Most Rev. Joseph C. Bambera, D.D., J.C.L.
HOMILY FOR CLOSING OF ST. ANN’S NOVENA
Sirach 44:1, 10-15; Matthew 13:16-17
July 26, 2017
I am grateful for the presence of Father Bob Joerger, 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 Father Paul Ruttle for preaching this year’s novena. You have touched this community deeply and on its behalf, I thank you.
Last year I wasn’t able to join you for this closing Mass of the Novena to Saint Ann. I was in Krakow, Poland, where I was blessed to join with a number of representatives of the Diocese of Scranton and almost two million young men and women from around the world who all gathered with Pope Francis to celebrate World Youth Day and the great mercy and love of God.
That unique gathering in Poland was a sign to me and to all who experienced it of the vibrancy and power of faith within a generation of young people that many have written off as consumed by a material and godless world. It was also a powerful reminder to me of what I know has been shared with you throughout this year’s novena, namely, that God’s love is woven into the fabric of our lives – as ordinary as they may be – finding its way into every aspect of our being if we are wise enough to open our eyes and faithful enough to believe in God’s presence.
During the ten days that I spent in Krakow, for all of the powerful moments of prayer and worship with that we were privileged share with our Holy Father, one experience stands out in my mind as particularly poignant – for me. And it didn’t occur in the context of a Mass or a talk. … One afternoon when we had some free time, I found myself was sitting on a bench situated along the perimeter of Krakow’s old town square, waiting for some friends. Throughout the square, young people were singing and chanting and waving the flags of the nations that they represented. At one point I glanced in the direction of St. Mary’s Church, a magnificent gothic edifice that towers over the square. By chance, I noticed a cluster of flags in the midst of a large crowd that had gathered in front of the church. I was struck by a few flags that seemed particularly outstanding – less because of their color and design and more because of the people and the suffering, pain and upheaval that they represented to one degree or another particularly in recent years. The flags of Syria, Israel, Germany, France and the United States were proudly waving along with the flags of about a dozen other nations.
Yet, what was most striking to me was less the fact that flags of many different nations were being waved side by side. The far more significant reality was precisely what Pope Francis referred to when he spoke of what young people – or any of us – are capable of when their hearts are touched by Jesus.
In that old town square in Krakow, Poland, young men and women from diverse lands that have not always been able to coexist in peace were joined together as brother and sisters. The peace that so eludes those who see themselves as the wise, learned and sophisticated of our world was present – at least for a moment – in the lives and hearts of young men and women of faith. It’s 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 all made in the image and likeness of one God who calls us together as his children.
I’m not so naïve as to believe that every one of those young people in that picture that I just described reflect perfect souls who would only and ever and always ascribe to the life-giving tenants of the gospel message. No – they come from the same imperfect world in which you and I were born. They come from a world in need of redemption – a world very much in need of God. … But for me – even if for no one else in that square – that unlikely moment was filled with the presence of God. For me – God was teaching 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 did in Krakow last summer, haven’t you? … 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, aren’t we? … 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.” … Jesus proclaims that reality to his disciples after just sharing with them and others the parable of a sower who goes out to sow seeds. You know it well. … While many listeners couldn’t understand what Jesus was talking about, the disciples did. Because their hearts were open to 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.
Writing about Ann and Joachim’s daughter, Mary, in his book Jesus: A Pilgrimage, Jesuit Father James Martin offers his readers some rather profound insight into the nature of Mary’s faith and trust in God – a faith and a trust that obviously emerged from her family experience and roots. Father Martin states that “Mary was told that her son would be the Son of God, not that he would be tortured, put to death on a cross, and then rise from the dead.” As a result, “Mary says ‘yes’ to a future that she does not know.” Imagine that! “She is an example,” Martin says, “of letting God do God’s work, without trying to figure it out.” … And isn’t that a lesson for us all? Don’t we often spend far too much time trying to figure out life and trying to tell God what to do, instead of trusting that God will work it out – believing that God is present to us in our life’s journey, regardless of where that journey leads?
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 struggles and 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 and our hearts to acknowledge 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.
Take a look around you. Look at the faces that you see – not just the familiar faces of family members and friends, but faces wounded by pain and grief – faces that are longing to be healed – faces that are grateful for God’s abiding presence in their lives.
This gathering is so powerful and hopeful, isn’t it? First of all, it reminds us that we are loved – that God hasn’t given up on any of us and never will. He continually calls us, as we are, to himself.
And this gathering also reminds us that God still chooses to accomplish his great work in the ordinary moments of life – in the simplest and least likely of individuals who open their lives to his. That was true for Ann and Joachim, for their daughter Mary, and it is true for us – all of us! … It is true for the teenager struggling to make sense of life. … It is true for parents who seek to confront the uphill battle of instilling Christian values in the lives of their children. … It is true for the friend who just can’t seem to forgive and let go of a past hurt. … It is true for the gay student trying to find his place in the world. … It is true for the immigrant trying to find a home for her family. … It is true for the elderly soul homebound by age and frailty. … It is true for the alcoholic who thinks that he can never change or, worse yet, be forgiven for the hurt that he caused to those he loves. … And it is true for me and for you!
God hasn’t given up on any of us and never will. And God will continue to use us – as unlikely as we may see ourselves to be – to make his presence and his love known in our world. … My brothers and sisters, this isn’t extreme theology – it’s the message of the Gospel. It’s why we’re here today at this sacred shrine. It’s what gives us hope in our journey.
As we bring this novena to a close, may we hold within our hearts these words of Pope Francis first shared at the conclusion of the Synod on the Family two years ago. “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.