Image of St. Paul in the Church of St. Francis de Sales, New York
Sermon for Sexagesima Sunday 2016
By Msgr. Ignacio Barreiro
As we prepare for the coming of Lent in this Sunday of Sexagesima we reflect on the life of St. Paul and we ponder on the Parable of the Sower. St. Paul was the most magnificent sower of the word of God and his life gives us a constant example of how to live our lives. In him we have a powerful intercessor in Heaven, as we pray in the collect of this Mass. Today we also recall the life of St. John Bosco and seek his assistance in this particularly troubled times.
In the introit with the anguished words of Psalm 43 we ask for the assistance of the Lord. In this impetratory psalm we express our pain for the apparent delay of the Lord in coming to our assistance. We use the same words that the Church employs in the votive Mass for the Defense of the Church that it is used to seek protection against the enemies of the Church. We know by faith the Lord will never be delayed, that His assistance will come at the best possible time in accordance with His infallible knowledge. But at the same time He is not offended if we plead with Him in urgent tones presenting Him our overwhelming needs, because in doing so we are reaffirming our total dependence on Him.
Saint Paul was born in Tarsus in a Jewish family of some social standing, for that reason they had received the Roman citizenship. Tarsus was located in what it is now the south west of Turkey to the north of Cyprus. He was educated both in the knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures, in the traditions of his nation and in Hellenistic culture. With regards to his humanistic studies probably he had reached what we can call today a college level. Certainly you must remember his marvelous conversion story at the gates of Damascus that we have recently celebrated on January 25th. There you see a man that was bent on the destruction of Christianity becoming in an instant a zealous missionary of Christ.
In today’s epistle the apostle establishes his strong credentials against his critics that try to undermine his ministry. After tracing his Jewish heritage and his relation with Christ, he recounts the many sufferings he endured in his missionary travels. The several times that he was flagellated by the Jews with lashes and other persecutions that he had suffered from his compatriots. We see how the Apostle speaks with pain of this opposition because he is totally committed to bring the Gospel to his nation. He mentions also the sufferings inflicted to him by the gentiles, in particular the times that he has been thrown in prison, the occasions in which he was stoned and all the dangers he endured in his many travels. As this letter was written before his travel to Rome as a prisoner, he is not mentioning the shipwreck that he suffered in Malta after enduring a terrible storm at sea. But what is the cause of heavier concern to him is his anxiety for all the Churches he has established. What troubles him, is his concern if they will remain faithful to the gospel that he has preached, having as he had a firsthand knowledge of the actions of the enemy of mankind, the world and in particular the deleterious actions of false apostles.
St. Paul goes on to recount the visions and revelations that he has received. How he had seen the glory of Heaven. In these visions the apostle received a foretaste of the glory that he was hoping to obtain and with this foretaste he received the graces of fortitude and perseverance that he needed, to endure all the trials that he had to suffer in his apostolate.
The Apostle recounts the experience of suffering a constant thorn in the flesh. Different authors have provided us countless explanations of this experience, from persisting temptations to all sort of sickness. Probably it was a physical malady. He asked to be freed of this suffering but the Lord responded to Him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Grace was given to him to endure these trials and make him rely upon the Lord. His experience shows that God gives to us what we need, that it might be different from what we want and what we petition in our prayers. We have to accept God’s superior wisdom and thank Him for what He gives to us, with full knowledge that what He gives to us it is what we need for our salvation and the salvation of the ones that the He places at our side. The fact is, that when we struggle with physical weakness it easier to become aware that what-so-ever we might achieve is not due to our own merits but it is thanks to the grace of God that operates in us.
In the parable of the sower, Jesus brings to our attention four different responses to the gospel. The seed is Jesus Christ Himself and His preaching. Three scenarios are unfruitful, while the good soil is receptive and produces a great harvest. We have to keep in mind that when the Lord tells to his disciples, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the Kingdom of God,” He is meaning that the fullness of the truth only comes through the Church. The Bible has to be interpreted and mediated through the Holy Spirit that dwells in the Church. Private interpretations could lead into error.
There are persons that regrettably are totally closed to grace; their heart is hard as the ground of a road, so that allows the enemy of man to remove whatever grace we might receive. We should notice that this enemy is able to act only when we allow him through the closing of our souls to the grace of God. Some people are so immersed in a life of sin that they their heart is hard as the surface of a road. St. Bede tells us that that some hearts are so trodden on by the frequent traffic of evil thoughts that cannot take in the seed. Others are superficial, they accept the message with joy but it does not have roots and so at the smallest persecution or opposition that faith disappears. Superficiality and lightness are one of the consequences of a non-thinking mind that it is a very common problem in contemporary society, so we have to educate our children to understand and analyze the realities that surround us. Others allow their concern with worldly matters to dominate their lives so faith takes a back seat and becomes irrelevant. This is one of the consequences of consumer society where man is mainly dominated by the desire of acquiring more material possessions. This is a problem that can be found also in persons that they are driven by ambition of power even if they are indifferent to material possessions or they see material things as mere tools for their ambition. Their misdirected ambitions can choke and deaden their faith. At the same we should always wish and pray that these three categories of persons might become good soil through sincere repentance and penance.
Finally there are the ones that receive the faith and persevere in the midst of the expected and the unforeseen difficulties that they are going to find in their lives. This faith grows in proportion to their commitment to live the message that they have received. In the case of the saints, the faith takes solid roots and dominates the whole life of the person in such way that this faith becomes connatural. It becomes as a second nature in such a way that whatever this good person does, is grounded and directed by the faith he has received. Also we have to become aware that in the measure that a person lives his faith, this living knowledge of the truth becomes stronger and produces more fruit. It is a fruit that will grow and multiply in proportion to the commitment of this person to the faith.
St. John Bosco who was born in 1815 of very poor parents and died in 1888. He dedicated his life to the education of poor children and abandoned teenagers. He founded the Salesian Society and order of active sisters to work in this fundamental apostolate. The Lord gave him the ability to write several important works and gave him some valuable prophetic dreams about the Church in contemporary society. Probably he was one of the most influential saints in the second half of the nineteen century.
Today through the intercession of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Paul and St. John Bosco let us ask the grace to live each day with growing strength the faith we have received in such a way that this faith will bring us to the Kingdom of Heaven.
May the Lord Bless you and Keep you.