Homilies: September 2012 Archives

Ember Wednesday in September

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Photo: Monastic ruins on the Hill of Slane.

The Ember Days

The September Ember Days are upon us, signaling the passage of summer and the beginning of autumn. Here at Silverstream Priory, the chill in the morning air tells us that, in spite of the warm sunshine during the day, the long, slow descent into winter has already begun.

Optimistic Realism of the Roman Rite

Today's first Collect at Mass is a prime example of what I like to call the optimistic realism of the Roman Rite:

We beseech Thee, O Lord
that our fragility may be upheld
by the remedies of Thy mercy,
so that what of itself is falling into ruin
may, by Thy clemency, be restored.

Is not this a marvelous prayer? On the one hand, there is the sober recognition of ourselves such as we really are: fragile, and falling into ruin. On the other hand, there is a confident acknowledgment of the remedies of divine Mercy and of the restorative power of God's clemency. The prayer is, thus, perfectly balanced.


Most people, if they have any degree off self-knowledge and honesty, will admit to feeling and being fragile, that is breakable, susceptible of being fragmented. At certain hours in one's life, one can have the overwhelming feeling of being shattered. Sometimes the shattering blow comes from outside ourselves, that is, from the world around us that is populated with other shattered and shattering human beings. Sometimes the shattering blow comes from the diabolical machinations of the Evil One. And still, at other times, we deal the shattering blow to ourselves by hurling ourselves against whatever jagged hardness happens to be at hand.

Remedies of Mercy

What can keep us, in spite of our native fragility, from being utterly shattered? The Collect tells us that the remedies of God's mercy will uphold us, and will prevent our collapse. What are these remedies? They are, first of all, the Sacraments of Penance and of the Most Holy Eucharist. They are the "prayer and fasting" of which Our Lord speaks in today's Gospel (Mark 9:16-28). Of prayer there is none more efficacious than the Divine Office, the voice of Christ united to that of His Spouse, the Church, and this from the rising of the sun to its setting. Of fasting there is none better than that prescribed or recommended by the Church, particularly during these Ember Days.

A Team of Physicians

Remedies of mercy too are the sacramentals of the Church on earth, and the solicitude and assistance of the Mother of God, and of the angels and saints in heaven. God has not abandoned us to our fragility. He has commanded His angels to bear us up, lest we dash our foot against a stone. (Psalm 90:12). The saints, for their part, are skilled physicians of souls and bodies, working together under the direction of the chief Physician, who is our Lord Jesus Christ.

The second part of the Collect is the ut or "so that" clause typical of the Roman Rite:

. . . ut quae sua conditione atteritur,
tua clementia reparatur.

. . . so that what of itself is falling into ruin
may, by Thy clemency, be restored.

There is a lovely balance to the two verbs in the Latin text: atteritur, reparatur; the idea is of falling into ruin, and of being repaired. Speaking for myself, I have, more than once, had the impression of falling into ruin. The Latin verb is perhaps closer to "being cast down to the ground." Ireland is full of monastic ruins (see the photo above) and on difficult days I can see myself as one of them. The realism of the Roman Rite admits that we are all, at certain seasons and hours, falling into ruin. The supernatural optimism of the Roman Rite sees God, however, as the repairer of ruins, as the One who rebuilds what is falling to the ground. This gives me immense hope,

The Son of Man must be lifted up

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The Sign of the Brazen Serpent

Wherefore the Lord sent among the people fiery serpents, which bit them and killed many of them. Upon which they came to Moses, and said: We have sinned, because we have spoken against the Lord and thee: pray that he may take away these serpents from us. And Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to him: Make brazen serpent, and set it up for a sign: whosoever being struck shall look on it, shall live. Moses therefore made a brazen serpent, and set it up for a sign: which when they that were bitten looked upon, they were healed. (Numbers 21:6-9)

