The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Homily: Paul In Athens

I've included my brief homily from today's Mass, Year 2, Wednesday of the 6th Week of Easter. I preached on the first reading: Acts 17:15,22-18:1

Growing up I was taught by Dominican sisters in grade school. And then later on, actually about 40 years later on, I spent some time working at Providence College, a well-known Dominican-run school in Providence, Rhode Island. And so I got to know more than a few Dominican sisters and friars. As many of you know, the formal title of the Dominican friars, the O.P. that’s found after their names, means Order of Preachers. Among the priority ministries for the worldwide Order of Preachers is "Catechesis in a De-Christianized World."

This is a phrase that came to mind when I read the passage describing St. Paul's visit to Athens and his speech in the areopagus – the public debating forum. Of course, one might argue that the world had not been Christianized at that time and so the operable word for Paul would not have been de-Christianized, but un-Christianized. And I suppose one might also make a case that even today’s world has really not yet been Christianized. But that’s a debate for another venue.

What actually strikes me is the content of Paul's preaching on this occasion, this visit to Athens, the home of philosophy. He assumes, probably correctly, that his Greek audience lacks any sort of Jewish theological background and so he cleverly uses the Greeks' own cultural experience to get their attention. To do so he appeals to the Greek poets and to their “altar to an unknown God” -- an interesting title that shows the Athenians hedging their bets religiously, a fact not lost on Paul. All of this depicts a Paul who is not only well informed, but also creative and psychologically astute.

Paul was, after all, well educated. Brought up in Tarsus (“no mean city”), he was a Roman citizen who had certainly been exposed to the philosophical thought of the stoics and epicureans who taught in his hometown. And the breadth of his knowledge is apparent during this sermon which Luke no doubt abridged.

Paul also sets a wonderful example for us, a kind of object lesson that the Dominicans have apparently taken to heart by including it among their priorities. You see, brothers and sisters, by virtue of our baptism we are all called to be "preachers in the marketplace." We are the Christianized who are called to represent our faith in Jesus Christ to an increasingly secularized culture – a de-Christianized culture. It’s a culture more and more in love with today’s versions of those images Paul referred to, images “fashioned from gold, silver, or stone by human art and imagination.” And so, in our de-Christianized culture, the God of the Trinity, has become increasingly unknown.

As Christians we are called to join together with Paul, claiming openly that God “gives to everyone life and breath and everything”, that “In him we live and move and have our being,” It takes courage to say such things to hearers who, as Luke tells us, may “scoff.” But the text also says that others responded, “We should like to hear you on this some other time.”

Yes, Paul encountered a, challenging audience in Athens; but, even then, he didn’t fare too badly. Among the few converts to Christianity that day, was Dionysius, a man that tradition tells us become the first bishop of Athens. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never helped bring anyone to the Faith who later became a bishop.

And so where do we begin, it we want to imitate Paul and be preachers in the marketplace? First of all, while there’s nothing wrong with going out into today’s marketplace, the real need is even closer to home.

Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI both preached the need for a new evangelization. Were you aware though, that they’re not speaking about pagan or secular societies, but rather of the Catholic Church itself? That’s right! These two holy fathers are telling us that many in the Church itself have been de-Christianized.

I know that I often find myself speaking with Catholics who have little knowledge or understanding of their Catholic faith and heritage. Indeed, for many their total involvement in the Church rarely goes beyond attending Mass on Sunday, so long as it’s convenient. Even our Catholic faith can be twisted into the worship of particular things that are of human creation – whether physical or intellectual.

And so, brothers and sisters, catechesis in our de-Christianized world has to begin right here in the pews, in the parking lot, and in the meeting rooms of St. Vincent de Paul Parish…Oh yes, and in the homes of its parishioners. We all have a role to play.

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