On Saturday, April 10, I was honored to preach at a special Mass honoring Fr. John Hardon, S.J., during the annual conference of the Institute on Religious Life. The readings were for Saturday of the Octave of Easter: Acts 4: 13-21 and Mark 16: 9-15. Here is what I said:
I am grateful and deeply consoled to be preaching in honor of my brother Jesuit, Fr. John Hardon. I only met Fr. Hardon once, and briefly at that. It was at a fund-raising dinner for Mercy Academy, a small, private, Catholic school in Milwaukee. I remember his talk as though it were today. He said that in the future Catholics, if they are going to be faithful Catholics, will have to be ready to be martyrs. It was a striking statement which, as I thought about it, rang true to me. In the more than ten years since, his words have proven to be true.
And this shouldn't surprise us. Jesus Himself predicted that His followers would be persecuted. He even said that this persecution would come from members of one's own family. It shouldn't surprise us if opposition and persecution arise from within our family, whether it's our blood family or religious family, or from within the Church itself. This is the story that we see so often played out in the Acts of the Apostles, including today's reading.
Fr. Hardon once said: "You do not remain faithful to the Savior without paying for it." That was true for the Apostles of Jesus' time. It's true for modern apostles, like Fr. John Hardon. And it's true for us.
Why? Because Jesus is the Truth. He said that He was the Truth and that He came to witness to the truth. The world has always questioned truth. Our ancestral parents questioned the truth of what God had told them. Pilate asked Jesus, "What is truth?" The world rejects truth, so much so that Pope Benedict has said we are living in a "dictatorship of relativism."
I'm sure at one time or another you've heard someone say something like this: "Well, that may be true for you but it isn't for me. You have your truth and I have mine." I'm always tempted to ask, in response to that, "But how do you know that's true?"
You see, deep down in every human person there is a sense of truth. There is a standard by which we judge something to be objectively true or false, right or wrong, good or bad.
But people deny this. Why? It's part of the "hardness of heart" for which Jesus rebukes the Apostles in today's Gospel. Before Pentecost, the hearts of the Apostles continued to be hard, closed to the truth. Our world continues to have unconverted, hard hearts that reject the truth.
Where do we find the ability and courage to witness to the truth, and to do this as Christ did, as Fr. John Hardon did? Where do we find the ability to speak and witness to the truth without rancor, without resentment, without hating those who oppose or persecute us?
We can see the example of Jesus and of Fr. Hardon and try to imitate them in speaking the truth boldly with love. But that isn't enough. It isn't enough for us, just as it wasn't enough for Fr. Hardon. We need something greater that will give us the power to speak the truth with love.
Fr. Hardon found the ability, the strength, and the courage to love in the Sacred Heart of Jesus. He practiced devotion to the Sacred Heart in very practical ways. He used invocations like "Sacred Heart of Jesus, I place my trust in Thee!" He did this throughout the day. He once said: "Over the years, every time I pick up the telephone, before I talk to whoever called, I make an aspiration to the Sacred Heart. It helps; you never know who is on the other side."
Fr. Hardon was deeply devoted to the Sacred Heart of Jesus whom he found in the Blessed Sacrament, in the Holy Eucharist. He often wrote about the Eucharistic Heart of Jesus. He articulated our belief that since Jesus is truly present, Body and Blood, soul and divinity, in the Most Holy Eucharist, His Heart is present there as well.
There are two places in the book of the prophet Ezekiel, chapters 11 and 36, where a great promise is made. Through the prophet, God said that He would take from our bodies our stony, hard hearts and give us natural, human hearts. Where was this prophecy ever fulfilled? I know of nowhere except in Jesus who gave Himself for us on the cross and gave Himself to us in the Eucharist. There He give us His Heart to replace our hard hearts.
The imagery of the Sacred Heart shows a Heart on fire, on fire with love. This Heart is on fire with love for the Father. It's on fire with love for the truth. It's on fire with love for souls. The fire of love burned within the Heart of Jesus and He could not keep it to Himself. Nor could the Apostles, once they were enflamed with the fire of the Holy Spirit. It was impossible for them to contain the truth and the love they knew. As they declared in the first reading today: "It is impossible for us not to speak about what we have seen and heard." They could not keep it to themselves. They could not hold it inside. It had to come out, just like the Heart of Jesus.
I once asked a group of children to whom I was showing an image of the Sacred Heart, "Why do you think Jesus' Heart is on the outside of His body?" One little girl responded, "Maybe He loves us so much, He can't keep it inside." So it is for the one who, like Fr. Hardon, knows the love of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. He must speak the truth and do so with a love that bears witness to the truth.
Jesus shares with His Apostles and with us the work of communicating the love of God. He told them: "Go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature." Fr. Hardon answered this call. But notice, Jesus said to proclaim the Gospel to all creatures, not just human creatures. What does that mean? Even though Fr. Hardon's middle name was Anthony, I don't think he ever followed his namesake and preached to the fish. Nor did he follow St. Francis' example and preach to birds and other animals. Fr. Hardon wasn't a Franciscan but a Jesuit.