The Word of the Cross

For the word of the cross, to them indeed that perish, is foolishness; but to them that are saved, that is, to us, it is the power of God. (1 Corinthians 1:18)

I Will Draw All Things to Myself

Now is the judgment of the world: now shall the prince of this world be cast out. And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all things to myself. (Now this he said, signifying what death he should die.) The multitude answered him: We have heard out of the law, that Christ abideth for ever; and how sayest thou: The Son of man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of man? Jesus therefore said to them: Yet a little while, the light is among you. Walk whilst you have the light, that the darkness overtake you not. And he that walketh in darkness, knoweth not whither he goeth. Whilst you have the light, believe in the light, that you may be the children of light. (John 12:31-36)

The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass

The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is the mystery of the Cross at the heart of the Church. It is the efficacious enactment of what Saint Paul calls the verbum Crucis, the word/event of the Cross. The unbloody Sacrifice of the Mass, offered from the rising of the sun to its setting, and that bloody Sacrifice offered once upon the Cross are one and the same sacrifice. In Mediator Dei, the Venerable Pope Pius XII, referring to Session 22 of the Council of Trent, affirms that,

The august sacrifice of the altar, then, is no mere empty commemoration of the passion and death of Jesus Christ, but a true and proper act of sacrifice, whereby the High Priest by an unbloody immolation offers Himself a most acceptable victim to the Eternal Father, as He did upon the cross. "It is one and the same victim; the same person now offers it by the ministry of His priests, who then offered Himself on the cross, the manner of offering alone being different."

Behold the Lamb of God

Once the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice is ended, the adorable Body of Christ, the saving flesh of the Lamb, the pure victim, the holy victim, the immaculate victim, is reserved in the tabernacle for the Holy Communion of those close to death, of the sick, of prisoners, and of the homebound. The Lamb of God, being truly present in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar, remains, at every hour of the day and night, worthy of adoration, praise, love, and thanksgiving.

Christus Passus

I shall never forget the passionate conviction with which my old professor, Father Thomas Urban Mullaney O.P. taught the mystery of Christus passus in his course on the Most Holy Eucharist. It is something that marked me profoundly thirty-five years ago, and that continues to affect my life and shape my piety. Jesus Christ in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar remains in the very state and dispositions that animated Him in the supreme hour of His Sacrifice on the Cross. The Most Holy Eucharist is the presence of Christus passus, that is, Christ in the very act of His self-offering to the Father.

The Mystic Reality of Every Mass

The exaltation of the Holy Cross is not only the lifting up of the saving wood soaked in the Most Precious Blood; it is also the lifting up of the Lamb immolated upon it as upon an altar. This is the mystic reality of every Holy Mass. That same mystic reality is prolonged in the adoration of the Lamb, living and present in the Most Holy Sacrament.

Set It Up for a Sign

When the adorable Body of Christ is withdrawn from the tabernacle and exposed to the gaze of the faithful in the monstrance, the word of the Lord to Moses is wondrously and perfectly fulfilled: "And the Lord said to him: Make brazen serpent, and set it up for a sign: whosoever being struck shall look on it, shall live. Moses therefore made a brazen serpent, and set it up for a sign: which when they that were bitten looked upon, they were healed." (Numbers 21:6-9)

Look Upon the Body of Christ

Look, then, upon the Body of Christ, and see the sign of the brazen serpent fulfilled and surpassed in a manner that only faith can grasp. Look upon the Body of Christ, and see the source of all healing, the remedy for souls poisoned by the bites of the fiery serpents of the world, the flesh, and the devil. Look upon the Body of Christ and be drawn into the pierced Heart of the Lamb.

