Bishop Glen John Provost
Bishop of Lake Charles
Homily for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Sunday, August 19, 2007
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception

“We are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses.” Hebrews 12:1

The year was 1941. The German army had invaded Poland in 1939. Two years into the war, concentration camps had been set up to hold prisoners, those judged undesirable or a threat to the Nazi regime, gypsies, political activist, religious leaders and countless Jewish victims. One of these camps was the notorious Auschwitz.

There had been an escape. The commandant ordered that a certain number of concentration camp inmates be killed in reprisal as an example to the others. So randomly ten men were selected. One man pleaded that he would never see his wife and children again. It would have been very easy for the prisoners not chosen for execution to standby in silence. However, a voice was raised. A prisoner stepped forward and offered his life for the married man. The commandant accepted the arrangement. The prisoner who offered his life in exchange for the condemned family man was a priest, Fr. Maximilian Kolbe. He was to be starved to death but his death was hastened with a lethal injection.

Fr. Kolbe, whose feast we recently celebrated on the eve of the Assumption, was a witness. He took seriously the words of His Master. “The servant is not above his master; if they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20). Fr. Kolbe knew what every witness to Christ knows, that witness involves a sacrifice.

Jesus speaks of this sacrifice in the Gospel of today as a division. “Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. From now on a household of five will be divided, three against two and two against three” (Luke 12:52). For those who follow Christ, a fire will be lit. That fire will divide even the bonds of family. Such is destiny of the witness to Christ.

The word translated as witness in the New Testament is “martyr” in the original Greek. We get our word “martyr” from the Greek word for witness. Jesus comes as a witness. He testifies to the truth, and that comes with a price. He will give His life as a ransom for sinners in fulfillment of the prophets and in accordance with His Father’s will. “Such is the case with the Son of Man who has come, not to be served by others, but to serve, to give his own life as a ransom for the many” (Matthew 20:28).

This is what Fr. Maximilian Kolbe does. He gave his life in ransom so that a father would not be separated from his family. It was an act of love. This is perhaps what distinguishes a Christian martyr from every other type of witness. Love motivates the Christian martyr. The witness is a gift, just as Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross was a gift for our salvation.

Only the soul that has left behind “self” can understand this. For that reason, I think, the modern world finds it so difficult to appreciate Christian martyrdom. A world that is wrapped up in “self”, that can only talk of commodities, buying and selling, where even human life is reduced to dollars and cents, can never grasp a total giving of “self.” It is into such a world, that equates peace with smugness and comfort, that Our Lord prays fire will descend. Into such a world also come martyrs, like Fr. Maximilian Kolbe, who have embraced a baptism like that with which Christ was baptized.

The martyr will not allow us to be complacent. The martyr has done what the world cannot do. The world is too selfish. The martyr is not. We cannot ignore the blood of the martyr. The martyr’s offering of himself in selflessness is too perfect. Such love compels us. So the Letter to the Hebrews will say, “Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith” (Hebrews 12:1).