“They go their way and they are choked by the
I remember that when I was a boy growing up, a notorious mobster died. I can’t recall how he died or what his name was, but the thing that I do remember is that the Cardinal-Archbishop of New York refused to allow a public Mass before the mobster’s burial. There was considerable discussion on the television about the Archbishop’s decision, but he was simply following the law of the Church, which refused ecclesiastical burial to notorious criminals. And, in those days, the only person in the world who could change Cardinal Spellman’s mind was Pope Pius XII. The Church, however, did allow a graveside service at the cemetery, before the body was lowered into the ground. The news media covered the burial pretty thoroughly, so I know that the priest at the cemetery was vested appropriately, and I think I remember him using incense and holy water. The thing that I remember most vividly, though, was that the priest was the mobster’s own brother.
I am sure that other people watching the news that night had the same question that I had in mind: How do people from the same culture, with the same background, who go to the same schools, and even grow up in the same family turn out so differently? How does one brother turn out to be a murderer and a drug peddler, while the other turns out to be a priest?
The Gospel today addresses much the same question. The seeds being sown in the parable are virtually identical; a lot of seed lands in the right place and produces the hoped-for crop, but some of it falls where it cannot grow, or where it is gobbled up the predators of the world. Why does the same thing happen to men and women. Why do some start out well but then fall away, and why are some choked by cares of the world, while others hear the word of God and keep it?
To be sure, some of it is environmental—even in the same family, people are subject to different experiences. The oldest is probably treated differently from the youngest. The family may live more or less well at different stages in each child’s life. One may go to school and have his lunch money stolen by the class bully, while the other one makes the acquaintance of a teacher or fellow student who inspires him to do good and holy things. The variables are infinite.
But there is a very important difference between human beings and the seed sown by the sower of our parable. The seed is not aware, even of its own existence—and if it were aware, it would still be powerless to do anything about its situation. It will land wherever it does, on good ground or on bad; and any change in position will be dictated by outside forces—the rain, and the wind, and the birds may move the seed, but the seed does not move itself.
Human beings, on the other hand, are capable of self awareness and independent thought, and are generally capable of taking action to change their bad circumstances. Rational people are capable of both good and evil, and their behavior thus takes on a moral character, for which (unlike the seeds) they will be accountable in eternity. Some of this makes use of the person’s natural endowment; a bright student may study hard to get a good education even though the schoolhouse is rundown and poor; the strong may make use of their strength as athletes or in honest work where brawn is an asset; the long-suffering may improve their lot by hard work and tireless application. Yet the person must recognize his particular talents and make the conscious choice between good and evil—for most natural talents can be used for either one.
But even more important than natural abilities—remember that we are talking about eternal accountability—is the decision to cooperate with the supernatural graces given by God.
Now, some will say that God does not dispense precisely the same graces to each individual, and that is probably correct. Certainly, we see that some people are fortunate to be born into good faithful families where they are raised to be good Catholics, and where they, indeed, find it more easy and personally advantageous to follow the ways of God—others may find that their family and their surroundings move them away from the things of God. Even with the same background, some will inexplicably find it easier to pray, easier to keep the Commandments, and easier to do all of the things that make one holy.
But even where there is this apparent inequality, God gives everyone of us the opportunity—so to speak—to force His hand. As Catholics, it is not necessary for us to wait until God decides to enter into our lives and give us supernatural graces. We can initiate contact with God; we can seek Him.
Always and everywhere we are able to pray. Apart, perhaps, from the unconsciousness of sleep, there is never a time or place where we cannot seek God. How much we do so is our own choice. The man cracking rocks in a quarry is able to raise his heart in prayer, every bit as much as the monk in his monastery. The mother of six children certainly suffers distraction, yet she can turn her mind to God, and live in God’s presence, just as much as the contemplative nun in her convent. In fact, it seems that in His justice, God will give some priority to the prayers of that woman who makes such an effort to keep Him in her life, and who is responsible not only for her own soul but for those six others as well.
To the degree that we have free time, we can sanctify that too. There are good and useful things that are interesting and relaxing and refreshing and recreational—often far more so than the mindless and downright immoral ways in which people often spend their leisure. The lives of the saints can be every bit as exciting—and far more uplifting—than watching or reading about stars of Hollywood, or the “heroes” of sports, politics, and industry. Walking through God’s world and seeing the ingenuity of His creation has got to be better in every way, than sitting on our couch preoccupied with mindless drivel.
But, above all, as Catholics we have daily access to God’s graces in the Mass and the Sacraments and the sacramentals. God has arranged things so that He cannot hide from us if we are of the mind to seek Him. He is here night and day, truly present in a tangible way in the tabernacle on the altar. He refuses no one the right to stand with Him at the foot of His cross each morning at Holy Mass. He is always ready to forgive the sins of the truly penitent. He delights when we share the Bread of Life with Him in His Holy Supper. It may—or it may not be true that you cannot come to Mass every day, but why not approach that by considering how many days you are, in fact, able to attend, just be making a little effort. And isn’t there something that we can be doing on those days when we really cannot come to Mass, or find ourselves too far away? A Rosary recited in union with the Masses being offered at that moment? The reading of the text of the day’s Mass in our missals, or of the word of God in sacred Scripture? There are many such things we can do, but it is up to us to do them!
It is no coincidence that the Church has us read this parable today in conjunction with what I have always called “Saint Paul’s adventure story.” I am sure there have been may others, but it is hard to find anyone who so clearly cooperated with God’s graces as Saint Paul. To be sure, God sought him out—in fact, God knocked Paul down on the road to Damascus to get his attention. But God seeks us as well—although, usually, in a thankfully less dramatic manner. It was Paul’s cooperation with God’s graces, however, that is truly impressive. We are not just talking about someone who kept the Commandments and got Mass on Sundays—we are not even talking about someone who was just a great missionary for the Faith. We are talking about a man who left everything to travel all over the known world; who had already been shipwrecked and beaten and stoned; who had already been subject to the heat and the cold and the false brethren trying to destroy his work; we are talking about a man who escaped in a basket through a window in a wall; who was still going strong when he wrote these words—seeking and cooperating with God’s graces in every way possible, rather than ignoring Him.
To be sure, we are in some ways like the seed sown by the sower in today’s parable. We can choose to do nothing if we land in the wrong place, and God will probably respect that choice, and allow us to be “choked by the cares and the riches and the pleasures of life.” Or we can choose to change our lives, and make the effort to approach God and seek out His grace—in which case we will be able to say with Saint Paul that even though we may be naturally weak, “God’s strength is perfected in our weakness.”