Full text of homily by Father Steffen at Mass following the 2018 Men’s March
EDITOR’S NOTE: Following is the full text of the homily given by Father Johnathan Steffen on April 28 at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Peoria following the annual diocesan Men’s March. Father Steffen is pastor of St. Mary Parish in El Paso and a chaplain at the St. John Paul II Catholic Newman Center in Normal.
One of our nation’s highest-awarded poets was a fellow, native son of Illinois. Carl Sandburg was born and raised over in Galesburg, and he won the Pulitzer Prize for literature 3 times during his life. I’d like to tell you about one of his poems because it’s a poem about a father giving advice to his son as his son is becoming a man.
The father in this poem deliberates very carefully with himself about the advice he wants to give to his son because he knows his son well. He knows that his son will take the father’s advice and receive it in his life like a treasure. The son will receive it like nuggets of gold being handed to him, and the son will hold on to that treasure so tightly that it will leave impressions in the palms of his hands.
And, the father also knows that whatever advice he gives to his son, that advice isn’t just going to go to his son, but it’s also going to go to his son’s son, and the son after that, and the son after that, and down through the generations.
So, in order for the father to advise his son properly, the father needs to figure out what sort of world do we live in. If the world is a harsh one, then the son needs to be like steel, says the Father. The son needs to be prepared for violence and for enemies rushing toward him with stones in their hands. He needs to be prepared for betrayal, even by his closest friends. He needs to be on guard for those who will slink up alongside him to get their pound of flesh. So, if life in this world is like that—one of brutal existence—then, here is what the Father advises: “Be like steel, my son, because life is hard. So, be like steel!”
But, then the Father steps back from that advice, and he reconsiders. He thinks that maybe life in this world isn’t so hard. He says maybe the world is more like a soft loam—the sort of rich, fertile, Central Illinois dirt, in which you can stick almost anything into it, and it will grow. And, if the world is like this soft loam, then there’s no reason to be like steel. In fact, being like steel could work against you.
Brute force has its advantages, but sometimes a boulder falls off the side of a mountain, not because it’s being battered and pounded on by machinery made of steel, but because somewhere on the side of that mountain is a thin crack where a small flower is gently pushing its way through. And, the boulder will fall from that mountain and crumble by the silence of that growth. So, maybe the advice he needs to give his son should be this: “Be gentle, my son, and go easy.”
So, now the father is operating between two extremes: the world of tough steel on the one hand and the world of soft loam on the other. But finally, after some other considerations, the father finally arrives at his answer. “Here is what I am going to tell my son,” he says. “Here is what my son needs to know, and how he needs to live…”
Only, I’m not going to tell you the answer; not just yet, because I’d like to get there from a different path. You see, the father in Carl Sandburg’s poem starts us off well on our way to arriving at the advice that every son needs to know, but the father doesn’t go far enough.
There was another father, centuries and centuries before, who already gave every son the answer that will best serve him in life—and he gave it to us not by speaking it with his words, but by living it with his life, and the name of this father was Joseph.
So, let me go down a different path for just a moment, but we’ll come back to this one. I am very honored to be here with all of you today. Thank you, Bishop, for calling us forward as men to be a witness to our Catholic faith. When I received the invitation to preach at this mass, my initial instructions came through a third party, and I was told that my sermon should be “something related to St. Joseph.” In fact, I think that was the specific phrase that was used: “say something related to St. Joseph.”
Now, if I’m honest, I’ll tell you that I always find St. Joseph to be a difficult saint to preach about because as you know, there just isn’t a lot of information about him in the pages of sacred scripture.
So in order to get some idea of who this Joseph was, we turn to the ancient memory of the Church and we look at the prayers and traditions in which he is mentioned. We examine the historical record and try to determine what life was like for a Jewish husband and father living in the first century of biblical Palestine. We look at what we know about Judaism during the period of the Second Temple.
From all of that, we extrapolate an image of this man named Joseph, who St. Matthew in the Gospel describes as “not just any man, but a man who is just.” So, that’s where a lot of our information about St. Joseph comes from.
But, I would propose to you that maybe the clearest and best source of information we have of knowing what sort of man St. Joseph actually was, comes to us from Jesus, himself, because in our Gospel for today, Jesus says these words: He is speaking to His disciples, and He says, “If you know me, then you will also know my Father. From now on you do know him, and you have seen him.”
Now, of course, in making this statement, Jesus is speaking directly and plainly about the “Heavenly Father—the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” Let there be no doubt about that. To use the language of the Gospel of St. John, Jesus tells us that He is in the Father and the Father is in Him. So, to see God the Son is to see God the Father.
But, if we also look at Jesus’s words from our human experience, we can find another meaning layered upon them like flesh: “If you know me, then you will also know my father.”
In seeing the humanity of Christ are we also able to see the subtle influence of St. Joseph, his earthly caretaker, impressed upon Him.
It is a statement whose truth we know for ourselves because each one of us here is aware of the influence of the father in whose care and custody we were placed, and Jesus, in the home of his human family, could be no different.
