The Heart of a Shepherd

Homily for the Memorial of St. John Bosco

Deacon Doug McManaman

            These are fabulous readings, and they are so appropriate for this feast day of St. John Bosco. Just take that opening in the first reading: 

Thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.

            That’s the heart of Christ right there. He is the good shepherd who goes searching for the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And if you know anything of the life of Don Bosco, you know that he too had the heart of a shepherd, the heart of Christ. Don Bosco was no “sanctuary priest”. He was not one to shelter himself in the rectory, only to come out to say Mass, and then go back in. Some young priests today choose to live out their priesthood in precisely this way, believing that all one needs to do is have a reverent liturgy with nice candles, elaborate vestments, a bit of Latin thrown in here and there, a sanctimonious countenance and nicely folded hands, and a strict observance of the rubrics, and the world will automatically be saved. Where these young men got this idea I have no clue, but that certainly was not Don Bosco’s vision of the priesthood. Like a true missionary, he went out in search of the lost, out into the streets to meet with the young and unemployed, to interact with them, to pay attention to them, to really know them. 

            I’ve known a lot of priests in my life, but there are three in particular who stand out, for they were widely beloved priests. The first priest was from the Archdiocese of Washington D.C., who back in 1979 picked me up hitchhiking outside of Columbus, Ohio, and who was the turning point in my life. He was a great friend from that point onwards. He witnessed our marriage, baptized our daughter, but he was murdered on June 8th, 2000. The rectory was robbed and the housekeeper found him dead the next morning, stabbed to death. I remember that day looking at the Washington Post online and seeing, on the front page, the face of Father Tom Wells. That was probably the only time the anti-Catholic Washington Post spoke positively about the Church. The headline included the caption: “Widely beloved priest…”. And he was widely loved. Going anywhere with him was always a bit of a pain, because no matter where we were, someone would know him and come up to him. The other priest friend of mine, Father Don Sanvido, is also widely loved. He’s retired, but he is still pestered by all sorts of former parishioners to do weddings, funerals, Masses, visits, etc. And the 3rd priest in my life who is also widely loved is a Salesian in this parish. 

            Very recently I began to reflect upon these three priests, wondering what it was that made them so widely beloved. It certainly was not any kind of theological liberalism; they are very faithful to Catholic teaching and were always willing to preach the hard and difficult truths, much more than I am. The reason they are so widely loved is that they have a genuine interest in people. When you meet them, they are genuinely interested in you. They want to know about you. They ask about you, they listen to you with great interest, about your life, what you do, how you got there, your unique gifts, and they are genuinely delighted in you. And that’s a rare quality. Not many people are like that. Many people have known you a long time, but they don’t know anything about you, because they don’t ask, and they don’t ask, because they are not interested. 

            But the heart of Christ is a heart that is interested in people. Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, who was a bishop of the Russian Orthodox Church, points out that the more we pray, the more we enter the heart of God, but there in the heart of God, we discover our neighbor, who was conceived there from all eternity. At that point, we are moved to return to earth to seek out that neighbor. That’s why the more a person grows in holiness, the more interested they are in concrete individual human persons, that is, interested in their world. 

            And that’s why St. John Bosco was so widely loved, why he befriended countless young people and influenced the world through those young people in ways that are simply beyond our ability to conceive. He was genuinely interested in people, young people in particular.

            The next portion of the readings that struck me was from the gospel: 

Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones, for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven.

            This is the harshest thing Jesus ever said in the New Testament: it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the sea. I don’t know where people get the idea that Jesus was always nice and accepting of everyone and everything, that he’d never say an unkind or offensive word to anyone. This is what the Cardinal of Toronto refers to as the “meringue Jesus”, sweet and light, like the meringue on top of a lemon pie. Followers of the “meringue Jesus” don’t read the New Testament; if they did, they’d see that Jesus can be rather offensive at times, especially to Pharisees. In any case, what’s the issue here? The issue is scandalizing these little ones who believe in Christ. There is nothing that Jesus values more than the heart of a child, which is why he commands us to change and become as little children. That alone is the condition for entering into the kingdom of God. But the heart of a child can be corrupted by the bad influence of others. 

            The other day I had a Confirmation class of about 40 grade 7s. We were talking about Original Sin and I asked how many of them have a ‘sense of the divine’ (sensus divinitatis), that sense or awareness of the presence of God within your life. I wasn’t expecting many hands to go up, but many hands went up, a clear majority. There’s a remarkable innocence in these kids; they believe, they are open to the Lord, and I did tell them that they could lose that sense of the divine in their lives as they get older, that they really need to make sure they don’t lose that, but to value it, nurture it, protect it. 

