The Holy Apostles: St. Paul of Tarsus

Statue of St. Paul St. Peter's Square
Statue of St. Paul
St. Peter’s Square

And we’re back!  This week’s saint is St. Paul, known as the Great Apostle.  St. Paul wasn’t one of the original apostles, but we might consider him an apostle by adoption, an apostle by grace, or an apostle by influence.  We know so much about him because of his epistles.  In fact, 14 of the 27 letters in the New Testament are attributed to him.  This is incredibly important, because not only does he pass along to us the understanding and teaching of the Church from its first days (which is quite thorough already!), but he tells us much about himself in the process.  In fact, we know so much about him that I’m going to have to write this segment in two parts.  Also, this will keep these shorter, and might keep the secretary from getting too mad at me…

Paul’s father was a Roman citizen, and of a certain class that his citizenship passed on to Paul as well.  He was likely part of a devoutly Jewish merchant family, as Tarsus (where he was from) was one of the largest trade centers in the Mediterranean.  Originally, his name was Saul, possibly after the original King Saul, who like him, was of the Jewish tribe of Benjamin.

St. Paul spent much of his childhood selling tents, which later came in handy to fund his missionary journeys.  I mean, people in the ancient world loved tents!  He was very educated, and steeped in the Jewish faith as a member of the Pharisee class.  He studied under Gamaliel, one of the most famous rabbis in history, but he also learned Greek and studied the Greek philosophers as well, which his writings clearly reference.  He was so zealous as a Pharisee that he persecuted the early Christian community, and was even present at the death of the first Christian martyr, St. Stephen.

"The Conversion of Saint Paul" by Luca Giordano
“The Conversion of Saint Paul” by Luca Giordano

Of course, his conversion on the road to Damascus is well documented, so much so that it has it’s own feast day in the Church calendar.  Along the way, St. Paul was blinded, knocked off his horse, and heard a voice crying out, “Saul, Saul!  Why are you persecuting me?”  It was indeed Jesus, who felt the persecution of his Church as his own.  Christ told Paul to go to Damascus and meet Ananias, another Christian, who would teach him the ways of the faith, almost like a primordial RCIA program.  Good thing our RCIA team doesn’t have to heal blindness too often, eh?

The dramatic conversion of St. Paul calls us to our own continued conversion as well.  It shows us that anyone, even someone like Paul who threatened and persecuted and killed the early followers of Jesus, could be saved by God’s grace.  Even when we might think that we are too sinful and shameful to receive God’s forgiveness, he reaches out to us through the Sacrament of Reconciliation to bring us mercy and conversion of heart.  And then, like St. Paul, he sends us out to give thanks for his mercy and courageously and joyfully live as a witness to the world.  But we’ll save that part until next week.  Stay tuned!

Homily From the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C – St. Louis, King of France

Dante and Cicero journeying through Hell in the "Inferno"
Dante and Cicero journeying through Hell in the “Inferno”

Usually one of the greatest curiosities that people in the Church have are about Heaven and Hell.  What are they like?  Lots of concepts and images have been put forward – some very Christian, and some not so much.  One of the best that I heard recently was that in Heaven, the French are the chefs, the Italians are the romantics, the British are the police, the Germans are the mechanics, and the Swiss make everything run on time.  Hell, on the other hand, is where the British are the chefs, the Swiss are the romantics, the French are the mechanics, the Italians make everything run on time, and the Germans are the police!

Well, maybe this isn’t the most accurate image, but I think there are three things that both this joke and the Gospel teach us today.  The first is that Heaven exists.  Now, is it clouds and angels and harps and whatnot?  I don’t know.  That’s probably unlikely.  But the Gospel speaks about Heaven as the great Banquet in the Kingdom of God – a place of friendship and salvation and eternal life.

The second thing that we can learn from the Gospel is that as much as Heaven exists, Hell exists too.  Is it fire?  Is it ice, as Dante suggests?  Again, who knows.  But in the Gospel, Hell is what is outside the banquet – a place not of friendship, but of agony and loneliness.  It is a place of “wailing and gnashing of teeth”, a place of hopeless frustration of the soul when it cuts itself off forever from relationship with God.

