All you who are hungry and thirsty, come to me!

Kurelek cropped

Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A – August 3, 2014

The memory of St. Paul in Rome

Each time I visit the Roman Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, I pause in the main courtyard before the striking statue of Paul the Apostle who seems to be solemnly greeting visitors and pilgrims to the shrine built in his memory. There is something very stirring about this rather unusual depiction of the great Apostle to the Gentiles. He dominates the courtyard with a very sombre expression, his head bent with what looks like a Jewish prayer shawl covering his brow. The sword of God’s powerful word is held tightly in his hand. Paul appears to be tired – bearing the burdens of the ministry, yet his bold, pastoral dynamism rises above the physical fatigue.

I understand better today’s second reading from Romans 8:35, 37-39 when I recall that great statue of St. Paul in Rome. The victorious power of God’s love has overcome every obstacle to our salvation and everything that threats to separate us from God. When Paul speaks of “present things and future things” (8:38), he may be referring to astrological data. He appears to be saying that the Gospel liberates believers from dependence on astrologers. Since hostile spirits were associated with the planets and stars, Paul includes powers (8:38) in his list of negative or evil forces. His reference to “height and depth” (8:39) may refer to positions in the zodiac, positions of heavenly bodies relative to the horizon. In astrological documents the term for “height” means “exaltation” or the position of greatest influence exerted by a planet.

“What can separate us from the love of Christ?”

Romans 8:35-39 is one of my favourite passages in the New Testament. It is vintage Paul. Paul clung to the faith, in good times and in bad, in sickness, scandal, and health. It was his bedrock: his love of the crucified Christ was the pledge of God’s unbreakable covenant, of God’s unceasing redemptive love for the world: “Can anything separate us from the love of Christ?” Paul cries out (8:35). This is the searing question deep in the heart of an ardent servant of the Gospel – of one summoned to and consumed by the mission. It is a question that surges from the mind and heart of a mature adult who has been around, who has experienced the Church from the inside and who still refuses to be undone by its scandals and frustrations; of a leader who had lofty ideals of community but also knew the sad realities of divisions and conflicts. It is the sigh of one who knew the reality of suffering and yet never ceased nourishing deep, tremendous Christian hopes: not little hopes but great hopes.

Matthew’s feeding of the multitude

The feeding of the five thousand (Matthew 14:13-21) is the only miracle of Jesus that is recounted in all four gospels (Mark 6:31-44; Luke 9:10-17; John 6:5-15). The story has been situated geographically at Tabgha, the place of the seven springs, on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee. While today’s Gospel may be seen as anticipating the Eucharist and the final banquet of the Kingdom (Matthew 8:11; 26:29), its view looks not only forward but also backward, to the feeding of Israel with manna in the desert at the time of the Exodus (Exodus 16), a miracle that in some contemporary Jewish expectations would be repeated in the Messianic age. The fragments left over (14:20) recall the story of Elisha’s miracle where food was left over after all had been fed (2 Kings 4:42-44). The word “fragments” (Greek klasmata) is also used, in the singular, to describe the broken bread of the Eucharist in the Didache 9:3-4.

Today’s miracle may also be considered to be a “compassion miracle.” As with many of Jesus’ other miracles, Jesus saw a tremendous need in this hungry crowd – and in his compassion he provided food for them. The emphasis in Matthew is not on the meal as a banquet symbolizing the superabundant blessings that God has in store for the future. Rather, Matthew’s emphasis is on God’s providential care for our basic needs even here in the present moment. No matter what the meaning of the food and the miracle represent, the meal was nevertheless Messianic, for its host was none other than the Messiah himself.

Matthew’s addition of the number of people present and fed at this miracle – “five thousand men, not counting women and children” (14:21) – is significant, because the total number could have amounted to twenty or thirty thousand people! Since the total Jewish population of Palestine at the time of Jesus was estimated at half a million, Jesus is presented as feeding almost one tenth of the population. Therefore, the miracle has political ramifications. The reality of being one people, inheritors of the promises made to the twelve tribes of Israel, is a reality capable of transforming not only the spiritual realm but social and economic life as well.

The backdrop of the temptations

We may also consider the multiplication of the loaves against the backdrop of Jesus’ temptations in the desert. There are striking parallels between the two scenes – the wilderness, the hunger, and people craving for bread. Though there may not be a devil present at the multiplication, nevertheless many of the pitfalls that assail the lives of spiritual people are indeed present. At the beginning of the story, Jesus has withdrawn from his ministry in order to recoup some of his energy. Then the crowd shows up with its hunger: first spiritual, then physical. Their needs represent everything from which he is “in retreat.” He does not turn them away. His own spiritual program is open to change and adaptability to new circumstances. The second temptation involves precisely this factor.

How often do we guard our own spiritual lives and itineraries in an absolute fashion? Faced with such an enormous crowd on such a hot day, I could just imagine Jesus recalling his confrontation with the prince of demons on another hot day in the desert far from Galilee. Jesus could very well be saying: “When I was in the wilderness, the devil came to me and told me to makes stones into bread. I told him that man doesn’t live by bread alone; he lives by the word. See this hungry multitude? What they need is the word. And a couple of days without food wouldn’t hurt them either. It certainly didn’t hurt me. So I’ll just give them a good, long, biblical lesson in the heat.” Jesus does not presume to impose his temptation in the wilderness and his triumph over it on these hungry people. His eyes are fixed on the intensity of their need, not on the relevance of his own personal experience.

The third temptation Jesus encounters in the wilderness is that of using limited resources and vast problems as pretexts for inaction. So many poor people, so few loaves! What good are several rather insignificant acts of charity when there are multitudes dying of hunger? In response to such “practical” questions as “What good will that do?” – whether five small loaves and two fish, one cup of cold water, or two widow’s mites – the answer Jesus gives is always the same. Blessed Teresa of Calcutta’s words ring in the back of my mind: “What we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But if that drop was not in the ocean, I think the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.” Jesus teaches that the disciples are to share whatever they have and there will be more than enough. Logic and human reason say, “We have no more than five loaves and two fish.” But Jesus asks that such meagre provisions, as well as the generosity of the disciples, be stretched to their limits.

Blueprint for Christian spirituality

Matthew’s threefold action of looking up to heaven, reciting a prayer of praise, and breaking the bread is a beautiful pattern that we could well apply to our own daily living, or to any event. Looking up to heaven means making contact with God (prayer); giving praise for whatever one has in mind; then sharing that gift with others. Matthew offers us a pattern for daily life. We begin by looking up to heaven and thanking and praising God for our life. We live that life by sharing it with others. Today’s Gospel offers us a blueprint for an authentic Christian spirituality that involves frequently raising our hearts and minds to God in prayer, giving thanks and praise for what is, and then sharing it with others.

The Multiplication on the Canadian Prairies

Whenever I read the multiplication stories of the New Testament, I cannot help but recall a magnificent mural depicting the multiplication of the loaves and fishes on the wall of the chapel of St. Thomas More College in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. The college was founded by the Congregation of St. Basil (Basilian Fathers), who brought to the prairie college the long Catholic tradition of a liberal arts education that integrates faith and learning. The College Chapel is dedicated to Mary, Queen of the Universe. The mural was painted in 1976 in only ten days by the late William Kurelek, a self-taught Ukrainian painter of the Canadian prairies. The mural leaves a powerful religious impression on the viewer, particularly the students who come to that beautiful little chapel to pray and the faith community that gathers there daily and weekly to celebrate the Eucharist.

