Saturday, October 31, 2015


Homily for All Saints' Day
AIM: To help the hearers rejoice in our fellowship with the saints.
A decade ago, on April 24th, 2005, Pope Benedict XVI, now retired, began his ministry as Bishop of Rome with the Mass which he celebrated before a vast crowd in St. Peter=s Square in Rome. Three times that month, he told them in his homily, they had chanted the litany of the saints: at the funeral of Pope John Paul II; as the cardinals processed into the conclave to choose his successor; and at the beginning of the Mass which Pope Benedict was celebrating, when the response to the invocation of each saint was a prayer for the new Pope: "Lord help him." 
At Pope John Paul's death, Pope Benedict said, his predecessor had crossed the threshold of the next life, entering into the mystery of God. "But he did not take this step alone. Those who believe are never alone -- neither in life nor in death." We knew, the new Pope said, that the saints, A"is brothers and sisters in the faith ... would form a living procession to accompany him into the next world."
Two weeks later, Pope Benedict continued, as the cardinals gathered to choose the Church's new chief shepherd, Awe knew that we were not alone. We knew that we were surrounded, led, and guided by the friends of God. And now, at this moment, weak servant of God that I am, I must assume this enormous task, which truly exceeds all human capacity. How can I do this?
"All of you, my dear friends, have just invoked the entire host of saints, represented by some of the great names in the history of God's dealing with mankind. In this way, I can say with renewed conviction: I am not alone. I do not have to carry alone what in truth I could never carry alone. All the saints of God are there to protect me, to sustain me, and to carry me.
         Is it only popes whom the saints protect, sustain, and carry? Don't you believe it! The saints are truly sisters and brothers to every one of us. That is why we pray to them: not as we pray to God, of course, but asking them to pray for us. What could be more natural, what more fitting? God never intended us to be Lone Rangers. In baptism he made us members of his great family, the Catholic Church. He wants us to support one another. One way we do so is by praying for one another. Priests receive requests for such prayer all the time. "Father, please pray for my little granddaughter," a parishioner said to me recently. "She is having a difficult operation to preserve her failing eyesight. If it fails, there is nothing more they can do."  
If it is right, and natural, to ask our friends here on earth to pray for us, how much more fitting to ask the prayers of our friends in heaven, the saints? Being close to God, their prayers are especially powerful.
The saints are not remote figures in stained glass windows. In reality they are close to us. We enjoy fellowship with them. The letter to the Hebrews, after giving thumbnail sketches of the saints of the Old Testament in chapter 11, portrays them at the beginning of chapter 12 as spectators in an arena, supporting and encouraging us who are running now the race they ran here on earth. "Seeing, then that we are surrounded by such a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily drags us down; and let us look to Jesus, the beginning and end of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising its shame, and is now set down on the right hand of the throne of God." 
People often ask: How many saints are there? There are reference books which list them. And the list is constantly growing. In reality, however, most of the saints are known only to God. That is why we celebrate All Saints' Day, honoring not only those we know, but the vastly larger number of those known only to God. All Saints' Day reminds us that we are never alone: neither in life nor in death. 

When we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, and clouds seem to shut out the sunshine of God's love, the saints walk with us. When we rejoice at some answered prayer, some great achievement, some unexpected blessing, the saints rejoice with us. For the saints, our sisters and brothers, are not only more numerous than we often suppose. They are also, in a sense, more ordinary. They faced the same difficulties we face. They never gave up. That was their secret. The saints are just the sinners who kept on trying. 

Each time we make a decision for Jesus Christ, we place ourselves on their side. They centered their lives on the Lord. He was their strength in life, their companion in death. He is the same for us. As long as we are trying to be true to him, he will give us what he gave them: strength to live, and courage to die.  

Thursday, October 29, 2015


Homily for October 30th, 2015: Luke 14:1-6.

