A. Good afternoon! I hope you are enjoying the Mid-Atlantic Congress thus far. Let me say again that is a real honor and a pleasure for the Archdiocese of Baltimore to join with the Association of Catholic Publishers and the National Leadership Roundtable for Church Management in hosting this Mid-Atlantic Congress. It’s our hope and prayer that this Congress be a forum for best practices and a place of friendship, dialogue, and networking – but most of all an opportunity for grace and inspiration in your ministries.
B. And let’s face facts. Ministry is a joy but it is also challenging. Here I don’t merely mean the hard work, the shortage of resources, or the rising and sometimes next-to-impossible expectations we sometimes face. Rather, I’m referring to the more profound challenge of bearing witness to Christ with courage and joy amid our daily responsibilities. And it is this challenge that constitutes the thrust of today’s liturgy – on this feast of St. Agatha, Virgin and Martyr, and on a day when we read the Gospel story of the beheading of John the Baptist. Both the feast and the reading come to us from long ago and far away yet both have a decidedly contemporary application to our time and place. Allow me to explain, beginning with St. Agatha.
II. St. Agatha
A. Whatever our ministry may be – whether serving in diocesan administration, or in a parish or a school or in healthcare or social services – whatever our ministry may be, we are all concerned about young people. It’s hard for me to imagine how different the experience of growing up now must be from what I experienced in the 1950’s and 60’s. During the recent snowstorm, I watched some old episodes of the Donna Reed Show – it was like being in Sherman’s Way Back Machine. My parents thought there was a lot of peer pressure back then but it was nothing compared to what young people face today. If you work with young people on a regular basis, you know what I mean.
B. Agatha, our saint of the day, was but 15 years old when she gave her life for Christ. She grew up in a prominent and wealthy family in Catania, Sicily and by worldly standards had a bright future ahead of her. There was one problem – her family was steadfastly Christian & a persecution of Emperor Decius was underway, around the year 250. The local Roman Prefect, a cruel man known as Quintianus, offered her a way out. If she would compromise her virtue, he would spare her life. She refused to do so and, as a result, endured untold suffering and a painful death. From earliest times, she has been honored as a Virgin Martyr, and is mentioned, along with seven other women, in the First Eucharistic Prayer.
C. In 1994, St. John Paul II mentioned St. Agatha in his letter to children & young people. He held her up as a model for young people to imitate, and this, in a world that distains virginity and chastity and ridicules those who have the effrontery to promote innocence and virtue among the young. Is there any way to calculate how much confusion, sadness, and tragedy that today’s hypersexualized culture has inflicted on so many young people?
D. Here we must be willing to die to ourselves and to do so joyfully. We ourselves must be willing to live the Church’s teaching on chastity not grudgingly or half-heartedly but joyfully and completely. In other words, we must be witnesses because we are role models and role models because we are witnesses. And living in that self-control which is a fruit of the Holy Spirit, we must ask for the grace to present the Church’s teaching on chastity not as bad news but good news, not as constraint but freedom, not as peripheral but as essential to discipleship. How much easier it would be for us to bracket this important part of our humanity and not even to make mention of it to young people or their parents who may well have adopted the dominant views of today’s society. Yet we are not evangelizing or forming disciples when this part of the human experience is left out of the equation. To see this, all we have to do is to read St. Paul’s letters. Nor are we acting with mercy, the mercy Pope Francis commends to us, when we say or do nothing to keep young people from succumbing to a culture that permits everything but forgives nothing. Ministry is not easy: if done authentically, it requires of us a kind of martyrdom, that is to say, a joy and a peace that no opposition or ridicule can take from us.
III. St. John the Baptist
A. With that in mind, let us to St. John the Baptist the story of whose martyrdom is recounted in today’s Gospel reading. You and I know well the details of that story so there is no need to dwell on them… except for one detail, namely, the nub of Herodias’ grudge against John the Baptist. It wasn’t his baptism of repentance in the River Jordan. She wasn’t upset with John for attracting disciples nor still less for recognizing the Lamb of God when at last he came. No, her grudge was all about marriage. Herodias was mad that John told Herod that he should not have married her because she was his brother’s wife.
B. You may have noticed that it is not exactly a walk in the park to promote and defend authentic married love in today’s world. Pope Francis has urged us to reach out in compassion to those whose marriages have broken down and he has also provided the Church with new ways to address such situations. Pope Francis has spent even more of his time and energy catechizing about the family as a domestic church and speaking about the very practical requirements of living the vocation of marriage and raising a family. If you saw his address in Philadelphia at the concluding rally of World Meeting of Families – you know what I mean. The Holy Father is at once compassionate, fearless, and prophetic in speaking about family life and its importance for the Church and the world. He is clear in distinguishing marriage from every other kind of friendship or union. When we speak as he does, perhaps even using his own words, we know we are bound to encounter opposition and resistance. Again, the true mettle of our joyful discipleship is tested.
C. Many of the people among whom we minister are married. Last Sunday, to open Catholic Schools Week, I went to a local parish where the church was filled with young moms and dads and their children. There were a lot of little ones who made plenty of noise – among the most wonderful sounds one can here inside a church. Yet so often the challenges and requirements of living the vocation of marriage go unmentioned from week to week and sometimes from year to year. If we hope to evangelize, then we must see the family not only as the object of evangelization but also a subject of evangelization. We cannot evangelize without families made up of disciples who are continually undergoing a true conversion of life who bear witness to the Gospels far beyond their homes.
A. In the 2nd century, the Christian writer Tertullian famously said that “the blood of martyrs is the seed of faith.” That is no less true in the 21st century which is also an age of martyrs. The peace, serenity, and joy of Christian witness does not count the cost and so bears the incalculable good fruit of the Holy Spirit. Aided by the prayers of St. Agatha and St. John the Baptist, may we be faithful and joyful witnesses to the Gospel in its completeness.
B. May God bless us and keep us always in his love!