Thursday, February 17, 2011

"Do whatever He tells you!" Bishop Vasa tells medical professionals

Homily for White Mass
Cathedral of St. Peter the Apostle
Kansas City, Kansas
Most Rev. Robert Vasa

Dear Brothers and Sisters!

Pope Benedict, in announcing this year’s World Day of the Sick, wrote:

Every year, on the day of the memorial of the Blessed Virgin of Lourdes, which is celebrated on 11 February, the Church proposes the World Day of the Sick. This event, as the venerable John Paul II wanted, becomes a most suitable occasion to reflect upon the mystery of suffering and above all to make our communities and civil society more sensitive to our sick brothers and sisters. If every man is our brother, much more must the sick, the suffering and those in need of care be, at the center of our attention, so that none of them feels forgotten or emarginated.

Indeed, he writes quoting his Encyclical Spe Salvi:

The true measure of humanity is essentially determined in relationship to suffering and to the sufferer. This holds true both for the individual and for society. A society unable to accept its suffering members and incapable of helping to share their suffering and to bear it inwardly through ‘com-passion’ is a cruel and inhuman society. (Encyclical letter Spe salvi, n. 38)

The Holy Father intentionally hyphenates the word com-passion to emphasize its true meaning of entering into and sharing the suffering of another.

It is a privilege for me to have this opportunity to be with you as you celebrate this White Mass and commemorate Our Lady of Lourdes as well as the World Day of the Sick. What better group to associate with on this day than those involved in the provision of appropriate com-passionate care as understood by the Church. On this day we look to Mary to find her message for us.

In our Gospel today we recount the only time in the Gospel records when Mary issues a command. In most of her other words she is responding to God’s activity in her life. On this occasion she goes to the stewards of hospitality and simply instructs them: Do whatever He tells you!

We may imagine that this admonition was easily received by the stewards and that following her command involved no great challenge or dilemma for these stewards. Yet, when we consider the situation and circumstances, their obedience to her command could have been neither easy nor automatic.

Consider that these stewards were responsible for the welfare of the guests. They were probably caterers whose livelihood depended upon satisfied customers. When they discovered that the wine was running low they would have been inclined to do that which any prudent business person would have done. They would have been on their way to the nearest market to obtain that which was further necessary for the celebration. They are told by Mary to wait, to be patient and to see what Jesus would tell them to do. Further, as Mary commanded, they were to do what He said.

Imagine their anticipation for the great order which would come. They were ready for anything and then the word came. Fill these large stone jars with water. Foolish, ridiculous, even stupid. There was no time for such nonsense. Their reputations, their jobs, their livelihood was at stake. What would it have taken for those stewards, who knew well how things in the world operated, to abandon their own reasonableness and actually fill those six large jars with water? At very least they could have split the duties. Perhaps they would have thought: Let two of us fill jars, you other three go get more wine. The Gospels do not indicate any such behavior. At Mary’s word, Do whatever He commands you, they had faith enough to take a marvelous leap of faith and, instead of going out to buy more wine, they fill six large stone jars with water. Without their faith, no miracle would happen.

They passed the first test and came back to Jesus, still waiting for some marvelous ostentatious sign. What they heard must have sounded more ridiculous than what they heard the first time. Jesus said: Now take some of that water and give it to the head of hospitality, to your boss and tell him this is for the guests. Now, this is really going too far. The guests may be inebriated and the head waiter may have tipped a few himself but trying to convince him that this water would be as good as wine is suicidal. Again, recalling Mary’s confident words, Do whatever He tells you, they took courage and did that which required faith. They drew out some of the water, which they did not know had been turned into wine, and took it to their boss. Imagine the courage it took to hand him that flagon of water and to say, “Here, give them this!”

There are really three miracles here. Faith enough to fill jars with water is one. Faith enough to take that water to a head steward is the second. The third is that which we recall as the Miracle of the Wedding Feast of Cana the miracle of water turned into wine. Yet, all three are necessary. All three are related to an action of Mary. She tells her Son, “They have no more wine” and she tells the stewards, “Do whatever He tells you.”

We are men and women of rationality and science. I tell you, I doubt I would have had faith enough to fill jars with water and to act on Jesus’ word. Yet, in the practice of medicine as Catholics that is precisely what Jesus sometimes asks us to do. We are repeatedly challenged to decide if we are people of science or people of faith. In truth, we must always be both. In those instances where faith and science agree there is no moral or ethical conflict. In those instances where science or the usual practice of medicine conflicts with faith, or conflicts with the moral code of our Church, we must be men and women of faith. And that’s not easy. In the judgment of some this will be foolish, ridiculous, even stupid, but we need to hear Mary’s words as readily and as faithfully as did those stewards, “Do whatever He tells you.”

Perhaps the commands of Jesus in this instance were intentionally farfetched in order to teach us a profound lesson of trust. Yet, the miracle accounts often required a stretching of rational limits. To the man with a crippled hand He says, “Stretch out your hand.” The rational response would have been, “I can’t its crippled.” The only reasonable response on the part of Lazarus to Jesus’ command that he come out of the tomb would have been, “I can’t, I’m dead!” Jesus was laughed at and ridiculed by a well reasoned crowd when he came to the home of Jairus and told the crowd that the little girl was not dead but sleeping. A woman in a crowd knew beyond reason but with great faith that if she could just touch the hem of Jesus’ cloak she would be healed and she was. Each of these encounters with the healing Jesus involved a serious suspension of reason, a willingness to keep science in its proper place.

As Physicians who embrace the Catholic faith you must know that you cannot minimize or neglect reason or science in your pursuit of good for your patients. For you, however, as believers in Jesus, that reason will and must always be tempered by, and subject to, faith. As you face difficult situations and circumstances, you too need to hear the words of our all compassionate Mother, “Do whatever He tells you.” In those instances where faith and reason seem to be in conflict then, provided you truly know your faith, you will become convinced that it is reason and not faith which is involved in error. In our subjectivist, relativistic age which often masquerades as an age of pure reason it is tempting to put a lot more faith in science and reason than it is to put faith in God. Yet, both are acts of faith and both are directed toward a perceived god. For much of our society that god is science or government or technology. For us there is a greater God and a greater good. The wine stewards were wise enough to put their trust in the one whom Mary trusted. The Church now stands in the place of Christ and Mary still says to us, as she said to those stewards, “Do whatever He tells you.”

I think that one of the things we tend to lose sight of today in modern medicine is that our God is still a personal God. We hear the words of Jesus through the Church but we forget that it is still this Incarnate Jesus who speaks though the Church. Mary stands for us as that reminding mediator who tells us that her Son is still real and still personally involved in our lives and in the life of the world. He is not an abstract rule or law or moral code. He is a Person who still abides with us and with whom we are still called to have a personal relationship. Mary reminds us that her Son, even through the Church, is still worth listening to and obeying. For this reason her words reverberate throughout the centuries as an even more ardent plea, “Do whatever He tells you!” She was present to the stewards and their awareness of her presence gave them courage to follow her command and to obey Jesus. May her presence in our lives likewise be an ever present impetus for us to be courageous in following her command and obeying the voice of her Son in the world today.