The Catholic University of America

Homily for the 20th Annual American Cardinals Dinner
Co-Cathedral of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston
April 24, 2009

Very Rev. David M. O'Connell, C.M.

This is a great passage in the Gospel of John (John 6: 1-15). It presents one of the "seven signs" found in his Gospel: the wedding feast of Cana; Jesus' cure of the centurion's son; his healing of the paralytic; Jesus' walking on the water; his restoring sight to the man born blind; the raising of Lazarus from the dead and, here, Jesus' miraculous multiplication of the loaves and fishes. This particular "sign" is the only miracle story that appears in each of the four gospels and so it is worth our special attention.

The passage opens noting the crowds following Jesus. It is obvious that he had already established a reputation for himself that had captured their attention. The crowds following him, here and elsewhere in the Gospels, were --- more often than not --- merely "sign seekers" not true believers. They were not "convinced;" their hearts were not really touched by the preaching and message of Jesus but, rather, by the delivery and the spectacle. They witnessed these great "signs" along the way and were hoping for more.

Every time I read or hear this Gospel, some different part of it, some different phrase stands out. This evening, that phrase might actually have passed us by without much notice like a "throw-away line" in some familiar story. When confronted with the immensity of the crowd, Jesus --- whom John tells us knew exactly what he was about to do --- (Jesus) asks Philip how they were going to provide for the huge crowd. Andrew then jumps in and says we have someone in our midst, "a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish but what good are these for so many?" I can just imagine Jesus smiling at him. Without hesitation, Jesus responds with the phrase that interests me. Jesus says to Philip and Andrew, "Have the people recline."

Now, you might be thinking to yourself, with all that is going in this Gospel passage, with all the possible things to consider, why is that phrase so particularly interesting? Let me tell you why.

When Jesus asks that crowds recline, to sit down, he is indicating a number of things. First, that despite their great numbers, he is not going to turn them away. Second, that something is going to happen. Finally, that whatever is about to happen will involve them.

Jesus "knew what he was going to do," he was not going to dismiss them or turn them away. He "went up on the mountain" as he frequently did and sat down himself, taking the posture of a teacher. This story, this miracle, like all the others, was to be a "teachable moment." And he has them all sit down, taking the posture of disciples, of students, of learners. Something is going to happen, something that involves them.

Jesus' miracle is not some kind of magic trick. He takes something they already have there with them, in fact he takes all that they have, the only thing they have --- five barley loaves and two fish --- and he feeds them with it, he satisfies them. In fact, although John tells us "they had had their fill," there was plenty left over. But until the "people reclined," until they sat down to watch, until they depended upon him for what they truly needed, until they opened themselves to what he had to offer, until they ate as much as they could, until they realized that there was still more --- that nothing should be wasted, this huge and unruly crowd of "sign seekers" could never experience that conversion of that "teachable moment" that enabled them to move beyond the spectacle of it all to say, this Jesus is "truly the Prophet, the one who is to come into the world."

That is what Catholic education --- especially Catholic higher education ---should do, that is the miracle it should work through the education and environment it provides. When the students recline, when they sit before their teachers --- whether they be professors or chaplains or administrators or staff --- they should expect that something is going to happen, something that will involve them: Jesus, truly the Prophet, the one who is to come into the world, will come into their minds and hearts and lives; Jesus will take what they already have and bring, and through our Catholic universities and colleges, will make it even more. Our students should become the bread that is then multiplied and given away, witnessing to Christ, witnessing to the Church, witnessing to the truth --- because of what we teach, because of what we affirm, because of what we support. If Christ does not "happen" in their lives, if the Church does not inspire them in their lives through our Catholic universities and colleges, Christ hasn't failed, the Church hasn't failed --- we have failed. We should not fail, we cannot fail, we must not fail even though many things today tempt us to compromise our identity and mission and purpose.

When Pope Benedict XVI spoke on the campus of The Catholic University of America one year ago last Friday, he called Catholic education "a powerful instrument of hope." He reminded us that our Catholic educational institutions are "places to encounter the living God who in Jesus Christ reveals his transforming love and truth."

Our Catholic universities and colleges have much in common with that mountainside scene along the Sea of Galilee in John's Gospel. The living God whom we --- as they --- encounter in Jesus Christ multiplies what we have and fills us up, transforms us, and makes us overflow with a bread that the world cannot give.

"Have the people recline" in this Easter Season so that we may all realize the miracles that have been given to us and the many more that lie ahead for those who believe. Amen.

Very Reverend David M. O'Connell, C.M.
The Catholic University of America