The Son of God was amazed at a mere human being. What was it about the centurion’s response to him that so grabbed Our Lord’s attention? After all, the centurion was only telling Jesus about how authority and obedience worked in his professional life: if you’re in charge and you tell someone to do something, they do it.
What struck Jesus about the centurion was his simple yet strong faith: “Not even in Israel have I found such faith” (Luke 7:9). The Early Church was so moved by the centurion’s response that it immortalised his words in the Liturgy to help us all prepare to receive Our Lord in Holy Communion.
So what can we learn from this first-century Roman soldier? How about humble confidence. In every generation, humble confidence has been the bait used by saints in order to win Our Lord’s heart. Just think about the ‘good thief’ on the cross (Luke 23:39-43)—a life of crime and sin, then a few minutes before dying, one simple prayer wins him redemption.
Throughout the gospels we see people whose lives warranted judgement receiving mercy and healing instead. And this should give us great hope. After all, if a thief, or a prostitute, or a crooked government official could steal Our Lord’s heart, why should we ever think he would reject us? As the centurion shows, Our Lord needs only our humility and confidence to work marvels of healing, purification, and restoration. He needs only to hear us echo this humble man’s prayer, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed” (Luke 7:6-7).
The prayer of today’s liturgy sees Mary at the foot of the Cross as the model for the Church in her search to become more united with Christ in the paschal mystery of his death and resurrection. A mother standing close to a dying child is a potent human symbol. Even for Christ, suffering was a mystery and a dark valley he entered. Surely it was the same for Our Lady as she stood at the foot of the Cross.
It’s been a longstanding tradition for some people to carry or to wear a medal of Our Lady of Sorrows. Catholics have been wearing this particular sacramental for many years, and they would never be parted from it. When they experience difficulties, they look at Our Lady’s sorrowful image on the medal, and almost instinctively, they know that she will understand their predicament, help them, and give them peace. Many Catholics will testify that it’s never a waste to ask Our Lady’s protection, implore her help, or seek her intercession.
As Catholics we know all too well that we are not immune to sorrow and that we can always look to Our Lady for help. There are so many problems that trouble us, I could spend a couple of days just listing them. So many things can make us feel sad, betrayed, or hurt. But Our Lady shows us that the real question is not how often, or how much, we suffer. The real question is how we should respond when we are visited by suffering. And this is where Our Lady of Sorrows can help us the most.
Our Lady was well acquainted with sorrow – a cursory reading of the gospels will tell us that. And this is why so many of us turn to Our Lady when we suffer or are in sorrow, because she knows exactly what we are going through. And she can help us and teach us how to react to trying and painful situations. She can teach us to ponder and to pray and to persevere. She can teach us to trust in God’s providence and in his ability to work wonders in our life.
Former Pope Benedict XVI wrote: “The Virgin Mary, who believed in the word of the Lord, did not lose her faith in God when she saw her Son rejected, abused and crucified. Rather she remained beside Jesus, suffering and praying until the end. And she saw the radiant dawn of his resurrection. Let us learn from her to witness to our faith with a life of humble service, ready to pay the price of staying faithful to the gospel of love and truth, certain that nothing that we do will be lost.”
Today we honour the memory of Saint John Chrysostom, one of the most influential figures of the Church during the fourth century. As Archbishop of Constantinople he worked to reform the Church and came into conflict with the imperial court, which hounded him into exile on several occasions. Because of his eloquent sermons and writings to explain the faith and to encourage the practice of the Christian Life he is honoured as a Doctor of the Church. He died in exile on 14th September in 407.
Some years ago, you may remember reading about archaeologists who discovered a number of lead tablets at the bottom of a well which once served a palace of King Herod in Jerusalem. These tablets were used to curse one’s enemies. The enemy’s name was written on the tablet and then dropped into the well from which the enemy drank his water.
Our Lord himself would have known all about curse tablets when he spoke to his disciples, telling them to treat their enemies in a different way.
Now the difficulty in following Our Lord’s commands regarding treatment of our enemies builds some resistance within us. The natural urge is to seek revenge on the person who has hurt us. But Our Lord demands unconditional love from his followers; he doesn’t say“Love your enemies, except for her, him and her”. Many saints have embodied this command. For St. Francis of Assisi peace meant having no enemies. Everyone was his friend and he would allow them to be nothing else. The same is true of St. John Chrysostom who was packed off into exile on several occasions for preaching words people didn’t want to hear.
The rewards conveyed in Our Lord’s difficult words are abundant. Centred in his directions to the disciples is what we call the Golden Rule: “Do to others what you would have them do to you”. Whatever good we give we will receive in good measure pressed down, shaken together, running over: for the measure you measure with will be measured back to you.
