Closing Mass Homily for the Monterey Marian Eucharistic Conference
HOMILY – 29th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, YEAR “C”
Closing Mass for Monterey Marian Eucharistic Conference
Madonna del Sasso, Salinas, CA
October 15, 2022
In the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome, in a beautiful, ornate side chapel known as the “Borghese Chapel,” there hangs an icon of our Blessed Mother that is one of the most beloved in Rome, the Salus Populi Romani (the health, or salvation, or well-being, of the people of Rome). According to the ancient tradition, after the Crucifixion, when Our Lady moved to the home of St. John, she took with her a few personal belongings, among which was a table built by Our Lord in his foster father’s workshop. Pious virgins of Jerusalem prevailed upon St. Luke to paint a portrait of the Mother of God, and it was the top of this table that he used to do so. While applying his brush and paints, he listened carefully as Mary spoke of the life of her Son, which the evangelist then used later in recording his Gospel – which accounts for the centrality of Mary in his infancy narrative.
Turning to Our Lady
Our Lady is depicted in this icon with her Son resting on her left arm and looking up at her, with his right arm slightly raised in blessing and his left hand holding the Book of the Gospels – the same position as in the depictions of him as Pantocrator, the King and Ruler of the Universe, both blessing and judging, forgiving and holding accountable, both Savior and Judge. Mary here is depicted as the woman who looks to the people, drawing them with her gaze to center on her divine Son.
The image is a whole lesson in theology, but also – very relevant to us, with all that we have suffered through in these past few years – it has also been venerated as a miraculous image. The well-known story is that during the pontificate of St. Gregory the Great (590-604) a plague viciously attacked the people of Rome, killing entire families. Pope Gregory fervently prayed to the Blessed Mother, and during the Easter festivals, as he carried her image in solemn procession, upon arriving at Hadrian’s Mausoleum an angelic choir was heard singing the joyful Resurrection hymn “Regina coeli” (Queen of heaven, rejoice). St. Gregory then immediately added the exclamation now commonly prayed at the end of the Regina coeli: “Pray for us to God.” Then, at that moment, the Archangel Michael appeared above Hadrian’s Mausoleum, replacing in his scabbard the sword of vengeance which he had held over the city. To this day that Mausoleum is better known by the name Castel Sant’Angelo (Castle of the Holy Angel).
As Christians did then, and in every age, so we too, now, turn to her in this time of plague, begging her to intercede to her Son for us as she constantly directs us back to him. But now that we have emerged from the physical plague of Covid-19, we need to beg her intercession ever more fervently for protection from the ever-increasing attacks of the evil one: disintegration of the family, redefining marriage out of existence, attacks on the very image of God in making His human creation male and female, and now, in California, the most diabolical proposal of celebrating the destruction of human life in the womb, all the way up to the moment of birth (Prop 1).
Lived Out in Our Time
The words we just heard from St. Paul to his collaborator and protégé, St. Timothy, provide very timely, sound advice to us now even 2,000 years later: “[T]he sacred Scriptures … are capable of giving … wisdom for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” Yes, this is precisely the wisdom we need to live our faith and attain salvation in this post-modern age. And not just our own age, for every age and place presents its particular challenges, and perhaps ours are not that different from where St. Timothy was ministering in his own time. In the verses right before the passage we heard proclaimed, St. Paul speaks of how the moral depravity and false teaching that will be rampant in the last days were already at work then.
So lest we think we’re unique in history, let us listen to what St. Paul wrote to his disciple Timothy about this a few verses earlier on: “People will be self-centered and lovers of money, proud, haughty, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, irreligious, callous, implacable, slanderous, licentious, brutal, hating what is good, traitors, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, as they make a pretense of religion but deny its power” (2 Tm 3:2–5). Very strong words indeed, and he could have been addressing them to us, 2,000 year later! (Come to think of it, he is!)
Yes, we are living in such dark times, which means all the more we need to turn to our loving mother for help. Pope Francis reminded us of this in a homily at a Mass he celebrated on the Feast Day of the Translation of the Image of the Salus Populi Romani to its present location: “When the Virgin [Mary] is at home, the devil does not enter. Where the Mother is present, worry does not prevail, fear does not prevail. … It will not be ideas or technology that will give us comfort and hope, but the face of the Mother, her hands caressing life, her mantle that shelters us. Let us learn to find refuge, going every day to the Mother.”
