Homily, Feast Day of St. Josemaria Escrivá, 2010
Rev. Malcolm Kennedy
Father Malcolm Kennedy, a priest of the Prelature of Opus Dei, delivered the following homily for the feast day of the founder of Opus Dei. The homily was delivered on 26 June 2010 at St. Peter Chanel Church, Roswell, GA.
Lk 5, 1-12
Early in the narrative of the miraculous catch there is a detail that can help us understand the spirit and significance of St Josemaria who died and went to heaven on this day 35 years ago. “Getting into one of the boats, the one that was Simon’s, he asked him to put out a little from the land.” Simon Peter gets involved in the work of salvation, fishing for souls, while he is on the job, busy at his fisherman’s trade. Jesus, who happens to be hanging out with the fishermen, gets into his boat and uses it as his podium for preaching the good news. “What amazes you,” wrote Escrivá in The Way (#799), “seems perfectly natural to me. God has sought you out in the practice of your profession. That’s how he sought the first ones: Peter and Andrew, John and James, beside their nets. And Matthew, sitting in his tax collector’s booth.”
Not only does Jesus come to engage us in the workplace, but in almost every instance he wants us to stay right there. “Let every one lead the life the Lord has assigned to him and in which God has called him,” writes St Paul to the Corinthians (I Cor 7,17). Here we have a distinctive feature of St Josemaria’s spirit and of the vocation of the Christian in the world as it is understood by the Second Vatican Council. The word for it is “secularity”. When we hear this word, we are likely to understand it as the absence of religion and the sacred. Secular humanism is humanism divorced from God. Secularism means a culture in which religion is confined to private life and kept from intruding into the public square. “Saeculum” means the world, and the world is riddled with sin. It seemed we were being told that you either loved the world or you loved Jesus, and really loving Jesus meant giving up the world. Secular or secularity would not seem to have a very positive connotation. Of course, you probably have to live and work ion the secular world. It’s not your fault, but you are at a disadvantage.
Now for St Josemaria Escrivá secularity is an essential feature of the average man’s vocation to holiness. Some few people are called to separate themselves from the world. My nephew Rob Kennedy is a Carthusian monk, living a hermit’s life on top of a mountain in Vermont. It’s a breathtaking vocation, and every day I am conscious of leaning on him and on the prayers that other religious offer to God. That is a religious vocation. It is not meant for secular people like you and me. What describes you, says Vatican Two (Lumen Gentium), “what specifically characterizes the laity is their secular nature. By their very vocation they seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and ordering them according to the plan of God.”
Obviously, the Council is not using the word “secular” in a pejorative way. It’s not saying something bad about the laity when it says they are secular. No, it’s a good thing, and for St Josemaria it’s not simply your situation or state in life. It’s your way to holiness. You are to reach the fullness of Christian life through the secular, not in spite of the secular.
I suspect that someone meeting Opus Dei for the first time today may see it as representing an orthodox, fairly conservative view of Catholic faith and life. Old time religion, Good stuff, if that’s one's preference. That was not our impression in the 1950’s. In 1955 when I first met Opus Dei we weren't concerned with orthodoxy. It wasn't an issue. What appealed to me had nothing to do with conservative or progressive attitudes. It was the human quality of the people in the Work. These were people who clearly belonged in the world of secular affairs. You could even say that they were worldly. Not with a worldliness that results from sin, but in the sense that they were at home in the world, natural in it and comfortable with it. They seemed to be good at what they did, which could be electronics or newspaper reporting, and these appealing human qualities were seamlessly fused with their radical commitment to Jesus Christ.
That was what I found to be compelling in 1956. A few years later an agnostic named Robert Bolt put it into words when he explained what led him to write his great stage play about St. Thomas More, “A Man for All Seasons”.
“Another thing that attracted me to this amazing man was his splendid social adjustment. So far from being one of society’s sore teeth, he was…almost indecently successful. He was respectably, not nobly born, in the merchant class, the progressive class of the epoch. He distinguished himself first as a scholar, then as a lawyer, was made an Ambassador, finally Lord Chancellor. A visitor’s book at his house in Chelsea would have looked like a 16th century Who’s Who: Erasmus, Holbein, Colet, everybody. He corresponded with the greatest minds in Europe as the representative and acknowledged champion of the New Learning in England. He was a friend of the King who would send for More when his social appetites took a turn in that direction… He adored and was adored by his own large family. He parted with more than most men when he parted with his life, for he accepted and enjoyed his social context.”
