Msgr. Joseph Prior

(See the readings for the Fifth Sunday of Lent, March 18)

“Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there also will my servant be. The Father will honor whoever serves me.”

Jesus says this in the context of preparing himself and his disciples for the cross. As we approach Holy Week, we are reminded of the life-giving passion that Jesus takes upon himself for the salvation of the world. He lays down his life so that we might live. He is the grain of wheat that dies and bears much fruit. He calls us to share in his work of redemption by laying down our lives in love for each other.

Throughout the history of the church, many people have taken this message to heart and have lived so as to lay down their lives in love. St. Damien of Molokai is well-known example. He was a missionary priest who went to the Hawaiian island of Molokai to serve the lepers there in quarantine. His story is famous, so much so that a statue of Damien is located in the U.S. Capitol.

Yet there is also the story of another missionary on Molokai, one that is less familiar. This is the story of Brother Joseph.

Brother Joseph Dutton was born Ira Dutton in Stowe, Vermont. He was raised Baptist. In 1861, Ira enlisted in the 13th Wisconsin Infantry and served during the Civil War.

While he was a young man, his wife (who had been reportedly unfaithful) left him, and he began to drink. In 1876 he quit alcohol. In 1883, he converted to Catholicism and spent 20 months in the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani. After hearing about Father Damien’s work with the lepers of Molokai, he decided to go and help.

Upon his arrival, he said to Father Damien, “My name is Joseph Dutton; I’ve come to help, and I’ve come to stay. I want to consider myself a servant of my fellow man.”

He did just that, serving the lepers until his death on March 26, 1931.

The story of Brother Joseph echos many other stories of men and women who have been transformed by the death and resurrection of the Lord. They recognized the saving power of God’s love and mercy in their lives — so much so that they were willing to offer their lives in love for others. Jesus calls us to do the same.

The call to Christian discipleship is the call to death and resurrection. When Jesus says we must “hate” our lives in this world, he is calling us to die to self. He is not saying that life in this world is bad or evil; rather that the way of life offered by the values of this world is as nothing compared to the life that he offers us.

This is the life of the “new covenant” of which Jeremiah prophesied. He speaks of the new covenant where the law will be written in the heart. As Jeremiah speaks for the Lord, God says: “All, from least to greatest, shall know me, says the Lord, for I will forgive their evildoing and remember their sin no more.” This is the life-giving covenant established through Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection.

The Letter to the Romans speaks of Jesus’ obedience to the “one who was able to save him from death.” The “obedience” of Christ was learned through suffering. In Jesus’ laying down of his life, he emptied himself. His “obedience” or “listening to” the Father was complete or perfect. His faith in the Father was firm but even grew stronger in the weakness of body brought on by suffering. Thus the dying to self was perfected in suffering. In other words, when the grain of wheat dies it bears much fruit. The fruit in this case is life, life from death, life for the world.

The penance we take up through Lent helps us to “die to self.” The acts of prayer, fasting and almsgiving strengthen us so that we might no longer live for ourselves but for others. Our lives then become an offering, a “sacrifice acceptable to the Lord.”

Not every follower of Jesus is called, like Damien or Joseph, to go to a remote island in the Pacific to serve the lepers; but all of us who are followers of Jesus are called to give our lives in love. For most of us the context of this self-offering is in our families as husbands or wives, as fathers or mothers or as sons and daughters. The opportunities abound for that grain to die so that an abundance of fruit might be had.

Regardless of the differences in our vocations and life-situations, the words of Jesus are offered to all: “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there also will my servant be.”

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Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.