The third thing that we learn from the Gospel is that to make our way to Heaven, we have to do our part.  It is not enough to simply have superficial knowledge of Christ, like the people who said, “We ate and drank in your company, and you taught in our streets!”  The master responded, “I do not know where you are from.  I don’t know you.”  In the same way, it is not enough to simply show up for Mass or prayer, do our time, put a checkmark in the box, and check out.  We have to have a lasting, living, and growing friendship with Christ.  That’s the only thing that will lead us to heaven.  Like any real friendship, that means effort, self-sacrifice, investment of time and energy, and so on.  But it has to be intentional – we have to strive for God.

There is a kind of attitude in the world and even within the Church today that doubts the existence of Hell.  The approach is to say, “I can’t believe that an all-loving God would send people to Hell.”  But the truth is, God doesn’t send people to Hell.  It’s not as though he says, “Well, I’m so sorry, you were just a few percentage points away from Heaven.”  God doesn’t send people to hell – people choose Hell for themselves.  Hell, above everything else, is the absence of God.  So the reality is that God loves us so much that if we desire to be separated from him, he would allow it.  As much as he longs and desires for us to be with him forever, he gives us the freedom to reject him if we choose.  So really, God’s love wouldn’t prevent Hell at all; in fact, it’s because of God’s love that Hell exists.  So if we live our lives without a desire for God, why would our eternity be any different?

One of the most popular works of Italian literature is the Divine Comedy by Dante.  It is Dante’s imagination of the afterlife, and consists of the story of his journey through the afterlife: first Hell in the Inferno, then Purgatory in the Purgatorio, and then Heaven in the Paradiso.  As he is journeying through Hell, he comes across all these different groups of people being punished in a variety of ways: gluttons sitting around in trash, the wrathful fighting each other in the mud forever, and hypocrites walking around in beautiful robes made of lead, just to name a few.  This may sound like terrible punishments to us, but the interesting thing is that these individuals have no idea that what they are experiencing is punishment!  They have no idea that anything is wrong!  The point that Dante is making is that they were living out in the afterlife what they had always done in their earthly lives in the first place.

Now the temptation is for us to think that this warning of Christ is for other people, like murderers and adulterers and whatnot.  There is a sort of pride that some people take in not being good, in not being a saint – “Well, I’m no saint, so…”  They think that the right intention is good enough.  But there was an interesting quotation that I heard recently: “Hell is full of good intentions, but heaven is full of good works.”  So the question I think we need to ask ourselves today is “How am I trying to show by my life that I am striving for more than Hell?  How am I striving for Heaven?”  I’m certainly not giving this homily to scare you or tell you that we’re all going to Hell, but it’s a challenging point.  This isn’t just for you sitting in the pews either – many of the people that Dante saw in the Inferno were popes, bishops, and priests!

Statue of St. Louis on Art Hill Property of Archstl.org
Statue of St. Louis on Art Hill
Property of Archstl.org

We need to strive for Heaven, and St. Louis, King of France, was a great example of someone who constantly expressed his desire for this.  He was the King of France in the 1200’s, so along with the Pope, he was probably the most powerful man in the world.  He could have had anything he wanted, he could have hoarded his wealth, he could have lorded his authority over others – but he didn’t.  Instead, he founded hospitals and visited the sick, especially lepers.  Every day, he invited 13 poor guests from the streets of Paris to join him in the palace for a meal, and sometimes, he himself would serve it!  He tried to protect innocents from soldiers – both his own and enemies – during the 7th and 8th crusades.  He united France by his holiness and personality – the lords and ladies, the peasants, the priests, and the knights.  One beautiful quotation attributed to him expresses his desire for Heaven most beautifully: “I think more of the church in Poissy where I was baptized than of the Cathedral in Rheims where I was crowned king.  The latter I will lose at death, but the former is my passport to eternal life.”

