Thursday, May 09, 2013

The Ascension: A Disappearance, not a Departure!

Fr. Emil Kapaun
Fr. Kapaun (right) helping a wounded soldier.

(Ascension Thursday 2013: This homily was given on May 9, 2013 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Acts 1: 1-14.)
[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Ascension 2013]


In a homily he gave on the Feast of the Ascension back in 2007, Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, the preacher of the papal household, made a very important distinction.  The distinction was between “a disappearance” and “a departure.”  Listen to his words:


If we do not want the Ascension to be a sad “farewell,” but rather a true feast, then we must understand the radical difference between a disappearance and a departure.  With the ascension, Jesus has not departed, he has not become absent; he has only disappeared from our sight.  Those who leave are no longer here; those who only go out of our sight, however, can still be near us—it is only that something prevents our seeing them.  Jesus does disappear from the apostles’ sight at the ascension, but he does so to be present in another more intimate way.

That’s a great insight!  And it means that Jesus can still make himself present in a visible way in this world.  We know, of course, that he’s present in a hidden way at Mass—in the Eucharist (under the appearances of bread and wine), and in the proclaimed word.  We know that he’s present in a similar way in the other sacraments.  

But there’s another presence of Jesus Christ that actually makes him visible to those who have the eyes of faith.  I’m talking here about his presence in his disciples, and his presence in the acts of charity and self-sacrifice performed by those disciples—and at times even by unbelievers.

I’ll give you two timely examples.

Roughly 24 hours after the terrorist attack in Boston on Patriots’ Day, a very distraught man sent me an email in which he wrote the following: “Fr. Ray, it is becoming harder and harder to believe that there really is a God!  Where was he yesterday when these people—young kids that never even got the chance to experience life—had their lives completely destroyed or devastated?  Where was he?  Answer me, Fr. Ray, where was he?”

The following Thursday night I shared those words with the teenagers who were present here in church for youth group, and I asked them how they would respond to that man’s question.  One of them raised his hand and said, “Fr. Ray, God was there.  He was there in the people who helped!  He was there in the people who went in to help the injured and those who were dying.”

That teenager, I would say, was absolutely correct.  I know that I was moved—as I’m sure many of you were—as I watched the news footage of the medical and rescue personnel (and the ordinary citizens) who rushed into the area where the bombs had just exploded.

How did they know there weren’t more bombs there that were about to go off?

The answer, of course, is that they didn’t know that all the bombs had exploded!  They didn’t know the area was safe; they didn’t know, for sure, that they themselves would not be killed or seriously injured like the others.

But they went in anyway!

Whether these men and women were conscious of it or not, it was the grace of God that moved them to perform those acts of courage and compassion for others.

In a very real way, they made Jesus Christ visibly present in what they did for their brothers and sisters in the human family.

The second example I’ll share with you today occurred a few days before the Boston Marathon bombing—on April 11, to be exact.  On that day, President Obama awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor—our nation’s highest military award—to a Catholic priest: Fr. Emil Kapaun, an Army chaplain who died in a prisoner-of-war camp in North Korea in 1951, during the Korean War.

Many of those who served with Fr. Kapaun had been calling for this award to be given for over 60 years.  Listen now to some of what the President said at the ceremony:


[The] Chinese forces entered the war with a massive surprise attack—perhaps 20,000 soldiers pouring down on a few thousand Americans. In the chaos, dodging bullets and explosions, Father Kapaun raced between foxholes, out past the front lines and into no-man’s land—dragging the wounded to safety.
When his commanders ordered an evacuation, he chose to stay—gathering the injured, tending to their wounds. When the enemy broke through and the combat was hand-to-hand, he carried on—comforting the injured and the dying, offering some measure of peace as they left this Earth.
When enemy forces bore down, it seemed like the end—that these wounded Americans, more than a dozen of them, would be gunned down. But Father Kapaun spotted a wounded Chinese officer. He pleaded with this Chinese officer and convinced him to call out to his fellow Chinese. The shooting stopped and they negotiated a safe surrender, saving those American lives.
Then, as Father Kapaun was being led away, he saw another American—wounded, unable to walk, laying in a ditch, defenseless. An enemy soldier was standing over him, rifle aimed at his head, ready to shoot. And Father Kapaun marched over and pushed the enemy soldier aside. And then as the soldier watched, stunned, Father Kapaun carried that wounded American away. 
[That man he saved, by the way, is now in his 80s—and was there at the ceremony!]
This is the valor we honor today—an American soldier who didn’t fire a gun, but who wielded the mightiest weapon of all, a love for his brothers so pure that he was willing to die so that they might live.
[The following remarks by the President were not included in my homily, but are added here to provide further reflection on the extraordinary witness of this great priest.]

And yet, the incredible story of Father Kapaun does not end there.
He carried that injured American, for miles, as their captors forced them on a death march. When Father Kapaun grew tired, he’d help the wounded soldier hop on one leg. When other prisoners stumbled, he picked them up. When they wanted to quit—knowing that stragglers would be shot—he begged them to keep walking.
In the camps that winter, deep in a valley, men could freeze to death in their sleep. Father Kapaun offered them his own clothes. They starved on tiny rations of millet and corn and birdseed. He somehow snuck past the guards, foraged in nearby fields, and returned with rice and potatoes. In desperation, some men hoarded food. He convinced them to share. Their bodies were ravaged by dysentery. He grabbed some rocks, pounded metal into pots and boiled clean water. They lived in filth. He washed their clothes and he cleansed their wounds.
The guards ridiculed his devotion to his Savior and the Almighty. They took his clothes and made him stand in the freezing cold for hours. Yet, he never lost his faith. If anything, it only grew stronger. At night, he slipped into huts to lead prisoners in prayer, saying the Rosary, administering the sacraments, offering three simple words: “God bless you.” One of them later said that with his very presence he could just for a moment turn a mud hut into a cathedral.

The soldiers who served with Fr. Emil Kapaun in Korea would find it very easy to understand the point of today’s homily: that Jesus Christ, although he has disappeared through his ascension, has not departed from the earth.  They know that because they actually experienced the presence of our Savior in a powerful way through the words and the deeds of this very holy priest.  Let’s pray at this Mass that the people with whom we share our lives will also experience the presence of the risen and ascended Christ—through us!