Richard S. Vosko

Musings on religion, art and architecture


Homily – 18 October 2015 – Missions Impossible?

Twenty-ninth Sunday In Ordinary Time – Missions Impossible?

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I wonder what the interfaith leaders at the World Parliament of Religions (Salt Lake City) might have to say about this text. The Parliament, with its thousands of participants from diverse faith traditions, seem to be of one accord in its attempts to resolve problems that affect all of us, for example, women’s rights, income inequality and several others.

I wonder what the bishops at the Synod on the Family (Rome) might have to say about this text. There appears to be much less agreement among the bishops especially regarding same sex marriage and divorce, which are only two of the many topics being considered in Rome.

Created as part of Vatican Two reforms by Pope Paul VI the Synod is mandated to read the signs of the times and find fresh ways to interpret the teachings of the Church. Pope Francis is calling for mercy in every instance. Some bishops, not happy with this more pastoral approach, are looking to strengthen existing doctrines. Can our church apply a one size fits all solution for 1.2 billion Catholics living in diverse cultures?

To resolve the issues being discussed at both gatherings seems to be an impossible mission. Today, World Mission Sunday, offers a small window of opportunity to think about the complexity of the problems around the world. Just to be aware of these situations is a good first step for us even before trying to figure out what to do about them.

The discussion in today’s gospel, between Jesus and two of his earliest missionaries, is provocative. For the third time Jesus was explaining that death awaits him, that the road to glory is not easy, that hard work and endurance are essential. To be a missionary of Christ you have to give something up.

However, the apostles did not comprehend what Jesus was talking about. They were confident that he was the messiah, who would atone for all the sins of the world. Scholars generally agree that the understanding of Jesus as a suffering servant is a reference to the prophecies attributed to Isaiah. Also, the Letter to the Hebrews, which we read today, presents Jesus as a high priest who, like Old Testament priests, would atone for sins. But, Jesus was a layman.

Thinking that Jesus is the savior and that there was nothing left for them to do the disciples negotiated with him about who would have a lofty place in heaven, without doing any heavy lifting. More exasperating they apparently were not at all concerned about the other disciples. [1]

Bishop Oscar Cantú, Chairman of the Committee on International Justice and Peace, would say “If we want security, let us give security; if we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities.” Jesus rebuked his disciples who wanted special favors, “can you handle the work load first?” “Can you drink from the same cup I am?”

What does that question mean for us? Pope Francis reminds us: “Those who follow Christ cannot fail to be missionaries.” Maybe we join local coalitions working for justice. Maybe we help agencies who assist poor people. Maybe we take a closer look at our diocesan and parish budgets and our priorities. Maybe each of us chooses to do something, large or small, to make a difference in the lives of others.

Learning to be a 21st century missionary is a hard thing to do especially for those among us who struggle with daily necessities. Popular author, Marylynne Anderson, wrote recently, Christianity is meant to be hard. We realize then why these familiar biblical challenges, the Words of God, are important to our faith tradition. No mission on earth is impossible when we work together for the common good.

Pope Paul VI wrote, “The grace of renewal cannot grow in communities unless each of these [communities] extends the range of its charity to the ends of the earth, and devotes the same care to those afar off as it does to those who are its own members.”

Watching those televised images of refugee families fleeing their countries in search of new life is overwhelming. I think of the small children in my family and how blessed we are to live in a country that is free and full of opportunity.

I do not know what I can do to ease all the pain that exists abroad. I am more aware, however, that large numbers of God’s creatures are vulnerable and poor while only a few humans have way too much power and wealth. I am grateful for the leaders and missionaries of all faiths doing what they can do to help people in a merciful way. I am thankful for this chance to think about my responsibilities as well.


1. A Costly Freedom: A Theological Reading of Mark’s Gospel. (Collegeville: Liturgical Press) 2008) 166 ff.



Homily – 11 October 2015 – We Will Not Be Bystanders

Twenty-eight Sunday in Ordinary Time – We Will Not Be Bystanders

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Last week Citizen Action of New York celebrated the efforts of different social activists. Bishop Emeritus Howard Hubbard was honored for his advocacy for poor and disadvantaged people. A group of fast food workers — teens, single parents, retirees — were commended for going on strike, lobbying the NYS Wage Board, fighting for $15.00 an hour salaries. In another recent event, parishioner B. J. Costello was honored for years of advocacy at The Next Step, an addiction treatment center for women.

