Sunday, September 21, 2003

How Do You Define ‘Greatness’?

(Twenty-fifth Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on September 21, 2003 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Mark 9: 30-37.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-fifth Sunday 2003]

How do you define “greatness?”

That’s an important question for all of us, but it’s particularly crucial for the young people here present. God willing, you all have the better part of your lives ahead of you. How you define “greatness” will influence almost everything in your future (whether you realize it or not): it will guide you in setting your personal goals in life; it will influence how you treat others; it will have an effect on your choice of a vocation and your choice of friends; it will even determine whether or not you pray and go to Mass when you’re older and out on your own. (You see, if you think you need God in your life in order to achieve true greatness, then you’ll be here; if you think you don’t need God in your life in order to be great, then you won’t).

When some people read this Gospel text we just heard from Mark 9, they mistakenly think that Jesus was criticizing his apostles for wanting to be “great.” He was not! What he was criticizing was their worldly definition of greatness! Believe it or not, Jesus wanted them all to achieve greatness—but in a very different sense than they wanted to be great. Happily, they would eventually change their perspective—all except for Judas.

You young people are growing up in a culture right now where the prevailing understanding of “greatness” is quite similar to the one these apostles were wrongly embracing.

And what is that prevailing understanding or definition of “greatness?” I would express it in this way: Greatness means getting your ‘15 minutes of fame’ (as Andy Warhol would say), and then tacking on as much extra time as you possibly can!

This explains why so many people these days think nothing of doing idiotic things and compromising their morals for the sake of a little notoriety. I’m sure you’ve all noticed how many so-called “Reality Shows” are currently on TV. It’s unbelievable. Now I’ll be honest, I’ve never watched one of these programs from beginning to end (I do not have that much patience); but every time I’ve caught even a ten minute segment, I’ve had the exact same thought: “What’s wrong with these people? Why are they doing this? Why are they jumping into the sack on live TV with someone they met 3 hours ago? Why are they making fools of themselves by eating live caterpillars or by bobbing for plums in a tank that’s filled with snakes? Are they crazy?”

Not really. They’re just people who want to be “great”—according to the contemporary understanding of that term. They want their 15 minutes of fame—they want to achieve something noteworthy—in the hope that maybe they can stretch it out for a few years with a job in show business, or in modeling, or in some other career that will keep their name in lights.

But Jesus said, “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.” Here we have the Lord’s definition of greatness: humble service. Not surprisingly, it’s very different from the world’s. To be great in the eyes of the world, you need to be self-centered; to be great in the eyes of God you need to be selfless and self-sacrificial.

True greatness, according to Jesus Christ, comes through humble service—of which there are two types: direct and indirect.

The so-called “corporal works of mercy” are examples of “direct service.” When you fulfill your obligations to your family, that’s direct service. When you take time to visit sick relatives or friends—or even strangers (as the members of our Legion of Mary do every week), that’s direct service. When you volunteer for something here at church or in the local community, that’s direct service.

And then there’s what I would call “indirect service.” When you pray for someone, you are rendering them “indirect service,” because you’re asking God to do something: you’re asking God to bless them in some way. When you render financial assistance to a group or to an individual, you are also engaged in indirect service. Our parish, for example, indirectly serves the people of Jeremie, Haiti. We send them the money we collect each week at our Monday night novena (we send it through Dr. Lowney and the Haitian Health Foundation), and with that money they build small homes for needy families. In fact, over the last several years they’ve been able to build so many little houses that they now call it a village: “St. Pius X Village.”

Within the next month or so, you will all be asked to engage in some “indirect service” by contributing to a major capital campaign here in our parish. With the money we raise we intend to put air conditioning in our church, refinish the pews, put an addition on our school (which will also provide more space for parish activities), and do some repairs to the rectory. I hope and pray that you will all support this effort. It will require sacrifice on the part of everyone—including me (I’m not going to ask you to do anything that I’m not prepared to do myself). But I think the end result will be well worth it.

And while I’m on this point, let me issue a little challenge to the young people here present: Do you indirectly serve your Church and other charities by financially supporting them? Do you put anything in the collection basket on Sunday? Or do you leave that to others? Sometimes teenagers will say, “But I don’t have any money to give.” And yet, amazingly, when some of those same teens want a new CD, or when they want to go to a concert, or a movie, or to dinner with their friends, or when they need a dress or a tux for the prom—all of a sudden the money materializes! Perhaps it’s a miracle—miracles do happen!—but, in this case, I’m not so sure that’s the explanation.

The story is told of a man who died and went to heaven. (Some of you may recall this story. I told it in a homily several years ago.) The man met St. Peter at the Pearly Gates, and Peter said to him, “Congratulations, John, you made it. Now follow me, and I’ll show you where you’ll be living for all eternity.” So John and St. Peter begin to walk down Main St. in the Kingdom, and the first house they come to is a huge, magnificent mansion with white pillars. It has beautiful trees and gardens all around it, and a brand new Rolls Royce parked in front. John looks at St. Peter, thinking that this might be his, but Peter shakes his head and says, “No, John, that one’s not yours.” They continue down the street for quite some time, and all the while John notices that the houses are getting smaller and smaller and smaller—until they finally come to a tiny, beat-up old shack at the very end of the city, with a broken down bicycle parked in front. Peter says, “Well, here it is, John—it’s all yours. Enjoy.” John gets all upset and says, “Wait just a minute, St. Peter. Are you serious? I can’t live there. How can you expect me to spend eternity in a place like that?” Peter responds, “I’m awfully sorry, John, but that was all we could build for you with the materials that YOU sent up to us!”

We send good materials ahead of us to heaven by our humble service, direct and indirect. “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.” May we all strive to be faithful to these very important words of Jesus, so that those big, white mansions in the kingdom of heaven will someday be ours!