When I was in the seminary, studying for the priesthood, one of the unique things that I experienced, not having attended Catholic School growing up, was learning about many Saints.  There were holy men and women whose names maybe I had heard or seen on a building but knew little else about them.  And then there were others whose names and stories were even more foreign and unique to me.  Two who came to mind and were nudging me all week were St. Maximilian Kolbe, and the other was Bl. Solanus Casey.  Just the names are cool, aren’t they?  A former missionary I had worked with introduced me to his son, whom they named Maximilian.  The little guy couldn’t have been 4 years old – and for the most part, they called him Max.  Still, because the Mom and Dad were introducing me to him for the first time, they wanted to highlight how they named him after Maximilian Kolbe and the little guy – it was like someone called out the Hulk or something.  He stood up straighter and was trying to flex or something.  He knew something important about this man whom he had been named after; he was brave and courageous, which is undoubtedly the case.  Maximilian Kolbe is most remembered as having been arrested by the Nazi regime after the authorities had ordered the shutdown of the monastery where he was a priest in February 1941.  A few months later, when a prisoner escaped from the camp, one of the commanders of Auschwitz ordered ten men to be starved to death in an underground bunker to deter further escape attempts when one of the selected men cried out, “My wife!  My children!” Kolbe volunteered to take his place.  Which the guards allowed, which resulted in Kolbe’s death.  The man who was spared eventually would be in St. Peter’s Square in Rome twice – first when Maximilian was beatified and then some years later when he was canonized as a Saint.

Thanks so much for stopping by to read this homily for the FIFTH SUNDAY OF EASTER – April 28, 2024.  I appreciate your sharing this 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- Father Jim

Solanus Casey’s story is entirely different.  He was a humble Franciscan friar known for his holiness throughout his life and ministry, with a saying that became the title of his biography, his expression: “Thank God ahead of time.” Which captured his spirituality so beautifully; where he would encourage people when they prayed for particular intentions that they had to have a sense of complete surrender and trust to God – knowing that God listened, that God heard their prayers, that God is love, and answers and so whatever the situation, predicament, they were to bare their hearts and souls as deeply and profoundly as they needed to but had to conclude with a heartfelt “thanking of God.” It wasn’t based on the results of them getting what they wanted or expected from their prayers but simply for knowing God has heard and answered their prayers.

Understandably, we’re drawn to the “highlights” of their stories.  We need heroes in the faith to look up to who inspire us to be selfless and courageous like Maximilian Kolbe or invite us into that type of faith in God’s attention to our prayers and radical trust in God’s providence like Solanus Casey.  But both of these men had stories that preceded those highlights.

Maximilian Kolbe’s life as a Franciscan Friar and priest is almost forgotten in light of that final act of sacrifice.  But here’s a guy who entered the Franciscans at age 13 – by age 19, had earned a doctorate degree in Philosophy and 4 years later another doctorate degree in Theology.  He founded worldwide evangelization movements that are still active to this day, created a publishing house, founded monasteries, and did mission work in Asia.  All of this before his death at the hands of the Nazi Regime when he was in his 40s.  Just reading what he did, it sounds like he lived 4 lifetimes.

Solanus Casey was the complete opposite.  A simple man who was a lumberjack from Wisconsin – who felt the call to the priesthood, but because of his difficulty with studies and then with learning Latin or German, the only languages that classes in the local seminaries were taught in, he was directed to enter the Franciscans, which they thought would be a bit easier for him to navigate academically.  In his diary, he’s kind of honest that he didn’t really want to do it.  He wanted to be a diocesan priest or possibly a Jesuit.  Still, he was told the only place he could probably hope to get ordained was with the Franciscans, so he felt that the call to priesthood was so important that he would go even with this group he didn’t personally want to.  And then, because he continued to struggle so much with school, they limited what he could do when he finally was called to be ordained a priest.  He could celebrate Mass but not preach or absolve people’s sins in confession.  So, he ended up literally as the doorman for the monastery he was at.  His assignment was as the “porter” for the religious community.

