The Deacon's Bench

(This Sunday morning, my parish is installing new ushers, EMHCs and lectors. This is the homily for that mass.)

This Sunday, we mark a special feast in the church calendar, honoring two pillars of the faith, Saint Peter and Saint Paul. The readings we just heard are sobering reminders of what these men went through – and by extension, what all the early Christians went through – to spread the gospel. Executions, imprisonment, suffering of all kinds.

Paul even writes about his life being poured out like a libation – a sacrificial offering.

But that kind of suffering didn’t end 2000 years ago.

In the early 1970’s, during the Vietnam War, the Archbishop of Saigon was a man named Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan. The Communists saw him as a threat. And on the feast of the Assumption, August 15, 1975, he was arrested and sent to prison. Without ever being tried, or sentenced, he was shipped off to a prison in North Vietnam. He stayed there for 13 years, nine of them in solitary confinement.

During his imprisonment, he couldn’t celebrate mass, or even receive the Eucharist.

But he held fast to his faith.

He wrote to friends outside prison, saying he needed “his medicine.” They knew what he meant. They sent him small cough medicine bottles, filled with wine, and bits of bread. Sympathetic guards smuggled him some wood and wire, and he made a small cross, which he hid in a bar of soap.

He kept all this in a cardboard box, which became his private altar.

He would place drops of wine in the palm of his hand, mingled with water, to celebrate mass. He did it every day at three pm, the hour of Christ’s death.

That cramped prison cell became as beautiful and as blessed as any cathedral, a sanctuary for the glory of God, where Christ’s great sacrifice was relived again and again and again in the ongoing sacrifice of Nguyen Van Thuan.

He was finally freed on November 21, 1988 – the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lady. Nguyen Van Thaun went into exile, finally settling in Rome. During the Jubilee Year, in 2000, he was invited to preach at the Vatican, and Pope John Paul presented him with a chalice – an immeasurable gift for a man whose only chalice, for so many years, had been the palm of his hand. That same year, he was named a cardinal. Two years later, he died. Just last year, officials began a formal investigation to have him beatified.

Just a few days ago, at the Eucharistic congress in Quebec, Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan’s sister, Elizabeth, spoke, and quoted something he’d written in his diary while he was in jail. He addressed it as a prayer to Jesus.

“I am happy here, in this cell,” he wrote, “where white mushrooms are growing on my sleeping mat, because You are here with me, because You want me to live here with You. I have spoken much in my lifetime: now I speak no more. It’s Your turn to speak to me, Jesus; I am listening to You.”

What a beautiful testimony. Surely, this is a man who followed in the footsteps of Peter and Paul. I think we could all imagine those apostles praying those same words.

But what about us?

Maybe you think, “I’m not that holy.” But how holy is holy enough? How committed is committed enough? How faithful is faithful enough?

How much more might we be able to give of ourselves if we found the ability to pray, “I speak no more. It’s Your turn to speak to me, Jesus. I am listening to you.”

Those are not just the words of a saint. They are the words of a committed, believing, faithful Christian.

Commitment and belief are expressed in many ways, large and small.

In a few moments, we will introduce some men and women who are offering their own expression of it, who are saying, in their way, to Christ: “I am listening to you.” They are going to be installed as the new ministers of hospitality, lectors, and extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion. This is a moment of great meaning.

One of the documents of Vatican II teaches us that Christ is present at mass in three important ways: in the assembly, that is, the people who are here; in The Word, or the Scripture; and in the Eucharist.

And that is exactly where these men and women will be ministering – to the assembly, proclaiming The Word, sharing the Eucharist. In these ways, they will serve to make Christ’s presence known. They will bring Him, in some way, to others.

And these are three ministries that I know very well. I like to warn the ministers of hospitality: I began as an usher, back there with a basket. So, be careful. You never know where it will lead.

But of course, neither did the fisherman from Galilee, or the tentmaker from Tarsus.

God knows, you’re not being asked to put your lives on the line like they did – though ushers may feel differently after they’ve had to take up a few collections.

But you are being asked to make some sacrifice to carry out this ministry. And your being here this morning indicates your willingness to do that.

A willingness, in fact, to do something wonderful.

Because you are going to be instruments to bring Christ to others.

There is no greater work. It’s the very work the apostles undertook.

But it is work all of us are called to do — uplifted by the example of Peter and Paul, and challenged by the example of Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan.

If the lives of those saints seem too daunting an example, all of us in this church today can take comfort in this: we aren’t alone. The presence those men knew…the presence you hope to share in your ministries…the presence ALL of us celebrate around this altar, and in our daily lives…THAT presence makes all things possible.

Christ is with us.

My friends, my prayer this morning is that we are able to be as courageous as Peter and Paul…and as hopeful as Nguyen Van Thuan…so that we may pray, as he did:

“It’s Your turn to speak to me, Jesus; I am listening to You.”

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