Sunday, March 24, 2019

Thank God for the ‘Fourth Year’

(Third Sunday of Lent (C): This homily was given on March 24, 2019 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 103:1-11; 1 Cor 6:1-6, 10-12; Luke 13:1-9.)

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

“Thank God for the fourth year.”

That should be our response after listening to today’s gospel reading from Luke 13.

Jesus tells us a parable here about a man who planted a fig tree in his orchard that didn’t produce any figs for three years.

Now if I had the opportunity to talk to this particular orchard owner today, I would say to him, “You, sir, are patient man—a very patient man.  Far more patient than I am.  After my father died I took care of the landscaping on our property in Barrington, and I know that if I had ever planted something that was supposed to bear fruit every year but didn’t, it would have been gone—after one year!  No doubt about it.”

But the orchard owner in the parable went one step further.  He not only gave the tree three years; he actually listened to the words of his gardener and agreed to give the tree another year—a fourth year—to bear fruit.

And not only that …

He even agreed to let the gardener cultivate the ground and fertilize the tree to give it the best chance it could possibly have to finally become fruitful.

To me this parable makes clear the importance of praying and doing penance for the conversion of those in the state of mortal sin, who are squandering God’s gifts and are in danger of losing their souls.  The owner of the orchard here represents the Lord, the barren fig tree represents the sinner—that’s clear enough.  As for the gardener, to me he represents all those who are currently praying and offering spiritual sacrifices for the sinner.  Notice that the orchard owner gave the fourth year (the bonus year) to the fig tree specifically because of the pleas of the gardener.  It was his intercession that was key in the process.  And because of what he did, the tree received special graces that it would not otherwise have received.  (Specifically, the ground around it got cultivated and fertilized.)

So never stop being the “gardener” for those who are estranged from God and the Church—especially members of your families.

As long as they’re in their “fourth year” (in other words, as long as they’re alive and breathing) there’s hope for their repentance and conversion.

Of course, their “fourth year” won’t go on forever.  It didn’t go on indefinitely for the barren fig tree, and it doesn’t go on forever for any one of us—which is why Jesus preceded this parable by mentioning the sudden and tragic deaths of two groups of people: first of all, a group of Galileans murdered by Pontius Pilate (who, by the way, was not the nice guy he’s sometimes portrayed as being in Hollywood movies), and secondly a group of 18 people who died when a tower fell on them at Siloam. 

Notice that Jesus said the same thing after mentioning each of these events: “But I tell you, if you will not repent, you will all perish as they did.”

He meant that, of course, in the spiritual sense—alluding to hell.

The moral here is really simple and straightforward: Don’t delay repentance!  If there’s a serious sin in your life that you need to deal with, go to confession and deal with it.  Confess it, be absolved of it, and be freed from the guilt of it!  You’ll make the priest’s day.  We priests like to catch “big fish”—as St. John Vianney (the Cure of Ars) used to call them.

Let me end my homily today by mentioning a movie which is being released this week and which I strongly urge you to see.  It’s called Unplanned, and it’s based on the best-selling book of the same title (which some of you have probably read).  For those who might not have read it, Unplanned is the autobiographical story of a woman named Abby Johnson, who was once the director of the Planned Parenthood Clinic in Bryan, Texas.  Abby wanted to help women in crisis situations, and so she volunteered for the organization in 2001, while she was still in college at Texas A&M University.  She started off as a volunteer escort (an escort at an abortion clinic is the person who’s responsible for taking a woman from her car and into the building—while at the same time keeping her from listening to the pro-life volunteers outside the gate who are appealing to the woman not to kill her baby).

Abby, who ended up having two abortions herself, believed the lie that Planned Parenthood really wants to reduce the number of abortions by preventing unwanted pregnancies, so when she graduated from college she became more deeply involved in the organization—thinking that this was a way to show compassion and love for women and to reduce the abortion rate at the same time.  Her intentions, at least to some extent, were good.

She rose through the ranks rather quickly and eventually became the local clinic’s director.  Of course, there were some things that bothered her—like the pressure she was receiving from her superiors to do more abortions and more late term abortions so that the clinic would bring in more money.  But what finally opened her eyes to the truth of what she was involved in occurred in late September of 2009, on the day she was asked to hold the ultrasound probe on the abdomen of a woman during an abortion.  She had never done that before, but they were short staffed that particular day and the doctor needed her assistance.  And so, for the first time (through the miracle of ultrasound) she was able to see what really happens to a baby in the womb during an abortion procedure.  Needless to say, it wasn’t pretty.  Actually, it was horrific—so much so that when it was over Abby dropped the probe because she was so upset.

She then left the clinic in tears. 

And where did she go?  Where did she go in her anguish and in her distress? 

Well, believe it or not, she went immediately to the nearby office of the Coalition for Life—and to the people of that organization who had been opposing her for years; to the people who had been protesting and praying in front of her clinic!

You might say, “Why did she go to them?  Why did she seek help from these men and women who had been her enemies for so long?”

It’s because they had been respectful and nice to her, in spite of the fact that they detested what she was doing!  And it’s because they had prayed for her!  To put it in the terms of this homily, it’s because they had been faithful and persistent “gardeners” for the “barren fig tree” of Abby Johnson’s life from the time she had been an escort at the clinic.  And so when the full reality of what abortion is hit her square in the face, Abby trusted that the people at the Coalition for life would take care of her and give her the support and guidance and love that she needed.

And she was right.  They did.  They helped her find forgiveness, and healing—and the truth (which ultimately led her to become Catholic in 2012, along with her husband).

Now, ten years later, Abby Johnson is one of the strongest and most persuasive voices in the pro-life movement.  She’s as powerful as she is because she knows the dirty business of abortion from the inside-out.  She’s been a victim of its many lies—and now she’s determined to expose those lies to the world. 

This new movie is part of that effort.  See it!—and challenge your pro-choice friends to see it as well.

Through the prayers and good works of the men and women at the Coalition for Life, God gave Abby Johnson a “fourth year” to bear fruit, and—thanks be to God—she’s made the most of it.

May all of us do the same thing, if ever we need to.