A Radical Preference for Heavenly Treasure

14 Oct

Today’s Gospel sounds extreme. That’s because it is extreme. It’s a gut punch to our modern, more moderate sensibilities – which is why we should pay special attention.

A man kneels before Jesus and asks (with apparent sincerity) what he has to do to be saved. “You are lacking in one thing,” Jesus tells him. “Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven” (Mk 10.21). It’s a classic application of the maxim, “Be careful what you wish for; you just might get it.” In this case, the man got the one answer – perhaps the only answer – that he couldn’t accept. “His face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.”

Then Jesus turns to his disciples with a zinger: “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God” – impossible if we take seriously the Lord’s camel/needle’s eye imagery. It’s a pastoral body slam! “Then who can be saved?” the disciples object, for they know that everybody tends to jealously guard his hard-won worldly fief. Peter even blurts out in self defense, “We have given up everything and followed you,” and we can picture the other disciples nodding their heads in agreement.

Yet total divestment of that which keeps us from Jesus can take many forms. You’ll recall that a few Sundays back, Jesus had to rebuke these same disciples for “discussing among themselves on the way who was the greatest” (Mk 9.34). Can’t you just see Jesus shaking his head; can’t you hear him sigh? “If anyone wishes to be first,” he patiently told them, “he shall be the last of all.”

Again, total divestment is the point – of money, of power, of prestige, of all the world holds dear. Jesus makes discipleship sound extreme. It is extreme.

Just how extreme can be glimpsed in the life of St. Dominic Loricatus, OSB Cam., whose feast is normally observed today (Oct. 14). Born in 995, he received holy orders as a child after his family bribed a bishop – the sin of simony. Later, as a young man, Dominic repented of this sin, refused to exercise his priestly office, and fled to the Camaldolese monastery of Fonte Avellana in central Italy to do lifelong penance.

Ironically, Dominic’s repentant retreat to obscurity led to his fame. At the time, Fonte Avellana was home to St. Peter Damian, who advocated self-mortification as a spiritual discipline. Dominic followed this counsel and embraced the practice. For example, he took up a chain-mail vest, or lorica – the source of his nickname – and wore it next to his skin until his death in 1060.

Dominic also engaged in self-flagellation, which is how he merited a mention in Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire:

By a fantastic arithmetic, a year of penance was taxed at three thousand lashes; and such was the skill and patience of a famous hermit, St. Dominic of the iron Cuirass, that in six days he could discharge an entire century, by a whipping of three hundred thousand stripes.

So…extreme? Perhaps – especially since Dominic couldn’t have been held responsible for his illicit youthful ordination. But this pious monk, with his sights firmly fixed on heaven, resolved to keep his distance from serious sin, despite his remote culpability – and who can argue with his choice? He might’ve foregone the inestimable gift of his priesthood and employed the harshest methods, but he won a crown in heaven.

How about us? Can we go to extremes for sanctity? “All things are possible for God,” Jesus tells us today. Let’s take him at his word.

A version of this meditation appeared on Catholic Exchange. A shorter version originally appeared in the Sunday bulletin of St. Joseph Catholic Church, Mishawaka, Indiana. 


Holy Hubbub: Lessons from Squabbling Saints

6 Oct

To live above with the Saints we love,
Ah, that is the purest glory.
To live below with the Saints we know,
Ah, that is another story!
~ Irish toast

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Our Local Pro-Life Guardian Angel

22 Sep

“See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven” (Mt. 18.10).

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Fathers Stay Put: Of Paternity, Stability, and Canon 522

22 Sep

“Efforts must be made to restore socially the conviction that the place and task of the father in and for the family is of unique and irreplaceable importance.”
~ Pope St. John Paul II

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The iFilter: Taking a Cue from Big Tobacco

10 Sep

“I’m addicted to the Internet
because it’s more interesting than people.”
~ Dilbert

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Preaching With His Life: Blessed Pierre Bonhomme

9 Sep

“Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared; then will the lame leap like a stag, then the tongue of the mute will sing” (Is 35.5-6).

“Preach the Gospel at all times,” St. Francis is supposed to have said. “When necessary, use words.” There’s no hard evidence that the Troubadour of Assisi actually uttered this pithy phrase, but it’s the kind of thing you’d expect him to say, for Francis was all about putting faith into action.

