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This morning's epistle,
Saint Paul's first to the Thessalonians, was written to the people of
Thessalonica (in southern Greece) about the Apostle's continuing affection
and prayer for them.
Saint Paul had been preaching there, but his success in making converts
stirred up a riot among the zealous Jews, and he was forced to move on
After a time, Paul sent Saint Timothy back to Thessalonica, and was very
pleased with the report that Timothy sent him, saying that the Thessalonians
had continued to practice the Faith in Paul's absence. So, Paul was writing
to encourage them to bear up under their persecution, and to continue to
make progress in the Faith.
Trying to practice the
Catholic Faith in the modern world, we often feel something like the
Thessalonians. We often are made to feel like strangers among our own
people. The scarcity of good priests and bishops often requires us to keep
the Faith "on our own." It is worthwhile to consider the things to which
Saint Paul attributes their perseverance:
God blessed them
generously with the supernatural virtues, and the Thessalonians responded by
practicing those virtues; “your work of faith, and labor, and charity, and
your enduring hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul mixes "labor" right in
there with faith, hope, and charity—he is talking about the practical
expression of the virtues—good works done for the poor and widowed and the
orphaned, as well as the sharing of their Faith with the non-believers who
lived around them.
Saint Paul even points
out that they had become a good example to people throughout the region:
“From you the word of the Lord has been spread abroad, not only in Macedonia
and Achaia, but also in every place your faith in God has gone forth.” That
is to say, all throughout the Greek peninsula, probably up to modern day
Albania. The way Paul phrases these words suggests that it was their good
example, more than any overt missionary activity, that “became a pattern to
the believers” with whom they came into contact.
“You have turned to God
from idols, to serve the living and true God.” Not only had they abandoned
the worship of lifeless and false “gods,” but they had turned their
attentions and their efforts to the true God. All too often, people convert
from something to nothing, or perhaps to a lukewarm version of
Christianity. Not so the Thessalonians, whom the Apostle here praises for
Again, all of these
things came from the exercise of the virtues God had given them. “Our
Gospel was delivered to you … in the Holy Ghost.” Through Faith and through
the Sacraments, the Holy Ghost came to dwell within them in a personal way.
And their warm reaction to the Holy Ghost caused God's influence to spread
throughout their people and beyond.
In light of this
morning's Gospel, we might say that the Thessalonians received the Holy
Ghost in much the same way that flour receives leaven.
Given the right conditions, a little bit of yeast will cause a large amount
of dough to rise and become suitable for baking. The Holy Ghost permeated
the church of Thessalonica because it presented the appropriate environment.
If you have ever baked
bread, you know that the dough won't rise if it is too hot or too cold, or
too much exposed to light or to vibration. Likewise the soul or the church
that the Holy Ghost is trying to “leaven” with holiness. The process of
“rising” in holiness will not go forward if we are cold towards God, or
burning with the fires of lust, or standing in the bright light of our own
pride, or if we permit ourselves to be agitated by the works of the world.
But, on the other hand,
if we approach God with the right conditions of soul, holiness will spread
not only through us but through those around us. The virtually invisible
seed of Faith will sprout and grow to something the size of a tree. If we
take care of the internal and the little, our Lord will see to the external
and the great.
As modern Catholics we
ought to have a great deal in common with the Christians of Thessalonica,
imitating them in the ways so strongly praised by the Apostle Paul:
Striving by faith and works to exercise and to increase the virtues given us
by God; Being a pattern of good example to each other and to those outside
of our small circle; Turning from time-wasting pursuits (the idols of the
modern world) to the service of the one true God; Cultivating in our souls
those conditions needed for the Holy Ghost to leaven us with holiness, and
to branch out for the salvation of souls.
Finally, let me mention
that Saint Paul did not allow the Thessalonians to “rest on their laurels.”
Neither may we allow ourselves to do so. His two epistles to them might as
well be written to us. He exhorts us to charity and chastity, to obedience
and patience, to constant preparation for our personal end (which may come
at any time). He exhorts us to thanksgiving and mutual prayer, and
cautions us against idleness.
Perhaps his most
important admonition comes toward the end of his second letter: “Brethren,
do not grow tired of doing good.”
Those who do not make progress fall backward. We can never be content to
look back over our achievements in the spiritual life. Just like Paul's
Thessalonians, two thousand years ago, we must always look forward to
pleasing God. “Brethren, do not grow tired of doing good.”