Sunday, November 12, 2006

John Paul II: “Man Cannot Fully Find Himself, Except Through A Sincere Gift Of Himself.”

Sebastian Cabot as "Mr. Pip"

(Thirty-second Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on November 12, 2006 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Mark 12: 41-44.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Thirty-second Sunday 2006]

Every once in awhile, an old Twilight Zone program pops into my mind as I’m preparing a homily. And so it was this past week. The episode in question starred the bearded and rather rotund Sebastian Cabot (you may remember him as Mr. French, the butler on the old show “Family Affair”).

In this particular Twilight Zone program Cabot played an outwardly friendly but very strange individual named “Mr. Pip”.

The story begins when a professional burglar named Rocky Valentine is shot by a policeman while he’s in the process of robbing a pawnshop. When Rocky wakes up, he’s surprised to find that he’s unhurt and in the presence of Mr. Pip. Pip introduces himself and explains that he is Valentine’s guide. He also tells Rocky that he’s been instructed to give him whatever he wants. Thinking that he’s died and gone to heaven, Rocky happily accepts the offer! He begins by asking for lots of money, and Mr. Pip gives it to him; he then asks for beautiful women to spend time with, and suddenly every girl he sees falls in love with him immediately. Rocky even asks for success at the casino—and Mr. Pip sees to it that he never loses.

For about a month, everything is great. Rocky loves it! The situation seems to be perfect!

But eventually something happens: all the money, all the material possessions, and all the sensual pleasures become old, and tiresome—and even boring (after all, if you always win at the casino there really isn’t much to get excited about!). It begins to drive Rocky crazy. In desperation, he finally goes to Mr. Pip and says to him, “Look, I can’t take this anymore. I’ve got to go. I don’t belong here in heaven, see. I wanna go to the ‘other place’!”

To which Mr. Pip responds, “Heaven? Whatever gave you the idea you were in heaven? This is the ‘other place’!

I think our former Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, would have enjoyed this Twilight Zone episode immensely, because one of his favorite lines—one that he quoted time and time again in his many writings—was this one: “Man cannot fully find himself, except through a sincere gift of himself.” This, incidentally, was one of his favorite quotes, because it’s taken from one of the documents of Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes, which he helped to write when he was a young Polish bishop and theologian named Karol Wojtyla.

“Man cannot fully find himself, except through a sincere gift of himself.” Rocky, the fictional character in this Twilight Zone program, didn’t know that. He thought a person discovered himself and fulfilled the meaning of his existence through taking and grabbing and satisfying his every desire. That’s why he was a thief when he was alive on earth, and it’s why he responded to Mr. Pip’s invitation as he did in the afterlife.

This philosophy, of course, is not unique to Rocky Valentine, the fictitious burglar. It’s also embraced by many people in the real world. And that explains, at least in part, why there are so many “lost souls” around—lost, not only because they don’t know God and the meaning of life; but lost because they’re almost totally wrapped up in themselves and in their own wants and desires.

And it’s really a cultural problem, isn’t it?

Let’s fact it, in many dimensions of our culture—in music, in movies, in advertising, for example—we’re given the message that self-indulgence is the way to go; that self-indulgence is the way to find a kind of “heaven” here on earth. But the sad reality—and the sad irony—is that when people actually embrace this message of selfishness and go with it, their lives quickly become “like hell”.

That’s because, as John Paul II would say, “Man cannot fully find himself, except through a sincere gift of himself.”

Life is not about me, me and me; it’s about God, me and others.

Some of you will recall the old story about the man who was given a vision of hell. In this vision he saw a long banquet table covered with gourmet foods cooked to perfection. But the people who were sitting on either side of the table weren’t able to eat any of the food. The problem was that they had these huge forks and spoons strapped to their arms, such that they couldn’t bend their elbows. And so they couldn’t get any of this marvelous food into their mouths! Then the same man was given a vision of heaven. At first, he was surprised because he saw the very same set-up: the same long banquet table, the same gourmet foods, and the same long forks and spoons strapped to the arms of the people sitting there. The only difference was that in heaven they fed one another! Each person fed the man or the woman who was sitting across from them at the table.

I mention this at this Mass because in today’s Gospel story a poor widow gives of herself by putting two small coins into the Temple treasury. It was, as Jesus said, “her whole livelihood”.

The gift of self begins with the idea that we are a community of persons, each of whom is made in the image and likeness of Almighty God. This woman obviously understood that. And so, out of love for God and neighbor she shared what she had.

Obviously, this is, on one level, a challenge to be financially generous, according to our means. (What a perfect Gospel given the fact that within a few weeks we will officially start our capital campaign to pay for the new addition on our school—the addition that Bishop Tobin blessed for us this past Tuesday.)

So I’ll begin by throwing out that question for reflection: How generous are you to your parish and to other worthy causes in the community? Do you at least tithe on what you earn? In other words, do you give at least 10 percent of your gross earnings to charity? Barring extreme financial circumstances, every Catholic and every Christian—as well as every Jew—should, since tithing is a biblical mandate that goes back to the Old Testament.

And I include the young people in this as well! I’ve noticed that most of you have lots of money to spend on prom attire and movies and music downloads from iTunes. But what do you give, financially speaking, to charity? What do you put into the collection basket on Sunday?

And what about time and talent? Giving of yourself means more than just giving financially; it also means sharing your gifts and talents with your brothers and sisters. How eager are you to do this? There are certainly lots of opportunities for that right here in this parish: Chris Magowan, for example, our DRE, is always looking for help in our religious education program; Richie, our organist, is always looking for those who have musical talent to volunteer to share their gifts here at Mass; the Legion of Mary is always looking for people to visit the sick and shut-ins of our community; Rick and Kay Dudley are always looking for help with the latest Habitat Project; today we’ll be asking for volunteers to assist us with our parish “Giving Tree”; soon we’ll even be looking for people to help with our capital campaign.

When you hear requests made for volunteers (either here or someplace else), what is your typical response? Do you think to yourself, “That’s not my concern; let someone else do it”; or do you think to yourself, “Would I be able to do that? Is that a place where I could utilize my gifts effectively?”

Now some might say, “But I’m not healthy, Fr. Ray, I’m sick—and I’m much too old. I’m not physically able to volunteer my time and share my gifts as I would like to.”

Well, fear not. If that’s your situation, I have an alternative to propose: you can use your time well and do a lot to help others by simply offering up your sufferings! You can offer up your aches and pains and frustrations for the conversion of sinners, and for the good works that other people are doing in the parish and in the community at large.

That, by the way, is certainly what Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta would tell you to do. I can almost guarantee it! Many are not aware of this, but in her ministry Mother Teresa relied very heavily on a group of people who came to be known as her “sick and suffering co-workers”. These were men and women all over the world who said they were willing to offer up their sufferings to God, so that Mother and her sisters would receive the grace and strength they needed to minister to the poor, the sick and the dying in Calcutta and in many other places.

These “sick and suffering co-workers” understood that offered-up suffering is just like offered-up prayer: it draws down God’s blessings upon us and upon others.

So, you see, there’s really no excuse for failing to share our time and our talent and our treasure with other people. Even if we’re very old, and even if we’re very sick, we can still do it.

The only question is: Will we?