Fr. Roger J. Landry
Visitation Convent of the Sisters of Life, Manhattan
Thursday of the Fourteenth Week in Ordinary Time, Year I
Memorial of St. Augustine Zhao Rong and 119 Companions, Martyrs of China
July 9, 2015
Gen 44:18-21.23-39.45:1-5, Ps 105, Mt 10:7-15
To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below:
The following points were attempted in the homily:
- Today we not only have two incredible lessons for us in the readings but we have the joy to see their application in the lives of the 120 Chinese Martyrs whose feast we celebrate today.
- In the Gospel, Jesus who yesterday sent out the twelve apostles today gives them instructions not just about what they are to say, but about what they are to do and how they are to behave in order to confirm those words. The message he placed on their lips — but wanted to penetrate into their actions and bearing — was “The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” They were to proclaim the King had arrived and all the gifts he gives from heaven were now available in the present tense. As a confirmation of those incredible words, Jesus gave them his authority, his power, to do the very same things he was doing to confirm that the long awaited Messiah had come, and that he wasn’t just the Messiah, but the very Son and presence of God: he told them, “Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, drive out demons.” They were to manifest God’s power over every disease and illness, God’s power over life, God’s ability to cleanse us of our outer and inner leprosy and all of the ostracism associated with it, and God’s power over the devil.
- But then he turned to the first thing I want to ponder today: he gave them a particular “packaging” for the message and deeds he was sending them out to do. He wanted them to show by their behavior that the Kingdom had come. By their peace, by their mutual love and mercy, by their trust in God’s providence, by their joy, he wanted them to be a living display of life in that kingdom. And that’s why he told them:
- “Without cost you have received; without cost you are to give” — They were not to be preaching in order to gain but to help others be enriched. Their not doing it for profit would not only contrast them with many of the preachers of the age but would also help them to enter into the “gratuitousness” that characterizes God and those who live in his kingdom.
- “Do not take gold or silver or copper for your belts; no sack for the journey, or a second tunic, or sandals, or walking stick.” — They were to show that they took seriously what they were announcing, the presence of a God who tells us not to worry about what we are to eat, drink, wear or where we are to sleep, because God knows what we need before we ask for it and cares for us more than he cares for the lilies of the field and the birds of the sky. They were to show that they know that God is providential and will care for their listeners just like he was caring for them.
- “Whatever town or village you enter, look for a worthy person in it, and stay there until you leave.” — Jesus wanted them to be grateful for the hospitality given, rather than looking for a better deal. If they were welcomed in one home, but then someone with a much nicer home offered them, he wanted them to stay where they were. These words need to be taken more seriously today, in a particular way by the clergy. It’s become so common that it’s seldom spoken of that priests and bishops often think of a better deal as a reward. They become pastor of a poor place in the city or the country but are looking for a bigger, richer, more prestigious parish. Bishops can start off in a small sea but often be hankering for a cardinalatial one. Pope Francis once addressed this straight out to bishops in terms that I thought were very convincing. He asked bishops what they would think of a man who was married to one woman waiting for the time he could leave her to married a richer, more beautiful, more famous woman. Jesus is pointing to a similar principle here.
- “As you enter a house, wish it peace. If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; if not, let your peace return to you.” — Jesus is telling us to wish peace everywhere and not to make prejudgments and hold ourselves back to determine first whether a peaceful person lives there. He tells us that if it’s not received, the good we pray for, the we do, will return to us.
- “Whoever will not receive you or listen to your words, go outside that house or town and shake the dust from your feet.” — Jesus wants us not to be weighed down with bad memories or nurse our wounds from one place to the next. If we’ve experienced rejection, he wants us to let it go rather than carry it to the next place. He wants us to have a fresh start and not to have the good news of great joy masked by the sadness of a previously bad experience. This is an issue still today. Many priests and religious, when you speak to them, speak of their hardships, speak of their sufferings, talk about their bad memories or experiences on first impressions more than they talk about Jesus, the blessings he’s given them, the hope they find in him, his inspiring, helpful, saving presence in the midst of everything. Often we need to “dust ourselves off” several times a day!
- These are all parts of the “packaging” of the Christian message. We’ll come back here shortly.
