“I did not know him.”A mediation on a saying of John the Baptist

012014In the Gospel from this past Sunday John the Baptist says something strange about Jesus:

I did not know him (Jn 1:30)

Kind of an odd thing for John to say of Jesus. He was his cousin, and one would presume he knew Jesus quite well. Even if they lived in different towns, it was common for larger family gatherings to occur, as well as pilgrimages to Jerusalem.

It seems likely that John did know Jesus, yet he says he did not know him.

And thus we likely have here a declaration that refers to a deeper appreciation of Jesus, that John, by a work of the Holy Spirit, has come to know Jesus more deeply. St. Paul says something similar:

Therefore from now on we recognize no one according to the flesh; even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him in this way no longer. (2 Cor 5:16)

Thus seeing Jesus in a mere fleshly way must give way to a deeper seeing, according to the Spirit. Jesus is no mere man, he is the Lord. Mary Magdalene made a similar transition when she ran to the Apostles after the Resurrection and said, “I have seen the Lord.” St. John says it too when he declares from the boat, seeing Jesus on the shore after the resurrection: “It is the Lord!”

Seeing and experiencing the Lord more deeply is an on-going work of the Spirit. And even as we do this with the Lord, in a lesser but still important way we are called to do so with and for the people we love. We are called to appreciate more deeply the mystery and dignity of their lives.

I have had to make this journey with people I love. I think especially of my only sister, Mary Anne.

Over twenty years ago she died at the age of thirty. Mary Anne was very debilitated with mental illness. From about the time she was 13, she was in a dozen different mental hospitals and four or five different group homes. She could be very sweet one moment, and then quite violent the next. She heard voices and was diagnosed with a very serious form of schizophrenia.

I struggled about how to deal with my sister. I didn’t really know what to say or do, and, to be honest she troubled me.

In 1991 Mary Anne died in a fire; a fire she likely started according to the investigators. That was also one of the tendencies she had manifest several times before. She was also a smoker, and that may have contributed to it.

At her death, the funeral director made her as presentable as possible given that she had died in a fire. And while he recommended we have a closed casket for the public he thought we could view her body.

For me it was an astonishing and eye-opening moment. As I looked upon her, I could see that she had died weeping. The funeral director explained that her face was very delicate from the fire and could not be “adjusted.” I’ll never forget the look of her face. I saw her pain, her grief, her suffering. I wept. I saw too her dignity, and I regretted very deeply that it took her death for me to see it.

I prayed that day I would learn to others more deeply, appreciate their dignity and understand their pain with greater compassion. I will not say I have done so perfectly, but I have tried, especially with those with whom I am closest.

There is a depth to every human person, and a dignity we are called to see. As St. Paul says, we are no longer to regard others in a merely human or fleshly way. We are to see increasingly with the eyes of God.

An old spiritual says, “Nobody knows the trouble I seen, nobody but Jesus. An while we can never see as Jesus sees, if we grow in union with him we will see more as he sees.

St. John said, “I did not know him.” But of course he did come to know him far more deeply. And so must we know Christ more deeply, and in Christ, know one another more deeply.

14 Replies to ““I did not know him.”A mediation on a saying of John the Baptist”

  1. That’s a striking painting, I’ve never seen that before. I’d love to the know the artist, title and when it was painted? Wish I could see a magnified inset of Jesus, looks very much like a Sacred Heart of Jesus image.

  2. Im sorry about Mary Anne, Monsignor. My niece is schizophrenic. Mental illness is a much harsher reality than Hollywood movies tend to portray. 🙁

  3. “There is a depth to every human person, and a dignity we are called to see.” So beautiful and true. I so badly need reminding of this. I get so caught up in all that (I feel) I have to do each day, and I tend to tune others out.

    I am always so moved when you write about your family. I feel your pain, and your parents’ pain. Tonight I feel Mary Anne’s pain. I prayed for her soul. These are beautiful pictures of your family, and I can see that there were happier years, and many blessings, too.

    God bless you, Monsignor Pope!

  4. This was such a beautiful testimony of her life. I see my mom there just like your sister. We both saw them differently than othrs. Rest in Eternal peace with the Lord sister Mary Anne!!

  5. Thank you this, Monsignor. I struggle with seeing the dignity in others, as I tend to be critical and judgmental far too often. I’m starting to see that my internal struggles are often as problematic as my external actions.

