Taking a Decisive Step

(Baptism of the Lord, January 10, 1999)

One of the great priests of this century was a young Jesuit named Miguel Pro. He had not been ordained a year when the Mexican government instituted a persecution against the Catholic Faith. Churches were closed, public worship was banned. Many priests were arrested, others fled the country. But Padre Pro stayed and set up dozens of underground "Eucharistic Stations." Wearing disguises such as street cleaner, mechanic or even policeman, he would daily go out to distribute Holy Communion. Because the faith of Mexican Catholics was so strong, no one betrayed him to the police. On his bicycle he travelled throughout Mexico City baptizing, hearing confessions and adminstering the last rites to the dying. Padre Pro served thousands in the underground Church for more than a year.

On November 17, 1927, Padre Pro was arrested. Four days later on November 23 at 10 a.m. he was led to a courtyard before a firing squad. The anti-clerical President of Mexico, Plutarco Calles, invited government officials and members of the press to witness the execution. Padre Pro asked for time to pray and his request was granted. He fell on his knees clutching a crucifix in his hands. When he rose, he kissed the crucifix, then stretched out his hands, faced the firing squad* and shouted, "Viva Cristo Rey!" (Long live Christ the King).

I tell you about Padre Pro because he illustrates certain aspects of Jesus' life--particularly something we see this Sunday. Padre Pro was a man who took a decisive step and followed it thru to its ultimate consequences. This is what Jesus did when he left his home in Nazareth and accepted the baptism of John.

It is hard for us to understand what a dramatic step Jesus' baptism actually was. But it set him on a course which would bring him into conflict with the Jewish and Roman authorities and lead finally his arrest, trial and execution. In today's second reading we hear Peter underscore that decisiveness. He summarizes Jesus' ministry, starting from his baptism in the Jordan, then the exorcisms and healings, finally his death and Resurrection. But the beginning point, the crucial moment is his baptism.

Even tho Jesus did not require forgiveness for any sins, he accepted baptism. He was baptized not for himself, but for us, to give us an example. As the Catechism teaches, baptism is not just a beautiful ritual or a social event. Baptism is necessary for salvation.** Jesus' own example shows just how crucial the sacrament is.

At his baptism Jesus was anointed by the power of the Holy Spirit. We are going to see this lived out in our parish in a few months. About forty young people are looking forward to receiving that power of the Holy Spirit. On April 10, Archbishop Brunett will come to Holy Family to administer the sacrament of confirmation. That sacrament completes baptism. As each candidate comes forward, the archbishop will dip his thumb in sacred crism and anoint them on the forehead, saying, "Be sealed with the Gift of the Spirit."

There is something about this anointing. A priest who has worked for years in the marriage tribunal told me how often he sees cases where one or both was not confirmed. On the other hand the marriages which have the best chance of succeeding are those where both have received Confirmation. Because of that, Canon Law strongly urges couples to both be confirmed before entering into marriage.***

Confirmation strengthens a person not just for marriage, but for other tasks in life. It is a requirement for ordination to the priesthood or to enter into religious life. To return to my earlier example, you have to ask where a man like Padre Pro received his amazing courage. It obviously came not from human strength, but from God's grace.

Brother and sisters, we need the sacraments--especially baptism and confirmation which are the foundation of Christian life. They can be received only once--that is why we say the confer a "character" which lasts throughout eternity. That idea of a sacramental character has an interesting history. Back in St. Augustine's time, Roman soldiers received a tatoo on their body. It was permanent. Even if he deserted, he could not remove the tatoo. It stayed with him forever. St. Augustine said it is the same with our baptism and confirmation. They mark us in this life and for eternity--no matter what. To be baptized, to be confirmed is a serious step. It was for Jesus and it is for us.

For those of us who have been baptized and confirmed, the challenge is renewal. Or maybe even, for the first time, opening ourselves to their power. Otherwise it would be like getting a wonderful present and not even opening it. Suppose someone here received a Christmas package and hasn't yet unwrapped it. Would we not say to him, "Come on, it's already January 10. What's holding you back?"

This Sunday we hear about Jesus taking a dramatic step, one which lead ultimately to his arrest, trial and execution. If he was baptized for us, we need to take another look at our own baptism. Now is the time to open ourselves to its power--and that of our confirmation. The noble testimony of Padre Pro can become our own. Viva Cristo Rey! Long live Christ the King!

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*When the bullet of the firing squad did not take his life immediately, a military officer walked over to Padre Pro and fired his revolver into his head. More than 15,000 attended his funeral procession. A few weeks before his execution, Padre Pro had confided to a friend, "If I am ever caught, be prepared to ask me for things when I am in heaven." He has become a patron for the practice of faith despite trial, misfortune or persecution. He is patron of baptismal faithfulness. On September 25, 1989, Pope John Paul II beatified Padre Miguel Pro. (More information about Padre Pro as well as links to Padre Pro websites.)

**1257 The Lord himself affirms that Baptism is necessary for salvation.[59] He also commands his disciples to proclaim the Gospel to all nations and to baptize them.[60] Baptism is necessary for salvation for those to whom the Gospel has been proclaimed and who have had the possibility of asking for this sacrament.[61] The Church does not know of any means other than Baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude; this is why she takes care not to neglect the mission she has received from the Lord to see that all who can be baptized are "reborn of water and the Spirit." God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments. (See Catechism for full context.)

***Can. 1065 1 Catholics who have not yet received the sacrament of confirmation are to receive it before being admitted to marriage, if this can be done without grave inconvenience. (See Code of Canon Law for full context.)

Other Homilies

Note: From January 11-28 I will be visiting the Philippines and Vietnam with a group of priests and bishops. I will not be posting any homily the next two or three Sundays.