Do you think you can become a Saint?  When we think of a Saint, for the most part, we have these extraordinary biographies, statued or stained glass images that come to mind that they can seem hard for us to relate to and so far away from our own experiences.  It’s one reason that I think Mother Teresa of Calcutta still captures our attention as much as she does.  It’s hard to believe that this past Monday, it was 25 years ago that she died.  It seems so much more recent.   Maybe because we were able to get so many glimpses of her extraordinary life in real time where she served the poorest of the poor, the sick and dying who were abandoned – where we heard her speak and the light and love of Christ radiated in all that she said and did – even in our somewhat jaded and at times very cynical modern era – her example humbled and inspired people around the globe.  Such that she was beatified only 6 years after her death in 2003 and canonized as a Saint by Pope Francis in 2016.  She’s one of the few that so many of us got to see her holiness while she was living and so were blessed to be alive ourselves as she was officially canonized.

Thanks so much for stopping by to read my homily for the 24th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – September 11, 2022, for sharing it on your social media posts and your feedback and comments…  I’m also grateful for all those who’ve asked for the audio version and share them as well at SOUNDCLOUD click HERE or from ITUNES as a podcast HERE.  May the Lord be glorified in your reading and sharing Sincerely in Christ – Father Jim

It was probably 1996 when I actually got to meet this future Saint.  I was a seminarian at the time and my pastor, Fr. Eugene Marcone, from St. Agnes in Clark, NJ at the end of the Sunday Masses had said to me “do you have any plans this afternoon?”  I said that I hadn’t and he told me to come back later that day, that he had been invited to something very special that I wouldn’t want to miss.  I went back that afternoon having no idea what was going on.  As we started driving he explained that every other week, he had been teaching the religious sisters of Mother Teresa’s community a class in Church history at their convent in North Plainfield, NJ.  Mother Teresa had come to visit the sisters this day and the sisters were inviting some of their close friends, including Fr. Marcone to meet her.

Not going to lie, I was starting to freak out a bit. What do you say to a living saint? The physically dead saints – who are alive in heaven and in God’s presence – are a lot easier to talk to when we ask them to pray for us and our various needs.  But a living saint – could she see my soul and if she could, yeah that was a little scary to think about…  We got to the convent and were led into the chapel where they were having adoration of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament – a time of silent prayer.  As I walked in, the chapel, there she was, in the back of the chapel, in a wheelchair, sitting quietly in prayer.  I had to take a seat a few rows in front of her, and have to admit I wasn’t as attentive to the Lord as I was trying not to look back at this frail, little woman who despite her stature and declining health still radiated in a way that only faith in the risen Jesus Christ can explain.

When the Holy Hour concluded, we were all led to this outside room, where Mother Teresa was going to greet the visitors who had been invited.  Father Marcone walked in front, and spoke with her for a few moments, and then turned to introduce me… Mother Teresa – this is Jim Chern, he is a seminarian studying for the priesthood from our parish.   I couldn’t believe I was meeting her, she had this amazing smile, grabbed my hand with both of her hands and we had an encounter I will never forget:

She said “You’re studying to be a priest…”  “Yes Mother…” “Where?” “Here in New Jersey – at Immaculate Conception Seminary.  I’m studying for the Archdiocese of Newark.”  Then came the part that I’ve replayed in my mind a million times and still am kind of horrified and embarrassed about – Mother Teresa said “You must come to Calcutta” without even the slightest pause or hesitation I said: “You must talk to my Archbishop.” I instantly and immediately shot down a living Saint.

At which point she laughed… I didn’t mean to instantly and immediately shoot down this Saint’s suggestion.  Although Fr Marcone and countless others have basically argued that’s what I did and have often followed it with questions like  “Why do you hate Mother Teresa?” “Why do you hate the poor?”  Neither of which is remotely true.   I’m still shocked that despite all my nerves, my admiration for this woman – at a moment like that I could have been such a Jersey-Italian-guy response – you know, not diplomatic, frank…   I remember one friend ribbing me saying “You said no to a Saint? Good luck with that!”

So back to my initial question again – “Do you think you can become a Saint.”  Despite my embarrassing encounter with the only canonized Saint I’ve ever met (so far) – I know that hasn’t disqualified me.  I do think I can become a Saint.  Because not only is that potential real for all of us.  That is God’s greatest desire.  The deepest desire in the heart of our Heavenly Father is for you, me, and each and every one of us to be with Him forever.  At the most basic of levels, what makes a saint a saint is that they are in God’s presence forever in His heavenly Kingdom.  And that’s what these readings we just heard are all about.

It might not have sounded like that in the first reading where God is talking to Moses.  It sounds actually quite the opposite – like God’s done with the people as He says to Moses “let me alone then, that my wrath may blaze up against them to consume them.”  What happened here is that God had just saved his people from the Egyptians and their cruel slavery – culminating in parting the red sea.  God had shown them in those mighty acts and deeds how much He loved them and cared for them.  He entered into a covenant where the people and God had made promises binding them together for all eternity to the point of demanding that they would be wiped out of existence should they break this covenant.  Think about that, God agreed to those terms Himself.  He who had nothing to gain and everything to lose saw humanity as that worthy, that lovable, that desirous that He puts Himself on the line in such a dramatic way. But the people also agreed to that promise.  And a grand total of 40 days later they break that covenant.  They create these golden calves, symbols of the false pagan gods that their cruel Egyptian slave masters had followed, and start to worship them.  It’s understandable that God would want to wipe them out.  And there’s a part of Moses that at different parts of scripture we find would definitely agree.

