This homily was preached at Gate of Heaven Church, South Boston, MA on the Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, June 7, 2013.
In reflecting upon the Sacred Heart of Jesus and also considering our purposes for gathering here this evening, to pray for an end to abortion, a conversion of those who support it and forgiveness for those who have participated in it, we must ask ourselves: Just how merciful is God?
The answer comes back loudly and clearly: God is more merciful than we could have ever imagined.
In Ezekiel, in our responsorial psalm, and then in our Gospel this evening, we hear again and again: the Lord is so merciful, is so concerned with the well-being – with the salvation – of His creation, that He is willing again and again to act as a shepherd chasing after his beloved flock, regardless of the consequences.
Today’s readings teach us that God chases after his sheep, finds them and bring them back. The commemoration of Jesus’ Sacred Heart reminds us that even unto death – even unto the willingness to let the very heart of God in the world stop beating – we are pointed toward how merciful God is and how desperately He desires to have us desire what He desires.
In both Ezekiel and Luke’s Gospel there is an unspoken contrast made between good shepherds and bad shepherds. It should give us, especially those who work so tirelessly for pro-life causes, serious pause for reflection upon our actions.
Let us take, for instance, our first reading, in which the Prophet Ezekiel describes for the people in exile what type of shepherd the Lord will be. Unspoken in this description are two important points: first, the people are in exiles in an unholy, pagan land, and secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the Lord promises to become a shepherd for his people precisely because those previously enlisted to serve as leaders of the people have utterly failed them, allowed Temple worship to turn to pagan gods, and thus directly led the People of God to abandon the true God, thus opening them up to Babylonian plunder.
God responds through Ezekiel, pledging that He will, at the right time, bring the lost sheep of Israel back to the Promised Land. And yet, at the same time, there seem to be two groups of sheep about which the Lord speaks. On one hand, there is the large flock, on the other hand there are “the lost … the strayed … the injured [and] the sick.”
Included in the first flock are certainly the unborn who pledge to protect.
And, though it is sometimes hard to hear, the second flock to whom the Lord reaches out consists of: the lonely mother who believes her only recourse is to an abortion clinic, the clinic worker who believes that the “freedom to choose” is more important than the life of an unborn child, and the good friend who believing that the only choice is to drive a pregnant, scared and confused woman to Planned Parenthood.
With this in mind, we ourselves have a choice as to what type of shepherds we would like to be: shall we be the shepherds of the Lord, full of mercy and compassion, calling back those who have gone astray, or are we to be like other shepherds, dismissed by the prophet Ezekiel, those who shrug our shoulders when the work becomes too tough and slowly wander away?
Jesus provides for us the Divine Answer to these questions – He himself points us toward the way he would have us be. Luke’s Gospel picks up with Jesus addressing a parable to the Pharisees and scribes. In fact, this is the first of a series of three parables: the first is the one we heard this evening is the parable of the Lost Sheep. It is followed immediately by the parables of the Lost Coin and the well-known parable of the Prodigal Son. Why?
The answer is clear: “The tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to Jesus, but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
What a trap this is for is for us! Let us pay close attention to the Gospel: Jesus has not sinned himself, nor has he failed to call the sinners to conversion. Rather, Jesus has done what the Prophet Ezekiel has promised God will do: where all others have failed, God Himself is going to go in search of the lost. And, when finding them, God Himself is going to be the shepherd that the lost sheep need. And for this, Jesus is roundly mocked; he is conspired against because he is too merciful, too willing to risk his own neck to convert sinners to the Truth of the Gospel.
It is sad to note that there is, today, more than one of the one hundred sheep has seemingly gone missing. And yet, with all of the faithfulness of the Good Shepherd, we are call to seek after all who have gone astray regardless of the cost. We do this because when we find even a single sheep, when we convert even a single person slightly away to a position more respectful of life – from conception through natural death – there is, just as the Gospel says, “joy in heaven.”
And, joy in heaven is no less than the joy of God.
Recently in the parish, we had the experience of celebrating a funeral service for a child born at twenty-two weeks, far too early to survive. He died after a precious hour of life on this earth. Yet the parents and grandparents, in that short time, had all taken photographs with him that they brought to church as part of our service. What’s more, in the eulogy given her for child, the grieving mother made striking mention of just how meaningful their precious baby boy had been to her husband and herself since he was conceived in her womb. This striking testimony points out to us just what is at stake in our efforts: human life.
Devotion to the Sacred Heart does not necessarily teach us how to be successfully, yet it does teach us that putting on the heart of Jesus drives us out into the pasture of the world to be shepherds with the heart of the Lord and zeal for the people of God, especially when they are most lost.
When I first arrived in Boston, I came across a picture of our Cardinal Archbishop Sean O’Malley prostrate before the cross in the Dublin cathedral. I printed the picture out, seeing a model for service to the Church and the need penitence before God and those whom we serve, yet unsure what to do with is. Soon after, a colleague passed along to me a quote from the foundress of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart, Blessed Clelia Merloni. She told her sisters, “As soldiers follow their captain and fight undauntedly by his side, so too good Christians cling to the Heart of Jesus in moment of battle that they remain faithful to him.” The picture and quote now hang together above my desk in the friary. We pray this evening that these words of support as well as the Cardinal’s steadfast devotion to pro-life causes always buoy our spirits.
Brothers and sisters, as we spend this evening in vigil before the Most Holy Body of the Lord, let us pray that we will always have the good sense to stay close to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, so that when in our efforts we have the opportunity to be shepherds, we may gather in, rather than scatter and to build up, rather than tear down.
But perhaps even more importantly, let us cling to the Heart of Jesus when we ourselves believe that our devotion to the pro-life message is not bearing fruit and has led us to scorn: because if remain faithful to the burning Heart of Jesus’s love in our most desperate times of trial, those will be the times when the Good Shepherd will undoubtedly carry us home.