- The second main lesson from today’s readings is about how God brings good out of suffering. We see that in the lesson from the Book of Genesis when the Patriarch Joseph’s brothers explain why they can’t go to their father to ask that they return with their youngest brother Benjamin. Talking about how such a thing would kill their father, Joseph loses it and reveals himself. His brothers not only are astonished but fearful that Joseph will seek revenge at their plotting to kill him in the cistern years before. But Joseph said in reply, “Come closer to me,” because they were obviously terrified. When they had done so, he said: “I am your brother Joseph, whom you once sold into Egypt. But now do not be distressed, and do not reproach yourselves for having sold me here. It was really for the sake of saving lives that God sent me here ahead of you. … God sent me on ahead of you to ensure for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance. So it was not really you but God who had me come here; and he has made of me a father to Pharaoh, lord of all his household, and ruler over the whole land of Egypt.” Out of the evil they had done, God brought great good. This is a preview of what would happen with Jesus. As our sins were killing him, God was “saving our lives in an extraordinary inheritance,” and God the Father made Jesus the king who, like Joseph, used his office not to seek revenge, but to forgive and save. God always seeks to bring good out of evil.
- Those two lessons bring us to today’s feast day, that of St. Augustine Zhao Rong and his 119 companions, some of the thousands of martyrs in China from 1648 to 2000. Whenever the Church beatifies or canonizes large groups of martyrs, they always look for one who will be the “lead” name. It’s almost always a native son rather than a missionary (and today we celebrate 87 Chinese — children, parents, catechists or laborers, ranging from nine years of age to 72 and four Chinese diocesan priests — and 33 missionaries to China, priests and women religious, especially from the Order of Preachers, the Paris Foreign Mission Society, the Friars Minor, Jesuits, Salesians and Franciscan Missionaries of Mary) and one who, in a sense, summarizes and synthesizes the beauty of the faith of all of them. There were so many candidates for the Chinese martyrs. There would have been great fittingness in my opinion if the Vatican had selected St. Chi Zhuzi, an 18 year old boy who had been preparing to receive the sacrament of Baptism when he was caught on the road one night and ordered to worship idols. He refused to do so, revealing his belief in Christ. His right arm was cut off and he was tortured, but he would not deny his faith. Rather, he fearlessly pronounced to his captors, before being flayed alive, “Every piece of my flesh, every drop of my blood will tell you that I am Christian.” But the Vatican chose St. Augustine Zhao Rong, who was the first native born Chinese priest to be martyred. And the story of his ascent to the altars on earth, as a priest and as a saint, is one of the most memorable in hagiography. In 1815, he was a 30 year old soldier escorting French Missionary Bishop Saint John Gabriel-Taurin Dufresse on an infamous Chinese death march from Chendu to Beijing where he would be martyred. He was so moved by the bishop’s patience, his forgiving those who struck him with blows, whipped him with cords and pushed him to the ground, his prayer and his joy along the death march that after the journey, he asked what he needed to do to become a Christian. Once baptized, he asked who would be able to celebrate the sacraments for the people after so many missionary priests had been killed. When he realized that people might live and die without the sacraments, he asked to go to the seminary, even though to be a priest was to basically live under a death sentence,. They gave him an expedited course and, because the few bishops left who could ordain priests could be arrested and killed at any moment, he was ordained right away, intending that he would continue to learn what he needed on the fly. But he was soon himself arrested, and then tortured and martyred. He had gone from pagan soldier to baptized Christian to priest to martyr within three months, such was the power of Bishop Dufresse’s faith on the death march, which the bishop transformed into the way to the eternal Jerusalem. And his own conversion and example inspired many other Chinese people to come to the faith after him. Just as with Joseph and with Jesus, God had allowed Bishop Dufresse and others to suffer and brought such great good — salvation — out of those ordeals. And what converted Zhao Rong to Christianity, to adopt a new name and a new way of life, was the “packaging” of Bishop Dufresse’s faith, the way he proclaimed in life the truth of what he was teaching with his lips. The martyrs’ proclamation of the faith remains that most powerful message of all. And the martyrs dust off the bloodied soil from their feet and go to the heavenly Jerusalem where they pray for their persecutors, that they’ll receive God’s mercy and one day join them.
