Sunday, April 13, 2008

Horton and the Holy Father

(Fourth Sunday of Easter (A): This homily was given on April 13, 2008 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read John 10: 1-10.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fourth Sunday of Easter 2008]

I’m not sure how the pope would feel about being linked to a fictitious elephant with exceptional hearing, but I hope that if he ever heard this talk he would end up being very pleased. I say that because the title of my homily this morning is, “Horton and the Holy Father.” I was going to call it, “The Pope and the Pachyderm,” but I thought better of that one.

In today’s gospel text from John 10, Jesus refers to himself as “the gate”. In so doing, he tells us that he is the only way to the Father; that he is the only source of the grace that we need to get into the kingdom of heaven. As St. Peter put it in Acts 4, “There is no salvation in anyone else, for there is no other name in the whole world given to men by which we are to be saved.”

But Jesus also refers to himself here as “the shepherd”—the Good Shepherd. This means that he’s not only the way to heaven; he’s also the one who leads us to heaven. And one of the ways he leads us is by the truth that he speaks to us. If we follow his truth, we follow him—and we eventually end up in his kingdom.

But how exactly do we know what this truth is? Jesus says here that his faithful sheep “hear” and “recognize” his voice. But how is that possible? How do we discern the voice of the Good Shepherd, in the midst of the millions (and I mean millions) of other voices out there that are begging for our allegiance and obedience every day?

That’s a crucial question, because if Jesus Christ is the only way to heaven as well as the one who leads us there, then nothing less than heaven is at stake in all this!

Well, in point of fact, the Good Shepherd can—and does—speak to us in many ways that we can recognize: through the Sacred Scriptures, through the Magisterium, through the Catechism, through the Mass, and sometimes through the godly people in our lives. He even speaks to us in the events of daily living, and especially in and through our sufferings. As C. S. Lewis once put it, “God whispers to us in our pleasures; he speaks to us in our consciences; but he SHOUTS to us in our pain! Pain is God’s megaphone!”

Now some of these are obvious, right? It’s not too hard to believe, for example, that the Good Shepherd speaks to us in and through the Bible, since his words are right there in print for us to read.

But some of the other ways the Lord speaks to us are not so obvious. And yet, they’re every bit as real!

One of the obvious ways the Good Shepherd speaks to us and to the world—in addition to the Sacred Scriptures—is through the Holy Father, the pope, when he makes official declarations on matters of faith and morals. Jesus said to Peter and the apostles, “He who hears you hears me!”

Please keep that in mind, this week, when Pope Benedict XVI arrives in the United States for his first pastoral visit to our country. Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd, will be speaking to us through him! So we’d better listen—especially when he challenges us in our love for the poor, the sick, the elderly and the unborn.

Of course, most of the people in the secular media will do their best to try to distract us from the Holy Father’s message (and ultimately from JESUS’ message!) by focusing us on what a “divisive figure” Benedict is. So be prepared; get ready!

They will tell us that John Paul II (whom most of them hated when he was alive and defending innocent human life around the world)—they will tell us that John Paul II was a “really nice guy” who established good relations with people of other religions, but that Benedict has set things back 500 years with the way he’s antagonized Muslims, Jews and Protestants alike.

Then we’ll hear about how many Catholics disagree with the pope on all the crucial issues of our day: abortion, contraception, gay marriage, married priests, etc, etc, etc.

We’ll probably even hear a few of them try to blame Benedict for the sex abuse scandal of 2002, implying that he somehow approved of it—when, in reality, he condemned it with incredibly harsh language, at one point calling molesting priests “filth.” And, of course, they will fail to mention that if these bad priests had lived according to the teachings that Benedict has promoted for decades as a priest, a bishop, a cardinal, and now as pope, there would have been no scandal in the first place!

Remember, Jesus speaks to us through human instruments like the pope—but so does Satan! He has his mouthpieces as well. And many of them will be in action this week!

You can bet the farm on it! Or the house, or the car—or all 3! It’s as close as you’ll ever get to a “sure thing” on this side of the grave!

But what I really love about the Good Shepherd is this: Even when people tune out his obvious messengers (like the pope), he still manages to get his word to his flock—as well as to those lost souls that he wants to become part of his flock! He does it by touching people—even worldly people—with actual grace, and moving them to promote his truth in unexpected ways.

Take the people, for example, at 20th Century Fox! The men and women in charge of that film company probably had no intention of reminding America in 2008 that all human life is sacred, from the moment of conception until the moment of natural death. They also probably had no intention of promoting the teachings of Jesus Christ on forgiveness and mercy.

But that’s exactly what they’ve done—by putting good old Horton, Dr. Seuss’ loveable elephant, on the silver screen. If you haven’t seen “Horton Hears a Who” yet, my brothers and sisters, make sure you do! And be sure to bring your children and/or grandchildren with you (if you have them), so that you can discuss the movie and its message with them afterward!

Jesus Christ would want you to!

For those in the congregation who might not remember the story, Horton is the only animal in the imaginary Jungle of Nool who is able to hear the cries of the “Whos” (I think it has something to do with his incredibly large ears.) The Whos are small people—very small people—who live in a town called “Who-ville,” which is located on a speck of dust that has deposited itself on a clover plant. (Obviously Dr. Seuss had a very fertile imagination!) This means that the other animals in the jungle aren’t able to see the Whos either. They can’t see them, they can’t hear them—so they presume that these microscopic people don’t exist.

The Whos beg Horton to protect them, and Horton does—even though he’s ridiculed and called crazy and put into a cage for a time by his persecutors, among whom are Vlad Vladikoff, a gang of crazy monkeys known as the Wickersham Brothers, and the Sour Kangaroo.

Horton would easily understand the message of our second reading from 1 Peter 2, where our first pope talks about suffering for doing what is right!

And through it all, the elephant keeps saying the same thing, over and over and over again: “A person’s a person, no matter how small!”

A person’s a person no matter how small. That’s his core philosophy. It’s his reason for taking action to protect the Whos living on the little speck of dust; it’s the reason he’s willing to be ridiculed and called names; it’s the reason he allows himself to be locked up in a cage!

By the way, in essence, isn’t that exactly what the Catholic Church says in her teaching on the sanctity of human life—that a person’s a person no matter how small (even if he’s an embryo)? Isn’t that what the Good Shepherd was getting at when he said, “Love your neighbor as yourself” and when he told us the parable of the Good Samaritan?

By gosh it is!

Well fancy that!

Isn’t it wonderful? Many university professors, judges, public school officials and politicians are doing all they can to silence the voice of the Good Shepherd in our culture right now, but somehow his truth still goes forth. In this case, courtesy of a cartoon character named Horton, whose heart is even bigger than his body.

The voice of God—the voice of Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd—is never completely silenced! Only fools think it is.

There’s even a beautiful lesson in this movie on forgiveness, which illustrates magnificently the words of Jesus in the gospels. When you go to see the film, pay close attention to the interaction between Horton and the Sour Kangaroo at the very end.

It might even bring a little tear to your eye.

Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice.”

May the Lord give us the grace today to keep our spiritual ears open all the time, so that we will hear his voice not only when it comes to us through obvious sources like the pope, but also when it comes through unexpected sources like Horton the elephant.

Or perhaps I should say, “through Horton, the pro-life pachyderm!”