What is striking about Kurelek’s mural is the figure of Jesus placed in the middle of the mural, symbolically holding together the large Prairie crowd. One notices that those distributing the baskets of bread are the Basilian Fathers themselves, dressed in their black cassocks, walking among the crowds and feeding them. For decades this group of priest educators gathered together young men and women and taught them. They walked among them and fed them in body and soul. The priests instilled in them a passion for the good that they must do, a passion to reach out to the poor, the hungry, and the wounded; a passion to reach out to the lost and bring them home; a passion to proclaim the truth of the Gospels. Even though Basilians no longer administer the college or teach at the University of Saskatchewan, their legacy lives on.

The Lord’s raised hand in the Kurelek mural is a sign to every generation: “Go and do same where you are. Do not be overcome by meagre resources and the fear of the daunting crowds. Trust in God. Walk among the people. Listen to them. Feed them, teach them and hold them together. Remember what happened on a Galilean plain years ago. Offer what little you have to the Lord and let him multiply your humble gifts to feed the world.”

“Come, without paying and without cost…”

Let us never forget that in Jesus, God’s salvation is freely extended to his people and to all nations; through him will the benefits assured to David be renewed. Let the words of the prophet Isaiah (55:1-3) inspire and embolden you to act:

All you who are thirsty, come to the water! You who have no money, come, receive grain and eat; Come, without paying and without cost, drink wine and milk! Why spend your money for what is not bread; your wages for what fails to satisfy? Heed me, and you shall eat well, you shall delight in rich fare. Come to me heedfully, listen, that you may have life.

[The readings for the Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time are: Isaiah 55:1-3; Romans 8:35, 37-39; and Matthew 14:13-21.]

This reflection first appeared on the Zenit International News Service in 2011 as well as on the Salt + Light Blog. The complete collection of reflections for Year B, entitled “Words made Flesh,” is now available in book form through our online store. Book editions for Year A and C reflections are coming soon.

Feast of Sts. Joachim and Anne, Parents of Mary

By tradition Joachim and Anne are considered to be the names of the parents of Mary, the Mother of God. We have no historical evidence, however, of any elements of their lives, including their names. Any stories about Mary’s father and mother come to us through legend and tradition. We get the oldest story from a document called the Gospel of James, though in no way should this document be trusted to be factual, historical, or the Word of God. The legend told in this document says that after years of childlessness, an angel appeared to tell Anne and Joachim that they would have a child. Anne promised to dedicate this child to God (much the way that Samuel was dedicated by his mother Hannah — Anne — in I Kings).

For those who wonder what we can learn from people we know nothing about and how we can honor them, we must focus on why they are honored by the church. Whatever their names or the facts of their lives, the truth is that it was the parents of Mary who nurtured Mary, taught her, brought her up to be a worthy Mother of God. It was their teaching that led her to respond to God’s request with faith, “Let it be done to me as you will.” It was their example of parenting that Mary must have followed as she brought up her own son, Jesus. It was their faith that laid the foundation of courage and strength that allowed her to stand by the cross as her son was crucified and still believe. Such parents can be examples and models for all parents. [Read more...]

Mary Magdalene — a key character in the Easter story — has been hijacked and defamed by a bestselling novel’s so-called ‘code’

Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code has resurrected an old debate about one of the most enigmatic figures in Christianity: Mary Magdalene.

She has been hijacked over the past few years, and her name and reputation have been distorted once again in Christian history. There is no better day than Easter Sunday to put the spotlight back on this outstanding woman disciple who was one of Jesus’ closest friends.

Let’s consider for a moment the folly of Brown’s portrayal of Mary Magdalene in his runaway best seller (and guaranteed blockbuster movie). Brown proposes that the figure on Jesus’ right in Leonardo Da Vinci’s famed Last Supper painting is not John the beloved disciple, but really Mary of Magdala, who married Jesus and bore him a child.

It was this child who was Jesus’ chosen successor, Brown argues. He also says this Mary represents the Holy Grail, the eternal feminine, sexuality; the real quest of every human heart. (The silliness continues when Brown writes that the offspring of Mary Magdalene and Jesus wound up in France and later became the Merovingian dynasty of kings!)

The book goes on to make the case that the church oppressed women throughout history as an attempt to deny the truth found in Da Vinci’s famous painting. According to Brown, a few great men — namely Da Vinci himself, Galileo, curators at the Louvre, Walt Disney (!) and a Harvard professor — have, through secret codes, preserved the “truth.”

Would the real Mary Magdalene please stand up?

magdalen-9aMary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany (sister of Martha and Lazarus), and the unnamed penitent woman who anointed Jesus’ feet (see Luke 7:36-48) are sometimes understood to be the same woman. From this, plus the statement in Luke’s gospel that Jesus had cast seven demons out of Mary Magdalene, has arisen the view that she had been a prostitute.

But in reality we know nothing about her sins or weaknesses. They could have been inexplicable physical disease, mental illness, or anything that prevented her from wholeness in mind and body.

Mary Magdalene is mentioned in the gospels as being among the women of Galilee who followed Jesus and his disciples. She was present at His crucifixion and burial, and went to the tomb on Easter Sunday to anoint His body.

Artistic representations of her deal particularly with her repentance, her bathing of the feet of Jesus, and her meeting with the Lord after his resurrection. She is a model of discipleship, penitence and repentance.

Brown focuses on her sinfulness, even to demonizing her. But Mary Magdalene’s story is that much more remarkable when one considers that in Jesus’ time, women were seen as property, first of their fathers, then of their husbands.

In this atmosphere, Jesus acted without animosity, accepting women, honouring them, respecting them, and treasuring their friendship. He journeyed with them, touched and cured them, loved them and allowed them to love him. There was no discrimination. Mary Magdalene is living proof of Jesus’ boundary-breaking humanity and compassion.

On Easter, Christians around the world peer once again into the early-morning scene of sadness as Mary Magdalene weeps at the grave of her friend, Jesus. We hear anew their conversation, as recounted in John’s gospel:

“Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?”

“Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”

Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Teacher!”

“Stop clinging to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brethren and say to them, ‘I ascend to My Father and your Father, and My God and your God.’”

Mary Magdalene came, announcing to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord,” and that he had said these things to her.

Mary Magdalene was fittingly called “Apostola Apostolorum” (Apostle to the Apostles) in the early Church because she was the first to see the Risen Lord, and to announce his resurrection to the other apostles.

For Jesus, women were equally as able as men to penetrate the great religious truths, live them and announce them to others. There is nothing secret about this story, which is still astonishingly good news more than 2,000 years later.

A King’s Prayer and a Kingdom’s Hope

Kingdom cropped

Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A – July 27, 2014

Solomon seeks wisdom

It is important to know the historical background for today’s first reading from the First Book of Kings 3:5; 7-12. Solomon had just been installed as the third king of Israel. The lot of leadership fell to him, the favored son of Bathsheba. Solomon is introduced to us, not as the legendary wise and good king, but as a man already compromised in his public life and personal relationships. Far from being the innocent child kneeling before God, he is more like the wayward son who prostrates himself before God, already aware of what will lead him away from the path of wise and discerning leadership. Solomon’s prayer for wisdom reveals a young king, unsure of himself at the outset of his reign.