I Will Draw All Men to Myself

For souls called to a life of Eucharistic adoration, the exaltation of the Holy Cross -- in the fullest meaning of the phrase -- is the reality of every day and of every hour. "Yes," says the Lord, "if only I am lifted up, I will draw all men to myself." (John 12:32)

And the Virgin's Name Was Mary

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The Most Holy Name of Mary

In 1683 Pope Innocent XI extended the existing Feast of the Most Holy Name of Mary to the universal Church to thank Our Lady for the victory of John Sobieski, king of Poland, over the forces of militant Islam. On September 11th, 1683, Muslim Turks attacked Vienna, threatening the Christian West. The next day, Sobieski, invoking the Blessed Virgin Mary and placing his forces under her protection, emerged victorious.

The Holy Mother of God is no stranger to the struggles of her children in this valley of tears. She is attentive to every situation that threatens this world of ours, to every assault against the Church and, when we invoke her holy name, she is quick to intervene.

The Power of the Name

When it comes to calling upon the name of Mary, there is no struggle too global and too enormous, and no struggle too personal or too little. In the Bible, the name wields a mysterious power. Names are not to be pronounced casually or lightly. Names are not to be taken in vain. The invocation of the name renders present the one who is named. So often as you pronounce the sweet name of Mary with devotion and confidence, Mary is present to you, ready to help. So often as you pronounce the sweet name of Mary, you have her full and undivided attention.

As Oil Poured Out

The saints, drawing on a verse from the Song of Songs, compare the name of Mary to a healing oil. "Thy name is as oil poured out" (Ct 1:2). Oil heals the sick; it gives off a sweet fragrance, and it nourishes the flame of the sanctuary lamp. In the same way the name of Mary is like a balm on the wounds of the soul; there is no disease of the soul, however malignant, that does not yield to the power of the name of Mary. The sound of Mary's name causes joy to spring up in the midst of tears; the repetition of Mary's name warms the chilled heart.

A Pledge of Consecration

It is customary in some monasteries for every monk to bear the sweet name of Mary as a sign of mystical identification with her, a pledge of consecration to her, and a seal and safeguard of the monastic vocation. To bear the name of Mary signifies that one belongs to her household. The sophisticated and clever of the world, high and dry in their rationalism, smile condescendingly at such practices, but the saints understand the power of the name of Mary. For the saints there can never be too much of Mary. De Maria numquam satis. Of Mary, never enough!

Saint Bernard

No one has better treated of the Holy Name of Mary than Saint Bernard. His words will plant the gift of an abiding devotion to Mary's sweet name deep within the heart of one who receives them:

Let us say a few words about this name
which means Star of the Sea,
and is so appropriate to the Virgin Mother.

She -- I tell you -- is that splendid and wondrous star
suspended as if by necessity over this great wide sea,
radiant with merit and brilliant in example.

O you, whoever you are,
who feel that in the tidal wave of this world
you are nearer to being tossed about among the squalls and gales
than treading on dry land:
if you do not want to founder in the tempest,
do not avert your eyes from the brightness of this star.

When the wind of temptation blows up within you,
when you strike upon the rock of tribulation,
gaze up at this star,
call out to Mary.

Whether you are being tossed about
by the waves of pride or ambition,
or slander or jealousy,
gaze up at this star,
call out to Mary.

When rage or greed or fleshly desires
are battering the skiff of your soul,
gaze up at Mary.

When the immensity of your sins weighs you down
and you are bewildered by the loathsomeness of your conscience,
when the terrifying thought of judgment appalls you
and you begin to founder in the gulf of sadness and despair,
think of Mary.

In dangers, in hardships, in every doubt,
think of Mary, call out to Mary.
Keep her in your mouth,
keep her in your heart.

Follow the example of her life,
and you will obtain the favour of her prayer.

Following her, you will never go astray.
Asking her help, you will never despair.
Keeping her in your thoughts, you will never wander away.

With your hand in hers, you will never stumble.
With her protecting you, you will not be afraid.
With her leading you, you will never tire.

Her kindness will see you through to the end.
Then you will know by your own experience
how true it is that the Virgin's name was Mary.

