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Love transformed a prodigal son, martyr and circus ‘freak’

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SAN DIEGO — Cardinal Robert W. McElroy returned to the San Diego Diocese at the beginning of September, fresh from being elevated to the College of Cardinals at the Vatican.

In just one four-day stretch, he celebrated three special Masses for distinct communities, whose members joyously welcomed their shepherd.

In his homilies, he highlighted acts of mercy and love that transformed lives — and called on us to do the same.

‘I will carry that guilt from here’
Cardinal McElroy proclaimed the homily at a special Mass on Sept. 11 at St. Columba Church, San Diego, for the Korean Catholic community. The following is an excerpt.

The parable of the prodigal son is one of the most beautiful passages from the Gospels (Luke 15:11-32) for it speaks to us of the boundless mercy of God, which is showered upon us as a grace, and of our need to incorporate that boundless forgiveness into our own lives.

The prodigal son has squandered his inheritance on hedonistic living and is left destitute in a far-off land. Reflecting on his poverty and desperation, the son resolves to return to the father and family that he had abandoned. On the surface, he is seeking merely a place on his father’s lands that will allow him to live, but in reality, he is seeking forgiveness, a far greater gift.

As the son approaches his father’s house, he practices the words he will use in asking forgiveness from his father. But even before the sinful son has the chance to apologize, the father embraces his son and welcomes him back into the family without ever confronting him with his own failures and betrayal.

This is the extravagant forgiveness that God bestows upon each of us in our lives. It is not a begrudging forgiveness. It does not demand a price. It does not involve God constantly reminding us of our failure. The forgiveness of God is complete and unmerited. It is bestowed upon us whenever we are genuinely sorry and ask for it.

One of the great tragedies of life is that so many men and women cannot comprehend the limitless nature of God’s forgiveness. They feel unforgiven and alienated from God because they cannot believe that the Lord will forgive them for grievous sins. They see themselves as beyond redemption.

As Pope Francis has stated so many times, the mercy of God stands at the very center of our human existence and our life of faith. We approach the Lord not as self-righteous, but as sinners, and it is precisely as sinners that God has redeemed us. If we cannot accept this extravagance of the mercy of God which lies prior to any merit on our part, then we cannot see the most beautiful part of the face of our God.

And if we fail to understand the mercy of God, we cannot find the strength to forgive others with that same mercy.

I pray that  you will comprehend the limitless nature of  God’s forgiveness in our lives. I pray that you can forgive yourselves for those sins in your past which you would give anything to undo but cannot. It is in these moments that the Christ, who suffered for us on the cross, looks down and tells us, “I will carry that guilt from here.”

Finally, I pray that in your family life, this Catholic community, your neighborhoods and our world, you might be sacraments of God’s forgiveness reflected in your own lives by what you say and what you do.

As the father in the parable of the prodigal son rushed out to embrace his sinful son in joy, so God constantly rushes out to embrace us when we are sorrowful. There is no greater grace in our lives than this.

‘Martyrdom is a reality of today’
Around 1,000 Filipino faithful from across the region joyously welcomed Cardinal McElroy at a Mass at St. Charles Church on Sept. 10 to honor San Lorenzo Ruiz, the first canonized saint and martyr from the Philippines.

San Lorenzo Ruiz was born in Manila in 1594 to a Catholic family. He served as an altar server at his church. As an adult, he married, had a family and worked as a clerk at his church. His life took a dramatic turn when he was falsely accused of killing a Spaniard and was forced to flee by ship to Japan, along with three Dominican missionaries. The ruler there imprisoned and tortured the men when they arrived.

After two years in captivity, San Lorenzo was given the chance to live if he renounced his faith. While being tortured, he reportedly responded just before his death at the age of 42: “I am a Christian and wholeheartedly do accept death for God; had I a thousand lives, all these to Him shall I offer.”

Pope St. John Paul II canonized him in 1987, the first Filipino saint. He is the patron saint of altar servers and migrants around the world.

The following are excerpts from the homily that Cardinal McElroy delivered.

Martyrdom is a reality of today for those who proclaim Jesus Christ around the world — in the Amazon, in the Philippines, throughout Asia, in Latin America, in Africa, and in our country. Men and women who have paid literally with their lives because they proclaim Jesus Christ.

Today, we remember their sacrifice, their willingness to take on the cross of Christ Himself.

