Sunday, July 04, 2010

Mom, Aunt Margaret, and the Mission of the 72 Disciples

My cousin, Michael Chellel
(To visit his web site, click here: Santa-to-the-Stars)

(Fourteenth Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on July 4, 2010 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Luke 10: 1-12, 17-20.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fourteenth Sunday 2010]

I have a cousin named Michael Chellel.

Most people know him by his stage name, Brady White.

And if you lived in Hollywood, and worked in the movie or television industry, you’d probably also know him as “Santa-to-the-Stars”.

That’s because he plays Santa Claus at the Christmas parties of famous celebrities every year. And believe me, he really does look like Santa, which is why he’s in such demand. His beard is the perfect Santa beard. And it’s all natural—so don’t pull it!

I mention Michael today because of the religious conversion he had about 10 years ago, thanks (he would say) to the intercession of Padre Pio—now St. Pio. Padre Pio, as many of us know, was an Italian Franciscan Friar of the last century who had incredible spiritual gifts. Like St. John Vianney he could, they say, read souls; in other words, he could sometimes tell you your sins before you confessed them. How would you like to go to confession to him?!!! Count your blessings that you have Fr. Ray! He also had the stigmata: supernatural wounds on his body that corresponded to the wounds of Jesus on the cross. If you’ve ever seen pictures or videos of Padre Pio saying Mass, you will recall that his hands were always wrapped, and blood could be seen coming through the wrappings from his bleeding wounds.

This is something St. Francis of Assisi and some of the other great saints experienced in their lives, including, perhaps, St. Paul the apostle. In today’s second reading from Galatians 6, Paul says, “From now on, let no one make troubles for me; for I bear the marks of Jesus on my body.”

That’s certainly a reference to the many sufferings St. Paul endured in his work as an apostle and evangelist, but some scholars also believe that it’s a reference to the fact that Paul received the supernatural gift of the stigmata toward the end of his life.

“For I bear the marks of Jesus on my body.”

My cousin Michael now spends about 7 months of the year in San Giovanni Rotondo—the town where St. Pio lived for so many years. Michael first went there in late 2002: he had been hearing a lot about Padre Pio’s upcoming canonization (which took place in June of ‘02), and was curious to see where St. Pio had lived and worked. But he also went because he felt like something—or someone—was drawing him to the place. He now believes that “someone” was St. Pio himself.

That first visit led to a deep transformation in his life.

During his annual 7 months in San Giovanni Rotondo, Michael helps the Franciscan Friars in any way he can, especially with the many English speaking pilgrims who visit the monastery every year. And so if you’re planning a trip there let me know, I’ll send a message to cousin Michael and he’ll give you a grand tour of the place—although probably not in his Santa Claus outfit!

A few months ago Michael sent me a brief paper he wrote about his conversion experience, and at one point in that paper he said this: “I could not understand why Padre Pio wanted me, because I was a sinner. I lived in Hollywood and New York; I lived in what one would call the “fast lane”—keeping company with Hollywood celebrities and the world’s social elite. Flying in private jets, riding in limousines, staying in four star hotels; my life was surrounded by glitz and glamour. I lived in a very material world and I thought I was happy there.

‘Do not get me wrong, I always believed in God, the saints and the Catholic Church. I prayed, attended mass weekly and went to confession. But something was missing. When I came to know Padre Pio, I came to know real faith and the meaning of love. Love for our brothers and sisters; learning that all of us are put here to serve and love one another. Through Padre Pio I found true happiness and joy in my life.”

Michael wrote there, “I could not understand why Padre Pio wanted me, because I was a sinner.”

Well join the club, Michael! Jesus said, “I have come to call, not the self-righteous, but sinners.” (Mt 9: 13)

Jesus did not say that everyone would be saved; but he did say that everyone could be saved!—including cousin Michael; including even the worst sinner who has ever lived on this earth.

This is a message that God expects us to share with others whenever we have the opportunity—and not only during this year of evangelization, but every year!

In today’s gospel reading we were told that Jesus sent out 72 other disciples at one point during his ministry. He sent them into all the towns he intended to visit, to prepare the people in those towns for his visitation. You could say that, in a certain sense, the role of these 72 disciples (who went out in pairs) was to lay the groundwork for conversions to Jesus, conversions that Jesus would bring about when he arrived in their communities.

And that’s, very often, what God wants us to do in this life: he wants us to lay the groundwork for conversions. Obviously not everyone we share Christ with will come to faith immediately. Sometimes all we can do—and all God expects us to do—is to plant some seeds and lay the foundation for a conversion that will come later on—in some instances MUCH later on!

Case in point: My cousin Michael!

I know he credits St. Pio with leading him to a deeper relationship with Jesus, but there were at least two good women in his past who had helped to prepare him for his encounter with the Lord and St. Pio. One of those women was his mother, and the other was mine!

Michael Chellel revered his mother, Margaret—even in his worldly days. And his mother was extremely religious. Aunt Margaret was a great woman of faith.

My mom’s influence on him was not as constant, but it was every bit as real. One little anecdote will serve to make the point:

I was probably 9 or 10-years-old. As I recall my mom and I were home alone, when all of a sudden two guys riding very loud motorcycles pulled into the driveway. They looked like something out of an advertisement for Hell’s Angels! It was, of course, my cousin Michael and a friend of his, who just happened to drop by for a visit.

My mom, true to form, welcomed them into the house, and the 3 of them sat around the dining room table and began to talk. Well, eventually the conversation turned to my mother’s favorite subject—Jesus—and the three of them talked about the Lord for a couple of hours. I remember thinking to myself, “This is very weird. Here are these two scary-looking biker dudes mesmerized by a lady talking to them about Jesus—a lady who their friends would probably call ‘really square’ (remember that term from the 1960s?).”

Now Michael didn’t change his life after that conversation. That change wouldn’t happen for more than 30 years. But I really believe that my mom planted some seeds in him that day—as his mother Margaret planted seeds in him on an almost daily basis through her words and prayers. Then, with the help of St. Pio and his intercession, those seeds finally began to grow and blossom, from 2002 until the present day.

When Jesus sent the 72 disciples out in pairs 2000 years ago, he literally sent them out two-by-two. Today he sometimes does it that way; but very often the people doing the evangelizing are separated by time and space—as was the case with my mom and Aunt Margaret. I don’t think they ever talked to Michael about the Lord at the very same time (if they did, it happened only on a few rare occasions). Most of the time they evangelized him individually. Each of them did what they could for Michael separately, but their combined efforts made a big difference! Their combined efforts resulted in a genuine religious conversion for someone they deeply loved.

God expects us to do the same thing for the people in our lives. Today let’s ask the Lord for the grace to fulfill our mission for others as effectively as mom and Aunt Margaret fulfilled theirs for my cousin Michael, Santa-to-the-Stars.