Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul the Apostle Homily
Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul the Apostle
Homily by Monsignor Kevin W. Irwin
St. Paul’s College
Jan. 23, 2010
In a homiletics class in First Theology at Dunwoodie seminary, the professor instructed us that that you have to grab your audience in the first 90 seconds of the homily or they will tune you out and you are dead. He then gave the example of a non-Jesuit who was asked to preach to the Jesuit community at an anniversary of one of their universities who began with “to hell with the Jesuits!” He got their attention!
My point this evening will be the opposite. My message is keep on doing even better what you are doing as the Missionary Society of St. Paul.
The American Church relies on you … desperately … your charism, your ministry, your lives.
During this “The Year of the Priest” all of us have, I am sure, reflected on the different kinds of priests in the church … our different charisms building up the body of Christ.
You are ahead of today’s readings with the logo “giving the Gospel a voice today” in your everyday day in and day out faithful preaching of the Word.
I have also known of the variety of ministries in your community, “once upon a time” and “here and now.”
I say “once upon a time” because I am from the Archdiocese of New York and knew the importance you gave to preaching and music for the liturgy. I am a proud possessor of The Catholic Hymnal published in 1966, one of whose editors was Rev. Joseph Foley, CSP; that hymnal, a product of the transition from the pre-Vatican II liturgy to the post, moving toward the vernacular, sung by “The Paulist Choristers.”
I say “here and now” ministries from the established print media of the Paulist Press to the newest in satellite radio, The Busted Haloâ Show on Sirius-XM radio.
As a professor across the street for more years than is almost imaginable (I think I got my first contract just after Adam and Eve ate the apple!) I have had the honor and privilege of teaching many of those in the “here and now” Paulist ministries. When I listen to the Busted Haloâ in Sirius radio driving home from work and hear Dave Dwyer field questions from God knows where and comes up with insightful, thorough and theologically grounded answers, I have a “nunc dimittis” moment and say this church of busted halos is in very good hands … or when a Larry Rice inform us of “facts of faith” which reflect his insight gained from his theological education and research skills I say “thank you” and keep on going. Or when I learn that a Michael Kerrigan is at the [Paulist] press I say to myself there is indeed a next and ever new generation of leadership at your very important press. Just think Michael is editing an online version of The Catholic World, first edited by Isaac Hecker and a periodical I devoured while in the seminary in the late 1960’s some of whose articles (from a print magazine, imagine!) are still in my files.
Or when I had dinner at St. Paul’s some months ago and sat next to James DiLuzio (of course when I knew him he was “Jim!”) and learn of his work on the road as really a true mendicant of and for the 21st century, I know that the Word is in very good hands indeed, especially with his performance of the Gospel of St. Luke emphasizing its inclusivity when there are so many forces that seem to make the church exclusive and insular.
But I dare not get lost in my former students alone – which really means I need to stop engaging in what can seem to be the narcissism of our age and show how important I am because of their accomplishments! After all I always say that my patron saint as a priest professor is John the Baptist, he was and certainly none of us is “the Messiah!” And my role model is the sower who sews the seed … not knowing where and how it will flourish, if it will flourish at all. (And with that patron saint and that role model I can sleep at night!)
Allow me tonight to pay homage to your brother Paulist, Jack Lynch, whose writings always served to help people like me to make sense not only of the church’s canon law but the law of God from the most precise and insightful of historical perspectives. In his extraordinarily thorough and precise writings (none of which are fast reading, but each of which is worthy all the effort and more)! Jack always reminds of the evolution and deeper meanings of the code which all too often in any of its incarnations was and is regrettably treated in a fundamentalistic way. Jack models for us what canonical wisdom means, not juridical nay-saying or canonical navel gazing.
As I speak to you Paulists tonight, I want to say “keep on doing what you are doing.” But I also want to express to you a concern and here I am very serious out of deep concern for you. And it is something that I am sure you yourselves have had to face into and which most priests in today’s U.S. church have – are you in danger of being spread too thin and how can you plan to keep your important missionary ministries going? The American church would be the far poorer and diminished beyond words if that were to happen.
The issue is not laryngitis that prevents you from speaking for a time, it is burn out that might put an end to important ministries for the life and mission of the church.
I am concerned for and with you that the brilliance of the Paulist charism – the light that shines in the darkness – might be diminished and the church will be much poorer because of that. Allow me, a friend and lifelong supporter of the Paulists, to suggest that this be on the agenda as your new leadership assumes their responsibilities come May.
Your light cannot diminish because it is encouragement, hope and, yes, life itself for so many others.
The proclamation of the Gospel is always an event of “good news.”
But your charism is at the heart of the Gospel preached to the poor … the captives … the blind … the oppressed.
What are Paulists but that group in today’s American church that have targeted the same audience?