The Centrality of Prayer
How do we learn this lesson, so that the devil may not enter? St. Luke himself gives us the answer in today’s Gospel reading, where he tells us that the Lord “told his disciples a parable about the necessity for them to pray always without becoming weary” – the parable of the persistent widow who keeps badgering the judge until the judge finally gives in and heeds her request.
Now, to “pray always” doesn’t mean we must spend all day, every day, in church. “Always” here means to pray in the sense of praying diligently or frequently or persistently. We use that sort of poetic exaggeration in our own colloquial speech, such as, “he’s always complaining” or, “she’s always watching television.” We know this is not meant in the literal sense. That’s what the “always” means in “to pray always”, to pray persistently, but the “pray” also means more than time alone communicating with God, although that for sure is the essence of it. Anything done for the glory of God, especially properly motivated acts of charity, can be considered a form of prayer.
Clearly, read in the light of this Gospel reading, the first reading the Church gives us this Sunday is for the purpose of underscoring this necessity of praying always. The example given in this passage from Exodus may seem a bit shocking to us: “Joshua mowed down Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword.” This certainly would not seem to be in the spirit of “patience and teaching” that St. Paul recommends to us. There are, of course, explanations for this – God’s word needing to be expressed according to the mentality and limitations of the given culture of the time, and so forth – but this is not the place for a lecture on Biblical exegesis. For our own purposes today, we can take away from this story the deeper spiritual interpretation, in which the Amalekites – the enemies of God’s people – represent the presence and activity of evil in the world, the true and ultimate enemy of God’s people. Yes, we must fight against evil, we must fight spiritually.
The Church has always understood the reality of spiritual warfare, and that we must be on guard and strengthen ourselves spiritually to resist the temptations of the devil. In one of his sermons, Pope St. Gregory the Great said the following: “To advance against the foe involves a bold resistance to the powers of this world in defense of the flock. To stand fast in battle on the day of the Lord means to oppose the wicked enemy out of love for what is right.” So, yes, let’s not fool ourselves: each of us is in a struggle – in combat, if you will – for our own soul, fighting to overcome the forces of evil, temptation, mediocrity, moral compromise. Anyone who sincerely strives to make progress on the path to self-perfection knows this, and experiences it.
Notice, though, how St. Luke completes the sentence with which he introduces the parable: “… a parable about the necessity for them to pray always without becoming weary.” We become weary if we are inclined to stop praying because we do not feel the effect: not sensing the inner peace we are seeking; not growing in virtue such as becoming more patient, or curbing bad habits such as gossiping; not perceiving an answer to our prayers such that there seems to be no improvement in what we are praying for; not sensing a greater presence of God or deeper spiritual experience.
However, when we approach prayer with this mentality, we are doing so on our own terms, not God’s, expecting God to act in a certain way and according to our own timetable. This means we pray in order to “get something out of it” – essentially, giving to get. And this is diametrically opposed to the Christian spirit, is it not? But if we pray simply because we love God, then we will not become weary. When you really love someone, you naturally want to be with that person. You don’t spend time with them in order to get them to do something for you – that is, if you truly love them. Rather, you simply want to be in their presence.
Praying in order to “get something out of it” is a trick of the evil one. He wants us to grow weary and give up praying, because – one might say – if you don’t pray, you are easy prey. That is why what we are doing in today is so critically important, for we cannot persevere in prayer, we cannot be persistent in living our faith with integrity, all on our own: it can only happen if we keep communion with the Church. [Thank you to all who has a role in making this Marian Eucharistic Conference happen. Eucharistic Revival in the broader sense – sacramental communion and ecclesial communion.] In the end, it is only within the communion of the Church – being observant and diligent in our religious duties, in fellowship with our fellow believers, in keeping the faith intact as it has been handed down to us through the Church – that we can persevere in prayer without growing weary.
We come together to pray now, offering the Church’s greatest prayer, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, where God’s Son will once again become present to us through the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, offering us his Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity. We do so at the conclusion of this time of prayer, learning and reflection. May the graces of this day make us ever more receptive to the wisdom for salvation given to us in the sacred Scriptures, and worthy to receive this food from heaven, which the Mother of God first brought down to us on earth, and now continues to be manifested to us by the power of his word.