Today is the feast day of Pope John XXIII. We remember him in our collection of icons. In his encyclical on human rights (Pacem in Terris, 1963, 11) the pope wrote that human beings have the right to bodily integrity and to the means required for the proper development of life, particularly food, clothing, shelter, medical care, rest and necessary social services.

Advocating for human rights is an age old practice in all faith traditions. To think that people of faith are not engaged in the political sphere is to misunderstand the role religions played throughout world history. While subject to scrutiny, what a religion teaches regarding human dignity and moral development most certainly will have political as well as personal implications.

In today’s gospel, as in last week’s passage on divorce, there is another significant challenge. How does one get into heaven? There are diverse views on what the word “heaven” means so let’s imagine for now it is that ideal time and place where all creatures live in harmony.

Jesus shocked the wealthy man when he announced that following the commandments is not good enough to merit eternal life. You have to sell everything you have. The gospel also notes that Jesus loved the young man who apparently really wanted to follow the messiah. He just could not bring himself to leave behind his riches.

The words “sell what you have” at that time referred to leaving family, home and land. Also one scholar noted the word “rich” in the Mediterranean culture was strangely synonymous with the word “greedy.” The rich man’s problem was not that he was rich but greedy! [1]

This gospel does not set up a debate between socialism and capitalism. Ideologically those concepts did not exist back then exactly as we understand them today. In fact, a closer reading of this gospel suggests it is not necessary to renounce all material things to have eternal peace or peace of mind. [2] Jesus was not opposed to self preservation or personal development. Rather he was speaking against income inequality and every other injustice caused by poverty. Here’s a case in point. Earlier this year Oxfam International released a report saying that the richest 1% in the world will own more than all the rest of us combined by 2016. [3] How can this incredible imbalance be addressed?

Today in our parish a panel of local advocates will address (or addressed) income inequality. [4] To ensure the common good for all God’s people we are called to be agents of God in working for justice, peace, reconciliation. Pope Francis wrote in his first apostolic exhortation: “Each individual Christian and every community is called to be an instrument of God for the liberation and promotion of the poor….” [5]

Perhaps the rich man in the gospel felt an “emptiness in his life.” [6] Maybe he no longer wanted to be a bystander and was looking to get involved. He thought he was doing OK until Jesus issued a stronger invitation to a deeper transformation that would redirect his entire way of living. The man was disappointed and perhaps even chagrined.

So, what gets us into heaven? Discipleship. This gospel implies that salvation for all people is real when we commit to make a difference in the lives of others in addition to ourselves. The idea is for us to pick up where Jesus left off. To do so what do we have to leave behind or give up? Are there addictions or presuppositions that prevent us from becoming better human beings ourselves?

The deeper question for 21st Christians, it seems to me, is this. How does the promise of Jesus in this gospel resonate with our contemporary cultural instincts for gaining instant gratification or developing a sense of entitlement? In terms of ending income inequality how can we develop an attitude that helps us live within our means at the same time we embrace the needs of strangers?

The response to the challenges posed by these gospels will be personal and different. Each of us however can reflect more deeply on what discipleship means for us. We can become more informed of the problems and then search for some small way in our lives to help.

In one of our Eucharistic Prayers (Masses for Various Needs IV) we ask God to “open our eyes to the needs of our brothers and sisters; to inspire us in words and actions to comfort those who labor and are burdened.” In that prayer we also thank God for walking with us on our journeys of life. With trust in God  we can find ways to join hands with one another along the way. It makes the road to heaven a heck of a lot easier to travel.


1. Pilch, John. The Cultural World of Jesus, Sunday by Sunday, Cycle B (Collegeville: Liturgical Press) 1996, 148-150.

2. Reginald H. Fuller and Daniel Westberg. Preaching the Lectionary: The Word of God for the Church Today. Third Edition (Collegevile: Liturgical Press) 2006. pp. 357-9


4. The panel discussion was held between our two liturgies

5. Pope Francis. “Evangelii Gaudium” (Vatican City Rome 24 November 2013, #187)

6. Byrne, Brendan. A Costly Freedom: A Theological Reading of Mark’s Gospel. (Collegeville: Liturgical Press) 2008) 161 ff.


