Weekly HomilyArchives

Friday, March 23, 2007

“As they led Jesus away, they seized a man, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming from the country, and they laid the cross on him, and made him carry it behind Jesus.” (Luke 23:26)

“SOUL-SURFING” – April 1, 2007
Palm Sunday
(Isaiah 50:4-7; Luke 22:14-23:56)
Fr. Robert deLeon, CSC

The Catholic News Service article caught my immediate attention because it focused on an issue that faced the Catholic hospital in Connecticut where I served a decade ago. The article read: “An Australian bishop has defended a Catholic hospital's decision to cover hospital room crucifixes if patients request it. [The] Bishop said the move by St. John of God Hospital did not reflect a drift toward secularism or political correctness. ‘It's not denying our beliefs. It's accommodating a request in a room; if [patients] believe nothing and they see this tortured body on the cross, the visual image can be distressing if they don't understand it,’ the bishop said. ‘If they're in a room and they were stressed, are you helping or hindering them? That's part of good health care: you tend to them.’" (Catholic News Service)

I recall in the mid-1990’s when we members of the pastoral care department at St. Vincent’s Medical Center, Bridgeport, Connecticut, were asked to fine tune our attentiveness to the Jewish population the hospital served. Already did we have on our staff an Orthodox Rabbi, and Jewish holydays were respectfully observed, but it had never occurred to any of us, including the Rabbi, that the crucifix that hung on the wall of every patient room could be a source of distress. After some discussion among us, though, it was agreed that our primary mission was healing, not proselytizing, and so on that rare occasion when a patient asked that we remove the crucifix from the wall, we did so willingly. And well do I remember the comment of octogenarian Sister Zoe who served at the hospital as she left a patient room carrying the crucifix she’d just taken off the wall. Standing at the foot of the patient’s bed, crucifix in hand, she offered a warm assurance. “You know, even though I took this off the wall, God is still with you while you’re here in the hospital. And our prayers are with you, too, that you’ll be healed quickly. God bless you!” And with a wide smile and a quick turn she and the crucified Jesus were gone.

Indeed, though the crucifix be removed, the crucifixion continues. Though the Catholic symbol of the suffering Savior be taken from the wall, no less does Jesus yet suffer in the bodies, minds and souls of his sisters and brothers on the journey heavenward. Sr. Zoe knew that well, and though she’d taken down the crucifix from the wall, she saw the more real presence of the suffering Jesus embodied in the patient to whom she spoke consoling words.

On this Palm Sunday when we recall the events that led up to the crucifixion of Jesus, the actions and words of Sr. Zoe stand as witness that still does Jesus suffer, still does Jesus bear a heavy cross. And in the passion account from Luke that we read today, Sr. Zoe finds her biblical precursor. Luke writes: “As they led Jesus away, they seized a man, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming from the country, and they laid the cross on him, and made him carry it behind Jesus.” (Luke 23:26) Additionally, ancient tradition speaks of a woman named Veronica who, seeing Jesus on the road to Calvary, rushed out of the crowd to soothe his bleeding face with a cool cloth. This is Sr. Zoe. She is Simon of Cyrene helping the sick to bear the load. She is Veronica providing soothing relief in soft words and gentle touch.

Recently did the Associated Press report the death of another modern day Simon of Cyrene: “Abbe Pierre, a French priest praised as a living legend for devoting his life to helping the homeless, using prayer and provocation to tackle misery, died [January 22, 2007] his foundation said. He was 94. One of France's most beloved public figures, Abbe Pierre died at Val de Grace military hospital in Paris. The founder of the international Emmaus Community for the poor, Abbe Pierre served as a spokesman for France's conscience since the 1950s when he persuaded parliament to pass a law, still on the books, forbidding landlords to expel tenants during winter months. [French] President Jacques Chirac said in a statement, ‘We have lost a great figure, a conscience, an incarnation of goodness.’

“A former monk, Resistance fighter and parliamentarian, Abbe Pierre long remained spry and determined despite the infirmities of old age. Last year, he spoke to parliament from his wheelchair, urging lawmakers not to reform a law on low-income housing. Often donning a beret and cape, Abbe Pierre, a code name from his World War II days, topped polls as France's most beloved public figure almost every year. He had the ear of French leaders for decades.

“Born Henry Groues, on August 5, 1912, one of eight children in a well-heeled Lyon family, he exchanged comfort for a monk's cell for six years, before joining the priesthood in 1938. He entered the Resistance in World War II, taking the name Abbe Pierre in 1942 as a cover for his work manufacturing fake identity papers and helping Jews cross the border to Switzerland. Elected to parliament after the war, in 1945, his devotion to the ‘street sleepers’ was awakened. A lawmaker for seven years, until 1951, he occasionally begged alms while organizing rag pickers among the homeless so they could fend for themselves. With the help of an ex-convict and his lawmaker's salary, the first Emmaus Community house was born in 1949 in Neuilly-Plaisance, northeast of Paris. Emmaus, which helps the disenfranchised to help themselves, is now present in many countries.” (Associated Press)

Sr. Zoe and Abbe Pierre: they needed no crucifix to remind them that Jesus suffers still in the hardships and injustices people bear. Doing what they could, these two servants of humanity willingly walked Calvary’s road with those they’d befriended. The prophet Isaiah, whom we read in today’s liturgy, characterizes their vision and mission: “The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backwards.” (Isaiah 50: 4-5)

Christians around the world celebrate this Palm Sunday hearing once again the gospel account of the events that led to the death of Jesus. And even while the ears of the devout take in words so familiar, still does Jesus suffer just outside the doors of our churches. Still does Jesus stagger and fall under the weight of a burden too heavy for one to bear. And still does he raise his blood-streaked face in search of human compassion. Simon of Cyrene and Veronica both urge us to quit the crowd of spectators and take a stand beside Jesus, shouldering his cross, soothing his suffering, walking the long road home with him.


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