            There are, however, adults in this world–basically the culture in which we live–who will be in the lives of these kids, perhaps their teachers, or their professors when they are old enough, or a family doctor, a next door neighbor, or even their own parents, who through their words, their demeanor, their own lack of faith and devotion, etc., might cause these little ones to stop believing, stop praying, and eventually lose that sense of the divine. This is death penalty material for Jesus. The reason is that there is nothing he values more than the heart of a child that believes in the Lord. And that’s why he commands us to change and become as little children. In the garden of Eden, after the sin of the first parents, God approaches: “When they heard the sound of the Lord God walking about in the garden … the man and his wife hid themselves from the Lord God among the trees”. One of the effects of Original Sin is this tendency to flee at the approach of God, which is the root of the loss of the sensus divinitatis. Man cannot tolerate the truth about himself. After the first sin, they saw that they were naked and felt shame. This is significant because children are fine with walking around naked, and they do so without shame, but the first sin was a rejection of our status as “child” dependent upon God. The first parents chose to be their own god, independent and sufficient unto themselves, and so man’s natural tendency now is towards prideful self-sufficiency.

            But here, in this gospel, Christ commands us to reverse all this. We are to become as children, naked and without shame, unself-conscious like children, humble like children. Humility is a strange and interesting virtue, for so many people believe they have it; moreover, you can believe you have it, without having an ounce of it. Moreover, the truly humble will not perceive that they have it, because a virtue is a certain kind of excellence, but the truly humble do not for a minute entertain the thought that they possess such excellence. They never look at themselves in the spiritual mirror and delight in what they see; they are empty of any kind of self-satisfaction and complacency. That’s what we are called to, and the more we go down that road, the more joyful we will be, like children who are full of wonder and delight in the simplest things. So too will our lives become full of wonder, for we will begin to see the hand of God everywhere.

A Short Reflection on the Royal Priesthood of the Faithful

Homily for the Solemnity of the Epiphany
Deacon D. McManaman

This gospel reading for this celebration of the Epiphany is the fulfillment of what we heard in the first reading, from Isaiah, 60: “Jerusalem, …Nations shall walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance”. In the gospel, we read that the Magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem and said to Herod: “We saw his star at its rising and we have come to do him homage.”

On the basis of these readings, I’d like to make two main points: 1) about the cosmos, and 2) about man’s original vocation   

The first point on this solemnity of the Epiphany is that the world that God created, the cosmos in its entirety, is an epiphany. The word ‘epiphany’ means manifestation. The created world manifests the divine presence; it speaks of God, of his divine generosity, his benevolence. It praises the beauty and intelligence of God. Scripture makes this very clear. For example, in Psalm 19, we read: 

The heavens proclaim the glory of God
and the firmament shows forth the work of his hands.
Day unto day takes up the story
and night unto night makes known the message.

And so, creation announces, proclaims, speaks of God’s glory. 

Or consider Psalm 148:

Praise him, sun and moon;
praise him, all shining stars.
Praise him, highest heavens,
you waters above the heavens.
Let them all praise the Lord’s name;
for he commanded and they were created,
Assigned them their station forever,
set an order that will never change.

Just as a work of art is in many ways an epiphany of the artist, revealing so much about the artist, creation in all its diversity manifests and praises God.

But there is more. In the first story of Creation in the book of Genesis, God says to man:

Have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth. I have given you every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.

In other words, God created the world as a banquet for us, to feed us. For the Jews, a meal has much more significance than simply a means of sustaining biological life; a meal is a source of communion with all those at table, and so creation, which is given to man for food, is a source of communion with God.

My next point is that a priest is one who offers sacrifice, in particular the sacrifice of thanksgiving. The word Eucharist means ‘thanksgiving’. Man’s task is to receive the food that is creation and give thanks for them, and we give thanks by offering something in return. In other words, man was created to be a priest of creation–he was created to offer, to thank, to praise, to adore. He is to take what is given and lift it up to God, that it may become what God intended for it to become–namely, a means of communion with him. 

This pattern is visible at every level of creation. The lowest level of the hierarchy of being in the physical universe is the mineral level, the level of non-living matter. Above that are living things, i.e., plants, but plant life takes non-living matter and consumes it, that is, raises it up through the power of nutrition and transforms it into living matter (this is what happens when we water plants). Non-living matter is food for living matter, and life lifts it up, so to speak. But brute animals eat plants, and through the process of metabolism change plant life into living animal tissue, a higher mode of life. It does this, however, by killing it first and then raising it up. Plants must be sacrificed first in order to be lifted up to serve something higher. But man exercises dominion over the animal kingdom, raising it up to serve human needs, in a number of ways, not always for food. Man, who contains within himself the entire hierarchy of being within himself, is to take all that he is and has become, and all that he possesses, and offer it to God, in the service of God, in a spirit of thanksgiving or Eucharist. Man is a priest of creation. 

