In our lives all of us have people whom we want to change, right? Parents, you pray for your children that they grow, and improve their behaviour. We pray for people in our families that they overcome certain problems. Husbands, we priests know exactly how you’re supposed to change—how do we know? Your wives tell us all the time in the confessional. 🙂 But sometimes we get frustrated that these people don’t change.
[Listen to Fr. Justin’s homily here.]
The readings today give us two ways to help those we love grow. The first way is to love them with the heart of the Good Shepherd. Jesus says, in reference to His sheep, “No one will snatch them out of my hand” (Jn 10:28). Then He talks about His sheep as a gift that the Father has given Him, and says, “No one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand ” (Jn 10:29). These two phrases refer to a shepherd protecting the sheep from evil.
And do you remember what the Good Shepherd does for His sheep? He lays down His life for them. Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep… For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again” (Jn 10:11,17-18). You see, we want people to change! We may even love them. But we haven’t yet offered our lives for them.
What does this look like? There are different degrees. First, when we lay down our lives for people, it means we treat and talk to them differently. We look at them with love, even when we’re frustrated with them. We’re more patient, forgiving all the time (though not being a doormat), never responding with unjust anger; we may respond with anger to things they do but it’s always for the right reason and in the right way.
Second, as many of you know, I offer up certain days for certain people. If I know your birthday, I’ll send you an e-mail saying that I’m offering up all of my prayers, sufferings, and sacrifices for you that day. That means I offer up my prayers for your benefit, and when I suffer, I offer to God the love which it takes me to bear that suffering well. For example, when you people fall asleep during my homily, that’s annoying, so it takes a certain amount of patience to put up with that. But let’s say I was counting on someone to help me, but they didn’t follow through—that causes more suffering, and so I need more love to forgive them—I offer that love for your benefit. Now, consider a 14-hour day of ministry and I didn’t sleep well the night before, and then someone legitimately needs help—that requires even greater love, which is precious and worth a lot to God. I’ll offer it for you, and that’ll give you more grace and help in your lives.
Same with sacrifices. Every first Wednesday of the month, 50 of us men eat only bread and water for our wives—that limited food requires a certain amount of love, and we offer it for them. But even harder for me is looking in the fridge and seeing something I want to eat (like mango pudding) and then something I don’t want to eat (like Brussels sprouts), and then choosing the latter… for you.
Third, some people, like St. Monica, offer their whole lives for those they love. When her son, Augustine, was a late teenager, he lived a wild life, having sex outside of marriage and falling away from his Catholic faith. He fell in love with a woman, at 18 had a son, and when his father was dying, Augustine was angry at him for not being faithful to his mother in marriage. However, it was through the prayers and sacrifices of his mother, Monica, that he came back home. One bishop said to her, “Don’t worry, it is impossible that a son of so many tears should be lost.” 15 years later, Augustine returned to the faith and was baptized, became a saint, and went on to be one of the most influential thinkers ever.
Loving people with the heart of the Good Shepherd is the first way to help people. Today, on this Good Shepherd Sunday, also known as the World Day of Prayer for Vocations, we pray for more people to offer their lives to God as priests, deacons, brothers, and sisters, and love people as the Good Shepherd does.
2) The second way, which seems very different from the first, comes from the First Reading, where St. Paul and St. Barnabas give up on the people they’re trying to help! They arrive in Antioch and start preaching regularly in the synagogues. And the text says, “When the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy; and blaspheming, they contradicted what was spoken by Paul. Then both Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly, saying, ‘It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken first to you. Since you reject it and judge yourselves to be unworthy of eternal life, we are now turning to the Gentiles… Thus the word of the Lord spread throughout the region. But the Jews incited the devout women of high standing and the leading men of the city, and stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and drove them out of their region. So they shook the dust off their feet in protest against them, and went to Iconium” (Acts 13:45-46,49-51).
The apostles are preaching to people out of love and hoping that they change, but since the people refuse, blaspheme, and start a persecution, St. Paul and St. Barnabas leave them. Hence they follow Jesus’ command, “If any place will not receive you and they refuse to hear you, when you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet for a testimony against them” (Mk 6:11). Shaking the dust off one’s feet was “a symbolic act of judgment for those who reject the apostles’ preaching” (Ignatius Catholic Study Bible, 75).
So, here’s the deal: If we try to help people improve, or share our faith with someone, and if they reject the truth, then we are allowed to leave them, and sometimes we should. Why? In order to give them freedom to change their mind. When we’re dealing with adults and keep pressuring them to change, we may be unconsciously taking away their freedom to ask questions, think about what we’re proposing, and then accept it freely.
Faith has to be freely chosen, otherwise it’s not faith. We should never pressure people to believe. We should evangelize, propose, and invite as a lover does, but be aware of their need for freedom.
Now clearly St. Paul and St. Barnabas never completely abandoned the Jewish people. Even though they say they’re leaving the Jewish people and going to preach to the Gentiles, it says in the very next chapter that they still go to the Jewish synagogue (Acts 14:1)!
So, when we give people that freedom, it’s not because we’re giving up hope! Our hearts are still with them and always ready to welcome them back!