          Few things were more important for devout Jews in Jesus’ day, or for Orthodox Jews today, for that matter, than the observance of rest on the Sabbath, laid down in the fourth of the Ten Commandments. We find the Commandments twice over in the Bible: in the 20th chapter of Exodus, and in the 5th chapter of Deuteronomy. The command in both passages is to keep the Sabbath holy by refraining from work.
         But what types of work were forbidden? Successive generations of rabbis and scholars of God’s law debated this, producing over time a long list of activities forbidden on the Sabbath. Orthodox rabbis continue to develop the list today, to cover activities which did not exist previously, like driving a car or watching television.

          In today’s gospel reading Jesus, dining on a Sabbath at the house of a devout Pharisee, is confronted by a man with a serious illness: “dropsy,” an archaic term for what doctors today call “edema,” swelling of the lower legs due to excess fluid in the body. Before healing the man, Jesus asks his fellow guests whether it is lawful to heal on the Sabbath. Receiving no reply, Jesus goes ahead and heals the man. Sensing the indignation of the guests at his violation of God’s law, Jesus asks them another question: “Who among you, if your son or ox falls into a cistern, would not immediately pull him out on the Sabbath day?” Once again, no one dares answer.

          Jesus’ questions are very like issues with which the Church is wrestling today. Can we admit to Communion people who have divorced and entered a second marriage while the first partner is still living? And how do we show love and compassion to people living with a partner of the same sex in what they claim is a marriage? Church teaching is clear in both cases. Marriage is exclusively between people of different genders; and once established it can be terminated only by death.

          Bishops and cardinals from the whole word wrestled with these difficult questions in Rome earlier this month, without reaching full agreement. We need to pray that the Holy Spirit will guide the Church to answers that respect the truth about marriage, without infringing on the duty of compassionate love for others.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015


 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B. Deuteronomy 6:2-6; Mark 12b-34.
AIM:  To show that God=s law embodies his love; and that our obedience to his law is our response to that love. 

At the heart of the religion which Jesus learned from Mary and Joseph, and from the synagogue school in Nazareth, were the Ten Commandments. Like all laws, they require interpretation. The command to Akeep holy@ the Sabbath by refraining from work, for instance, requires a definition of what kind of work is forbidden on the Sabbath. Over time the interpretation of the commandments became lengthy. Hence the rabbis, who provided these interpretations, vied with one another to formulate a Agreatest@ or most important law that would sum up everything God commanded. One of the best known summaries in Jesus= day was that of the Rabbi Hillel. He said he could state the whole of God=s law while standing on one foot. AWhat you yourself hate, do not to your neighbor. That is the whole of God=s law. Everything else is commentary.@
This search for a summary of the law was behind the question put to Jesus in today=s gospel about Athe first of God=s commandments.@ In reply Jesus cites the passage from Deuteronomy which we heard in our first reading. This is the Hebrew prayer AShemáh Israél B Hear, O Israel@, still recited today by devout Jews thrice daily. Two things are noteworthy about this central text of Jewish religion.
First, it presents what we owe God as a response to what God has already done for us. The first phrase, AHear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone!@ refers to the special relationship between God and his people. This one God, the text is saying, is our God because he has chosen us from all other nations on earth to be his own. The duty to love God is the consequence of God=s prior choice of this people. AThe Lord is our God, the Lord alone. Therefore, you shall love the Lord, your God@ with all your heart, soul and strength.
This view of the law as our response to God=s prior action is explicit in the Ten Commandments. They are given twice over in the Old Testament: first in Exodus, again in Deuteronomy. Both times they are preceded by God=s declaration: AI, the Lord, am your God, who brought you out of Egypt, that place of slavery@ (Exod. 20:2; Deut. 5:6). The commandments which immediately follow describe the people=s grateful response to what God has already done for them in liberating them from slavery. 
The Deuteronomy text cited by Jesus in the gospel is noteworthy for a second reason as well. It puts love at the heart of religion. AThe Lord is our God, the Lord alone. Therefore, you shall love the Lord, your God ...@ We sometimes hear that the Old Testament presents a God of law, the New Testament a God of love. That is misleading. While law is central in the Old Testament, it presents God=s law as an expression of his love B a gift granted to his chosen people, and not to others.  (Cf. Deut. 4:6-8)
And while the New Testament does emphasize God=s love, he remains a God of law. In the Sermon on the Mount, for instance, Jesus says that he has come not to abolish the law but to fulfill it (Mt. 5:7). And at the Last Supper he gives his apostles Aa new commandment: Love one another@ (John 13:34). Both parts of the Bible proclaim the same God. If God=s self-disclosure is fuller in the New Testament, this is because in it God comes to us through his Son. As we read in the opening verse of the letter to the Hebrews: AIn times past, God spoke in fragmentary and varied ways to our fathers through the prophets; in this, the final age, he has spoken to us through his Son ...@
The rabbis who interpreted the Ten Commandments also taught that disobeying one was equivalent to disobeying all. There is an echo of this in the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus says: A... whoever breaks the least significant of these commandments ... shall be called least in the kingdom of God@ (Mt. 5:19). By making love the center of God=s law, however, Jesus moves beyond this tradition.  Love of God and neighbor are the heart of Jesus= summary of the law in today=s gospel. When his questioner says that love is better than Aall burnt offerings and sacrifices@ B better, that is, than formal worship B Jesus tells him: AYou are not far from the kingdom of God.@ With these words Jesus is saying that God=s kingdom is present wherever love is present. 

