Let's face it. We are fascinated
by wealthy people. Television and magazines strive to satisfy
our curiosity. This weeks stars were the winners of the Powerball Lottery. Someone who always gets our attention is Seattle's own Bill Gates. It was recently reported that his fortune is equivalent to the combined wealth of the poorest
40% of the U.S. population. That would mean his "worth" is equal
to that of over 100 million people. You might quibble about the
math but it does give some idea of huge riches. Still, these
figures, like Carl Sagan's "billions and billions…"
are so hard to grasp that we tend to perceive them not as a multiplication
of something we already know, but as qualitatively different.
I can easily conceive the meaning of $100 (e.g. 15 breakfasts
at Denny's). But I have a harder time expressing the meaning
of one million dollars. When it comes to one billion, I am lost.
The person who controls such fabled wealth seems like an Olympian
This Sunday's readings warn
us against such a fatal error. They tell us to resist the temptation
to turn money (and those who possess it) into an idol. "Vanity
of Vanity," says the Old Testament Preacher, "all is
vanity." The first vanity he mentions is money. He is not
saying this in some kind of Bhuddist sense which would consider
money as part of an overall illusion. The vanity in question
is our claim to it, our thinking that it is "mine."
The preacher points out that the wealthy man is laboring under
a lie. The falsehood is definitively exposed by an inevitable
event--death. The emperor has no clothes.
Jesus points out that childlike
truth in an even more poignant context. He is approached by a
man who feels his brother has cheated him out of an inheritance.
He wants justice in a strict legal sense. Jesus avoids the trap.
Instead of even "hearing him out" (a practice which
often only increases resentment) Jesus tells a simple story. A man
prospers and takes the necessary steps to secure his wealth.
People admire his prudence and envy his power. Jesus sees thru
the illusion. He tells the truth. What seemed to be unassailable
defenses are easily breached. A vessel breaks, a clot
travels. The man falls dead. "Fool. This nite your soul
shall be required of you." (Lk 12:20) With all his wealth
he could not purchase the next day's sunrise.
The point is not to avoid
making money and investing it. Jesus has other parables which
in fact encourage diligence and a certain prudence. But we must
avoid the trap of "possessions," the illusion that what
I have and use is somehow "mine."
The Catholic Church has grappled
with the paradox for almost two thousand years. The result
is a rich social teaching. The fruit of that tradition is distilled
in the Catechism under the heading of the Seventh Commandment-"You
shall not steal." Yes, we are commanded to respect private
property and not take things that do not pertain to us. At the
same time we teach that all property has a "social destiny."
Instead of saying "I have" (a car, bank account, stocks,
pension plan, etc.) we should say (or at least reflect) that "I
am a steward." That is, I have been entrusted with the use and distribution
of certain goods for a limited time. And that time will soon
I could give you examples
of "rich fools." Howard Hughes, the billionaire who
died such a lonely, miserable death, comes to mind. But this Sunday
I wish to avoid such men. Part of the reason is that none knows
the state of another's soul at the moment of death. We cannot
say Howard Hughes was therefore lost. Nor of course can we say
that someone was saved. Less than a year ago the public wanted
to canonize Princess Diana. Some restraint is advisable.
But the other reason for not
speaking about "rich fools" is more personal. I prefer
to focus on a wise poor man. I say
this not to "canonize" him. In his last will and testament,
Fr. Michael Holland insisted that people not speak about his "few
good deeds" which he considered would be "boring to
all." Fr. Mike knew he would not be saved by works, but
by God's free grace. But I did know him as a man who lived with
an intense awareness of mercy. He saw it expressed in the "preferential
option for the poor," those most dependent.
Fr. Mike requested that he
be buried in a welfare casket. That gesture was consistent with
his whole life. The year that I lived with him at St. Mary's
I saw a man of remarkable simplicity. He drove a used car and
his clothes were well worn. He enjoyed a hearty meal, but at
diners where you could see plenty of burly guys like him. His
vacations in Mexico included visits to the humble homes of his
parishioners' relatives. What money he had he used to help the
needy or further the ministry. On dying he willed the remainder
of his estate to the Hispanic ministry of St. Charles Parish.
At the funeral, Fr. Vince
Pastro told of how the poor touched Fr. Mike. During his year
in Latin America he was celebrating Mass in humble neighborhood.
Before Mass he placed some hosts on an offertory table, then
went to the sacristy to get a cruet of wine. When he returned
a young child was stuffing the hosts in his mouth. At first Fr.
Mike was upset. But when he took the boy aside, he said, "tengo
hambre. I am hungry." Rather than castigate him, Fr. Mike
made sure he got something to eat.
Fr. Mike is a wise,
poor man. He lived with a sense of the Source of who he was and
what he had. On Wednesday we gathered for his funeral Mass and
burial. As his casket was lowered into the earth, Fr. Paul Magnano
said the prayer reminding us that that we have been taken from
dust and must return to it. Each of the hundreds who
gathered around his grave was invited to take a handful of earth
and sprinkle it on his coffin. His brother priests did it first,
then his dad and brother. Small children, a young woman on crutches,
a man with a fine suit all tossed in some soil. Then three strong
Hispanic youths took the shovels and filled in the rest. Rectangles
of sod were brought for the final covering. The choirs sang hymns
reminding us to trust in Jesus and that Mary is our mother.
To some people this seems like an unnecessary ritual. They point to the expense and concern for environment. But the weight of long tradition, the testimony of cultures is on our side. Deep in us is the desire to honor the dead. But even deeper is the need to acknowledge the basic fact of our existence.
Homily about Fr. Holland's death.
From Archives (18th Sunday, Year C):
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C
My bulletin column
St. Mary of the Valley Album
My bulletin column
St. Mary of the Valley Album
Bulletin (St. Mary's Parish)
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World Youth Day 2013
(click on the picture to view 40 slides from our WYD experience)
MBC - Mary Bloom Center, Puno, Peru
(new, professional website)
KRA's & SMART Goals (updated June 2013)
A Homilist's Prayer