March 15, 2020
3rd Sunday of Lent
Homily by Fr. John De Celles
St. Raymond of Peñafort Catholic Church
You know, I had great plans for this Lent, both for myself and for the parish.
Now the coronavirus has messed a lot of that up.
We’ve had to cancel the soup supper, bible study, and even CCD.
I was hoping to get larger and larger crowds at
stations of the cross, confessions, and the Thursday evening Holy Hour,
but now I find myself telling a good part of the parish
that maybe they need to stay home.
And the same for all of you.
You had great plans for Lent too.
But with all the restrictions and changes at work and school,
everything is upside down.
And so instead of having the great Lent we planned,
we’re faced with this virus that will consume not only time and effort,
but even worse, our health, wellbeing and maybe even life itself.
But I don’t think this is an accident.
Instead it seems to me that while we had great plans for Lent,
God had an even better plan for our Lent.
Because what are we talking about with this crisis?
I mean a large part of it is suffering and sacrifice
—two very important aspects of Lent.
We have to give things up; not what we planned, but much much more.
And we have to be patient, kind, and generous
—we may have planned to do acts of charity,
but not like this, not this much.
In short, God has given us a different, greater, penance this Lent
than we chose for ourselves.
And He says, “pick up your cross and follow me.”
For some, this cross may be very onerous:
they will get sick, some very desperately sick,
and some of our fellow citizens will even die,
or see their loved ones suffer or die.
For others, the cross will be more mundane, but still heavy.
The burden of responsibility to care for the safety of others is a heavy load,
whether it’s the burden of presidents or parents, or pastors.
Or the burden of disruption of the basics of daily life, including work and school
—many people will go without pay,
and store shelves may be empty of the food or supplies we want or need.
And then the burdens of the many inconveniences we all have to face.
And finally, the terrible burden of fear that undergirds it all.
So the cross.
How do we respond to it?
Some will respond with anger, or impatience or sadness or panic.
That’s understandable, but not good.
Some will respond with mere stoic resignation
—can’t do anything about it, so why fight?
Something to be said for that.
But how about this instead.
Jesus says, “pick up your cross and follow me.”
Not just “here, take this and shut up,” but “pick it up” or “take it”,
as if to say, “grab it eagerly and make it your own
and do something with it.”
And not just “something,” but “follow Jesus”,
imitate Jesus accepting these crosses as your assigned task from Him,
fervently embracing them as He embraced his cross,
as a means to help you become closer to Jesus,
to become a truly stronger, more devout and loving Christian this Lent.
And then have confidence that since He gives it to you,
He will also help you to carry it.
Look at the woman at the well.
He didn’t leave her in her sins,
but in His great mercy sought her out and saved her.
The same with us—His mercy saves us.
Remember that He says, “my yolk is easy, by burden light”?
Why? Because He’s there carrying it with you.
As you mediate on how Jesus carried His cross to His own Crucifixion,
see Him now helping you to carry yours, by His grace.
So as St. Paul writes elsewhere,
“Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.
But He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you
…That is why, for the sake of Christ, I delight…in hardships…in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.…”
And there’s also a great lesson to be found in this cross Jesus has chosen for us
Think of all the efforts we’re going through to stop the spread of the virus.
Not shaking hands, washing our hands constantly,
staying home from school, work and even Mass,
paranoid about touching anything….
As a nation we’re willing to take a huge hit to the economy
and spend billions of dollars we have to borrow.
And think of how countries have literally shut down.
All because of a little tiny germ…that could kill us.
Think about this….in Lent.
Doesn’t sin do much the same?
It makes us sick, and even kills us, both physically and spiritually?
And not only us, but it can spread like a plague and infect the whole of society,
turning an orderly and good country into to confused and lost mess.
And yet, do we worry about distancing ourselves from sin,
even the little ones,
but especially the ones that seem small
but can take over our whole lives and destroy them
—if not in this world, definitely in the next?
Do we worry about purifying our souls, or avoiding crowds where sin abounds?
Would we sacrifice work, or keep our kids home from school,
if there were sins there, like viruses, that could harm or kill them?
Or would we make an effort not to spread sin,
either by bad example, indifference or actively leading others into sin?
What a great lesson to learn, in Lent.
And there’s something else.
We’re not just avoiding the virus, we’re also fighting it.
There are all sorts of things that
medical professionals and government officials are doing,
and that we are personally doing to actively attack the coronavirus.
But the one thing we don’t think enough about doing is praying.
The strongest power in the universe is Jesus, and we are leaving Him out of it.
I was shocked when I heard last week that some European Bishops
had actually ordered all the churches in their dioceses to be closed!
And that in our own country, various dioceses are cancelling all public Masses.
But as the head of the Bishops of Poland said in statement:
“just as hospitals treat diseases of the body,
so the Church serves to…treat illness of the soul;
that is why it is unimaginable that we not pray in our churches…
I’m asking for the increase…in the number of Sunday Masses….”
Now, it’s one thing to cancel all the social and fellowship events, or school.
And I think it very wise and kind for Bishops to dispense people
from the obligation of going to Mass.
But to not allow anyone to go to Mass, or even enter a church,
I just don’t understand.
Because what we need now more than anything is prayer and grace!
And the most powerful prayer is the Mass
and the greatest grace comes to us in the Eucharist!
As Jesus once said of a particular demon,
“this kind is
not cast out only by prayer ….”
The thing is, societal-wide outbreaks of devasting diseases
are not unheard of in history.
For example, in late 6th century a plague struck all of Europe
that some say took 100 million lives.
When it reached the city of Rome in the year 590 it was no less deadly,
killing thousands, including Pope Pelagius II.
In response, did his papal successor hide in the cloister to avoid the same fate?
No, instead the pope called by history St. Gregory the Great
summoned a procession of all the clergy and people of Rome.
With Gregory at their head,
holding the image of the Blessed Mother painted by St. Luke himself,
they marched, praying and singing hymns, through the streets of Rome.
And as they approached the Vatican they saw,
St. Michael the Archangel standing on top of nearby Hadrian’s Tomb.
And in his hand he held a flaming sword, which, as they drew nearer,
they saw him return to its sheathe—a sign that the plague was ended.
Now….street processions are not really very practical in Fairfax County;
there are laws against them, and besides we’re not in Catholic Rome.
And there’s no way we could fit all 6000 parishioners into this church.
But we need to pray, and pray together as one parish, and not just on Sunday.
So, following the example of St. Gregory,
I am asking that all of us in this parish join together
and pray as the ancient Romans did,
for the intercession of the Blessed Mother.
I ask that the whole parish the Rosary at home, or wherever they are,
every evening at either 6, 7, 8 or 9pm, from now until Palm Sunday.
Marching together spiritually, rank after rank,
begging our tender Mother to intervene for us,
to put an end to the virus that plagues us today.
Lent may be changed, but it is not ended.
Our penitential practices may be altered, but for the better.
Because Jesus Himself has given us our penance.
To carry the cross of this virus, whether it entails
inconvenience, economic loss, grief, fear, sickness, or even death.
But to carry it willingly, with Him who once carried His cross up Calvary for us.
Knowing that through it, by his grace,
we will come to better love Him and our neighbor.
And knowing that it will not be too heavy, but by His grace, even easy and light.
As we now enter more deeply into this holy Mass,
the greatest prayer of all prayers,
the prayer of Jesus Crucified to His heavenly Father for our salvation,
let us beg Our Lord to save us from the terrible effects of this plague,
and that, if it be His holy will, it be destroy once and for all.
But let us also pray that He strengthens each of us
by the grace of His Most precious body
to carry all the crosses He brings us with charity, patience
and trust in Jesus.