I think he answered this call to preach to every creature by faithfully living out the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. At the beginning of them there is a reflection entitled "The First Principle and Foundation." St. Ignatius has us reflect on our purpose in life. We are here on earth to prepare for heaven. We are here to give glory and praise to God. Thus we are to use the creatures of the world in a way that helps us fulfill that purpose. If some creatures get in the way of our attaining our purpose, we are to reject them. If they help us in attaining our purpose, we are to use them. In using them in this way, we ennoble them. Like the beautiful music of this Liturgy, the sounds alone mean nothing, but when brought together for God's glory and praise, they become beautiful and noble. This is what it means to preach the Gospel to all creatures. We lift up the creation around us and bring it under the reign of Christ the King. We proclaim to all creation its purpose--the praise and glory of God--and in doing so we claim all for the reign of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
This brings us to another of aspect of the Spiritual Exercises that can be found in Fr. Hardon--his zealous response to the call of Christ the King. In the Exercises there is a meditation on the call of a king. St. Ignatius has us first imagine the call of an earthly ruler who wants to set the world right. If such a leader captures our imagine and desire to overcome the evil in our world, how much more ought Christ the King? Fr. Hardon answered that call with his all. Fr. Hardon was a true soldier of Christ. He battled for the truth. He battled for the authentic interpretation of the Second Vatican Council. He battled for the reign of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
But his battle was also a hidden one. Yesterday morning, Fr. Benedict Groeschel said that Fr. Hardon was "utterly dedicated" but "not a fanatic." He was not an extremist. That's because he won the interior battle. He resisted the temptation to resent or hate those who opposed him. He won the battle for love, for pure love with no ego concerns. He did not battle to win the esteem of others or support for himself, but to win souls for Christ.
And the weapon in this battle was the Cross, the love of Christ. His weapon, which he so often talked about, was sacrificial love, suffering.
We are all called to do battle. No one is neutral or on the sidelines. In this regard I'm reminded of a statue in Omaha. It's in Heartland of America Park near the downtown and the riverfront and it's dedicated to the veterans of World War II. It consists of a group of figures. First, there is a soldier dressed in his khaki dress uniform, holding his cap in his hand and bending down to a girl who is running into his arms. He's the veteran of the front lines who's returning to his family. The girl, holding a stick with a small American flag on it, represents all the people who prayed and who through their patriotism supported those who were fighting far from home. And then there's a boy, saluting the returning soldier and pulling a wagon that's filled with all sorts of odd things and junk: paper, wire, cans. In the effort to fight the forces of evil, nothing was wasted. The boy represents all the saving and sacificing that people back home did in order to support the war effort. And then there's a woman dressed in overalls with a wrench in her back pocket. Her name is ... yes, "Rosie, the Riveter." She represents all the women and wives who remained behind and worked in the factories to provide the materials for the war. Lastly, there are two other figures, a man and woman standing side by side, an older couple whom, when I first saw the group of statues, I assumed were the parents of the young man returning. But as I went around the statues and looked at them from the other side, head-on, I could see they weren't his parents. Together they were holding in their hands the tri-folded flag representing the sacrifice they had made--the son who didn't return.
We are all called to do battle in a war that is bigger than World War II. The battle line for this war crosses each of our hearts. We are called to do battle with ourselves, with temptation and sin, with the devil, with the world that is under the influence of the devil. And our weapon in this war is love.
We are called to love, and to lose. That's right, to lose. To lose ourselves in Christ. To die to ourselves. To offer all to Christ and with Christ, in every Mass, to the Father. This is the meaning of the Morning Offering which Fr. Hardon prayed and encouraged others to pray as part of their involvement in the Apostleship of Prayer. In offering ourselves and losing ourselves we find ourselves. We find Christ and eternal life.
This is the meaning of the "martyrdom" that Fr. Hardon predicted. It's only in that Daily Offering, in living in union with Christ's perfect offering at Mass, in living a Eucharistic life by offering ourselves with Christ, in letting the Heart of Jesus reign over us and transform us--only in this, will we be able to survive as Catholics.
Seven days after Fr. Hardon's death on December 30, 2000, Pope John Paul II issued an Apostolic Letter to the Church for the new millennium. It's called "Novo Millennio Ineunte" and in it the Holy Father challenged the Church to go deeper, "Duc in altum!" I want to conclude with words which echo Fr. Hardon's:
"Christians who have received the gift of a vocation to the specially consecrated life are of course called to prayer in a particular way: of its nature, their consecration makes them more open to the experience of contemplation, and it is important that they should cultivate it with special care. But it would be wrong to think that ordinary Christians can be content with a shallow prayer that is unable to fill their whole life. Especially in the face of the many trials to which today's world subjects faith, they would be not only mediocre Christians but 'Christians at risk'".
We must go deeper. We must enter more deeply into the Eucharistic Heart of Jesus as Fr. John Hardon did. Then we will be able to speak the truth courageously with love. Then we will be able to pray in a way that fills our whole life. Following Fr. Hardon there, entering into the Sacred Heart of Jesus, we will offer all and receive all.