October 17, 2021 – Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time
The following is a homily I delivered back in 2018, based on the same reading from Hebrews that we have today – Hebrews 4:14-16
When I need advice or help with a particular problem, I tend to go to someone with expertise in that area – someone who has experienced the same situation. Whether they succeeded or failed, at least they have been through it and can share their experience.
It’s why I used to call my dad when I had car trouble. It’s why our kids came to us when it was time to potty-train their own kids. It’s why our parish has married couples facilitate marriage preparation for engaged couples – to share with them the highs and lows of marriage, along with the pitfalls to avoid.
We also want to be sure our source has real-life expertise. For instance, I want to learn to drive a car from someone who has driven before, not someone who has only read about driving. When I hire someone, I don’t depend on a paper resume alone; I make some phone calls to people that have worked with the applicant to get real-life input.
This desire for practical expertise comes to mind for two reasons – the recent canonization of seven individuals to sainthood and today’s reading from the Letter to the Hebrews.
I was inspired by the canonizations. They were signs of hope and encouragement in an age when both are lacking. These men and women, now saints, were ordinary people that accomplished extraordinary things. These ordinary people were sinners like us that stumbled and fell while on their journey, eventually finding solid footing and continuing their pursuit of goodness, truth, beauty, justice, and love.
My wife, Carol, attended the canonizations. The priest that traveled with the group emphasized that they were there as pilgrims, not tourists. This concept resonated with me. Tourists are looking around, taking in the sights. But pilgrims are searching, in this case searching for the path that would lead them closer to Jesus.
I believe many of us are tourists. We like the sights and sounds of our faith and want to take them all in. However, when it comes to the searching – digging deeper for meaning and understanding or grabbing hold of opportunities to grow closer to Jesus – we are hesitant.
Perhaps it is doubt that is holding us back. We don’t feel worthy; we’re not holy enough. Why bother searching for something that is out of our reach? I recently read Matthew Kelly’s new book titled, The Biggest Lie in the History of Christianity. Spoiler alert: Kelly states that the biggest lie is that we, the ordinary believer, cannot achieve holiness.
Which brings me back to the seven individuals that were canonized as saints last Sunday, and the hope and encouragement I mentioned. They are real life proof that holiness is possible. They have practical experience from which we can learn.
As a child, the man who would eventually become Saint Pope Paul VI, was sickly and would often not be able to go to school due to bouts of illness. Before pursuing priesthood, he was a lawyer and dabbled in journalism. He was an ordinary man, a tourist, experiencing life. He was not born holier than us; he eventually sought holiness by becoming a pilgrim.
The man canonized as Saint Oscar Romero was born into a family of ten in El Salvador. Their home had no electricity or running water. He only went to traditional school until the age of twelve. He worked as an apprentice carpenter and helped his dad as a postal carrier until entering seminary. While in seminary, he needed to leave for an extended time to support the family when his mother became ill. Oscar Romero experienced life – real life challenges and sorrows. He was not born a saint; he became a saint. He was assassinated as he celebrated Mass. That doesn’t happen to tourists.
Saint Sr. Nazaria Mesa was born in Madrid, Spain, one of eighteen children. Growing up, her family was indifferent and sometimes even hostile to her desire to enter religious life. However, she was a pilgrim and later led several family members back to the Church.
New saint Maria Kasper attended very little school because of poor health. Despite this, she began to help the poor, the abandoned, and the sick at a young age. After her father died when she was 21, she worked the land as a farm hand for about 10 cents a day. Her helpfulness toward others attracted other women to her, and she felt a call to the religious life. Later, she and four other women officially took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience and formed the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ. Maria was ordinary. Saint Maria was extraordinary.
The other three new saints have very similar stories. Despite hardships and challenges, these seven new saints made the decision to be pilgrims. Being a tourist was not enough for them. They were seekers. As pilgrims, they lived the message of the gospel: Seek and you will find.
We are all called to sainthood, to transition from tourist to pilgrim. Holiness is possible.
In our second reading from the Letter to the Hebrews we heard, For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way…So let us confidently approach the throne…to find grace.
This passage reminds us that we can confidently turn to Jesus. He had real-life experience. He understands what we are going through and can help us. He was fully human and experienced all of the temptation and evil that the world threw at Him – just like us. His humanity shows us that it is possible to live a holy life. It is not without its challenges; in fact, it is extremely difficult – but it is possible.
Just as we turn to a mechanic for help with our car, we look to the saints and turn to Christ for their expertise — for real-life examples of holiness, and the realization that holiness is possible.
Being a tourist has its advantages. It is much simpler. We can pick and choose what we see and do. We look around and take in the sights and sounds of the world. However, when it comes to our faith, we are called to be pilgrims. Admittedly, it is more challenging. We must have purpose and be willing to do the work – to search for understanding and meaning.
Tourists appreciate the beauty of the Church. Pilgrims are the beauty of the Church.
The path of the tourist leads us back home. The path of the pilgrim leads us to holiness.