Sunday, May 17, 2015

St. Vincent de Paul, The Slave Evangelist

St. Vincent de Paul, The Slave Evangelist 
A Reflection for the St. Vincent de Paul meeting, Monday, May 11, 2015
by Dcn Bob Bonomi

When we think about the founding of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul (the Vincentians), our thoughts naturally turn to Frederic Ozanam, the principal founder of the society in 1833. (No, St. Vincent didn’t found the St. Vincent de Paul society – but you probably already knew that. He wasn’t even declared a saint until 100 years after he died. He did found the Daughters of Charity, however.)

And if we’ve read anything about St. Vincent, it was probably a “saint of the day” synopsis and little about the man himself, other than that his life was obviously a holy one since he was named a saint by Pope Clement XII in 1737. Some may know a general outline of his life: that he was born into a peasant family and was ordained a priest at the age of about nineteen. One might know that he was at one point captured by pirates and sold into slavery; and escaped after two years. He eventually underwent a conversion of heart and felt a call to serve the poor; and he eventually founded the Dames de la Charité, or Ladies of Charity – which would eventually become known as the Daughters of Charity.

But it is during the brief two-year period of his slavery that I’d like for us to reflect on today. He had three masters; the first was a fisherman, but Vincent proved worthless as a fisherman because he suffered from sea-sickness. The second was a physician and inventor who became fairly well-known in Muslim countries for his skills. It was during a trip to Istanbul that this master became ill and died, resulting in Vincent be sold yet again – this time to a former priest and Franciscan who had converted to Islam to escape slavery himself. This master lived in the mountains with three wives; the second wife, a Muslim from birth, liked to listen to Vincent and asked him questions about his faith. She became convinced that Vincent’s faith was indeed true and in turn convinced her husband that he was wrong to renounce Christianity. It took ten months, but eventually the master, his family and the slave Vincent escaped to France, giving Vincent his freedom.

Why is this important? It shows us that the issues that we see in the face of Islam today haven’t changed much in the 400 years since Vincent’s time. But it is in how Vincent dealt with the problems that he faced which offer us hope today. Vincent did not rebel against his masters; he did not bemoan his slavery or struggle to escape. He didn’t abandon his faith nor did he proselytize it – he lived his faith in spite of the difficulties and trials that he faced, and in doing so he was able to bring others back to God and to the true faith.

Today, volunteers for the St. Vincent de Paul Society serve people from all walks of life, from all faiths or of no faith. They bring love and support to those who are in need, and as such they are the face of Jesus that people encounter, many for the first time. And like Vincent the slave, it won’t be through condemnation of those who disagree with our faith that will draw people to Christ. It will be our trust and belief in our faith, and the love of Christ that we show to others, more than financial support, which will free them from the slavery of the circumstances of their lives. That freedom, that love, wrapped in the aid that the Society provides, is the greatest gift that we can give to another. It is the evangelization of love.

Looking Up

Looking Up
Homily for Sunday, May 17, 2015
Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord - B
by Dcn Bob Bonomi

Ever try standing on the street or in a public place and just stare up into the sky or at the ceiling while people walked by? Maybe shade your eyes with your hands to emphasize that you are looking real hard? Sooner or later you’ll get others to stop and look up, trying to see what it is that you find so interesting. (As kids, that’s when we’d laugh and say, “Ha, ha – made you look.”)

In fact, I bet that, if I just stopped right now and stared hard at the ceiling, or maybe our beautiful rose window in the back, and said nothing but continued to stare, some of you would get the irresistible urge to look.

Why do we do that? We can’t help it - we are curious creatures, we creations of God. We are just dying to see what others see – we don’t want to be left out. In fact, we can get so caught up in trying to see something that we can miss what’s going on around us. (Think about rubber-neckers passing by an accident scene.)

That’s the image I get of the Ascension from our first reading from Acts – all of the disciples are standing around, staring at the sky, and they don’t even notice when two men dressed in white come up to them. “Uh, whatcha staring at? There’s nothing there anymore.”

But have you noticed that although the Church emphasizes the Ascension of our Lord, the Gospels themselves say very little about the event itself. Take today’s Gospel passage. In it, St. Mark mentions the Ascension almost as an afterthought: “So then the Lord Jesus, after he spoke to them, was taken up into heaven and took his seat at the right hand of God.” St. John’s Gospel doesn’t even include the Ascension directly, although he refers to it in depth: first in his Bread of Life discourse, when he tells his disciples that if they have trouble accepting that one has to eat of the flesh of the Son of Man for eternal life, then how will they react if they were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?; and then later during his Last Supper Discourse as he talks about having to leave them in order to send the Advocate to be with them. And although we get the most detail about the Ascension from St. Luke’s description in today’s passage from the Acts of the Apostles, in St. Luke’s Gospel account it sounds as if Jesus ascended shortly after his Resurrection. And St. Matthew doesn’t even mention it!

