Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Importance of Offering Jesus our “Five Barley Loaves and Two Fish”

Mosaic on the floor of the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes, at Tabgha, on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee in Israel

(Seventeenth Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on July 29, 2012 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read John 6: 1-15.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Seventeenth Sunday 2012]

To create means “to make something from nothing”—which is why only God can create!  Now, I know, we often speak of human beings “creating” things such as great works of art—paintings and sculptures and the like; but when we do that it’s important for us to remember that we’re actually using the word “create” in an analogous sense—because even the greatest artist uses materials which already exist!  What an artist or craftsman makes, he makes from something else, from something that’s already present in the world.

So only God can create, properly speaking. 

But Jesus Christ was (and is) God!  He’s the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, who assumed a human nature 2,000 years ago in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

That means that he had the ability and the power to create enough food to feed all 5,000-plus people in today’s gospel story with a simple and direct command!  All he had to do was say, “Bread and fish, come into being”—and they would have!

But that’s not what he did!  What he did was to ask a rhetorical question, and then wait for someone to offer him what they had; to give him what they had to give.

And when a little boy did that—when he (with the help of the apostle Andrew) brought forth the five barley loaves and two fish and presented them to Jesus—the Lord immediately went to work and multiplied the gift! 

He multiplied it a thousand-fold!

This, my brothers and sisters, is how God very often works in our lives!  He waits for us, under the prompting of his grace, to give him what we have: our gift of time, or talent, or treasure, or service—or all of the above—and then he multiplies the effect of our offering ten-fold or a hundred-fold or even a thousand-fold or more!

I’ll give you one very timely example of what I mean.  Last week we took 50 teenagers to the Steubenville East High School Youth Conference at U.R.I.  As I said in my homily last Sunday, this is an annual gathering of about 3,000 teens from all over the northeast, in which they have the opportunity to encounter Jesus Christ in a personal way (especially in the sacraments), and to deepen or renew their Catholic faith.  These conferences started at the Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio in the mid-1970s, and they’ve become so popular over the years that now there are 17 of them annually throughout the country.  They are popular, by the way, because they work!  They convert young people very effectively.  The music is awesome; the talks hit them right where they’re at—and they have fun and get to know Jesus Christ at the same time. 

But this is not the first year we’ve done this.  It’s the 20th!  When we started off there were just a couple of conferences a year, and all of them were out in Ohio, on the Steubenville campus.  So we had to take buses there (which often broke down along the way!) and drive for 12 hours from Thursday night into Friday morning (sometimes with groups of close to 100 teens and chaperones). And then, when we were there, we’d have to sleep in big circus tents (which sometimes leaked when it rained) and endure oppressive heat—because the conferences were all outdoors at the time (no air conditioned arenas back then!).

And then, in the mid-1990s, when they brought the conferences to LaSalette, we endured more heat and dirt and rain and mud—and terrible food.  But at least the bus ride was a lot shorter!

My point, my brothers and sisters, is that this trip has never been easy.  Just ask Christine Magowan, our D.R.E., who does a great job coordinating this event every year and who’s been involved as a chaperone since the very beginning.

And yet, it’s all been worth it—because Jesus has taken what we’ve done (and endured) as clergy and chaperones—he’s taken, in other words, the “five barley loaves and two fish” of our obedient service—and he’s multiplied the effects of it a thousand-fold!

We’ve taken hundreds of teens to these conferences in the last two decades.  More than a few have entered the priesthood and/or religious life.  Some have become teachers in Catholic schools and colleges.  Some have gotten involved in youth ministry.  Many are volunteering in their parishes and local communities.  Many are living their Catholic faith while working out in the world.  Many are good Catholic parents who are trying to raise their children in the faith.  (In fact, in this regard, we had a first this year: we took a teenage girl to the conference whose mother had come with us 20 years ago—as a teenager!)

Yes, Fr. Ray, you’re getting old!

It’s always great to encounter someone who used to come to our youth group or to the conferences with us, who is now doing something great for God and the world.

A couple of years ago at U.R.I. during the conference a very tall Franciscan nun came up to me.

She said, “Fr. Ray?” 


“Fr. Ray from St. Pius in Westerly?”

“Yes. . . . Sister, do I know you?”

She said, “Yes; I used to come with you to these conferences about 10 years ago!”

Then I recognized her.  Her name is now Sr. Pia, and she’s living in a Franciscan convent in Pennsylvania; but I knew her many years ago as Trish Meehan.  She wasn’t from Westerly; she was from South Kingstown, but she and her friend Jackie Bertrand used to come to our youth group almost every Thursday night.

And, of course, they came with us to the Steubenville conferences in the summer.

Sr. Pia is a nun; Jackie is a young mom who now leads the Steubenville East group from St. Francis in Wakefield every year.

Jesus continues to multiply the good effects of our simple offering of “five barley loaves and two fish” in people like Sr. Pia and Jackie Bertrand.

And I’m sure that will be true of this year’s group.  In fact, it’s already begun to happen.  On that note, some of our young people wrote to me the other day about their experiences at the conference.  I’ll close my homily today by sharing with you a few of the things they said . . .

One person wrote: “This was my first year here at Steubenville and it was so much more than what I expected.  I had an amazing time and don’t want to go home. . . . During Saturday night adoration something hit me and I couldn’t stop crying.  It was just so powerful and emotional.  I honestly can say that I was so moved by the whole thing and I wouldn’t take any of it back.”

Another wrote: “My experience at Steubenville was life-changing.  I experienced a connection with God and an understanding of my faith I had never felt before.  I look forward to extending everything I learned this weekend into my life.  I love feeling like I am so free yet so loved by God.”

One young man wrote: “I’ve never doubted Jesus’ true presence in the Eucharist, but not until Saturday night adoration did I come to the full realization that Jesus, the Son of the one, living and true God, was fully and physically present.  For one of the first times, I truly saw and felt that I was kneeling in front of the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, the Word incarnate, Jesus Christ, my Lord, Savior, and Redeemer.”

One girl who signed her reflection “a renewed Catholic,” wrote: “As soon as God sent me the sign I was waiting for, there were fireworks—literally!”  (That’s true, incidentally.  There were fireworks somewhere in the Kingston area last Saturday night!  How nice of God to schedule things that way!)

Another girl said, “Reconciliation was by far my favorite part [of the weekend], just to get everything off my chest.”  (And I’m sure she wasn’t alone in her perspective, since thousands go to confession at this retreat.  We priests have trouble keeping up.  And most of the priests will tell you that the confessions they hear at Steubenville East are some of the most thorough confessions they hear all year.)

And finally, this comment, which in some sense summarizes all the others: “Overall, the retreat is a memorable, life-changing experience that will remain in my heart forever.”

Over the last 20 years, my brothers and sisters, hundreds of young people from our community have had experiences like this at the youth conference.

Not bad for our small, humble offering to Jesus Christ of “five barley loaves and a couple of fish.”

What is God calling you to offer him in terms of time, talent, treasure, and service?  In other words, what are the “five barley loaves and two fish” that he wants you to give to him in your life, so that he can multiply them like he did in today’s gospel?

Reflect on that question during this coming week—and, when God gives you an answer, resolve to act on it!