But tradition also has it that Francis was ordained a deacon, which meant that he was trained to preach, and preach he did. He preached to the public, he preached to his followers, he even preached to the birds when nobody else would listen. Clearly St. Francis saw the value of preaching with words. He just matched those words with deeds.

Francis’s model for this, of course, was our Lord himself. Jesus spoke about healing and reconciliation, and he brought them about. It’s what we see in this Sunday’s readings. Isaiah had anticipated that the Messiah would do things like give sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, and speech to the mute – and Jesus proclaimed his fulfillment of Isaiah’s predictions (cf. Lk 4.21).

In today’s Gospel, Jesus backs up those claims with results. A deaf man with impaired speech is brought to the Lord for healing, Jesus responds decisively, and “immediately the man’s ears were opened, his speech impediment was removed, and he spoke plainly” (Mk 7.35). The Jewish crowd, well versed in messianic prophecy, caught the Isaiah associations immediately. “He has done all things well,” they started saying to each other. “He makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.”

There’s a deeper meaning here beyond the fulfillment of prophecy however. By restoring hearing and speech to the man, Jesus also presumably restored to him his place in the social order and his ability to be gainfully employed – that is, Jesus also healed the man’s dignity as a human person. Even deeper still, however, there’s this: The healing that the man in today’s Gospel received would allow him to hear the Good News and then respond by proclaiming it himself, and in that he is a model for us today. We, too, want to hear all that Jesus would have us hear in the Word, and we, too, want to be full-throated witnesses to that effect.

Such was also the ardent desire of Bl. Pierre Bonhomme, a French priest, evangelist, and founder whose feast is ordinarily observed today (September 9). Born and raised in Gramat in the Diocese of Cahors, Fr. Bonhomme returned to his hometown after his ordination in 1827. He was a devoted pastor and tireless preacher, but he also extended himself to those at the fringes of society, particularly the sick, the elderly, and the poor. He established charitable and educational institutions, and recruited others to assist him in these works. In time, he succeeded in founding a religious community of women dedicated to such efforts, the Congregation of the Sisters of Our Lady of Calvary.

So, here’s Bl. Pierre, following in the footsteps of his Lord and Master, striving to match word with deed, and suddenly he lost his voice – right in the middle of preaching a retreat. He prayed for relief through the intercession of Our Lady of Rocamdour, to whom he had a special devotion, and he received a miraculous cure – just like the man in today’s Gospel.

Yet later, in 1848, he lost his voice again, and this time no amount of prayer brought it back. He was “obliged to give up preaching,” reads the Vatican’s biography, but the “priest did not despair; he trusted in God’s providence and believed that this would afford him the opportunity to dedicate himself to the flourishing congregation he had founded.” That is, like the Franciscan aphorism, Fr. Bonhomme kept right on preaching, even though he’d been deprived of words. In fact, his experience gave him a special awareness of the needs of the disabled, which resulted in his fostering new institutions to serve the deaf-mute population.

Fr. Bonhomme died in 1861, and Pope St. John Paul II beatified him in 2003. The Congregation he founded still thrives today, with sisters serving communities around the world, and they look to Bl. Pierre as their patron. Additionally, and maybe ironically, he is also deemed a patron of preachers, despite the fact that he lost his voice – not once, but twice.

And here’s another irony: In between those two periods of involuntary silence, Bohomme sampled self-imposed speechlessness on retreat with the Trappists and then resolved to seek quiet seclusion as a way of life with the Carmelites. “However, the Bishop of Cahors did not accept this proposal,” according to his Vatican profile, “and encouraged him to continue his missionary activities.”

Cloistered communities dedicated to prayer, like the Trappists and Carmelites, are a great gift to the Church and certainly have their place – indeed, a privileged place. But most of us, like Bl. Pierre, are called to remain active in the world, preaching the Gospel daily, one way or another, loud and clear.

A version of this reflection appeared in the bulletin of St. Joseph Church, Mishawaka, Indiana.

A Reading List for a Eucharistic Life

4 Sep

“Does it matter? Grace is everywhere….”
~ Georges Bernanos

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