The beginning of wisdom is the recognition that one needs wisdom. What did Solomon ask of his God? First he asked for an “understanding heart” (3:9) which means to “hear intelligently,” often with the implication of attention and obedience. This word could mean discern, give ear, listen, obey, perceive, or understand. He also asked that he might be able to “discern,” “to separate mentally, to understand, or deal wisely.” The Lord repeated this word in His answer as recorded in verse 12, and added yet another word – I have given you literally “a wise, intelligent, skillful or artful” heart. Solomon wanted to receive wisdom by carefully listening and obeying the Lord.

The wisdom Solomon asked for was related to the role he was assigned. God was pleased with his prayer, and gave him not only what he has asked but also what he has not asked: riches, honor, glory. And the story goes on to show how Solomon’s wisdom was such that Israel ‘stood in awe of the king, because they saw that the wisdom of God was in him.’ In the New Testament, when Jesus was teaching, he commented about Solomon’s wisdom, “now one greater than Solomon is here” (Matthew 12:42). Jesus was referring to Himself as the Christ, the Son of God.

When we ask for wisdom

This unique moment in the life of one of the great kings of Israel raises many questions for us. When asking for wisdom, we must believe that God will provide the wisdom we seek; we must trust Him to do it in His own way, which usually means that we will be in partnership with Him. Where in our life is the need for wisdom? Is there a willingness to be obedient and to look to God so that ours will be a righteous wisdom? Are we willing to partner with God for the acquisition of wisdom? Is there sufficient faith to believe that God will provide?

Conformed to the Son’s image

Today’s second reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans (8:28-30) outlines the Christian vocation as it was designed by God: to be conformed to the image of his Son, who is to be the firstborn among many brothers (8:29). God’s redemptive action on behalf of the believers has been in process before the beginning of the world. Those whom God chooses are those he foreknew (8:29) or elected. While man and woman were originally created in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-27), it is through baptism into Christ, the image of God (2 Cor 4:4; Col 1:15), that we are renewed according to the image of the Creator (Col 3:10). Those who are called (Romans 8:30) are predestined or predetermined. These expressions do not mean that God is arbitrary. Rather, Paul uses them to emphasize the thought and care that God has taken for the Christian’s salvation.

How will we recognize the kingdom?

Jesus used a variety of images to refer to the kingdom of heaven. Throughout the New Testament, we read about a shepherd who has lost sheep, a woman who has lost a silver coin, a father who has lost a son. In these and many more stories, Jesus is saying that the Kingdom comes for us when we find what we have lost. Jesus started his ministry with the proclamation of the gospel: “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” But his disciples, then and now, keep on asking: “When is the kingdom coming? How will we recognize it?” His usual reply indicated the difficulties of seeing the kingdom where we are blinded by earthly images. Jesus spoke of the kingdom as being near, “at hand,” and coming unexpectedly. He revealed the kingdom in two ways. His miracle-working deeds revealed present power over evil; his parables contained messages of what the kingdom could and should be like.

Parables about the kingdom

The historical backdrop of the parables is very important in our understanding of these marvelous stories. In the unsettled conditions of Palestine in Jesus’ time, it was not unusual to guard valuables by burying them in the ground (13:44). The first two of the last three parables of Matthew’s discourse (13:44-52) have the same point. The person who finds a buried treasure and the merchant who finds a pearl of great price sell all that they have to acquire these finds; similarly, the one who understands the supreme value of the kingdom gives up whatever he must to obtain it. The joy with which this is done is made explicit in the first parable, but it may be presumed in the second also. The concluding parable of the fishnet resembles the explanation of the parable of the weeds with its stress upon the final exclusion of evil persons from the kingdom.

Since Matthew tends to identify the disciples and the Twelve (13:52) this saying about the Christian scribe cannot be taken as applicable to all who accept the message of Jesus. The scribe instructed in the kingdom of heaven knows both the teaching of Jesus (the new) and the law and prophets (the old) and provides in his own teaching both the new and the old as interpreted and fulfilled by the new.

Conceptions of the Kingdom

The Kingdom of God is not – as some maintain today – a generic reality above all religious experiences and traditions, but it is, before all else, a person with a name and a face: Jesus of Nazareth, the image of the unseen God. We cannot marginalize Christian revelation and its ecclesial transmission by proposing a non-Christian vision where misuse of the terminology “Kingdom” or “Reign of God” is a substitute for Jesus Christ and his Church.

In the Lineamenta (preparatory document) for the Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization in October 2012, two particular passages and their references to the Kingdom struck me in light of today’s Gospel reading. Under sections #24 The “New Evangelization: A Vision for the Church of Today and Tomorrow” we read:

We are facing situations which are signs of massive changes, often causing apprehension and fear. These situations require a new vision, which allows us to look to the future with eyes full of hope and not with tears of despair. As “Church,” we already have this vision, namely, the Kingdom to come, which was announced to us by Christ and described in his parables. This Kingdom is already communicated to us through his preaching and, above all, through his death and resurrection. Nevertheless, we oftentimes feel unable to enflesh this vision, in other words, to “make it our own” and to “bring it to life” for ourselves and the people we meet everyday, and to make it the basis for the Church’s life and all her pastoral activities.

And in #25, “The Joy of Evangelizing,” we read:

A new evangelization means to share the world’s deep desire for salvation and render our faith intelligible by communicating the logos of hope (cf. 1 Pt 3:15). Humanity needs hope to live in these present times. The content of this hope is “God, who has a human face and who ‘has loved us to the end’.” For this reason, the Church is, by her very nature, missionary. We cannot selfishly keep for ourselves the words of eternal life, which we received in our personally encountering Jesus Christ. They are destined for each and every person. Each person today, whether he knows it or not, needs this proclamation.

To be unaware of this need creates a desert and an emptiness. In fact, the obstacles to the new evangelization are precisely a lack of joy and hope among people, caused and spread by various situations in our world today. Oftentimes, this lack of joy and hope is so strong that it affects the very tenor of our Christian communities. This is the reason for renewing the appeal for a new evangelization, not simply as an added responsibility but as a way to restore joy and life to situations imprisoned in fear.

We therefore approach the new evangelization with a sense of enthusiasm. We will learn the sweet and comforting joy of evangelizing, even at times when proclamation might seem like a seed sown among tears (cf. Ps 126:6). “May it mean for us – as it did for John the Baptist, for Peter and Paul, for the other apostles and for a multitude of splendid evangelizers all through the Church’s history – an interior enthusiasm that nobody and nothing can quench. May it be the great joy of our consecrated lives. And may the world of our time, which is searching, sometimes with anguish, sometimes with hope, be enabled to receive the Good News not from evangelizers who are dejected, discouraged, impatient or anxious, but from ministers of the Gospel whose lives glow with fervor, who have first received the joy of Christ, and who are willing to risk their lives so that the Kingdom may be proclaimed and the Church established in the midst of the world.”

[The readings for the Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time are: 1 Kings 3:5-12; Romans 8:28-30; and Matthew 13:44-52.]

This reflection first appeared on the Zenit International News Service in 2011 as well as on the Salt + Light Blog. The complete collection of reflections for Year B, entitled “Words made Flesh,” is now available in book form through our online store. Book editions for Year A and C reflections are coming soon.

