Fr. Roger J. Landry
Espirito Santo Parish, Fall River, MA
Seventh Sunday of Easter, Year A
May 12, 2002
Acts 1:12-14; 1Pet 4:13-16; Jn 17:1-11
1) After the Ascension, the apostles all gathered around Mary, to pray. Why to pray, and why around her? Well, first the Lord told them to pray. Before he ascended in heaven, he told his apostles not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” Jesus said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” And they were faithful to his promise and they prayed. They huddled around Mary and prayed the first day. Then the second day. Then the third. Fourth. Fifth. They prayed all together nine days, until, while praying on that ninth day, the wind blew open the windows of the Upper Room and the Holy Spirit came upon them as tongues of fire in the feast we will celebrate next week. That was the first nine-day novena of prayer in Church history. The Church has been praying novenas ever since.
2) Second question: Why around Mary? There were essentially two reasons. The first is because she is, without a doubt, the greatest example of prayer the world has ever known. So many times in Sacred Scripture, we see her listening attentively to the Lord, treasuring his words in her heart and then putting them into action. When a woman cried out from the crowd one day to Jesus, trying to bless his mother on account of her physical relationship to Jesus, “Blessed is the womb that bore thee and the breasts that nursed thee,” Jesus replied with the real reason for Mary’s beatitude: “Blessed rather is she who heard the word of God and kept it.” The woman from the crowd wanted to bless Mary simply for her physical relationship to the Lord, from whom he received his human flesh and blood. Jesus wanted to bless his mother for her real discipleship, hearing the word, treasuring it and putting it into practice. One of the fathers of the Church used to say that before Mary ever conceived the Word of God in her womb, she had already conceived the Word of God in her heart. She listened and treasured the Word of God so much that that word became flesh within her. He took on her flesh. This is the model of prayer. To listen attentively to the Lord, to know that he hears us, to know that he wants to have this dialogue of conversation with us, to treasure his words, to trust his words and to act on them. The apostles huddled around Mary because she could teach and show them how to pray with the same attentiveness, receptivity and response that she did.
3) The second reason they grouped around the Mother of God was because she was and is the greatest model and example of fidelity to the Lord, no matter what. She was the faithful one. Mary was the faithful 14 year old girl whose “yes” replied to Eve’s “no” and set in motion the plan of redemption. She was faithful in her mission to raise the Son of God, to protect him, to nourish him. Mary was the faithful one all the way to the Cross, where she was one of very few to be present, even though it must have been so much more revolting for her to see her crucified than it would have been even for his apostles. She watched as the hands that used to grip her finger were hammered to the wood of the Cross; she watched as the feet, which once couldn’t walk, couldn’t walk again. She watched that side which she used to bathe pierced by a lance and bathed in blood. But she was faithful to the very end. The apostles learned from her how to be faithful disciples of her Son, because she was the first and greatest disciple of all. In order to be an apostle, you first have to be a disciple, and they learned that from her.
4) Prayer and faithful response to God. That’s why they wisely gathered around her and that’s why we need to gather around her as well. We’re living in an age of tremendous infidelity to God. We’ve certainly seen that lately in some notorious examples among priests. We a priest is ordained he makes four promises:
a) The first is to pray, to be faithful in praying the breviary or Liturgy of the hours five times a day for the needs of his people and the Church as a whole. You’ve probably seen me or Fr. Jim with a thick black book which might look something like a Bible. This is what every priest promises to do.
b) The second is life-long celibate chastity for the sake of the kingdom of heaven, that our love is reserved for the Lord and in the Lord for his people, that we are the Lord’s, as my old seminary rector used to say in a perhaps crass, but unforgettable way, “from our brain cells to our sperm cells.”
c) The third is obedience, that we will always respect and obey our bishops and the holy father and their successors, even and especially when it’s hard. That it’s not my will, but God’s that will be done, expressed through the successors of the apostles.
d) And fourth, to model our life on the mysteries we celebrate. That we will give our whole lives for God and for his people, just like Jesus does in the Eucharist; that we will be merciful, as the Lord is in the sacrament of reconciliation; that we will seek to heal, help and encourage those who are suffering, in imitation of the Lord in the sacrament of the anointing of the sick; that we will actively seek holiness, which is what the sacrament of baptism is all about; that we will say yes and cultivate the gifts of the Holy Spirit, which we received and give out in the sacrament of Confirmation.
While I certainly know many priests who strive to keep all four of these promises, I’ve also known priests who are continuously unfaithful to keeping one, two, three or four. Whenever a priest goes bad — and sadly some do — it generally always starts with his failure to be faithful to the liturgy of the hours and to modeling his life on Jesus in the sacraments. Disobedience and failures in chastity often come next. And this does tremendous damage. How can he preach that people should be obedient to God if he himself isn’t obedient to his bishop or to the Pope, who acts in the place of God?