15th Sunday After Pentecost

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If you have ever felt desolate, needy, or fragile, you will have found in today's Introit the perfect expression, in prayer to God, of such states. Even the chant melody, with its opening plea, soars upward: it is a prayer originating in the depths of human misery, and stretching, soaring aloft on the wings of faith and of hope:

Incline Thy ear, O Lord, to me and hear me:
Save Thy servant, O my God, that trusteth in Thee:
have mercy on me, O Lord, for I have cried to Thee all day.

The text of the Introit is from Psalm 85, a psalm shot through with sentiments of confidence and trust in God, even as the one praying it is acutely, painfully aware of his frailty and utter indigence.


Ps. Give joy to the soul of Thy servant;
for to Thee, O Lord, I have lifted up my soul.

The psalm verse that accompanies the antiphon asks for spiritual joy: Laetifica animam servi tui, Make joyful the soul of Thy servant. Spiritual joy, like peace of heart, cannot be produced by a mere effort to be cheerful, to put on a happy face. Spiritual joy is one of the twelve fruits of the Holy Ghost. It is a gift of God. It blossoms and comes to fruition on the branches of that mystical tree planted within the soul, the roots of which are faith, hope, and charity.

Prayer of the Church: Prayer of the Soul

The Collect of today's Mass continues the motif of supplication given by the Introit on the threshold of the celebration. In the Collect, appealing to God's abiding compassion, we ask him to cleanse His Church and to defend her. Cleansing pertains to the filth within; defense pertains to attacks from without. Whenever, in the liturgy, we pray for the Church, we are, by the same token, praying for our own souls. Personalized, if you will, the sense of the first part of the Collect is this: "In thy abiding compassion, O Lord, cleanse Thou my soul of the accumulated filth within, and defend me against attacks from without."

Spiritual Battlefield

The Collect reminds us that the Christian stands, at every moment, on a battlefield. The invisible enemies of our souls -- those who would rob us of inner joy and of trust in God's abiding compassion -- are forever strategizing to bring us down. That is why we ask God to defend us in the Collect.

Governed by God's Protecting Gift

The prayer goes on to say that, without God, the Church cannot hold her ground in the face of a world at enmity with all that she represents and teaches. Therefore, we pray that the Church may be governed -- gubernatur-- by God's protecting gift. The idea of gubernatur is related to the rudder that steers the course of a ship at sea. The rudder of Peter's fragile bark -- the ship of the Church tossed about on history's stormy seas -- is, we can be confident, in the hand of one made strong by the gift of God.

Life in the Spirit

In the Epistle, Saint Paul speaks to us of life in the Church, of our relations with one another. "Brethren, if we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit." One cannot claim to live in the Holy Ghost, that is, in a state of sanctifying grace, if the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost are not operative in us, and if the twelve fruits of the Holy Ghost are meagre or paltry.

If, in a community (understand, here, family, or marriage, or parish, or monastic community), one finds envy, harshness, and rash judgment, that community is not giving evidence of the presence of the Holy Ghost. Quite to the contrary, another spirit is at work.

Bearing One Another's Burdens

Saint Paul would have us bear one another's burdens. Saint Benedict says something similar in Chapter 72 of the Holy Rule: "Let them most patiently endure one another's infirmities, whether of body or of mind." Each of us, he says, has his own burden to carry. We are not to judge why such and such a burden has been laid upon one and not on another; we have only to do everything in our power to lighten a brother's burden by taking upon ourselves something of the load that crushes him beneath its weight.

Transmission of the Faith

Saint Paul, moreover, considers it vital that the community of the Church be a place of ongoing instruction in the faith. A monastery, like a Catholic marriage, family, or parish, cannot function healthily on pious sentiments and half-baked opinions. Some form of systematic, objective teaching of the faith is indispensable. The sacred liturgy provides the framework and the substance for such teaching.