Brothers and sisters, we can’t take our relationship with Christ for granted.  We have to consciously and continually strive to enter through that narrow gate.  And today, Christ invites us to rededicate ourselves to that.  The best way to do this is by trying to do something intentional that isn’t already required – take some ownership of your faith.  Try making it up for a 6:30 or 8:00 Mass during the week, taking those precious 15 minutes of prayer with the Scripture each day, or choosing one of our military parishioners to pray for.  Let’s try together to make every effort to strive for Heaven.  To conclude, I’d like to share with you this beautiful quote from a letter from St. Louis to his son: “In conclusion, dearest son, I give you every blessing that a loving father can give a son.  May the Lord give you the grace to do his will, so that he may be served and honored through you, that in the next life, we may together come to see him, love him, and praise him unceasingly.  Amen.”

Homily From the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to go with our teens to the Steubenville Youth Conference in Springfield, Missouri.  It was great to spend time with the teens and see them grow in their faith, but at least at first, it was a bit strange.  When we arrived at the JQH Arena (apparently everything in Springfield, MO is named for John Q. Hammonds), I was amazed at the teens around us getting fire up.  We were surrounded by 3,500 other teens who were obviously excited to be at the Conference, so much so that they were chanting back and forth things like “We love Jesus, yes we do!  We love Jesus, how ‘bout you?”  Like I said, it was kind of cool to see, but also strange.  You don’t really see people getting this pumped about Jesus much, do you?  If so, it’s usually strange, and we start to wonder what’s wrong with them.  I don’t know what our teens were thinking, but it looked like they were uncomfortable.  Whether those chanting were genuine in doing so, whether they were doing it to fit in, or just to be crazy, I don’t know, but it got me to asking, “How did they get to this point?  How did they come to be so on fire with their faith?”  Jesus tells us in the Gospel today that he has come to set the earth on fire, but how do we feed that fire of faith in our own hearts?

Most of the time, fires that we make don’t start as huge, raging infernos, unless you use lighter fluid or those self-lighting brickettes or gasoline or something.  Most of the time when you’re building a fire, you just get it going with a match or spark on a piece of paper or a frayed piece of twine or something.  Most of the work of starting a fire is just putting things in the way of the flame to make them catch and help the fire grow.  Like I mentioned, we start with things like twigs or paper, but as the fire gets bigger and stronger, we put the larger logs over the flame.  Soon those will catch as well, and you’ll have that huge fire you’d been wanting all along.  Faith is much the same way.  We can’t expect to start with things like chanting “I love Jesus, yes I do!” or to have elaborate experiences of prayer – it has to start small and grow.

So I thought of five ways that we can all ignite that fire of faith within our hearts:

  • The first is to pray with Scripture.  This is fundamental.  The first thing we need to do is to get to know the one person at the heart of our faith, Jesus Christ.  Notice I said pray with Scripture and not just read Scripture.  One of the most proven methods of doing this is called Lectio Divina, an ancient discipline of praying with Scripture.  Essentially, start with a prayer to the Holy Spirit, asking for the grace to be open to the Word of God and to get something out of it!  Then read a section for 5 minutes – I suggest the Gospels of Matthew or Luke, as those are the most straightforward.  But then stop at the end of the section or 5 minutes.  Take the rest of the 10 minutes to pray asking what Christ is revealing to you in that passage.  What words or phrases is he showing you or helping you to connect with?  If we do this, it can help us to grow in our relationship with Christ.
  • The second thing to do is develop a relationship with the Sacraments.  Become actively involved.  So many times, we can be passive in our reception of the sacraments, only doing enough to get them done.  Don’t be a parasite on the sacraments!  Become actively involved!  I don’t just mean being an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion or a lector.  The service that these individuals offer is a great gift, but one of the simplest yet most fruitful ways of getting something out of Mass is to come prepared.  What are the readings about this week?  If Fr. Grosch dies during Mass, would I be able to speak about the readings???  At every Mass, a priest has a special intention that he offers, but Mass intentions aren’t just for priests.  What is my Mass intention this week?  Who or what am I offering at Mass?
  • The third is a tough oneUnderstand and embrace the fact that as you grow in your faith, it isn’t necessarily going to be accepted or comfortable.  This is a big theme in today’s readings.  Jesus says that he didn’t come to bring peace, but division.  When we grow in our love of our faith, we also grow in our love of what God has revealed to us – both in Scripture and what is written on our hearts and our very nature as human beings.  The more we love God, the more we love truth.  And the more we love truth, the more we realize the importance of defending it.  When we defend the truth revealed by God, a truth that is inconvenient at times, a truth that goes against what our culture or government believes at times, a truth which doesn’t feel great at times, people aren’t going to like what you have to say.  It happened to Jeremiah, as he was thrown into a mud pit.  It happened to the apostles as they were martyred one by one, save St. John.  It happened to Jesus himself!  We’re starting to hear about that more and more these days, as people who sincerely desire to live their faith and defend the truth are being called intolerant or hateful, simply because we don’t agree with the popular stances on birth control, same-sex marriage, abortion, or immigration.  Just because we don’t agree doesn’t mean we are hateful.  We can judge actions, and we should judge actions, but we can’t judge hearts or souls.  But we need to come to grips with this truth, and embrace it as an opportunity to grow closer to Christ.
  • This actually leads me to my next point.  Learn about your faith.  It’s hard to defend what we don’t understand!  Faith is an act of the will, it’s true.  But it’s also an act of the will giving assent to what the intellect has already learned about.  Faith has to be an exercise of both the head and the heart.  So learn about your faith!  Come to know it and love it!  I suggest starting by reading the YouCat.  It’s a catechism for teens, but it’s good for everyone.  It is the same content as the big Catechism of the Catholic Church, but put in a way that is easier to start with and understand before we move to more advanced material.
  • Lastly, do something that’s not required.  Sometimes, I think we do a disservice to the People of God by calling things a “Sunday obligation” or a “Holy Day of Obligation”, because it gives the impression that all we need to do is go to Mass on Sunday or even just once in a while, and we’re done with what God asks of us.  The Church requires things of us for a reason, but when we do things that aren’t required, it gives us ownership of our actions – we do things because we want to do them, not because we have to.  This could be a number of things – adoration on Tuesday evenings, praying the Rosary as a family, going to the St. Louis Catholic Men’s Conference or Women’s Conference, wearing a scapular around your neck, inviting me over to your house (to bless it, of course!).  All these things help us to grow in faith.  I know several people in our parish who started going to Daily Mass before work during Lent, and continued doing so even after Lent had concluded because they got so much out of it.  There is so much treasure of the Church outside what we already receive at Sunday Mass.

Christ has come to set the world, the Church, and our hearts on fire, and even now, he wishes they are already burning.  As we prepare to receive him now and the grace he gives us in this Most Blessed Sacrament of the Altar, let us feed the flames of faith alive in our own hearts, so that we might have a light to guide ourselves and others to the glory of God’s Kingdom.

The Holy Apostles: St. Jude

St-Jude-9Today’s saint is the feast-day buddy of St. Simon from last week.  He’s called “Jude” in the Gospel of Luke and Acts of the Apostles, but “Thaddeus” in Matthew and Mark.  Thus, lots of people in the Church simply refer to him as “Jude Thaddeus” to cover all their bases.  He was probably actually “Judas”, but that was shortened in order to avoid confusion with another Judas who you might have heard of.  Tradition holds that he was the son of Mary and Clopas, and so was the cousin of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  Other than his name, there is no direct reference to him anywhere in the Gospels.

We pick up St. Jude’s story after the Resurrection…or we would, if there were any reliable texts.  Tradition holds that St. Jude went to Judea, Samaria, Syria, and Mesopotamia.  Supposedly, he and St. Bartholomew were the first to bring Christianity to Armenia on their missionary journeys, and so are venerated as patron saints of the Armenian Church to this day.  In fact, there is a monastery in northern Iran (formerly part of Armenia) where a church was present even as early as 68 AD!

St. Jude and his partner St. Simon are spoken of in the famous story, the Golden Legend.  The legend speaks of the apostles’ martyrdom by a group of enchanters/magicians who belonged to the court of King Abgarus of Edessa (in Armenia).  St. Jude had been preaching to the king, and after his conversion, the magicians had been sent away, so in their anger and jealousy, they attacked and killed the two apostles.  In iconography, St. Jude is sometimes depicted holding an axe to symbolize the way he was martyred.  Today, his relics rest in St. Peter’s Basilica alongside his partner, St. Simon.