But how can we tell when this love, which is the heart of God=s law, is truly present? Jesus= answer is clear. The test of our love for God is whether we love our neighbor. (Cf. 1 John 4:20) And love for our neighbor is genuine only if it means sharing with others the unmerited love that God lavishes on us. This is the love for neighbor which God commands in his law. 

Human laws command us to respect the rights of others. Obedience to such laws, however, is always impersonal, formal, cold. I can respect your rights without having any human contact with you. Hence the enormous amount of loneliness in our society. Mother Teresa called loneliness Athe worst disease of modern times.@ 

There is only one cure for loneliness: love. And the source of all love is God, for, as the first letter of John tells us, AGod is love@ (1 Jn. 4:9). God=s law can command this love, as human laws cannot, because at the heart of God=s law is the world=s greatest love: the love of God for all he has made. Or, as Pope Benedict XVI says: ALove can be >commanded= because it first been given@ (Deus caritas est, 14 end).
We often experience conflict between love for God and love for others. For Jesus, however, there is no conflict. Love for others is the expression and test of our love for God. AAs often as you did it for one of my least brothers,@ Jesus says in his great parable of judgment, Ayou did it for me@ (Mt. 25:40).

Our world is full of schemes for serving people in need. In western countries they are called social welfare, or the welfare state. Why do these efforts so often leave people still hungry, hurt, or lonely? Because they are not empowered by the love of God. All forms of do-goodism without love are cold. Too often they end by exploiting those they seek to serve and depriving them of their human dignity and freedom. That explains the ghastly failure of so many ambitious and well-intentioned schemes for human betterment in our world.

For all these failures despite the enormous amount of goodwill involved there is but one remedy: the unbounded love of God B the love which is a free gift, not a reward for services rendered: the love that will never let us go. We are here to receive that gift. And the One who gives us his love as a gift sends us out at the end of each Mass, to share his gift with others.


Homily for Oct. 29th, 2015: Rom. 8:31b-39.

          “If God is for us,” Paul writes in our first reading, “who can be against us?” This rhetorical question introduces one of the greatest testimonies of personal faith in the whole of Scripture.

Personal witness or testimony has a prominent place in the worship of Evangelical Protestants – too prominent, some would say. Catholics shy away from it. Most Catholics are not comfortable speaking publicly about their personal faith. Handled properly, however, personal testimony to our faith has unique power.  

