convinced that the conversion of some from the state of mortal sin to grace was a true miracle that only God can work. “A great miracle is needed to raise a poor soul in that state,” he taught in one of his catechism lessons. “Yes, a greater miracle than what the Lord did to raise Lazarus!” To resuscitate a dead body pales, he thought, to resurrecting a soul from death; every absolution is in fact a resurrection, when God the Father says to his prodigal son, “My son was dead and has come back to life again.” St. John Vianney never lost the wonder of being God’s instrument for these most important miracles, from being the dispenser of God’s billions of mercy. When his fame began to grow through his being the instrument for some miraculous bodily cures, he downplayed their significance, saying that the “body is so very little” and adding, “It is a beautiful thought, my children, that we have a sacrament that heals the wounds of our soul!” St. John Vianney’s existence, like Christ’s before him, became one great prayer for the miracle of the conversion of sinners. “I am only content,” he said, “when I’m praying for sinners.” One of the reasons for his was that he knew, by what seems to be a divine intimation, that such prayer pleased God immensely. “The good God has made me see,” he said to one of his friends, “how much he loves that I pray for poor sinners. … I don’t know if it were really a voice I heard or a dream, but, whatever it was, it woke me up and told me that to save a soul in the state of sin is more pleasing to God than all sacrifices. For that reason, I do all my resolutions for penance.” His heroic praying for sinners was the prehistory for so many of the miracles of conversion that took place in his confessional.
- The third is how he sought to form them to go out and forgive others, spending the ten thousand talents of forgiveness God had remitted for them, and at the same time bringing others to receive God’s mercy. He would preach often on Jesus’ words, “Unless you forgive others their sins, your Heavenly Father will not forgive yours” (Mt 6:15). St. John Vianney helped them to see that their absolution required forgiving others 70 times 7 times. “The good God will pardon only those who pardon,” he said. “That’s the law.” He helped his parishioners to live by it. And he sought to help them to bring others to receive the same forgiveness they had received from God. “It is a beautiful thought, my children,” St. John Vianney would often say, “that we have a Sacrament which heals the wounds of our soul!” And he wanted them to become the ancient ambulance drivers and EMTs bringing people to the great hospital of souls. He tried to form them to be cheerful apostles of the sacrament of reconciliation, spreading the joy of being forgiven to their family members, friends and neighbors.Far more effective than 100 homilies on confession is the witness of a satisfied customer. The geometric explosion in the number of penitents in the tiny, barely accessible hamlet of Ars, was ascribable not only to God’s grace and the Curé’s prayers but to the testimonies of so many penitents whose joyful personal tales were compelling advertisements. That’s a great lesson for all of us today with regard to those we know who are in great need of God’s mercy. The most effective means in getting them to return is, in most cases, not to point the finger at them and tell them that they need to go to confession. It’s to go to confession ourselves and then to share with them the incredible joy we have in being reconciled with the Father, to pay forward the billions we have received.
- The last thought I’ll share is that all of St. John Vianney’s work in the Confessional was precisely to get people into the state in which they would be able to receive Jesus in Holy Communion worthily. The day after his ordination, in the chapel of the Grenoble seminary in which he had received priestly ordination, he celebrated his first Mass with great devotion. For the rest of his life, he would share his joy over the gift of the Eucharist saying, “Attending Mass is the most important thing we can do.” As today we mark Sr. Maria Anne Michela’s last Mass here at Visitation Convent, we thank God that her very last activity here is the most important of all, as she receives God’s own nourishment for her soul as a daily viaticum, so that the Lord will go with her as she leaves her to bring Christ and his Gospel of Life to the Rockies. We ask that through the intercession of St. John Vianney, who said to 8 year old Antoine Givre whom he asked for directions to Ars, “You have shown me the way to Ars; I will show you the way to heaven,” that Sr. Michela will safely arrive at her destination in Denver and there show many mothers, fathers and children the path to the heavenly Jerusalem!
The readings for today’s Mass were:
Reading 1 JOS 3:7-10A, 11, 13-17
“Today I will begin to exalt you in the sight of all Israel,
that they may know I am with you, as I was with Moses.
Now command the priests carrying the ark of the covenant
to come to a halt in the Jordan
when you reach the edge of the waters.”So Joshua said to the children of Israel,
“Come here and listen to the words of the LORD, your God.
This is how you will know that there is a living God in your midst,
who at your approach will dispossess the Canaanites.
The ark of the covenant of the LORD of the whole earth
will precede you into the Jordan.
When the soles of the feet of the priests carrying the ark of the LORD,
the Lord of the whole earth,
touch the water of the Jordan, it will cease to flow;
for the water flowing down from upstream will halt in a solid bank.”The people struck their tents to cross the Jordan,
with the priests carrying the ark of the covenant ahead of them.
No sooner had these priestly bearers of the ark
waded into the waters at the edge of the Jordan,
which overflows all its banks
during the entire season of the harvest,
than the waters flowing from upstream halted,
backing up in a solid mass for a very great distance indeed,
from Adam, a city in the direction of Zarethan;
while those flowing downstream toward the Salt Sea of the Arabah
Thus the people crossed over opposite Jericho.
While all Israel crossed over on dry ground,
the priests carrying the ark of the covenant of the LORD
remained motionless on dry ground in the bed of the Jordan
until the whole nation had completed the passage.
Responsorial Psalm PS 114:1-2, 3-4, 5-6
When Israel came forth from Egypt,
the house of Jacob from a people of alien tongue,
Judah became his sanctuary,
Israel his domain.
The sea beheld and fled;
Jordan turned back.
The mountains skipped like rams,
the hills like the lambs of the flock.
Why is it, O sea, that you flee?
O Jordan, that you turn back?
You mountains, that you skip like rams?
You hills, like the lambs of the flock?
Alleluia PS 119:135
R. Alleluia, alleluia.
Let your countenance shine upon your servant
and teach me your statutes.
R. Alleluia, alleluia.
Gospel MT 18:21–19:1
“Lord, if my brother sins against me,
how often must I forgive him?
As many as seven times?”
Jesus answered, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.
That is why the Kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king
who decided to settle accounts with his servants.
When he began the accounting,
a debtor was brought before him who owed him a huge amount.
Since he had no way of paying it back,
his master ordered him to be sold,
along with his wife, his children, and all his property,
in payment of the debt.
At that, the servant fell down, did him homage, and said,
‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back in full.’
Moved with compassion the master of that servant
let him go and forgave him the loan.
When that servant had left, he found one of his fellow servants
who owed him a much smaller amount.
He seized him and started to choke him, demanding,
‘Pay back what you owe.’
Falling to his knees, his fellow servant begged him,
‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’
But he refused.
Instead, he had the fellow servant put in prison
until he paid back the debt.
Now when his fellow servants saw what had happened,
they were deeply disturbed,
and went to their master and reported the whole affair.
His master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant!
I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to.
Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant,
as I had pity on you?’
Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers
until he should pay back the whole debt.
So will my heavenly Father do to you,
unless each of you forgives his brother from his heart.”
and went to the district of Judea across the Jordan.