03 November 2023

'How can I offer my life to God?' Sunday Reflections, 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

Washing of the Feet
Giovanni Agostino da Lodi [Web Gallery of Art]

The greatest among you shall be your servant (Matthew 23:11; Gospel).

Readings (Jerusalem Bible: Australia, England & Wales, Ireland, New Zealand, Pakistan, Scotland)

Readings (New American Bible: Philippines, USA)

Gospel Matthew 23:1-12 (English Standard Version Anglicised, India)

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat, so practise and observe whatever they tell you—but not what they do. For they preach, but do not practise. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honour at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the market-places and being called rabbi by others. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.

Léachtaí i nGaeilge

The Kitchen Maid
Rembrandt [Web Gallery of Art]

I'm sure I've used this story before about an incident in Metro Manila 15 or 16 years ago. But today's readings, especially the Responsorial Psalm and the Gospel,  remind me of it very strongly. I was visiting a home for girls run by the Capuchin Tertiary Sisters of the Holy Family. Most of the girls were there because of the extreme poverty of their families. I had an extraordinary conversation with a girl I'll call Gloria (not her real name). 

Gloria was around 14 and I knew that she suffered from asthma. I learned later from the Sisters that she and her family had been living on the street and that her father was a blind beggar. I was astounded at the question Gloria asked me: How can I offer my life to God? This was from a young girl with nothing in life, rather like the young St Bernadette Soubirous of Lourdes when the Blessed Mother appeared to her in 1848 and around the same age. St Bernadette too suffered from asthma. And at one time her family lived in what had once been a prison, in a basement room known as le cachot, 'the dungeon'. 

I remember visiting le cachot in Easter week 1991 with a group of Irish pilgrims, many of whom had physical disabilities. I cried when I recalled families in Smithfield, Dublin, now an up-market place, living in what had once been a prison. This was during my childhood, ten minutes' walk from where I lived.

St Bernadette Soubirous (1844-1879)

I spoke to Gloria about another young French saint who was six when St Bernadette died, St Thérèse of Lisieux, and her Little Way that shows that we can become saints in our ordinary humdrum daily activities such as setting the table, washing the dishes, sweeping the floor, when we do these things with love for those around us, in Gloria's case the girls and the Sisters in the home. I told her that God would eventually show her what He desired for the rest of her life.

St Thérèse of Lisieux aged 15 (taken April 1888)

The greatest among you shall be your servant, Jesus tells us in the Gospel. In the eyes of the world Gloria was far from being the greatest in the world. Indeed, insofar as anyone in the wider world even noticed her she was a nobody. But the desire of her heart was to serve God by offering her life to him. The words of the Responsorial Psalm could speak for her: O Lord, my heart is not too proud nor haughty my eyes. I have not gone after things too great nor marvels beyond me.

The closing words of St Paul in the Second Reading are words that I can pray when I think of Gloria: And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.

Gloria didn't receive the word of God from me but from others before me. She had accepted it as what it really is, the word of God. Without being aware of it she was, by her question, inviting me to do the same.

I see such incidents as ongoing graces, in my case graces that continue to form me as a priest. I'm finishing this on Friday 3 November, here the feast of St Malachy, Archbishop of Armagh, Ireland, who died on 2 November 1138 while visiting St Bernard in the Cistercian monastery of Clairvaux, France. The Entrance Antiphon for his Mass reads: I will raise up for myself a faithful priest; he will do what is in my heart and in my mind, says the Lord (1 Samuel 2:35).

God calls each of us to do what is in his heart and in his mind. Gloria, a young girl with nothing to call her own, called me to do that by her question: How can I offer my life to God?

I never saw Gloria again. The Sisters told me that she had gone to live with relatives in one of the provinces near Manila. She would be around 29 or 30 now. Please remember her in your prayers and, with St Paul, thank God that she accepted the Gospel as what it really is, the word of God.

Laudate Dominum, Psalm 116 [117]
Music by Mozart
Sung by Patricia Janečková (18 June 1998 - 1 October 2023) with The Janáček Chamber Orchestra

Laudate Dominum, omnes gentes: Laudate eum, omnes populi:
Quoniam confirmata est super nos misericordia eius: et veritas Domini manet in aeternum.

O praise the Lord, all you nations, acclaim him all you peoples!
Strong is his love for us; he is faithful for ever.

Traditional Latin Mass

Twenty-third Sunday After Pentecost

The Complete Mass in Latin and English is here. (Adjust the date at the top of that page to 11-05-2023 if necessary).

Epistle: Philippians 3:17-21; 4:1-3Gospel: Matthew 9:18-26.

Forest Landscape with Two of Christ’s Miracles (detail)
David Vinckboons [Web Gallery of Art]

'My daughter has just died; but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live . . . 'If I only touch his garment, I shall be made well' (Matthew 9:18, 21; Gospel).


Mariette VandenMunckhof-Vedder said...

Dearest Father Seán,
A touching summing up of great examples that offered their life to God, including the artists that captured its meaning so well!
Sad that such an angelic voice as that of Patricia Janečková no longer is with us...

Fr Seán Coyle said...

I'm very happy to see you back commenting, Mariette. I'm praying for your good health and that of Pieter.

St Bernadette, St Thérèse of Lisieux, Mozart, Patricia Janečková, all died young but are in a very real way still with us, reflecting the beauty of God.

May God continue to bless you abundantly. Father Seán

Mariette VandenMunckhof-Vedder said...