Both of these men, as incredibly different as their life stories, had one major thing in common.  They demonstrate the truth of this Gospel – as they “remain”-ed in Jesus Christ, they experience how Jesus “remain”-ed in them.    This passage we just heard comes from the Last Supper,  so even though we’re in the Easter Season, the Gospel brings us back to the night before Jesus’ passion and death.  We hear a portion of Jesus’ lengthy final discourse to His followers, and in this part, he starts talking about vines and branches and bearing fruit.  There’s something foreign about the imagery to our ears.  Not simply because a majority of us have no experience with farming.   But so many of the lessons that a farmer experiences in the not-so-distant past were still taught in many different areas and ways that are being lost and forgotten now.   Because we’re living in a world where the immediacy of wants and needs being answered is at a premium – the patience of planting, nurturing, and letting something grow is forgotten.  Because we have allowed technology to grow more and more unchecked, running (possibly ruining the world) and allowing it to do more and more tasks, now with Artificial Intelligence (AI), we’re even letting it communicate, think, and create for us – the insights, maturity, and trust that came from our doing those things are being lost.

St. Maximilian Kolbe and Solanus Casey are two examples from the last century who joined the long line of men and women who knew the most important thing in life is Jesus Christ.  He was first and foremost for everything about their lives.  I often found myself trying to imagine being in their places, and it’s hard to imagine.  To be as detached from all the amazing things that Maximilian started and kept letting go of because his superiors were asking him to do something else.  I could imagine arguing.  I just started; it’s just starting to take off; I want to see this through; can’t someone else do this other thing I was being asked to do?  To be as humble as Solanus – I know I’m not that humble…  I know I would’ve been angry or hurt being told I wasn’t smart enough or that, yes, I could be ordained but couldn’t do what most priests do.  I can imagine falling into sins of envy and jealousy, uncharitably criticizing others who could preach and hear confessions.

But both these men show the amazing beauty and how glorified God is through us when we remain connected to Jesus and allow the Father to take over the control we think we want.  Of the tragic multitudes of people who died at the hands of that evilest of regimes, the hundreds and thousands of names of individuals who caused that to happen – St. Maximilian Kolbe is this unexpected light of faith, hope, and love that not only ministered to people in that darkest of hours but is a lasting sign that reminds us of God’s mysterious but true presence even in the most darkest of places.  Reminding us that whatever dark night we experience, that is true for us, too, as long as we remain connected to Jesus.  Blessed (and hopefully soon-to-be Saint) Solanus Casey showed us that it wasn’t about something he did but who he followed that mattered.  He might not have ever preached a homily from the pulpit or absolved sins in the confessional – but reading his biography, you hear how throngs of people from all around the country were drawn to this man.  People would all come to speak to the “doorman,” and the conversions, the healings, some incredibly miraculous – some ordinary but just as impactful and important – as much as they tried to keep records, they couldn’t keep up with the number of legitimate miracles that resulted after Solanus told them he would pray for them and on their part, people needed to “Thank God ahead of time.”

“Remain in me… as I remain in you”

Both of these holy men are inviting us to increase Jesus’ importance in our lives.  Asking ourselves how rooted and connected are we to Him?  And how is that realized in our lives?  One commentator pointed out that the word “remain” that our translation has chosen kind of has a negative connotation to it like “don’t go away” – when the original words Jesus spoke and St John used were closer to “live” as in “you live in a home” – so this commentator suggested a less familiar word – Abide – We have to ask how are we abiding in Him and finding when we do that, how He abides in us?   That in living in Him, we drink in the body and blood of Christ, we allow His life and His love to flow in us like the sap in a tree or the vine and its branches.

When we do that, then we can begin to consider these two quotes – the first from Bl. Solanus Casey who said:

          Do not pray for easy lives.  Pray to be stronger.
          Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers. Pray for powers equal to your tasks
           – then the doing of your work shall be no miracle but you shall be a miracle.


And St. Maximilian Kolbe who counseled:

          Start serving God this very day.
          This may be the last day of your life. Live as if this day were your last.
          Tomorrow is uncertain, yesterday no longer belongs to you, only the present is yours.
          There is an ear that listens to all things,
          an eye that peruses all the most secret emotions of your heart,
          a hand that notes down each thing…
          be holy; if others have managed, why could you not do it as well?
          If you believe it, if you desire it, with God’s help you may still become a saint.
          Yes, you can, you can.