Do you want to hear a story? In the early 20th century, a group of Anglican missionaries decided that they would imitate Jonah, and call towns and villages to conversion. They decided to go to rural China to carry out their plan. They went from place to place, standing in the center of gatherings of people. They attracted a lot of attention, because, in rural China in the early twentieth century, these missionaries of the Church of England were clearly rare, foreign, and exotic. Then they would read John 3:16 out loud and ask if anyone wanted to be baptized. They never got any takers. The missionaries would leave, disheartened, wondering why Jonah was able to call the entire city of Nineveh to conversion, and they could not get one single convert.
These well-intentioned missionaries overlooked one factor. The Chinese people they met in China spoke Chinese; the missionaries were announcing the gospel in English. They were announcing something that no one but they themselves could understand, and act upon.
That story got me to thinking about understanding and hearing. I’ve seen parents stand at the edge of a playground that’s occupied by dozens of screaming kids, and they can pick out the voice of their own child and filter out the words and yells of all the other kids. I don’t know how that works.
Not only can parents hear children in a way that I am unable to explain, they can understand what the child says in ways that mystify me. Very experienced parents can remain calm when a child screams—I can’t. I’m the kind of person who thinks that if the baby burps we should call 911. Not so for the experienced parent.
For example, when I’m visiting with my sister and her family, it is inevitable that one of her little girls will be screaming at any given moment. When I hear my little niece Brigid yell, “AAAAAHH!!”, I jump up, ready to respond to a life-and-death crisis. And my sister will say, “It’s ok, she’s just mad because she’s not getting her way.” A few minutes later, and Brigid will yell, “AAAAAHH!!”, and I jump up, ready to respond to a life-and-death crisis. And my sister will say, “It’s ok, she’s just cranky because she’s overtired.” And a few minutes after that, little Brigid will yell, “AAAAAHH!!”, and I, thinking I’ve finally figured out how this game is played, I just sit there. But my sister is on her feet in an instant, running to her daughter while yelling at me, “What’s wrong with you? How can you just sit there? She’s crying because she’s hurt!” But it all sounds the same to me—the cry of anger, the cry of cranky, and the cry of pain are indistinguishable to my less practiced ear. But that shouldn’t be surprising to anyone, because I don’t live with a bunch of crying toddlers, so I’ve never had to master their dialect. I don’t have much need these days to learn what little kids are saying by their screams and cries, so I’m not much use to them when they do scream and cry. I can hear them, but I can’t interpret what they say, because I don’t understand them. And because I can’t understand them, I can’t act on what they say.
Hearing, understanding, acting: These words bring us to the account of the conversion of the city of Nineveh by the preaching of Jonah. Whatever language the people of Nineveh spoke, Jonah spoke it too. They could understand Jonah. But even more importantly, they understood at least something about God. They must have understood something of God’s sovereignty, goodness, justice, and mercy, because when Jonah preached God’s warning, the people repented. Because they could hear and understand rightly, the people of Nineveh could act rightly when God spoke to them through Jonah.
Hearing, understanding, acting: These words also bring us to Jesus’ calling of the fishermen in the gospel of Mark. We would be mistaken if we think that Peter and the others had never heard Jesus before He called them out of their boats. Some of them were disciples of John the Baptist and would have witnessed the baptism of Jesus. They all would have heard Jesus preach in Galilee. And although they did not yet know the full truth about Jesus, they heard something from Him that touched their mind and hearts so deeply, that they understood that they must drop everything when He called them by name. They could understand already that Jesus was sent by God, and they understood, perhaps only dimly then, that Jesus was more than just another prophet. They heard, they understood, and they acted.
All right then—what about us? All this talk about hearing and Nineveh and Galilee and fishermen—what does this have to do with us? Well, now it is our turn. It is our turn to join the ranks of those who hear, or join the ranks of those who do not hear. It is our turn to join those who understand, or join those who do not understand. And perhaps most significantly, it is our turn to join those who act, or join those who do not act. For as Jonah spoke to the people of Nineveh, as Jesus of Nazareth called the apostles, so now Jesus Christ the Risen Lord speaks to us.
Christ Who is the Word of the Father is always speaking to us. Are we alert enough to hear and wise enough to understand? In each sunrise, can we hear Christ say, “Behold! I make all things new!” In the Sacred Scriptures can we hear Christ say, “I am the way, the truth, and the life!” In the Eucharist, can we hear Christ say, “Take and eat.” In our neighbor, can we hear Christ say, “I thirst.” And in the silence of our heart, can we hear Christ say, “Follow me.”
Christ Who is the Word of the Father is always speaking to us. Can we hear Him? If we hear Him, do we understand Him? If we understand Him, will we act on what He says?
And now, I have a confession to make. At first, I was inclined to end my homily right about here. But I’ve decided to push on, because what I’ve said today about the Scriptures, though true, is significantly incomplete. Just as we need to hear and understand the voice of the Lord so that we may act accordingly, so too we must learn to hear and understand the voice of our enemies so that we may act accordingly.
