“New Means, Same Abiding Truth: St. Paul’s Legacy Continues Through His Spiritual Daughters”
Homily for the Mass of Farewell for the Daughters of St. Paul
2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year “B”
January 13, 2024; St. Pius X Parish
When we read through the Scriptures about the life and ministry of the prophets, for each one there is a description of the prophet’s calling. It is striking how varied that experience can be among them: some are hesitant, filled with self-doubt, and reluctant to go; others respond immediately when they receive the call, ready to go where the Lord directs them with great alacrity.
Call of the Prophets
The case of the prophet Samuel was something like that. He was dedicated to God from his birth, having been an answer to the prayers of his previously childless mother Hannah, who had promised God to dedicate her child to Him if He would grant her prayer. Thus, along with her husband Elkanah, she entrusted her child to the priest Eli. However, as our first reading informs us, at the time of his calling “Samuel was not familiar with the Lord, because the Lord had not revealed anything to him as yet.” This is because, as we are told in the First Book of Samuel right before the verse where our first reading began, at that time “the word of the Lord was scarce and vision infrequent.”
This was around the year 1000 BC, at the end of the period of the Judges and right on the verge of the establishment of Israel as a kingdom. Samuel would, in fact, be the one – albeit reluctantly and regrettably – to inaugurate the monarchy by anointing the first king. All of this – the infrequent visions, the scarce word of the Lord, the people’s rebellion in asking for a king – was because the people as a whole had turned away from the true God Who had made a covenant with them and instead turned toward the worship of pagan idols. And so Samuel, even though growing up in the Temple and being weaned on his religion from his birth, needed guidance in hearing the voice of the Lord. It was his mentor, the priest Eli, who understood and properly guided him. I suppose today we would say that he served as Samuel’s spiritual director.
At any rate, we hear how, when Samuel finally understands, he responds immediately. But there is a little change of phrase here to show that Samuel still had much growth left in getting know the One Who called him. Notice what Eli tells Samuel to respond: “… if you are called, reply, Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” And notice what he is quoted as actually saying: “Speak, for your servant is listening.” It is as if he is not yet ready to utter that title, “Lord,” for he is still learning how to hear Him and how to address Him. We might say that he knew who he was, and what his place was before his God.
Call of the Apostles
We can say exactly the same for the prophet John the Baptist, who represents the end of the long line of Old Testament prophets. He, too, knew his place before the one whose forerunner he was called to be: the Messiah, the Son of God whom the Father would send into the world. We see this heroic humility reflected in the story of the call of the first two apostles from today’s Gospel. The people were ready to acclaim John as the Messiah and to entrust all power to him; instead of riding this tide, though, John points out the true “Lamb of God.”
Each of the apostles, too, has his own particular experience and story of being called to that vocation. Today we hear about Andrew and another unnamed apostle. Their calling begins with spiritual curiosity, and continues with openness to invitation. They follow John, and are open to his direction, even when it was away from him (I suppose John was also something like a spiritual director to these two apostles). They are looking for something (as Jesus asks them, “What are you looking for?”), and they respond to the invitation of the Lamb of God, “Come, and you will see.”
An apostle, though, is not meant to stay apart; an apostle is sent to share and spread the Good News. And here we see Andrew immediately putting his vocation as apostle into practice: the first thing he does is go to his brother Simon Peter, inform him that he found the Messiah, and then bring his brother to him.
In this sense the apostle embodies the whole mission of the Church: to be set apart with the Lord, in order to go out and proclaim him to the world. And this, of course, is what the first Christians did, and Christians have done ever since. We are called to be evangelizers. That means we must know how to proclaim the truth of the Gospel in every time and place, in the particular culture in which we find ourselves.
We see this, too, reflected in the first ones who wrote down the Good News, the Gospels, those whom we called the four evangelists. We see how they translated the teachings of their Lord into the language and concepts that their audience could understand. In fact, in this short passage from St. John’s Gospel we just heard proclaimed, we hear this work of translation in real time: “‘Rabbi’ – which translated means Teacher”; “‘Messiah’ – which is translated Christ”; and, “‘Cephas’ – which is translated Peter.” John is doing a lot of translating here! He is beginning the work of translating the teaching of this Jewish rabbi and Messiah and Son of God into the language and modes of thinking of a world immersed in Greek language and culture.
St. Paul and His Daughters
Note, however, that while the language and cultural contexts may change, the teaching does not. The message remains the same, consistent. And this is no better exemplified than in the greatest evangelizer of all, St. Paul. The teaching we just heard proclaimed in his First Letter to the Corinthians poignantly illustrates this point. It is also a teaching especially difficult for people of our own time to accept, as it was in his time: the teaching of bodily purity and integrity, reflecting the dignity that God has given our bodies of being temples of the Holy Spirit. The tools we use to teach the Gospel may change, but the Gospel itself does not. As then so now, fidelity to this truth can bring ridicule, hostility, and the cost of being ostracized. But it is precisely by holding to the truth of this teaching that the Church was able to convert and civilize a pagan world. Yes, it is hard to live by, sometimes hard to accept, but it is a better way because it is the way of love.
Which brings us to what we are about today: St. Paul’s spiritual daughters. Although it is with a heavy heart, we are happy to celebrate today their legacy on behalf of the Church’s call to the Great Commission around the world and especially here in our own Archdiocese. For over 100 years, and for the last 58 years here in the Archdiocese of San Francisco, they have continued St. Paul’s work of evangelization by delivering the same and unchanging Good News in many different ways and in many different countries, cultures and languages. To put it in their own words, “As Saint Paul traveled to proclaim the Gospel to the people of his time, we too strive, amidst life’s complexities and cultural changes, to bring the Gospel message to the people of our time who do not yet know Jesus Christ.”
Our sisters have been successful in doing this precisely because they understand the mission of the apostle: to be set apart with the Lord in order to go out and bring others to him. By religious consecration they live by the rule of an officially recognized religious congregation, a life centered in prayer, work and community living. I have always been impressed that in their bookstores they always have a small chapel with the Blessed Sacrament reserved. Jesus is literally at the center of their lives. And now they continue to hear his voice, discerning how he is calling them to serve him in a world very different from the one that many of us here in this church today knew not so long ago when we were young (well, okay, for some of you youngsters that does seem like long ago, but in Church time it’s not!).
Dear sisters: we will sorely miss you, but we salute you for making the hard decisions you have had to, in order to carry out your mission more effectively by reconfiguring your physical presence and reallocating your resources.
Even more, we salute you for continuing the legacy of your spiritual father, St. Paul, in being set aside with the Lord in order to go out and bring others to him by use of all of the means of communication that the world affords us. In new and reconfigured ways you will continue to reach the spiritually curious, those who are looking for something but not sure where to turn, and those who have found the One for whom they are looking and want to know him more deeply. You will continue to serve corporately as their spiritual mentors and guides, so they may hear the voice of God in this cacophonous age when the word of the Lord is scarce and vision infrequent.
Most of all, we thank you for saying “yes” to your vocation, for consecrating yourselves to our Lord Jesus Christ in the community of the Daughters of St. Paul, espousing him as your sole love and sharing him with the world. While the physical absence will sadden us, the spiritual presence remains constant, and your witness and ministry will continue to contribute to and enrich the life of the Church. With profound gratitude we assure you of our continued prayers, that God will reward you for your goodness to others. Thank you!!!