Homily, 15th Sunday OT A
Fr. Paul D. Williams, Jr., St. Joseph's, Dalton, Georgia
Today I am happy to welcome my little sister, Andrea, and her family. You may remember when I talked about my sister in last year's Amazing Race. If you like, after Mass, she will be happy to sign autographs. But the reason she is here tonight is that my niece, Allesandra, is here to celebrate her First Communion with her Uncle Father Paul. I have always been amazed at my sister and her children's love of their faith. How she manages to pass on her faith so effectively to her children, indeed all ten of them, is something that continues to impress me.
There are two important things that parent's need to know when trying to raise their children in the Catholic faith: First, faith is a gift; God goes about sowing the seed - the message about His reign - everywhere, even on the footpath and the rocky ground and the thorns. But secondly, this gift needs to be cultivated. St. John Chrysostom said it this way, “How is it [possible] to sow seed among thorns, or rocky ground or the footpath? For it is impossible that rock should become soil, or that the footpath should not be the footpath, or that thorns should not be thorns. But with [souls] it is otherwise; there it is possible that the rock be made rich soil, that the footpath should be no more trodden upon, and that the thorns should be extirpated.”
When we look at it from the perspective of a parent cultivating this gift of faith in a child, it can get kind of discouraging, especially in today’s world. I know many parents who try their best to raise and educate their children in the faith, yet sometimes are saddened when there appears to be no effect.
So if we are to cultivate the gift of faith in our children, we must seek to make them rich soil. We do this by removing the rocks, pulling the weeds, and not letting them grow up amidst the thorns. The rocks are the bad example we give them as they grow, and includes ways in which we do not live the Gospel, which make us out to be hypocrites in their eyes, or by not raising them well in the faith – simply sending them to CCD but not following up at home or by only requiring that they do the bare minimum to be Catholics, as is witnessed by the number of kids who drop out of religious education after confirmation. The weeds are the various influences of our culture which teach our children to be materialistic, hedonistic and selfish. We must guard our children against these things, especially those we find on television or popular culture. And, finally, the thorns are other people in our culture who have long since abandoned any Christian faith or values who harm our children by leading them astray into non-Christian ideas and practices. We must protect our children from them and give them the strength of faith so that they can one day defend themselves.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge has an interesting anecdote that may illustrate the dangers of not cultivating faith. He told this story: “I showed a friend my garden and told him it was my botanical garden. ‘How so?’ said he, ‘it is covered with weeds.’ - ‘Oh,’ I replied, ‘that is only because it has not yet come to its age of discretion and choice. The weeds, you see, have taken liberty to grow, and I thought it unfair of me to prejudice the soil towards roses and strawberries.’” In other words, it is the responsibility of parents to sow good virtues in their children, and not fall into this false belief that they can “decide on their own what to believe.” As Chesterton pointed out, the danger is not that they will believe in nothing, but that they may end up believing in anything.
But I think the parable of Jesus, and this anecdote from Coleridge, applies not only to how we should raise our children, but also to how we should cultivate our own faith.
My sister and I visited Bosnia several times in the 1980's, and I was always amazed to see the lay of the land. The mountains there are very rocky, and throughout the countryside, you can see stone walls, some thousands of years old. These are from the farmers who had to first clear the land of rocks before sowing their seeds. I spoke to some of the families who said that it took sometimes years or even decades to clear enough land to support just one family, and they did this through backbreaking labor – there weren’t many back-hoes or tractors around. In some places, the only way they could clear the land was with dynamite.
Well, we have to do the same for our souls. Like the farmer who cultivates his crop by removing rocks, pulling weeds, and getting rid of the thorn bushes, we must make our souls rich soil so that the seed of faith may grow to bear fruit. The rocks we must remove are the mortal sins which keep us from God: the capital sins of pride, avarice, envy, wrath, lust, gluttony, and sloth. (CCC 1866). The thorns are the venial sins which choke us off from further growth. And the weeds are those occasions of sin or idle thoughts, which quickly grow into thorns or even rocks if we do not remove them quickly. Like the farmer, this may take years of backbreaking work just to clear the field, and continuous work to keep it free of weeds and thorns, but that’s what the Christian faith requires. Practically, we do this through daily prayer, attendance at Mass, regular confession, active works of charity, and seeking reconciliation among ourselves and our community.
If we can do this, cultivating the gift of faith in our own lives and in that of our children, by cooperating with God’s grace, then we can be confident that the Lord will bring us to harvest in the eternal kingdom, as Isaiah said, “Just as from the heavens the rain and the snow come down and do not return there till they have watered the earth, making it fertile and fruitful… so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it.” And that end, that goal, is our salvation.
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