5) But it’s not just priests who have been unfaithful. Among lay people, there’s also been a tremendous amount of infidelity. It’s rampant people breaking their marriage vows, cheating on their vocations, their spouses and their families. There’s the terrible epidemic of divorce and remarriage, as if remarriage while one’s spouse is alive is even possible in God’s eyes, God who says that what he has joined, no one can separate. People are violating the commandments everywhere. So many people are not comingn to Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation. Thursday was a holy day of obligation and fewer than 50% of our parishioners came.
6) What’s different about this age than past ages is that, while in past ages people were sinning and being unfaithful in deeds, they never tried to justify it. They basically recognized that they were sinning and often came for forgiveness. The difference today is that people, some priests and laity, are sinning and then trying to justify it as if it’s not tremendously unfaithful. People who think it’s just fine to come to Mass every other week or not to come on a Holy Day. Priests who think it’s all right not to pray constantly, as they promised, for the people they serve and for the whole Church. People who are committing all types of sins and still coming to receive holy communion, as if they don’t first have to go to Christ in the sacrament he established to forgive our sins before coming to receive him here. What characterizes our age, and we have to be brutally honest about it, is not its sins in themselves — for every age has its sins — but in its trying to treat these sins as if they’re not sins at all, that we’re not really doing anything wrong and not even being unfaithful.
7) So we come back to Mary, just like the Apostles did after they were, with one exception, all unfaithful to the Lord as they betrayed him and he was being killed for our sins. What was the source of Mary’s fidelity? It is found in her pure heart, her listening to God and her seeking to say “yes” to Him in all things. On Monday we celebrate the feast of Our Lady of Fatima. The message she brought to the three pastorinhos in May 1917 is crucially urgent again during our time, because it is a message that we’ve been unfaithful and it is a message of the source of fidelity. She first proclaimed the need for penance. She showed them an image of an angel saying “Penance! Penance! Penance!” She taught the kids about the reality of heaven and the reality of hell and showed them the terrible pain of those in Hell, the place where God is not present. She let them see clearly the tremendous suffering that the Church would undergo in the years ahead, the suffering that the Church and the popes have undergone throughout the 20th century up to our own day as a result of various infidelities. But she also proclaimed God’s solution. The solution to all of these problems, the lack of peace in the world, the lack of peace in our families and societies, the lack of peace in our hearts. It’s an answer that’s always very surprising at first glance, but when you look at it more deeply, you see the wisdom in it. The solution was consecration to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Why? Hers is a heart that says yes to God, say a categorical no to sin, a heart that sees God in all things and tries to love and serve God in all things. The pure heart, as Jesus tells us, in the Sermon on the Mount, is the heart that sees God in all things. It is a heart that listens and treasures God’s word and gives her yes to it. “Let it be done to me according to thy word.” It is also the heart that prays, that depends on God, that trusts him in all things. A pure heart is a weapon that’s more powerful than all the nuclear bombs, hijacked planes, bullets, hatred and sin can muster. This is the type of heart we’re called to have.
8 ) The apostles gathered around her to learn from her how to be responsive to the gifts of the Holy Spirit, who was about to overshadow them just like He overshadowed her at the conception of Jesus. They paid good attention and they received the gifts so fully that they were able, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to carry out the mission the Lord gave them to preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth. Bishop O’Malley has asked all of us to do the same, to enter into a nine-day novena with Mary, with the specific intention of having a rebirth in faith, in fidelity, in love, in hope and in peace after the terrible scandals that have been recently rocking the Church in this area. He has asked us all to gather around Mary to pray that the Holy Spirit might give the Church a spiritual rebirth. He suggested praying the Peace Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, so that we might be filled with the peace of the Lord, his forgiveness, his love, so that we might share that with others. Why St. Francis? Not just because Bishop O’Malley is a Franciscan, but because St. Francis was the Lord’s instrument to rebuild the Church during the 1200s, a time of great infidelity. Story of dream of Innocent, Portiuncula, rebuilding of the Church. We invoke his prayer so that during these days, we might receive such a heart so that the Lord can use us to rebuild his Church on this secure cornerstone. This will be done by our following the divinely-inspired method found in the prayer of St. Francis, asking for a heart that sows love where there’s hatred, forgiveness where there’s injury, faith where there’s doubt, hope where there’s despair, light where there’s darkness and joy where there’s sadness. This is a heart like his. A heart like Mary’s. A pure heart like the Lord’s.
9) This is a heart that burns out of love, a heart that burns away sin and burns with love for Jesus and his will. That’s why the statue of OL of Fatima has flamed bursting out of it. Here at this Mass, surrounded by all of the apostles in heaven, all of the angels and saints, we pray around Mary, as we prepare ourselves to receive first the Sacred Body and Blood she gave her son in the Incarnation, and then the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on all of us, so that we might be capable of burning with love for God, burning with a pure heart, that says yes to God in all things and responds to the call to be true instruments of God’s own peace in the rebuilding of His Church.