He Died in the Trenches

(Homily for Twenty-Third Sunday - Year A)

Bottom line: None of us can retire from the task of being a watchman.

In today's first reading from the prophet Ezekiel, we hear God say, "You, son of man, I have appointed watchman." In the Gospel, Jesus speaks about what we must do if we see a brother falling into sin or error. The role of watchman, the task of fraternal correction is not easy. Before speaking about what it means for us, I would like to tell you about someone who was a great example of a watchman.

He was a quiet, gentle priest named Fr. Achille Ratti and he had spent most of his life as librarian. At the age of 61, Pope Benedict XV asked him to leave his scholarly pursuits and become papal nuncio to Poland. Three years later, Pope Benedict died and the cardinals elected Achille Ratti to succeed him. He took the name of Pope Pius XI and served for seventeen years - from 1922 until 1939. If you recall the history of Europe, you will remember that those were turbulent years. The Communists were consolidating their power in Russia, Mussolini took over Italy and later - inspired by Mussolini's example - Hitler gained control of Germany. While maintaining diplomatic relationships with these dictators, Pope Pius rigorously opposed the errors of their philosophies. In 1931 he wrote the encyclical Non Abbiamo Bisogno which condemned what he called "Statolatry" - the worship of the state. With equal force in 1937 he wrote an encyclical in German Mit brennender Sorge that denounced the Nazi ideology of racism.

A couple of years later Pope Pius XI had suffered two heart attacks and was extremely weak. Knowing that war in Europe was imminent, he decided to gather the Italian bishops for a conference. His doctors told him he was too weak to address them. The pope replied, "If I cannot walk to St. Peter's Basilica, I will have someone carry me. If I cannot be carried, I will have the bishops come to my room. If I cannot speak, I will have them read what I am writing for them." That evening he used every ounce of strength to finish writing his address to the bishops. At 5:30 the next morning, he breathed his last. One of his attendants gave this testimony: "He died in the trenches."*

He died in the trenches - not a comfortable place, but he not run away. He died fighting. He may have preferred doing research in a library, but - in the end - that was not the post God called him to. What an inspiration - especially when the devil tempts us to avoid a disagreeable task. Now, I am not saying that a person cannot retire from a job, but none of us can retire from the task of being a watchman. Before all else, we have to be vigilant for our own souls. And we also have some responsibility for others. We don't have responsibility for the whole world - as the pope does. But we bear a certain responsibility for the salvation of those near us - in our own families, our own circle of friends.

It is not an easy job to correct another person. And - thanks be to God - we are not called to every day. Jesus scarcely desires that we take on a confrontational attitude. The usual thing when someone hurts or offends is to forgive and pray for that person - and try to set a positive example. But sometimes, after much prayer - and consultation with a spiritual director or a counselor - we do need to confront the other person. Jesus tells us how. Don't talk behind his back, but "go and tell him his fault between you and him alone." Often that does the job. If not, it might require an intervention. Bring in a person - or persons - that both of you trust. When I was in Peru, young married couples had "padrinos" - older couples they could call on when they could not resolve a conflict.

If someone will not listen to trusted people, then one has to consider the possibility of separation. That is painful, like amputating an arm, but sometimes necessary.

The final recourse that we have is to deny someone Communion. This means that a person is behaving in such a way that they have become a public scandal. Only a bishop can impose that penalty. It is done with hope that the person will recognize the harm they are doing. The goal (as St. Paul makes clear) is repentance - the salvation of that person's soul.

For you and me the task of being a watchman is not as heavy as it is for a bishop - or for the pope. Still, we have the job of vigilance for our souls - and for those close to us. It is not an easy task, but it is vital - and it lasts as long as we live. How good it would be if they could say of us what they said of Pope Pius XI: He died in the trenches.

**********

*From Mil Anecdotas de Virtudes by Julio Eugui.

General Intercessions for the Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle A (from Priests for Life)

Spanish Version

From Archives (for Twenty-third Ordinary Sunday, Year A):

2014: Finding Your Place Week 5
2011: Dissuade the Wicked
2008: He Died in the Trenches
2005: Love and Do What You Like
2002: Why Did No One Stop Him?
1999: How to Correct Others

Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C

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Our major daily newspaper did four different articles on our new archbishop. In each article they brought up the abuse of minors by priests. They never mention that we have had no new cases since 1988!


(For Bill Donohue's comments on "Snap Exposed" forward to 32:13)

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