Sirach 44:1, 10-15; Matthew 13:16-17
July 26, 2023 

I am grateful for the presence of Father Jim O’Shea, Provincial of the Passionist community, and so thankful to Father Richard Burke, the rector of Saint Ann’s Monastery and the members of the Passionist community as well as to the friends and supporters of Saint Ann’s Monastery for making this incredible time of prayer and worship in honor of Saint Ann available to us all.  I am especially grateful to Father Melvin Shorter and Brother Andre Mathieu for preaching this year’s novena.  You have touched this community and on its behalf, I thank you.

This past winter, you might recall that the weather wasn’t nearly as cold and snowy as it typically is – except for a few days right before and after Christmas.  Can you recall those days?  You probably can if you think about your heating bill that no doubt spiked because of a few days of brutally cold weather.

 I’d like to share with you an experience that I had on one of those bitterly cold days that revealed to me – in my heart – nothing short of the power and presence of God.  That experience proved to be so significant that I’ve shared it many times, particularly with young people from throughout our diocese as I celebrated the Sacrament of Confirmation and reflected with them upon the call that we have all been given to live as faithful witnesses of the Gospel of Jesus.

Most of you know that I live in the rectory right next to our cathedral on Wyoming Avenue in downtown Scranton.  One evening during those very cold days right around Christmas, I was coming home from an event.  I drove into the alley behind the cathedral, passed by the church and then the rectory and pulled into the garage.  I turned off the car, closed the garage door and walked out of the side door of the garage, searching for my key to get into the rectory as quickly as possible because of the cold.  But just as I was ready to open the door, I heard a voice coming from behind a locked gate between the garage and the rectory. 

The voice came from a man whom I’d never seen before in the downtown and who looked quite obviously to be homeless.  …  “Father – it’s cold.  Can you help me out?”  …  “What can I do for you, sir,” I asked.  …  “I’m hungry,” he said.  …  I asked him if he had been to Saint Francis Kitchen, which is just a few blocks from the cathedral and serves meals twice a day.  …  “No,” he said, “It was closed by the time I got there.”  …  “And I need a place to stay.  It’s cold and I won’t survive out here.”  …  I asked if he had gone to our shelter, which is also just a few blocks from the cathedral.  …  “Yes, but it’s filled.  Can you help me?”

I have to admit that by that point, I was very cold, I wanted to get into the warmth of my house and I wondered if I was being set up.  Was this poor soul simply looking for a few bucks to buy cigarettes or drugs or something to drink?    Everybody on the streets in the city know where our kitchen and shelter are located and their hours of operation.  What should I do?  I would have been no support to him if I simply enabled an addiction.  …  What would you have done? 

Mercifully, as I was struggling with what appeared to me to be a set-up, some better angels spoke to my heart.  What if he was telling me the truth?  How could I turn someone away who was in such need?  …  What would Jesus do?  …  Maybe that was Jesus – testing me and my resolve to live as his disciple.

While not feeling particularly proud of myself, I dug into my pocket and reluctantly pulled out some cash, gave him enough to buy something to eat and to stay in a local hotel.  I don’t know if I truly helped the man, if I complicated his life or if I had been taken over by a slick operator.  Frankly, I was a little bit confused.  But I left it all up to God to sort out.  I felt a little bit guilty for wondering about his honesty.  But then I took some quiet consolation in trusting that, as best I could, I tried to be a witness to what I believe as a Christian.  Remember those words of Jesus?  “When I was hungry, you gave me food.  But when Lord?  As often as you did it to the least of my brothers or sisters, you did it to me.”

Pope Francis has often said that “it is amazing what we are capable of doing when our hearts are touched by Jesus.”  …  And he is correct.  It is amazing what can occur when we see one another not as adversaries – not as different – not as “the other” – but as brothers and sisters – individuals made in the image and likeness of one God who calls us together as his children.

I will never know what actually was going on in my exchange with a homeless man on that cold December night last year.  Maybe he was taking advantage of me.  Who knows?  But one thing is certain.  That man came from the same imperfect world into which you and I were born.  He came from a world in need of redemption – a world very much in need of God.  …  And for me that exchange became an unexpected moment that was filled with the presence of God.  …  For me – God was teaching me a lesson about all that is possible when we set aside our selfish, self-centered, self-righteous ways, when we seek to forgive, and when we let Jesus guide us forward. 

My friends, every one of us gathered for this Mass today have had moments like I experienced at my backdoor last winter.  …  Every one of us has been and continues to be touched by the presence of God in our lives when we least expect that presence to grasp hold of our hands and hearts.  …  And every one of us can recount a moment in our lives – perhaps even during this treasured novena – in which we were blessed to encounter the presence of God!

Today’s gospel from Saint Matthew, in its two simple verses, reminds us of all that we’ve been given by God.  “Blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears, because they hear.”  …  While many listeners couldn’t understand what Jesus was talking about, the disciples did.  Because they were humble enough to trust in the power and presence of God, they knew well that Jesus was talking about how crucial it is for all of us to take the gift of faith that we’ve been given, to nurture and care for it, to act upon it and to allow it to bear fruit in our own lives and in the lives of those whom God places within our midst. 

“Blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears, because they hear.”  …  Because of Jesus’ incarnation – his birth in time and space – God’s presence is all around us, filling our world with love and mercy – giving us hope in times of struggle and challenge.  We have only to look and listen with care. 

We know very little about the two saints whom we honor this night:  Saint Ann and her husband, Saint Joachim.  But we can assume a few things.  …  We can assume from our understanding of the era in which they lived and the holiness of their daughter Mary, that they were simple people with a great deal of faith and hope.  …  And we can assume that they looked carefully at the unfolding of their lives and their world for signs of God’s presence and love. 

Don’t these two saints, Ann and Joachim, teach us an important lesson?  By the very example of their lives, they remind us that we often spend far too much time telling God what to do instead of trusting that God will work things out in our lives – instead of believing that God is present to us throughout our life’s journey.

Perhaps now we begin to understand why God looked to Nazareth, a poor, hostile, outback area of Palestine, in order to find a family in which his son could be born.  …  While the world has long set misguided parameters for greatness, God sees greatness in hearts that are humble enough to acknowledge their need for his mercy and generous enough to extend that mercy to others, despite their own pain. 

This simple reality of God’s plan for creation affirms that God continues to work in my life and yours – if we but open our eyes to see God’s presence all around us.  And God continues to use unlikely individuals like Ann and Joachim, like Joseph and Mary, like me and you, to accomplish his purpose in our world – to give hope – and to proclaim a message of life, salvation, mercy and peace. 

As we bring this novena to a close, may we hold within our hearts these words of Pope Francis, “Let us follow the path that the Lord desires. Let us ask him to turn to us with his healing and saving gaze.  …  Never allowing ourselves to be tarnished by pessimism or sin, let us seek and look upon the glory of God, which shines forth in us all, men and women who are fully alive through faith.”