Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle B
Notes for a homily at Masses at St. Thomas Aquinas Church and Catholic Student Center, Ames, Iowa, the sister parish of la Parroquia Dulce Nombre de María, Dulce Nombre de Copán, Honduras.
I come to you, with deep gratitude, from your sister parish in Honduras, Dulce Nombre de María – for your generosity, for your prayers, for your concern. Our pastor, Father German Navarro, sends you his prayers and thanks.
Our parish, in the mountains of southwest Honduras, has over fifty towns and villages, most with their own church where Delegates of the Word lead Sunday Celebrations of the Word. Catechists help form the children and prepare them for the sacraments. Twenty-nine Communion ministers bring communion to the sick and communion at Sunday celebrations.
I come back this week to St. Thomas, where I served for almost twenty-three years as a lay campus minister, also involved in the parish social ministry. I have been eleven years in Honduras. Two years ago I was ordained a permanent deacon, the first in our diocese, the third in Honduras. I have been serving in some way with the Dulce Nombre parish for almost all my time in Honduras. Now I live in the parish.
Last Sunday I was among about 100 deacons serving at the Mass of the Canonizations of Monseñor Oscar Romero, Pope Paul VI, and five others. When I got the tickets for my pastor and me, I thought this would just be a chance to be close to the Pope. But it ended up that we deacons served, by carrying the Body and Blood of Christ to the thousand or so priests there. We were there to serve.
It is so easy to want to have the best seats in the house – or the seats of power in the Kingdom, as James and John wanted. But the message of Jesus is that we are to serve as he does: “I came not to be served, but to serve, and to give me life as a ransom for many.”
Saint Clare washing the feet of her nuns
The temptation to power and dominion is strong, even in the church – as we have seen recently. But the commitment to serve is also present. I would say it is especially present among the laity who give themselves in service to their families, to those in need, and to the poor.
I think of Adolfo, one of our extraordinary ministers of communion in our parish. Basically illiterate, he walks at least once a week to several of the villages in his part of the parish, bringing communion, most of all to the sick and homebound.
I think of the people who give a day to help out in the parish coffee fields, which St. Thomas helped buy a few years ago. They come, putting aside their own work or a chance to get paid work, and get nothing but lunch. I also recall the women who come and work in the parish kitchen to prepare meals for our parish formation programs
And then there were the forty-two men and women, including five young people, who gave a whole week in mission last month, visiting homes of the sick and those estranged from the church and society. This is our third year of these week-long missions which have borne fruit, including the number of couples married in the church.
This service is not something that is done out of mere idealism or good will, as important as these may be. We make real formation efforts to help our parishioners recognize their calling to accompany the poor and needy as Christ was made flesh and made himself poor, to accompany the suffering.
And there is suffering.
A medical brigade from St. Louis has been coming to our area and I often help them with translating. This last time, an older woman brought her eleven-year old son with Down’s Syndrome, to get some medical attention. He had never seen a doctor in his life.
A more tragic tale is of a man in his early thirties who committed suicide. He had serious mental health problems and was taking medicine. But the medicine ran out and he could not get it locally. It was only available in the capital, about 6 hours away, for about $200. And he could not get the money, even on loan. As I see it, he did not kill himself; the lack of medical care killed him.
Medical care is hard to come by in our parish and it is expensive to get to the hospital and special clinics in the nearby city of Santa Rosa. At times people pay about seventy dollars for the trip. This is in country where over 65% earn less than two dollars a day. With a generous donation of St. Thomas, our parish purchased a car to make these trips for the cost of fuel and a small stipend for the driver. We are also asking each sector of the parish to set up a process to have funds available when the family cannot afford even this. Carro San Rafael is a blessing that you have given us.
The problems are many – lack of easy access to high school education is one. The donations for scholarships to a weekend program have helped.
The cost of living, especially the cost of basic foods, has risen. Fuel costs for vehicles and propane have also gone up significantly. There is also massive unemployment and those who work on the land do not get a good price for their products. Coffee is getting about75 cents a pound. Buying El Zapote coffee helps 14 families who get more than twice this.
Thus there are many people who get into debt – sometimes for their farming costs. In addition, this year some crops have been affected by near-drought conditions, affecting the lives of farmers.
Our area does not have the violence in the cities and other areas affected by gangs and drug-trafficking, but there have been cases of violence, often related to a cycle of vengeance that is exacerbated by a justice system that doesn’t work.
No wonder people flee, seeking an escape from desperation, from poverty, from violence.
In all this we need to turn to the advice of Pope Francis and to the witness of the saints who call us to accompany the poor and take on their cause as our own. As the recently canonized Oscar Romero of El Salvador said:
“The church, in its zeal to convert to the gospel, is seeing that its place is by the side of the poor, of the outraged, of the rejected, and that in their name it must speak and demand their rights.”
We do this – not just in Honduras, but here in Ames – because we seek to serve as the Lord calls us, even more as the Lord Jesus himself is.
We need to recover in our prayer lives the image of Christ the Servant, for, as the letter to the Hebrews notes, “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, yet without sin.” He sympathizes with our weakness, identifying with those at the margins. Jesus, in his sufferings justified many, calls us to have compassion, to literally suffer with those who suffer.
We need to recover the place of service in our lives as followers of Christ the servant.
As Martin Luther King said, we need to recover a new definition of greatness, not the greatness of power and position that James and John sought.
And so Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness. If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s a new definition of greatness.
…by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.
All of us can be that servant. Your mission field may not be Honduras. But you have a mission here in central Iowa – to serve those you love, to serve even your enemies, and most all of to serve those at the margins. There we can encounter Christ. There we can find true greatness. For there we can serve as the Lord serves.
This may not be easy. It may be costly. It cost Monseñor Romero his life, but as he wrote a month before he was martyred:
My disposition ought to be to give my life for God, whatever might be the end of my life. The circumstances which are unknown will be lived with God’s grace. He attended the martyrs and, if it is necessary, I will feel him very close when I hand over my last breath to him. But more valiant than the moment of death is to hand over to him all one’s life and live for Him.
In your family, in your work, in your play, be a servant.