A special welcome to all the men and women here today associated with the Ninth Division Association. I know for some of you, this is your first time in this Church and on this property where hundreds of veterans, including many of your fathers and mothers, would return each year to gather for a weekend with their Chaplain from the 9th, Fr. Ed Connors.
His name came up a couple times in my ministry in the last week alone- and he’s been gone for over 28 years now – and it came up with two families I spoke with; one was connected to a funeral here at Immaculate Conception this past week, where the two children of the deceased person remembered Fr. Connors as kids (today they’re both in their 30’s), and the other time was during a visit to the home of a 93-year-old parishioner, where I noticed on their living room wall a photo of Fr. Connors in a nice oval frame that he signed on the back for the parishioner. The 93 years old parishioner was home with two of his sons, and all three of them spoke with deep admiration for Fr. Connors as their Pastor and as a priest.
To use the image from John’s Gospel that we just listened to, it’s good to gather on this hillside on Grove Street in Worcester in the presence of the Lord, coming to commemorate the spirit and mercy work of the World War II Chaplain and the soldiers he affectionately called “My boys.” It’s the same for us with Jesus; we are his boys and girls, his men and women, children of God.
Fr. Connors was a priest and Army Chaplain who understood the importance of remembering and celebrating time spent together. Especially a time where living or dying each day was so unpredictable and uncertain, “under the gun” so to speak. Time spent where the loss of young life was most likely a daily reality, not knowing who was going to live or die that very day during the years 1942-1945. It was a t
ime when the strongest of bonds were formed, where brotherhood grew, where lasting friendships began, where ‘I have your back and you have mine” was the level of trust needed in order to survive. Very much like firefighters and police officers.
Fr. Ed Connors had the grace and courage to serve in the midst of the most trying circumstances, offering spiritual assistance to any soldier in need. His number one concern was not whether a soldier was Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, or even an atheist. His first concern was always to be present for “his boys.” He did this well, and their love for him was a testament to how well he did it.
In the Gospel, the crowd following Jesus is very large. In the thousands. For the purpose of today, we can say these thousands of men and women were Jesus’ 9th Infantry Division, walking the Holy Land. They were his army, his soldiers who came to believe in his cause of righteousness and salvation. They marched wherever their General led them, because they witnessed firsthand that their General from heaven was unlike any other General they had followed. No one spoke like him. No one healed the sick like him. No one taught like him. And, eventually, no one could die for them like he did. And no, it wasn’t General Westmoreland. It was Jesus.
The scene in the Gospel is reminiscent of what Fr. Connors and the hundreds and hundreds of veterans of the 9th Division would do each year here for many years; come together to tell stories; celebrate the Liturgy; to gather as one crowd; to feast and be filled with food left over. They would come together knowing that there was and is a greater purpose to their lives. Those people on the hill with Jesus saw their greater purpose right before their eyes, his way, his truth, and his life. The veterans of the 9th would come back here not only to celebrate a reunion, but also to remember their comrades who did not come home alive, or not at all, praying they will one day see their fellow soldiers again in the kingdom that lasts forever. Such is the reward of faith.
The countless conversations and events commemorating the togetherness and common goals of 1942-1945 took place here on this hill. The numbers now are much fewer, but their legacy remains.
So as we imitate this scene in the Gospel and come together to break bread, whether in the Eucharist here or the Fr. Connors Center in a short while, we give thanks to God for his many blessings and goodness.
To the veterans of the 9th Division who have marched their final step in this world, may our Lord grant them a place of repose for their many sacrifices on behalf of freedom and world peace.
To the veterans who remain, thank you for keeping alive the memory of your comrades. You do so in the same way Christians are to keep alive the Good News of our risen Savior.
And to Fr. Connors, a model priest and Army Chaplain, we also give thanks for his splendid example of devotion to his soldiers, doing so in the midst of the horrors of war, and throughout the many years after the peace treaty was signed. Like Jesus, he fed “his boys” the goods of heaven. My friends, may we do the same for each other. May we feed each other the goods of heaven.
