Editor’s note: The prepared text of the homily Bishop Douglas J. Lucia preached Jan. 31, the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, appears here.
This week in the Diocese of Syracuse, as in other dioceses of the United States, it is Catholic Schools Week. Last Friday morning, I was at Blessed Sacrament Church to celebrate the week’s beginning with the students and staff of Blessed Sacrament School.
For full disclosure, I did not attend a Catholic school when I was growing up. It was due to the simple fact of distance and so I attended the local public school system. My association with Catholic schools began as a seminarian when I was a tutor at the local Catholic school in Ogdensburg. It would continue as a young priest in my assignments as a parochial vicar in the role of both chaplain and faculty member at Catholic schools attached to the parishes. Finally, as a pastor, I would be in a parish with its own Catholic school.
Thus, in some ways, I believe I have an even-handed approach when it comes to the Catholic school system. As St. Paul would say, “as one born out of the normal course of things,” I have come to appreciate the potential for “discipleship” that can come from a Catholic education. Yet, notice I use the word “potential,” because I believe more than ever that what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ needs to be the core curriculum in all Catholic educational institutions from pre-K right through the college and university level, including our faith formation programs in parishes.
I think it can be said of most people that we are formally students for some time in our lives, and that it is considered best if you and I remain informal students throughout our lives, for we can always learn something new or afresh. At the same time, most of us function as teachers in one way or another, guiding and directing people, at many points in our lives. We teach by how we live, how we treat people, how we respond under stress, how we confront a child or an adult about wrongdoing, how we help a neighbor, and the ultimate witness of how we live our lives.
In today’s Gospel reading, the inhabitants of Capernaum hear the one who embodies the word of God speaking directly to them and they are “astonished at his teaching” (Mk 1:22). In Jesus, they find the revelation of God in flesh and blood. When you and I come to Mass we also encounter the risen Lord, truly present in word, body, and blood.
This brings me to the question that has been percolating in my brain since I read this Sunday’s Scripture readings: “What difference does an encounter with the Word of God make in my life?” To expand on this idea a bit: “What difference does the teaching of the prophets and of Jesus make in our Catholic schools, and indeed in our parishes and in the families which make up our parishes?”
When I was envisioning the scene in our Gospel reading (Mk 1:24) — the man with the unclean spirit crying out in the synagogue (and it can happen in churches, too!), “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are — the Holy One of God!” — I couldn’t help but think of my own reactions, especially as kid or teenager (and possibly older even), if someone turned on the light when I was trying to sleep (especially since I shared a room with my brothers) and what a fit I would have for disturbing my sleep! I can’t help but wonder if we as a Church and a society are having the same kind of fit today in the light of God’s Word challenging us to consider, like St. Paul, what matters most in life.
In this Sunday’s second reading, St. Paul seeks to point members of the Church of Corinth to what matters most: living a life faithful to the call of the Gospel message to proclaim the Good News of Christ’s death and resurrection and living it with conviction. More and more, you and I are being asked to read and encounter the Word of God not just in our churches, but also in our homes and schools of religion, as is evidenced by last weekend’s observance of Word of God Sunday. Yet is this dusting off of our Bibles and casting God’s Word into the light of day also disconcerting to you and me and society, in general? If you and I really come to know “the Holy One of God” (cf. Mk 1:24) can our lives be the same?
An old country preacher liked to tell his listeners, “There are two parts to the Gospel. The first part is ‘believing’ and the second part is ‘behaving.’” It is these two words — believing and behaving — that are the operative ones when Jesus’ listeners note “a new teaching with authority” (Mk 1:27). If there is any request I receive so often from members of our diocesan family, it is that as bishop I ensure that “believing and behaving” go together.
That is why especially these days, the behavior of teachers in our schools, ministers in our churches, and public officials who profess they are believing “Catholics” needs to be evermore consistent with the teachings of Jesus and his Church’s magisterium. In his encyclical “The Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis says, “The Church’s closeness to Jesus is part of a common journey; ‘communion and mission
are profoundly interconnected’” (EG, 23). What is at the heart of disunity within Christ’s church is the disavowal of Jesus’ authority and of God’s law in our daily living. The Ten Commandments are not Ten Suggestions; they are God’s voice speaking to you and me. The teachings of Jesus are not just a self-help guide; they are God’s roadmap for our lives.
As one Scripture commentary notes: “In today’s scene from the desert, Moses, like other prophets, has to confront the people of God. The people of Israel were compelled to listen, for they knew God spoke through the prophets. Choosing not to listen would have been akin to disowning themselves as sons and daughters of God” (Liturgy Training Publications, 2015).
As I was taught by a spiritual director many years ago, it is not, “If today you hear God’s voice, harden not your hearts.” Rather, it is, “When today you hear God’s voice, harden not your hearts.” As we celebrate Catholic education this week, may our diocesan family grow in its own knowledge of God’s Word and Christ’s teaching and may they help us to behave as true witnesses and disciples of the Lord Jesus. Amen.