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January 28, 2018 - Holiness is a Personal, Family, and Social Pursuit

Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Scripture Readings

At every visit home, one of the greatest edification I receive is from my parent’s spirituality. First of all, they are two very genuine people. So I believe that their spiritual life is also genuine. Their hour-long morning and evening prayer, their selfless intercession for every need of the world, their participation in daily mass, their devotional practices and corporal works of mercy are truly inspirational. Not once have I felt that my priestly holiness and spirituality is superior to theirs. In fact, I have felt that the opposite is true. I know that my parent’s holiness far exceeds mine. And I know this to be true about them not only as retired people but even when I was a child. For that matter, there are many people in this congregation of whom I would say the same thing. 

So what do we do with Paul’s advice last week and today about the value of celibacy and the distractions of marriage? We heard last week: “From now on,” Paul said, “let those having wives act as not having them….” In today’s second reading, Paul proposes a clear preference for the unmarried state because, as he puts it, “a married man/woman is anxious about the things of the world.” Paul suggests that a celibate man’s/virgin’s heart is undivided between the Lord and the world/spouse. What do we make of these readings?

The first thing we can do is to understand Paul correctly. Paul’s advice stems from two major concerns. First, Paul was aware of the grueling demands that the founding and growth of the infant church made on him. He was himself unmarried, and it required his single-minded dedication to found and minister to these communities. Unless he was supported by other people like him, perhaps he was afraid that the churches would suffer neglect. But more importantly, Paul’s eschatology (understanding of the end times) contributed greatly to his view of how Christians should live their lives. The entire gamut of Paul’s writing reveals the notion that the coming of Christ was imminent. Hence, Paul did not see the necessity for anyone to make any radical changes to their status quo. Perhaps Paul did not mean to underscore virginity or celibacy over marriage and, perhaps he was merely putting marriage and celibacy within context of the imminent coming of Christ. 

What does all this mean for us? How shall we interpret Paul today? 

  1. Vatican ll and the Restoration of Marriage and Family as a Vocation. Neither Paul nor the monks intended to make married life secondary to celibacy. They were simply responding to the context within which they found themselves. It was not until Vatican II, that there was an attempt to bring more parity between the vocation to the celibate and family life. Today, the church considers marriage and the holiness associated with it to be as sacred as the call to priesthood and consecrated life. And I urge that families to claim the holiness that is due them. Marriage and family calls for the same selfless love that that priesthood demands. It takes single-minded devotion and commitment to make marriage and family work. It requires heroic yet often unnoticed self-sacrifice to be holy families. However, in the contemporary world, marriage and family suffer for a very different reason. An increasing number of young men and women are choosing to live as married people without entering marriage. Experts tell us that today’s young adults are afraid of commitment. Others are delaying their marriage for financial and career reasons. Both Google and Apple now offer women the option to freeze their eggs so that they can freely pursue their career. 
  1. Holiness and the Dignity of Women. However, Paul was also a man of his times. His understanding of the role of women both in a household and in the church can be considered archaic. But that is Paul’s social issue and not a moral issue. He gives no indication that he considered women to be inferior to men. On the contrary, his writings tell us that he depended on prominent women in some of the communities he founded. Some of these women were even heads of households. Unfortunately, old age prejudices have not died. News about the harassment and abuse of women in the US gymnastic teams, at work, in the entertainment industry, and in the confines of homes shows that society still treats women with disrespect. This is the time when the Church must stand up for the dignity of women. The church must radically live out the fact that both men and women are made equal in the image and likeness of God. Holiness is for all, men and women alike. May the church promote this rather than become an obstacle. 
  1. Prayer, Marriage and the Family. I would like to return to the example my parents set for me. I can categorically say that at the core of my family there has been a very healthy spirituality that centered on prayer and charity. Today, I want to encourage every family to give prayer, spirituality, and charity the place they deserve and to do so genuinely. Our families are called to uncompromising holiness. Nothing excuses us from humility, self-sacrifice, faith and Christ-like love. Nothing excuses us from holiness. I am inviting families to create structures that make it easy to pray together, to do charitable works together, to eat together and to solve family problems together, and have fun together. As much as you expect me to be a holy priest, I expect you to be a holy family. Yes, you as a family and I as celibate priest have the same goal – holiness! 

“Lord, may we always strive for holiness both individually and in our families. May this Eucharist make us holy. May our holiness be seen in the way we treat all people with respect and dignity. Amen.”  

- Fr. Satish Joseph