Sunday, July 11, 2021



He summoned them. He sent them out.

He gave them authority. He instructed

them to take nothing for the journey.

Mark 6



When I read the words of St. Paul in last Sunday’s second reading, “I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong,” and the lines from this week’s gospel, “take nothing for your journey,” I immediately thought of one of my heroes, a young 13 year old poet by the name of Mattie J. T. Stepanek who died in 2004. I have mentioned him a couple of times before. When he died, he had been writing poetry since the age of five. I own three of his poetry books. I have a clipping about him being released from Children’s Hospital in Washington DC due to respiratory and other health complications caused by a rare form of muscular dystrophy. His mother, if she is still alive, also has it and three of his siblings have already died from this disease. He was always in fragile condition and requiring platelet transfusions every few days. A precocious child, he started writing poems when he was five years old and won many national literary prizes.

When I was following him, he lived in a wheelchair loaded with medical equipment and needed oxygen through a ventilator in his throat all the time because his “automatic” systems like breathing, heart rate, body temperature, oxygenation and digestion didn’t work well on their own.”

Through his poetry, he expressed wisdom in a way that touched many hearts. With his unabashed enthusiasm for life, Mattie charmed everyone who crossed his path and inspired many people, young and old, to overcome every obstacle that they encountered and to strive for their goals with dignity and humanity. All three of his wishes in life came true before he died: publish a book of poetry, meet his hero Jimmy Carter and appear on Oprah. When he met President Carter, he did not talk about his own health problems, but about problems in Bosnia and Africa and his desire to be a peacemaker in the world. In spite of the fact that he was hooked up to all that equipment, he was still able to see miracles all around him.

In last week’s second reading Paul reveals himself as such a person, a person who remained hopeful and courageous in face of physical pain, personal setbacks and sell-outs by those closest to him. He even brags that “when I am weak, then I am strong.” Weariness, physical pain, opposition, slander, failure and even martyrdom could not diminish his hope in the power of God to turn disasters into opportunities to do wonderful things. Paul never gave up on God’s ability to pull a miracle out of the ashes, no matter what he faced.

In this week’s gospel, Jesus sends his first apostles out to preach the gospel and instructs them to “take nothing for the journey.” There is no need to take his words in a literal sense. If we did, we would all own nothing but one set of clothes, one pair of shoes and a walking stick. The spirit of what he says, however, is important. What Jesus is really saying, I believe, is that when it comes to living the life of a disciple, nothing external matters compared to the zeal in our hearts. Discipleship is a case of “Nemo dat, quod non habet.” “You can’t give what you do not have.” Gimmicks, slick advertising and complicated structures merely slow you down, turn people off and end up becoming a substitute for real faith. It is when we are weak, it is when we depend completely on Jesus, it is when we walk by faith and not by sight that we are strong.

Mattie Stepanek and Saint Paul give me hope and remind me of this great truth, “when I am weak, then I am strong.” The last twenty years have been difficult for priests. Many times, I have found myself angry, scared and low on hope. Throughout this dark experience, I have kept coming back to the truth preached by St. Paul and exemplified by the courageous life of young Mattie Stepanek: “when I am weak, then I am strong.”

Before he died, retired Archbishop John R. Quinn of San Francisco reminded me once again of the great truth of today’s gospel in an article he wrote several years ago for AMERICA magazine. I taped his words into one of my journals. He made the point that we priests might be at our best when we are down, not when things are going well, when we have “nothing left to take on the journey.” I tend to believe him. Here is what he said:

I believe, in fact that this is the best time in history to be a priest, because it is a time when there can be only one reason to be priest or remaining a priest – that is, to “be with” Christ. It is not for perks or applause or respect or position or money or any other gain or advantage. Those things either no longer exist or are swiftly passing. The priest of today is forced to choose whether he wants to give himself to the real Christ, who embraced poverty, rejection and misrepresentation or whether he wants an earthly messiah for whom success follows on success.

I just finished six years as a volunteer in the Caribbean mission. I made twelve trips altogether. I usually came home wondering what difference I was making because the needs there are endless, even before this year’s volcano eruption. I usually came home exhausted from the poverty, heat, noise, chaos and the endless stress of getting there and back! My need to “fix it” and “make it all better” was severely challenged. I found myself worn down by “compassion fatigue” and tempted to “quit caring.” At seventy-six, I was aware that the sand was running out of my hour glass! I wondered how much longer I would be able to do what I was doing. COVID restrictions and an erupting volcano made the decision for me.

I learned a lot from those experiences. I learned that trials purify motives. It is only when we lose control that we find out that God is truly in charge and that all is in his hands. I leaned that how one handles things that must be handled is more important than what must be handled. I learned again that it is easy to believe when one sees clearly. It is easy to be hopeful is when everything is going our way. It is easy to keep going when successes follow on each other. Who needs God when you have the world by the tail! Down in the islands, I was taught the fact that I certainly do not have the world by the tail! The problems were so overwhelming at times that I felt powerless in a world of people who feel powerless. I know that my presence was not really about giving as much as it is about learning what it is like to be powerless. I was forced to remember the words of Mother Teresa who said, "God is not calling me to be successful. God is calling be to be faithful." I was trying to remember the words of Thomas Merton. "I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it."

My friends, the idea of “power in weakness” makes no sense to those who buy wholeheartedly into today’s values of “being number one” and “winning at all cost.” History has proven, however, that when the church is fat and lazy and comfortable, it dies, but when the church it attacked, in trouble, powerless and lean, it is most powerful. Look at the church in Europe! It is almost dead! Look at the church in Africa! It is alive and growing! Maybe the best days of the church lie ahead of us, rather than behind us, in spite of the trials we are enduring at this time. I, for one, believe that we are not dying, but going through a purification process that is burning out our mediocrity, smugness, presumption and indifference! We are not dying, we are being reborn! Out of our weakness, we will become strong.

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