Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Catherine of Siena Parish, New York, NY
Solemn Vespers II on the Fourth Sunday of Lent (Laetare Sunday)
March 15, 2015
1 Thess 5:16-24
To listen to an audio recording of this homily, please click below:
The text that guided the homily was:
Our Special Cause of Rejoicing
On this Laetare Sunday, in which the whole Christian community rejoices in the foretaste and hope of what we prepare for at Easter, the reality and relevance of Christ’s risen presence with us every day, we have a chance tonight to focus on the essential kerygma of the Christian faith, the joy of the Gospel. We do so in a special way this Laetare Sunday because we’re now almost exactly one quarter of the way through the 14 month Year of Consecrated Life that Pope Francis inaugurated in November.
Like all ecclesiastical holy years — like the Year of Faith, the Year for Priests, the Year of St. Paul, the Year of the Eucharist, the Year of the Holy Rosary, the Jubilee Year, the Years of the Son, Holy Spirit and Father, the Marian Year and the Year of the Redeemer, which have been celebrated over the course of the last three decades — the Year of Consecrated Life is an opportunity for the whole Church to grow in some aspect of living out our Catholic faith that often can remain peripheral. In this Year for Consecrated Life, it’s an occasion not only for us to thank God for the gift of the vocations of religious men and women, consecrated virgins, widows and hermits, members of secular institutes and societies of apostolic life, and the ever new expressions of consecrated life that have followed the Second Vatican Council, but it’s a chance for all of us to learn from those in consecrated life how to live better our own Christian baptismal consecration.
Learning joy from those in consecrated life
St. John Paul II wrote in a rich apostolic exhortation on the consecrated life in 1996 (Vita Consecrata) that consecrated life “is not something isolated and marginal, but a reality that affects the whole Church. … The consecrated life is at the very heart of the Church as a decisive element for her mission, since it manifests the inner nature of the Christian calling and the striving of the whole Church as Bride towards union with her one Spouse.” The consecrated life reveals, he accentuated, both the essence of the Christian vocation in this world and toward the next. To understand the nature and purpose of the Christian life, to known the meaning of our baptismal consecration, discipleship and mission, and to enter and live in God’s kingdom so as to live in it forever, we do well to turn to the consecrated life, for consecrated life reveals various paradigmatic elements that every Christian in whatever state of life ought to grasp and embrace.
One of the most characteristic elements of all that the consecrated life radiates — or is meant to radiate to the world — is joy. Pope Francis, in his letter to the consecrated men and women of the world last November focused on this point. “What in particular do I expect from this Year of grace for consecrated life?,” he asked. “That the old saying will always be true: ‘Where there are consecrated, there is joy.’ We are called to know and show that God is able to fill our hearts to the brim with happiness; that we need not seek our happiness elsewhere; that the authentic fraternity found in our communities increases our joy; and that our total self-giving in service to the Church, to families and young people, to the elderly and the poor, brings us life-long personal fulfillment. None of us should be dour, discontented and dissatisfied.… Like everyone else, we have our troubles, our dark nights of the soul, our disappointments and infirmities, our experience of slowing down as we grow older. But in all these things we should be able to discover ‘perfect joy.’ For it is here that we learn to recognize the face of Christ, who became like us in all things, and to rejoice in the knowledge that we are being conformed to him who, out of love of us, did not refuse the sufferings of the cross. … Similarly, the apostolic effectiveness of consecrated life does not depend on the efficiency of its methods. It depends on the eloquence of your lives, lives which radiate the joy and beauty of living the Gospel and following Christ to the full.”
On this Sunday of Joy in the heart of Lent during this first Year for Consecrated Life in the history of the Church, it’s worthwhile for us to ponder what we all can learn about the nature of Christian joy from observing the joy that flows from the consecrated life. What Pope Francis said of consecrated men and women should be able to be predicated of us all: “Where there are Christians, this is joy.” It was not merely to consecrated men and women, but to all followers of Jesus that St. Paul wrote the words we just heard, “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. Give thanks in all circumstances. For this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” The program of the pontificate of Pope Francis, inaugurated two years ago this Friday, is all centered on this Christian joy. In Evangelii Gaudium, the exhortation in which he laid out his vision for what the Church most needs, he describes the history of salvation as a “great stream of joy.” Jesus has come, he stressed, so that his joy may be in us and our joy may be complete (Jn 15:11). The Christian’s joy “drinks of Jesus’ brimming heart,” and this participation in Jesus’ joy constitutes the “joy to the world” that we’re all supposed to proclaim not just at Christmas Midnight Mass but as an ordinary reality. The lives of too many Christians, he said, seem like “Lent without Easter,” as if they’re perpetually returning from a funeral. Their image of Jesus is often dour and sternly demanding rather than joy filled — and they become like the disfigured picture of God they worship. The whole missionary renewal of the Church that Pope Francis believes he was elected to lead involves helping all of us become evangelists, sharers of the good news by our words and witness. And that’s how this Year for Consecrated Life fits in, because it’s in the consecrated life, and in so many consecrated men and women, that we find the joy that comes from living the Gospel fully.
