Homily for April 3, 2011: 4th Sunday of Lent

Today’s gospel begins with an encounter between Christ and a blind beggar.  So I want to start off with a story of another beggar – a story, in fact, involving Pope John Paul.

Several years ago, a priest from the Archdiocese of New York was visiting Rome. As he was walking into a church to pray, he noticed a beggar at the door. Something looked vaguely familiar about him. As he began to pray, he realized what it was.

He went back outside. “Excuse me,” he said to the beggar.  “Do I know you?” “Yes,” the beggar said.  “I think you do.”  It turns out, the beggar had been in the seminary with him. He had been ordained a priest, but had – as he put it — “crashed and burned” in his vocation.

The priest from New York talked with him for a few minutes, and then had to go.  He promised the beggar that he would pray for him.   But he was shaken by what he had seen.

That afternoon, this priest attended a function that concluded with a chance to meet the pope.  As he stood in a receiving line and took John Paul’s hand, he told him about the man he’d met outside the church and whispered,  “Please, pray for this man, because he’s lost.”  The pope nodded and assured him he would.

The next day, to his amazement, the priest got a call from the Pope’s secretary.  The Holy Father, he said, was hosting a dinner and wanted to invite the priest, along with the other priest, the beggar.  Stunned, the priest agreed, and quickly went back to the Church and found the beggar and told him what had happened.

The beggar said, “No, I can’t.” The priest insisted, and promised to make him presentable.  He took the man to his room, where he was able to take a shower, and shave put on some clean clothes.

Then they went to dinner with the Pope – surely, the best meal the man had enjoyed in months. Just before desert, the Holy Father asked everyone else to leave the room, so he could be alone with the beggar.   They did, and waited outside.  After about 15 minutes, they were invited back into the dining room.  Shortly after that, they all said goodnight, and the beggar and the priest walked back to the hotel.

The priest said: “I have to ask you: what happened in there?”

And the beggar stopped in his tracks, still amazed at the experience. “He asked me,” the man said, “to hear his confession.  I said to him, ‘But I’m not a priest anymore.  I’m a beggar.’  And the Holy Father took my hands in his and looked at me and said, ‘So am I.  We are all beggars before the Lord.’”

The man tried to explain that he was not in good standing with the Church. But the pope said: “Once a priest, always a priest.  I’m the Vicar of Christ and the Bishop of Rome. I can re-instate you now. ”

Well, the beggar couldn’t refuse.  And at that moment, in that room, he heard the confession of the pope.

The beggar-priest had barely finished offering absolution before he dropped to his knees in tears.  “Holy Father,” he said, “will you please hear my Confession?”  And he did.

When they were done, the pope told him to return to the Church where he had been begging, and report to the pastor.  He would serve as a priest there, with a special ministry to the poor of Rome.

And that is what happened. It is said that the beggar who heard the pope’s confession still serves at the church in Rome.

“We are all beggars,” the pope said.  Like the man in today’s gospel.  So, this Lent, ask yourself: what am I begging for?  Maybe we are begging for compassion.  For mercy.  For peace of mind.  Maybe we are hungry for love.  And like the beggar in the gospel, we may also be blind – craving clarity, and understanding.  Wanting simply to see.

But in the middle of our begging, in the middle of our darkness, Christ touches us — and our world is flooded with light.

This gospel is about discovery.  One man receives the gift of sight.  As the story unfolds, light dawns, and with each confrontation and each conversation, he gains more understanding of just who gave him that gift.  At the end, for the first time, he sees — really sees.

I think the priest-beggar was also given the gift of sight – the ability to see anew who he was and what he was meant to do.  Whether he realized it or not, he was begging for more than money.

He was begging for grace.

But aren’t we all?

This morning, we pray for the grace to see more clearly, to understand more deeply, to live more faithfully.  And we join our prayers in a special way with those of the elect before us, the men and women of the RCIA process.  Together, we come before God, hands outstretched, asking to have our hungers satisfied, our yearnings fulfilled – asking God to give us what He knows we need.

