Homily of Cardinal Thomas Collins, Archbishop of Toronto
134th International Knights of Columbus Convention Opening Mass, August 2, 2016
Christ upon the Stormy Waters
Like the disciples in today’s Gospel, we are sent by the Lord to go ahead of him on a stormy sea, and if we are faithful in that adventurous mission which he has entrusted to us, we need not fear the wind or the waves, for the Lord who sends us is the Lord who saves us.
There is a saying that boats are safest in harbour, but that is not what boats are for. That is true as well of the “barque of Peter”, the boat which is the Church.
It is appropriate that the main part of all of our Churches, the part where the parishioners are, is called the “nave”, which means “boat”: we are all together at Mass in the boat of our parish church, sailing the dangerous waters of life, often frightened by what we face, in the world through which we sail, and in the storms that ravage our hearts, but serene in our trust not in our own capacities but in the power of Christ who comes to us not only in rare times of serenity, but especially across the surging waves of the tempests of life.
We are reminded all the more of this when we recall the recent events in a small town in France, where last week a few parishioners gathered for daily Mass, so common and almost routine an event, when the nave of their peaceful parish church was invaded by agents of unspeakable evil, as the storm of hideous violence broke upon them, and Father Hamel, who was offering the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, offered also the holy sacrifice of his life in martyrdom.
The storms are real, and sometimes sudden and spectacular, as the little boat of the Church is tossed about by forces which at times can seem irresistible, like the raging power of nature. The sea is so great, and our boat is so small.
Certainly our human powers are small, when we disciples of Jesus face not only the violence of persecution, which so many of our brothers and sisters in Christ are enduring in these days, but also the hidden tempest, no less destructive, of secular societies which deny the dignity of the human person. We confront the social injustice that reduces persons to things, to be used and not loved; and the assault upon marriage as a covenant of love between a man and a woman, faithful in love and open to the gift of life; and the continuing threat to human life from the first moment of conception to natural death.
In this country, Canada, the justices of the Supreme Court last year unanimously approved assisted suicide for adults who face what they consider to be intolerable suffering, and already powerful voices are being raised urging the extension of lethal injection to minors, and other vulnerable people, always cloaking the violent reality under the false terminology of “medical assistance in dying.” Day by day Canada is becoming a colder country, no matter what the thermometer says on this August day.
So the storms rage everywhere, as they always have, and always will until we are finally one with God in the heavenly Jerusalem. In the Bible the raging sea is the symbol of the power of chaos that can be conquered only by God. The mastery of the wind and the waves that we see in Jesus is a sign of his divinity, and is our hope in the midst of the storms we encounter on our rough voyage through this world. As the Apocalypse reminds us, it is only when Christ comes in glory that there will be no more sea, for then the peace of God will reign.
The afflictions that we encounter in this world, as a people and individually, must be set against the context of divine providence. We see that in the first reading today, from the Prophet Jeremiah, who spoke of the suffering experienced by the people of God, as powerful enemies descended upon them. There was no human response sufficient to save them. But though Jeremiah is the most ferocious of the prophets, calling the people to repentance with savage honesty, God offers his people through Jeremiah the hope that comes from the vision of faith that penetrates to the fundamental reality that the storms of this world can obscure:
“Thus says the Lord: See! I will restore the tents of Jacob, his dwellings I will pity;
City shall be rebuilt upon hill, and palace restored as it was. From them will resound songs of praise, the laughter of happy men.
I will make them not few but many; they will not be tiny, for I will glorify them.”
Evil is real, but we face it with songs of praise, only because we can recognize the hand of God.
We are sent to sail the stormy sea, where we contend with forces that really are too great for our human strength, but where, as with the people of God in the desert in the Old Testament, and Peter in today’s Gospel, we are more able to recognize our vulnerability, and our need for God.
The disciples obeyed the command of Jesus to set out across the sea, and they were in peril throughout the whole night, for he only came to them in the fourth watch, as dawn approached. We should remember this when we grow discouraged in the long struggle against the reality of evil in this fallen world of ours. But Jesus sends us on the journey, and will not abandon us, as he did not abandon the disciples in the storm; his eye was upon them always, and it was through the storm that he came to them. And so he does for us.
We look to Peter, so refreshing in his spontaneity, so foolish in his bravado: he seems always to be leaping out of the boat, not having thought things through. Peter is an inspiration for us all: the greatest of the Apostles, with all his bluster and frailty, is surely a vessel of clay in which the treasure is found, to use an image from his friend and rival Saint Paul. Both princes of the Apostles remind us that we always need to trust in God’s grace. I cherish the words from II Corinthians which contain the episcopal motto of my spiritual father, Bishop Paul Reding, who ordained me to the priesthood: “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.” (II Corinthians 12:9) Peter learned that on the sea of Galilee that stormy night: he yearns to be with Jesus, and asks to come to him; Jesus says “Come”, and Peter runs across the water to him, held up by his faith and by his focus on Jesus. But then he loses focus, and becomes loaded down with fear of the power of the hostile environment, and begins to sink, as do we when we take our eyes off Jesus. But Peter, frail Peter, who falls so often, but who always recovers because of his love for the Lord, and his deep awareness of his need for him, cries out with the perfect prayer which we need to utter all the time in our struggles: “Lord, save me.” We share in Peter’s human frailty; may we share in his divine faith as we navigate the storms which we encounter as a community of disciples, and as individual disciples.
Especially in these days we pray for families, so often ripped apart by malign social forces, rooted in original sin, that seem irresistible, signs of chaos come again. It is understandable that the Holy Father felt the need to convoke two synods on the family. In our own lives, in our families, we may well have personal experience of the wind and the waves that bring destruction, and painful grief. We need to think through the challenges we confront, and appreciate our faith more deeply, which is one reason why in the midst of these stormy waters the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and the Family is such a treasured beacon of hope. And we need to address courageously, with clarity and charity, the challenges of our secular world. We are indeed sailing on perilous seas, where our mission is much more difficult than walking on water, but we do so joyfully, not with trust in our ability but with our eyes set on Jesus and on the life giving teaching of his Gospel, a sure guide through the tempest. Pope Francis wisely urges us to carry a Gospel book with us constantly, and to read it regularly: keep our eyes focused on Jesus.
To maintain our proper focus, we need to pray. Our families need to maintain that focus, expressed many years ago in the expression “The family that prays together, stays together.” The Knights of Columbus has a noble tradition of support for the family, upon which we must constantly build; our order is an anchor of strength in a stormy world, because our eyes are fixed on Jesus. That is why we come together for Mass, and why we find refuge in the storm, in adoration before our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament.
I will end with a practical suggestion, which can introduce into each day the surrender to God’s providence which will keep us safe and serene on the stormy seas: at the beginning, middle, and end of the day pray the prayer made famous in the painting of the husband and wife, farmers working in a field, stopping in the midst of their work to pray the Angelus.
It begins with a recognition that God’s initiative is fundamental; then we respond with submission to God’s word, in imitation of Our Lady; and it reaches fulfilment in the coming of Christ into our tempest tossed world:
The Angel of the Lord declared unto Mary; and she conceived of the Holy Spirit. Hail Mary…
Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done unto me according to thy word. Hail Mary…
And the Word was made flesh; and dwelt amongst us. Hail Mary …
Pray for us, O Holy Mother of God, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.
Let us pray: pour forth, we beseech thee, O Lord, thy grace into our hearts, that we to whom the incarnation of Christ, thy Son, was made known by the message of an angel, may by His passion and cross be brought to the glory of His resurrection, through the same Christ Our Lord. Amen.