“Let them grow together until harvest…”

Wheat field cropped

Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A – July 20, 2014

Once again in this week’s Gospel passage, images of growing trees, shrubs and plants provide us with powerful insights into the quiet and slow ways that God’s Kingdom grows among us and within us. Today’s Gospel story is peculiar to Matthew (13:24-33). Central to today’s parable of the wheat and the weeds is the preciousness of the wheat. The landowner refuses to lose any of it in order to get rid of the weeds.

Verse 25 speaks of darnel, a poisonous weed that in its first stage of growth resembles wheat. A weed may be growing next to a stalk of wheat and think it has a common destiny with the wheat, but its end is destruction. The weed is also harmful to the wheat, its roots trying to starve the wheat from its source. The refusal of the householder to allow his slaves to separate the wheat from the weeds while they are still growing is a warning to the disciples not to attempt to anticipate the final judgment of God by a definitive exclusion of sinners from the Kingdom. In its present stage it is composed of the good and the bad. The judgment of God alone will eliminate the sinful. Until then there must be patience and the preaching of repentance. We can learn much from God’s patience as we see Him allow both the good and the evil to grow together.

How important it is to remember this point when we grow so impatient with God’s role in human history. How often do we ask: “Where is the ultimate vindication that God has promised us?” How long, O Lord, until you show your might and power to rout our enemies? How long until you show your face to us? When we get stuck in such ruts, our moods are fixed more intently on the stubborn persistence of evil than on the slow emergence and growth of good. God loves goodness more than God hates evil.

The harvest spoken of in v 30 is a common biblical metaphor for the time of God’s judgment; (Jeremiah 51:33; Joel 4:13; Hosea 6:11.) Like the sower who scatters seed even where there is little hope for results, Jesus keeps open the lines of communication with those who have closed their hearts, their ears and their eyes to his word.

The great success of the Kingdom

The parables of the mustard seed (Mark 4:30-32; Luke 13:18-21) and the yeast illustrate the same point: the amazing contrast between the small beginnings of the Kingdom and its marvelous expansion. Jesus exaggerates both the smallness of the mustard seed and the size of the mustard plant. The seed in Jesus’ hand is tiny, simple and unimpressive. Yet Jesus says that the Kingdom of God is like that. This message of Jesus’ parable was certainly an encouragement to the early church when its progress seemed slow or was hampered by persecution. From these small seeds will arise the great success of the Kingdom of God and of God’s Word. Patience is called for in the face of humble beginnings. Jesus reassures the crowd that growth will come; it is only at the harvest that the farmer reappears. The growth of God’s Kingdom is the result of God’s power, not ours. Like the tiny mustard seed, the Kingdom of God is something that grows from a tiny beginning.

Patient endurance in steadfast expectation

In today’s section of St. Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome, (8:26-27) the Apostle to the nations reminds us that the glory that believers are destined to share with Christ far exceeds the sufferings of the present life. Paul considers the destiny of the created world to be linked with the future that belongs to the believers. As it shares in the punishment of corruption brought about by sin, so also will it share in the benefits of redemption and future glory that comprise the ultimate liberation of God’s people. Only following patient endurance in steadfast expectation will the full harvest of the Spirit’s presence be realized.

Recognizing the Kingdom

Jesus started his ministry proclaiming: “The Kingdom of heaven is at hand.” But his disciples, then and now, keep on asking: “When is the Kingdom coming? How will we recognize it?” His usual reply indicated the difficulties of seeing the Kingdom where we are blinded by earthly images. Jesus spoke of the Kingdom as being near, “at hand,” and coming unexpectedly. He revealed the Kingdom in two ways. His miracle-working deeds revealed present power over evil; his parables contained messages of what the Kingdom could and should be like. For many, the Kingdom is a place free from evil, sin, strife, anxiety and fear. Don’t we all share a deep longing for a crop free from the weeds, for a world free from war, for a personality free from the weeds of anxiety of jealousy, fear, apathy, cynicism and despair? Far from being a seemingly unreal place, daily life can at times seem to be much more a battleground… a struggle to live in the midst of the weeds and chaff that try to choke us and take our life away. In Jesus, God broke through the power and domination of evil.

I often imagine Jesus running tiny, black mustard seeds through his fingers as he spoke to the crowds and his small group of followers in Galilee. One day he thought of them as he spoke about the Kingdom of God, and pointed to the tree that would grow from such tiny seeds. The seed in Jesus’ hand is tiny, simple and unimpressive. Yet he says that the Kingdom of God is like that. It is far more likely to begin in simple ways than in the dramatic.

God’s Kingdom broke through and entered the human scene in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. It is a slow process for the Kingdom to be fully realized. We long for a society free from the weeds of injustice, fear of nuclear power, war and the depletion of all of our resources. But we also know that such longings will never be fully realized and satisfied here. The distance from and longing for the full realization of that kingdom make our heart grow fonder for it. The hope represented by our longings is essential to human life, for without them we would be slaves and victims of despair and hopelessness.

Opposition and indifference to the Word

The Word of God takes root not without a struggle, due to the presence and action of an “enemy” who “sowed weeds among the wheat.” In his General Audience homily of September 25, 1991, Blessed John Paul II addressed this point directly:

“This parable explains the co-existence and the frequent mingling of good and evil in the world, in our lives and in the very history of the Church. Jesus teaches us to see these things with Christian realism and to handle every problem with clear principles, but also with prudence and patience. This presupposes a transcendent vision of history, in which one knows that everything belongs to God and every final result is the work of his Providence. However, the final destiny–in its eschatological dimension–of the good and bad is not hidden. It is symbolized by the gathering of the wheat into the barn and the burning of the weeds.”

There are weeds in the Church

During World Youth Day 2005 in Cologne, Germany, Pope Emeritus Benedict exclaimed to the throngs of young Christians and the curious mixed in:

“Here in Cologne we discover the joy of belonging to a family as vast as the world, including heaven and earth, the past, the present, the future. The Church can be criticized, because it contains both grain and weeds,” he told them, but “it is actually consoling to realize that there are weeds in the Church. In this way, despite all our defects, we can still hope to be counted among the disciples of Jesus, who came to call sinners.”

Five years later, on October 9, 2010, Benedict spoke of this parable in his weekly General Audience address that featured the spirituality of St. John Leonardi. Leonardi (1541-1609) and St. Philip Neri (1515-1595) were two humble priests committed to the reform of the clergy during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century. Neri founded the “Oratory,” a community of priests and Leonardi founded a religious order and a seminary, with the sole purpose of reforming the clergy. Both men ministered to the people of Rome during not infrequent outbreaks of the plague and influenza. While Neri survived these outbreaks, Leonardi died from influenza in 1609.

In his talk, Pope Emeritus Benedict reminded us that the weeds and wheat exist in close proximity:

“There is another aspect of St John Leonardi‘s spirituality that I would like to emphasize. On various occasions he reasserted that the living encounter with Christ takes place in his Church, holy but frail, rooted in history and in its sometimes obscure unfolding, where wheat and weeds grow side by side (Mt 13:30), yet always the sacrament of salvation. Since he was clearly aware that the Church is God’s field (cf. Mt 13: 24), St John was not shocked at her human weaknesses. To combat the weeds he chose to be good wheat: that is, he decided to love Christ in the Church and to help make her, more and more, a transparent sign of Christ. He saw the Church very realistically, her human frailty, but he also saw her as being “God’s field,” the instrument of God for humanity’s salvation.

