Most Reverend Joseph C. Bambera, D.D., J.C.L.
Bishop of Scranton
31st Sunday of the Church Year – November 5, 2017
A year ago, we gathered in this sacred space on the same weekend of the year – November 6th to be precise – in response to a challenge issued by Pope Francis.
Last summer, at a gathering of over two million young people from around the world in Krakow, Poland for World Youth Day, the Pope touched us all with these very real and powerful words. “Young people, we didn’t come into this world to ‘vegetate,’ to take it easy, to make our lives a comfortable sofa to fall asleep on. No, we came for another reason: to leave a mark. … God expects something from you. God wants something from you. … Life is always beautiful when we choose to live it fully, when we choose to leave a mark.”
During the past year, so, so many of you have responded in an amazing way to the Holy Father’s challenge. You’ve sought to give life to your faith and to our beliefs as Catholic Christians in a far more authentic manner than ever before – on the college campuses where you live – in your work places – and among your family and friends. In mid-September, over 250 of you participated in a Day of Service in the Diocese of Scranton in direct response to Pope Francis’ call for us to “leave a mark” for good in our world. From a walk-a-thon to benefit hurricane victims – to feeding the hungry at Saint Francis Kitchen – to raising awareness for finding permanent homes for children in foster care – you’ve touched our corner of the world with the hope and love of Jesus in ways that you can only begin to imagine.
Today, we recommit ourselves to embracing Pope Francis’ challenge – which ultimately is the essence of what it means to be an authentic disciple and follower of Jesus.
It’s certainly not by chance but by the providence of God that the scripture readings that the scripture readings just proclaimed speak so vividly to our gathering this evening. In the Old Testament book of Malachi, the writer challenges the People of Israel to listen to God’s commandments, to take them to heart, and then to live them out in their relationships one to another and with the poorest among them.
It’s the Gospel passage from Saint Matthew, however, that most clearly reflects what we are about this day. In today’s verses, Jesus challenges the detached and legalistic religious observances of the scribes and Pharisees. While the laws which these two groups of religious leaders embraced are not the subject of Jesus’ condemnation, the scribes and Pharisees are. Jesus denounces their failure to live up to their teachings, criticizing them for being far more interested in dominating rather than serving the people entrusted to their care. From Jesus’ perspective, the greatest leaders and teachers are those who share their vision of faith not in words alone but by the power of their example, in the integrity of their lives, in their commitment of service toward and respect for those in their charge. In short, in the reign of God, those who exercise authority have a particular responsibility to lead by serving. … And it is in our service, that our beliefs are given life and the mark we leave in our world finds its light!
Earlier this fall, a unique event took place in the Church of the United States. For the first time in our history as a nation, an American-born priest was recognized as a martyr for the faith and beatified on September 23rd in a ceremony that took place in Oklahoma City – the final stage before canonization as a saint. The priest’s name is Stanley Rother – now Blessed Stanley Rother.
If you’re not familiar with his story, I’d encourage you to become familiar with it. Stanley Rother was born in 1935 in Oklahoma. If he were alive, he would only be 82 years of age. In fact, he studied for the priesthood with at least one priest from our own Diocese of Scranton whom some of you may know – Monsignor Joseph Rauscher, who served as pastor of Saint Nicholas Parish in Wilkes-Barre for many years.
Shortly after Stanley was ordained a priest in 1963, he sought permission to join the staff at his diocese’s mission in Guatemala. Father Stanley connected well with the native tribes who were decedents of the Mayans. He learned their languages. He embraced the poverty that they lived. Having grown up on a farm, he put his skills to use by helping them in the fields and building irrigations systems. He ministered in their homes, eating with them, visiting the sick and aiding them with medical problems.
While Father Stanley served in Guatemala, a civil war raged. The Church was caught in the middle due to its insistence on catechizing and educating the people. During the conflict, thousands of Catholics were killed.
Eventually, Father Stanley’s name appeared on a death list. For his safety, Father Stanley was directed to return to his home in Oklahoma. However, his stay in the United States didn’t last very long. It wasn’t enough for him to merely talk about the atrocities that were being inflicted upon the people that he had served in Guatemala. He needed to be with them, stating, “the shepherd cannot run” from his sheep.
Father Stanley eventually returned to Guatemala. Within a few months of his return, three men entered his rectory around 1:00 a.m. on July 28, 1981, and executed him.
The people of the village where he served mourned the loss of their leader and friend. Because of the affection and veneration that his people displayed for Father Rother, they requested that his heart be kept in Guatemala where it remains enshrined to this day.
Blessed Stanley Rother died for his faith. But far more significantly, he lived for Jesus and left an indelible mark for good in the world.
Years ago, I came upon this quote written by an Indian mystic. It’s pretty powerful: It’s easy to die for Christ. It’s hard to live for him. Dying takes an hour or two but to live for Christ means that we have to die daily. Only during our few years of life are we given the privilege of serving each other and Christ. We shall have heaven forever – but only a short time for service here. Therefore we must not waste the opportunity.
As Christians – as disciples of Jesus – we have but one responsibility. We are called through baptism to embrace his life, death and resurrection. In so doing, we are challenged to make his example of selfless love and service our own. Recall again the words from Saint Matthew’s Gospel proclaimed just a few moments ago. “The greatest among you must be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled but whoever humbles himself with be exalted.”
Pope Francis echoes Jesus’ command with his own simple words, “If Catholics do not proclaim Jesus with their lives, then the Church is less than what it should be. … But when believers share their faith … embrace the power of their baptism … and serve with love … there is life.”
My sisters and brothers, the good news is that there is indeed life in our gathering this evening. … Life abounds through our faith in Jesus. … There is life in this celebration of the Eucharist. … And there is life and hope for our world in your expressed commitment this day to go forth from this sacred place to continue to leave a mark for good in Jesus’ name.