The Occasionally Frightening Way the Lord Helps Us Grow in Faith, 18th Tuesday (I), August 4, 2015

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Sacred Heart Convent of the Sisters of Life, Manhattan
Tuesday of the 18th Week in Ordinary Time, Year I
Memorial of St. John Vianney, Patron Saint of Parish Priests
August 4, 2015
Num 12:1-13, Ps 51, Mt 14:22-36


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


The following points were attempted in the homily: 

  • In today’s Gospel, we see how Jesus helped the apostles, especially St. Peter, to overcome their primal fears and how he seeks to help us, too, go from fear to faith, to overcome our terror of failure, abandonment, struggle, sickness, pain, the past, the future, death, the possibility of hell and anything and everything else, too.
  • Let’s put ourselves first in this dramatic scene whose main elements are recapitulated in some way or another in the life of every disciple. Since Jesus in yesterday’s Gospel had had everyone sit down on the green grass, we know that it must have been mid-March to mid-April in the Holy Land, because the grass begins to get scorched by the sun by the end of April. That would mean sunset would have happened about 6 pm, which is the time the apostles got into the boat to begin the journey across the top of the Sea of Galilee, which would have been about a 5-6 mile journey that should have taken a few hours. The storm began to rage, St. Matthew tells us, when they were in the middle of the Sea, so about an hour or two along their trek. Jesus came to them in the “fourth watch of the night” — the period stretching from 3-6 am — which meant that by that point, they had been in the boat 9-12 hours, battling a ferocious storm, fatigued, soaking wet and fearing for their life. Jesus was placidly praying on the mountain as they were struggling for hours not to drown to death. Why did Jesus wait so long as his friends were in peril? It brings us back to the other time that they were afraid for their life on the Sea, when Jesus was asleep in the bow of the boat as they thought they were about to perish. In both cases, it was to increase their faith. Jesus was introducing them to a central truth of the spiritual life: that in order to be able to abandon ourselves to God, we must first feel what appears to be total abandonment by God. That’s when we’re able to make the leap, when all human means are exhausted, when even God even seems to be absent, that we make the act of faith to believe in him even when we can’t see or hear him.
  • After hours of struggling for their lives, Jesus comes walking along the white caps of the churning sea. Their first reaction was to think they were seeing a ghost — after all, no one had ever seen a man walk on water before, not to mention surf waves without a surfboard. There was also a superstition that there were monsters at the bottom of the Sea of Galilee and likely that played into their alarm as well. But Jesus said to them across the howling winds, “Take courage! I am (here)! Do not be afraid!” Jesus used those words, “Ego eimi” in Greek, “I am,” which God spoke to Moses from the burning bush, that Jesus would use against to say before Abraham was, “I am.” They were words of confidence. They were words that could help assuage their fears and give them courage. We see the first fruit of that in Peter. “Lord, if it is you,” he said, “Bid me to come to you across the water.” He first refers to the walking “ghost” as “Lord,” but then he qualifies it by saying, “if it is you.” He was hovering between belief and unbelief. But at the word of Jesus, “Come!,” he did what he had precisely been trying to avoid or the previous 7-10 hours or more: he went overboard. The time fearing for his life made him that much more desirous of being with the Lord Jesus. He wanted to get to him as soon as he possibly could. The whole scene in some way summarizes the mystery of the Incarnation, as Jesus comes into the stormy seas of our world walking toward us and we’re all called to get up from where we are, to overcome our fears and insecurities, and head out to meet him. Peter did.
  • Lifted up temporarily by faith, Peter’s density in a sense changed. He was lighter than water and capable of walking above it. But then something happened. St. Matthew tells us that he took account of the winds. He took his eyes off of Jesus. He began to focus on the human impossibility of what he and Jesus were both doing and then the downward force of gravity, corresponding to the downward glance of his heart, overcame him. He began to sink in the waves. Though an expert on that sea and a good swimmer (as we see in Jn 21), he began to fear for his life. The words from Psalm 69 began to take on new meaning: “Do not let me sink. Rescue me from … the watery depths. Do not let the floodwaters overwhelm me, nor the deep swallow me” (Ps 69). In response to Peter’s cry for help, the Lord reaches out to save him. The word is he gripped him in his arms. The storm was still raging. The winds were blowing. The waves were swirling all around. The Sea was still 140 feet deep. But he was safe. Jesus had saved him. We call Jesus Savior not out of piety because it’s a nice title to give him. We call him Savior because he has in fact us from the depths of sin just like he saved Peter from the depth of water.