Now I can think of two exceptions to this principle: 1) At work. Generally speaking, when there’s an expectation to follow good policies and deliver results, we can’t wait forever for someone to improve. Now, of course, we’re talking about reasonable and good expectations, we’re not talking about anything immoral. We love them, help them, warn them, and then if they don’t change, they have to go. 2) With our children. When our children are young and living at home, the reality is that they’re not adults and we make good decisions for them. Jesus Himself reiterates the fourth commandment to obey our mother and father (Mk 10:19). When we’re living under our parents’ roof for free, we owe them obedience and respect (Cf. CCC 2217).
Last week, someone thanked me for being vulnerable in my homily. That vulnerability is part of what we’re trying to build in this season of Breaking the Silence. Jesus is asking us all to be vulnerable and share what He’s doing and has done in our hearts so that we can build each other up and evangelize. So let me bring together everything we’ve talked about today by being vulnerable once again and sharing a difficult subject out of love!
One of the hardest things as a priest is seeing some people not take the sacraments seriously. When does this happen? Typically at baptisms, confirmations, first Communions, weddings, Christmas and Easter.
Fr. James Mallon, who coaches me in the Divine Renovation Network, wrote about a horrible moment at a Confirmation Mass: “In my second year as a pastor, I reached a point when I could not do it anymore. I still remember the moment. It was a wonderful liturgy. The bishop was present and all the young people were there with their families, friends and sponsors. During the liturgy, when the candidates were presented to the bishop, a dialogue took place between the bishop and the sponsors, who were told to stand. ‘Have these candidates faithfully joined the Christian community for worship?’ All the sponsors responded, ‘Yes they have!’ I wanted to shout, ‘No, they haven’t, and how would you know because you weren’t here either!’ Then I was struck deeply by the fact that the liturgy itself is an occasion for people to stand up publicly and tell lies before God and the Church” (Divine Renovation, 206-207).
Let’s be honest: in our archdiocese the majority of kids who get confirmed don’t practice their faith every Sunday, and don’t seriously try; they miss Mass for vacation, soccer, hockey, etc. (And I’m not referring to our kids who just got confirmed on Wednesday.) Priests know it, teachers know it, parents know it, and the kids know it. Going to Mass every Sunday is part of the third commandment and we’ve spent ample time on this: It’s a matter of gratitude, worship, obedience, and sacrifice.
So, why get confirmed if we’re not going to take it seriously? And I’m not talking about people who are sincere but fail, and then go to Confession. We’re talking about people who don’t really try. How do I know? Because when we do interviews, it’s just excuse after excuse. They say, “Okay, Father, we’ll try,” but the tone isn’t serious. Question: What do you call someone at work who tries to go to work but misses days of work? An ex-employee. Sincere people, however, actually apologize and think, and make a decision to make Mass a priority, which is beautiful and inspiring.
It’s the same with weddings. Many couples in the archdiocese go to Confession on Friday, get married on Saturday, and skip Mass on Sunday. And the wedding is not focused on Jesus’ wonderfully calling two people together for life. It’s about photos and dresses—that should be for the reception. The wedding is a sacred prayer.
For baptisms, we ask parents to promise to pass on their faith to their children by going to Mass every Sunday and by taking the first level of Faith Studies, but couples have figured out that they can show up every Sunday before the baptism, and then, once it’s done, they don’t come back.
The most painful is Holy Communion. The most disturbing experience is some people’s reception of Communion. It breaks my heart to see some commit a sacrilege, which is when we take something sacred and treat it casually and disrespectfully: In a state of mortal sin some people take Jesus, offending the One I love and hurting themselves (1 Cor 11:27-30). So, for instance, if I gravely hurt Jesus by having sex outside of marriage, deliberately watching pornography, or getting drunk, or through my own fault miss Mass on Sunday, and then take Communion, I’m telling a lie. I’m saying I obey and love Jesus, but I don’t really—that hurts Jesus and us. If, for example, a husband cheats on his wife, can he go home and make love to her? Of course not. That would be a lie. He has to apologize first and make amends, and promise never to do it again, just as we do in Confession.
I bring this up so we can grow! I used to get angry at people for hurting Jesus and making a mockery of the sacraments. But the Good Shepherd has taught me something different: I must lay down my life for people who hurt Him. Consequently, I no longer get angry at them. Nevertheless, I’m still disturbed by the sin. In fact, I now pray for them, and I’ve consciously worked on loving them when I see them. They still have freedom to sin, but, I love them!
At the same time, I don’t waste energy on being angry but put that energy into clearer expectations: to receive a sacrament worthily, we must be in a state of grace, having gone to Confession. If we want to receive Baptism, Confirmation or be married in the Catholic Church, go to Mass every Sunday—everyone’s capable of that. To say that’s too demanding is an insult to people. If we want to be a sponsor or godparent, go to Mass weekly and use your envelopes, and believe all of the Church’s teachings, so that I can actually sign my name on the form that certifies that you’re a good example of being a Catholic disciple of Jesus.
There is a price to be paid for every soul. There’s a price to be paid for helping the people we love! Jesus has already paid that price. And I’m willing to join Him in paying that price by: 1) loving people more; 2) offering prayer, suffering, and sacrifice for them; 3) offering my whole life for them; 4) giving them the freedom to make a choice always on their own; and if necessary I will leave them in order to respect their freedom. That’s what the heart of the Good Shepherd does!