  6. Yes, this could signify a deeper awareness of Christ’s identity.

    I have also heard it argued that due to their advanced age, Zechariah and Elizabeth might not have lived long after the birth of John the Baptizer. If so then we really do not know who raised him or how close they were to the Holy Family. John is often portrayed as unkempt, living off the land… almost as if he raised himself.

  7. Thank you Monsignor for including this beautiful vidéo of your sister on the anniversary of her death. She was a beautiful gift to the world, even today we are being taught through her life about the beauty and dignity of human life. May she rest in God’s tender love.

  8. Thank you, Monsignor, for this beautiful and touching meditation. How often we learn these “lessons” in life without any awareness that we are learning and yet we are being changed for the better. Sharing this has helped your readers to learn, also.

  9. How great of you to present your sister and family in such a loving way.
    May the peace of Christ be yours today and always.

  10. Thank you Monsignor for this beautiful post. Reading it I remembered my uncle, he was my godfather and while he lived I had a rather distant relationship with him, we did not have very much in common even though I saw him almost every week. He died in his fifties and it took his death for me to really appreciate him. During the first months after he died I remember missing him so deeply I was surprised with my own heart. After that I realized that every life is precious, every person is made in the image of God, their absence cannot be filled with someone else. It is a lesson I will never forget.
    Just today I was remembering him with nostalgia and your post helped me articulate my thoughts.
    God bless you!

  11. That was a beautiful tribute to Mary Anne. Thank you so much for sharing your family with us. I recently read a touching memoir STALKING IRISH MADNESS by Patrick Tracey. Schizophrenia has touched our family as well and I’ve been reading about it for several years now in an effort to better understand. I was awfully judgmental before.

  12. Selfless and courageous of you ,Msgr, to share the pain about your dear, beautiful sister ; may her soul rest in peace , in The Lord , praying along with all other saints in heaven , on behalf of all, who, one way or other conributed to sufferings of hers and others , esp. through any sin of idolatry ,in the family lines ( and who doen’t – greed for example !) which supposedly can contribute to mental illness – as per Fr.Yozefu ;

    if so, it might be that , such persons are senistive , yet, might find the pain of dealing with what are percieved as ‘normal’ fallen nature , which might manifst as the harshness of burnt out areas in the consciences or selfishness of othersaround , too much to deal with , not knowing how to take it all to The Lord , who alone can then pour out the Spirit , into every situation, every memory !

    And a wonderful biblical reflection , right from the words of John The Baptist , to whom The Spirit reveals who The Lord is ; interesting how those words about ‘knowing’ are used by non Catholics who pride in loylaty to John The Baptist , to challenge the perpetual virginity of Mary Ever Virgin ; Joseph too would have known who the Mother of The Lord is , after she brought forth The Son , to treat her , as such, for all his life .

    Many a parent too need to recognise the dignity of every little child and refrain from various forms of abuse , through yelling , spanking etc – seems research shows how all those things can lead to learning disbaitlies , even major mental illness .

    It is a miracle that , in the midst of so much against life, persons have not lost that senseof dignity of little lives , all togheter !


    May The Spirit , The Father of the poor , be there , esp. for parents, who in their own insecurities and related selfish ambition for supercontrol over others , seem oblivious of the harshness with which they deal with the little ones ; may He help to bring Godly wisdom, comfort , trust, in that The Spirit who strenghtened the humanity of The Lord, in The Passion , inviting us , to take all siituations and persons , to Him ., as so well portrayed in that Vilnius image of Mercy , that hopefully would help many to know Him better , from His compassionate Fatherly gaze !

    Hopefully, many residents in nursing homes and such would have such an image close by , at the bedside – invoking the fire of His love , to be poured into hearts and memories !

  13. This post was very moving for me to read. I have read this blog (and occasionally commented) for a while, and I know that your sister’s death was extremely painful for you to bear. Working in emergency medicine I saw people at their worst all of the time. It taught me from a young age to see their dignity, their pain, and their stories. That said, I can still judge people with the best of them and I strive every day to understand where people are coming from and learn their stories. Thank you for continuing to post on this blog, it has really helped me to read your posts when I have been struggling with my own faith.

  14. Very beautiful. As someone who has family with mental health issues this has been a wonderful consolation today. Does anyone know the name of the song in the video?


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