True to Thee Till Death, 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (C), November 7, 2004

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Francis Xavier Church, Hyannis, MA
Thirty-Second Sunday in OT, Year C
November 7, 2004
2Macc 7:1-2,9-14; 2Thes2:16-3:5; Lk 20:27-38

1) Every November, the Church has us focus on the four last things — death, judgment, heaven and hell. Earlier this week, we celebrated All Saints’ Day, in which we remembered and asked the intercession of all those who have arrived at the place to which we aspire. On Tuesday, All Souls’ Day, we remembered and prayed for all the dead, especially those who are in need of our prayers and sacrifices to enter into paradise. Today’s readings are directed more toward us, to teach us some important truths about heaven and how to get there.

2) In today’s Gospel, the first thing Jesus teaches us about heaven is that it comes from a personal relationship with God. The God of the universe is not a god of a cemetery full of dead bodies, but rather “the God of the living.” He is the “God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,” which means, as Jesus illustrated, that these patriarchs — 1800 years deceased by the time of today’s Gospel — were not dead, but truly alive in God. The God who created us out of love did not create us with expiration dates to his love for us. It’s a love that is meant to last forever. The whole point of our life is to reciprocate that love, to accept his invitation to live in a personal relationship with him. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who knows and calls us by name, wants to be able to say that God is the “God of Roger, Tim and Susan, the God of Anne, Maureen and Bill.” If he’s able to say in truth about us that we do live in love with that “God of the living,” then we will live forever!

3) The second thing that Jesus teaches us in the Gospel is the connection between the sacraments — especially marriage — and heaven. Each of the sacraments is meant to help us enter into that relationship with God. Each of the sacraments is a bridge to the Trinity, to heaven, to eternity. That relationship begins on the day of our baptism, when God says of us, as he did of Jesus in the Jordan, “This is my beloved son [or daughter], in whom I am well pleased” (Mt 3:17). It grows every time he embraces us as his prodigal child in the Sacrament of Confession. It is intensified each time we have the awesome privilege of receiving the body, blood, soul and divinity of the God-man within. In the Gospel, however, Jesus focuses specifically on the sacrament of marriage, on account of the question asked by the Sadducees. Marriage, he says, is a reality for this world, not the next. The reason for this is pretty clear. Marriage has a two-fold purpose, LOVE and LIFE, or, in more traditional terminology, the sanctification of the spouses and the procreation and education of children. In heaven, men and women will no longer need to be sanctified and there will be no new children. But while there will be no marriage in heaven, and while there will be no sexual activity, there will be love! Marriage in this world is meant to prepare spouses and children to enter into that love. And it is particularly well-suited to achieve this purpose.

4) At the beginning of the Book of Genesis, we read that “God created man in his own image; male and female he created them” (Gen 1:28). Since God is a communion of persons in love, we best image God when we exist in a communion of persons in love. The highest form of that communion on earth happens in marriage. Just as in the Communion of Persons who is God, Father and Son loved each other so much that their love “breathed forth” the Holy Spirit, so the total self-giving love of man and woman in marriage can generate a third person, who is both a fruit of that love and a font of continued growth in love. Marriage is meant to help husband and wife get out of themselves, out of their own selfishness, and enter into a communion of love, so that each of the spouses and their children might be better prepared to enter into the Communion of Persons in Love who is the Blessed Trinity. That Communion starts in this world and is meant to last forever. When we enter into that Communion with God, we also enter into the communion of saints, the loving “inter-subjectivity” (John Paul II) of all those who are similarly in communion with God. Jesus intimates this last truth when he says that God is the “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” who, because they are all alive in God and in communion with God, exist in a familial loving communion with each other.

5) Particularly during this month of November, God wants to enkindle in us an ever greater hunger for heaven, by helping us to live in a personal relationship of love with Him and enter into a deeper communion of persons with Him and others. This is the road that will take us to the final destination. The stronger our desire to arrive in our heavenly homeland, the more resolute we’ll be on that road and the tougher it will be for anyone or anything to get us off that road. We see this truth illustrated in dramatic fashion in the first reading from the Book of Maccabees. So great was the desire of these seven brothers for heaven, for being with God, that nothing — even the threat of torturous deaths — could deter them. King Antiochus IV of Greece had wanted to impose the Greek religion on the Jews and to break down Jewish religious practice, so he commanded the Jews to eat pork, which was prohibited by the Mosaic Law. These seven brothers refused to do so. Eating pork might seem like a little thing to us — we might ask, is it really worth dying for? — but they loved God so much and trusted in him so deeply that they were willing to be killed lest they displease God in a minimal way. Unlike Adam and Eve, who believed the serpent’s lie that eating of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was a small matter with no consequences, these brothers, cheered on by their mother, said the firmest possible “no” to these temptations. So great was their love of God, their faith in the resurrection, their hunger for eternal life that they were able to account all of their sufferings a small price to pay in order to obtain the pearl of great price, which would be an eternal life of love with God.

