July 31, 2005 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Reading I (Isaiah 55:1-3) Reading II (Romans 8:35, 37-39)
Gospel (St. Matthew 14:13-21)
In the second reading today, Saint Paul asks the question: What can separate us from the love of Christ? He goes on to give a whole series of possibilities: trial or distress, or anguish, or persecution, or nakedness, or danger, or the sword, and so on. And he says, No, in all these we conquer overwhelmingly. Then he asks about angels, or principalities, or powers, or life, or death, or light, or darkness, or any of these other things. He tells us that not even these things can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ. In other words, we cannot say, “The devil made me do it,” because the devil himself cannot separate any one of us from the love of Christ. The only one who can separate us from the love of Christ is our own self. It is a choice that we have to make.
Now we look back at the list of Saint Paul and we ask ourselves, “How do we handle some of these things, if we are persecuted or if difficult things happen in our lives? If we were threatened with death for our faith, what would we do?” All we have to do is look at some of our daily activities and we can see that in the lives of some people if a loved one dies, perhaps a child or a parent or a spouse, they get angry at God and they leave the Faith. Perhaps a priest does something completely idiotic to somebody, and instead of recognizing that this was human weakness, the person winds up leaving the Catholic Church. If we were persecuted, would we remain faithful to the Lord?
If we look at the lives of the saints, we see that the martyrs not only remained faithful to the Lord, but it is their martyrdom which is their greatest act of witness to Him. Rather than separating them from the love of Christ, it has united them perfectly to the love of Christ. When the saints are persecuted, it is then that they recognize they have a share in the Lord’s Cross; and, again, instead of pulling away from Christ, they draw nearer to Him. For us, it is death that is the opening to eternal life. So not even death will separate us from the love of Christ, unless, of course, we die in the state of mortal sin. If we use our own free will to choose sin over God, then we lose the gift of charity (the love of God) in our souls. We are separated from the love of Christ if we make that choice.
But each one of us needs to look very seriously at these things because if we simply go a few hundred miles to the north we will find that there are lots of persecutions going on for the Faith, and it would not take a whole lot for it to come slightly south. On Canadian National Radio, just this last week a retired professor was given airtime nationally to suggest that religion in Canada needs to be regulated, and the only church he mentioned by name is the Catholic Church. He was suggesting that if somebody wants to be a priest or a minister or a rabbi that person needs to have approval by the government in order to regulate such things as “hate speech,” as they call it – in other words, standing up for the truth. There is (or was, at least) a reporter from the London Times who was thrown into jail because he wrote an article in which he used the word “homosexual.” They arrested him and put him in jail because that was hate speech. So we see this growing movement against the truth.
Since there is ultimately one place that has the fullness of truth and only one place that is going to speak it, there is only one who is ultimately going to be persecuted for it, and that is the Catholic Church. Of course, if we are members of the Catholic Church, the individuals within are also going to be persecuted. Are you ready? Are you willing? This is an opportunity to really be able to look into our hearts and say, “How much does the Faith mean to me? Do I go to church on Sunday just because that’s what I’ve always done and that’s what we’re supposed to do? Or am I coming to Mass because I love God and it doesn’t matter how much I am going to have to suffer for the love of Christ because He is number one in my life?” Or instead, would we look at it and say, “Well, I kind of like having God in my life, but He’s not that important. If I was made to suffer or if I was threatened with death, would I wimp out and deny the Lord? Or would I stand firm and recognize and remember that if I’m put to death for the Faith it’s a straight shot to heaven?” No Purgatory. It is a pretty good deal actually, a guarantee of eternal life. It seems to me we should be lined up waiting for such an opportunity rather than running away from it, but most of us, if we are really honest with ourselves, may not be ready because we have never really had to suffer for being Catholic. We have had a little bit over the last ten or fifteen years, but it certainly has not been anything that is too horrendous in America. So what would happen if things start to get bad? Are we prepared?
Our Lord tells us through the prophet Isaiah that we are to come to Him and we are to receive freely the milk and the food and the water that we need. He demonstrates in the Gospel reading that He can feed us bodily, but that is not what is important; it is what is necessary for the soul that we have to consider. And that is what He is asking us to come to Him to receive freely. As He fed the five thousand men (not counting the women and children, as we hear, so it is probably well over ten to fifteen thousand people that He served in the Gospel reading today) each one ate until they were full. Yet, at the same time, we realize that it is not the food for the stomach that is important here, but it is the Eucharist. It is what the bread that He multiplied was pointing to: His own self.
