Most Rev. Joseph C. Bambera, D.D., J.C.L.
18th Sunday in Ordinary Time – August 5, 2018
St. Augustine Church, Silver Lake – 150th Anniversary of the Diocese 

Both today’s first reading from the Old Testament book of Exodus and the gospel passage from Saint John focus our attention upon the great gift of Jesus, given to us in the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist.

In the passage from Exodus, we hear how God rains down manna – bread from heaven – to feed and sustain the Israelite people during their 40-year sojourn in the desert on their way to the Promised Land.  And in the gospel, which takes place following the miracle of the multiplication of loaves and fish through which Jesus fed thousands of hungry people, Jesus encourages the crowds not to merely seek after food – bread – that will perish, but food that endures for eternal life – food that will sustain them to do the work of God.  …  Both passages point to the gift and power of the Eucharist.

But Jesus is quick to note that while God fed the Israelites in the desert and he multiplied loaves to fill their empty stomachs, it was far more important that the People of God saw these gifts less as food that would satisfy physical hunger and far more as God’s desire to sustain them – and us – in the journey of life and faith.

Moreover, Jesus was also concerned that his followers never view the Eucharist simply as a gift for them to receive – but just as importantly as the means by which their lives might be patterned on his own life.  The great Saint Augustine, patron of this church and community, captured best the heart of Jesus’ teaching on the Eucharist with these words that you’ve heard before, “Become the mystery you celebrate.”  …  Become the broken Christ whose life was poured forth for those whom he loved.  …  Become the loving, compassionate Christ who multiplied loaves and fish and fed the hungry multitudes, satisfying not only their physical needs, but also their desire to be nourished by the God.  …  Receive Christ and so become Christ in loving service to one another.

Let me put St. Augustine’s words into some perspective.  …  During his historic trip to the United States two years ago, Pope Francis celebrated a special Mass in the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul in Philadelphia.  In his homily, the Holy Father referenced Saint Katharine Drexel and her great contribution to the life of faith in Pennsylvania and throughout the United States.

He recalled that shortly after Katharine’s wealthy father had died, she and her two sisters traveled to Europe in 1887 where they were privileged to meet Pope Leo XIII in a private audience.  Katharine asked the Holy Father for missionaries to staff some of the Native American missions that she and her family had been financing.  To her surprise, however, Pope Leo’s first response was not to grant her request.  Rather, he asked her a question:  “What about you, Katharine?  What are you going to do?”

“Those words,” Pope Francis noted, “changed Katharine’s life, because they reminded her that, in the end, every Christian man and woman, by virtue of baptism, has received a mission.  Each one of us has to respond, as best we can, to the Lord’s call to build up His Body, the Church.”

My brothers and sisters, the same resolve and determination – rooted in faith – that prompted Saint Katharine Drexel to respond to the Pope Leo’s challenge to serve the neediest in our country lies at the heart of our celebration today.

Few, if any, of the earliest pioneers who helped build this local Church of Scranton would have ever been confronted with the question like that posed by Pope Leo to Katharine Drexel.  Nonetheless, the earliest settlers in our region of this great land knew implicitly that if the faith they cherished was ever to grow, they would be the ones responsible for carrying out the Church’s mission in northeastern and north central Pennsylvania.

This reality was clearly evident beginning in 1793 – just seventeen years after the founding of the United States – when a French colony was established on the banks of the Susquehanna River between Wyalusing and Towanda – just about 35 miles from where we gather today.  Within that colony, was found the first verifiable presence of the Catholic faith in what is now the Diocese of Scranton.

Thirty-two years later in 1825, an Irish born missionary priest by the name of Father Jeremiah O’Flynn used his own savings to purchase this very land on which we stand today – the land on which the first Catholic church within the territory of what we now know as the Diocese of Scranton would be built.  While a fire destroyed the original church, it is by the grace of God that we can proudly affirm this day that the Eucharist has been celebrated on this plot of ground for over 193 years – beginning 43 years before the Diocese of Scranton was founded.  What a blessing and gift we’ve been given in this community of faith.

And look at how God has worked and all that has emerged from the tiny seeds of faith that were planted in this corner of God’s kingdom.  From the time that Father O’Flynn first settled here in Susquehanna County, the fledgling Church in northeastern and north central Pennsylvania began to grow – so much so that missionary priests from the Diocese of Philadelphia and several religious congregations were needed to support his work, traveling traveled to this region of Pennsylvania to serve the People of God until the founding of the Diocese in 1868.

While clergy were responsible for the sacramental life of the emerging local Church of Scranton, the contribution of women religious from various congregations supported and enhanced their efforts in building up the Church.  Led by the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and joined by several other congregations of women religious, including the Sisters of Christian Charity, the Sisters of the Holy Child and the Sisters of Mercy, through the efforts of these dedicated women, schools were opened and the important responsibility of educating the young had begun.

Much can and should be said about the selfless service of the clergy and religious who laid a solid foundation of faith for this blessed local Church of Scranton.  Yet, no matter how heroic or selfless, each of them was only able to fulfill the work entrusted to their care because of the commitment of the faithful souls they served – souls who had been touched by the mercy and love of God and who realized that they too – in their own way – were responsible for proclaiming the good news of the gospel.  …  My friends, those faithful souls are like all of you, who understand that even and particularly today, it is your responsibility – just as much as it is mine – to build the Church – the body of Christ – and to be his hands and voice and heart to a world so much in need of God’s grace.

When the Diocese of Scranton was created by a decree issued by Pope Pius IX on March 3, 1868 – just forty-three years following the construction of its first church – and the Reverend Doctor William O’Hara was named its founding bishop, 24 parishes had already been established.  With the movement of peoples and the arrival of immigrants throughout its 150 years, those 24 parishes grew to as many as 239 by the early 1970’s.

While the number of parishes have diminished in recent years due to changing demographics and cultural challenges, thankfully, this portion of God’s kingdom that all of you represent continues to vibrantly embrace the mission of the Church entrusted to all of the baptized.  …  And it will continue to do so if we are generous and selfless enough to confront time and again the same question posed by Pope Leo XIII to a young Katharine Drexel – now a canonized saint of our Church.  “What about you?  What are you going to do” to build the Church and proclaim Jesus’ message of salvation and life?  …  “What are you going to do?”

My sisters and brothers – may this blessed anniversary year of celebration and remembrance serve as a time of renewal for each of us who are called to make the mission of Jesus our own.  Just like the first missionaries who traveled to our eleven counties in times that were different but just as challenging as our own, we too have the responsibility to build Church.  But, like them, we would do well to remember that if we are to be the instruments of God’s presence in our midst, we first and always need to be humble enough to give God room in our hearts to grow and to work.