Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time at Mississippi Abbey

It’s really nice to have M. Rebecca and Fr. Brendan return home again after their long journey to the special General Chapter in Italy.  One of our deceased monks, Fr. Timothy Welsh, a real old-timer, didn’t approve of Fr. Brendan going on long journeys. He once said that New Melleray needed an abbot who didn’t know how to drive and was allergic to airplanes!  Timothy himself never went on a journey except one time for his sister’s funeral. Afterward, when closing her joint bank account, the teller asked for his identification. Completely serious but very naïve, he gave her his Carnegie-Stout Library card. She laughed so hard that she accepted the card saying that no thief could ever be that stupid!  Fr. Timothy also enjoyed stupid jokes, like this one: What do you call a sleep-walking nun? Answer: a roaming Catholic. He could be annoying, but we tried to love him anyway.

Jesus said, “Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, if someone strikes you on one cheek, offer the other as well, if someone takes away your outer garment offer the inner one as well.”  How can we learn to love our enemies?   By first loving the ordinary people we encounter every day who are neither enemies nor friends. In a random group of fifty people, about five will really like you and be your friends.  About five others won’t like you at all, and probably never will.  The other forty, the vast majority, really don’t care one way or the other.  Wonderful things happen when our love reaches out to this larger number of people we live with, who are indifferent to us. From them we learn to love the stranger, the foreigner, and people of other faiths and colors who enter our lives.

Such is the story of a young priest named Fr. Caruana.1   It was Dec, 1902.  He was the first customer in the little store of Jewish immigrants, a newlywed couple named Esther and Solomon Ueberall.  Father’s face was as somber as his black suit. “Why are you so sad?” they asked.  Father told them his small church would be closed unless he paid a $500 debt.  His poor parish did not have the money.  They said, “No, no, that must not happen in America. Your house of worship must stay open.  We will get the money for you.”  So, they pawned their wedding gifts and their rings for this stranger of another faith. They begged from relatives and friends until they raised $500.  From then on, every Monday, Fr. Caruana came with his small Sunday collection to pay them back.  Over the next 18 years the little store and the small church grew in size and friendship.  Then Fr. Caruana received an assignment from Rome, and Esther’s husband, Solomon, died suddenly of a heart attack. The shock was so great she lost her eyesight for two years.  Esther’s son and daughter managed the store and gradually she healed.  Another twenty years passed and Hitler marched into Austria, her husband’s place of birth.  His relatives began sending letters to Esther, begging her to help them escape the death camps by getting visas to America.

Esther obtained visas for as many as possible until the immigration quotas were filled.  After that, each letter was like a knife stabbing her heart because she could not help any more.  In desperation she went to Washington DC and learned that refugees could still find sanctuary in Cuba if a prominent person there would sign for them.  Esther went to the Catholic church she and her husband had saved from closing.  She asked for a letter of introduction to the bishop in Cuba.  The pastor wrote the letter, and also sent a cable to announce her coming.  When the plane landed in Havana, Esther went down the steps and was handed a bouquet of roses.  Looking up she saw the bishop in a red robe smiling warmly.  She was puzzled until he said, “Esther, don’t you remember me?”  It was Father Caruana.  He had become an archbishop and was sent to Cuba as the papal nuncio.  She collapsed with tears into his arms.  With his help many more Jewish families escaped to Cuba where the archbishop sheltered and fed them until they could find new homes.  They were saved from the Holocaust because years before a young Jewish couple gave their love to a complete stranger of another faith.

It is daunting to love our enemies, but isn’t it also a giant task to love the larger number of people we live with who are neither enemies nor friends?  Yet Jesus said, “Do to others as you would have them do to you,” the stranger, the foreigner, people of other faiths and colors.  Bless them, pray for them, do good, give and lend.

In our duty to love, no one can be excluded.  Whose heart is that large?  How can we learn to love like that?  Cardinal Newman writes, “God’s merciful Providence has in the natural course of things narrowed for us this large field of duty.  We are to begin by loving our family and friends. … By submitting to their wishes though contrary to our own,  by bearing with their infirmities,  by overcoming their occasional waywardness with kindness,  by dwelling on their excellences … and so we form in our hearts that beginning of charity which is small at first,  but like the mustard seed will grow to overshadow the earth.” 2  We will reach the heights of loving our enemies if we learn to love the people around us, our sisters, our family and friends, and the strangers and foreigners who enter our lives.

But even loving those closest and dearest to us is not easy.  Two young children, a brother and sister, were told to be good to each other because God is watching them all the time. They became nervous and fearful of God until their loving grandfather took them in his arms and said, “Yes, God sees you all the time, but he is not watching to catch you doing something wrong so that he can punish you.  Rather, God loves you so much that he cannot take his eyes off you.”  At the center of the Christian life is the possession of a great treasure, God’s love for us.  We learn to love by being loved.  We are loved by Love, by Jesus who died for us, who gives us his heart and his Spirit in this Eucharist.   It is the Holy Spirit who inspires and enables us to really love our family and friends, and to reach out to the multitude of ordinary people around us, and then to give our enemies a cup of coffee not laced with arsenic but with sugar.

By the way, what does a CIA agent do when it’s time for bed?  He goes undercover.

  1. Guideposts, Feb. 1974, p. 22
  2. John Henry Newman, Parochial and Plain Sermons, vol. 2, Longmans, Green and Co, 1908, p. 52