When I was a senior in college, I had some free time in my schedule, so for a year I volunteered at a local soup kitchen that served lunch every day. It was sponsored by a Protestant church led by a dynamic lady-pastor. Every day, before distributing free lunches to seventy or so poor people, she would give them a ten-minute sermon about Christ. Her rule was: no sermon, no food! The hungry people usually grumbled about the sermon – they were there for soup and bread, and they didn’t want to listen to a Jesus-talk!
Whether or not the message got into their souls, I’m not sure – but I think this Protestant pastor had her priorities in the right order! These people came for bread and soup, but they really hungered for more than that – they hungered for God, for His love, for His mercy and hope.
Yesterday’s first reading shows a very interesting dichotomy springing up in the early Church. The Apostles notice people having legitimate needs – the widows need a daily distribution of bread and money. But the Apostles do not do that task themselves – they delegate it to the deacons. As important as it is to feed people, the Apostles knew that they had a higher mission – prayer and the ministry of the Word.
A lot of people — even Catholics — consider prayer and the Word to be almost a waste of time. Every day when I pray in St. John’s Church, I go up to the choir loft to pray. I have to go up there because, during prayer, I have frequently been interrupted by parishioners who have said to me, “Oh, I’m so glad you’re not busy with anything important. Can we talk?” Nothing important? Prayer and preaching the Gospel are the most important things we do as a Church!
The last 150 years have seen a rise in a heresy that you may have never heard of but which has been hugely influential: a heresy called Modernism. Modernism is the denial of the supernatural aspect of religion. What does that mean, practically? Modernism says that religion’s goal is to make the world a better place, rather than to save our souls for eternity. Modernism says that doing good works are more important than prayer. Basically, modernism focuses on this world (our relationships with one another) and downplays or denies the importance of eternity (and our relationship with God).
Why is this important? Because many good people think that loving our neighbor is more important than prayer or spreading the Gospel. You may have seen a practical example of this during the Amazon Synod that was held in the Vatican this past fall. One of the attendees was a priest who had spent forty years in the Amazon. He proudly boasted that he had not baptized a single person in the Amazon, preferring instead to help them learn how to farm and practice hygiene. How sad! As good as those things are, receiving God’s grace would have been a better help!
Loving our neighbor should flow from our intimate union with God, and as we help our neighbor with physical needs like bread and medicine, we should also invite them to encounter the Living Bread and the Divine Physician. If I give a man a loaf of bread, he eats for a day; if I give him a newfound faith in Christ, his deepest hunger will be satisfied into eternity.
Here’s how this applies to us here and now. During this quarantine, many people are feeling like they want to “do something” — they have a real, good, legitimate hunger to make a difference. But prayer is the most powerful way to do something. Intimate union with Christ and sanctifying ourselves is actually the most important thing we can do during this time of pandemic. Jesus says in the Gospel that He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life — our intimate connection with Him is what gives us the grace to do good works.
In addition to prayer, the Apostles valued the “ministry of the Word”. What can that mean, practically? A couple suggestions. With all of this free time on our hands, have you picked up the Bible or other spiritual reading? Have you watched any good religious movies or videos about our Catholic Faith on YouTube? You have the duty and obligation to form your own soul. So many Catholics leave the Church and say as an excuse, “Oh, I didn’t feel like I was being fed.” Well, the mark of a mature Christian is that they feed themselves! Through the internet, we have an incredible library at our fingertips for learning more about our Catholic Faith. Go form yourself – and form your family!
Now that religious education is cancelled, are you parents living up to the promises you made at your child’s baptism to be the “first and best teachers of your child in the Faith”? You must use this time profitably, to benefit your soul and the souls of your family!
It can feel like we’re not “accomplishing anything” when we pray or learn more about our Catholic Faith. But the Apostles considered that to be the most important work in the world. Currently, we have lots of time on our hands — don’t waste this unique opportunity trying to be busy with a thousand Zoom meetings or painting rocks, when prayer and the ministry of the Word should occupy your life!