Word out on the street these days is that atheism in our country is the fastest growing “non-religion,” if you will. Atheism is in, in other words. It’s the fashion; it’s vogue; it’s cool. At least that’s what I’ve heard and have read. Perhaps you have too. I’m not certain how true all this is. But if the number of Catholics today who do not practice their faith in Jesus through the Church and do not come forward to receive God’s sacraments, if this is any indicator, then it’s probably true what is said about the growth of atheism.
In fact, I would go so far as to say that those whose faith in Jesus Christ is of the non-practicing type, that they themselves unknowingly participate in the expansion of atheism. To have a faith that is neutral and remains stagnant for years on end, due to anger at the Church or simple indifference to the importance of practicing, is much closer to a faith that is dead rather than alive. We all know someone, or many, whom this defines.
As it should, it bothers many of us when we witness someone we know and love not reach their potential in union with their Redeemer. There may be something there, but there’s much that is not, beginning with Eucharist.
Eucharist is a word that can be understood in a number of ways. For today’s purpose, Eucharist is the gathering of the faithful, where we come together as one. Who are the faithful? The faithful are sinners in need of redemption. Let’s be honest; this is who we are. We can handle the truth. Jesus did not come for the healthy, but for the sick. He was born to make sinners members of the Communion of Saints. He has opened the door that Adam and Eve shut in God’s face in the Garden of Eden. We can now walk through that door and seek mercy.
Eucharist is the gathering of the faithful as one, with all our differences, personalities, nationalities, our wants and desires and what we hope gain each Sunday.
In the Gospel, the Apostles returned from their missionary work and gathered together with Jesus. They reported to him all they had accomplished and taught after the Lord sent them out two at a time. They came back to Eucharist, a gathering with the Lord, after their first mission was completed with great success. They reported to Jesus and to one another the many signs and wonders they performed in his name. They didn’t keep the information to themselves. They didn’t create their own private religion, as many do today, which could not be more against the call of Jesus who gathers, not scatters. The Apostles didn’t go their own way, pretending like they knew it all, living in pride and under false pretenses. No, they re-gathered with the Lord as one. They Eucharisted, if you don’t mind me making up a new word for Mr. Webster. They Eucharisted! They reunited, like a high school reunion. They caught up and shared the Good News that God was in their presence. In their midst. In their works.
There is no better image among the faithful than this one in the Gospel that gives us a sneak preview into what heaven is like. They gathered. THEY gathered. Not “ I” gathered. If you’re looking for your own little corner of heaven in the afterlife, then I have some news for you; you’re not going to heaven! An individual does not gather. That makes no sense. We cannot Eucharist on our own. That’s called being a loner, and that goes against our nature. We can pray on our own…”Go to your inner room,” Jesus says. But that’s in union with the Spirit.
And in our gathering here is growth. The good kind. The growth of some gatherings is not good, such as when gangs gather, bent on violence and destruction, upsetting communities who wish to live in peace. Which leads me to the question, “What’s the difference between a number of atheists who gather to promote their beliefs, or lack thereof, and a number of Christians who gather to live our beliefs?”
The difference is that one gathering is built on sand, while the other gathering is built on Rock. While the gathering of atheists may grow in the present, or those who go it alone may increase in numbers -individually, of course – this house eventually crumbles. It can never be a house of happiness and joy. An atheist is ultimately a miserable person, even when they smile, because their smile is for false reasons. There’s no Eucharist when people gather to proclaim that God does not exist, or that God is dead. There’s no Eucharist when our loved ones and friends find no good purpose in joining others in true worship, but prefer to go it alone. Any house that is built on sand negates the meaning and presence of Eucharist.
But Christians who gather, who Eucharist, are part of a house that is built solidly on the Rock of Christ that grows in good health, as both individuals and a community of faith. This does not mean that life is going to be perfect and easy. We look to the Cross to understand otherwise. But for those with faith, and practice their faith, your house will never fall.
As our Christian faith continues to be attacked from many sides in our time, continue to persevere and gather with Christ. We have many options in which to turn, and with whom we can choose to gather. Most of them are horse manure. Be wise as a serpent when it comes to who we team up with. May our primary gathering, our primary Eucharist, be in the name of Jesus Christ. And that all others Eucharists in our lives be an extension of the Rock who never disappoints.
