Sunday, August 18, 2019

So Great a Cloud of Witnesses!

St. John Neumann

(Twentieth Sunday of the Year (c): This homily was given on August 18, 2019 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Jeremiah 38:4-10; Psalm 40:2-18; Hebrews 12: 1-4; Luke 12: 49-53.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twentieth Sunday 2019]

In the 11th chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews, the author mentions Abraham, Sarah, and several other Old Testament saints.  He then begins chapter 12 with the words we heard in today’s second reading: “Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses . . .” 

So great a cloud of witnesses.  All the saints, Old Testament and New, are present in that unseen cloud.  They are praying for us, and cheering us on, so that we will do what it says in that text: so that we will repent of our sins and keep our eyes fixed on Jesus; so that we will persevere in faith even in the midst of our trials and sufferings; so that we will be open to the many graces and blessings the Lord wishes to give us in our lives.

I was reminded of all this in a powerful way one night a number of years ago, as I watched a most fascinating story on the Learning Channel.  (By the way, please keep that in mind.  This story that I’m about to tell you was on the Learning Channel—not EWTN!)  I tuned in to the program after it had already started, but I quickly realized that what I was seeing in front of me on the television screen was the reenactment of a real event, something that supposedly happened about 25 years ago in the city of Philadelphia.   

It all began with a little boy lying in a hospital bed in a coma.  In the room with him were his doctor, his parents, and a priest.  The priest reached into his pocket at one point and gave the parents a holy card with St. John Neumann’s picture on it.  (John Neumann was the Bishop of Philadelphia in the middle of the 19th century.  He was canonized by the Church in 1977.  Some people confuse him with John Henry Newman, who will be canonized on October 13th of this year.  But they are two different people.) 

In addition the holy card, the priest also gave the boy’s parents a medal with Neumann’s picture on it.  I should mention at this point that, when all of this happened, the mother was a person of faith, but the father was not.  In fact, when the priest gave them the card and the medal, the father said angrily, “What good will these do my son?” 

After a few seconds, though, he apologized to the priest and took the two gifts. 

Well, a few days later the doctor gave the parents the bad news they had dreaded: their son only had a few hours or a few days to live.  The parents were devastated, of course, and they decided that they would take shifts and stay with their son around the clock until he died.  They didn’t want him to be left alone, and they certainly didn’t want him to die alone. 

At one point during one of her visits, the mother woke up from a deep sleep, and she saw a little boy standing next to her son’s bed.  He had a cap on his head and a ball in his hand.  He was looking at her son and smiling.  The boy never spoke to her, but he motioned to the mother with his arm, indicating that he wanted her to follow him.  So she did.  He led her out of the room and down the hall to the entrance of another room.  But before the mother had the chance to go inside, the doctor came along and began talking with her.  When she turned back to look for the boy he was gone.

She didn’t think much of the occurrence—until it happened again.  The boy led her to the very same room, but this time, just before she entered it, her husband came running up and told her that their son was dying.  They ran back into his room—joining the doctor and the priest—and they watched as their son stopped breathing, and all the machines monitoring the boy’s vital signs went to zero. 

Not surprisingly, the parents began to cry; the doctor and the priest looked at each other with tears in their eyes.  But then—all of a sudden—the boy started breathing again, and the numbers on the machines went back to normal!

Shortly thereafter he opened his eyes, smiled at his mother, and got up—like he had just awakened from an afternoon nap!  The doctor, of course, was flabbergasted and had no medical explanation for the event. 

Later, when the boy was talking with his parents, he said, “Mommy, you have to meet my new friend. His name is Johnny.  We’ve been playing together and having so much fun.”  The mother thought the boy must have been dreaming when he was in the coma. 

At that point the father gave the holy card back to the priest and said, “Thank you, Father.  Thank you so much.”  The mother then noticed that there was a second picture on the back of the card.  She said, “Father, may I see that?”  When she looked at it, she gasped!  She said, “Father, whose picture is this?”  The priest replied, “Oh, that’s a picture of St. John Neumann when he was a little boy.” 

The woman said, “That’s the child I’ve been seeing next to my son’s bed!”  The son then caught a glimpse of the card and said, “Mommy, that’s my new friend Johnny that I was telling you about!” 

The woman suddenly remembered that the boy had twice tried to lead her into another hospital room.  So she immediately got up and went to the room with her husband and son.  There she was astonished to find her father, whom she had not seen in many years.  Apparently he had done something decades earlier which had deeply offended her, and he had had no contact with her since.  Now he was dying of cancer.  He said to her, “I’ve been praying that somehow I would get to see you before I died, so that I could ask you to forgive me for what I did.”

And so the story ended with a beautiful moment of reconciliation between father and daughter.

“We are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses . . .”

As that story illustrates so beautifully, St. John Neumann is in that cloud.  So is our Blessed Mother.  So are Abraham and Sarah.  So are all those people who have left this life and gone to heaven.  Needless to say, it’s a very BIG cloud!  As believers, we should look to that cloud often, and we should look to that cloud with confidence, saying, “All you holy men and women, all you saints of God, pray for us—that we will love God and others as you did, that we will be open to God’s many gifts as you were, that we will live in faith and persevere in faith as you did, so that someday we will join you—all of you—forever—in that glorious cloud of heaven.  Amen.”