Msgr. Joseph A. Pellegrino
Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time: God Gives the Growth
One year as Christmas was approaching, I decided to buy a little potted tree to decorate. I found a great one at Kmart or Walmart. I think it was a Japanese pine. I didn’t realize it, but there were actually three trees in the pot. The one that caught my attention was about 18 inches tall, but there were also two tiny little trees next to it, about three to four inches tall. After the Christmas Season, when it was time to take the decorations down, I didn’t know what to do with the trees; so I asked my Mom if she’d want to put them in the ground. She said, “Sure.” That was about eighteen years ago. Now if you were to go over to my Mom’s house, and roam through her absolutely beautiful garden, you’ll see three huge trees towering over the rest of her yard. My tiny Christmas trees are now some of the biggest on her property. How did my Mom get those trees to grow like that? Well, she planted them and watered them, but God gave the growth.
The ancient Hebrews understood agriculture. Their lives were dependent on the crops they cultivated and the animals they raised. Yet, they knew that the wonder of growth belonged to the Lord. Paul would allude to this in 1 Corinthians 3:6-7: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.” When, in today's first reading, Ezekiel prophesied that the Lord would take a sprig from a tree and turn it into a noble cedar, the people recognized in this prophecy that growth is always in God's hands. He would do more for them than they could imagine. Israel, a nation in exile at the time of this prophecy, would become the nation that the whole world would look to with respect. For from Israel would come the Savior. Every kind of bird, all the nations, would live under the tree of Israel.
The people who heard Jesus tell the parable of the farmer's life also shared the wonder of the soil. The farmer works hard during the day, but he can't make the seed grow into a plant, and the plant produce fruit. God causes the growth. Jesus' point is that like the plants the Kingdom of God is in God's hands. The workers in the Lord's fields must do their best to create the proper environment for growth, but God causes the growth. The parable comforted the people of the early Church in face of discouragement when their efforts didn't seem to be getting them anywhere. Remember, early Christianity grew as a development of the Jewish faith, but the Christians were rejected by the Jews. It must have been difficult for them to explain to the pagan gentiles how Jesus was predicted by the Jewish prophets when the Jews had rejected Him and them. Persecuted on every side, the early Christians had to trust God to give growth to his kingdom.
And He did. And He still does. The Church lives on despite the persecution from the Romans, despite the internal dogmatic fights and debates of the second through fifth centuries, despite the Fall of Rome and conquest of the barbarians, despite the corruption from within and outside in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, despite the Christian fratricide of the Reformation, despite the onslaught of rationalists in the last two centuries, despite the clergy sex abuse scandal, despite the attacks on Christians by ISIS, and despite two thousand years of martyrdom aimed at destroying the faith, the Church still lives on, and grows. God gives the growth. He does wonders with our feeble efforts. He turns that which is insignificant into that which is substantial.
Here at St. Ignatius we have been blessed to have parochial vicars who were members of the Missionary Society of St. Thomas, Fr. Thomas Kumblanthanth and Fr. Mathew Mootheseril. The main work of the Missionary Society of St. Thomas is to spread the faith in India. Now Christians are persecuted in many of the sections of India. Both Hindus and Moslems attack them. Fr. Mathew used to tell us horror stories of priests being killed, nuns being attacked, etc. These missionaries cannot display signs of their faith in public. If they give someone a bible, a catechism, a cross or a rosary, they are facing certain persecution, possibly beatings and death. Yet, the Missionaries of St. Thomas have been successful in leading people to Christ. How do they do it? They don’t; the Lord does. What they do is move into a village or town and establish a mission center. They care for the needs of the people, dispensing medicine and food and teaching the children. They are not allowed to speak about the faith. They live the faith. And they will do this not for a few years, but for generations. Fr. Mathew said that sometimes they begin making converts among the third generation of people in the village, people whose grandparents were young when the missionaries arrived. Perhaps it may take 80 years, but then the faith begins to flourish in the village. The Missionaries of St. Thomas give a great example of trusting in God to give the growth.
We need to recognize God’s work in the faith lives of our children, our nation and in our own faith lives. There are many of you here who are very upset because you did everything you could to raise your children in the faith, but they stopped practicing the faith when they left for college. Then they got married, outside of the Church, and now you have grandchildren who haven’t even been baptized. So you ask, “Where did I go wrong?” Well, you didn’t go wrong. You need to continue to pray that your children will be open to the faith. That seed that you planted may spring into a marvelous tree, but only after a long period of time. I have witnessed many people in their forties and fifties returning to the faith of their youth and then becoming devoted Catholics. Ask their parents, “How did this happen?” They would respond, “We planted, but God gave the growth.”
Many people are upset by the recent survey that showed a decline in the number of Catholics in the United States over the last twenty-five years. Well, first of all, the report fails to consider the continual impact of migrants to our country from the Catholic countries of Latin America, but that mistake aside, we should be concerned, but our concern should be tempered by the large number of young Catholics devoted to the faith. This summer over 50,000 Catholic high school students will have deep experiences of their faith on the Steubenville retreats. Our campus ministries are growing. There are wonderful groups of young adult Catholics at Florida State, the University of Florida, the University of Central Florida and the University of South Florida just to name a few flourishing campus ministries. With all this said, it is not the conferences or campus ministries themselves that cause the faith to grow. They provide the environment for growth. But it is God who gives the growth.
We really need to recognize the wonders of God’s hand in our own lives. Does our faith mean more to us today than it did twenty years ago, or even ten years ago? I think most of us would say, “Yes” to that question. Well, how does it happen that we are more determined to live our faith now than we had been? It happens because God continues to give growth to the faith.
We are members of the greatest society the world has ever seen. We are members of the Kingdom of God. We are members of the Church. No matter what the media may comment, we are part of the only truly relevant organization in the world. We give meaning to the whole purpose of existence.
The Church continues to grow; for the Lord, not people, gives the growth.
When we are confronted with those who compare the numbers of priests and priest-less parishes and the numbers of Catholics to figures of sixty years ago, we need to remember that the Church will exist until the Second Coming of the Lord. The Church will adjust and flourish in the future just as it has in the past. And it will grow, for God gives it growth.
And when we are confronted with immorality on all sides, when we are convinced that the world will soon be coming to an end because so many people are behaving so poorly, and when we are often tempted to join the immorality, we should not despair, the Church not only lives on through the muddle and the mire of the world, it actually grows. You and I also grow as long as we do everything we can to stay united to the Church. For in the face of turmoil, outside us and within us, God gives his Church growth. You and I, right here, St. Ignatius of Antioch Parish, are the Church.
St. Paul wrote in today's second reading: we walk by faith, not by sight. May we always be strong members of the Church so God might work the miracle of His growth through us.