And this was not all. Out of love for Christ he worked tirelessly to purify the Church, to make her more beautiful and holy. He realized that every reform should be made within the Church and never against the Church In this, St John Leonardi was truly extraordinary and his example is ever timely. Every reform, of course, concerns her structures, but in the first place must have an effect in believers’ hearts. Only Saints, men and women who let themselves be guided by the divine Spirit, ready to make radical and courageous decisions in the light of the Gospel, renew the Church and make a crucial contribution to building a better world.”

[The readings for the Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time are: Wisdom 12.13, 16-19; Romans 8.26-27; and Matthew 13.24-43.]

This reflection first appeared on the Zenit International News Service in 2011 as well as on the Salt + Light Blog. The complete collection of reflections for Year B, entitled “Words made Flesh,” is now available in book form through our online store. Book editions for Year A and C reflections are coming soon.

“Death not a good End but a good Transition” Confronting the Reality of Euthanasia

blog 1The mainstream media has caused great confusion about the topic of euthanasia and has been extremely deceptive in its portrayal of human suffering and compassion.  Most people who think that euthanasia and assisted suicide should be legal are not thinking the whole issue through. They are thinking about personal autonomy and choice. They think about what it would be like to suddenly become incapacitated and consider such a life as undignified or worthless. Perhaps they consider severely disabled people as having no quality of life.  Our dignity and quality of life don’t come from what we can or cannot do. Dignity and quality of life are not matters of efficiency, proficiency and productivity.  They come from a deeper place– from who we are and how we relate to each other.

The notion that euthanasia and/or assisted suicide can be a reality for us in Canada should come as a wake-up call to all Canadians, not just because of the notion that all life is sacred from conception to natural death, but simply because of whom such a law would affect most, the most vulnerable; the chronically ill, who are a strain on the health care system; the elderly who have been abandoned and who have no one to speak on their behalf, and who feel they may be a burden to others; and the disabled who have to fight every day to maintain their own integrity and dignity.

Our society has lost sight of the sacred nature of human life. As Catholic Christians we are deeply committed to the protection of life from its earliest moments to its final moments. When people today speak about a “good death,” they usually refer to an attempt to control the end of one’s life, even through physician-assisted suicide or euthanasia. The Christian notion of a good death, however, is death not as a good end, but a good transition, that requires faith, proper acceptance and readiness.

What is wrong with abortion, euthanasia, embryo selection, and embryonic research is not the motives of those who carry them out. So often, those motives are, on the surface, compassionate: to protect a child from being unwanted, to end pain and suffering, to help a child with a life-threatening disease. But in all these cases, the terrible truth is that it is the strong who decide the fate of the weak; human beings therefore become instruments in the hands of other human beings.

JP II sufferingSt. John Paul II taught us how to respect the frail and the vulnerable. Nine years ago, as he died before the eyes of the entire world, John Paul showed us true dignity in the face of death. Rather than hide his infirmities, as most public figures do, he let the whole world see what he went through in the final phase of his life. He offered us a paradoxical image of happiness. Who can say his life was not fruitful, when his body was able to climb snow-capped summits or vacation on Strawberry Island in Lake Simcoe in 2002? Who doesn’t feel the paradoxical influence of his presence, when his voice was muted?

We must never lose sight of the atrocities against the unborn, the untold and too-seldom spoken of pain and lingering anguish experienced by those who have been involved in abortions. Nor can we ignore the other great challenge faced by humanity today–the serious question of mercy killing, or euthanasia as it is sometimes called, no longer found in abstract cases and theories. It has arrived on our shores and it has invaded our lives.

This issue strikes to the very core of who we are and what we believe. Even when not motivated by the refusal to be burdened with the life of someone who is suffering, euthanasia must be called a false and misguided mercy. True compassion leads to sharing another’s pain, not killing the person whose suffering we cannot bear. The best way to know if we are still in any way a Christian society is to see how we treat our most vulnerable people, the ones with little or no claim on public attention, the ones without beauty, strength or intelligence.

Human life and human dignity encounter many obstacles in the world today, especially in North America. When life is not respected, should we be surprised that other rights will sooner or later be threatened? If we look carefully at the great dramas of the last century, we see that as free markets toppled Communism, exaggerated consumerism and materialism infiltrated our societies and cultures. Aging populations, especially in the west, and resulting smaller workforces are now creating a market push towards euthanasia. As St. John Paul II wrote: “a right to die will inevitably give way to the duty to die.”

In a very powerful message addressed to the Pontifical Academy for Life this past February, Pope Francis wrote about a very current theme, dear to the Church. “In our society there is a tyrannical dominance of an economic logic that excludes and at times kills, and of which nowadays we find many victims, starting with the elderly”. He affirmed that we see the existence of a “throwaway” culture, in which those who are excluded are not only exploited but also rejected and cast aside.

In the face of this discrimination, Pope Francis considered the anthropological question of the value of man and of what may be the basis of this value. “Health is without doubt an important value, but it does not determine the value of a person. Furthermore, health is not by itself a guarantee of happiness, which may indeed by experienced even by those in a precarious state of health”. Therefore, he added, “poor health and disability are never a good reason to exclude or, worse, eliminate a person; and the most serious deprivation that the elderly suffer is not the weakening of the body or the consequent disability, but rather abandonment, exclusion, and a lack of love”.

The Pope emphasized the importance of listening to the young and the old whenever we wish to understand the signs of the times, and commented that “a society is truly welcoming to life when it recognizes its value also in old age, in disability, in serious illness, and even when it at its close; when it teaches that the call to human realization does not exclude suffering but instead teaches to see in the sick and suffering a gift to the entire community, a presence that calls for solidarity and responsibility”.

As Catholics and Christians, we have a responsibility to confront the intrusion of euthanasia in our society – especially if we are to understand our moral obligation as caregivers for incapacitated persons, and our civic obligation to protect those who lack the capacity to express their will but are still human, still living, and still deserving of equal protection under the law.  There can be no true peace unless life is defended and promoted.

July 11, 2014

God’s Word is Never Spoken in Vain

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Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A – July 13, 2014

In verse 10 of today’s first reading from chapter 55 of the prophet Isaiah, we read: “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater.” Rain may seem lost when it falls on a desert, but it fulfils some purpose of God. So the gospel word falling on the hard heart; it sometimes brings about change in one’s life; and even if so, it leaves people without excuse.

Not only does Isaiah compare God’s Word with rain, but he also compares it with snow – something else that is often not truly appreciated for what it really does. Snow’s main purpose is far greater than simply providing coating for ski hills, raw material for making snowmen and necessary covering for snowmobile trails. Its main purpose, like rain, is to provide water and moisture for the earth so that plants and trees are able to grow and live.

Every time snow and rain come down, they always provide a very necessary ingredient: moisture for germination and growth of seeds planted in the earth. They always accomplish their purpose. In verse 11, we see that God’s Word, like the rain and snow from heaven, always accomplishes its God intended purpose: “So is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” What faith, patience and perseverance are required to accept this truth!

Patient endurance in steadfast expectation

In today’s second reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans (8:18-23), Paul considers the destiny of the created world to be linked with the future that belongs to the believers. As it shares in the penalty of corruption brought about by sin, so also will it share in the benefits of redemption and future glory that comprise the ultimate liberation of God’s people (19-22). After patient endurance in steadfast expectation, the full harvest of the Spirit’s presence will be realized. On earth believers enjoy the first fruits, i.e., the Spirit, as a guarantee of the total liberation of their bodies from the influence of the rebellious old self (23).