  • Jesus’ words to Peter are highly significant. He said, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” The verb translated “to doubt” here really means “to be of two minds.” Peter was divided. Part of him believed, part of him doubted. Part of him trusted in Jesus, part of him attributed more power to the wind and the waves. But we can’t really “half-trust” in God. That’s what this whole exercise of faith on the Sea of Galilee was meant to train Peter and the others to grasp. Peter would be of two minds elsewhere as well. He would confess Jesus to be the Messiah and Son of God but then would forbid him to suffer in order to fulfill his mission. He would swear during the Last Supper that he would never betray the Lord even if he should have to die for him, but then he would swear an oath denying him three times in the high priest’s courtyard. The Lord was trying to help him to become of one mind, one heart, one soul in faith.
  • The last part of this scene happens when Jesus, still carrying Peter, enters the boat. That’s when the storm dies down, when Peter and Jesus are back in the boat that symbolizes the Church as a whole. And it’s there that they worshipped Jesus and called him not just the Messiah but “The Son of God.” The whole episode was a mystagogy of growth in faith. It was a difficult lesson for them to learn, but one communicated in a way they — and the Church with them! — have never been able to forget. Likewise, Jesus has created us not to drown in fears and anxieties, but to live by faith, to immerse ourselves in the depths of his love, to adore him on land and on sea, to be strengthen by him and know that we’ve got nothing to fear because he is with us, even if we’re in the midst of ferocious storms.
  • St. John Vianney was repeatedly among storms that were the context for him to grow to have the faith of a saint. During the storm of the terror of the French revolution, he and his family took the risk of losing everything and even being executed in order to house fugitive priests. They overcame their fears in order to attend clandestine Masses in the middle of the night in barns in neighboring villages. He triumphed over his fear of failure in field work in comparison to his brother. He overcame his fears of academic failure and embarrassment starting school at 19, of letting Fr. Balley and everyone else down flunking out of seminary three times because he couldn’t make any of what he was learning stick in his “mauvaise tête.” God helped him triumph over the fear of jail because of accidental desertion from the military. He responded to God’s help to overcome his fear of preaching. He overcame his fear of failing as a pastor in converting his parishioners. He overcame his fear of the devil, who harassed him for 35 years. God helped him overcome the fear of not being able to provide for all the girls in the orphanage of La Providence. He helped him again overcome the fear of hell and his inability to persuade the bishop to give him adequate time to weep over his poor life. Through all of these experiences, St. John Vianney learned to trust in God in the midst of all of these storms, routine and severe. And each time that trust was rewarded by God; he grew in faith such that he could strengthen others.
  • One fear that many people have is of opposition. We can handle opposition from those we expect to become adversaries, but it’s much harder when it comes from those who ought to be allies. In today’s first reading Moses needed to deal with opposition from his brother Aaron and sister Miriam, who were envious that the Lord was speaking to him in a way that he wasn’t speaking to them. St. John Vianney was vehemently opposed by the residents of Ars who didn’t want a holy pastor, from the owners of the taverns that would take the farmer’s paychecks and open on Sunday to allow them to serve a false God, from the young people who resisted his calls not to go to the raunchy dances called the vogues and especially from the boyfriends of the young ladies he had converted, from the people who wanted a cheap mercy and didn’t want absolution conditioned on giving up the near occasions of sins, and from many others. He suffered so much in the small village that toward the end of his life, he said, “If on my arrival at Ars, I had foreseen all that I was to suffer there, I should have died on the spot.” He confessed that he had expected that eventually “a time would come when people would rout me out of Ars with sticks, when the Bishop would suspend me and I would end my days in prison.”