In seeing the humanity of Christ are we also able to see the subtle influence of St. Joseph, his earthly caretaker, impressed upon Him, because somewhere in Nazareth, there was a workshop. And, in this workshop, there was a man named Joseph quietly plying his trade. And, the things that St. Joseph the Craftsman, St. Joseph the Tekton, was building with his hands in that workshop in Nazareth included not just things to be made, but they included a Son who was being built up into a man.
In the workshop of St. Joseph, a proficient craftsman was designing and assembling and laboring at his trade, and alongside him was the Son who, in the words of St. Luke, would “grow and become strong and be filled with wisdom.”
Here is what I wonder. Why was St. Joseph given this enormously important role in God’s plan of salvation? Why was he the man who was chosen to be the Husband and Protector of the Holy Mother of God? Why was he the man chosen to be the foster Father of the Word-Made-Flesh?
There are a lot of saintly men who have lived; a lot of saintly men who are living now; and by God’s grace a lot of saintly men who will ever live. But, of all of us men, it was St. Joseph who was chosen to fill this one, specific role. So, what was it that St. Joseph had? What was it that he could do?
And, now let me make my way back to the advice that the Father in Carl Sandburg’s poem gives to his son. Remember that in order for this father to give the very best advice he can, he first needs to decide what type of world his son will have to confront.
If life in this world really is nothing better than the way it is described in the Book of Ecclesiastes, where the author says that all things are wearisome, and that life is an unhappy business that God has given human beings to be busy with. If life is truly like that, then maybe the Father’s advice to be like steel is the best advice to give. “Be like steel, my son, because even on those days when you can escape life’s violence and destruction, the only reprieve you will find is its futility.”
Or, is life in this world more along the order of what we find in the psalms of King David, where “all the ends of the earth have seen the saving power of God,” so there is no reason to be stone-faced and cold of heart. Instead, “sing to the Lord a new song, because He has done wondrous deeds.” And, even “the land itself breaks into song, so let us sing His praise. (Psalm 98).” If life is truly like that, then maybe the Father’s advice to be gentle is the best advice to give. “Be gentle, my son, and travel lightly.”
But, if life in this world is more complex than either-or propositions—if life in this world is sometimes hot and sometimes cold; if it is sometimes bitter and sometimes sweet; if it is brutish one day and tender the next; then here is what you need to know. Here is the advice that will serve you well:
The Father says, “Son, you need to find time to be alone. You need to seek solitude. You need to make your way into silent rooms because it’s in those silent rooms where you will make your final decisions.” That was the advice the Father gave to the Son. “Seek solitude, and make your way into silent rooms.”
It’s good advice, but it’s answered more completely and more honestly in the person of St. Joseph, himself.
You see, in fulfilling the role as the Husband of Mary and the Foster Father of the Word-Made-Flesh, God needed a man who was virtuous in every way. He needed a man who could be “Just” and “Strong” and “Obedient” and “Faithful” and “Chaste”—all ancient titles the Church has bestowed upon St. Joseph.
All of those virtues indicate a man after God’s own heart, and they are virtues that will set any man well on his way to salvation, and help him maneuver in a world that requires both the toughness of steel and the gentleness of new life.
But, I like to imagine a conversation that took place in the heavenly courts between God and his angels in God’s search for the man who would fulfill this role. God might have said to his advising angels, “Yes, we need a man who is virtuous in every way. But, we also need a man who, in addition to all of that, can do one, simple thing for me. The man I need to fulfill this role needs to be a man who can sleep. Not the sleep that comes from the folly of selfish pleasure, but the sleep that comes from the peace that passes all understanding.
“If we can’t find a man who, at the end of his day, can kick off his shoes, and clear his mind, and rest easy because he knows he has fulfilled his daily duties with every measure of faithfulness, and then in resting, at the end of his day, find his sleep, — if we can’t find a man who can do that, then that man will be no good for the role I need him to fulfill.”
If this man cannot sleep, then I cannot get him to dream, and if I can’t get him to dream, then I cannot send my angels into those dreams and tell him what needs to be done.
If this man cannot rest and sleep, then it might mean that this man gets himself too tangled up in the worries of this world. If this man cannot rest and sleep, then it might mean that he allows anxiety to choke the peace out of his life. If this man cannot rest and sleep, then it could mean that this man has not yet learned to place his own troubles into the hands of the Almighty and trust in a Divine Plan that is higher than his own.
St. Joseph was a man who could seek solitude and make his way into the silent room of his soul where God spoke to his heart through the ministering voices of angels. There is a silent chamber in the soul of each one of us. And, if we faithfully enter into that silent chamber every day of our life, we will find that there is a Master Craftsman within, and He is standing there at his workbench, and He is plying his trade.
This Master Craftsman labors with hands that still bear the treasured wounds of nails sunk deep into his flesh. And, this is the Master Craftsman who, like his father before him, helps every son who enters into his workshop to “grow and become strong and to be filled with wisdom.”