During a Harry Connick performance, that I attended in Lancaster, PA, the singer/tv/and movie star took some audience questions. Someone once asked him if he was a practicing Catholic. “You bet,” said Harry, “And I’m going to keep practicing until I get it right.” If you want to know the message at the heart of today’s feast, that is it. The saints teach us what it means to “keep practicing until we get it right.” Many of them spent a lifetime doing just that. They are reminders of what we can aspire to—if we will practice it.
In one example, practice makes perfect in the life of one past American named Augustus Tolton, now in the canonization process of the Church. His story is one of much practice of courage, endurance, unconditional love of people, patience, and deep study of Catholicism. The gospel and the beatitudes today at Mass remind us of that last one of being willing to suffer for the Lord and do good in His Name. This Tolton did. Jesus says to such followers, as Matthew 5 proclaims it: “Be glad and rejoice, for your reward is Heaven!”
Tolton was baptized as a child as a Catholic, but his family in Missouri was in slavery. He lived in the mid-19th century. His was a difficult life. He got over to Illinois, a “free state” in pre-Civil War time, and he was able to study and grow in Catholic faith, even with interest later in the priesthood. However, there was fierce resistance (among Catholics and Protestants) in America at that time for a native, black priest. Yet Fr. Augustus Tolton’s story is how he lived out his baptism vocation into a service vocation as priest to the Church in America. He is, as a priest, for Catholics in America—as to what Jackie Robinson was to baseball and of racial walls breaking down due to his pioneering role.
Fr. Tolton, ordained in St. Peter’s, Rome (where, incidentally, I celebrated a Mass in his remembrance on Oct. 15th with our pilgrimage group) came back to Illinois to a challenging priesthood of much non-acceptance. Yet his way of perseverance and love is what makes his story compelling. Fr. Gus Tolton had to keep practicing his trust and call in God until he got it right, which led him to our own hall of fame in the Church, as a recognized saint to glory. Fr. Gus asked of the Church to live a more deep practice of the way of Jesus Christ. Fr. Gus’ ministry still teaches us into today’s time.
You can best learn more tonight of him by staying for the 75-minute program, with actor Jim Coleman, at 7:30 p.m.
A good place to learn how to become a saint is to seek to live out the eight teachings of Jesus, called The Beatitudes. They are eight in number, meaning, seven is the full number and eight is the number of beyond fullness, as unto eternity. Our Masses are an “eighth day” experience, as we live a new covenant of Christ, into eternal life. The beatitudes tell us how to live the day to day attitude of how to be a follower. Be-attitudes.
In his book “Jesus of Nazareth,” Pope Benedict wrote that The Beatitudes a truly given as self-portrait by Christ Jesus. While we don’t have an actual drawing or photograph of him from 2000 years ago, the Beatitudes are the picture God wants us to have, and to model ourselves after. In the “blessed are’s,” as in the meek, the merciful, the clean of heart, the persecuted…Jesus is, in fact, first describing Himself. And by extension, He is describing His vision for us, His followers. The Beatitudes are given more than just suggestions in how to be good people. We are given an abiding lesson in how to love and how to imitate our Master. They give a blueprint for holiness—and lead into the whole Sermon on the Mount lessons of Jesus.
Beatitude living means in giving of yourself to another. It means humility, sacrifice, and even suffering in one’s practice of faith. And out of that, people who are broken or sinful become, by God’s grace, “blessed.” Saintly folk.
It takes grace to live out the Beatitudes; for they can be hard to practice.
Because being poor in spirit is radical — trying to be humble in a world of bombast and boasting and all wanting to be #1— that is a challenge.
Because hungering and thirsting for righteousness — as in living an ethical life in an unethical world — that is radical practice these days. Being merciful and showing mercy — when most want only to get even or get revenge— that is radical. Honesty goes always with a life in mercy, and so many would choose not this path anymore. But saints do.
Having a clean heart — untainted by cynicism or bitterness or malice, seeking the best in others — this is challenging, too. We’d better rely on God’s grace for it. I notice, even in the flock of Christ, so many words or non-verbal communications from people with ohigh criticisms, finger pointing and blaming out, harshness, haughtiness, and angry attitude. Jesus said: For out of the heart come the vile things. ‘Better ask for a cleaning out! Blessed are the clean of heart!
Choosing to be a peacemaker or a peace-of-God sower — in a society that thrives more than ever on division and conflict and hate — is a difficult path, too.
Standing up for the faith — standing for the Gospel, defending the defenseless and preaching Christ crucified and facing persecution for being His disciple — is our call today, but not many really want to live it—meaning, sainthood is not on their mind. Yet we are all called to be saints, my friends! ‘Right?! That’s what this holy day is about. And practicing our Catholic faith in full trust in Jesus Christ makes a saint.
This Gospel reminds me of how it was read at a recent parish wedding. It was a good choice by the couple for their wedding Gospel: these words show how love is made manifest. Not romantic, sentimental love. But deep, selfless, sacrificial love — that same love Christ has for the world. The kind of love expressed with His open arms on the cross.
The merciful love God has for all of us.
This is the love we are called to emulate, the love we are called to give.
Happy All Saint’s Day!