          “Christ intercedes for us,” Paul writes. How encouraged we should be to know that his work and prayer for us did not end with his resurrection and ascension. From his place at the Father’s right hand, Jesus continues to bring us and our needs to his Father’s attention. Who could be a more powerful advocate for us than the One who laid down his life for us?

          Continuing his rhetorical questions, Paul asks, “What will separate us from the love of Christ?” The unspoken answer to this question is clear: Nothing can separate us from Christ’s love; nothing in either heaven or earth.

          “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

          What an eloquent testimony to personal faith those words are; what a powerful aid to confident hope when we are down and discouraged! And how fitting were the words we spoke in response: “Thanks be to God.”

          We pray in this Mass that, when appropriate and needed, the Holy Spirit of the living God will give us words to testify to our own personal faith.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015


Homily for Oct. 28th, 2015: Luke 6:12-16.

 From his disciples, we heard in the gospel, Jesus chose twelve. Why twelve? Because God’s people was composed of twelve tribes. Jesus was establishing a new people of God. The twelve men Jesus chose to lead his new people were undistinguished. If they had one common quality it was mediocrity. About most of them we have only legends. And the lists of names in the different gospels don’t even agree in all cases.

He calls these mostly quite ordinary men “apostles.” What is an apostle? The word means ‘one who is sent’ – like an ambassador, sent to another country to represent his country, and especially the head of state who sends him.

Who are today’s apostles? One answer is “the bishops.” We call them the successors of the apostles. Each one of them must have been ordained bishop by at least one previous bishop who is, as the books say, “in the apostolic succession.” That means that he too must have been ordained by a bishop who received his sending from a bishop who can trace his call back to one of the twelve originally sent out by Jesus and named today’s gospel.

In baptism and confirmation, however, Jesus has also sent each one of us to be his apostles, his messengers. How do we do that? You probably know St. Francis of Assisi’s answer to this question. “Preach always,” Francis said. “When necessary, use words.” How wise that is. Personal example is always more powerful than words. “What you are,” someone said, “speaks so loud that I cannot hear what you say.” Pope Paul VI said the same, in more formal words, when he wrote: "People today listen more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if they do listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses."

So what are we? In baptism we were made God’s sons and daughters, brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ, and heirs of his kingdom. The whole of our Christian life, therefore – all our prayers, sacrifices and good works -- are not a striving after high and distant ideals that constantly elude us. They are efforts to live up to what in baptism, we have already become. We come here, therefore, to receive, at these twin tables of word and sacrament, the inspiration and strength to be messengers of God’s love, and bringers of his light, to a dark and mostly unbelieving world.


Monday, October 26, 2015


Homily for July 27th, 2015: Jeremiah 13:1-11; Matthew 13:31-15.

          The kingdom of God, Jesus says, is “like a mustard seed … the smallest of all seeds.” From tiny beginnings comes a great bush, large enough to shelter birds, who build their nests in its branches. God’s kingdom is not identical with his Church. His kingdom includes many who are not in the Church, strictly speaking. Yet what Jesus says about the kingdom in this little parable is also true of the Church. Who could have predicted that the little band of humble friends of Jesus whom we read about in the gospels would grow into the worldwide Church we see today? Nobody! Yet so it is. Jesus knows what he is about. With this comparison of God’s kingdom to mustard seed, he spoke the truth.

The kingdom is also, Jesus says, “like yeast that a woman took and mixed with three measures of wheat flour until the whole batch was leavened.” Do those words reflect a childhood memory: Jesus recalling how he had watched his mother mixing leaven with dough, kneading it, and then setting it in the sun, which caused the dough to rise, so that it could be baked in the oven? We cannot say; but it is entirely possible. The meaning of this parable is similar to that of the mustard seed. From small, seemingly insignificant beginnings, comes growth that no one could have predicted.

