Sunday, December 10, 2006

May God, Who Began A Good Work In You, Bring It To Fulfillment.

Bishop Thomas Tobin blesses Paul Girard's 'good work': the new wing of St. Pius X School.

(Second Sunday of Advent (C): This homily was given on December 10, 2006 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Philippians 1: 4-6, 8-11; Luke 3: 1-6.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Second Sunday of Advent 2006]

When you’re ordained to the priesthood—and also when you’re ordained to the diaconate—you kneel before the bishop at one point during the ceremony and you put your folded hands into his. Then he looks into your eyes and says, “Do you promise respect and obedience to me and to my successors?”

You respond, “I do.” (At least, you had better respond, “I do”! If you say, “I don’t”, the ceremony immediately ends and everybody goes home!)

Once you’ve made this public promise of obedience to him, the bishop says these words: “May God who has begun the good work in you bring it to fulfillment.”

That response of the bishop during the ordination ceremony is based on the passage from St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians that we heard a few moments ago—this text from chapter 1. There the apostle writes, “I am confident in this: that the one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus.”

“But, Fr. Ray, St. Paul wasn’t writing this letter only to the priests and deacons who lived in Philippi at the time. He was writing to all the Christians who resided in that city!”

That’s correct. So, obviously, there’s a sense in which this text applies to everybody!—to every single person WHO’S A MEMBER OF GOD’S FAMILY, THE CHURCH!

So I ask those of you who belong to the Church: When did this happen? When did God begin a good work in you—a work that has yet to be completed?

If you’re thinking, “At my Baptism,” then you’re right. When you were baptized, you received sanctifying grace into your soul, which is the grace Jesus died on the cross to give us; it’s the grace you need in your soul in order to get into heaven.

Sanctifying grace . . . don’t leave earth without it!

You could say that the good work Jesus began in us at our Baptism was the work of building a palace in our soul through grace—A PALACE THAT HE INTENDS TO LIVE IN, BOTH NOW AND IN ETERNITY.

The work started the moment the priest poured water over our head and said the words, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

But now the work of building the palace must be completed. St. Paul understood that, which is why he also offered this prayer for the Philippians (and implicitly for us) in today’s second reading. He wrote: “This is my prayer: that your love may increase ever more and more in knowledge and every kind of perception, to discern what is of value, so that you may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.”

Basically that’s a prayer that we will live our faith, so that Jesus will continue to build his palace within us, and eventually complete his “construction project”.

Now I learned quite a bit about construction projects during this past summer, as our school addition went up. Thankfully our general contractor, Paul Girard, began the good work of renovating the existing structure and of putting on the new wing and was able to bring it to completion before the first day of school in September.

But it wasn’t easy! Construction is never easy! In fact, there were several problems that he had to deal with along the way, which threatened to keep us from opening on the scheduled date.

I’ll mention two of them in this homily, because both have spiritual parallels.

The first was the weather. When we started this project, Paul said to us, “According to our best estimate, we should be done by mid-August. We certainly shouldn’t have a problem finishing up by the beginning of September, because we have a pretty large window of time at the end to play with.”

Well, almost immediately after they dug the hole for the foundation, that big window nearly shut on us! Why? Because of the rain! Remember all the rain we had in the late winter and early spring? There was one stretch of a couple of weeks where it rained every single day! It seemed like it would never end.

That rain came at the absolute worst time for us, because it was so early in the project. If it had occurred later on, when the walls were up and the roof was in place, it wouldn’t have mattered; people could have worked inside. But, at this point, Paul and his men needed decent weather to get the foundation and the basic structure in place.

When things finally improved and the ground began to dry out, Paul wasn’t so optimistic in the weekly meetings we had with him. Instead of saying, “No problem,” he began saying, “Hopefully. . . . Hopefully we’ll be able to get things done on time.”

So that was one issue that almost kept this “good work” from reaching its completion. The other involved mistakes that were made by some of Paul’s workers and sub-contractors. Mistakes, of course, will always happen on a construction job, but the one that comes to mind for the purposes of this homily is one which involved a direct violation of one of Paul’s orders.

Paul had told a certain employee—explicitly—several times—how he should handle a particular problem if he ever encountered it.

Unfortunately, however, when the problem did occur in the old school building during the summer months, this employee disobeyed his boss. He knew what he should do—he knew exactly how Paul wanted him to proceed to rectify the situation—but he ignored established company protocol and did it his way.

To his great credit—and this is why, our principal, Henry Fiore, and I were so pleased with him—Paul Girard didn’t try to hide what had happened. He was always up front with us. He told us at our weekly meeting that his employee had violated his orders on a very important matter and had done the exact opposite of what he should have done. He apologized to Henry and to me, and said, “I assure you, gentlemen, the problem will be corrected—at my expense. And please don’t worry, this man won’t ever do it again, because he’s no longer working for us.”

Bad weather and this man’s sin of disobedience almost prevented Paul Girard from completing the good work he had begun at St. Pius X School earlier in the year.

And, believe it or not, those very same two realities—“weather” and sin—are what can prevent Jesus Christ from completing the good work he began in each of us on the day we were baptized. They can keep him from building his magnificent palace in our soul.

We all know, for example, that the “weather” of this life can change almost as quickly as the weather in New England does. And sometimes when the terrible storms hit, people react by turning away from the God who loves them and who gave them new life in Christ. We probably all know at least one person who has left the Church and lost their faith in the midst of a personal tragedy, a personal “storm” (like the unexpected death of a loved one).

In people like this, faith, hope and charity are replaced by things like anger, and bitterness, and unhappiness, and self-hatred, and even depression. Now that’s certainly not what God wants, but the Lord always respects our freedom to say no to him.

Can these men and women “re-convert” and have their faith restored?

Of course! And we need to pray that they do; because if they don’t, then God, who began a good work in them at Baptism, will not be able to complete it in the way that he wants to.

So the “weather” of life can interfere with God’s building project, but so can our sins—especially if they’re serious ones. And so, once again during the season of Advent, we hear about John the Baptist and his call to repentance. John was the main character in today’s Gospel reading. Sometimes people say, “Aw, the Catholic Church is too negative; the Church is too focused on sin.” No—the Catholic Church is focused on REALITY! The Church understands the human condition. Whether we want to admit it or not, the fact is that we all hurt the Lord and other people every day! Consequently, our repentance must be ongoing; it needs to be continual.

This is why frequent Confession is a good and healthy practice—provided we are examining our consciences well and being totally honest when we go.

Speaking of Confession, have you gone yet during this Season of Advent?

I’ll close my homily today, with a prayer for each of you. It ties all that I’ve just said together. At the same time, I hope you will offer this prayer in your hearts for me and for one another: May God help you to pass through every storm of your life—through every bit of ‘bad weather’ you experience; and may he give you a truly repentant heart always, so that he, who began a good work in you at your Baptism, will be able to complete it. And may that work—that building—be a truly magnificent palace for Jesus Christ to dwell in for all eternity. Amen.