6) We see the same faith and courage in the early martyrs of the Church. From 64-313 AD, it was a crime punishable by death in the Roman empire to be a Christian. When people were arrested under suspicion of being a Christian, they were given the opportunity to save their lives by burning a small amount of incense before a statue of a pagan god. If they refused, they were killed, oftentimes in the cruelest of ways: being covered with animal skins and torn to death by dogs, crucified, burned alive, flayed, disemboweled and more. In some of the Roman Acta (court records), we see the way the ancient magistrates would remonstrate with them, informing them that after their death there would be no one to take care of their elderly parents or their young children. Even so, these early Christians trusted that God loved their loved ones even more than they did, and that he would take care of them, especially if their fidelity to Him cost them their earthly lives. In response to the Lord’s love for them, they said to Him, “This is my body, this is my life, given for you!”

7) These early Christians coined a phrase that became, more or less, their motto: “Better to die than to sin!” They realized that there were two types of death — physical (bodily) death and spiritual death — and spiritual death through serious sin was far worse. Jesus had once said, “Do not fear those who can kill the body but cannot kill the soul” (Mt 10:28), and they didn’t. What made them capable of saying “yes” to God and “no” to sin in the most dramatic moments was the fact that they were accustomed to saying “yes” to God and “no” to sin in ordinary moments. In their daily lives, they were dying to sin, dying to themselves, and living for Christ. They lived in a personal relationship with him and they never wanted that communion to end. In the moral decisions they faced, they knew they were choosing, in disguise, either Christ or Barabbas. Their love for Christ, their faith in him and hope in his promise of eternal life, gave them the strength continually to choose the Lord, to die rather than to sin.

8) All of these lessons — the reality of heaven, the call to live in a personal relationship with God in this life so as to live it in the next, the love for God so strong that one would rather die than to sin — provide the proper context for us to discuss the shocking and disturbing allegations that surfaced during this past week about our former pastor, Fr. Stephen Fernandes. I was not planning to preach about these allegations this weekend, because our knowledge remains provisional, but after the 4 pm Mass last night, several parishioners told me that they wished that I had, so that they could have some way to process them in the light of our faith in Christ. So I will try to do so, with the help of God.

9) Before I comment on the particulars we have seen in the news, however, I would like to state three things.

a. First, each of us should be praying for Fr. Fernandes and his parishioners, past and present, that God who knows the truth may speedily given him and them what they most need.

b. Secondly, we do not know whether the allegations are true and therefore should not presume, at this point, that Fr. Fernandes is guilty. But I think we also have to acknowledge, reluctantly, that the odds that the pornographic images found on his personal computer got there by some other agency are probably pretty small.

c. The third thing I need to say is that Fr. Fernandes is my good friend, whom I have known for 11 years. He was the first priest of this Diocese to befriend me when I became a seminarian. During my seminary breaks, I would stay with him at SS. Peter & Paul Rectory in Fall River, as he would teach me, little-by-little, many of the things I would need to be a good priest. So high was my respect for him that I asked him to vest me at my priestly ordination five years ago. During the aggregate 11 months I lived with him under the same roof, seeing him up close, talking to him about almost everything, he always struck me as an good and honorable man, a priest who was faithful to God and to his priestly vocation. That’s why these allegations were as jolting to me as I know they were to many of you. It’s also the reason why I believe that, if these allegations are true, then they probably refer to activity that began in the very recent past, rather than something that has been going on for a long time in his priesthood. (We would not, I believe, be dealing with a priest who was “living a lie” throughout his priesthood — as some parishioners have wondered aloud, in conversations with me this week — but rather one who would have been faithful for years and then would have fallen away from that fidelity, probably a short time ago).

10) If the allegations are false, then we trust that God will make the truth apparent and that Fr. Fernandes’ reputation, and the scandal coming from the allegations, will be repaired. I’d like to focus, however, on what our response should be if the allegations are true. What good would God want to bring out of this evil? I think we can identify two things:

a. The first good would be Fr. Fernandes’ salvation. There’s no use mincing words. If he were violating his promise of celibate chastity and committing the types of grave sins that are alleged, then he would have been on the road to perdition. If it took getting arrested to get him to stop — even with all the pain resulting from the shame and the scandal — God out of his love for his lost sheep would take the deal.

b. The second good and second lesson that God would want us to draw is that if such a thing could happen to a priest — who had received a great spiritual and moral formation, who every day held God in his hands, who knew Christ’s teaching in depth — then it could happen to anyone. We should all be on guard. St. Peter tells us in his first letter, “Your enemy the devil prowls like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet 5:8). It comes as no surprise that the devil would go after priests, to tempt them away from their vocation, because if he can get priests to fall, their fall can drag down many others with them. But that same devil prowls for all of us — and one of the most effective arms in the devil’s contemporary arsenal is pornography. While it won’t make the front pages of the newspaper or the evening news, many marriages have been destroyed through the poison of pornography. Many others have had their communion with God ruptured by choosing Barabbas in a sexually seductive disguise, have suffered spiritual death, and have headed on the road to eternal death. Just as God used Fr. Fernandes’ great gifts in the pulpit to communicate his truth to us, so God might also want to use Fr. Fernandes’ painful fall (if the allegations are true) to help us become much more aware of that danger.