Why do you suppose Jesus chose parables as his favorite form of teaching? Well, who doesn’t like a good story?  Stories have a universal appeal, to young children, but also to adults. But there is another reason why Jesus chose to teach through stories. Because stories are much easier to understand than abstract explanations. In his book, Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict XVI writes: “Every teacher who wants to communicate new knowledge to his listeners naturally makes constant use of example or parable. ... By means of parable he brings something distant within their reach so that, using the parable as a bridge, they can arrive at what was previously unknown.”  

The two little parables we have heard today proclaim God’s love – but also our need to respond with love: for him and for others.    


Sunday, October 25, 2015


You probably know of the Black Legend constructed for Pius XII, Pope from 1939 to 1958, claiming that he was indifferent to the Holocaust. Below is my review, to be published soon in The Catholic World Report, of an important new book which drives the final nail into the coffin of this legend.

Church of Spies: The Pope’s Secret War Against Hitler, by Mark Riebling; Basic Books, New York, 2015; 375 pages, $29.99.
        Of the eight Popes who shepherded the Church from 1903 to century’s end, none is so hotly disputed as Pius XII, who reigned from March 2nd, 1939 until his death on October 9th, 1958. At issue is the Pope’s alleged “silence” in the face of the Holocaust. His defenders point out that in reality he was not silent. At the start of World War II Pius authorized Vatican radio to broadcast reports of Nazi atrocities in Poland. These ceased only at the urgent plea of victims reporting that the broadcasts intensified their sufferings.
In 1942 the Pope’s Christmas message spoke of “the hundreds of thousands who, through no fault of their own, and solely because of their nationality and race, have been condemned to death or progressive extinction.” Dismissed by his latter day critics as too vague to be understood, the Pope’s words were well understood by the Nazis, who called them “one long attack on everything we stand for. Here he is clearly speaking on behalf of the Jews ... and makes himself the mouthpiece of the Jewish war criminal.”  The New York Times also understood, commenting: “This Christmas more than ever [Pope Pius XII] is a lonely voice crying out of the silence of a continent.”
At the war’s end Golda Meier (later Israel’s Prime Minister), Albert Einstein, the World Jewish Congress, the American Jewish Committee and many other Jewish voices applauded Pius for doing what he could to rescue Jews: by providing life saving travel documents, religious disguises, and safekeeping in cloistered monasteries and convents, including the Pope’s own summer residence at Castel Gandolfo, where Jewish babies were born in the Pope’s own bedroom. The Israeli diplomat and scholar Pinchas Lapide commented: “No Pope in history has been thanked more heartily by Jews.” At the Pope’s death in October 1958 the New York Times took three days to print tributes to Pius from New York City rabbis alone.
          The chorus of praise fell silent overnight in 1963 with the publication of a pseudo-historical stage play, The Deputy, by a former junior member of the Hitler Youth, Rolf Hochhuth. The play’s scathing indictment portrayed Pius XII as a cold-hearted cynic, more interested in the Vatican’s investment portfolio than in Hitler’s slaughter of European Jews, including those rounded up in Rome under the Pope’s own windows. The play’s message is well conveyed by its final line, in which the German ambassador to the Holy See, Ernst von Weisäcker, telegraphs his superiors in Berlin: "Since further action on the Jewish problem is probably not to be expected here in Rome, it may be assumed that this question, so troublesome to German-Vatican relations, has been disposed of.”
          Seldom can a work of fiction have appeared at a time more favorable to its message. The 1960s saw publications by liberal theologians proclaiming “the death of God.” It was also the age of the Youth Revolution, with the slogan, “Don’t trust anyone over 30.” A play which purported to unmask one of the world’s leading moral authorities was a godsend to the propagators of these new and exciting ideas.
          The bureaucratically organized slaughter of six million Jews was an event so horrible that many people found it difficult to believe that ultimate responsibility belonged to a single individual, Adolf Hitler. Hochhuth helped them come to terms with the inconceivable by assigning co-responsibility to the one man who (Hochhuth’s Black Legend alleged) could have stopped the machinery of death, had he wished to do so: the Pope of Rome. Millions who had never experienced the reign of terror imposed on Europe by the Nazis during World War II, with a totally controlled press and media, and people sent to concentration camps (which often meant death) simply for listening to news reports on British radio, welcomed Hochhuth’s indictment as an aid to understanding an event beyond the limits of what was previously considered possible.
          From 1963 onward Hochhuth’s Black Legend has reigned supreme. Accepted by all but a minority of historical scholars, and propagated without reserve by the media, it is still alive and well today. A book published in May of this year, The Pope’s Dilemma by the retired Toronto professor, Jacques Kornberg, accuses Pius XII of “moral failure” for concentrating exclusively during World War II on Church interests, without regard for extra-ecclesial events and concerns. 
