August 23: A Ministry of Kindness (21 A)

“Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How inscrutable are his judgments and how unsearchable his ways!” Romans 11:33-36.

We’re moving into the dog days of summer, and for the past few days, it’s unusually warm here in Monterey.

More to the point, we are witnessing firestorms across California with the loss of lives, destruction of homes, and plenty of acrid smoke. Stay safe!

Last week, August 15, the feast of the Assumption, remains a signal for me. As a student and later as a teacher, this feast day meant the lazy days at the Jersey Shore would end soon, Labor Day is not far away, and the beginning of a new academic year.

Well, not so much this year! This ritual is very different for teachers and students as we take on new forms of learning both at home and in online learning communities.

My prayers and encouragement! I marvel at your ability to adapt to this time of COVID-19. Our present “shelter in place” orders so intended for the protection and safety hang on us like a heavy weight.

Today’s gospel passage contains two of the three-hundred and seven questions that Jesus asked in the New Testament. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is on a tour of his native land.

Last week at Mass, we read that Jesus and his band of followers were in Tyre and Sidon, present-day Lebanon. We learn they are in the town of Caesarea Philippi, a Roman enclave, on the Golan Heights, again on the border of Lebanon and present-day Israel.

Jesus encountered so many people in need – those whose pains were healed by his touch, and those whose personal burdens were lifted by his encouraging words. All these people were touched by his kindness — women, and men, children, but mostly “the poor in spirit.”

His disciples were more than mere handlers of this road tour. Instead, Jesus inquired whether they were willing to be true leaders of his spiritual movement. He asked: Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” Their individual and first-hand experience of him and his ministry had to have affected their impressions of him. For this reason, Jesus asked: “But who do you say that I am?”

Here is the central question for all believers, coming to know Jesus, the human face of God. Jesus rewarded his disciples and Apostles, with the “keys to the kingdom of heaven.” At this point, they understood little of what would unfold in Jesus’s life and their own lives. Nonetheless, Jesus’s ministry gave voice to their optimism, kindness, and hope.

We, too, have to act on behalf of Jesus’s ministry, especially in these days. Like no other time in my memory, the COVID-19 experience has challenged the best in us and calls each of us to greater kindness.

We have to take up a “ministry of kindness,” and this is something doable. Here’s an example.

Over the summer, I caught up on films that I had missed in their initial release. Recently, I watched “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” with Tom Hanks in the role of Fred Rogers, with Welsh actor Matthew Rhys, playing Lloyd Vogel, a journalist who’s on assignment to write a profile of Rogers for Esquire Magazine.

The premise of this movie is that Rogers, the TV icon for kids, is more a “shepherd of souls.” Rogers takes on the reporter’s tormented relations with his father, played by Chris Cooper. Here, in an almost biblical father/son struggle, simple kindness heals anger over past mistakes. It’s mostly a true story or parable adapted for film, set in the “land of make-believe” that uncanny valley of Rogers’ imagination.

Could the task of writing about a “living saint” mean the unmasking of artifice, in this case, an actor merely playing a role for television? For Lloyd Vogel, there is a reporter’s careful observation, where he witnesses Fred’s speaking “heart to heart” with kids in need. Thus, there is the pure unfolding of Fred’s unique strength of personal kindness.

In the end, Mr. Roger’s sole gift is to appreciate the child (and all people) not for what the child will be, but rather for who the child is right now!

Our teachers and staff at Santa Catalina, and our generous parents who have entrusted your daughters to us — take a moment to recall your own childhood. In Fred Rogers’ words, recall those wonderful ones who have “loved you into being.” Take a moment for reflection.

Our task is to appreciate these young women not for what they will be or might become, rather who they are at this very moment. We celebrate you, and we welcome all those new to Santa Catalina. You are the reason for our work day-to-day. Behind those COVID-19 protective masks, let’s have plenty of smiles to greet one another and the new academic year!

In this present work of ours, Jesus tells us that we are not far from the kingdom of God.  Indeed, our kindness is the key to this invisible kingdom of the heart.

Despite the challenges to our health and safety and our current modes of learning, let’s work on the ministry of kindness. I’m confident we will get us through the days and weeks ahead and prosper for years to come!

Rosary Chapel, Santa Catalina School, Monterey, CA.


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