A Homily for the 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
During the twenty-four years that I taught theology at Bethlehem Catholic High School, I was in residence at Notre Dame Rectory. One afternoon as I was sitting in the kitchen, in came the pastor, Msgr. Bill Handges.
“Hi, Bill!” I said. “How did your medical checkup turn out this afternoon?”
“Well, Bernie,” he replied. “I got some doubtful test results. My PSA level is elevated.”
“Are you worried?” I asked.
“No!” replied Monsignor without a moment of hesitation. “Looking back over my life, I have come to see that the Lord has always been good to me. He’s good to me now, and I see no reason why He shouldn’t continue being so. God has been with me in the past. He’s with me in the present, and He’ll be with me in the future as well.”
“Wow!” I exclaimed. “What a great philosophy! Bill, I want to be just like you when I grow up.”
You know, that one conversation with Msgr. Handges has had a profound impact on my life. Until that time, I used to be terrified about going to the doctor. Talk about white-knuckle fear! I had a serious case of what they call the white-coat syndrome. Every time I saw that blood pressure cuff, my own blood pressure would rise out of sheer anxiety. But the more I ponder Monsignor’s words, the more they seem to make sense to me. Reflecting upon my life, I can see that God has indeed been good to me. He is good to me now, and why should He not continue being good to me in the future? I am more confident now about my medical checkups. I have greater confidence in facing my future because I took the time to examine my past. Sometimes we cannot go forward until we look back.
In our Second Reading today from the Letter of Saint Paul to the Philippians, the Apostle, it seems to me, has learned the same lesson. He is confident that Christ will be with him in the future precisely because he has come to realize that the Lord has always been with him in the past.
I know how to live in humble circumstances; I know also how to live with abundance. In every circumstance and in all things I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry, of living in abundance and of being in need. I can do all things in him who strengthens me.
I love that last sentence: I can do all things in him who strengthens me. In my college days, I memorized it in Latin: Omnia possum in eo qui me confortat. The more Saint Paul examined his past, the more he came to realize that Christ was with him in the present and would likewise be with him in the future. It reminds me of that verse from the familiar hymn “Amazing Grace”:
Through many dangers, toils, and snares I have already come.
‘Tis grace has brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.
Sometimes we cannot go forward until we look back.
Maybe right now would be a good time for all of us to take a quick glance over our shoulders and to look back on our own lives. Hasn’t God been with us until now? Hasn’t He used unforeseen circumstances and even events beyond our control to bring us to where we are today? Hasn’t he brought us unexpected blessings in surprising ways?
I don’t know about you, but my life has been one big surprise. After attending Catholic school for only three years—kindergarten, first grade, and second grade—my parents were told in no uncertain terms that the Cathedral elementary school could no longer teach me because of my poor eyesight. So I got kicked out of Catholic school! After that, I attended public school, and no one gave me any CCD instruction. In addition, of all the priests now living in the diocese, I have spent the least amount of time in seminary—only five years. So how did it happen that I got to teach theology for twenty-four years at Bethlehem Catholic High School? And how does it happen now that I get to preach at Saint Jane Frances de Chantal Church, one of the largest parishes in the diocese? Who in his right mind could have predicted that? For the life of me, I can’t figure out how that happened.
Yes, one of these days, if I don’t die in some tragic accident, I’ll go to my doctor and get that terminal diagnosis. When that happens, I hope I’ll be able to remember Msgr. Handges’ inspiring words: Bernie, looking back over my life, I have come to see that the Lord has always been good to me, and I see no reason why He shouldn’t continue being so. God has been with me in the past. He’s with me in the present, and He’ll be with me in the future as well. (By the way, in case you are wondering, Monsignor’s dubious medical tests proved to be a false alarm. Everything turned out just fine!)
When my doctor tells me that my days are numbered, I pray that I will be just as calm as Msgr. Handges when he got his doubtful diagnosis. I pray that I will be able to reflect upon my entire life and realize just how good God has been to me. With that in mind, I hope I’ll be able to look forward to the future—whatever that may hold. What a future it will be if, with God’s help, I make it to the other side! Maybe I’ll even get to meet Mark Twain, who inspired me to put humor and accents into my homilies. Maybe—Oh joy of joys!!—I’ll get to see again and embrace my all-time favorite teacher, Mrs. Lillian Hassler, who taught me in fifth grade at Jefferson Elementary School. It was she, after all, who told our class that “Success comes in cans.” In other words, success comes when we say, I can do it! Maybe I’ll even get to meet Saint Paul, who had the best line of all: Omnia possum in eo qui me confortat. I can do all things in him who strengthens me.
 Philippians 4:12-13.