Let’s begin by being candid. We followers of Christ have enemies precisely because we are followers of Christ. We Christians living in the world have two kinds of enemies—hard enemies and soft enemies. Hard enemies are armed warriors who wish to take away your life. Soft enemies are cultural warriors who wish to take away your way of life. Let me first give you an example of hard enemies.
When you see that “Misunderstanders of the Religion of Peace” shout “God is great” while killing Christian children precisely because they are Christian children, then we can see that you have found hard enemies of Christianity—armed warriors who want to take away your life.
But what about the soft enemies of Christianity, the cultural warriors? Consider this. Michael Sam, the first openly homosexual football player drafted into the National Football league recently made headlines—headlines that he sought because he posted photos on the Internet. Earlier this month, he dropped to one knee, and asked his longtime boyfriend to marry him and become his “husband”. Where did this proposal take place? On the balcony surrounding the dome of Saint Peter’s Basilica. These two men danced over the grave of Saint Peter to celebrate their mockery of God’s design for marriage. I can’t help but notice that they decided to announce their sin in Rome and not in Mecca…
These two men, and those like them and those who support them and those who turn a blind eye to them—all these are cultural warriors. Michael Sam and his supposed “husband-to-be” want more than tolerance. They want acceptance and ratification and cooperation. In other words, they want a world wherein faithful Christians are at first pitied and then finally scorned. They want a world wherein the faith revealed by Christ to the Church He founded is seen as embarrassing, even shameful—as if it were somehow “intrinsically disordered.”
Hard enemies want us dead; soft enemies want us gone. I will leave it to you decide which presents the greater danger. But both groups want us to reject Christ. So, let’s be clear: to stand with Christ means that we must stand against those who would separate us from Christ. We are now in a great natural and supernatural conflict. If we ignore the voices of our enemies, if we refuse to hear and understand what they say and do, then we will not be able to act accordingly. And then lives and souls may be lost!
Please be sure—we cannot leave this struggle for another time and place, or shift the burden to some future generation. The time to act is now! Remember these words of Saint Paul we heard this morning: “I tell you, brothers and sisters, the time is running out… For the world in its present form is passing away.”
My friends, we have no choice but to resist the enemies of Christ, because it is the very nature of the followers of Christ to stand for their Crucified and Risen King. We are called to a conflict that is at once constant, universal, and inevitable. Consider these words of the Catholic statesman Juan Donoso Cortes, written in the mid-nineteenth century:
“There is no man, let him be aware of it or not, who is not a combatant in this hot contest; no one who does not take an active part in the responsibility of the defeat or victory… Every word that is pronounced, is either inspired by God or by the world, and necessarily proclaims, implicitly or explicitly, but always clearly, the glory of the one or the triumph of the other…. In this warfare all…born of woman are soldiers… And don’t tell me you don’t wish to fight; for the moment you tell me that, you are already fighting; nor that you don’t know which side to join, for while you are saying that, you have already joined a side; nor that you wish to remain neutral; for while you are thinking to be so, you are so no longer; nor that you want to be indifferent; for I will laugh at you, because on pronouncing that word you have chosen your party. Don’t tire yourself in seeking a place of security against the chances of war, for you tire yourself in vain; that war is extended as far as space, and prolonged through all time. In eternity alone, the country of the just, can you find rest, because there alone there is no combat. But do not imagine, however, that the gates of eternity shall be opened for you, unless you first show the wounds you bear; those gates are only opened for those who gloriously fought here the battles of the Lord, and were, like the Lord, crucified.”
So says Juan Donoso Cortes. His meaning is as old as the gospel and as new as the dawn, and it is this—only those who bear the Cross can wear the crown. The enemies of the disciples of Christ change from time and time and place to place, but everywhere and in every age Christ and the Church He founded are assaulted by the world, the flesh and the devil. In God’s Providence, here and now it is our turn to become like Christ while striving to restore the reign of the Living God over all creation.
We dare not shirk and we cannot flee. But we may have hope—for Christ calls us and blesses us; the Church equips us and sends us; the world needs us and awaits us.
And in this struggle we cannot have enough allies. That is why I now wish to make a special request of our university students. I ask them to invite their non-Catholic friends to Mass here, and, ultimately, to invite them for life within the Catholic Church.
So, now what? What shall we do? Today, and for each day this week, I ask that you will pray for three graces, for three special blessings. First, pray for alertness, that you might hear Christ when He speaks to you, even as the voice of His enemies shout against you. Second, pray for wisdom, that you might understand Christ when speaks to you, even as you discern the work of His enemies. Third, pray for obedience, that you might act when Christ speaks to you, as you oppose all who oppose Him. If we do that, if we pray and live to hear, understand and act, then we will be telling the truth when we join the psalmist and pray: “Teach me your ways, O Lord.”
Ave Maria’ University’s Father Robert McTeigue, S.J., preached this homily during Mass on the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time. Father McTeigue is currently finishing a collection of homilies and essays on preaching entitled, I Have Someone to Tell You: A Jesuit Heralds the Gospel. He recently began writing a weekly column. Father McTeigue earnestly seeks your prayers that his life and work be to God’s greater glory.