Understanding the meaning of “parable”

The word “parable” is used in the Greek Septuagint to translate the Hebrew “mashal,” a designation covering a wide variety of literary forms such as axioms, proverbs, similitudes, and allegories. In the New Testament “parable” primarily designates stories that are illustrative comparisons between Christian truths and events of everyday life. Sometimes the event has a strange element that is quite different from usual experience (e.g., in Matthew 13:3 the enormous amount of dough in the parable of the yeast); this is meant to sharpen the curiosity of the hearer. As figurative speech, a parable demands reflection for understanding. To understand is a gift of God, granted to the disciples but not to the crowds. In Semitic fashion, both the disciples’ understanding and the crowd’s obtuseness are attributed to God. The question of human responsibility for the obtuseness is not dealt with, although it is asserted in Matthew 13:13.

Structure of Matthew’s Parable of the Sower

Let us take a closer look at the structure of Matthew’s sermon in parables (13:1-52) which is structurally the centre of his Gospel. The parables offered by Matthew serve as a varied commentary on the rejection of Jesus by the Pharisees in the two preceding chapters. The whole discourse in parables is the third great discourse of Jesus in Matthew’s account and constitutes the second part of the third book of the gospel. Matthew follows the Marcan outline (4:1-35) but has only two of Mark’s parables. The remaining two are most likely drawn from the “Q” source and Matthew’s special collection of stories. In addition to the seven parables, the discourse gives the reason why Jesus uses this type of speech (10-15), declares the blessedness of those who understand his teaching (16-17), explains the parable of the sower (18-23), and of the weeds (36-43), and ends with a concluding statement to the disciples (51-52).

Parable of the SowerSowing with abandon

To Jesus’ Galilean listeners who were close to the earth, the image of sowing seeds (Matthew 13:1-23) was a very familiar one. Today’s parable is startling on several accounts – it portrays a sower who is apparently careless. He scatters the seed with reckless abandon even in those areas where there is virtually no chance for growth. The first seed that falls on the path has no opportunity to grow. The second seed falls on rocky ground, grows quickly and dies as quickly. The third seed falls among thorns and has its life submerged by a stronger force. Finally the fourth seed falls on good soil, produces fruit– to astonishing, unknown, unthinkable proportions. The normal harvest in a good year might be sevenfold, never thirty, sixty, much less one hundred! The life-bearing potential of the seed is beyond imagination! The final yield is earth shattering! In the end, the parable portrays the sower as lavish and extravagant rather than foolish and wasteful.

In the explanation of the parable (18-23) the emphasis is on the various types of soil on which the seed falls, i.e., on the dispositions with which the preaching of Jesus is received (cf. parallels in Mark 4:14-20; Luke 8:11-15) . The second and third types particularly are explained in such a way as to support the view held by many scholars that the explanation derives not from Jesus but from early Christian reflection upon apostasy from the faith that was the consequence of persecution and worldliness respectively. Others, however, hold that the explanation may come basically from Jesus even though it was developed in the light of later Christian experience. The four types of persons envisaged are (1) those who never accept the word of the kingdom (Matthew 13:19); (2) those who believe for a while but fall away because of persecution (20-21); (3) those who believe, but in whom the word is choked by worldly anxiety and the seduction of riches (22); (4) those who respond to the word and produce fruit abundantly (23).

In no other instance does Jesus take such great pain to explain a parable than in this one. Too often this parable has been used to emphasize what happens to the seed– carried away by the devil, dying from a lack of roots, choked by the cares and wealth and pleasures of this life. How often have we considered the lavishness and generosity of God– throwing the seed in every direction? Jesus’ explanation clearly shifts the accent from the seed (the word), which was the focus of the parable, to the person who hears it (the soil). In so doing, it brings to the fore God’s extravagant generosity with the word.

God’s Word shall be accomplished

Whatever is God’s design in giving the gospel, it shall be accomplished. It is never spoken in vain, and never fails to produce the effect which he intends. Though it may seem that the Gospel often falls on barren rocks, or on arid sands; on extended plains where no vegetation is produced, or in the wilderness ‘where no human is,’ and seems to our eyes in vain, we know that this is not so. The words of the Gospel often fall on hard and barren human hearts.

The message of Jesus is addressed to the proud, the senseless, the avaricious, and the unbelieving, and seems to be spoken in vain, and to return void unto God. But it is not so. He has some design in it, and that will be accomplished. It is proof of the fullness of his mercy. It leaves people without excuse, and justifies himself. Or when presented apparently in vain – it ultimately becomes successful, and sinners are at last brought to abandon their sins, and to turn unto God.

The Gospel is indeed often rejected and despised. It falls on the ears of people apparently as the rain falls on the hard rock, and there are, so to speak, large fields where the gospel is preached as barren and unfruitful of any spiritual good as the extended desert is of vegetation, and the gospel seems to be preached to almost entire communities with as little effect as is produced when the rains fall on vast, barren deserts. In spite of some failure because of opposition and indifference, the message of Jesus about the coming of the kingdom will have enormous success. Though the gospel may not immediately produce all the good effects which we may desire, yet it will be ultimately successful to the full wish of the widest benevolence, and the whole world shall be filled with the knowledge and the love of God.

Allowing the Word to take root in our lives

This week may the Word take root in our lives. If we allow it to penetrate beneath the surface, we will begin to find ourselves, and find the areas of ourselves which seemed lost or broken, abandoned or forgotten, “unplugged” or “turned off” to the transforming power of God. Let us pray these words of St. Albert the Great:

“Let me leave behind my old life, so that the seeds of your Word won’t be eaten up by the birds of frivolous thought, or choked out by the thorns of worry. Give me a soft heart full of humility and joy, so that I will be good soil and bring forth fruit in patience.”

[The readings for the Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time are: Isaiah 55.10-11; Romans 8.18-23; and Matthew 13.1-23.]

This reflection first appeared on the Zenit International News Service in 2011 as well as on the Salt + Light Blog. The complete collection of reflections for Year B, entitled “Words made Flesh,” is now available in book form through our online store. Book editions for Year A and C reflections are coming soon.

Pier Giorgio Frassati: Verso l’alto

Frassati 1 cropped

July 4 is the Memorial (Feast Day) of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati. The following is the homily of Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB preached on Monday, July 14, 2008 during WYD Sydney at the Prayer Vigil and Eucharistic Adoration with the body of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati in St. Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, Australia.

Dear Friends,
Dear Wanda, niece of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati,

What an honour and privilege it is to be here with you this evening in St. Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney, Australia! Led by the young adults of Canada’s Catholic Christian Outreach [CCO], one of our nation’s outstanding movements for Catholic university students, we have gathered together to adore Jesus, gift of God for the life of the world. And young people of the entire world have also come here, to pray around the mortal remains of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati during World Youth Day 2008.

We have just listened to the blueprint for Christianity in that magnificent text of the Beatitudes from Matthew’s Gospel [5:1-12]. The Beatitudes in Christ’s Sermon on the Mount are a recipe for extreme holiness. Every crisis that the Church faces, every crisis that the world faces, is a crisis of holiness and a crisis of saints.

