TWENTY-THIRD SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – YEAR C
Mets fans are once again on tenterhooks as the “Amazings” are in reach of capturing a wildcard spot for the play-offs. Just when they seem to be going great guns, disaster strikes as it did in the deplorable ninth inning last Tuesday. So, making it to the World Series will be a challenge for our Mets. But then, the liturgy of this Sunday after Labor Day is all about facing and meeting daunting challenges.
For the author of the Book of Wisdom, the difficulty has to do with knowledge of God. “Who can know God’s counsel, or who can conceive what the Lord intends?” In fact, even probing the secrets of the natural world is a challenge. “And scarce do we guess the things on earth…” If you doubt that, think about your grasp of astrophysics or molecular biology. Then try to probe the work of some German theologian.
St. Paul has a far more practical difficulty. In his old age and in prison, he somehow has become the guardian of a runaway slave, Onesimus, whom he has converted and baptized. He wants to keep Onesimus with him as a sort of homecare companion; but the fact is that the slave is legally Philemon’s property. How to persuade, cajole inveigle – I hesitate to say, con – Philemon into letting Onesimus stay on? And so, Paul resorts to a bit of blarney about welcoming the slave back as a brother dear to both of them. Paul must have had a drop of Irish blood. “So, if you regard me as a partner, welcome him as you would me.” What the Apostle really wants, he stated before the blarney began, “I should have liked to retain him for myself, so that he might serve me…”
The Gospel passage today continues he narrative from last Sunday. Jesus is on his final journey to Jerusalem, and he is confronting the challenge of his coming arrest and execution. If the crowds that are in his entourage harbor any illusions about what lies ahead, Jesus does his best to bring them down to reality. The gate to eternal life is a narrow one. Anyone who wants to attempt to enter through it in his footsteps must take up his own cross and be prepared to renounce everything and everyone for his sake. Talk about difficult challenges!
Today we are celebrating solemnly the feast of our parish patron, Pope St. Gregory the Great. Gregory faced a host of difficult challenges ranging from ill-prepared clergy often indifferent to the duties of their calling, to poor relief, to missionary expansion, to increasing civic responsibilities. He often complained about the most daunting challenge of all: maintaining a vibrant spiritual life in the midst of all the distractions of his day to day schedule. Yet, his homilies are as fresh and timely today as they were fifteen hundred years ago, and he managed to compose a major work on moral theology, as well as a pastoral manual that was the mainstay of priestly formation until the Council of Trent.
So, what advice would that talented preacher draw from the readings today and offer to us as suggestions for facing our own challenges?
First of all, he would urge us to invoke the inspiration, guidance and strength of the Holy Spirit. “Whoever knew your counsel, except you had given wisdom and sent your holy spirit from on high?” Next week St. Gregory the Great Catholic Academy will open the new academic year with a votive Mass of the Holy Spirit, as will Catholic schools everywhere. Judges and legal officials will open the new court year with Red Masses. On his radio program, Prairie Home Companion, Garrison Keillor used to pitch a fictional brand of Powderrmilk biscuits with the claim, “They give you the strength to get up and do what has to be done.” In reality, it is the Holy Spirit who does that; and no one knew that better than Gregory.
“I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you,” Paul writes to Philemon. They say that when the going gets tough, the tough get going. The second lesson that Gregory would draw from the liturgy today is, “Put your entire heart into whatever it is that you want to accomplish.” The Mets had better learn that lesson soon, if they have not already, or they will never make it to the play-offs, much less the World Series.
Finally, concentrate on what is absolutely essential and put every other consideration aside. “In the same way, anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple.” As Hurricane Dorian approached our shores a few days ago, people in the path of the storm simply had to drop everything else and concentrate on filling sandbags, boarding up houses, stocking up on gasoline and essential supplies; and, as a last resort, packing up and hitting the road. On Wednesday, we will recall and give thanks for the hundreds of first responders who thought nothing of father or mother, wives or children, nothing of their own lives, but simply ran to the rescue of others.
Pray, put your heart into it, do not let anyone or anything distract you from the challenge at hand. May St. Gregory the Great be our inspiration as we open a new pastoral and academic year.