St. Jude has become one of the most popular Catholic devotions, even in our own parish.  He is usually pictured with a small flame atop his head, symbolizing the presence of the Holy Spirit, and wearing a pendant of the face of Christ, representing his missionary work of holding Christ in his heart and bearing him to others.

Somehow, the tradition developed of him being the patron saint of hopeless causes, although to be honest, I’m not sure why.  There have certainly been numerous powerful miracles through his intercession, even from the early days of the Church.  One example was the life of famous 40’s and 50’s comedian Danny Thomas.  Early on in his career, he was very near starvation, but was so moved by a homily on Sunday that he gave away all he had in the collection basket – except he didn’t realize it!  When he discovered that he had nothing left, he prayed that St. Jude would protect him and help him be successful, and sure enough, it happened!  Danny Thomas became extremely successful and pledged to build a hospital in St. Jude’s honor, which now stands in Memphis, Tennessee.

It’s worth reminding ourselves that even when things fall apart around us, when we have a strong faith, nothing is impossible for God.  St. Jude surely learned that in his time following Jesus, and he lived it out in his preaching and ultimately sacrifice.  Let’s pray that we would have hope, and that through St. Jude’s intercession, God would accomplish the impossible through us!

The Holy Apostles: St. Simon

morattiSimonWell, with nine of the original twelve apostles down, that brings us to St. Simon the Zealot.  St. Simon is referred to as the “zealot” to distinguish him from Simon Peter, but really, there’s not a whole lot known about him from the Gospels.  A lot is extrapolated from that little nickname!

Some Church Fathers identified St. Simon as being from Cana in Galilee, although many modern scholars seem to think a mistake in translation led such Fathers as St. Jerome to make this assumption.  Some Easter Christians hold the tradition that St. Simon was the bridegroom at the wedding feast in Cana where Jesus turned water into wine, and that he was so moved by the miracle and so “zealous”, that he left his new bride to follow Christ.  Sounds like the beginning of a great romantic comedy!

Other traditions hold that the title “zealot” indicates that he was a devout and zealous follower of the Jewish Law before he met Jesus.  Still other traditions take that a step further and suggest that his devotion to the Law actually drove him to be a member of the Jewish revolutionary group known as the Zealots.

The Zealots tried to stir up the people of the Roman province of Judea to rebel against the Empire by force of arms.  We might consider them to be the spiritual successors to the Maccabees, who did the same thing against the Greeks 160 years before.  Their belief was that only God was the king of Israel, and the Law of Moses was their only law, and so the Roman occupiers were not only politically harmful, they were also spiritually desecrating Israel by their rule.  This all came to a head in the Great Jewish Revolt from 66 to 70 AD, which ultimately resulted in the Temple being destroyed by the Romans.  If St. Simon was part of this group, it is assumed that he gave this part of his life up when he began following Jesus.

After the Resurrection, St. Simon’s life is just as foggy.  Most traditions hold that he did his missionary work with St. Jude Thaddeus (who we will discuss next week).  Unfortunately for historians, pretty much every region of the world claims St. Simon preached to them (zealot indeed!), although the most likely destinations are Egypt, North Africa, Persia and Lebanon.  One of the more popular Church traditions is that he was named Bishop of Jerusalem for a time, and was martyred doing missionary work in that region.  Often times, he is depicted in art holding a saw, which supposedly was the instrument of his martyrdom!  Intense!  Today, his relics are believed to be entombed alongside St. Jude’s in St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.

Maybe the most important quality that we can take away from what little we know of St. Simon’s life is what he is known for – his zeal.  Generally speaking, zeal is a great enthusiasm or energy which drives one toward a cause or goal.  In the case of St. Simon and many of the saints, his zeal was a zeal for souls, spreading the Gospel to all the nations, just as the Lord had commissioned him.  It’s so easy to put other needs and concerns ahead of our faith, but the example of St. Simon and the saints is that all of the affairs of our lives ultimately continue to direct us toward our most important goal – Heaven.  Let us pray through the intercession of St. Simon that we might have his zeal in every aspect of our lives!