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Colleen DulleApril 24, 2024
Photo from Unsplash.

A Reflection for the Memorial of St. Catherine of Siena

The word you hear is not mine
but that of the Father who sent me.

In 1964, the popular media theorist Marshall McLuhan famously declared that “the medium is the message.” It may sound a bit heady or abstract, but the meaning is simple: The medium used to communicate something sends a message in itself. For example, confessing your love to someone over the phone is very different from sending them a letter, even if the confession of love is exactly the same.

What is less commonly known is that McLuhan expanded on his famous adage ten years later, writing, “In Jesus Christ, there is no distance or separation between the medium and the message: it is the one case where we can say that the medium and the message are fully one and the same” (“Liturgy and the Microphone,” 1974). Or, as Jesus says in today’s Gospel, “The word you hear is not mine, but that of the Father who sent me.”

Jesus, in his very being, communicates the whole of the Gospel message. He can speak God’s word without obscuring or muddling it at all. It reminds me of one of my favorite prayers: “Lord, help me get out of your way.”

In today’s first reading, Paul and Barnabas travel to a new city and when they arrive, they begin healing people miraculously; the witnesses immediately run to get oxen to sacrifice to the apostles, believing they are Zeus and Hermes. The apostles insist that they are not gods but humans and try again to evangelize the people. Likewise, Catherine of Siena, a humble laywoman who exercised enormous influence over the popes and politicians of her day insisted—as powerful medieval women saints often did—that her gifts came from and were meant for serving God.

If even celebrated saints as Paul, Barnabas and Catherine of Siena had to clarify that the source of their extraordinary gifts was God, imagine how much more difficult it is for us to see others’ talents—or even our own!— in that way.

In his own, perhaps under-appreciated, 2018 apostolic exhortation “Gaudete et Exsultate” (“Rejoice and Be Glad”), Pope Francis warns against a new form of the ancient heresy of Pelagianism—essentially, the belief that we can accomplish by our own will and effort the things that, in reality, only God’s grace and mercy can do. He specifically warns that we cannot preach that grace is necessary, but then not believe it or act like it:

“Underneath our orthodoxy, our attitudes might not correspond to our talk about the need for grace, and in specific situations we can end up putting little trust in it. Unless we can acknowledge our concrete and limited situation, we will not be able to see the real and possible steps that the Lord demands of us at every moment, once we are attracted and empowered by his gift. Grace acts in history; ordinarily it takes hold of us and transforms us progressively [rather than all at once]. If we reject this historical and progressive reality, we can actually refuse and block grace, even as we extol it by our words.”

Grace changes us and others gradually; it does not, as Pope Francis writes earlier in the document, make us “superhuman all at once.” Paul, Barnabas and Catherine had to work constantly to remain open to the gradual work of grace in them, gradually becoming more perfect or Christlike mediums of God’s message, even to the point of working miracles, not through their efforts, but through grace.

With all this in mind, perhaps our prayer for today should simply be: “Lord, help me get out of your way.”

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