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Homily for the 19th Sun in Ordinary Time, 13 Aug 2023, Mt 14:22-33
Today I invite you to focus our reflection on that part of the story about Peter. Matthew tells us when the disciples saw Jesus walking on water, they thought they were seeing a ghost and they were terrified. I don’t blame them because they were actually already in a state of panic over the storm before Jesus came to them. And now, this! To calm them down, Jesus cried out and said, “Take courage, it is I. Do not be afraid!”
In St Mark’s version of the same story (Mk 6:45-52), after Jesus says that, he goes into the boat and the storm calms down. But the version that we read today from Matthew has an additional part about Peter saying, “Lord, if it is really you, command me to walk toward you on the water.”
You know, this scene reminds me of a video I saw recently of a young father, teaching his little child to walk. It was the older brother who was taking the video. The close to one-year old boy had already learned to sit and crawl towards his father. But this time when he wanted his father to take him in his arms, the father just stood up and extended his hands so that the boy himself would reach out to him. The boy reached out and managed to stand up on his feet and balance himself. So the father moved back a few steps away and kept his arms extended to the child. The boy made one baby step after another but soon lost his balance. Just before he fell, the father quickly came forward to catch him.
After two more attempts and two more falls, the father kept moving back a bit farther away with his hands still extended, and finally, the boy succeeded in making several steps to reach his father’s arms, and the whole family applauded him to his great delight. He had learned to walk!
What was in Peter’s mind when he said, “Lord, if it is really you, command me to walk toward you on the water.”? I would have expected him instead to say, “Lord, if it is really you, please come into the boat with us and help us survive this storm!” I think the additional episode in Matthew about Peter reaching out to Jesus is Matthew’s way of suggesting how Jesus mentored Peter like a father mentoring his child to walk on his feet. The secret is not in the feet but in the heart! That is why Jesus said, TAKE COURAGE! The English word Courage comes from the Latin words COR and AGERE: to act from the heart. Jesus had to make Peter believe in his heart that he could do it before he actually did it. It was when he lost heart and was overcome by fear that he began to sink.
Our first reading is about Elijah who is accompanied by the angel of the Lord to Mount Horeb. The writer tells us he was so depressed he prayed to God to be allowed to sleep and not wake up anymore. Why? Because he felt that his life had become a nightmare. He was the last surviving prophet of Israel, and he was now being pursued by the soldiers of the king to be eliminated. But the Lord kept putting him back on his feet to learn to face—first, a storm, then, an earthquake and then, a raging fire. But in the end, he felt the presence of the Lord only in a soft breeze or a tiny whispering sound that gave him the inner strength and the courage to stand again on his feet.
Matthew tells us Jesus was in prayer before he walked on water to calm the storm. The lesson is clear: it is in prayer that we gain our balance and inner sense of stability. In prayer we are like children learning to walk. But first, we must learn to attune our hearts with the heart of God who draws us, who calls us to himself; he teaches us to focus our attention on his open hands, confident that he is there to catch us when we fall.
Today we are joined by our brothers in the Southern Luzon State Council of the Knights of Columbus. They are asking us to join them in prayer for the canonization of the founder of the Order, the Blessed Fr. Michael McGivney from New Haven in Connecticut. He was made a venerable by Pope Benedict in 2008 and was beatified by Pope Francis in 2020. The Order that he had founded has become the biggest lay Fraternity in the world that consists of 2 Million families, 25% of whom come from the Philippines. Now they are praying for the cause of the canonization of this saintly priest, who became an Apostle to Poor Migrant Families, Protector of Widows and Orphans.
Fr. Michael was the eldest of thirteen children of a poor Catholic Irish migrant couple who came to the then predominantly Protestant United States. Like St. Peter, he was forced to face the storms of life at a young age. He entered the seminary, but three years before ordination he lost his father, the only breadwinner of his family. Since he was the eldest, he left the seminary in order to work as a manual laborer in a spoon-making factory to support his widowed mother and his brothers and sisters and to prevent them from being given away as orphans to orphanages.
With help from his bishop, he was eventually able to continue his studies in the seminary until he got ordained to the priesthood. He was only a young parish priest when he founded the Knights of Columbus as a fraternal association intended mainly to support the families of women and children who had been widowed and orphaned like he was when he himself lost his own father.
In Fr. McGivney, we have a perfect parallel for the story of Elijah in our first reading and the story of Peter in our Gospel rading. I would dare say Fr. Michael had discovered what St. Peter had learned from Jesus. Like Peter, he discovered the secret of being able to “walk on water”, towards the Lord, who alone can calm the storms of life. Both his difficult experience and his priestly formation nurtured his life of discipleship as a man of prayer and action. Not only did he receive the blessing of inner strength and courage to face the trials of life with faith and and sense of equanimity. More importantly, he shared this blessing to countless other families. He died in 1890 at the young age of 38, but look what a huge impact he has made on people all over the world even with such a short life. 133 years later, he continues to do so through the Knights of Columbus, the Fraternal Association of Lay People that takes its inspiration from this holy man. We join them in praying that the Blessed Fr. Michael be quickly elevated into full sainthood. Blessed Michael McGivney, PRAY FOR US.