11) I was talking to another priest of the diocese yesterday about what God might want to be teaching us through all of this. He mentioned the humble teaching of so many of the greatest saints, who said, “But for the grace of God go I!” These saints realized that without God’s help, they were capable of breaking all ten commandments. Throughout history, this statement has been understood as a humble admission that if we haven’t committed the same types of sins others have, we need to be grateful to God for having given us the grace to avoid them. But my priest friend and I focused, rather, on another application of the teaching: in order to avoid these types of serious sins, we must remain in God’s grace, and therefore we have to do those things that will allow us to receive God’s grace. What are the means to do that?

a. First, we have to spend time in PRAYER with God, by which he strengthens us. We know what happened in the Garden of Gethsemane to Peter, James and John. Jesus told them to “stay awake and pray, lest they succumb to temptation,” because “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” (Mt 26:41). They didn’t stay awake, and they didn’t pray, and all of the apostles — whom Jesus had formed intimately over three years — abandoned the Lord when the temptations came. We need to learn from their fall, that we, too, need to stay awake and pray, because our flesh is weak no matter how willing our spirit is. In this Year of the Eucharist, the Pope calls us to spend more time adoring Jesus in the Eucharist. The Lord Jesus asks us, as he asked Peter, James and John, “Can you stay with me an hour?” That hour is not so much for his good, but for ours.

b. The second great means God gives us to remain in God’s grace is the MASS, which he makes available to us even daily. This is the means par excellence by which we remain in communion with God, remain in a personal relationship of love with him, and prepare ourselves for heaven.

c. The third indispensable means I’ll mention is the sacrament of CONFESSION, in which not only does God forgive us our sins, but he gives us his grace so that we might be stronger in the face of future temptations. “But for the grace of God” go any of us, and that’s why all of us need to avail ourselves ever more of these God-given opportunities for us to remain and grow in grace.

d. Ultimately the great remedy and prevention for any such fall is to LIVE by the MOTTO of the early Christians: “Better to die than to sin!” If we were to see sin as they did, a real spiritual death, a deep betrayal of the one who loved us enough to die for us, a choice of Barabbas and a crucifixion of Christ, then we would more easily be able to say “no” to temptations and “yes” to Christ. The stronger our desire for heaven, for union with Christ, the more we will cultivate a deep hatred for those things that can separate us from Christ and a profound love for those things — like prayer, the Mass and confession — that will bring us to Christ. The stronger our “yes” to Christ, the more forceful our “no” will be to sin. If it were possible for the seven brothers in the book of Maccabees to say “no” to pork even at the threat of death to remain faithful to God; if it were possible for the early Christian martyrs to refuse to burn incense to pagan statues out of love for God; then it is possible for us, who are flesh and spirit like they were, to say “no” to the temptations to sin we encounter out of a similar love for God.

12) There’s a lot more that could be said about “keeping our eyes on the prize,” focusing on the goal of heaven and properly ordering our means and choices to that end. If any of us takes our eyes off of Christ, even after years of attentive discipleship, we can and will fall. Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen used to say, “There are no plateaus in the spiritual life. If we’re not going up hill, we’ll be sliding down hill.” How true that is! There’s no such thing as “coasting” toward heaven. There’s only one path to get there: the uphill Way of the Cross, following in Jesus’ bloody footsteps. If our desire for heaven is strong, however — if we are walking the Way of the Cross in response to God’s love and out of love for God — then we will find that that path is not so steep after all, and that the “yoke” of the cross is “easy” and its “burden … light” (Mt 11:30). We will also find that if we are faithfully following Christ on that Via Crucis, then it will be far less likely that we will end up in any type of swamp.

13) We end this Mass by singing one of the most powerful English hymns ever written. The lyrics summarize the example of the great witnesses to Christ who have come before us, from the seven brothers, to the early Christian martyrs, to all those who in our own day live lives of heroic virtue. We pray today at Mass, that just as we sing them about our forefathers in the faith, so others, in succeeding generations, may sing them about us. They contain within them the remedy to any scandal. They also indicate the true and sure path to heaven:

“Faith of our Fathers, living still,
in spite of dungeon, fire and sword.
O how our hearts beat high with joy,
Whene’er we hear that glorious word:
Faith of our Fathers, holy Faith,
We will be true to Thee till death.”