But the fall of man was a rejection of this priesthood. He chose to make himself his own god. As a result, he gradually became deaf to the praises sung by creation, he no longer possessed the eyes and ears to understand the universe as an epiphany. He no longer had the mind to see the entire cosmos as gift, as food given to him by God out of his superabundant generosity, for the sake of communion with him. And so, he no longer gave thanks. His life ceased to be Eucharistic. 

However, God made a covenant with Abraham, the father of Israel, in order to make her a holy nation, a priestly kingdom (Ex 19, 6). And so, Israel is a light to the nations, a holy people, set apart from all others, a priestly people, and the first reading says: 

Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem! Your light has come,
the glory of the Lord shines upon you.
See, darkness covers the earth,
and thick clouds cover the peoples;
but upon you the LORD shines,
and over you appears his glory.
Nations shall walk by your light,
and kings by your shining radiance.

And the Magi walk by the light of Jerusalem, and that light is a star. In other words, the Magi, these ancient non-Israelite priests of Persia, had eyes for this cosmological epiphany; their priestly existence made them able to discover the Christ child. The Lord was preparing the nations for something new. The Magi follow a star that leads them to Christ, who is the Epiphany of epiphanies, who is God in the flesh. And they have come to worship, to do him homage, to offer him gifts. They do not walk in darkness, they walk by the light of Israel.

What this announces is that the New Covenant will be an international covenant–it will extend beyond the borders of Israel to embrace the whole world. That is why Christ sent his disciples out to all nations. Christ came to restore the world to its status as God’s kingdom (house, palace, covenanted family). Christ, who is God, is everything that man hungers for, his kingdom is everything that man searches for, everything that the great religions of the world are searching for–God become man. And what man was and is called to be is right there in the image of the Magi, who do homage to Christ. We were created “through him and for him”, for Christ’s priesthood; we were created to worship, to adore, to offer. We were created to become Christ, which is what happens in an ordinary Mass. That’s our completion. That was our original vocation, that our entire life, every day, be a sacrifice of thanksgiving, a constant lifting up all we have and are to God, to receive what the Lord gives us and to offer it to him in thanksgiving, whether that be our work, our children, every moment of time in our lives. We are priests. In baptism, we were anointed priest, prophet and king; we are members of the Royal Priesthood of the Faithful. What the ordained ministerial priest does is he takes what we offer, namely bread and wine, which represent the fruit of our labor, our sacrifices, our daily stresses and frustrations, our efforts and the love behind that labor, we offer it here, at the altar, and he takes it and lifts it up on our behalf, and Christ, who is the priest at the altar, receives that bread and wine that we have offered to him and changes it into himself, his own body and blood, which in turn is the sacrifice that Christ offers to the Father. And that is returned to us as food, but it is no longer bread and wine, but the actual food of his body and blood: “for my body is real food”, he says, and “my blood real drink”. Through this exchange, we are deified, united to his sacrificial and Eucharistic offering. Like food that is metabolized, we are raised up to a higher life, a divine-human life. And now, our entire life is subordinated to God; for we are his servants, and servants follow orders. We live under his commands. That’s our fulfillment, and that’s what we were created for.

In this gospel, Herod represents all those who refuse this priesthood. To preserve his power, he sacrifices the innocents, those children called to be priests of his creation, whom he sees as a threat to his status and power, because among them is a king. He is his own god; he does not worship. He is a liar and a murderer for the sake of making his own life more convenient. 

And this world is still divided accordingly. I was watching a debate on abortion recently, which was 2 hours and 20 minutes. This is unusual, because abortion is no longer debated; people won’t talk about that. But it was very interesting because the debate was very civil. And both sides were very intelligent and articulate. A young female medical student was arguing for abortion rights, while a young man was arguing against abortion, for the rights of the unborn child. But what I found interesting is that despite the brilliant arguments and points made by the young man arguing for the rights of the unborn child not to be murdered, he was not making any progress; it was like sound waves bouncing off a wall. And there was a wall that divided them, the same wall that divides the world, which Christ came to erect: “Do not think I have come to bring peace; I have come not to bring peace, but a sword of division.” (Mt 10, 34). For the young woman, the issue is all about my consent, my will, my rights, my body, my decision. In other words, my life does not belong to the Lord, it belongs to me. But for the young man, the issue was about obeying, submitting to a higher law, that is, not my will, my rights, my consent, but “Thy will be done”. Although she was very civil, not to mention bright and persistent, she was in some ways a daughter of Herod. His attitude, on the other hand, represented the priesthood of the faithful, our original vocation that was restored in Christ.