“So, then the Lord Jesus, after he spoke to them, was taken up into heaven and took his seat at the right hand of God. But they went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the word through accompanying signs.” Mark 16:15-20.
We celebrate the feast of the Ascension of the Lord: a time “in-between.” We acknowledge his presence at the Resurrection yet await the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
Today’s reading from Mark’s gospel concludes with a theme of discipleship, “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature.” The story of witness continues in Saint Luke’s account from the Acts of the Apostles, where you will find multiple stories about the witness of women and men of faith.
This feast day underscores the realization that the mission is ours. It is an appreciation of our role and how preaching is at the center of our global ministry and pastoral leadership as it was in the early church.
For example, at the start of Acts, Luke writes, “In the first book, Theophilus, I dealt with all that Jesus did….” The name Theophilus means “lover of God,” and, according to scholars, he may have been a patron who sponsored the distribution of this book. Conjectures about Theophilus’s identity abound, including that of a Roman official, a high priest of the temple, or St. Paul’s lawyer, among so many others.
Each of us has a particular identity in Christ, and today I’d like to speak about great preachers. After all, it was Saint Francis of Assisi who said, “Preach the gospel always, and if necessary, use words!” As Christians, each of us can bring others to Christ, most especially in those unseen moments of tenderness and service.
Naturally, I have more than a passing interest in preaching — its art, craft, and spirituality. I’ve been good at it and from time to time, and frankly not so good. But as a priest these many years, it’s a primary responsibility of mine. Some ten years ago, I asked myself, who are the great preachers today? How might they provide examples of best practice for others?
Then I began a preaching journey listening to the voices of our country’s best preachers from a variety of faith traditions, but primarily Roman Catholic, the Christian expression that I know best.
As you may know, I’ve translated this interest of mine into a television series called “Sunday to Sunday, the Preaching Journey.” We have completed our first entire season with twelve episodes and one more on the way. The series can be viewed on cable television nationally, as well as online at: Sundaytosunday.net.
The episode that we are presently editing is a one-hour documentary about Msgr. Lloyd Torgerson, the pastor of Saint Monica’s Catholic Community in Santa Monica. Here we have an extraordinary example of someone whose preaching voice has provided the impetus to laywomen, men, and young people like yourselves to do precisely what Saint Francis recommends. Namely, preaching through service is our common calling.
Our documentary highlights four parishioners who have impacted the community in Los Angeles by establishing school recreational centers, working with the elderly during this Covid-19 pandemic, helping young couples prepare for marriage, and building a maternity hospital outside of Nairobi, Kenya.
Each of these gospel witnesses tells their journey of faith and how they have addressed the genuine needs and hurts. We hope to have the film documentary released on August 27, the feast of Saint Monica.
Of course, this ministry of preaching and teaching continues here at Santa Catalina, where our teachers have such a significant role in revealing the person of Jesus. Each helps prepare our community for the Eucharist and Confirmation and gives purpose to your service learning in the Monterey community. We are so proud of these efforts of the entire Santa Catalina community of faith.
This past week, Pope Francis established the lay ministry of catechists by recognizing those laywomen and men whose charism of teaching and evangelization reaches out to you who are students. The Holy Father calls catechists an “indispensable Diakonia for the community.” The pope is acknowledging the fact that there are many more laywomen and men in ministry worldwide than ordained priests and deacons.
Pope Francis writes: “Today, too, the Spirit is calling men and women to set out and encounter all those who are waiting to discover the beauty, goodness, and truth of the Christian faith.”
He added: “The reception of a lay ministry such as that of catechist will emphasize even more the missionary commitment proper to every baptized person, a commitment that must, however, be carried out in a fully ‘secular’ manner, avoiding any forms of clericalism.”
Again, the words of Mark’s gospel, “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature.”
Rosary Chapel, Santa Catalina School, Monterey, CA.
A Final Reflection: “He is Never Far from Any of Us.”
In Acts 17, Luke turns to another scene in Athens where Saint Paul speaks to a crowd and tells them that the God who created the world and everything in it does not dwell in shrines made of human hands.
Paul assures his listeners: “That he is never far from any of us.” What’s the more profound meaning here? His point is that Jesus abides in the community of faith, hope, and love.
I want to leave you with the most remarkable insight, coming as it does from the best preacher I encountered as a young seminarian.
My scripture professor, Msgr. James Turro is now in his nineties, a much older man now, and even in his last days has left a legacy of great pastoral preaching.
Here’s Msgr. Turro’s reflection on Acts 17:27. This homily is one example of genuinely gifted preaching.
“He is never far from any of us.”
A reassuring truth that takes the edge of strangeness off life.
No place is desolate or remote; for wherever it may lie, it cannot close out the presence of God. “He is never far from any of us.”
No situation in life can be really desperate because no situation can negate this fact: “He is never far from any of us.”
What is there then that can blight our Christian hope?
For apparently there is no person, place, or thing that can neutralize the exhilarating truth that God is never far from any of us.
James Turro, “Reflections…Path to Prayer,” Paulist Press, 1972.