On Sat., April 2, 800 men gathered at the Oncenter for the third annual Ignite Men‘s Conference. It was a grace-filled day that began with Mass. What follows is the homily which I gave that morning.
My Dear Brothers,
The Lord blesses each of us in many ways each day. It is a wonderful blessing for me to be with you here this morning. The Psalmist tells us, “… How good it is and how pleasant when brothers dwell in unity.” (Ps. 133:1) Today we are united in our common effort to be strengthened on our journey of faith.
Some of us here today may remember the first lesson in the Baltimore Catechism: God made us to know Him, love Him and serve Him in this world and to be happy with Him in the next. There is no more noble lesson plan to keep in mind today and in all the days with which the Lord blesses us. This third Ignite Conference should stir up the flame of faith in each of us as we continue on the pilgrimage of life and fulfill the purpose for which God made us.
During this Lenten season, the Church’s 40-day retreat, we are given the time to be more reflective than our everyday life normally provides and to exercise the traditional Lenten practices that are rooted in the Scriptures. Today we see this clearly in the familiar parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector.
The poor Pharisee seems to be doing everything right. He fasts. He gives most generously. And, he is in the temple praying. Thus, we learn from the parable that the Pharisee was attentive to the three practices associated with a faithful Jew and eventually with a loyal disciple of Christ.
And then there is the tax collector. Isn’t it providential that we hear his story as the tax date approaches! The tax collector recognizes himself as a sinner and claims to have done nothing to deserve God’s favor. He trusts only in God’s mercy.
Let’s not be too hard on tax collectors. They seem to end up on top, at least in the Gospels. There was Matthew, a tax collector, called by God to be one of the apostles. There was Zaccheus, a tax collector, a little fellow who climbed a tree in order to see Jesus. How many times in the Gospels do we find Jesus eating with them? The tax collector we meet in today’s Gospel does not think he is special. He throws himself on the mercy of God. And notice, Jesus directs our attention to him rather than to the Pharisee who was convinced that his efforts and good actions were sufficient to earn God’s favor.
Both the Pharisee and the tax collector are praying. But the prayer of each is different. Although the Pharisee begins by thanking God, he really spends his time acknowledging what he himself has done for God and how much better he is than the average sinner. The tax collector, on the other hand, beats his breast. Eyes on the ground, hardly daring to speak to Almighty God he utters just a few words, “God, be merciful to me a sinner.”
Earlier today the sacrament of Penance was available. At the noon hour, there will be another opportunity to receive this sacrament. We are all weak and sinful and we need God’s mercy and forgiveness. We take Him our broken, humbled hearts (cf. Ps 51:19). Penance, confession should be part of our day and if not today, then surely before we celebrate the great feast of Easter. Penance cleanses the soul, relieves us of the burdens of our own sinfulness and puts us right with God once more. Do not hesitate to embrace this great gift of the Lord, which is entrusted to the Church. The priest, who in this instance speaks in the name of Christ, is eager to help you, to show you the Lord’s mercy, to absolve you and to reconcile you with God and the Church.
Let me remind you of the story of Augustine, the sinner who became a saint. St. Augustine was born in 354 in North Africa. His father was a prominent pagan, but his mother, Monica, a devout Christian. She intended that Augustine be baptized, but in his adolescence he distanced himself from the Church and did not want to be baptized. He had a mistress with whom he lived for 15 years. She bore him a son, but he later broke off with her while he was living in Milan. During this time, Augustine gradually became more attracted to Christianity as he listened to the preaching of St. Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan. He resisted conversion, however, although his mother prayed constantly for him.
In a book entitled The Confessions, written in his later years as a spiritual and theological reflection on his life, Augustine describes the final steps to his conversion. He speaks of the tension between attraction to sinful ways and attraction to Christ and the Gospel. He recounts that one day in 386 he went into the garden of a house where he was staying and heard a child say, “Take it and read, take it and read.” He picked up the letters of St. Paul and read the first passage his eyes fell upon: “Let us conduct ourselves properly as in the day, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in promiscuity and licentiousness, not in rivalry and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh” (Romans 13:13-14). Augustine recognized the grace of God in this reading and embraced conversion.
He was baptized by St. Ambrose in 387 and returned to North Africa. In 391, while visiting Hippo, he was urged by the Christians to become a priest; he accepted, though reluctantly. Soon after he became the Bishop of Hippo. He wrote many books to explain and defend Christian doctrine before his death in 430.
Augustine knew the damaging effects of sin. In The Confessions, he admits his own sinfulness even as a boy. But he also experienced the greater power of grace, of God’s enabling him to overcome sin and accept the Gospel. St. Augustine knew God’s mercy in the forgiveness of sins gained for us by Jesus Christ. Today you can encounter that same mercy and forgiveness in the sacrament of Penance.
We are just hours away from Laetare Sunday, the mid-point of Lent. What a wonderful time to renew our Lenten resolutions. As we do so we consider how we have embraced the traditional Lenten practices that today’s Gospel mentions: prayer, fasting and almsgiving … the very same practices that the Gospel of Ash Wednesday put before us. These practices, in whatever form we may give them, often lead us to a renewed clarity about our dignity as sons of the Father and brothers of Christ and to our shortcomings and weaknesses as well. Then we remember the tax collector and St. Augustine who acknowledged personal weakness and the need for God’s mercy. Our Holy Father reminds us: “A disciple of Christ is one who, in the experience of human weakness, has had the humility to ask for his help, has been healed by him and has set out following closely after him, becoming a witness of the power of his merciful love that is stronger than sin and death” (Angelus, July 23, 2006). May we be witnesses of the power of God’s merciful love!