by f. Luis CASASUS, General Superior of the men’s branch of the Idente Missionaries
New York, August 02, 2020. | XVIII Sunday in Ordinary Time.
Book of Isaiah 55:1-3; Letter to the Romans 8: 35.37-39; Saint Matthew 14:13-21.
What is apostolic prayer? When we talk about prayer, we see that Jesus and the saints describe it in many different ways. And that is to be expected, because prayer is like music and has many tones. There is prayer of praise, of gratitude, to ask forgiveness, prayer of intercession, of supplication in the face of pain…
Apostolic prayer is the bridge between ourselves and the souls God entrusts to us.
In this episode of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, the apostles thought that they could not do much for the people. The good will and logic of this world made them think of practical solutions: we cannot give them food, so it is better that they go and buy from the village. That happens to us too. Sometimes we feel that we have so many problems that we have no ideas, energy or desire to help others. But Christ teaches us what to do. We read that Jesus, in that deserted place, raised his eyes to heaven, pronounced a blessing and then distributed the five loaves of bread and the two fish.
Certainly, the apostles acted in an exemplary manner, for they turned to Christ when they felt powerless to help so many people. They placed their helplessness before Christ. The response was immediate and clear: they were made instruments of divine mercy; they were entrusted with the distribution of bread.
The following story illustrates how the Holy Spirit unexpectedly makes us instruments for the kingdom of heaven:
The old Charles worked as a carpenter. He volunteered to build some wooden boxes to hold the clothes his church was sending to an orphanage in China. Then he helped pack the boxes full of clothing and load them on the trucks that would take them to the shipping docks. He felt good that he could contribute to the project, even in a small way. On his way home, he reached into his shirt pocket to find his glasses. They were gone. He mentally replayed his earlier actions and realized what had happened. The glasses had slipped out of his pocket unnoticed and fallen into one of the boxes. His brand new glasses were heading for China! The old carpenter had certainly not enough money to replace his glasses. “It’s not fair,” he told God in frustration. “I’ve been very faithful in giving of my time to your work, and now this happens.”
Several months later, the director of the Chinese orphanage came to speak at the old carpenter’s small church. He began by thanking the people for their faithfulness in supporting the orphanage. “But most of all,” he said, “I must thank you for the glasses you sent last year. You see, the Communists had just swept through the orphanage, destroying everything, including my glasses. I was desperate. Even if I had the money, there was simply no way to replace those glasses. Then your boxes arrived. When my staff removed one of the covers, they found a pair of glasses lying on top.” He continued, “When I tried on the glasses, it was as though they had been custom-made for me! I want to thank you for your thoughtfulness and generosity!” The congregation listened, pleased about the miraculous glasses. But the missionary surely must have confused their church with another, they thought. There were no eyeglasses on their list of items to be sent overseas. But sitting quietly in the back, with tears streaming down his face, was an ordinary carpenter who on an ordinary day was used in an extraordinary way by the Master Carpenter himself.
The fruits of conversion and peace in our neighbors are not something we achieve by our own efforts, but a very particular grace, the apostolic grace that is granted to those who live in a real spiritual desert, far from their interests, far from their judgments and desires, however necessary these may be.
Saint Monica, the mother of the future Saint Augustine, spent decades praying and crying for her son before he was converted. Mary and Joseph spent thirty years in a silent effort to prepare Jesus’ mission. The founders gave up all their projects, even spiritual ones, to open a way for their spiritual children.
But perhaps the best example is that of a young woman from Nazareth who, while praying, received a mission difficult to imagine and, moreover, left immediately to help her cousin Elizabeth. This is the unity between the apostolic prayer and the mission, a unity that the Holy Spirit makes in us.
Sooner or later, prayer leads us to be apostles, even if that is not in our plans. People came and we come close to Jesus today for various reasons: to put peace in our life, like the Samaritan woman; because we feel sick and helpless, like the lepers and paralytics; or because we have already known the limits of the world, like the rich young man. But immediately, Christ makes us fishers of men, usually in an unforeseen way, perhaps with people we did not imagine.
Five thousand men were fed. It is the number that symbolizes Israel. It is the first people to be invited to the banquet announced by the prophets. After Israel will be satiated, twelve baskets of leftover are gathered. Twelve indicates the new community, constituted by the twelve apostles around Christ. To this new people bread will not be lacking.