He is there giving Himself freely to us, but it requires a choice on our part. As He says in that first reading: Come to Me. He has already made the first move and He has come to us. Now He is right here in front of us every single day. How many of us come to Him? How many of us are really taking the opportunity every single day to come to Christ to receive for our souls what we need? All too long, we, as American Catholics, have been giving lip service to Christ but our hearts (if we are honest) are rather far from Him. How many times we have heard over and over again that we need to pray. And how many times have we said, “Yeah, that’s a neat idea,” and we walk away and we do not do it. Or we say a little prayer here or there, but we do not really pray because we are afraid or because we think that we do not need it. We need it desperately. If we do not pray – and I mean pray from the heart, not just say some prayers; I mean going inside and praying deeply within the heart – we are not going to make it. Things are only beginning, and look at how hideous it is. It is going to get far, far worse in the very near future. If we are not steeped in prayer, we will be lost because lip service to Christ is not going to suffice. Only true love for Jesus Christ is going to suffice, and the only way to develop a true love for the Lord is through prayer.
So we go back to Saint Paul’s question: What can separate us from the love of Christ? Only ourselves. We have a free will and we have to make a choice as to how we are going to live our lives and what is going to be important. We need to look very seriously at the question in prayer: “What if…?” because it is not necessarily all that far off. What if you were persecuted? What if you were threatened with death? What if you were thrown in jail? What if…? Put the heroics aside in your mind and ask yourself very honestly, “What would I do? Would I remain faithful to Jesus? Would I be terrified? Would I falter? Would I question and doubt? What would it require?” How much would we be asked to deny before we are willing to waffle? Or are we going to stand firm regardless of anything? It is only our will, our free choice, that can separate us from the love of Christ.
Jesus has done everything. He looks at us, as He did the crowd that was waiting for Him when He got out of the boat; He has pity on us and He teaches us. He taught late into the night to the point that His disciples were saying, “Dismiss them and let them go.” Jesus said, Feed them yourselves, and all they could think of was physical food. Jesus is asking that we would be fed spiritually. He is looking for us to be fed in our souls. So He says to His apostles, Feed them. Other than these miracles of the multiplication of loaves and fishes, we never heard about His apostles feeding the people physically. They finally understood and they went out and preached. They fed the people spiritually. They gave them what their souls needed so that they could be saved. That is exactly what Our Lord is asking for us. He is right there in front of us and He is asking that we would come to Him and that we would receive freely what He is giving. What He is giving is His own self. He is giving us the truth. He is giving us grace. He is giving us the love that we need to be able to remain faithful to Him and to be united with Him.
But we now have to make the choice. He is present among us, but He is there passively waiting for us. He will not force us to love Him. He will not force us to be faithful to Him. He gives to each one of us the choice because He made us free and He will treat us according to the dignity that He has given us in creation. We have to make a free choice, and it is not something that is just a pie-in-the-sky idea. As we can see from our neighbors to the north and from a number of places in the European Union and from other places around the world, persecution for being Catholic is alive and well. There were more Christian people who were martyred in the 20th century than in all nineteen centuries previous. Persecution of Christians is something that is on the increase – not on the decrease – in this world. This is something that we have been isolated from to a great degree, but the reality is knocking at the door. We need to look at this very seriously, and we need to ask ourselves about the reality of our faith and the depth of our love for Jesus Christ.
There is only one place that we are going to find the answer, and it is not in our heads with some sort of fantastic idea of what we would do if we were persecuted, but it is to look at it honestly and seriously in prayer in front of the Blessed Sacrament. We need to heed the voice of the Lord when He says to us, Come to Me, and receive freely what He is offering; also to look very seriously at the warning of Saint Paul, his great question: What can separate us from the love of Christ, and the knowledge that the only one who can separate us from the love of Christ is our own self; and that we are going to remain faithful to Him regardless of the circumstances. Then it is going to require time before the Blessed Sacrament and opening our hearts to grow in faith, to grow in love, and to unite ourselves with Jesus Christ.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.