I’d like to focus briefly on five sources of joy that we can find in consecrated men and women that can help us live more joyfully our own baptismal consecration.
The Joy of Consecration
The first font of joy is the nature of consecration itself. The word consecrate comes from two Latin words, “con” and “sacer.” Con means “with” and sacer means to “cut off.” To be consecrated means that we’re cut off from the profane, cut off from worldliness, in order to be with Jesus. It means to belong to him totally. Pope Benedict used to preach about the nature of consecration a lot. He said it was a transfer of ownership into God’s own domain. Like with signing over the title of a car or the deed to a house, when we are consecrated, we become God’s. This is something that consecrated people do in their public professions, but it is also something that happens to all of us on the day of our baptism. But at the same time we’re giving of ourselves wholly to Christ, Christ is giving himself to us. During the Last Supper, Jesus prayed to the Father, “I consecrate myself for them,” — for us! — “so that they also may be consecrated in truth” and he asked his Father, “Consecrate them in the truth. Your word is truth!” Jesus consecrated himself so that we might be consecrated, so that we might be separated, cut off from falsity, and always united together with each other in Him who is the Truth. And when we begin to live according to this sense of total belonging to God, we begin to recognize that whatever we sacrifice for God in the “transfer of ownership” involved in consecration is nothing compared to what we receive. Jesus lives out his consecration for us and through our consecration we open ourselves up to receive the gift of his own: God gives us his own life, he gives us his name, he gives us his eternal love, he gives us heaven. The consecrated life is a mutual belonging between us and God, but it’s only those who live out their consecration who fully receive the fruit of God’s consecrating himself for us. This is something we witness in our consecrated brothers and sisters and something that is supposed to be witnessed in every believer. And when receives the graces that come from Jesus’ consecration to us, Jesus who came so that his joy might be in us and our job be complete, it’s hard not to be joyful!
The joy of and from prayer
The second source of joy is our prayer. Pope Francis has called consecrated men and women to be experts in prayer, Pope Benedict has called them to be existences made prayer, and St. John Paul II has summoned them to be those who excel above all in the Trinitarian art of prayer (learning from the Holy Spirit how to pray as they ought by crying out “Abba!” in the name and person of God the Son). When one has that type of communion with God in prayer, that exchange not just of words, not just of ideas, but of persons; when one can ask God anything and know that he gives himself in response and not just what we ask for; when Jesus has promised that the Father will always hear our prayers for he loves us far more than he loves the lilies and the sparrows for which he always cares and knows what we need before we ask; when we know all of this, how can the reality of Christian prayer not fill us with joy? And just as those in the consecrated life are called to a life of prayer, so we’re called, as St. Paul told us in tonight’s reading, to pray without ceasing, to become experts in the Trinitarian art of prayer.
The joy of the unity of mutual and communal love
Community life is the third source of joy. Pope Francis wrote in his letter to inaugurate this year that consecrated men and women are called to be “experts in communion,” “witnesses and architects of the ‘plan for unity’ which is the crowning point of human history in God’s design.” Jesus disclosed that crowning point of human history during the Last Supper when he prayed that we all might be one, just as the Father is in him and he is in the Father, so that the world may know that the Father sent Him and loves us just as he loves Jesus. Jesus’ prayers are always heard by the Father. For him to pray that we have a communion that resembles the Trinitarian communion of persons means that it must be possible. The only reason why we have so many divisions is because of our sins, our refusal for all of us to say and mean “Thy will be done!” But in the early Church we had a closer approximation and it was one of the reasons why so many became Christian so soon even though it might mean their martyrdom. The first Christians prayed together, went on pilgrimage to the Temple together, ate together and had all things in common, voluntarily selling their goods so that the apostles could share them with those in most need, just like happens in any big poor, loving family. And people were busting down the doors of the house Churches to get in. We see this type of communion, and the joy that flows from it, in healthy communities of consecrated men or women. So many secular priests, for example, see it in the Dominicans and in other forms of common life. We see this type of Christian community life in truly loving families. This type of real communion, based on mutual love, leads to the fruit of joy. There was a popular hymn among the early Christians that you’d know that they would be Christians by their love. We could say about both then and now that you’ll know whether they’re fully living as Christians, united with God and with each other, by their joy. We’re all called to the joy that flows from authentic Christian community life modeled on those in consecrated life. Pope Francis said, “In a polarized society, where different cultures experience difficulty in living alongside one another, where the powerless encounter oppression, where inequality abounds, [consecrated men and women] are called to offer a concrete model of community which, by acknowledging the dignity of each person and sharing our respective gifts, makes it possible to live as brothers and sisters. So,” he concluded, “be men and women of communion!” We’re all called as Catholics to be men and women of communion, to be experts in communion! And when we are, we’ll experience true joy.
