True Servants of the Servants of God, 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B), October 19, 2003

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Francis Xavier Church, Hyannis, MA
29th Sunday of OT, Year B
25th anniversary of the Election of Pope John Paul II
October 19, 2003
Is 53:10-11; Heb 4:14-16; Mk 10:35-45

1) God created us to be great, not mediocre. He died in order to enable us to get an A+ on the test of life, not a D- and God forbid not an F. Jesus describes what real greatness is in today’s Gospel, the criterion on the basis of which we’ll receive our grade. “Whoever wishes to be great among you must be the servant of others” and “Whoever wishes to #1 must be the servant of all.” In saying this, Jesus again is not telling us merely “Do what I say!” but rather “Follow me!,” because he himself came not to be served but to serve and to give his life out of love for us. He tells us to follow him, loving one another as he has loved us. The true criterion for greatness in this world and in the next is real love, true self-giving service of others.

2) Every Christian disciple is called to be this type of servant, imitating Jesus all the way. Every Christian disciple is called to fight for the towel to wash others’ feet, rather than fight for seats of honor at table or at receptions. Just like the master, our whole lives are called to proclaim that we are not here to be served by others, but to serve, and to give our lives out of love for even those who are most unlovable. Today, with Catholics around the world, we celebrate two people who have put this truth into action: Pope John Paul II and Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, whom the Holy Father raised to the altars this morning.

3) Today we mark with the Church universal the 25th anniversary of the election of Pope John Paul II as our Holy Father. But this feast goes back more than 25 years; it actually goes back just short of 2000 years, to the time when Jesus the Lord changed Simon bar-Jonah’s name to the Rock, Peter, and promised to build his Church on him and give him the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Those keys have been passed down from Pope to Pope, to the 263rd successor of St. Peter, who is Pope John Paul II, the living Rock on whom the Lord continues to build his Church. There are no coincidences in the Lord, and the fact that Pope John Paul II has been Christ’s vicar on earth for so long is because the Lord has known we have needed a leader like him for this long. Today we praise the Lord for the gift of the papacy, and for the gift of this particular Holy Father, who has served the Lord and served us so faithfully on the past 9133 days.

4) In the year 590, a pope much like our present Holy Father was chosen to be the bishop of Rome, St. Gregory the Great. In his 14 year papacy, he had an enormous influence both inside the Church and outside the Church. But when he signed his letters, unlike previous popes who used the expressions “the vicar of Christ,” “the bishop of Rome,” “pontifex maximus” (the greatest bridge-builder between heaven and earth), or “the successor of St. Peter,” Gregory signed his letters, “Gregorius, Servus servorum Dei,” “Gregory, the Servant of the Servants of God.” And he earned that title, giving all he had in service to Christ’s flock, each of whom is called to be the servant of God. The Church hierarchy was founded by the Lord to be a “lowerarchy,” to be a ladder of service. Those who have been invested with by the Lord with greater responsibilities are called by the Lord never to “lord it over others,” but to serve others with the same self-giving love with which the Lord has served us. Pope John Paul has been a good and faithful servant of the Lord and of his servants for the past 9133 days, laboring infatigably — still today — to bring the great news of God’s love and our call to us out to our world which is so in need of Christ.

5) When we reflect upon all Pope John Paul II has done in his 25 years as Holy Father, we can easily become dizzy. He’s been one of the greatest teachers the Church has ever seen, writing 109 major teaching documents in addition to thousands of other doctrinal messages and letters. He’s been the greatest globe-trotting evangelist in Church history, making 102 foreign trips, 143 trips within Italy, 301 trips to the 325 parishes in Rome, all to give us the greatest service he ever could, bringing us the Gospel. Altogether as Pope he has traveled 698,310 miles, which is 28 times the circumference of the earth and three times the distance between the earth and the moon. He’s clearly put before us our vocation to be a saint, beatifying 1325 people (including Mother Teresa this morning) and canonizing 477. He’s done so much in foreign affairs, including as President Reagan said the critical help in toppling atheistic communism, not by the accumulation of arms in the cold war, but with the inspiring weapon of prayer, good example, and a clear articulation of the dignity and rights of the human person. Perhaps more than any other pope in history, he has nourished the Church’s understanding of the Great News about God’s plan for Marriage, Family and Sexuality. Perhaps more than any other pope, certainly on a world-wide scale, he has interacted with and inspired so many young people to place their trust in Christ. His commitment to interreligious dialogue has had no parallel, becoming the first pope to visit Jesus’ relatives in the Synagogue of Rome and even visiting with Muslim leaders to try to get them to work together to battle against the corrupting effects of militant secularism. He’s strived to try to bring the family Christ came from heaven to earth to establish back together, working especially with the Lutherans and the Orthodox. He’s pushed hard for human rights and religious freedom. He’s been a tireless defender of human life, from conception until natural death. He’s smoothed out so much of the way the Church has done business, through giving us a new Code of Canon Law. He’s put all of the Church’s teaching into one place, in a digestible format, in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, published in 1992. And he’s done so much more.