  • The most difficult criticism and opposition came from his brother priests who treated him as if he were a disgrace to the priesthood, mocked him, insulted him, preached against him, forbade their people to go to him, and sought to have the bishop remove him. The well-dressed clergy thought that he was vested more like a beggar than as a priest. Some teased him about it; others criticized him and even judged him, claiming that he dressed shabbily in order to attract attention by pretending to be humble and holy. One priest refused to remain near him until he put on a better hat. Another denounced him in his presence to the bishop for not wearing a sash on his cassock. Things got worse once the lay faithful from throughout the region, during parish missions, started going to confession preferentially to Fr. Vianney, and especially when they started to make pilgrimages to Ars to confess to him there. Many of his brother priests — at least a few, blinded by envy — deemed such choices by the lay people “spiritually dangerous.” The Curé of Ars, after all, had spent only five months total in seminary, had been dismissed from it for being an “exceptionally poor student,” and still barely knew Latin. Several of the surrounding pastors, alarmed that the people were esteeming a colleague whom they believed too simple-minded, began to take action. Many told their parishioners not to go to Ars as if to do so would be sinful. Others wrote to the bishop. Several used their Sunday sermon to preach again him. Fr. Vianney got wind of what his colleagues were doing and it wounded him, as silly as it was. “Poor little Curé of Ars,” he said. “What do they not make him say! What do they not make him do! They are now preaching on him and no longer on the Gospel!” He started receiving “hate mail” from his brother priests. One of the more infamous examples came from Fr. Jean-Louis Borjon, a newly ordained priest in a village five miles from Ars. Jealous that so many of his parishioners were going to Ars, Fr. Borjon denounced him from the pulpit. He then wrote to his neighbor, charging, among other things: “When a man knows as little theology as you, he should not dare get into the confessional.” The priests of the region eventually composed a circular petition calling on the bishop to remove Fr. Vianney because of his supposed ignorance. By accident the petition was sent to Ars. Fr. Vianney read it and saw the names and denunciations. His response? He signed his own name to it and sent it off to the bishop, hoping that the bishop would react by sending someone more “capable” to Ars. He received this opposition even from the parochial vicar who was assigned to live with him, who berated him in private and in public, badmouthed him to parishioners and pilgrims, occasionally contradicted him from the pulpit and declared everywhere that Fr. Vianney was “entering his second childhood.” In each of these, St. John Vianney abandoned himself into God’s hands and prayed for those who were opposing and persecuting them. He converted the pain and his fears into prayer: “Never have I been so happy,” he divulged at the end of his life, “as in moments when I was being persecuted and calumniated. At such times God would flood me with consolation. God granted me everything I asked him.”
  • St. John Vianney received the strength he needed to overcome his fears, to handle the opposition, each day by throwing himself into the arms of his Savior in the Eucharist. He had learned to trust in Jesus in the Eucharist in this way as a young child risking his life to attend Mass and he never lost that faith. “When I am at Mass, I hold the good God: what can he refuse me?,” he said. He would often remind his people, “Attending Mass is the greatest action we can do!,” adding, “All the good works taken together do not equal the sacrifice of the Mass, because they are the works of men and the holy Mass is the work of God. The martyr is nothing in comparison, because martyrdom is the sacrifice that man makes to God of his life; the Mass is the sacrifice that God makes for man of his body and blood.” He said that the Eucharist is a miracle exceeding even our imagination. “We would never have thought of asking God for his own Son,” he commented. “But what man couldn’t say or conceive, what he never would have dared desire, God in his love has said, conceived and acted on. We would never have dared to say to God to have his son die for us, to give us his body to eat, his blood to drink. Since all this is true, man cannot imagine the things that God will do. He went further in his designs of love than we could have dreamed.” He believed in and described the power of the Eucharist to help us overcome our fears and to become faithful, to become great saints: “Next to this sacrament, we are like someone who dies of thirst next to a river, just needing to bend the head down to drink; or like a poor man next to a treasure chest, when all that is needed is to stretch out the hand.”
  • So today at Mass, we stretch bend down our head to drink of the Living Water, we stretch out our hands to obtain the Pearl of great price. The same Lord Jesus who walked on water to save and strengthen the faith of his beloved apostles comes to meet us here. We don’t stay where we are in the pews of the nave but jump overboard with trust to go meet him. Like those in the boat, we fall down and adore Him as the Son of God. We ask him for the grace to help us always keep our eyes on him, to be not of two minds but of one mind and one heart with him, as we embrace him in the midst of whatever storms we’re in or will be in, knowing that as long as we’re united with him, all is well. To quote once again the great patron saint of priests whom we celebrate today, “Since all of this is true” — and it is! — man cannot imagine the things God will do!”

