HOMILY FOR MASS OF ST. FRANCIS DE SALES AFTER WYD CATECHESIS
Google “how to be a great lover” and you get some interesting answers. Some offer advice to men who are all at sea when it comes to women: world-shattering insights as “Make time for her”, “Listen to her” and “Compliment her”. Most of the entries are about sex. Wikipedia also first defines a lover as a sexual partner; being ‘someone who loves’ is mentioned only as its fifth and last option. Though the ancients had a great deal to say about love, charity and friendship, modernity sells us short. People today talk of one night stands as ‘making love’, or of loving pop-stars they’ve never met, or of loving inanimate objects such as ice-cream.
The Gospels present Jesus as the great Lover. Here was a man displaying the full range of human emotions: laughing, frowning, weeping, teasing, angry, sometimes celebrating, sometimes commiserating, always compassionate.
But his love was not mere sentimentality: He loved with good reasons: “As the Father loves me, so I love you… Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (Jn 15:9; cf. 3:16,35; 5:20; 10:7; 17:26).
He loved with commitment: “Some people say ‘Love your friends and hate your enemies’ but I say you should love even your enemies and pray even for your persecutors.” (Mt 5:43-4) Love when the loving is hard.
He loved widely: children and adults, men and women, individuals and crowds. Rich and poor, sinners and saints, sick or ignorant: He loved them all. When a rich young man came to Him for advice, “Jesus looked at him and loved him” (Mk 10:21). He had his own particular friends, of course: Martha and Mary and Lazarus, and the Twelve whom today He calls ‘friends’, ‘intimates’, ‘beloved’ (Jn 11:3,5,36; 13:23; 15:9-17; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7,20).
Jesus loved in the good times, as when He partied with His friends. He loved in the bad times also, as on the night He was betrayed. John sets the scene with these words: “On Passover Eve, Jesus knew the hour had come for his own Passover from this world to the Father. Having loved those who were his own in world, he loved them to end…” (Jn 13:1). Then He washed their feet and offered the first Eucharist for them. He taught them “A man can have no greater love than to lay down his life for his friends.” Then He went to His cross, loving and forgiving even those who betrayed Him or did not love Him back.
This love was contagious. As the Father loves me, so I love you; as I loved you, you must love each other. Love God above all. Love people more than things. Love family, friends, disciples, neighbours. Sinners also: love them into new life. Love even those who don’t love you back. (Mt 5:44; 6:24; 10:37; 19:19; 22:37-9; Lk 6:26-35; 7:47; 11:42; Jn 13:34-5; 14:15-24,31; 15:9-19; 16:27; 17:23-6 etc.)
Well, if World Youth Day does nothing else for you, I hope it makes you a better lover! John said that “God so loved the world – loved YOU – He sent His only Son” (Jn 3:16). If God is love (1Jn 4:16 etc.), Jesus is His love song, sung to all humanity. Like Him, you must demonstrate the full range of human affections, intellect and will. Like Him, love both broadly and particularly. Like Him, love in good times and bad. Like Him, love infectiously, so others love also. WYD is the Church’s gift to help you love like that!
This particular World Youth Day offers us Mary as a model of such a response. What sustained her – sustains us – in loving intelligently, constantly, broadly, deeply, contagiously? Knowing we are loved first. Jesus said: as the Father loves me, so I love you. Mary says to the Church: as Jesus loves me, so I love you. Love teaches love, enables love, sustains love. And if we are to maintain the love of the Father and the Son, with the saints, we must talk to them in prayer, obey them in our choices, imitate them in our lives. With Pope Francis and your pastors, and surrounded by hundreds of thousands of your peers all trying to do just that, you know it can be done!
A lawyer was working late one night when, suddenly, Satan appeared before him. The Devil made him an offer. “You’ll win every case you try for the rest of your life. Your clients will worship you. Your colleagues be in awe. You’ll be powerful. You’ll make a mint. But, in return, you must give me your soul, and the souls of your wife, children, parents and friends.” The lawyer thought about it for a moment, then asked, “But what’s the catch?”
Well, not all lawyers are like that. Today the Church celebrates St Francis de Sales, a lawyer who was also a bishop and a saint! Francis was a great preacher-catechist-spiritual writer who helped thousands. He risked his life defending the Catholic faith in the heartland of the Protestantism, Geneva. Yet rather than a warrior for the Faith, he was a Lover, if not in the contemporary, sensualised sense. So innocent was he that he once tried to counter the Valentine’s Day custom of sending boys the names of available girls to date, by sending them instead the names of admirable saints to emulate!
An innocent lover, undoubtedly, but Francis was a wise lover also. Like Jesus, he showed love in many ways, to many people, painted with the full palate of human emotions and reasons: in his ministry of preaching and reconciling which occasioned his great Treatise on Divine Love; in his spiritual direction which led to his classic Introduction to the Devout Life; in his care for the poor, confused and distressed; and in his friendships where he was famed for his charm and amiability.
At a previous World Youth Day I remember US bishop, Wilton Gregory, saying that if Catholics profess that the Gospel is Good News, if they appreciate that Jesus’ way is the good life, happy life, joy-filled life, then “would someone please tell their faces!” Catholic faith should make us smile, not look severe and exhausted! St Francis de Sales demonstrates that; Pope Francis also; above all Jesus Christ, the love song of the Father, the smile of God. And He says to you today, words that should fill you with ‘complete confidence’ (Eph 3:8-12) as well as challenge: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. Remain in my love… by keeping my commandments… so your joy may be complete.” (Jn 15:9-17)