In many situations, talking about a call to a celibate life can draw some very puzzled looks. Even now, some people believe that if you are not a priest or a religious then you should be married.
In many cultures the single state is seen as a sort of holding pattern until something better comes along: be it the priesthood, the religious life, marriage or heaven. But that’s not the way Saint Paul describes it. He tells us that neither marriage nor virginity is necessarily the better way. The best way is to seek to please God with single minded service, whatever state we’re in.
Many single adults are not waiting for their vocation, because they’ve already found it. Choosing neither religious vows nor marriage, they give the world a distinctive counter-cultural witness. They show by their lives that the kingdom of God is real, that this world really is passing away, and that there is something greater than what this world has to offer. As wonderful as all that sounds, we may be tempted to ask whether dedicated single people can be truly happy.
If we consider the benefits of this unique calling, then the answer is surely ‘yes’. Dedicated single people don’t have the concerns of those who are married. The single person can devote his or her undivided attention to God in a way a married person cannot (1 Cor. 7:32-34). They have more time for prayer, more resources available to give to God’s work, and more freedom to be involved in ministry. The dedicated single person can impact people and places that the priest or religious can never reach.
The Church is blessed by men and women living a single vocation. Their dedication to God and their selfless love for him inspires others to live more fully for him. We should know too that the witness of our lives inspires and encourages those who are single. Together, as many members of one body, we can be a powerful witness to the kingdom of heaven.
Many moons ago, when I was a young religious I wouldn’t think twice about staying up all night in the dark church and spend hours with God in the silence of the night. Perhaps some of you did so too. If you did then you know how hard it can be to stay awake: our eyelids might begin to droop, our minds might begin to wander, and our bed might start looking softer and softer.
Even the Apostles had a hard time staying awake with Our Lord in the Garden of Gethsemane. But we need to remember that it is God who gives us the desire to pray. And even though we may struggle with sleepiness or distractions in prayer, our effort in itself is pleasing to God. Every time we decide to turn to God, every effort we make to come into his presence, makes him happy, regardless of the outcome.
Years ago, when I read many books on how to develop the spiritual life, I read Father Jacques Philippe’s book ‘Time for God’. He says that if you try hard, but are still unable to pray well, you shouldn’t get discouraged. He explains that if “we are incapable of praying well, or producing any good sentiments or beautiful reflections, that should not make us sad. We should offer our poverty to the action of God. Then we will be making a prayer much more valuable than the kind that would leave us feeling self-satisfied.”
When we don’t feel satisfied with our prayer, we can be confident that God is supporting us in our struggle. When we are aware of our weakness and our need, then we are much more open to receiving the grace that God wants to give us.
Pope Francis has admitted to falling asleep in prayer on occasion. Saint Jane de Chantal wrote that, “Neither should we be troubled when we sleep at prayer, provided we resist it.” And Saint Therese of Lisieux, who would also fall asleep in prayer, assures us that like all parents, God loves his children best when they are asleep.
So, at 6:30 tomorrow morning when you stumble into the chapel bleary eyed after a night’s blissful sleep, remember you are in good company.
Years ago, when I used to read the Sunday newspapers, my favourite section was the Arts & Culture supplement. I learned early on that critics play an important role in the musical, artistic and literary world. They help the public to evaluate what is good, and by doing so, they set standards for art. But critics can also be closed to anything new or different. For example, one of J.S. Bach’s students called his music “turgid and confused.” A contemporary of Mozart called his music “overloaded and overstuffed.” One critic said of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony: “It was hard to figure out what all the noise was about.”
You could say that some of the Pharisees who opposed Our Lord had become like those critics. In their zeal to preserve the Law, they had attached their own limited expectations to it. One of those limitations was that they taught that curing the sick was forbidden on the Sabbath—unless the sick person was in danger of death. The man Our Lord healed in the synagogue had a withered hand, so that clearly didn’t qualify. These Pharisees weren’t willing to admit that God could go beyond their assumptions of what the Law was all about.
This attitude can affect us as well. We can view our own assumptions about God as being the only thing that matters and end up limiting him as a result. But God wants to take us beyond our expectations, both of who he is and of who we can become. He is not interested in healing us just enough so that we can squeeze our way into heaven. God wants to fill us with so much grace that we skip and dance through the gates of heaven, bringing countless people behind us whose lives we have touched.
So, let’s not be like those pharisees or those music critics with their limited expectations. God has great plans for us. All we have to do is stretch out our withered hand in faith and see how God fills us with his life, his love, and his power.