Through his disciples, to whom he delivered his bread, Jesus himself is the one who continues to feed the people of all times and places.
In practice, how is apostolic prayer carried out? Our Founder used to tell us that our neighbor must be the object of our contemplation. Experience confirms this: if we are focused on our problems, projects or ambitions, the Holy Spirit cannot count on us. This detachment, this detachment is essential. Otherwise, people will not be able to contemplate Christ’s presence in our life. At most, they will see our abilities, our energy and our good will, inevitably mixed with our passions. Only in the desert, can we hear the voice of God clearly. Without withdrawing we can only hear the voice of our fear and that of the world speaking to us loudly. It is in the desert that the foundations of a new life are laid. In fact, today’s Gospel tells us that when Jesus received the news of John the Baptist’s death he withdrew by boat to a lonely place where they could be by themselves. The death of His cousin, John the Baptist, surely must have affected Jesus greatly. He needed to withdraw to a lonely place so that He could pray to His Father and find enlightenment, encouragement and strength.
When on another occasion Jesus was in the boat with the disciples and the storm broke, he was really tired, exhausted and so he took the opportunity to sleep. But he realized that the disciples were afraid and needed to regain their peace. So he gave up his rest and performed a miracle. We do not have to stop a storm, but we can see how there are always people at our side who are like sheep without a shepherd, sometimes because of natural or moral suffering and sometimes because no one has given them the opportunity to do good. This last case is that of many young people. This is our mission: not simply to beg God to do something, but to open our eyes and heart and ask Christ how we can collaborate with Him.
We cannot make calculations and predictions in our personal apostolic life; something else very different is the organization, the careful planning of activities. But as far as each one of us is concerned, as our Father Founder says:
Hurry to give your life like freshly baked bread, for seven full baskets will still be left over (Transfigurations).
There are many non-believers who work for others, even giving their lives in many ways, as we are seeing with the current pandemic. The apostle also struggles and works to solve the many problems of humanity, especially in areas such as health, education, employment … but he goes further. Jesus did not have a plan to heal all the sick in his country, nor to feed all the hungry. However, He asked his disciples to reach everywhere, to all people, to make the kingdom of heaven known, that is, to do the greatest good, to help people get closer to God.
That was the goal and colossal effort of the prophet Isaiah that we see reflected in the First Reading. In Babylon, more than fifty years after Jerusalem was destroyed, the discouraged Israelites live in a foreign land and heard the prophet’s voice. He announces the imminent fall of the Babylonian empire, the liberation and the return to the homeland.
But the majority of the exiles has neither hunger nor thirst. They have adapted themselves to the situation; they prefer to stay where they are; they are unwilling to take risks, to embark on efforts that can be costly and painstaking. They are not interested in the banquet; they refuse the invitation.
The condition of the deported is a metaphor of all slavery in which each of us are struggling. We feel that we have enough worries and burdens and do not believe that the invitation to be apostles, to lead others to Christ, should be realistic.
Jesus feels compassion. Not a vague feeling of commotion, but a deep visceral emotion (that is the meaning of the Greek word used in the Gospel).
He is sensitive to the needs of a person. He feels part and is involved intimately; it squeezes his heart but his commotion does not lead him into curses, vain words of regret or sterile crying.
Com-passion, to suffer-together with the divine persons and with the brothers, is the force that leads the disciple to engage himself in the apostolic effort. This compassion, transformed by the Holy Spirit into mystical, dynamic, inspired and active affliction, becomes a stimulus for immediate action in favor of one who suffers: And he healed their sick.
We learn to live that deep compassion, that affliction, sharing not only sorrows, but also dreams, small achievements and joy. As Saint Paul reminds us: Rejoice with those who are joyful, and weep with those who weep. Live in peace with one another (Rom 12:15-16).
The Gospel says today: Jesus took the loaves and raised his eyes to heaven, pronounced the blessing and handed them to the disciples to distribute to the people. These words are familiar to us. They are those of the Eucharist.
The multiplication of loaves is an anticipation of the Eucharist that Jesus would give to the Church at the Last Supper. By adoring and receiving the Eucharist, we remember and we feel again His passion, death and resurrection. In these conditions, we can confidently ask ourselves, with St. Paul: What can separate us from his love?