"Blessed is the womb that carried you and the breasts at which you nursed!"
What the woman declared is true. Mary was blessed to be the mother of Jesus incarnate. She herself sings in her Magnificat: "Henceforth all generations shall call me blessed."
But Jesus shocked this woman and the world when he responded: "Rather, blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it." He words still reverberate today, sounding as they do as a rejection of his family.
Yet, if we listen closely, Jesus could not have praised his mother more highly. No one heard the word of God more clearly and observed it better than his mother. But Jesus was making an even bolder claim. He was announcing that true blessing doesn’t come by being physically related to him, and in doing so he redefined the meaning of family. Those who are truly blessed, those who are his true family are those who hear the word of God and keep it, beginning with his mother and – by extended invitation – to us.
Are Jesus’ words simply a pious sentiment, but without real meaning in today? Or is there evidence of such family among us right now? The answer, of course, is a resounding yes. It is the Body of Christ, us, imperfect as we are. Closer to home, I have seen such a family from my teenage years, right up until today. The Passionist Community is this blessing, this family.
Fr. Bruno D’Souza is a good example. A young Passionist priest from India, he has been for three years part of our retreat preaching team at Mater Dolorosa Retreat Center in Sierra Madre, Calif. My wife and I ask him from time to time, if he gets homesick for his family in Bombay. He always answers "No. Wherever I live with my community, I am with my family." His response doesn’t please my wife with her motherly instincts. She keeps pushing: "Don’t you miss your mother and father? Don’t you miss your mother’s cooking?" Fr. Bruno smiles but nods no.
Recently, Fr. Bernard Weber, a wonderful preacher, died suddenly. His Passionist family around the world grieved his loss. The same Saturday he died, several of us on the retreat team at Mater Dolorosa were in the staff room having dinner. Br. John Rockenbach, who speaks so little he rarely threads even five words together, seized the moment to honor Fr. Bernie by inviting us to raise a glass of wine with the words "To Fr. Bernie, a great Passionist!" My wife and I were touched by his warm gesture.
I consider myself part of the Passionist extended family, as a seminarian and novice who lived with them for five years. One of my favorite Passionists was Fr. Damian McHale, who lived most of his life in the Sierra Madre area. He was a man of compassion, but with a wicked sense of humor. Sometimes that humor edged on being blunt, even caustic. He could be, to put it charitably, rather prickly. While I was at breakfast with him and others one morning, Fr. Damian made a rather biting comment to one of his brother Passionists. I immediately told him that when he dies, the Pope will proclaim him the patron saint of porcupines – to which all at the table laughed. After he died, I took possession of his Liturgy of the Hours. Occasionally, I pray my office from his old book, its pages worn and wrinkled. This is my connection with this holy and charmingly cantankerous man.
It’s no wonder that Fr. Alan Phillip, the local superior at Mater Dolorosa, insists that the special charism of the Passionists is eccentricity. Am I shocked at Jesus’ words about who is blessed and who his true family is? No. In the Passionist community, I see his family every day.
Deacon Manuel Valencia is on the staff at Mater Dolorosa Passionist Retreat Center, Sierra Madre, California.