6) Because of all he’s done, in so many different areas, we can miss what has inspired all of it. Some people, who don’t have a clue, have talked about the “two John Paul IIs,” the “progressive” defender of human rights and freedom on the one hand, and the “conservative” Polish hardliner on issues within the Church. But in accusing the Holy Father of this type of supposed schizophrenia, they fail to recognize that everything he has done is just an application of his fidelity to Christ, his faithfulness to the deposit of faith — what we have to believe — of which he is custodian and his faithfulness to loving others and Christ has loved us. It’s important, neverthless, to try to synthesize what John Paul II’s real priorities have been and how they all fit together. Last month, I helped to lead a pilgrimage to Rome where we had the privilege of spending an hour with the Papal press spokesman, Joaquim Navarro Valls. I asked him what he thought was the chief thing Pope John Paul was trying to do in all his various activities. Navarro admitted that it was a very tough, but very important, question. He said that he thought the synthetic goal of our Holy Father has been to strengthen the faith of Christ’s disciples while at the same time sending them out with him to preach this Gospel to others. He’s both tried to fortify disciples to make them better apostles, and he’s done this not only by his teaching, but by his example in taking the Gospel to the ends of the earth. I thought it was a very good answer, and it does bring together pretty much everything the Pope has done, but, to some degree, every pope has tried to tried to strengthen our discipleship and apostolate. What has been distinctive about the WAY JP II has carried out these objectives?

7) On Thursday night, the actual 25th anniversary of the Holy Father, I was in New York City to give a speech on the 25 years of the Pope John Paul II. I argued there that the Holy Father gave his main objectives of what he would try to do in his first major document as Pope, the encyclical the Redeemer of Man, written a few months after his election. In it, the Pope did an extensive commentary on two passages from the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes. They are two statements that JP II said in 1993 formed not only his central message, but his pastoral style. They are, “Christ Jesus fully reveals man to himself and makes his supreme vocation (to be a saint, to be with God forever) clear;” and “Man cannot fully find himself except in the sincere gift of himself” to others in love. These are two principles that go together: Christ, who was 100% God and 100% man, because he was 100% man without being stained by sin, reveals what it really means to be a man to man; the only way a man is going to fully realize himself is loving like Christ did, sincerely giving of himself in love to and for others. These two principles the Holy Father has applied in almost every area of human and Christian life. I don’t have the time to show you how he does this in all these areas, but I think it’s important to show you how he does it at least in two, so that we can start to share his vision and apply the same type of Christian logic to our own lives. I’ll mention how he applies it to the question of the marriage and family and to the question of suffering.

8) In the realm of marriage and family, the Pope first goes to Christ and discovers from him what it means to be fully human. He starts first by what St. Paul says in his letter to the Ephesians, “Husbands love your wives as Christ loves the Church and gave himself up for her to make her holy.” Human spouses are called to love each other with the same self-giving love with which Christ loves his Bride, us, the Church. That’s the meaning of real human love. But he goes beyond it. Christ came from heaven to reveal the Father and his love. And in revealing the Father, we learn that Father and Son loved each other so much that their love generated a third person, the Holy Spirit, in the communion of persons in love who is the one God. In a similar way, man and woman, made in the image and likeness of God, can love each other so much that their love can generate a third person, who will be named and baptized, in the communion of persons in love which the family is called to be. We start with Christ and then discover what it means to be human. Real human love is called to be a gift of self out of love for others, and we learn how to do that in the family.

9) In the area of human suffering, the Pope goes first to Christ to find out what he reveals about man. When he focuses on Christ, he discovers a few things. First Christ went about doing good, caring for (and curing) the sick. Man is called to do the same. Second, he discovers Christ’s suffering face, the face we see on Good Friday, and sees there that Christ has redeemed human suffering, given it a new salvific meaning, turned it into the means of victory over death through his passion, death and resurrection. And third, he focuses on those words of Christ which he will say at the judgment, “I was ill and you cared for me” and reminds us that any time we see and care for someone who is suffering, we are caring directly and personally for the Lord. All of this led to the beautiful reflection we find in his letter on Suffering, Salvifici Doloris, from 1984. He says we’re all called to be Good Samaritans, just as Christ was the Good Samaritan and called us to be. The Good Samaritan is not someone who gives a few bucks, or a few minutes, to someone in pain, but someone who puts his whole heart it to it. “We can say that he gives himself, his very ‘I,’ opening this ‘I’ to the other person. Here we touch upon one of the key points of all Christian anthropology (what Christ reveals about what it means to be a man). Man cannot ‘fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.’ A Good Samaritan is the person capable of exactly such a gift of self. Following the parable of the Gospel, we could say that suffering, which is present under so many different forms in our human world, is also present in order to UNLEASH LOVE in the human person, that unselfish gift of one’s ‘I’ on behalf of other people, especially those who suffer. The world of human suffering unceasingly calls for, so to speak, another world: the world of human love; and in a certain sense man owes to suffering that unselfish love which stirs in his heart and actions.” Suffering, therefore, in the logic of the kingdom of heaven, is a great gift to man because it FORCES US TO LOVE, it compels us to give of ourselves for others, it brings us face to face with our selfishness and presents us with the choice to give of ourselves out of love for others and, by our failure, to others suffer more. The whole purpose we were put here on earth is to learn how to love as Christ loves — it wasn’t to make money, or to become famous, or to live an easy life, but to LOVE — and suffering is one of the greatest teachers. I think readily of all those people who have been tranformed for the better through the care of an elderly parent or very sick child. Such circumstances, if we embrace them with faith rather than fight them with resentment, will make us better, not bitter, because suffering unleashes love and in caring for others who are helpless, we learn how to love, which is the greatest preparation of all for the final exam of life.

10) The Pope always starts from Christ and then applies what we learn from Him about real love, the gift of self, to every circumstance. How can we start to do this on our own? The Pope has proposed to us a very concrete means for us to acquire this same logic, to illuminate all the paths of human life. It’s one we know, but it’s one that most of us take for granted: praying the Rosary. Today ends the Year of the Rosary which began on year ago this Thursday. In this past year, the Pope has been asking all Catholics — and that includes you — to pray the Rosary each day. The Rosary is a prayer, as the Pope wrote in his beautiful document on the Rosary published last year, in which we contemplate Christ, the “blessed fruit of Mary’s womb,” throughout his life and learn how to apply what we learn about Christ to our own circumstances. In the Rosary, we contemplate Christ’s face and learn how to discover him in the faces of others. As the Pope himself says, “Following in the path of Christ, in whom man’s path is ‘recapitulated’, revealed and redeemed, believers come face to face with the image of the true man. Contemplating Christ’s birth, they learn of the sanctity of life; seeing the household of Nazareth, they learn the original truth of the family according to God’s plan; listening to the Master in the mysteries of his public ministry, they find the light which leads them to enter the Kingdom of God; and following him on the way to Calvary, they learn the meaning of salvific suffering. Finally, contemplating Christ and his Blessed Mother in glory, they see the goal towards which each of us is called, if we allow ourselves to be healed and transformed by the Holy Spirit. IT COULD BE SAID THAT EACH MYSTERY OF THE ROSARY, CAREFULLY MEDITATED, SHEDS LIGHT ON THE MYSTERY OF MAN.” But recent surveys among faithful Catholics — those who are here every week and who tried to live moral lives — have shown that in the United States, only 28% of Catholics pray the Rosary each day. When you look more carefully at those statistics, most of that 28% is comprised of senior women. Catholic men, in general, haven’t been praying the rosary; youth and young adults have been praying the Rosary. The greatest and most appropriate way for us to honor the Holy Father is to put his vision into practice. He’s given us the secret to his vision by calling us to the Rosary, which he called his “favorite prayer.” He prays several rosaries a day between his appointments and during his formal times of prayer. He gives blessed Rosary beads to every visitor, so important is it to him. But we have to take up the beads and pray the Rosary faithfully and well.

11) One person who did take up the Rosary and pray all the way to heaven was Mother Teresa, who today was beatified. She was perhaps the most visible sign in our lifetimes of someone who took the Lord seriously, and who spent her life serving not just the poor, but the poorest of the poor, with love. But she said that she would never have been able to do it without prayer, and there were two essential poles to her prayer. The first was the Eucharist. She would spend about three hours a day, at various times, in front of the Lord in the Mass and in Eucharistic adoration, beholding the face of the Lord here, so that she would be able to go to to see his face in the most distressing disguises of lepers with parts of their face missing, of the various untouchables in India, of AIDS victims whose faces were downtrodden by the scorn and judgments heaped on them by others, of those bathing in their own secretions in the gutters of Calcutta and the alleyways of New York and New Delhi. She would spend time in prayer here in order to be able better to recognize and love the Lord she encountered under various disguises outside. But she always said that not even that was enough. As she walked the alleys of the world, she and her sisters with her — as they do in New Bedford — pray the Rosary along the way, encountering Christ’s face in these various mysteries, so that they can recognize his face in the personal mysteries they encounter along the way. For Mother Teresa, the rosary was a chain of love, linking her to Christ, linking her to others, linking her to heaven. At the end of this year of the Rosary, all of us who hope to follow Mother Teresa to heaven, would do well to take hold of this chain of love and start thereby to contemplate Christ’s face and then find him in those we encounter each day.

12) The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve. The greatest among us will be the servant of all. Today we celebrate two greats, who served God and served others with the same self-giving love with which Jesus loved us. They realized that when Jesus said these words he wasn’t talking to somebody else, but he was talking to them, and they have spent their lives trying to love as Christ loves. This celebration of Pope John Paul II and Blessed Teresa of Calcutta would be wasted unless we ourselves sought to imitate their example. The Lord says those same words to us, leaving us with a choice, to take up these rosary beads, to contemplate him and be blessed by him in prayer, so that we might learn how to love him in others and thereby live human life to the full. This is the pathway to real human happiness. This is the pathway to heaven. Let’s walk that path together!

Praised be Jesus Christ!