How to Pray, Part Three: Mass as the Publican's Prayer

(Homily for Thirtieth Ordinary Sunday - Year C)

Message: Take gratitude to a higher level. Be grateful for the greatest gift - salvation in Christ. Express that gratitude by saying the sinner' prayer, the Publican's Prayer as we do at Mass.

This is the third of four homilies on how to pray. I am doing this series because (according to studies and my own pastoral experience) many Catholics do not know how to pray - and do not pray. For sure, prayer is difficult - and mysterious - but we all can learn to pray.

Prayer begins with a simply act of gratitude.* Thank you, Lord, for life, for health (not everything works well in my body, but a lot does!), for family, for the things of creation - stars, suns and moon, plants and animals. Even to thank God for a small thing, like a piece of toast or a warm room, is a nice prayer. A great beginning.

We saw last week that to gratitude we have to add persistence: Like the widow who calls out by day and by night - not just pray when the mood strikes me, but have a discipline of prayer.

To set up a daily and weekly framework of prayer, we have to ask what is the greatest prayer. If we know that it will help us organize our priorities. So what is the greatest prayer. It is in fact what we are doing right now - the Mass. Another word we use for Mass is Eucharist which literally means "thanksgiving." In the Mass we perform the act of thanks to the Father for what he has done for us in Jesus.

The Mass is a persistent prayer. For millions it happens each week. A Catholic has a serious obligation - under pain of mortal sin - to attend Sunday Mass. Since the earliest days - right back to the Acts of the Apostles - the Eucharist, the "breaking of the bread," the offering of Jesus' Body and Blood has been the fundamental way of Christian prayer. Mass embodies thanksgiving and persistence.

The Mass is also - and this connects it with today's Gospel - the Mass is the "publican's prayer." The publican (tax collector) at a distance beats his breast and says, "O, God, be merciful to me, a sinner." We say that prayer not just in the penitential rite, but at other key points during the Mass. In the Gloria we address Jesus, the Lamb of God, "You take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us." In the Creed we "confess one baptism for the forgivenness of sins."

It gets more intense: In the Eucharistic Prayer the priest holds up the Chalice of Christ's Blood "poured out for the forgiveness of sins." In the Our Father we pray, "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." And before Communion, like the Roman Centurion, we declare, "Lord, I am not worthy you should enter under my roof."

An interviewer asked Pope Francis, “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” The pope fell silent, then said, "I am a sinner."** The most basic thing any human being can say about himself is to admit, "I am a sinner." As we can see from Pope Francis, far from being negative, that admission brings joy, humility and peace.

When a person admits his sinfulness, his need for God - and when he expresses that need by attending Mass - that person can do extraordinary things. I think of a Belgian priest named Damien de Veuster. At the age of 33, Fr Damien began a ministry to the outcast - the lepers quarantined on the Island of Molokai. He served 15 years until he succumbed to that horrible disease.

What sustained Fr. Damien? Let me give you his own words, "the Eucharist is the bread that gives strength. It is," said Fr. Damien, "at once the most eloquent proof of His love and the most powerful means to foster His love in us."

Fr. Damien was a libation poured out to God - as St. Paul describes in today's second reading. Next week we will explore what it means to be a libation.* Perhaps we can't identify with a great hero like Fr. Damien, but I guarantee you that all of us can identify with the man in next Sunday's Gospel. If you think your life is little messy - or perhaps even a big mess, well, we will meet one of the all-time human disasters. But also a man who turned his life around - and because of Jesus' forgiveness - actually became a libation. It's the ultimate form of prayer, but let's save that for next week.

Today, I encourage you to take gratitude to a higher level. Be grateful for the greatest gift - salvation in Christ. Express that gratitude by saying the sinner' prayer, the Publican's Prayer as we do at Mass: "I have sinned in my thoughts, my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do...Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof." That admission (as we see from the example of Pope Francis), far from being negative, brings joy and opens a river of grace. "Speak but the word and my soul shall be healed." Amen.


*Chesterton observed that on Christmas morning children show gratitude for the toys in their stocking. He asks, should we not thank someone for the two feet we have in our stockings? When you think about it, everything is a free gift.

**You have to understand the entire interview in light of that response. And his entire papacy - his basic pastoral approach.

***By a nice coincidence, this Sunday at St. Mary of the Valley we observe the two-month Mass for Maggie Beatte (she died August 27) a woman who poured out her life like a libation.

MP3 recording of this homily

Versión Castellana

From Archives (Homilies for Thirtieth Sunday, Year C):

2016: Boots Laced Week 6: The Good Fight
2013: How to Pray, Part Three: Mass as the Publican's Prayer
2010: Posture at Mass
2007: The Cry of the Poor
2004: Be Merciful to Me, a Sinner
2001: A Lesson in Humility

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Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C

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