Fan into Flame the Gifts of God

Early this morning — in October, it is still dark when I leave the house just after 6am — I drove 30 miles south to Sharon, MA, for the 730am Mass at Our Lady of Sorrows, where I am in my 26th year of weekend ministry.

GabrielIn welcoming the 40 or so hardy souls who came out for Mass so early, I reminded them that on October 2 we are in a week particularly rich in saints:

  • September 29 – the archangels, Michael, Raphael, Gabriel (with no mention of Lucifer, the fourth)
  • September 30 – the grumpy and brilliant translator of the Bible into Latin, Jerome
  • October 1 – the great but underestimated (sweetened to death) Thérèse of Lisieux, the “Little Flower”
  • October 2 – had it not been a Sunday, the Guardian Angels
  • October 2 – Mahatma Gandhi's birthday (1869)
  • October 4 – Francis of Assisi

Quite a crowd, including angels great and small and, as I said to the gathered parishioners, including Gandhi, who happened to be a Hindu and a saint at the same time: holy men and women, every day.

ThereseWe also prayed for our Jewish neighbors in their holy days, as Yom Kippur approaches early in the week. I was mindful too that Navaratri, the great Hindu autumnal festival of nine nights, is still under way, to climax in the Goddess’s defeat of the buffalo demon.

But I did not preach on any of that, instead I contrasted the opening of the Gospel passage of the day (from Luke 17),

"The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. (5-6)

with the exhortation of St. Paul (if we can name thus the author of 2 Timothy) to Timothy.

Paul reminds Timothy that he knew Timothy’s grandmother Lois and mother Eunice, and begs Timothy to be like them in continuing the mission. Paul, in prison, in his 60s, knows that the time has come to pass along the faith, the mission, and let a new generation do the needful. Keep the faith, cherish what you have received:

"What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus. Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you—guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us. (13-14)

NataratriBring it to life again, stir up the flames:

"For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands. (6)

Do not be embarrassed, says Paul, that I have kept getting myself into trouble, refusing to play it safe. I really have made a fool of myself, and now death is upon me. You too: dare to be different, at risk, a troublemaker:

"For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline. So do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner. Rather, join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God. (7-8)

It happens that the parish’s Religious Education program began again today after a summer recess. I praised the program and its many generous teachers. But I added that the program, good as it is, will work only if we are all passing on the faith as we have received it.

I urged the congregation, mostly older (though there were two families with children present), to dare similar intergenerational conversations, in which we older people realize that our time is nearly up, and that the future of the Church is with young people who cherish what they have received, and in their own ways bring it back to life, the ashed-over dormant coals bursting again into flame. Let go, entrust the mission to the young — even while reminding them of their heritage, holy men and women of old and in their own families, and of the work that lies ahead.

Mustard SeedIt helps to be able to say all this not in abstract, or on the sidelines of a secular culture, but bolstered by the blessings of the calendar: angels and archangels, holy women and men from Jerome to Francis to Thérèse. We tend to live by a secular calendar that is everybody’s and nobody’s, but we need to push back and fill the days of the week and month with remembrances of the holy women and men who have preceded us. We are not alone, but have received the gifts of the many generations that have gone before us.

In 2022, passing along the faith also means being alert to what our religious neighbors are doing, right now observing Yom Kippur and celebrating Navaratri. Those of us who are Christian need to go deep into our traditions, with imagination bring them to life again now — without indulging in tunnel vision. We cannot and should try to do everything on our own, as if our own faith and love and courage subsist in a Catholic, Christian vacuum.

You and I cannot do much, it is true, and the world’s needs are great: but if we do fan into flame our living faith, mindful and unafraid in a living world of many faiths, then — to change the metaphor — just one small mustard seed will be enough. Or: just one congregation of Catholics at a 730am Mass can ignite change in American Catholicism.

(This reflection is third in a new monthy series, posted usually around the first of the month. See my website for many previous posts.)