          Comes now this blockbuster of a book which not only defends Pius XII (which others have undertaken with varying success) but utterly demolishes the Black Legend by showing in intricate and meticulously documented detail (107 pages of end notes and sources) that from the very start of the war the Pope cooperated secretly with anti-Nazi forces in Hitler’s thousand year Reich who sought, first, to remove the Führer from power; and when that failed, to kill him.  
          Appalled by reports of Nazi atrocities in Poland during the first month of occupation –  hundreds of priests shot, systematic extermination of Jews forced to dig their own burial trenches, then stripped naked and machine-gunned like sardines in a can; “and in one photo, a police officer shooting a child clamped between his knees” – Pius made up his mind. “He would engage the German military resistance and encourage a military counterrevolution. He would serve as secret foreign agent for the resistance – presenting and guaranteeing its plans to the British. He would partner with the [German] generals not just to stop the war, but to eliminate Nazism by removing Hitler.”
          The Pope’s aides were stunned. The highly respected British historian, Owen Chadwick wrote later: “Never before had a Pope engaged so delicately in a conspiracy to overthrow a tyrant by force.” The Pope, his co-workers thought, was going too far. Were Hitler to learn of the pontiff’s role, Hitler would take terrible revenge on Catholics, invade the Vatican, and kidnap the Pope. Later in the war Hitler actually ordered both the invasion and kidnapping, only to be frustrated by his generals’ foot-dragging.
          Central in this complicated and ever shifting story is the devout and heroically courageous German Catholic layman, Josef Müller, described by Riebling as “a big-eared Bavarian book publisher, who puffed a pipe and collected stamps.” We first encounter him on page 2 of the book, standing on April 8th, 1945, beneath a Nazi gallows, just minutes from execution. Only on the book’s final page do we learn how he was saved from this gruesome fate (he died in 1979): through an eleventh-hour phone call from the SS officer Walter Huppenkothen, commander of Hitler’s security guard, yet another secret anti-Nazi, whom Müller had befriended years previously. Müller worked throughout the war with Admiral Canaris, Chief of Hitler’s counter-intelligence network, and his cavalry officer assistant, Colonel Hans Oster. Like a number of those who served Hitler, both men were secret but determined anti-Nazis. All but Müller were executed by the Nazis just before the war’s end.  
          Müller was also an airplane pilot. He is estimated to have flown a tiny light plane over the Alps to Merano in northern Italy some 150 times during war with permission of the government he was trying to destroy, carrying communications for the Pope from Hitler’s clandestine enemies. Müller also accompanied the well known German Protestant Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer to Rome, where the latter met with papal aides in the crypt of St. Peter’s Basilica.   
Another Protestant who worked with Hitler’s secret enemies was Count Helmut Moltke, called by the American diplomat George Kennan, “the greatest person, morally, and the largest and most enlightened in his concepts that I met on either side of the battle-lines in the Second World War.” Like Canaris and Oster, Moltke held a strategic governmental position in Hitler’s Third Reich, blocking the worst when he could, and paying with his life at the end of the war for his efforts. On the Pentecost weekend of May 22-25, 1942 Moltke hosted a meeting of some twenty people at his east German estate “Kreisau” (the “Kreisau Circle”) to discuss the building of a new “Decent Germany” after the war. Pius XII had helped plan the agenda, and was told about the discussion afterwards.  
Riebling’s book is beautifully written, and reads like a novel. It makes severe demands on the reader nonetheless – due to the large cast of characters, and the fact that almost all of them are engaged in secret deception. Most had code names. Pius XII was “the Chief.”    
          Especially moving is Riebling’s account of Josef Müller’s private meeting with Pius XII, at the Pope’s request, on June 1st, 1945, just three weeks after the war’s end in Europe.  “I had hardly crossed the threshold of his study,” Müller wrote, “when the Holy Father approached me, and embraced me.” He could hardly grasp how Müller had escaped. He felt as if his own son had returned from terrible danger.
          The Pope put his arm around Müller’s shoulder and seated his guest next to him at a long table, but close, so that they could hold hands. “Pius XII has often been accused of being a proud and detached Roman” Müller wrote afterward, “I saw nothing of that during my audience. … I told Pius of my plans to fashion a new bloc [in Germany] from strong Christians, regardless of denomination, in order to confront collectivism [i.e. Communism]. That he agreed with this idea brought me great joy.”
          It remains to pay tribute to Riebling’s publisher. The book’s dust jacket, and the volume itself, are both completely black, save for a silvery partial sketch on the jacket of a cynical looking figure in an over-sized miter, his right hand raised in blessing. It is impossible to overlook this visual reminder of the long flourishing Black Legend which Riebling so successfully demolishes in these riveting pages. 