Praise and Adoration

Instruction -- even the best liturgical catechesis -- is not enough by itself. The Gradual tells us that " it is sweet to praise the Lord, to sing unto the Name of the Most High." The instruction that leads not to praise, to adoration, to thanksgiving, is sterile and vain. When Blessed Columba Marmion taught dogmatic theology to his Benedictine students in Louvain, they would, after his classes, go immediately from the lecture hall to the church, compelled to fall down in adoration and to give praise for what they had learned.


The Gospel we are given today has been the subject of innumerable commentaries by the Fathers. Saint Luke presents the scene with a consummate artistry. He is very good at depicting scenes from real life. (This, I think, is part of what contributed to his reputation as an artist, an iconographer, and to his role as the patron saint of painters.) There are two groups in movement. The first of these -- I see it moving from left to right, or from west to east, that is, out of darkness into light -- is assembled around the person of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Prince of Life. The second group -- I see it moving from right to left, or from east to west, that is, out of light into darkness -- is assembled around the corpse of a young man, and the shattered profile of his widowed mother, groaning and weeping.

The Heart of Jesus Moved to Pity

The two groups come together. Here Saint Luke uses a very beautiful phrase describing Jesus' reaction to the widow's grieving. In the Latin it is, Quam cum vidisset Dominus, misericordia motus super eam; "When the Lord saw her, he was moved to heartfelt pity over her." This is the core of the story: a revelation of the Heart of Jesus.

Return to Life

What follows is a simple expression: Noli flere. Do not weep. Jesus stops the movement of the bier; he stops the movement westward into the regions of darkness and night. He addresses the young man who, in response to the word of Jesus, sits up and begins to speak. Jesus gives him back to his mother.

An Outburst of Praise

What happened then? Saint Luke tells us only that the two groups were overcome with awe, and that there was a great outburst of praise to God. I should think that, then, both groups joined to form a single procession from west to east, out of darkness into light. Therein, we have an image of the pilgrim Church, of the Church ever in movement: out of what is old, decaying, and marked by weeping and groans into newness of life, into what is fresh, and fragrant with a sweetness not of this world, and marked by praise and by awe in the presence of God.


The Offertory Antiphon continues the Gospel story, for it gives us the very prayer of the young man raised to life: "Waiting, I waited for Lord, and and at last he turned his face towards me, and listened to my plea. He has put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God" (Psalm 39:2-4).


The Secret Prayer will return to the motif of spiritual battle evoked already in the Collect: we will pray to be guarded by the Sacrament of the Most Holy Eucharist, and defended from diabolical onslaughts.

Communion Antiphon

The Communion Antiphon, which is really meant to be chanted during the procession of the faithful to receive the Holy Mysteries, is nothing less than Our Lord Himself addressing those who approach to receive His Sacred Body: "The bread which I am to give, is my flesh for the life of the world" (John 6:52). In other words, "What I did for the son of the widow of Naim, I will also do for you, and this, by giving you my own resurrected and glorious Body, the seed of eternal life in you."


Finally, the Postcommunion will be very practical today. Even after participating fully, consciously, and actually in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, there remains the danger of returning to the humdrum world of ordinary concerns, and of acting and make choices based, not on the splendour of the truth that has been given us here, but on our subjective impressions and emotional responses. "May the operation of this heavenly gift take hold, O Lord, of our minds and bodies, so that its effect may forestall our feelings."

Towards the Light Eternal

The procession must go on, from west to east, out of darkness into light, out of death into life, out of mourning and weeping into chants of joy and cries of gladness. The rhythm of the march is marked by the liturgy of the Church. One who walks with the Church is walking towards the light eternal. Of this, there can be no doubt.

About Dom Mark

Dom Mark Daniel Kirby is Conventual Prior of Silverstream Priory in Stamullen, County Meath, Ireland. The ecclesial mandate of his Benedictine community is the adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar in a spirit of reparation, and in intercession for the sanctification of priests.

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