18th Sunday in Ordinary Time – August 1, 2020
Closing Mass – Villa of Our Lady Retreat Center, Mt. Pocono 

There’s a sadness in our gathering today, isn’t there?  If I have my dates right, after almost 70 years, this wonderful retreat center that has provided such peace and consolation to so many souls is closing its doors.  And even more significantly, in the course of its closing, the last mission entrusted to the Bernardine Franciscan Sisters in the Diocese of Scranton will come to an end.  After more than 125 years of service in this local Church, you are being called to serve in different ways and places – yet, with the same commitment to spreading the good news of God’s love and mercy to the faithful entrusted to your care.

Today, then, more than most days, is a time to remember – to reflect – to trust – to let go – and to move forward in hope.  …  If you would indulge me for a moment, I’d like to give voice to some of these memories.

As many of you know, while raised in a parish that was blessed with the presence of Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, who educated me for 12 years, my personal, family life was immersed in the Bernardine Franciscan Community.  My dad’s uncle was Monsignor Joseph Pilny, who served as pastor of SS. Peter and Paul Parish in Plains, where your Sisters served for many years.  Needless to say, whenever our family would gather in that parish – and we did often, since my great-grandmother lived there for many years before her passing – the Sisters were always present.  From Sister Damian, who served as principal of the parish school, to Sister Sylvester, to countless others, your Sisters were very much like extended members of our family.  In fact, my dad, mother and I would often be present with the Sisters when they would vacation in the summer at my grandmother’s cottage at Twin Lakes.  At a very early age, I learned that there would be dire consequences for me if I ever told anyone that I had seen any of the Sisters in bathing suits.

Of course, as a priest and bishop, I’ve had many opportunities to engage the Sisters of your community – the happiest of which were my years as pastor of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary Parish in Dickson City, where your Sisters staffed the parish school since its beginning days.  In addition to Sister LeRoy and Sister Manuelita, one of my closest friends and colleagues in ministry was Sister Carmencita.  I was privileged to preside at her funeral mass in your Mother House Chapel a few years ago when she passed.

Memories can be very good things – particularly when we are called to change and to move forward in new and different ways, as this moment challenges all of us to do.  They have the power to console us, and when woven into our faith experience, they can be a source of great hope and encouragement.  Today’s gospel speaks to this moment in our lives better than most.

The feeding of the multitudes is the only one of Jesus’ miracles recorded in all four Gospels, undoubtedly being given such a distinction because of the great sacrament that it foreshadows.  The first Christians especially cherished the story because they saw the miracle as a direct link to the Eucharist.  Indeed, the very actions of the miracle prefigure the actions of the eucharistic meal, as Jesus takes, blesses, breaks and gives the bread and fish to the multitude of hungry souls.

But there are other elements of the story that also speak to our understanding of the Eucharist and ultimately of our lives as followers of Jesus.

Let’s first look at the disciples.  Somewhat pessimistically, they approach Jesus to inform him that it’s late in the day, they’re in a deserted place and the crowds are likely getting hungry.  Their solution:  dismiss them so that they can care for themselves.  …  Frankly, I’ve often wondered if implicit in the disciples’ response was their hope that with the crowds gone, they’d have Jesus to themselves, plus a little peace and quiet.

But that wasn’t Jesus’ plan.  “There’s no need for them to go away; give them some food yourselves.”  …  As if to prove that Jesus’ plan was folly, the disciples managed to find some food – a mere five loaves and two fish from someone who was willing to share the little that she or he had.  “This is all we have.  What good is this for so many?” …  Jesus’ response to the disciples’ disappointing efforts, “Bring them here to me.”  …  And then he takes, blesses, breaks and gives the bread and fish to the reluctant disciples to give to the hungry crowds – and a miracle happened.

Do you notice something about the dynamic that takes place as this miracle unfolds?  Jesus could have fed the multitudes in whatever way he chose to feed them.  But he specifically chose to engage his disciples in this process.  At first, they weren’t convinced of his plans.  They seemed to have been a bit reluctant to follow his lead.  Yet, throughout their entire exchange, including using the disciples to miraculously distribute a few loaves and fish to feed thousands, Jesus set the stage for how he presence would endure following his passion, death and resurrection and how the Church would grow.  …  His disciples, no matter how ill-equipped or reluctant, would become his hands, his voice, his heart and his presence in our world.

St. Augustine put it best when he reflected upon the Eucharist – so powerfully foreshadowed in today’s gospel miracle, “Become the mystery you celebrate.”  …  Become the broken Christ whose life was poured forth for those that he loved.  …  Become the loving, compassionate Christ who multiplied loaves and fish and fed the hungry multitudes, satisfying not only their physical needs, but their desire to be nourished by the God.

Sisters, that’s what you’ve done for so many years.  That’s what you’ve done in this retreat center.  That’s what you’ve done in schools and hospitals and parishes throughout our diocese.  You have become the mystery that you receive in the Eucharist.  You have become the merciful Jesus.  And you have become the instruments through whom God continues to feed his people and work miracles in our midst.

Thank you for being the hands, the voice and the heart of Jesus in this corner of God’s kingdom that we know as the Church of Scranton.  May you continue to be that presence to a world that more than ever needs God’s mercy, forgiveness, love and peace.