Weekly HomilyArchives

Friday, February 25, 2011

“Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Not everyone who says to me, Lord, Lord, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.’” (Matthew 7:21)

Gates of Heaven

March 6, 2011
Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Matthew 7:21-27 Reading Here
Fr. Robert deLeon, CSC

With a winter blizzard raging on a Sunday night late this past December, I offered a fervent prayer that I’d not be summoned to the hospital for some emergency situation. But I was not to be spared. Just before 9 PM, Marie, the chaplain on duty, called me to anoint a dying Catholic man. As she recounted the patient’s medical condition, I contemplated the 40-mile round trip I’d need to make and, weighing this with dire warnings by the police to stay off the roads, I made a decision I’d not have made in earlier days of hospital ministry. I said, “Marie, I can’t come in. The weather’s too bad, the roads too dangerous. But Jesus is already there. Do whatever you can to help the patient and family take comfort and strength in that.” Marie assured me she’d do just that.

As I hung up the phone, my stomach was churning with the knowledge that I couldn’t respond to a legitimate sacramental need. This time, I could rightly blame the weather. Other times, though, I had to blame it on my inability to bi-locate. With the hospital but one of my pastoral responsibilities, I’ve sometimes found myself having to leave dying Catholics wishing to be anointed to the care of Jesus and the chaplain on duty (usually a non-Catholic) while I’m running the Sunday morning marathon of parish Masses.

In younger days as a priest, I suffered even more from a sort of “spiritual superman” kind of complex, fed by a theology that seemed to allow little room for simple human limitation. Newly ordained, I took to heart St. Paul’s admonition to “be all things to all people.” (1 Corinthians 9:22) As the years progressed, I settled for being SOME things to all people. These days, I’m just grateful I can be SOME things to SOME people. Indeed, in younger days, I’d have braved the snowstorm to anoint a dying man, sure that, did I not do so, the poor guy would be stranded before the locked Pearly Gates waiting vainly for the Heavenly Father to let him in. Indeed, I confess I thought it was all up to me. What a fool I was! What a fool I still am to some extent as my stomach continues to churn every time someone yells, “Priest! Priest!” and I find myself unable to respond. But I’m beginning to come around, I think, as surely are the people calling for my priestly presence.

In the gospel passage we hear today, Jesus says to his disciples, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” (Matthew 7:21) Then follows an exhortation about building one’s house on a solid foundation; that is, Jesus reminds his followers that one must spend a lifetime preparing for eternal life with God. Indeed, salvation is the work of a lifetime, not a moment. So, in short, it simply won’t be enough for us to shout “Lord! Lord!” from our deathbeds if we’ve not lived a life preparing for death. Likewise, let us not shout “Priest! Priest!” from our deathbeds either, thinking that he can save us at the last moment. A snowstorm may well have stranded the very priest we were counting on.

This dynamic, though, seems to be more common with those who’ve not had a close relationship with the church. My experience, especially over the past 10 years, has been that church-going Catholics have taken Jesus’ exhortation to heart. They don’t need the sudden presence of a priest at the time of death because they’ve been preparing long and hard for this singular, mysterious moment. They’ve known all along that Jesus has been with them, and now this Faithful Companion will bring them safely home. It’s a comfort and assurance I’d be hard pressed as a priest to provide.

On the other hand, I’ve discovered to my chagrin that nominal Catholics – those adults who haven’t been to church since their First Communion – are the very ones most likely to yell for the presence of a priest as death nears. And though I may rush to such a deathbed, even the best I can offer seems not enough to quell the anxiety for those who have built their lives on sand. The truth is, we will likely die just as we have lived. Deathbed conversions are mostly the stuff of Hollywood.

Passing a barn on a Mennonite farm in rural Goshen, Indiana in the mid-1980s, this very message was delivered in even more striking fashion in huge white letters painted on the road-side of the red barn: “Many who plan to turn to God at the 11th hour die at 10:30.”

As the church begins its annual observance of Lent beginning this week with Ash Wednesday, it’s a somber reminder that we cannot wait until the 11th hour to turn to God. Indeed, we are reminded each Lent that the journey homeward began with baptism and, as each year passes, we spend quiet time examining the very foundations upon which we’ve built our lives. Lent is that sacred season of shoring up lives weakened by human frailty and sin. It may also be the grace-filled occasion for one who has built on sand to begin anew, replacing shifting foundations with the solid rock of faith. Yes, Lent offers us somber reminders: salvation is the work of a lifetime, not a moment; and we will likely die just as we have lived.

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