So why don’t we hear more about the Ascension in the Gospels? Because the Early Church didn’t need it – they already knew it; it was part of the fundamental catechesis to those being introduced to Jesus; it was already part of their beliefs; and it was never in question. We see that in St. Paul’s letters, like the one from Ephesians that we just heard: “The one who descended is also the one who ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.” It was and still is integral to our profession of faith, “He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father”. It is and has always been core to our beliefs.

But the Ascension is more than just an event where Jesus sails away from us into the clouds. The Ascension is a turning point for our lives today, just as it was for Jesus’ disciples 2000 years ago. It was the signal to prepare for action. For three years prior to His death and Resurrection, Jesus did the heavy lifting of proclaiming the Good News; with the Ascension it became time for his disciples to take over. In today’s readings we just heard St. Mark say that the disciples went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them; St. Paul talked about the different roles that were assigned to the disciples by the Lord; and St. Luke told them that they would be witnesses to the ends of the earth. Marching orders for His disciples.

That’s US. WE'RE His disciples today. It is up to us, as the master composer Puccini was supposed to have said to his students as he was dying, to “complete the opera” that he was working on. We must pick up where Jesus left off, for it is in us and through us that Jesus continues to live.

Now, next week we will celebrate Pentecost – the coming of the Holy Spirit. We each have received the Holy Spirit through our baptisms and in Confirmation, and the Holy Spirit continues to work through us. We will be reminded of that next week, as will those who in the various parishes around the world receive the sacrament of Confirmation, like many of our youth did just a couple of weeks ago. We have received our marching orders, now we must act.

One final thought. When Jesus “left” the disciples the first time at his crucifixion, they were afraid and sad, uncertain about their future. But with the Resurrection, they saw that they did not need to fear death, and so when Jesus “left” the second time through his Ascension, they were no longer afraid or sad, but joyous and celebratory, even though they had not received the Holy Spirit at that point, and wouldn’t until Pentecost. The difference? They knew the love of Jesus and it was through that love that their joy was complete. They were ready for the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit then gave them the tools, the skills, the graces they needed to evangelize.

So between now and next Sunday, I encourage you to pray for the Holy Spirit and the gifts and graces that the Spirit, dwelling in you, has given to you and to work through you, drawing others to God.

And remember: The secret of evangelization isn’t to tell others that they need to change; it is in just getting them to look up.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

What is your Image of God?

What is your Image of God?
A reflection for a meeting for the St. Vincent de Paul Society, Monday, May 4, 2015
by Dcn Bob Bonomi 

During a recent retreat for deacons at the local Montserrat Retreat Center, one of our talks was on our image of God as a reflection of our life experiences.  Often people have an image of God as Judge and Jury, a god who weighs all of our actions throughout our lives on a balancing scale – good actions on one side, bad on the other.  If the good outweigh the bad when we die, we “earn” our place in heaven, and if not: oh-oh.

Even if we think that God places a higher value on those events that come later in our lives as we strive to do more good to offset our past, we still live in fear of the judgment of God, rather than relying on His Mercy.  After all, maybe we DESERVE to be punished, right?

This can be especially true for those who we encounter through our visits through St. Vincent de Paul.  Often these people think that the difficulties they face are a sign that they are being punished by God for some real or perceived infraction of God’s Rules, or that God cannot possibly care for them because they are not worthy of His Love.  The very assistance that you bring to them may even add to their low esteem, as they are not able to provide for themselves.  They cannot understand that we are ALL dependent on God’s Love and Mercy, and the challenges that we face we do not face alone.

More than the gifts of charity that you bring to those you aid, you are bringing the presence of Christ as the God of Love and Mercy, and the one of the greatest gifts that you can share with them is the gift of Hope.  But in order to accept that gift, they must open their hearts to a different vision of God – not one of judge and jury, but one of love and mercy.  YOU are the reflection of God they see and touch; and it is YOUR image of God that they see.

So, think about your own image of God.  How do YOU picture God?  Do you have a healthy image of God – as Father?  As Son?  As Spirit?  Is He loving and merciful, or judgmental and condemning?

When people encounter you, who do they see?