“We are all beggars before the Lord.”

In these final weeks of Lent, let us pray to be open to what He has to give – to let Him touch us, and flood our lives with light.

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22 responses to “Homily for April 3, 2011: 4th Sunday of Lent”

  1. Greg:

    I wish you would have posted this earlier. I would have thrown my homily away and given yours — with proper attribution of course!

  2. I have never heard that story before…it is so powerful. Thank you for telling it so beautifully.

    There but for the grace of God…it can’t be said enough.

  3. This story was on a number of web pages earlier this week, it is a very touching story but no one who has posted it or used it in their homily seems to have any source for it. it would be good to know if there was a real credible source for it (like a biography or one the persons involved?).

  4. this is where i first read the story but there are no sources given:


    i was wondering if you found it in a biography?

    [anthony… I found several versions online, with varying amounts of details, but the same general outline. The closest I’ve come to a definitive source was Scott Hahn, who evidently tells the story in one of his talks. A priest sent it to me this week — someone who, by the way, is no fan of JP II — and when I remarked on what an amazing story it was, and asked him if it was true, he said, “I think so. It really sounds like John Paul.” It may be a bit of John Paul hagiography. Then again, no one has flat out said it’s not true, either. Dcn. G.]

  5. Thanks. I am able to understand this more than the one at Mass sometimes and I can study it before I go to give Communion to homebound.
    Love it!

  6. Indeed a great story. This is not exactly what I heard from the mass i attended but it is related….

    We have to open our eyes to see brightness, we have to open our eyes for others to see light…

    Blessed Sunday and thank u God for the gift of light that we are able to see and understand and we are able to come out from darkness.

  7. Thanks. Wonderful message. I’m going to read it to my 7th and 8th grade CCD class this morning.

  8. I’ve preached that very homily myself — I heard it at Franciscan University during one of the priest/deacon conference retreats there. It is powerful – and so absolutely believable given what we know of the Holy Father. Blessings one/all.

  9. Tremendously moving, Deacon, thank you.

    I have posted an excerpt and link in my personal blog. Frankly, it’s not going to send you a lot of traffic, but if it’s only one person, then I’ve done my work today.


  10. I saw your link Chirstine, but i was just asking it anyone had a source that could verify this is a biographical fact and not part of “holy folklore” that develops around charismatic figures. i remember on a website for Mother Teresa her sisters had a whole section on “holy stories” etc that are attributed to Mother but are not historically true. not that the stories do not make a point on their own, it is just helps to know if they express something in the spirit of the blessed or are real true life facts. everyone knows the peace prayer of st francis expresses his life and spirituality very well, but we also know it was only written in the early 20th century.

  11. Since JP2 will be beatified this year on Mercy Sunday, the above story is a beautiful story for a sermon/homily for mercy sunday. Mercy is probably the biggest theme of JP2’s pontificate. and this is the type of story that people need to hear when they need to know there is hope and no matter their situation; when like the prodigal, they hear the inner voice to “Rise and return to the Father” they will experience his mercy and love and find his grace to make all things new. on holy saturday the deacon will sign in the exultet “o happy fault that helped up to know so great a saviour” and mercy sunday is a day to celebrate that mercy in my life with all its failures, sins and set backs. and this story that has been on the web for a while gives a human expression of all this and it would be good to know if it is real when sharing it or preaching it to others.

  12. anthony…

    There are more details at this link, a pdf which states: “Dr Scott Hahn shared the following true story on April 25, 2001, on ‘Mother Angelica Live.’ It was related to Dr Hahn by his spiritual director. He said that of all the stories he has heard about the Pope, this is his favourite. He heard it while in New York City visiting a priest who is in the Archdiocese of New York. This priest related what had happened on his last trip to Rome.”

    I suspect that’s as much of a verification as we’re likely to get at this time.

    And you’re right: it’s a great story to relate on Mercy Sunday.

    Dcn. G.

  13. Are you certain that this story about John Paul II is true?

    It is important that I know. Trust me. I’m a beggar too.

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