Why John the Baptist?

Let’s hop into the land of imagination for a second…Let’s say you are instead a missionary, and have brought the gospel to a new part of the world. As a thank you, the bishop asks you to name the new parish. What would you name it? Why? Maybe you would name it after your favorite saint, or your confirmation saint. Maybe you would have the name be symbolic about your hopes for the community.

Montecassino

Way back in the 6th Century, a man named Benedict somewhat had this experience. He had been an abbot, the head of a monastery, but unfortunately the monks there repeatedly tried to kill him. Benedict eventually took the hint and left that community with his faithful followers. They ended up at Montecassino, where they found the remains of an old pagan temple. Benedict and his companions destroyed the ruins and built in their place two chapels – one dedicated to St. Martin of Tours, the monk who brought monastic life to Western Europe, and the other to St. John the Baptist.

John the Baptist by Caravaggio

But why John the Baptist? That’s a good question, but first we need to ask, Why did the Baptist’s parents insist on naming their son John? In ancient times names were not just randomly chosen. For the Israelites in particular names signified something special about the child. In Hebrew, John means “the LORD is gracious” and in Aramaic, the language Jesus and his cousin John spoke, it could also be translated as “the LORD is sympathetic or compassionate.” So how is the Lord compassionate, sympathetic, or gracious? Remember John’s parents were old. They had no children and were well beyond the normal child bearing age. So God’s gift of a son truly was compassionate and gracious to them. But as we know, John was no ordinary son. Throughout his life, from when he was in the womb to when he was in the desert, he preached a message of repentance and pointed out how gracious and compassionate God truly is. God loves us so much He sent His Son for us. John simply could not hold back but had to bring others to Jesus.

So when St. Benedict chose to name his primary chapel at Montecassino after John the Baptist, he was teaching us that not only is God still gracious and compassionate, but that his monks, like John the Baptist, are to bring others to Jesus so they too can follow our Lord.

Throughout history, Benedictine monks have had a strong devotion to St. John the Baptist. In Minnesota, the abbey there is named in honor of John the Baptist. A couple of the juniors from St. John’s Abbey are with us today.

Seven miles north of here, in the tiny locale named, Doniphan, where the first monk in Kansas, Fr. Henry Lemke settled, the church there is also named after the Baptist.

If you look up at the upper right corner of the fresco, you can see an illustration of a story from Fr. Henry’s life while in Doniphan. This was in mid-1850s, and as you history experts know, this was the time of Bleeding Kansas. Battles were taking place on the Kansas-Missouri border, fighting over whether Kansas would be a slave or free state. After a battle in the middle of a cold winter near Doniphan, a man brought one of the border ruffians to Fr. Henry. No one else would care for this seriously injured man, so Fr. Henry took him into his own hut and gave him his own bed. Sadly, the man was very sick, and eventually his legs literally rotted from his body. Still, though, Fr. Henry cared for the dying man in his own bed. He learned that the man had been raised Catholic, but had fallen away from his faith. As depicted in the fresco, Fr. Henry brought him back to the sacraments, and the man died fully reconciled with God.

Like John the Baptist, Fr. Henry responded to God’s call to be compassionate to this dying man. Through his generosity, Fr. Henry brought him back to Jesus.

My friends, all of us are being asked to respond to God’s call in our lives. As leaders, we are being challenged to not merely lead, but to bring them to Jesus. I attended a talk by a former Pentecostal minister who now is a Catholic deacon. He was so filled with the joy of the Holy Spirit that he literally was jumping up and down, and crying out, “I’ve got JOOOOY!!!” He truly showed us authentic joy and brought us closer to Jesus. I have often wondered since then if that is the type of joy, leaping for joy, John the Baptist experienced when he first met Jesus when both were in the womb.

By our actions we need to show them that we believe in a God who is compassionate and merciful, in a God who overflows our hearts with joy. In our monasteries and in our parishes, schools, and families we should reach out and serve one another…serve with love, with joy, with peace, with patience, with kindness. In the Rule of St. Benedict, we are instructed to see Jesus in the old and the young, in the superior and the guest, in the sick and the needy.

But what is God asking of each of us? To see Jesus in others, yes. But wait. There’s even more! Remember that just like John the Baptist, before you were formed in the womb, God has been calling you. Maybe you will be asked to care of the sick and the dying, like Fr. Henry. Maybe you will be asked to be a youth minister or a missionary who brings the Gospel to those who do not know Jesus. Maybe by your work in business or other fields, you are being asked to teach others about respect and dignity. Maybe through the ministry of chair folding, you will illustrate to another how much you care for that person, and how much God cares for that person.

Friends, God is calling each of us to something special. For most of you, God will be or is asking you to be loving spouses and great parents some day. At this very moment, God is calling you to be the best son or daughter, the best brother or sister, the best monk, you can be. And I am sure God is pulling on the strings of some of your hearts, inviting you to a life of leading others to Jesus by serving Him and His Church as a priest or a religious, and maybe, just maybe, as a monk. My friends, priesthood and monastic life truly is a wonderful gift.

In just a few minutes, we will see the celebrant holding our Savior in his hands, and using the words of John the Baptist he will cry out “Behold the Lamb of God. Behold Him who takes away the sins of the world.” Behold the one who is compassionate. Behold the one who is gracious and merciful. Behold the one who is calling us to a great life of love and service. In a special way today, when we behold our Savior may we glorify Him, and resolve to love Him and joyfully bring others to Him the best we can.

This homily was offered on the Solemnity of John the Baptist at Community Mass when monks participating in Junior Institute and nearly 600 participants in the Life Teen Leadership Conference were present.