There are many homilies that I remember. From when I was discerning my vocation and participating at Saint Matthew’s Cathedral, there are several from Cardinal Hickey, and a few from Father Brainerd. From my days in seminary, there are the good, the bad, and the ugly from the faculty – all of them good for a chuckle from my classmates. From my time as a priest secretary in Rome, these two from Cardinal Ratzinger: his address to Pope Saint John Paul II upon the twenty-fifth anniversary of his pontificate, and his “dictatorship of relativism” talk from the Mass of the Holy Spirit before the 2005 Conclave that elected him to the Chair of Peter.
But from much before that, I cannot point to very many homilies that have staying power, with one exception. When I was a kid in Birmingham, going to Mass at Our Lady of Sorrows, we occasionally had the pleasure of a guest priest. He was the abbot of the Benedictine monastery in Cullman, about forty minutes north of us. Though I really did not know what a Benedictine monk was, I knew we called him Abbot Hilary, and I was always pleased when he came. I liked his preaching and his manner of celebrating Mass, both of which he did with particular care and delight.
This weekend we interrupt our year-long reading of the Gospel of Mark for a five-week detour into the Gospel of John. We begin with the feeding of the multitude, picking up neatly from where Mark left us last week, but leading us where Mark did not choose to go: with Jesus to Capernaum, and the square in front of the synagogue there. The throng that has been fed once seeks to be fed again, and Jesus responds by teaching them how, and what, He will feed them.
It requires five Sundays to move through a single chapter, John Chapter Six, a Scriptural citation that should come easily to every Catholic, and every Christian for that matter. It is the Eucharistic Discourse that John gives us in order to understand this mystery that is at the heart of the relationship and life that Jesus offers us. The other Evangelists explain the Eucharist in the presentation of the Last Supper, where John focuses on the mandatum, the washing of the feet. But there is no room to believe that he did not emphasize the Eucharist, and this chapter makes that clear.
What Jesus proposed in that square to that crowd was scandalous and repellent then, but to us has become so familiar that it might lose its meaning. As Jesus directs the hungry crowd to hunger instead for what he will give them, we have a chance to hear the same invitation in our own circumstance. In anger and disgust, many reject his offer and walk away, then and now. He concludes with the poignant question, Do you also want to leave? We hear Peter’s answer, but He stands waiting for ours.
The homily I remember from my youth is Abbot Hilary’s on the final portion of John Chapter Six, when Jesus poses to his listeners, and to us, this choice of how to respond to His offered Body and Blood. The response that I chose led me to be in a position to propose the same choice to you. Over these five weeks, you may or may not hear, much less ever recall, my preaching on this vital element in our Faith. But do not let the words of the Holy Gospel reach your ears in vain, for it is what Jesus says to the multitude at Capernaum that should be one of the homilies that you remember.