If there was ever an age when young men and women needed authentic heroes, it is our age. The Church understands that the saints and blesseds, their prayers, their lives, are for people on earth; that sainthood, as an earthly honor, is not coveted by the saints or blesseds themselves.

What was so unique and special about Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati? He was born in 1901, at the turn of the last century in Turin, Italy. July 4, 2008 marked the 83rd anniversary of Pier Giorgio Frassati’s entry into eternal life. Athletic, full of life, always surrounded by friends, whom he inspired with his life, Pier Giorgio chose not to become a priest or religious, preferring to give witness to the Gospel as a lay person. He never founded a religious order or started a new ecclesial movement. He led no armies, nor was he elected to public office. Death came even before he could complete his university degree (the degree was awarded to him posthumously in 2001). He never had a chance to begin a career; in fact, he hadn’t even worked out for sure what his vocation in life would be. He was simply a young man who was in love with his family and friends, in love with the mountains and the sea, but especially in love with God.

Through World Youth Days, Pier Giorgio Frassati has become a special patron to millions of young people around the world, and most especially to the movement “Catholic Christian Outreach” in Canada. Let us consider three highlights of this young Blessed’s life that combined in a remarkable way political activism, solidarity, work for social justice, piety and devotion, humanity and goodness, holiness and ordinariness, faith and life.

Pier Giorgio’s Devotional Life and Love of the Eucharist

Frassati Icon Harasti lg

Icon written by Ted Harasti.

Pier Giorgio Frassati developed a deep spiritual life which he never hesitated to share with his friends. His friends remember him saying: “To live without faith, without a heritage to defend, without battling constantly for truth, is not to live, but to ‘plod along’; we must never just ‘plod along.’ ”

The Eucharist and the Blessed Mother were the two poles of his world of prayer. He felt a strong mysterious urge to be near the Blessed Sacrament. He followed Him in the processions, took part enthusiastically in the Eucharistic Congresses, but above everything he loved to spend long hours in nocturnal adoration. And his joy was so much greater when he managed to bring in front of the Blessed Sacrament, his friends, young people he knew, and the poor he looked after. During some Eucharistic vigils, the face of Pier Giorgio would be transfigured with joy and consolation at seeing hundreds of young men and women who were coming to communion.

His spiritual life, like ours, was based on the sacraments. But he went beyond simply doing what is “required”: Sunday Mass, the perfunctory confession before Christmas and/or Easter, and perhaps a small Lenten penance like giving up candy.

The Rosary, the Liturgy of the Hours, Lectio Divina and annual retreats were as much a part of his life as skiing, mountain-climbing or cycling. His life of prayer was his “daily bread,” as it should be for anyone who desires to become a saint. He was an athlete, and he knew well that in order to “reach the goal,” as he was fond of saying, he had to push himself beyond the ordinary if he wanted to be a champion.

In a letter he wrote [July 29, 1923] to the Members of “Catholic Youth” of Pollone, the mountain town north of Turin, Pier Giorgio said:

“…I urge you with all the strength of my soul to approach the Eucharistic Table as often as possible. Feed on this Bread of the Angels from which you will draw the strength to fight inner struggles, the struggles against passions and against all adversities, because Jesus Christ has promised to those who feed themselves with the most Holy Eucharist, eternal life and the necessary graces to obtain it.

And when you become totally consumed by this Eucharistic Fire, then you will be able to thank with greater awareness the Lord God who has called you to be part of his flock and you will enjoy that peace which those who are happy according to the world have never tasted. Because true happiness, young people, does not consist in the pleasures of the world and in earthly things, but in peace of conscience which we can have only if we are pure in heart and in mind.”

These words demonstrate a remarkable spiritual maturity and love for the Eucharist, especially considering the fact that they were coming from a young man who was only twenty-two years old.

Pier Giorgio’s respect for life and sense of social justice

Sydney exhibitionIn his own life and times, Pier Giorgio dealt with some of our own contemporary problems and struggles. His love of God and his tremendous sense of human solidarity bonded him with the poor, the needy, the sick, the hungry and the homeless. Frassati had a tremendous respect for human life: all life, from the earliest moments to the final moments. He was constantly defending life wherever it was diminished and under siege.

At the age of 17, in 1918, he joined the St. Vincent de Paul Society and dedicated much of his spare time to serving the sick and the needy, caring for orphans, and assisting the demobilized servicemen returning from World War I. What little he did have, Pier Giorgio gave to help the poor, even using his bus fare for charity and then running home to be on time for meals. The poor and the suffering were his masters, and he was literally their servant, which he considered a privilege. He often sacrificed vacations at the Frassati summer home in Pollone because, as he said, “If everybody leaves Turin, who will take care of the poor?”

Pier Giorgio loved the poor. It was not simply a matter of giving something to the lonely, the poor, the sick – but rather, giving his whole self. He saw Jesus in them and to a friend who asked him how he could bear to enter the dirty and smelly places where the poor lived, he answered: “Remember always that it is to Jesus that you go: I see a special light that we do not have around the, sick, the poor, the unfortunate.”

A German news reporter who observed Frassati at the Italian Embassy wrote, “One night in Berlin, with the temperature at twelve degrees below zero, he gave his overcoat to a poor old man shivering in the cold. His father, the Ambassador scolded him, and he replied simply and matter-of-factly, ‘But you see, Papa, it was cold.’”

In that same letter written to the Members of “Catholic Youth” of Pollone, Pier Giorgio urged his peers with these words:

“The Apostle St. Paul says, “The charity of Christ needs us,” and without this fire, which little by little must destroy our personality so that our heart beats only for the sorrows of others, we would not be Christians, much less Catholics.

Finally there is the apostolate of persuasion. This is one of the most beautiful and necessary. Young people, approach your colleagues at work who live their lives away from the Church and spend their free time not in healthy pastimes, but in vices. Persuade those unfortunate people to follow the ways of God, strewn with many thorns, but also many roses.

But if every one of you were to possess these gifts to the highest degree, and did not have the spirit of sacrifice in abundance, you would not be a good Catholic. We must sacrifice everything for everything: our ambitions, indeed our entire selves, for the cause of the Faith.”

Beneath the smiling exterior of the restless young man was concealed the amazing life of a mystic. Love for Jesus motivated his actions.

Pier Giorgio’s suffering and death

Just before receiving his university degree in mining engineering, he contracted poliomyelitis, which doctors later speculated he caught from the sick for whom he cared. His sickness was not understood. His parents, totally taken up by the agony, death and burial of his grandmother, had not even suspected the paralysis. Two days before the end, his mother kept on scolding him for not helping her in difficult moments.

Not even in those desperate final days could he ever forget his closest friends, the poor. While lying on his death bed he wanted the usual material assistance to be brought to them. It was Friday, the day he visited them. On July 3, 1925, a day before his death, his hand already paralyzed from polio, Pier Giorgio asked his sister Luciana to take a small packet from his jacket and with a semi-paralyzed hand he wrote the following note to Grimaldi: “Here are the injections for Converso. The pawn ticket is Sappa’s. I had forgotten it; renew it on my behalf”.

FrassatiWe know that Pier Giorgio wanted to see Jesus so much that he used to say: “The day of my death will be the most beautiful day of my life.” Pier Giorgio’s sacrifice was fulfilled at seven o’clock in the evening of July 4, 1925. His funeral was a triumph. The streets of Turin were lined with a multitude of mourners who were unknown to his family: clergy and students, and the poor and the needy whom he had served so unselfishly for seven years.

