Days before hundreds of students filled their schools, Catholic school educators gathered at Saint Benedict Church in Anchorage for a challenging message.
The Aug. 17 Mass marked the start of their annual in-service day in advance of the first day of school, Aug. 21.
Several dozen teachers, administrators, staff and family members joined daily Mass attendees. Personnel from St. Elizabeth Ann Seton School and Holy Rosary Academy in Anchorage, as well as Our Lady of the Valley School in Wasilla, united with those from Lumen Christi High School, adjacent to the church, for the morning liturgy.
Archbishop Paul Etienne was scheduled be there, but due to illness, was unable to attend. Father Patrick Brosamer of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, and Father Robert Whitney, associate pastor at St. Benedict, joined St. Benedict pastor Father Tom Lilly as co-celebrants. As Mass began, Father Lilly quipped, “I don’t know if it is written in canon law that it takes three priests to replace an archbishop.”
The Old Testament Scripture for the day came from the third chapter of Joshua, recalling God’s abiding presence with the Israelites as they made their way across the Jordan River, on dry land.
The Gospel from Matthew focused on forgiveness, with Saint Peter asking how often he must forgive one who has wronged him. Jesus’ answer of 77 times precedes the parable of the servant, forgiven a large debt by his master, who fails to extend that mercy to one who owes him a paltry sum. Jesus’ advice to forgive from the heart is more admonition than instruction.
Speaking on forgiveness, Father Lilly’s homily noted that parents and teachers must be adept at forgiving many times over. He warned against a tendency to see the imperfection of another and to hold grudges, even if an apology is extended.
Referencing the first reading, Father Lilly spoke of how we often seek to know God’s presence in the spectacular, while more often, “We are going to most beautifully notice that presence through the love and care of another.”
As educators, parents and catechists, the message children will hear is one, Father Lilly said, recalling a remark by a monk at Mount Angel Seminary — “your life is going to witness to something. Please don’t let it be an example of how not to be a Christian.”
“Our lives are going to teach, whether we claim the mantle of teacher or not,” he added. “How can we be instruments, bridges of God’s mercy and love and forgiveness to another?”
In experiencing God’s unbounded love, forgiveness and mercy through Jesus Christ, Father Lilly prodded the faithful: “How are we being an instrument of mercy, grace and forgiveness ourselves? Do we claim the title of Christian, or do we live it?”
He then recalled a particular father’s struggle to forgive Timothy McVeigh, whose 1995 act of terror in Oklahoma City took his young daughter’s life. After years of rage, bitterness and pain, he realized McVeigh never knew him, but still had control over him. On national television, the distraught father said, “From my heart, I forgive Timothy McVeigh.”
This grieving father, “reached down deeply and he patterned his life after that of our Lord’s, and he simply said, ‘I forgive you,” Father Lilly said, adding that Satan could no longer enter his heart. He was at peace.
Father Lilly concluded with a question: “What lesson do we teach the world?”