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Bishop's Homily for the Third Sunday of Ordinary Time

January 21, 2024

[Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Peace, Honolulu (with Closure of the Diocesan Phase of the Cause for Beatification and Canonization of Servant of God Joseph Dutton, Layman)]

What is a penitentiary?

When we speak of a penitentiary, we have the image of barbed wire, clanking steel doors, and bars that lock away those who have committed terrible crimes against society.  We think of dangerous places where men and women are locked away to “do time” for all the horrible things they have done.  But the word “penitentiary” has a different root meaning.  Its root means to change course, to turn away from a destructive path and to be set on a constructive way.  And, of course, this is what our prisons are meant to be, not just lockups for those who could infect society with their violence and their crimes, but places where they learn to change the course of their lives, to repent, and to believe that we are much happier, and even more free, when we become productive and peaceful citizens.

Penitentiaries do not always have bars, nor are we always forced into them.  The city of Nineveh is an example of a huge town that apparently was unaware of how destructive to themselves and to others their behavior had become.  But once the Lord sent Jonah as his prophet, to call them to repentance, the entire city became a penitentiary, without bars or chains, but with a common spirit of repentance.  The citizens, from the king to the lowliest slave, locked themselves away voluntarily in sackcloth and ashes and by fasting, so that they could turn away from their sins and even cause God to repent of the punishment he had intended to inflict on them.

When we see Jesus begin his public ministry, his first message is, “This is the time of fulfillment.  The kingdom of God is at hand.  Repent, and believe in the gospel.”  And the first thing he did after that announcement was to call Peter and Andrew, James and John to follow him.  They were not notorious sinners, but hardworking men, contributing to society by providing food for their own families and for the general populace.  Yet Jesus called them to a real change of course that would take them from the mundane life of casting nets in the sea for fish to the much more challenging life of catching men and women in the nets of God’s love.  Jesus changed the course of their lives, and we might even say, put them in a penitentiary without bars so that they would be refined from simply good to exemplary in their fidelity to God and to God’s beloved people.

How appropriate it is (perhaps one of those “coincidences” of God) that during this month of January, which is Kalaupapa Month in the State of Hawaii, we should be here today to close the diocesan phase of the cause for beatification and canonization of the Servant of God, Joseph Dutton, Layman.  As we know, Kalaupapa became infamous as a place that many thought of as a penitentiary.  It did not have bars or chains, but they were not needed in a little peninsula attached to the island of Molokai by forbidding cliffs on one side and by treacherous ocean on the other three.  People were sent there forcefully for committing the “crime” of being affected with leprosy, so that they could be isolated from the possibility of infecting the rest of the population.  As the concept of penitentiary has devolved from a place of reform to a place of warehousing the corrupt, so Kalaupapa was considered by many to be a place where those “corrupted” by leprosy were to be safely warehoused for the rest of their lives.

To this little “penitentiary,” Joseph Dutton exiled himself so that he could do penance for his own wayward life; so that he could change course completely from thinking about himself and his own needs to unselfish service of others in extreme need.  For forty-four years, he, who could have decided to leave at any time, stayed to minister to the most vulnerable, so that they would change course from a path of desperation and despair to a path of hope and joy.  His simple service would announce to many the gospel of liberation and freedom, even as they remained confined.  Like those fishermen we heard about in today’s gospel, Joseph Dutton left everything behind, so that he could not only change course himself but change the course of many others, by catching them from drowning in despair and raising them to the light that is Jesus Christ.

So it is that we – sinners and saints alike – are always called to repentance.  And we pray that this wonderful man may inspire us to the freedom that only Jesus can give.