September 12, 2021 – Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Readings of the day: Isaiah 50:5-9 / James 2:14-18 / Mark 8:27-35
The following is a homily I will be delivering today at St. Pius X Parish in Indianapolis:
We are all called to holiness. We can all be saints.
I had a very brief career as a basketball player. I played three years of CYO basketball in grade school and two years of intramurals in high school. My basketball talents were, at best, sub-par. I averaged more fouls per game than points. The coach referred to me as a football player running around with a basketball.
Despite my obvious lack of ability, I remember an adult leaning close to me, patting me on the back and saying, “Keep at it. You could be another Dr. J if you work hard and want it bad enough.”
Now, for those of you not as old as me, Julius Erving – known as Dr. J – was arguably one of the top professional basketball players of the 1970’s. I had just fouled out of the game and this well-meaning adult was encouraging me, offering me hope. I was a polite young man, so I smiled and thanked him.
However, this is what was going through my mind: “I am the worst player on my sixth grade CYO basketball team. If I wanted it more than anything else in the world, and if I put my entire mind and heart into it, and if I worked hard on it 24 hours a day every day, I am certain I will never play basketball like Dr. J.”
That’s how most of us probably feel when we hear the Church’s call to universal holiness – when we are told we could be saints. The following comes from the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
“All Christians in any…walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life…All are called to holiness.
The faithful should…wholeheartedly devote themselves to the glory of God and to the service of their neighbor. Holiness will grow in fruitful abundance, as is clearly shown in the lives of so many saints.” (CCC 2013)
Using my basketball analogy, this is like the Church patting us on the back after we’ve repeated the same sin for the hundredth time and saying, “Keep at it. You could be a saint if you work hard and want it bad enough.”
My reaction now is much the same as it was in sixth grade, “How can I be a saint? I’m not even the holiest person in my house – and there’s only two of us!”
Much like the well-meaning adult, the Church is encouraging us, offering us hope.
However, there is a difference. The well-meaning adult offered me an elite basketball all-star as his example. The Church, on the other hand, offers us the example of saints that were very much like ourselves. They were sinners and doubters. They fumbled through the challenges of life, taking two steps forward and one step back. They felt like giving up one day but tried again the next.
That is what Jesus is referring to in the Gospel of Mark when he said, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.”
Our unholiness – our sinfulness and doubt – is our cross to bear. We carry it in pursuit of a life in Christ.
The example offered to us today is Peter. It was Peter that gave the perfect answer to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter responded, “You are the Christ.”
In Matthew’s version of this same gospel story, Jesus went on to say, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church…I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven.”
Peter flexed his holiness and saintliness and Jesus immediately praised his efforts, declared that Peter would be the anchor of his new church and rewarded him with the keys of heaven.
How quickly things turned. Moments later, Peter called Jesus out for saying he must suffer and die, to which Jesus responded, “Get behind me, Satan!”
Once again, two steps forward, one step back. Peter needed to once again pick up his cross and push forward.
Peter was often strong-willed and impetuous and spoke without thinking. He showed signs of holiness one minute, reverted to doubt and sin the next. He was a bull in a china shop – a football player running around with a basketball.
Here is a brief sampling from Peter’s resume, the eventual first Pope of the Church and saint:
*At the Last Supper, Jesus went about the business of washing his disciples’ feet. Peter would not have it. “You’ll never wash my feet,” he told Jesus. Jesus had to calmly explain, once again, that Peter was wrong.
*At the same meal, he declared he would never betray Jesus. Hours later, Peter denied Jesus three times.
*When Jesus was arrested, it was Peter that drew a sword and cut off the Roman soldier’s ear. It was yet another impetuous act Jesus needed to clean up.
*After Jesus had risen from the dead, he appeared to the disciples out at sea. He suggested that they could walk out on the water to meet him. Peter, of course, was the first to give it a shot. He took several confident steps toward Jesus before the weight of his doubt – the weight of his cross – caused him to begin sinking. Jesus immediately reached out his hand and saved him.
That is our Saint Peter. Whenever I am feeling unworthy of my ordination, or lamenting my own sinfulness and weakness, I need only look to who Jesus chose as His greatest apostle.
Today’s gospel message is one of hope. Jesus chose Peter, this broken, sinful, “regular guy” as the rock upon which he built his church. I don’t believe this was done randomly. It was Jesus’ practice to call ordinary people to holiness. In so doing, He sent us an important message: “All are welcome. All are called.”
As members of His apostolic Church, we have an obligation to answer that call.
When the Church pats us on the back and says, “Keep at it. You could be a saint if you work hard and want it bad enough” – we can say, “Maybe it is possible. Maybe I can bear my own cross and give it a try.”
I will end with another message of hope, this one from Pope Francis: “Holiness is a gift from God. Everyone is called to holiness. It is by living with love and offering Christian witness…that we are called to become saints.”
This is the way I look at it. Even though I carry a cross of sinfulness and doubt and tend to take two steps forward and one step back in my pursuit of holiness, I still have a better shot at being a saint than I do playing basketball like Dr. J.
We are all called to holiness. We can all be saints.
If you’d like view the video version of this homily as recorded at last night’s vigil Mass: