Feast of St. Alphonsus Ligouri
Today we celebrate the feast of St. Alphonsus Ligouri, a bishop and doctor of the Church who is also the founder of the Redemptorists. The Redemptorists began in Italy about the same time as the Passionists and our two congregations were inspired by a similar mission to reinvigorate the church by preaching God’s love expressed through Jesus’ giving of his life for us. St. Alphonsus was a great moral theologian, whose writings and teachings pondered the challenge of living a moral life in an imperfect world.
The readings for today are taken from the prophet Jeremiah (15:10, 16-21) and from the parable discourse of Matthew’s Gospel, comparing the joy of the Kingdom of God to the discovery of the “pearl of great price” and the “treasure hidden in the field” (Matt 13:44-46). The reading from Jeremiah shows why he has earned a reputation of strong lament; we even refer to a type of doomsday speech as a “Jeremiad.” Jeremiah lived in stressful times in Israel, beginning his role as a prophet around 626 BC, at a time when the southern kingdom of Judah was under extreme threat and seemed doomed to experience the kind of devastation that the northern kingdom of Israel had experienced earlier from the Assyrian invasion.
Jeremiah’s warnings fell on deaf ears and so he rues the day that his mother gave him birth. Everyone seems to “curse” him. He cries out to God, “why is my pain continuous, my wound incurable, refusing to be healed?” He calls God a “treacherous brook whose waters do not abide!” Yet despite Jeremiah’s anger and frustration with God, the Lord stands by him. Jeremiah will continue to be the Lord’s “mouthpiece,” a “brass wall” against which the prophet’s enemies will not prevail. “For I am with you, to deliver and rescue you, says the Lord.” Here is the beautiful reassurance of God’s abiding care and protection even in the most difficult of times. The Psalm response for today picks up that same theme: “God is my refuge on the day of distress.”
There seems to be a lot of bad news converging these days: poor families separated from each other in the chaos of our southern border; terrible fires sweeping the southwest; floods raging through the northeast; and seemingly endless conflict in our political world—the list can be a long one. As the reading from Jeremiah teaches us today, we do not have to pretend that all is right with the world. Even in the midst of our world’s beauty and joys, there are experiences of inexplicable tragedy and suffering. Great characters such as Jeremiah and many of the psalms were not afraid to lament such experiences—to ask why such things happened in a world created by a loving God.
The biblical response is not to come up with an easy answer to the mystery of suffering but, instead, to insist over and over that God is with us, even in time of distress, and that God’s loving presence will sustain us through it all. The words of Psalm 59 eloquently proclaim: “O my strength! Your praise I will sing; for you, O God, are my stronghold, my merciful God.”
Fr. Donald Senior, C.P. is President Emeritus and Professor of New Testament at Catholic Theological Union. He lives at the Passionist residence in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago.