Sunday, June 17, 2012

Homily, 11th Sun O.T. Year B–Father’s Day and the Small Things

mustard seedIn the early 1900’s, Hilaire Belloc, an English Catholic writer, wrote one of the best travelogues of all time, The Path to Rome. He walked extensively all over Britain and Europe and for this particular book, he walked from central France, across the Alps, and all the way down to Rome. As he walked, he wrote descriptions about the people and places he met along the way, along with drawings of the route, and some humor, poetry, and other reflections here and there. One of the things he discovered along his walks was the importance of simple good deeds, like courtesy. Small deeds, like courtesy, multiplied across the span of his journey, tended to become the theme that characterized the whole way. He wrote:

Of Courtesy, it is much less
Than Courage of Heart or Holiness,
Yet in my Walks it seems to me
That the Grace of God is in Courtesy.

On Monks I did in Sorrington fall,
They took me straight into their Hall;
I saw Three Pictures on a wall,
And Courtesy was in them all.

The first the Annunciation;
The second the Visitation;
The third the Consolation,
Of God that was Our Lady’s Son.

The first was of Saint Gabriel;
On Wings a-flame from Heaven he fell;
And as he went upon one knee
He shone with Heavenly Courtesy.

Our Lady out of Nazareth rode –
It was Her month of heavy load;
Yet was Her face both great and kind,
For Courtesy was in Her Mind.

The third it was our Little Lord,
Whom all the Kings in arms adored;
He was so small you could not see
His large intent of Courtesy.

Courtesy is small and simple, like the mustard seed in our Gospel today. The typical mustard seed is about a sixteenth of an inch round, but it can grow to become a huge tree, about 15 feet tall in a matter of weeks! Jesus uses this image to describe how his kingdom, the Church, begins with twelve poor fishermen and grows to span every corner of the globe. The point for us is to not neglect or ignore small things.

In the Church this weekend, we celebrate the 11th Sunday in the Season of the Year, the Season of Ordinary Time. This is the season in which we focus not so much on a particular mystery in the life of Jesus, Mary, or the Saints, as we do in Advent or Lent, but on the routine, day-to-day responsibilities of a Catholic. It is faithfulness to the small aspects of Catholic life that build us up into faithful Catholics, not so much the occasional celebration of the big events, like the Holy Days of Obligation.

The small deeds matter, perhaps most of all… Like the Morning Offering when you wake up, offering to God all the “prayers, works, joys, and sufferings” of the day… or making the Sign of the Cross as you say Grace before meals when you eat out in public as a family… or taking a few minutes to pray with your kids at night before they go to sleep. There are other small acts that build up the Catholic life too… like praying quietly before Mass, or kneeling for a few minutes after the final hymn to give thanks to God, rather than talking with friends or family… or saying during a difficult time “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner” or saying the names of the Holy Family: “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, pray for me.” These are the mustard seeds of faith – small and simple, taking only a few seconds or minutes to do – that grow over time to become the tree of a lively Catholic identity.

As we celebrate the civic holiday of Father’s Day – this attention to small deeds and virtues could perhaps be especially commended to fathers. We all have special memories of the small acts of kindness that our fathers did for us, that left the most lasting impression. For me, its memories of my dad taking a prayer card out of his shirt pocket when he came home from work late at night, and teaching my brothers and me how to pray… or the way he would always say “Aaaaa-Men!” at the end of grace before meals… or when he took us through the drive-through at my granddad’s store and get us each a piece of gum.

Speaking to all of the natural fathers here today, and myself as a spiritual father, if we want our children and families to be good Catholics and good citizens, families we can be proud of, families we can be honored to present to our heavenly Father when we meet Him face-to-face one day, then we cannot neglect the small acts of kindness and virtue. What may seem like only a mustard seed for us, could become the tree of their lives.

One father that I am good friends with told me a story about a time when he was reading a novel that he had always wanted to read. It wasn’t the greatest novel in the world but he was nearing the end and was anxious to see what would happen. His wife and daughter were out running errands so he settled into his chair and picked up his book. But then the phone rang which turned into a task he had to follow-up on, on his computer. He finally got back to his chair only to have his wife and daughter come home five minutes later.

My friend’s wife wanted to discuss a couple of things with him and his daughter wanted to tell him about her day. But he sat there, book in hand, glancing up at them, and down at his book, and up again… giving them the signal that they were interfering with something very important. But then he asked himself, “Who do I love more? This book? Or my family?” So he sat his book down, scooped up his daughter into his lap and let her tell him all about her day. Then he had a delightful conversation with his wife. The sacrifice was worth it. He had an enjoyable moment with his family and they saw once again the primacy they have in his life. He wasn’t called at that moment to give his life for his family. He was simply called to put down his book. He chose to love his family more, so he showed them his love.

It is formation brought about by these day to day virtues, or lack thereof, that either makes or breaks fathers in this country. Now, neither my friend’s wife, nor his daughter would have concluded that he didn’t love them had he continued to halfheartedly listen to them. But, in a small way, their relationship would have been diminished. What was a one-time hint could have easily grown into a full-blown message: “What I want, when I want it, is more important than you.”

And I know that for me too, as a spiritual father, small things matter. Spending a few minutes with the kids playing kickball during recess at the school is something that they always remember. Or saying “Bye” to them at the end of the day as they get in their parents’ car is something small, but I know it makes a difference. And I will work to be more attentive to the small things during my second year with all of you.

I encourage the fathers of our parish to take a moment during this Mass to think about how you and your family are doing with the small acts of Catholic identity. You don’t have to startup a nightly family rosary tomorrow, but maybe you can say one Hail Mary together after dinner or before everyone goes to sleep – and build up little-by-little to a family rosary. You don’t have to start coming to daily Mass tomorrow, but maybe while the kids are home from school, grandparents could make one day, like Friday, the Family Mass Day and take the kids. These things matter and they build on each other. They could make the difference between having a family of only a casual, occasional faith to one fully grown and blossomed. God promised us his help with this: “I, the Lord… lift high the lowly tree… and make the withered tree bloom,” he said to Ezekiel. Finally, with his help “we shall flourish like the palm tree” and grow like a Lebanon cedar, “planted in the house of the Lord,” we shall “flourish in the courts of our God,” still bearing fruit when we are old, still full of sap, still green.

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