By Father Michael Panicali
An interestingly-decorated brick lay at one of the doorways of my former seminary, Pope St. John XXIII, in Weston, Massachusetts. Painted white, it bears the inscription, “The seed that falls on rocky ground.”
The brick is there to remind seminarians as they come and go that the instruction that they receive would all be for naught if it landed on rocky ground; that is, if it wasn’t fruitfully brought into their priestly ministry.
Jesus in today’s Gospel lays out this unfortunate possibility with regard to how the people of His day — and indeed, the people of the present age — can receive His teachings. Some are going to completely cast them aside. Others are going to receive and embrace them for a period of time and then revert to old ways. And some are going to hear, receive, and embrace them wholeheartedly into their way of being — not for a period of time, but permanently. For these people, the teachings of Jesus will be life-changing.
The seminary brick makes me think back to times in my own formation when a guy would rub me the wrong way and I’d ask myself, “Why is this guy here?” Inherent in asking this is the presupposition that I was meant to be at seminary, while it was questionable for others to be.
The challenge today’s Gospel presents me, and each and every one of us, is to look inside ourselves and prepare to see what we don’t want to see. In a larger sense, this is an exercise in holiness.
As the Christian faithful, we must confront the real possibility that hearing God’s Word might change us for a little while, and help us to be a better version of ourselves for a time … until we succumb and easily fall into the traps of self-righ- teousness and complacency. We certainly do this in other areas of our lives. Before I go to the doctor, for instance, I try to lose a few pounds. The psychology behind this is that I want to present a better version of myself than the person I have been between visits. I also want to make sure my body is healthy so that nothing worrisome comes up in the way of cholesterol, blood sugar, blood pressure, etc. If I ever get a jolt from a doctor’s visit, I’ll start eating a bit differently, and embark upon a healthier lifestyle … until, of course, the same harmful foods, or quantities of them, reemerge in my diet.
Such it is with the spiritual life. It is a life lived in consistent and steady mindfulness of personal and social sin and what can harm us and those around us. It involves frequent introspection into how we are responding to God’s Word, as seen and demonstrated in our actions toward others.
Bishop Robert Barron, in “Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of the Faith” describes in his chapter on the Sacred Liturgy the action and significance of recalling our sins: “Immediately after the greeting, the priest invites everyone in attendance to call to mind his or her sins. This simple routine is of extraordinary importance. G.K. Chesterton once remarked, ‘There are saints in my religion, but that just means men who know they are sinners.’
For the great English apologist, the relevant distinction is not between sinners and non-sinners, but between those sinners who know their sin and those who, for whatever reason, don’t.”
Realizing that we are a constant work- in-progress — and that God is merciful — lays the groundwork for receiving God’s Word as fertile ground that allows the seed to be received, nurtured with the help of God, and grown into fruit that solely gives glory to Almighty God.
Readings for the Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 55: 10-11
Psalm 65: 10, 11, 12-13, 14
Romans 8: 18-23
Matthew 13: 1-23 or 13:1-9
Father Panicali is the parochial vicar of St. Mark-St. Margaret Mary in Sheepshead Bay.