The readings for today’s Mass were:

Reading 1 Nm 12:1-13

Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses on the pretext
of the marriage he had contracted with a Cushite woman.
They complained, “Is it through Moses alone that the LORD speaks?
Does he not speak through us also?”
And the LORD heard this.
Now, Moses himself was by far the meekest man on the face of the earth.
So at once the LORD said to Moses and Aaron and Miriam,
“Come out, you three, to the meeting tent.”
And the three of them went.
Then the LORD came down in the column of cloud,
and standing at the entrance of the tent,
called Aaron and Miriam.
When both came forward, he said,
“Now listen to the words of the LORD:Should there be a prophet among you,
in visions will I reveal myself to him,
in dreams will I speak to him;
not so with my servant Moses!
Throughout my house he bears my trust:
face to face I speak to him;
plainly and not in riddles.
The presence of the LORD he beholds.Why, then, did you not fear to speak against my servant Moses?”So angry was the LORD against them that when he departed,
and the cloud withdrew from the tent,
there was Miriam, a snow-white leper!
When Aaron turned and saw her a leper, he said to Moses,
“Ah, my lord! Please do not charge us with the sin
that we have foolishly committed!
Let her not thus be like the stillborn babe
that comes forth from its mother’s womb
with its flesh half consumed.”
Then Moses cried to the LORD, “Please, not this! Pray, heal her!”

Responsorial Psalm PS 51:3-4, 5-6ab, 6cd-7, 12-13

R. (see 3a) Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.
Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness;
in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense.
Thoroughly wash me from my guilt
and of my sin cleanse me.
R. Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.
For I acknowledge my offense;
and my sin is before me always:
“Against you only have I sinned;
and done what is evil in your sight.”
R. Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.
That you may be justified in your sentence,
vindicated when you condemn.
Indeed, in guilt was I born,
and in sin my mother conceived me.
R. Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.
A clean heart create for me, O God,
and a steadfast spirit renew within me.
Cast me not off from your presence,
and your Holy Spirit take not from me.
R. Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.

Alleluia Jn 1:49b

R. Alleluia, alleluia.
Rabbi, you are the Son of God;
you are the King of Israel.
R. Alleluia, alleluia.

Gospel Mt 14:22-36

Jesus made the disciples get into a boat
and precede him to the other side of the sea,
while he dismissed the crowds.
After doing so, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray.
When it was evening he was there alone.
Meanwhile the boat, already a few miles offshore,
was being tossed about by the waves, for the wind was against it.
During the fourth watch of the night,
he came toward them, walking on the sea.
When the disciples saw him walking on the sea they were terrified.
“It is a ghost,” they said, and they cried out in fear.
At once Jesus spoke to them, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.”
Peter said to him in reply,
“Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”
He said, “Come.”
Peter got out of the boat and began to walk on the water toward Jesus.
But when he saw how strong the wind was he became frightened;
and, beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!”
Immediately Jesus stretched out his hand and caught him,
and said to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”
After they got into the boat, the wind died down.
Those who were in the boat did him homage, saying,
“Truly, you are the Son of God.”After making the crossing, they came to land at Gennesaret.
When the men of that place recognized him,
they sent word to all the surrounding country.
People brought to him all those who were sick
and begged him that they might touch only the tassel on his cloak,
and as many as touched it were healed.
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