August 1, 2021 – Feast of St. Alphonsus Ma. de Liguori
+ Manny Cabajar, C.Ss.R. D.D. – Bishop Emeritus of Pagadian
Can you recall occasions in your life, which you can call moments of discernment or conviction or moments of decision? Alphonsus had that experience. With clarity and finality, he decided to respond to the Father’s call to mission.
Alphonsus belonged to a rich nobility in Naples, in Southern Italy. He was a very gifted musician, painter and sculptor. At the age of 16 he was already a doctor of both canon and civil law. As a young, brilliant and successful lawyer in 17th century Naples, he was handling an important case for the Duke of Tuscany. But most likely because the judge was influenced, the judgment went against him. It was shocking. For three days, he would not eat nor leave his room. Then he began to visit the Hospital of the incurables, the equivalent of our AIDS patients today. There he had an inspiration. He heard the Lord say to him, “leave the world and give yourself to me.” He interpreted this as telling him to leave the social class to which he belonged and to become a pastoral priest. He called his experience a vision – a moment of clarity and decision when he knew exactly what God wanted him to do and felt ready and willing to do it.
While praying and meditating in the cave of Scala he noticed the poor goatherds in the hills and had compassion for them. Not only were they marginalized by society, they were also neglected by the Church. Thereafter, he decided to spend his whole life preaching the Word of God to the most abandoned poor. He founded the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, whose members are more popularly known as the Redemptorists. Drawing inspiration from Alphonsus the Redemptorists try to preach the Word of God to the poor, especially the most abandoned and try to go where many in the Church would not want to go.
What motivated Alphonsus in his self-sacrificing life? It was no other than the son of a carpenter who also experienced a moment of decisive action when, at about 30 years old, he emerged from his hidden struggle to be his authentic self. Looking around him the carpenter’s son saw a culture of egotism in the pursuit of power, wealth and prestige often at the expense of the poor. It was a culture deeply steeped in sin. Searching for a model to follow he could only find his cousin, John, who was a simple and honest man but a fearless preacher proclaiming a message of powerlessness, simplicity, and humility and demanding of others and of himself to let go of all that was false and inauthentic. So, he went all the way from Galilee to Judea and lined up with sinners to be baptized by John at the river Jordan. His baptism was significant as it was a moment of definite decision, a radical option to accept the call to mission. It signified that a new time has begun in which God would reach out to the poor in a new way through a carpenter’s son. Jesus was His name.
In lining up for baptism like a sinner, Jesus set aside all exemption. He lined up before someone who would be beheaded for his convictions. Jesus would also die for his convictions. That was a horrific decision and commitment to a non-violent struggle that will win salvation for all. But it had its consolation. God manifested His presence in a form of a dove and a voice was heard, “This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.” The human Jesus needed that affirmation. God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten Son who would reverse the conventional way of doing things. Instead of using power to destroy enemies, He would become poor and powerless, like his cousin, John, allowing his enemies to apparently destroy him.
In the first 300 years of the Church’s life, baptism and ordination to a leadership role, were a very serious commitment. Leadership in the Church was a passport to martyrdom in the tradition of John and Jesus. Christianity opposed the values of the world and the human leaders espousing those values. That’s why authorities saw the Christians as a threat and wanted to silence them through cruel persecution. A huge change took place in the 4th century when the Bishop of Rome crowned Constantine Emperor. Christianity became the official religion of the Empire. Bloody persecutions ceased. Many bishops and priests became partners of kings and princes and were given titles like “Prince-Archbishop,” “Your Grace,” “Honorary Prelate.” The Church gained power and prestige but sadly lost some of her prophetic freedom. The irony was that it now became harder to follow Jesus as a Suffering Servant.
Today, are we not victims still of a similar situation? Don’t we see vestiges of power, prestige and wealth in the Institutional Church to which we also belong? Don’t we see that what we criticize in the Church’s leadership also lurks in our communities and in ourselves as individuals? In our prayer, don’t we often court power, prestige or wealth for ourselves or our families? We need a serious soul-searching as community and as individuals to help us see that the challenge of our baptism is to let go of all control, of all wealth and privileged positions. Many are afraid of this challenge. To let go is not easy. But let us remember that when we face the challenge in big or small things we validate our baptismal promise!
Can we not do that? Of course, we can. Just as the Spirit empowered Jesus at his baptism, the same Spirit empowers us and makes a dwelling place in us in a special way at baptism. We take courage from this. If we connect with the Spirit in us through prayer and meditation we can let go of all directing of God. We can open ourselves up and say, “Speak Lord my heart is listening.” Meditating and being still in the center of our being surely helps. It is when we are still at the center that we can hear our own inner wisdom blending with the wisdom of the Spirit. It is when we are still that God speaks to our hearts, telling us what he really wants us to do now.
We find our efforts at being still and silent at prayer quite frustrating at times, but we don’t give up. We keep struggling at it because at some time we don’t expect the truth will surface from the Spirit within us, like a bubble rising to the surface of a calm sea indicating there is a diver below. Dear confreres and friends: remember this about prayer and meditation – they dispose us in decisive moments to accept our baptism and its consequences just as it disposed St. Alphonsus to hear the truth within and follow Christ in seeking and doing God’s will through preaching His word among the most abandoned poor no matter what the cost was for himself. St. Alphonsus’ constant union with God through prayer empowered him to follow the Lord with fidelity and zealously proclaim the good news of the Kingdom to the poorest of the poor. Amen.