Sunday, September 2, 2012

More on Monica! (Sunday 22.B)

My time away was good.  The meetings went well, the weather was fine, and I had some time with my brother and his family and visited fine friends at Madonna House.

I had only one disappointment—I was away for the feast days of the great St. Augustine and his mother St. Monica. They follow one after the other in August, with the mother coming first, of course! The story of Augustine’s slow conversion to faith is fascinating, but for me the real drama comes from Monica’s persistent prayer for him, answered at last in full measure

Today’s Gospel gives me a good reason to speak about St. Monica as a model for evangelization, especially in the family. Jesus says “This people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” Compare that to what St. Augustine wrote about his mother: “You could feel God’s presence in her heart and her holy conversation gave rich proof of it.

“You could feel God’s presence in her heart.”  Isn’t that the exact opposite of what Jesus says about the scribes and Pharisees? They believed in what we call lip-service; not walking the talk.

The Psalm today says that those who speak the truth from their hearts will live with God. Again we hear the same message: our words have to flow from our inner selves, or they mean nothing before God.

The lessons we can learn from the Word of God today and from the example of St. Monica are crucial at a time when sharing our faith is an uphill climb. Parents wonder how to reach the children, students wonder how to be faithful in atheistic classrooms, and the workplace can be downright hostile to Christians.

The Bible gives us a powerful directive this morning: Faith is primarily something we do; talking comes later. St. James says it very simply: “be doers of the word, and not merely hearers.”

This has practical consequences.  Parents have to pass on the faith first by what they do, and only then by what they say. Faithfulness in attending Mass is worth more than all the catechism lessons in the world.

For the rest of us, priests included, we must make it possible for others to sense God present in our hearts. We must try to live so that people can recognize grace working in us.  Only then can our words—our holy conversation, as St. Augustine called it—have their full impact.

One of my high school teachers loved to say that faith is caught, not taught. He wasn’t knocking the teaching of faith—he was a religion teacher, after all; he was emphasizing that the only way to share truth effectively is by taking them on board ourselves. Our hearts must be where our words are.

This, of course, is the reason the Archdiocese fought so hard to protect our right to insist that Catholic school teachers are faithful not only in the classroom but in their personal lives. The 1984 Supreme Court of Canada decision affirming that right is the most precious possession of our school system, more valuable than all the school buildings put together

Most of us—especially preachers—can probably talk about the faith better than we can live it. Jesus doesn’t want to make us feel like hypocrites every time we open our mouth on the subject. But his tough words are a challenge to put flesh on our words by walking the talk with generosity and courage.

In particular, today’s Gospel invites us to a reality check about any areas of our lives where what we believe in our head doesn’t square with what’s going on in our heart. Anyone taking a driving lesson learns about blind spots in the mirror; Christians can have them in their hearts, and they’re just as dangerous.

I want to close with a word of warning: today’s readings call us to square our actions with our words, but they don’t excuse a failure to share with words when the time is right. It’s true that flawless Christian living will attract people to Christ, but until we reach that point, we need to talk to them also.

Next week we’ll talk about our Fall Alpha course that begins this month. Non-Catholic family and friends will only know about this exciting program if you tell them. So start thinking about who you can invite, and about coming with them to Alpha as a way of putting your own faith into action. 

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