We will not face martyrdom. But we, in our own lives, face circumstances that make it difficult to follow our faith — sometimes, it’s at work, at school, in our neighborhood; sometimes, within our own family.

But we are called to make the same affirmation in our faith that San Lorenzo made, and every martyr before and after him.

We are called to place our lives in the person of Jesus Christ and understand that, in the cross of Christ crucified and Christ risen, we see a pathway to our own salvation.

‘Love that is constant and pure’
Cardinal McElroy proclaimed the homily at the Mass of the Holy Spirit at The Immaculata Church at the University of San Diego on Sept. 8. An excerpt follows.

John Merrick was born in London in 1835. His father didn’t pay much attention to his family, to him, to his brother, to his mother. But his mother was a radiant presence in his life, the source of the loving that he knew in this world. But when he was 9, his mother died.

He came into the care of his father and, worse, he began to develop a terrible skin disease which left him deformed, with terrible-looking scales all over his body. His father rejected him. He had no place else to go. And ultimately, he ended up in a circus sideshow, as a freak. And for several years, he lived in a cage; and all he knew was the taunts and the scorn of those who came by to see him.

He was never treated with any humanity at all by any single person for all of those years. And then one day, a doctor came along from a great hospital in London and he was there because he had heard about the illness and he wanted to research it. He saw John. He gave the owner of the circus some money so that he could take him to the hospital to do research on the nature of this illness.

He brought John back to the hospital and he and other doctors tried to figure out how they could help him, but they were stymied because they had not seen this type of illness before. He was mute. Finally, they just gave him a room and gave him care. And the nurses would come visit him. And the doctor would show him friendship and love. And as a result, John spoke; he wasn’t mute at all.

He had simply not been treated as a human being for so much of his life that he had ceased to think of himself as human and had been silent. And when he spoke, he spoke with a great beauty of his soul, a great wisdom that had come from his suffering and pain. And gradually in the city of London, people took note of this. He became something of a celebrity. People came by to see this man who was so beastly in his appearance but they left captivated by the beauty that was within him. There was gentleness to his heart and soul and spirit.

And then one day, the owner of the circus, seeing how prominent he had become, breaks into the hospital and steals John away and takes him to Europe to a circus there and again puts him in the cage. He was put in a show as a freak once more, reduced to being less than a human being. But after a few months, there’s fire in the circus and John escapes. He makes his way back to London. He has a large coat over him to keep his his face and figure from being seen by anyone so he wouldn’t be scorned or ridiculed. And he got to London and then the coat came loose and a crowd came upon him and beat him.

The police took him to the hospital. When they were taking him up the stairs, the doctor saw from up above that it was John. And he ran down to meet him. And he said, “John, how can you ever forgive me for not having guarded you better, for not understanding that as a celebrity your safety was at risk?”

John said to the doctor, “Forgive you? Everything I have known from you has been love. Love freely bestowed upon me, love that was constant and pure and transformed my life by loving me without reservation and without price.”

This is the love that God has for us coming into the world. God, our Creator, looks upon us in our humanity and sees our fragility and our wonders, our strengths and our sins, the beauty of our hearts and souls and the corrosions that occur in the world we live in. And God entered into human existence in order to make God’s destiny united with ours in the person of Jesus Christ. That’s the Gospel, the gift of God’s love, which is total, and without hesitation.

God’s love is called to take root in our hearts and souls, not only in helping us to form a relationship with God, but also to help us understand what we are called to do to live with one another. We live in a world now which is so often coarse and deprived of the basic love that people are called to show one another; within family life, within places of work, within schools, within society as a whole.

And we, as recipients of God’s love, we, as men and women in the society in which we live, are called to be a counter-witness to that coarseness and to that harshness. It’s not easy to do. There are so many ways in which we fall easily into focusing on ourselves and ignoring those around us.

There are many wonderful things you will undertake this year here at the university. You will learn the beauty of the human heart and what the mind has accomplished. You will learn about creation and that we are called to be stewards of creation, all of us.

The most important thing you can learn is how to make our world a less coarse, a less harsh place. And that is done only in small increments. That is done only on the interpersonal level of treating others not only with dignity, but with affection, even when there are people who tend to put us off.

I hope and pray that this is a time in which the love that animates us, that gives us solidarity, that tells us who we really are and why we’re here in this world; that this love reigns in this university community and helps transform this place and the world in which we live.

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