How much of our lives do we live for Christ? 50%? 60%? 100%? If we had to put it into percentages, how much of our daily lives can be called a life dedicated to the Lord?
The very first image that comes out of this week’s Gospel is that of being sent. Being sent is to go forward with the love of God in our hearts and share the Good News that God has visited his people in Jesus Christ.
Now that’s not an easy assignment, especially today, with an ocean’s worth of P.C. floating around, unless your name is Pope Francis who spent this past week touring parts of South America (Paraguay, Ecuador, Bolivia) and millions of people devote their attention to your presence. They wave at you by the thousands; they clap for you when you say something faithfully true; they smile for you when you look their way; they are touched by your presence just by virtue of the position you hold; the Vicar of Christ on earth. But, there’s only one of him. At least the 12 Disciples had a fellow companion when sent out to preach the Kingdom. The Pope goes it alone.
The image of being sent for us who are not Pope Francis is no less relevant and no less necessary than it was for the Twelve. Or for Pope Francis. Our being sent to proclaim the Good News that God has visited his people is in union with the work of the Holy Father. He just happens to be on much larger stage because of who he is.
So how much of our lives do we live for Christ, who is our beginning and end? How many distractions do we encounter in our daily living, things of the world, that turn us away from being a true disciple and not a false disciple? For there are many false prophets in the Christian faith.
Jesus sends them out there with dietary restrictions. No food, no sack, not even any money in their belts to buy a coffee at Dunkin Donuts along the way. This being sent is a serious event. The distractions they will encounter are not to cause them to be sidestepped from their purpose of bringing some pretty big news. And the same is true for us.
Now you may say, “Fr. Riley, I have a family to raise and care for; I have a job to attend to; I have sporting events to be present for (there are many grandparents who do not miss any of their grandchildren’s activities, sports or otherwise, which is a wonderful thing); I have friends to see, places to go, distractions all over the place. And you want me to devote 100% of my life to Jesus Christ, when I have all these other responsibilities to take care of? Fr. Riley, why don’t you come back down to earth and get realistic! Come off your spiritual cloud and understand what it takes to live life day after day with all these responsibilities that need to be addressed. After all, you’re a priest. What do you know about the real world?” All good questions and comments.
And my response? Live 100% of your life for Jesus Christ, who is our beginning and our end.
Being sent into the world for Christ does not mean you cannot attend a summer cookout with friends, have a drink or two, eat 2-3 pounds of food, and live for Christ. Being sent as Disciples is to carry Jesus within us in the daily routine of our lives, and the daily routine of leisure and rest. The danger is when we forget Christ in any of our encounters and events.
Now I’m not saying we always have to act pious and holy with hands folded in prayer all the time like those guys up in Spencer at St. Joseph’s Abbey, who pray at least five times a day in community (if they’re not too busy drinking their beer and spreading their jelly), along with their awareness of being sent form Christ being off the charts. They’re in a league of their own up there.
But wherever we find ourselves; caring for a sick loved one at home; enjoying a lobster dinner at the Sole; spending a day or weekend at the ocean; coming forward to receive our Lord in the Eucharist; sitting on top of the Green Monster; out for a walk in nature. Wherever we find ourselves, the seriousness of the message requires us to bring Jesus Christ into the many actions and places of our lives. And that, my friends, is being sent.
And when the world gets in the way, which it has a way of doing. When there’s a refusal of Christ at any time. Where genuine goodness and respect for others is not present, such as the countless gossip gatherings scattered throughout this great land, shake the dust off your feet and move on. Many times moving on is a move of great wisdom.
In being sent by Christ, the goal of living in Christ and for Christ is 100%. Maybe Pope Francis can come close. He has enough of God’s grace within to affect millions of people at once. But we are sent in smaller, yet no less important ways.
So may the Lord grant us a deeper awareness of being his disciples in all places and times, bringing the Good News that God has visited his people.