22nd Sunday: True Religion Is This
Monday, September 3rd, is the twenty-fourth anniversary of the death of our beloved pastor, Fr. John LaTondress. The vast majority of you were not members of this parish during Fr. John’s pastorate. You never met him, but you still enjoy the benefit of his loving work among the people of St. Ignatius. I was privileged to be his assistant for four years, from 1979 to 1983. When I was asked to return here as pastor in 1992, I was thoroughly intimidated not by the people here but by the thought of continuing the wonderful ministry he brought to St. Ignatius.
Fr. John was a priest with a continual smile on his face. He could tell a joke better than anyone I have ever met. He had an infectious laugh, when he laughed the world laughed. His greatest laughs, his greatest jokes, were the ones he turned on himself. One time he put liquid soap into the dishwasher and found himself up to his ankles in soap suds. He told the people about it and then added, “They never told me about this in the seminary.”
Fr. John was perhaps the holiest person and priest I have ever met. By that I don’t just mean that he said a lot of prayers. He was holy because he was filled with so much love that he radiated the love of God. He was a fantastic preacher, but he would always tell me, “It is not what you have on paper that matters, it is what you have in your heart.” And he had the love of the Lord in his heart. He could radiate God’s presence to such a degree that everyone who knew him was convinced that he or she was Fr. John’s closest friend. This is how he brought the love of the Lord to us. Everyone who knows the Lord is known by the Lord. No one is a passing acquaintance of the Lord. All are close, intimate friends.
In this Sunday’s second reading we heard that every worthwhile gift, every human benefit comes from above. We have an intimate relationship with God through his word that has been implanted into us. We are God’s closest friends because his Word is in us. But just having this Word is not enough, St. James says. We have to act on the Word of God. We have to allow the seed of God’s Word to bear fruit.
“How are we to do this?” is the natural question we would all ask. How are we to bear fruit? Being tied to God, that is what the word religion means, being tied to God, pure religion is this. “Looking after widows and orphans in their distress and keeping oneself unspotted from the world.” James 1:27
We are to focus our energies on others, not on ourselves. This was the problem with the scribes and pharisees in today’s gospel. They focused their energies on themselves as an expression of religion while they ignored the needs of those around them. As a result they became spiritually arrogant, hypocrites. The word hypocrite takes its origin from two Greek works, huper meaning beyond, and crisis meaning criticism. The scribes and pharisees thought that they were so good that
they were beyond criticism. Their focus was on themselves and their exact fundamental following of the Jewish laws. They did not have love in their hearts for others. They disdained the everyday people as worthless rabble. Their method of following God could not bear fruit because they were more concerned with themselves than with finding God in others.
It is pretty easy for us to fall into that same hole. We would do that if we forget that conversion is a process, not a static event. The beauty of our Catholic faith is that it is profoundly realistic. It recognizes that we are human beings tempted to make bad as well as good choices and in continual need of having our course to the Lord refined and even restored. We believe that the Lord established the sacrament of penance, of forgiveness, not because we are so good but because we all have tendencies to be so bad.
A baby has minimal focus on the world around him or her. He or she needs the help of others, particularly parents, in order to survive. Little children continue this natural tendency to be self centered. Good parents help their children break out of this by encouraging them to reach out to the needs of others. “Share,” the Good Mom says to her two year old despite the two year old’s conviction that everything he or she sees is “Mine”. This lesson continues and is developed throughout the child’s life so that the truly well educated child is the one who finds happiness is reaching out to the needs of others. This child is well educated because he or she has taken steps outside of themselves into the needs of others. True religion is this, caring for the needs of orphans and widows and staying uncontaminated from the world.
The symbol of the Christian is the Cross. The cross is both a reminder of the historical gift of the Lord and a call to join the Lord in the unique and only true love that exists, sacrificial love. By reaching out to others, by sacrificing ourselves for others, we take steps out of our own selfishness and leap into the Love of God.
Fr. John LaTondress taught us and continually teaches us that we should have a good laugh at ourselves and be more concerned with finding God in others than in attempting to hoard God’s presence within ourselves. We need to recognize that if we were to be wrapped up in a little world of spiritual arrogance we create for ourselves we would miss the wonderful experiences of his presence in others.
All of us have experienced the beauty of God in his creation, the mountains, the sea, the sunsets of our West Coast of Florida. But there is a greater experience of God available to us. This is his presence in others, particularly in those who reach out to us in their need. The more we expose ourselves to this presence, the more we will participate in the sacrificial love of the cross, then the less we will allow our practice of religion to turn into spiritual arrogance.
True religion is this, looking after widows and orphans in their distress and keeping oneself unspotted from the world.