John Jay Hughes is a St. Louis priest and Church historian with a special interest in the Church’s confrontation with Hitler. His most recent book is the memoir: No Ordinary Fool: a Testimony to Grace.



Homily for October 26th, 2015: Luke 13:10-17.

          “Woman, you are set free . . . ” Jesus tells a nameless woman, unable to stand erect, whom he encounters in a synagogue on a Sabbath day. “He laid his hands on her, and she at once stood up straight and glorified God,” Luke tells us. There is no indication that the woman asked to be healed. Moreover, men and women sat separately in synagogues – as they still do today in Orthodox synagogues. “When Jesus saw her, he called to her,” Luke writes. The healing was entirely his initiative.

It is one of countless examples in the gospels of Jesus’ compassion. More importantly, it is an example Jesus’ rejection of the second-class status of women in his society. Another is Jesus’ lengthy conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well in chapter 4 of John’s gospel. The social laws of the day forbade all but the most superficial public contact with a woman not related to a man. Moreover, as a Samaritan the woman belonged to people whom Jews in Jesus’ day hated. Jesus also rejected the second-class status of women when he praised Mary of Bethany for sitting at his feet, listening to his teaching, while her sister Martha toiled in the kitchen. Again, the laws of the day said that was where Mary too belonged.

The fourth Commandment told God’s people to rest from work on the Sabbath because God had rested on the seventh day, after finishing his work of creation. (cf. Exod. 20:11) The Sabbath rest was thus a weekly reminder that God must have the central place in his people’s lives.

When the synagogue leader complains that the healing Jesus has performed violates the Sabbath rest, Jesus responds by telling the man that he would not hesitate to untie and lead to water a domestic animal on the Sabbath. Was this “daughter of Abraham,” as Jesus calls her, less worthy of compassion than an animal? Ought she not to have been set free on the Sabbath, Jesus asks. By framing what he has done in terms of liberation, Jesus reminds us of his central and most important work: setting us free from our heaviest burden: sin and guilt. Jesus never grows tired of doing this, our wonderful Pope Francis reminds us. It is we who too often grow tired of asking for forgiveness.