Homily for the 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time

July 13, 2008

St. Agnes, Cincinnati

Anniversary of the Founding of the Parish


Celebration of 50 years of the Leitzingers’ Marriage

(Based on Isaiah 55:10-11; Romans 8:18-23; Matthew 13:1-9)

It’s not an ordinary Sunday when the preacher is asked to celebrate two different special events in the life of the parish, one of which occurred 117 years ago and one that took place 50 years ago. I figured out that the most important thing is to be sure to get the right number attached to the right event! (Laura, Paul, Jack, Maria, and Matt: your dad and mom’s number is 50. . . .)

You know, historians tell us that in order to appreciate the meaning of particular events we need to put them in context. So I thought it might interesting to find out what was happening in those days.

So let’s imagine we’re there in 1891. A group of Bond Hill Catholic families were fed up. They had gone to Mass at St. Alphonsus Orphanage only to discover – one more time – that the priest in charge had changed the time of Sunday Mass without informing them, because he didn’t want them there. So they took their faith life in their own hands and boarded their horse-drawn buggies to drive 7 miles down past the farms that lined the Reading Road to petition Archbishop Elder to allow them to have their own parish. What might they have been talking about as they rode along?

Well, they might have heard about an exciting new wonder that had just been installed at Coney Island in New York. It was called an escalator. Closer to their neighborhood, their kids had begun to pester them for a penny so they could go to the the corner store to buy the latest treat, something called “Wrigley’s chewing gum.” At the other end of the cultural spectrum the elite of Cincinnati might have been boarding the train to New York for the opening of Carnegie Hall with Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky at the podium. Then again, being Catholics they might have been talking about the Pope. (Catholics of any age love to do that.)This time it was something serious: Leo XIII had just issued a major encyclical, Rerum Novarum , which challenged our world to change its ways and practice justice and pay a living wage to working people. They might not have heard of it yet, but at the same time our popular culture was about to be changed forever by a new gadget created by Thomas Edison. It produced ‘moving pictures.’

It’s not exactly clear whether the people of Bond Hill were presenting a petition or making a demand, but at any rate the good archbishop looked kindly on the idea and St. Agnes parish was born. They began to hold Mass in different neighborhood homes, and over the following years the community used a variety of facilities and structures to worship the Lord.

St. Agnes prospered and even celebrated its first 50 years. Then one day in 1958 while the community at St. Agnes was totally unaware of the change that would eventually come to pass, far away, down in the town of Corpus Christi, Texas, a shy student nurse by the name of Elenita Yzaguirre was experimenting with something new. She began wearing lipstick (!) – and we all know how that ends. . . . A poor young Naval ROTC guy didn’t stand a chance. Notre Dame didn’t prepare him for that. So a year and a half later they were married.

Change was exploding on all sides that year. A group of 9,000 scientists issued a plea for a halt to nuclear testing in the South Pacific. A young man named Elvis Presley became army private #53310761. Nikita Krushchev became premier of the Soviet Union and revolutionaries led by someone called Fidel Castro began to attack Havana. The West Coast experienced its first major league regular season baseball game and a woman named Ruth Carol Taylor became the first African American woman to be hired as a flight attendant on a commercial airline. And if Paul and Mary Helen had planned their wedding better they could have held their rehearsal dinner at a new restaurant that opened its doors just on July 10, only two days before they pledged themselves to each other for life. It was called an IHOP.

But of course that’s all the fun stuff, the water our superficial world considers noteworthy. We’re gathered today to celebrate the real wine. In God’s providence one day in 1967 Paul and Mary Helen crossed the threshold of this building and those two paths, St. Agnes and the Leitzingers, converged. And their lives, and ours, were changed for ever.

So what are we celebrating today?

In a real sense, this day is ultimately not centered on us or on the Leitzingers. What it’s all about is praise for the wondrous kindness and fidelity of our God. A parish community doesn’t survive and thrive for 117 years, or a marriage for 50, by our human efforts. They last only through the grace of God. We don’t make it by ourselves.

Just think of the thousands of acts of dying to self that are represented by the presence of this community and this faithful couple.

For members of the community it has cost dearly in hours and days and years of volunteer labor. It has meant looking out for neighbors, and putting other priorities aside to come to a potluck supper. It means donating time and sweat and the free offering of hard-earned dollars. There was all that effort involved in raising funds and building a school for the kids of the community – and then experiencing the sadness of watching the signs of the times telling us we can’t do it anymore. There were the hours of sitting through endless meetings of councils and committees, and setting aside valuable family time to\show up for work groups. I’m sure there were very few councils or committees in the parish over past 40 years that didn’t have either Paul or Mary Helen on them, and the rest are probably best forgotten.

And for any married couple it takes countless small acts of putting one’s own wishes aside and to surrendering to the common project of living out the commitment to each other and raising a family. In our society we may make jokes about doing diapers or fixing stopped-up toilets, or mopping up flooded basements, but they’re real. And so is the arduous responsibility of trying to teach a bunch of kids how to become responsible adults. It can mean confronting a stealthy enemy called cancer when it makes its way under the door. There are the nights spent tossing and turning, worrying where the money was going to come for the next home payment or car payment or tuition payment. or praying that a son or daughter would come home safe – or come home at all.

We can’t do those things alone. Death is too costly. But we can only do them because of our trust that we have a faithful God who walks with us and supports us at every step along the way.

In today’s Gospel Jesus describes our Father as a sower going along and throwing seed on the ground. It’s true that the Gospel includes descriptions of the different results, depending on where the seed lands. But that’s not the real point of the parable. The parables of Jesus aren’t about us, they’re revelations about our God. The story of the Sower is really about the infinite generosity of our God. It’s about a Sower who has such an abundance of life-bearing seed that the Sower doesn’t have to worry or be careful about where it will fall or how it will be received. Our lavish God throws it out in fistfuls! If some of it doesn’t take root, that’s OK. That just means there will be food left over for the birds. What our God does is to create a harvest 30 or 60 or 100 times richer than anything those early founders of St. Agnes or Paul and Mary Helen could have ever imagined when they said yes to our faithful God.

What we celebrate today is the 100-fold that have come as blessings to each of us through our sharing in the life of this community and being enriched by the goodness flowing from the bond between Mary Helen and Paul. Seeds sown long ago by the Lord through the early settlers of Bond Hill and Mary Helen’s family down in Texas and Paul’s in the middle of Pennsylvania, have come to fruition in the life of their family and our community. And why? Because the Lord wanted it so. These two covenants, the one which formed a parish community and the other that began a marriage, are the word of the Lord that has come down like rain from the heavens to make our earth fertile and fruitful – it will not return to God empty, but will carry out the divine will until it has accomplished all that it was sent to do.

In this liturgy we are privileged to offer our lives once again, along with the act of perfect love by which Jesus dies to himself and is glorified by the Father. The food we share and the cup we drink is one more offering by a lavishly generous Sower. May it spring to life in each of us and fill us with the hope and the power to share with all we meet the joy and gratitude we know at this moment.