But in this passage, we hear him imploring God on their behalf.  Not because the people deserve another second chance, but because Moses has been changed.  He’s seen and known and experienced God’s love.  It’s changed and transformed him into this beloved servant of the Lord.  What makes him a true, beloved servant of the Lord is that Moses cares for God’s people.  So the reality is while on the surface it sounds like Moses is pleading with God to change God’s mind, it is actually the opposite of what has happened.  Moses’ heart has been transformed by the love of God.  Moses is sacrificing even though he’s done nothing wrong, interceding on behalf of people who don’t by any measure deserve it because he has seen God face to face.  Moses knows this incredibly merciful, lavishly generous, love of the Lord and desperately wants the people to come to know and love God as he does.  Which gives us this Christ-like image of a thousand years before Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.

Fast forward to Jesus – the second person of the Trinity of one God in three persons – His whole reason for coming is to fulfill what Moses was beginning to do.  And in Him, we have God Himself revealing the depths of how God sees us.

Jesus makes it clear:  You are seen.  You are known. You are cared for. You are worthy of love. That’s what’s so moving about this Gospel passage. You get the sense that Jesus is almost frustrated trying to explain how it is that our Triune God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit who created everything, has everything – looks at each and every one of us. Jesus uses these metaphors where he’s trying to explain it to us – say there are 100 sheep and one gets lost that the shepherd is so anxious, so worried that he leaves the 99 in search of the one … Or say there are 10 coins and a woman loses one, she’s so mindful of that one that she turns her house upside down to find it. Jesus is so excited saying ‘You’re that sheep… You’re that coin…’ – you’re that important, you’re that much on God’s heart and mind he doesn’t stop searching.

But it’s like Jesus is thinking to himself “that doesn’t quite capture it…” Sheep aren’t rational logical beings; coins are inanimate objects – they can’t be blamed for becoming lost. So he goes a step further – even if we are ungrateful, inconsiderate, self-centered… even when we take advantage of God’s goodness, His generosity, His mercy.  When it would be understandable to think that’s it – we’ve exhausted His patience – we’ve tapped out our favors – it’s completely our fault that we’re lost… we’ve maxed out on excuses and opportunities.  Jesus responds to those negative thoughts with the misnamed story “the prodigal son” when in fact it’s “the loving father.   The Loving Father doesn’t ever believe we’re done.  The Loving Father knows how we’ve screwed up – maybe many, many times – to the point of complete embarrassment and shame.  The Loving Father sees that heaviness in our hearts – the negativity that we beat ourselves up with. And The Loving Father is anxiously waiting for us to make that turn towards Him. That even when we feel that we’re “a long way off” as soon as the Father catches sight of our returning to Him – He is filled with compassion and He can’t wait, He runs towards us… He so knows us, we can’t even finish our words of apology He’s already excitedly forgiven us and embraced us.

Jesus’ original listeners included people who did not think this was possible. They too were conditioned into negativity in the world and their own worlds.  What prompted all this is the Pharisees complaining that Jesus welcomes and eats with sinners. They don’t even refer to Him by name, calling Jesus “this man.”  Which is what makes them the older brother in the story.  The older brother can’t even call the prodigal his brother, or even refer to his dad as a father, instead saying “I’ve served you all these years.”  He’s reduced his relationship to being a slave, not a son.  Which is what Jesus sees and hears in the hearts of these critics.  In their criticism – in their objections, as they zero in on their negative judgments of others, they’ve allowed the love of God to be eclipsed in their own lives and they don’t even see it as they do surface-level acts of faith. They deny that they, too, are sinners and need God’s Mercy.  And so their experience of true love – how transformative it is in their lives is also eclipsed. They will refuse to receive this good news…  Yet what does the Father do in the story – he pleads with the son to see he’s a son… which is so much more than what he’s reduced himself to be… That’s Jesus pleading with some of the ones who will conspire to kill him, that even in that most brutal and heinous of acts, He still wants them.  Jesus’ resurrection vindicates for all eternity that the love of God is more powerful than the darkest, evil designs that any soul or demon can design.  And He wants us to know that and want that to change our lives and visions.  To like the younger son to repent and come home.  To not be arrogant and foolish like the older son and remain on a surface level of faith.

Do you think you can become a Saint?

The real question is do you want to become a Saint?  Do we want to?  We’re not being called to be another Mother Teresa.  There was only one.  And in the masterpiece of God’s great design of creation, He only needed one of her.  But what the Gospel is trying to get us to see is that He sees us as just as important, just as worthy, just as loved.

And as we come together at this Mass, that has to sink into the deepest core of ourselves. He has been actively searching for you like that shepherd for that one sheep…. He hasn’t stopped trying to find you, like that woman turning her house upside down for that one coin…. He hasn’t stopped looking for you, longing for you, anxiously waiting for you to return as the Father embraces that wayward son.  May we allow that truth to embrace us.  May that transformative love, change us. May we receive Jesus and become Him to a world in desperate need of Him.