[homily given at St Mary of the Snows, Palazzola, Albano, Italy]
In this ‘Year of Faith,’ I’ve chosen in my parish to follow a pattern of preaching on the Catechism. I have been continuing that cycle here also at Palazzola. We find ourselves at Section III, The Commandments, the last two commandments, 9 & 10: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife … Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s goods.” It seems to me that these two commandments connect precisely with two of the Beatitudes given us by the Lord in His Sermon on the Mount: the 9th Commandment echoes “Blessed are the Pure in Heart;” and the 10th echoes, “Blessed are the Poor in Spirit.”
On Friday I went out for a little day trip to the seaside. It wasn’t to go to the beach — good job, as it was a grey and drizzly day! — but to visit the shrine of St Maria Goretti in a church right alongside the beach at Nettuno, and then to visit her family home a few miles inland from Nettuno. At her home, the place of her martyrdom, I had the place to myself: not a single other person was there; it was very moving to be there alone. In the front of the poor farm house that her family shared with the man who was to be her attacker, written in huge letters Beati i puri di cuore, perché vedranno Dio, 5th July 1902. The life and martyrdom of St Maria Goretti is an extraordinary one, as she was still only 11 when she died: she was a very prayerful and pious girl, and she knew that the rape intended by her 19-yr-old neighbour was deeply sinful, and told him so. She defended herself and he was unable to violate her; but his attack led to her death the next day. She was canonized in 1950, with her mother present. Her attacker, too, was there, who after years in prison had experienced a vision of Maria, who had forgiven him, and he repented and gave his life to God as the gardener of a monastery. For me, St Maria Goretti exemplifies that Beatitude, “Blessed are the Pure in Heart — for they shall see God!” She’s a wonderful example of purity and of modesty, all of which is related to the 9th Commandment. We are to be respectful of the bodies of others, not lustful or grasping at others. It’s a huge challenge in our society, where access to immodest images is so easy — newspapers, magazines, films, internet; but we must be diligent in cutting these things out of our lives. We must be practical in defending our minds and souls from the images that degrade, and that make our heart anything but pure. Let’s be as vigilant as little Maria Goretti in the battle for purity in our lives, never giving up despite the struggle it can be.
The 10th Commandment extends that desire for self-control to goods and possessions. Given the name adopted by the new Pope, Francis, I’ve been reading in these days a classic biography of St Francis by G.K. Chesterton. And one of the key things that he emphasizes is Francis’s choice to be radically free from possessions. He handed even his rich cloak back to his father, taking on the rough brown tunic of the beggar. Having no possessions, he says, Francis could have no-one have a hold over him to take him back to worldly ways. Owning nothing, he could not be coerced by another in anything. He was radically free to preach the Gospel! Blessed, indeed, “are the Poor in Spirit” — envying nothing, desiring nothing material but the bare necessities. Again, the modern world makes it hard: advertising presses us again and again to desire the latest phone, the better car, the bigger house … and yet, these desires eat away at our heart, and can also eat away at a commitment to give the proper time to God. How many times am I told by my parishioners that they cannot come to Mass, they have to work — I accept that in some cases that may strictly be true, that not one Mass is possible for them owing to a work rota imposed on them; but in general it is not. We must resist that envy of others’ possessions that eats into our heart and into our time. The Catechism has a moving passage when it says:
2540 Envy represents a form of sadness and therefore a refusal of charity; the baptized person should struggle against it by exercising good will. Envy often comes from pride; the baptized person should train himself to live in humility.
Let’s not ever be made sad by that sort of cruel envy, but let’s be happy with our lot; be at peace with our situation, and knowing that we take nothing with us out of this world, nothing material, only that treasure that we have amassed in our heart, the spiritual treasures of goodness and holiness; of good done to others, and worship offered to our living God. The promise of the riches of heaven should, if we are truly people of faith, outweigh so much the desires for possessions, earning and spending, here on earth. St Francis shows that it is possible to have that spirit of poverty, a spirit of detachment, a spirit of being a pilgrim in a passing world. As the Gospel today said: “Get yourselves purses that do not wear out, treasure that will not fail you, in heaven where no thief can reach it and no moth destroy it. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Lk 12: 33–34).