- I had the great joy to be present when right behind St. John Paul II on the sagrato of St. Peter’s Square when the Chinese Martyrs were canonized along with St. Joseph Bakhita, October 1, 2000. I was asked to distribute Holy Communion and so I was part of the extension of the altar behind the Holy Father during the consecration. While I was there I pondered how it was Jesus in the Eucharist that helped to strengthen the Chinese Martyrs and the great Sudanese ex-slave to undergo all they did for the faith and I asked the Lord to have a similar courage flow from my communion with him and from the altar to all to whom I would give the Lord that day. Today we come forward and we realize that God the Father has brought tremendous good from Jesus’ having been betrayed: not only has he brought our salvation but also our sanctification through allowing us to receive each day Jesus’ body and blood given and shed for us. And as we are sent forth at the end of this Mass to proclaim that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, we do so convinced because the King of Heaven has come to be present with us and within us here through Holy Communion. This is the source of all Christian power, of the healing, exorcising, forgiving and raising from the dead that happens. And Jesus wants us to be clothed in him, in his giving all, in his trust in the Father’s providence, in his giving us his peace, in his desiring to stay within us and not look for a better abode, and in his wiping away our sins from his hands and his feet so that he can fill us with his mercy.
The readings for today’s Mass were:
Reading 1 Gn 44:18-21, 23b-29; 45:1-5
let your servant speak earnestly to my lord,
and do not become angry with your servant,
for you are the equal of Pharaoh.
My lord asked your servants, ‘Have you a father, or another brother?’
So we said to my lord, ‘We have an aged father,
and a young brother, the child of his old age.
This one’s full brother is dead,
and since he is the only one by that mother who is left,
his father dotes on him.’
Then you told your servants,
‘Bring him down to me that my eyes may look on him.
Unless your youngest brother comes back with you,
you shall not come into my presence again.’
When we returned to your servant our father,
we reported to him the words of my lord.“Later, our father told us to come back and buy some food for the family.
So we reminded him, ‘We cannot go down there;
only if our youngest brother is with us can we go,
for we may not see the man if our youngest brother is not with us.’
Then your servant our father said to us,
‘As you know, my wife bore me two sons.
One of them, however, disappeared, and I had to conclude
that he must have been torn to pieces by wild beasts;
I have not seen him since.
If you now take this one away from me, too,
and some disaster befalls him,
you will send my white head down to the nether world in grief.’“Joseph could no longer control himself
in the presence of all his attendants,
so he cried out, “Have everyone withdraw from me!”
Thus no one else was about when he made himself known to his brothers.
But his sobs were so loud that the Egyptians heard him,
and so the news reached Pharaoh’s palace.
“I am Joseph,” he said to his brothers.
“Is my father still in good health?”
But his brothers could give him no answer,
so dumbfounded were they at him.
“Come closer to me,” he told his brothers.
When they had done so, he said:
“I am your brother Joseph, whom you once sold into Egypt.
But now do not be distressed,
and do not reproach yourselves for having sold me here.
It was really for the sake of saving lives
that God sent me here ahead of you.”
Responsorial Psalm PS 105:16-17, 18-19, 20-21
When the LORD called down a famine on the land
and ruined the crop that sustained them,
He sent a man before them,
Joseph, sold as a slave.
R. Remember the marvels the Lord has done.
They had weighed him down with fetters,
and he was bound with chains,
Till his prediction came to pass
and the word of the LORD proved him true.
R. Remember the marvels the Lord has done.
The king sent and released him,
the ruler of the peoples set him free.
He made him lord of his house
and ruler of all his possessions.
R. Remember the marvels the Lord has done.
Alleluia Mk 1:15
R. Alleluia, alleluia.
The Kingdom of God is at hand:
repent and believe in the Gospel.
R. Alleluia, alleluia.
Gospel Mt 10:7-15
“As you go, make this proclamation:
‘The Kingdom of heaven is at hand.’
Cure the sick, raise the dead,
cleanse the lepers, drive out demons.
Without cost you have received; without cost you are to give.
Do not take gold or silver or copper for your belts;
no sack for the journey, or a second tunic,
or sandals, or walking stick.
The laborer deserves his keep.
Whatever town or village you enter, look for a worthy person in it,
and stay there until you leave.
As you enter a house, wish it peace.
If the house is worthy,
let your peace come upon it;
if not, let your peace return to you.
Whoever will not receive you or listen to your words—
go outside that house or town and shake the dust from your feet.
Amen, I say to you, it will be more tolerable
for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment
than for that town.”