The important thing in this sketch of More, whose feast we celebrated earlier this week, is not that he is an amazing Renaissance genius with a brilliant career, nor even that he is a martyr to the faith. What is especially perceptive is the bit about his not being one of society’s sore teeth, a fish out of water. He liked being a lawyer, he liked his professional milieu, the court. He loved his family. He enjoyed his social context.
He anticipated Opus Dei by some 400 years, and there aren't many saints of whom that can be said. This is why St. Josemaria was devoted to him and would go to pray at his shrine whenever he was in England. He was an example of secularity.
Our first reading today was from the Book of Genesis. God put man in the garden of Eden to till it, to continue the work of creation. Earlier on the account of the six days of creation you will remember how God looked on what he has done and saw that it was good. This is the basis of Christian optimism, and of the exuberant joyfulness of St Josemaria. The world, God’s creation, is good. People, however flawed by sin, are good. “God so loved the world” (Jn 3,16). Jesus loved the world. Like More he enjoyed his social context: the fishermen, the migrant workers, the small businessmen, the wedding parties. St Josemaria loved the world. His most important single text explaining Opus Dei is a 1967 homily with the title “Passionately Loving the World.”
Secularity means loving the world, however much it stands in need of redemption. The boy who wants to be a mechanic or the girl who wants to train horses is a much more likely candidate for an Opus Dei vocation than someone whose chief interest is liturgy or chant. You can’t have a vocation to Opus Dei if you don’t love your secular vocation to be a nurse or pilot, husband or homemaker, heart surgeon or cab driver. You have to love the world and your own specific calling within it. St. Josemaria took delight in the human vocations of his sons and daughters. During the three years I spent in Rome in the 1950’s he sometimes invited a Vatican prelate to watch a movie with us and during the intermission he would introduce the prelate to some of us standing nearby. “Your Excellency, I want you to meet Mario. Mario is the coach of a professional soccer team.” Or “Let me introduce you to Sarah. Sarah is a soprano with the Paris opera.” You knew what he was doing. For these ecclesiastical people to understand Opus Dei the theory was not as important as the living reality of someone who was a successful veterinarian or fashion designer, who was at the same time completely dedicated to God.
Yesterday, June 25th, was the anniversary of the ordination of the first three priests of Opus Dei in 1944. It was one of the most joyful moments in Escrivá’s life, and yet he confessed to experiencing a certain sadness at the time because he was so much in love with their lay condition
Secularity means finding God in ordinary life, not in spite of your involvement in secular affairs and distractions, but precisely in and through them. “A love for the world,” writes Scott Hahn (“Ordinary Work”, p.91) “enables lay people to live and work with ‘naturalness’ in any circumstance, without a distinctive dress or manner. All that should set them apart is their rectitude and their charity. If we must be set apart in some other way, let it be in the excellence of the work we do—in the service of others, as an offering to God. Secularity means behaving in a way that is consistent with our place in life, which is the very place where God has called us. It would be unnatural for us to draw attention to ourselves with public displays of piety, just as it would be unnatural for my wife and me to draw attention to ourselves with excessive public displays of affection… In a similar way, our homes need not be decorated like churches in order to be sanctified.”
This is how you are to serve God. This is your gift. What you have to convert each day into prayer and adoration. You have to keep growing and improving professionally, even if you are at the age of retirement. If John, the shoemaker, is a very fine fellow, but not much of a shoemaker, then he is not a very good son of mine, said Josemaria, because our professional competence and dedication is integral to our divine vocation. My secular path is my way to God.
The integrated life is what should characterize the spirit of Opus Dei. We tend to live in fragments. One person at home. Another at church. Still another person at the club, and yet another at the office. The integrated person is of one piece. He is one and the same in all circumstances. Faith and prayer are integrated with work and relationships, always in harmony with one's secular condition. Out of this, taught St Josemaria, arises the almost instinctive need to purify all of one’s actions, to raise them to the level of grace. To sanctify them and make them become the occasion for personal union with God and apostolic involvement with others.
This is the ideal of Opus Dei. Let us pray to God that through the intercession of Saint Josemaria and the Blessed Virgin Mary the ideal may become each day more of a reality.
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