The joy from imitating Christ’s self-giving
The fourth source of joy is charity. Pope Francis is calling the consecrated to wake up the world with regard to self-sacrificing loving service. He wrote his letter the day before the Year for Consecrated Life began, “Like Jesus, who compassionately spoke his gracious word, healed the sick, gave bread to the hungry and offered his own life in sacrifice, so [the] founders and foundresses [of various forms of consecrated life] sought in different ways to be the service of all those to whom the Spirit sent them. They did so by their prayers of intercession, their preaching of the Gospel, their works of catechesis, education, their service to the poor and the infirm.” Pope Francis added, “The witness that can really attract is that associated with attitudes that are uncommon: generosity, detachment, sacrifice, self-forgetfulness in order to care for others. This is the witness, the ‘martyrdom’ of religious life. It ‘sounds an alarm’ for people. Religious [are] witnesses of a different way of doing things, of acting, of living! It is possible to live differently in this world.” Just as the charity of those in consecrated life built Catholics hospitals, schools, food pantries and radiated through mission work, the priesthood, counseling and so many other areas, so every believer is called to a similar creativity and perfection in charity according to our conditions in life. One of the real sources of joy is the unselfishness that leads us to sacrifice ourselves for others. We find joy not by self-assertion but by self-gift. Improving the lot of others is one of the most enduring types of joy, which is why at Christmas time so many become secret Santas, because they receive more joy than they give away in $100 bills. We can all see this charity and joy and learn it from those who have given their lives to it in consecrated life.
The joy of uniting ourselves to the poor, chaste and obedient Joyful One
The last font of joy we can ponder is found in living by the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience, which lead us respectively to true wealth, true love and true freedom. With regard to poverty, we know that all the money in the world can’t buy true happiness, which is why the suicide rate is so much higher among the very wealthy than the very poor. With regard to chastity, we know that giving into lustful impulses and becoming sex addicts never brings people joy but a brutal form of interior slavery; chastity on the other hand not only helps us to control our impulses lest they control us, but helps us to learn how to love people as Christ does, something that absolutely leads to joy. Considering obedience, many presume that calling all the shots, being in control, having everyone serve and obey us, or living independently autonomously is what we need to do to find happiness, but that will never lead us to happiness and won’t even make us friends. What leads to happiness is having the ability to listen to God so attentively — what the word obedience really means from the Latin roots ob and audire — that we will do his will. God wills our happiness and doing his will with trusting, filial obedience leads us there; when we seek to do our will rather than God’s, we’re following our own blind guidance and the more we do, the further we wander from the source of joy. Poverty, chastity and obedience overcome the three fold temptation of the devil to disorder, respectively, our relationship with things, with others, and with God, and without that order we will really never have the joy that the devil and the world can’t give or rob.
The joy of the kingdom!
In all five of these ways, consecrated people help us to live eschatologically, to live in the kingdom, which is both now and not yet, the kingdom that is geared toward the one joy that will last forever. They help us to live with God in the present, to belong to him who consecrated himself to us, to pray and abide with him who comes to abide within us, to dwell in communion with Him and in Him with others, to enter into the charity that led him to love the world to the extreme, and to yoke ourselves to him who is poor, chaste and obedient. Consecrated men and women show that that type of genuinely Christ-like lifestyle is possible and beautiful. In contrast to the idols of the age, they evince that one becomes happier through subtraction rather than accumulation, through purity rather than promiscuity, through following God rather than through trying to become God. They help us to grasp that joy comes ultimately from clinging to Christ in all of these ways and from trusting in him so much that we will trust in everything he says. Joy comes from running to Christ rather than away from him.
During this Year for Consecrated Life, we thank God for the witness of the Christ-like path of joy in the lives of so many consecrated men and women and their communities! We thank those who are consecrated — like the Dominicans friars, the Nashville Dominicans and the Sisters of Life here tonight — for their testimony showing us that living with Christ in the world is possible! And we ask God present with us in the monstrance on the altar for the grace that we may imitate the witness of consecrated men and women, as we seek to grasp the inner nature of the Christian calling — which is to rejoice always, pray without ceasing and give constant thanks! — and the striving of the whole Church as Bride towards union with her one Spouse. Laetare, Jerusalem! Rejoice, New York! Christ has come to bring us his joy and make our joy complete, by sending us out full of that joy to announce it to all we meet. Praised be Jesus Christ!
The reading for today’s Vesper service was:
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24: Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophetic utterances. Test everything; retain what is good. Refrain from every kind of evil. May the God of peace himself make you perfectly holy and may you entirely, spirit, soul, and body, be preserved blameless for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will also accomplish it.