God is with us always from Fr. Mark
(Editor’s Note: This is Provincial Minister Mark Soehner’s homily from the SJB Province Mass of Thanksgiving, June 16, 2023, in its entirety. He draws his reflection from Matthew's Gospel quoted below.)
The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had ordered them. When they saw him, they worshiped, but they doubted. Then Jesus approached and said to them, “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age." - Matthew 28:19-20
I’m struck by the words of the Gospel (Matthew 28:19-20) describing the early believing community. It says of these disciples: “They worshiped, but they doubted.” This powerful phrase also describes most of us today: We come with the worship of God during our history as St. John the Baptist Province. And also we bring a kind of doubt, a wondering whether God will really stay with us into our new future. We are invited, as St. Bonaventure said, to hold together this “coincidence of opposites”.
In this early community, the disciples, even after the Resurrection, were still looking forward to things picking up where they were before that horrible execution and death. They still didn’t get the entire thing, even after the Resurrection! They were puzzled by His insistence that they should not cling to His glorified body.
Jesus had been encouraging them to be His new body here on earth. They didn’t want to let go of how they knew Him. But for this new church to receive the power of the Holy Spirit, they needed to experience His presence differently. In Matthew’s account, the presence of Jesus abides with us without an Ascension. The Church both doubted and worshipped as they let go of how they knew Him and accepted His living presence.
Doubting and trusting is woven into our history as the Franciscan Friars of St. John the Baptist for 179 years! Think of William Unterthiner who left the safety of Tyrol in 1844 and learned that “God gives His grace” in this new country. In just 10 years' time, St. Leopold called us to return home, and again it meant trusting/doubting. Our establishment as a province only happened in 1885, 41 years after Unterthiner landed! Names like Ubald Webersinke and Urban Freundt, Espelages, Daeger and Kowalski became bishops. Valentine Schaaf became Minister General! The long list of Schneiders who joined up. Things started with just a seed of hope: Friars Club and St. Anthony Messenger producing authors and artists. Internal schools of St. Francis Seminary, Duns Scotus, St. Leonard’s, along with Roger Bacon and Bishop Luers, gave us professors and teachers. Retreat centers and parishes developed preachers, administrators and confessors. Provincials we remember like Romauld, Roger Huser, Andrew Fox, and the living provincials: Jeremy, John Bok, Fred, Jeff, David Kohut for Holy Savior and Larry Dunham for OLG. And oh, the places we went! Almost immediately after a few years in Cincinnati: Batesville, Detroit, Louisville, Chatham Ontario. Navajo and Pueblo missions. A mission to China! Then to New Orleans and Delta, Texas, Kansas, Japan! The Philippines! And when the friars from the vice province came, we went to Easton, Pittsburgh and Uniontown. God gave the grace.
While worshipping and doubting we would let go of things, first of all St. Leopold, although we did keep pea soup, sauerkraut and canoedles. We let go of Detroit and then went back. Texas, then went back, then let it go again. We let go of a “monastic only” understanding of Franciscan life, although we still value houses of prayer. We let go of the Southwest when the Spirit moved our brothers to form a new province. And this is not the first rodeo for the brothers who were part of Holy Savior Vice Province. David Foster Wallace is quoted as saying, “Everything I ever let go of has claw marks on it.” There may be a few claw marks on all of these ministries, but in each instance, letting go allowed us to catch a new fire. God gave His grace.
Some of us have our hearts broken by letting go of the province we love. This is a testimony to our own personal brother-to-brother commitments to each other. Others looking forward to a new beginning. This is also a testimony to trust in our fraternal decision, in overwhelming numbers, to become a new province. So, on this feast day of the Sacred Heart, let’s allow Jesus to speak to our hearts, cor ad cor loquitor (heart speaking to heart). In these readings, it’s as if God is undressing and holding out his most vulnerable self—His heart—to us! God is passionately committed to being with us. Jesus to Margaret Mary Aloquoque: “Behold this heart which has so loved every person, that it has spared nothing, even to exhausting and consuming itself, in order to testify its love.” Ultimately, it’s not about our love for God, but God’s love for us. So our own hearts are moved to worship and even with a flicker of doubt.
Yes, we don’t have a clear direction; we feel like we’re floating in midair. So touch those feelings to His Sacred Heart. Hear again His promise: “Lo, I will be with you, until the end of the ages. I give you my love to feed on in my word. Consume me in this holy Communion. I will not just renew you; I will transform you into the Lesser Brothers of my own heart! I tell you that you are my own.” God still gives His grace! This assurance and our worship should lead to our giving testimony.
Every single one of us gives some kind of testimony to Christ. If we’re sourpusses, that will be the message. If our lives look like a Lent that never heard of Easter, that can’t be very attractive. But if we touch our feelings to His wounds, His heart, we can catch fire. We become kind, smile, even joke. It will at least cause other people to wonder. The joy of the Gospel is spread by attraction, not promotion. Br. Andrew Stettler says: “Don’t keep the faith. Give it away!” As we come to the table of the Lord, we are grateful for the priceless gift of His Sacred Heart reminding us of His Real Presence in our lives. Let’s be on the lookout for an opportunity to share the gift of joy in knowing Jesus. After all, we’ve been doing it for 179 years. Don’t keep the faith. Give it away! God gives His grace.