In every culture, and in every age, people admire valiant and virtuous military commanders: men who put their strength, courage, and intelligence at the service of their country. Such was Naaman in the first reading, commander of the military forces of Syria, a giant of a man, expert in battle, loyal to king and people. Valiant though he was, the Bible tells us, he was a leper. A little Jewish slave girl tells him of a man of God in Israel, so Naaman goes with an impressive retinue, loaded with gifts, to Elisha for healing. The man of God, however, refuses even to meet him, but tells him to bathe seven times in the river Jordan. At first Naaman refuses, but then plunges into the waters. “His flesh became again like the flesh of a little child….” If someone asks you why you dip your finger into holy water upon entering a Catholic Church, you tell them this story. It’s to keep your skin as young as that of a little baby. Have you ever seen a nun with wrinkles?
Blessed water is a “sacramental”—a simple element that communicates God’s healing power: a drop of olive oil, a splash of water, a flickering candle flame, a waft of sweet-smelling incense. If we were angels, we would not need sacraments or sacramentals, but we poor human beings learn through our senses, so God gives us these little helps to our faith. In the Gospel, not one but ten lepers come to the Man of God, Jesus Christ, who is God himself. Like Elisha, Jesus does not heal them directly. He tells them to “show themselves to the priests,” to perform the simple sacramental rituals of Jewish law. It was not the ritual that saved them, but their humble obedience, their faith, in God, who gives us these sacramentals. Jesus says to the one grateful leper that returned: “your faith has saved you.”
Many people—Catholics and non-Catholics alike, do not take sacramentals seriously. They don’t put crucifixes and statues in their homes or build little “altarcitos” in their homes. They don’t make the sign of the cross in public, or carry a rosary, or say traditional prayers. But these simple expressions of our faith are most important: at least Jesus thought so; he would not heal without them. My mother used to remove the little holy water font in our house before our Protestant cousins came for dinner so as not to offend, but one day she just left it up and said “I can’t help it if the Catholic Church has all the good stuff!”
Naaman goes back to Elisha, after bathing in the river, to ask for two mule loads of dirt. He intended to bring the soil back to Syria, so he could kneel on holy ground while worshipping the true God. Do we have to go to a consecrated chapel to pray to the living God? Jesus says we should pray not on this mountain nor that mountain but in spirit and truth. And yet Jesus himself goes to Jerusalem for the Passover, and follows traditional rituals, directing his disciples to do the same. Holy things and times and places are important to our faith. Can you pray to God without candles, statues, and rosaries? Yes, but they certainly help. They are biblical, and Jesus uses them.
The simplest and most effective Catholic sacramental is the rosary of the blessed ever-virgin Mary. October is the month of the Holy Rosary (the feast of the Holy Rosary is Oct 7), and a good time to resolve never to leave home without a rosary. If you have a rosary, you are more likely to pray it. It’s a simple prayer, but as John Paul II said, “marvelous in its simplicity and its depth.” In my last parish, I tried many ways to pray with my staff, but nothing worked until we began praying the rosary together once a week.
Pope Consecrates world to Our Lady
Today is “Marian Day” in the Year of Faith, the day the sun danced at the final apparition of Our Lady of Fatima. Today Pope Francis consecrated the world to the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Rome. Let us also consecrate our city and our families to the Blessed Mother today, using the words like he used at St. Peter’s today: Holy Mary Virgin of Fatima, with a Mother’s benevolence we beg you to accept our act of consecration today, which we offer before your image, so dear to us. We are certain that each of us is precious in your eyes and that nothing in our hearts is unknown to you. Bring everyone under your protection and entrust everyone to your beloved Son, Our Lord Jesus. Amen.