Homily – October 4, 2015 – Respect Life … All of It

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B) – October 4, 2015 – Respect Life … All of It

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Both our church and civic calendars today draw attention to similar concerns: respect for life, opposition to domestic violence and keeping the memory of St. Francis of Assisi alive. (Francis is one of the eight newly written icons in St. Vincent de Paul church)

The gospel is a counter cultural challenge to marriage as it is experienced in this country. That the divorce rate in the United States has been declining over the past thirty years is no consolation to men and women whose marriages have ended in divorce.

Further, for divorced Catholics, the thought of remarrying without an annulment can create anxieties with regard to their participation in the life of their church. The strong language attributed to Jesus in today’s gospel requires a careful reading. What was the cultural context within which he is quoted?

Jesus was responding to a test from the Pharisees. He referred to the Law of Moses which allowed divorces based on the initiative of the husband (Deut. 24:1). According to biblical scholarship Jesus actually sought to raise the social status of women and protect their rights from an unjust culture slanted toward the pleasure of the man. (Remember women were considered to be the “property” of the man.) In doing so he was reestablishing the original creative act of God, calling for harmonious relationships or an indivisible union of mutual companionship. [1]

From the Mediterranean cultural perspective, whenever a divorce occurred the men in that society were shamed and dishonored including the wife’s father, brothers, or other significant men in her family. “Hence the basic purpose of the commandments in ancient Israel was to head off feuding which led to bloodshed. The idea was to maintain internal societal harmony and stability.” [2]

According to scripture scholar Brendan Byrne it is not helpful to dwell on what is apparently prohibited in this gospel but on what it commends — marriage between two people is the “most intimate expression of a commitment, companionship and intimacy embracing the totality of life.” As the first reading reminds us it is not good for anyone to go it alone.

And there is something else. Jesus did not use his insight into God’s original purpose of marriage as a way of punishing people. Many have wondered about the penalties that a religion like ours imposes upon our own members who, in good conscience, are seeking spiritual sustenance and support when they need it most. Often it is a moment when it is clear that their best marital intentions are not working out and it is time to move forward.

Just maybe the “New Testament grants to the Church the authority to make concessions that are pastorally necessary” without entirely compromising traditional teachings. [3] That’s what Jesus was doing in this gospel — “acting as a merciful healer.” [4] It seems to be the way Pope Francis acts.

The recent papal authorization to speed the annulment process is encouraging. The final results of the Synod on the Family, which began this morning in Rome, will be published in due time.

The report undoubtedly will tell us more regarding the institutional church’s position about the role of marriage and the family in society. Hopefully it will also outline kind and merciful ways for church ministers to help those who are struggling to develop wholesome, life giving partnerships.

One parishioner, Angela Warner who directs our food panty, reminded me that the word “divorce” is not just applied to marriage but all relationships. We ask ourselves from whom or what are we estranged because of our reluctance to form new relationships or to accept life giving cultures and practices that break down barriers and celebrate diversity? For example:

How we divorce ourselves from others because of their race, ethnicity, class, religion or language.

How relatives divorce themselves from one another over some disagreement or past grievance.

How women and girls are divorced from the opportunity to equal rights, getting an education or becoming community leaders.

How children living in poverty are divorced from their families, thrown into prostitution rings, become victims of human trafficking.

The list can be longer. I invite you to talk about it with others at home, in the dorm, in the car or at work.

Last week while Pope Francis was in Philadelphia the Global Citizen Festival was happening in Central Park, New York City. The theme? “We are not a generation of bystanders.” It is a good nudge for us to do something about mending some of the broken heartedness in our world.


1. Byrne, Brendan. A Costly Freedom: A Theological Reading of Mark’s Gospel. (Collegeville: Liturgical Press) 2008) 157 ff.

2. Pilch, John The Cultural World of Jesus, Sunday by Sunday, Cycle B (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press. 1996. pp. 142-144.

3. Reginald H. Fuller and Daniel Westberg Preaching the Lectionary:The Word of God for the Church Today. (Liturgical Press. 1984, Revised Edition, pp. 352-353.

4. Kaveny, Cathleen. “Mercy for the Remarried: What the Church Can Learn from Civil Law” in Commonweal, August 14, 2015, p. 15.