And where do we find them? In your campus ministries, again Larry Rice’s fulltime job, and Ed Novak among others. They deal directly with this generation of those who are self described as “spiritual but not religious,” “believers but not belongers.” Outreach is redundant in their and your ministries.
Or in your evangelization office staffed by the indefatigable Ken Boyack and the projects from the likes of Frank DiSiano for the American church’s evangelization efforts.
But as Paulists you remind us all that our ministries as priests is also to the marginalized and to the poor … to those whom we may not notice because of their lack of commitment to “time, talent or treasure” but who we should notice because they are the primary audiences for Jesus’ words as be began and as he lived his public ministry. Sometimes pastors in parishes cannot do that by dint of demands and circumstances. And they have to pay the bills … part of their particular responsibility is pasturing and making the budgets work.
When you engage in the para-parish and extra-diocesan ministries, you remind all of us that we need to remember who Jesus’ audience was and is … and if we are honest we know that they are we and we are they – the blind, the poor, the oppressed, the weak.
Despite the instant communication world in which we live – with e-mails, IMs, tweets, Blackberrys, voicemails and the like – it may seem as though words have lost their meanings. And some words indeed have lost their meanings and should be ignored.
But many words do matter.
Some words matter a great deal, especially when they say what they mean, and what they say is meant to last.
A man and woman say “I do” and their lives are shaped forever by an exchange of wedding vows, or love expressed in mutual and lasting fidelity.
You undergo what you think it a regular medical check up … you need a medical test taken … the doctor calls you in and says “you’ve got cancer” and you life changes forever … treatment, what kind, how often, whether successful … remission …
A month ago, 60 members of Senates said “yes” that a new system of health care for 30 million Americans might well become a reality. Each one saying “yes” mattered. But last Tuesday the majority of citizens from Massachusetts voted for a candidate who pledged to say “no.” Those citizens spoke a word that matters.
Preaching words matter because they are always words that are “fulfilled in your hearing.”
Paulist preaching words matter. Your preaching in season and out of season is a presumed gift you give to the church. Keep on doing even better what you are doing.
I can say that I have never been to a liturgy at which a Paulist preached that I was not deeply impressed by the care of the preparation for, phrasing of and delivery of the homily. They have always been topical, insightful, probing and reflective indeed of preaching as an event of salvation. Again allow me to name Marcos Zamora, Gil Martinez and Jim DiLuzio at your mother Church of St. Paul.
Sometimes your words make all the difference for those caught in the darkness of sin … and depression. And what do they say who are depressed? “All I want is a light at the end of the tunnel.” Your words are that light … sometimes it is the lights of Broadway and Rockefeller Center enroute to the Sirius radio station … and sometimes it is the flicker of a candle that can be a beacon for those who see it as their only anchor in the storm tossed seas of life and in their personal turmoil in the darkness of sin.
Your ministry of reconciliation is needed now more than ever in the church’s life. Not surprisingly in this “Year of the Priest” the life and priestly work of St. John Vianney has been used as an example for priestly ministry today, especially his availability in the confessional for the forgiveness of sins. But it is obvious that in today’s American church people are no longer flocking to confessionals for forgiveness, much less for the underlying and dare I say more fundamental element – reconciliation – with God, each other, those whom we have harmed by our sin and the wider church community.
My own liturgical assessment is that for the “sacraments of healing” (as the Catechism of the Catholic Church calls them) it is the anointing of the sick that has struck a resonant chord and is a post Vatican II success story. It is also my assessment that the sacrament of penance needs a lot of work to make it an experience of the in-breaking of God’s grace into patterns of behavior that oppress and from which people need to be released. The words of absolution need spoken to be in relation to the words of the scriptures, the praise and thanks which “confession” also means in our tradition, the dialogue that ensues after telling one’s sins is about healing and doing what ought to be done to counter the evil effects of our sins followed by the words of the priest spoken “through the ministry of the church …” I am increasingly concerned about the privatization of the sacrament of penance reflected in such phrases as “Father, can you hear a quick confession?” as opposed to an ecclesial experience of God’s mercy and love either enacted in a communal celebration or reflected in individual penance. Without an ecclesiological lens the sacrament of penance can paradoxically fall into the preoccupation of the self in our culture rather than being an experience of praying with the other members of the pilgrim, imperfect church on earth.
The church in all too many areas of our world stands in great need of reconciliation among its members and in the wider world. The horror of the sex abuse revelations in Ireland serve only to mirror back to us the lives of those in our country that still stand in need of healing from this oppression, caused by unjust aggressors to the most vulnerable among us.
I ask you Paulists redouble your efforts to that the church can be once again a sign and effective instrument of God’s reconciling love.
The church cannot afford to have the Paulists burn out or even diminish in any way who you are in and for the church. Keep on doing what you are doing. Keep on being who you are. You are a leaven for the church to rise to ever-greater heights in this year for priests and beyond. My message: keep on doing even better what you are doing. The American church presumes upon you. The American church desperately needs you.