God gave Pier Giorgio all the external attributes that could have led him to make the wrong choices: a wealthy family, very good looks, manhood, health, being the only heir of a powerful family. But Pier Giorgio listened to the invitation of Christ: “Come and follow me.” He anticipated by at least 50 years the Church’s understanding and new direction on the role of the laity.

In beatifying Frassati alone in St. Peter’s Square on May 20, 1990, Pope John Paul II described Pier Giorgio as the “man of the eight Beatitudes” and said in his homily:

“By his example he proclaims that a life lived in Christ’s Spirit, the Spirit of the Beatitudes, is “blessed”, and that only the person who becomes a “man or woman of the Beatitudes” can succeed in communicating love and peace to others. He repeats that it is really worth giving up everything to serve the Lord. He testifies that holiness is possible for everyone, and that only the revolution of charity can enkindle the hope of a better future in the hearts of people. …He left this world rather young, but he made a mark upon our entire century, and not only on our century.”

Conclusion

Tonight, together with the Servant of God, John Paul II, the young mountain climber of Pollone stands at the window of the Father’s house and smiles upon us, as he intercedes for us and for the young people of the world who have come to Sydney to discover the Lord and his holy ones in the vast Communion of Saints and community of the Church. Let me conclude by speaking for a few moments directly to Pier Giorgio on your behalf.

Carissimo Pier Giorgio,

I never had the privilege of meeting you in life. Whoever has met you knows that in your eyes, in your gestures and in your actions, you always carried a little piece of heaven. You shared that with those who knew you in your lifetime, and now with those of us who have known you for the past century.

Since 1925 when you left this earth to return to the house of your father, you have continued your work on our behalf “dall’alto”, from above! In your lifetime you never had the privilege of coming to a World Youth Day. You have watched them from afar, and blessed them with countless graces.

For many years your mortal body remained hidden in the family tomb in Pollone, and then placed in a dark corner of Turin’s Cathedral. Many who visited didn’t even know you were there! I was one of those visitors several years ago. I simply couldn’t find where they had laid you to rest! Such a powerful witness and light must never be hidden, but held up for imitation and inspiration.

We Catholic Christians believe that the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, the instrument of God’s work, the frame of God’s house in our midst. And we know, with St. Paul, that “if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling — if indeed, when we have taken it off we will not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan under our burden, because we wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.” [II Corinthians 5:2-4]

Your presence among us this evening, both from your vantage point at the window of the Father’s home in heaven and through your mortal remains in this Cathedral, witnesses to your mortality that has been swallowed up by new life. Pier Giorgio, you almost didn’t make it to Sydney! Thank God that the Church in Australia, with the help of the Holy Spirit, prevailed over all those forces which tried to prevent you from attending your first World Youth Day down under!

As we venerate your mortal remains, we give thanks to the Lord Jesus who gave you life, inspiration, strength, hope and the crown of glory. As we reflect on your youthfulness, your simplicity, your beauty, goodness and humanity, we recognize the call given to each of us: to be men and women of the Beatitudes.

Thank you, Pier Giorgio, for listening to Jesus’ words and making them your own. Your example has moved me and hundreds of thousands of others to translate the Beatitudes into Good News with our very lives. Be with us on this great expedition to heaven!

Pier Giorgio, help us to strive for simple hearts, attentive to the needs of others, and friendships based on that pact which knows no earthly boundaries or limits of time: union in prayer. If we do not know the road, and if we often abandon the path, show us the way “verso l’alto” upward to heaven!

If by being superficial we have not put in our knapsack all that we need for the climb, and if we never lift up our gaze because we do not want to take the first demanding steps to set ourselves on the way, show us the way “verso l’alto” upward to heaven!

If we lack the strength to overcome the most difficult passes, and if we have the strength, but prefer to use it to turn back, show us the way “verso l’alto” upward to heaven!

If we never pause to be nourished by the bread of eternal life, and if we do not quench our thirst from the fountain of prayer, show us the way “verso l’alto” upward to heaven!

When we do not know how to contemplate the beauty of the gifts we have received, and when we do not know how to offer ourselves for others, show us the way “verso l’alto” upward to heaven!

If we have committed many sins, show us the way “verso l’alto” upward to heaven!

If we lost hope, show us the way “verso l’alto” upward to heaven!

Three years ago, at the opening ceremonies for World Youth Day 2005 in Cologne, Germany, Pope Benedict XVI addressed the throng of young people from the entire world:

“Dear young people, the Church needs genuine witnesses for the new evangelization: men and women whose lives have been transformed by meeting with Jesus, men and women who are capable of communicating this experience to others. The Church needs saints. All are called to holiness, and holy people alone can renew humanity. Many have gone before us along this path of Gospel heroism, and I urge you to turn often to them to pray for their intercession.”

That is why we have gathered together tonight in this great Cathedral down under! May all the young people who have journeyed to Sydney, and those of us who have been young for a while, find in Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati what Jesus’ Sermon on a Galilean hillside really meant.

Pray for us, Pier Giorgio Frassati. Show us the way “verso l’alto”, upward to heaven and deep in to the heart of God. Teach us how to be Saints for the Church and for the world!

Amen.

“When the heart is not applied, hands can’t do anything.”

Doubting Thomas cropped

“When the heart is not applied, hands can’t do anything.” On the Feast of St. Thomas the Apostle – July 3

There is a proverb that says: “When the heart is not applied, hands can’t do anything.” It seems as if this were written for Thomas the Apostle. The Resurrection Gospel stories that feature St. Thomas provide us with an archetypal experience of doubt, struggle and faith. John’s first appearance of the Risen Lord to the disciples is both intense and focused, a scene set with realistic detail: it is evening, the first day of the week, and the doors where bolted shut. Anxious disciples are hermetically sealed inside.

A suspicious, violent world is forced tightly outside. Jesus is missing. Suddenly, the Risen One defies locked doors, locked hearts, and locked vision. He simply appears. Gently, ever so gently Jesus reaches out to the broken and wounded Apostle. Thomas hesitatingly put his finger into the wounds of Jesus and love flowed out. Long ago St. Gregory the Great said of Thomas, “If, by touching the wounds on the body of his master, Thomas is able to help us overcome the wounds of disbelief, then the doubting of Thomas will have been more use to us than the faith of all the other apostles.”

Both Jesus and Thomas were wounded by unbelief. Jesus died of the wounds inflicted by the unbelief of his disciples and of the people. Thomas was wounded by his inability to believe, and out of this wound bled his deepest disappointment. But Thomas was healed by Christ’s wounds. He saw, even felt, the deadly injuries; but the one who bore them was living. Through them, life was victorious in Thomas. Thomas had to guardedly feel his way to faith until he recognized the truth in his heart. This was the beginning of his Easter. He could believe again.

Thomas, the doubter, was permitted to do something that we would all like to do. He was allowed to touch and “experience” something that by human means was not possible. For us it is more difficult. We need to begin with faith and then blindly touch our way to the heart of our lives.

Thomas the Apostle is truly one of the greatest and most honest lovers of Jesus, not the eternal skeptic, nor the bullish, stubborn personality that the Christian tradition has often painted. Thomas stood before the cross, not comprehending. All his dreams were hanging on that cross. All of his hopes had been shattered. What do we do when something to which we have totally committed ourselves is destroyed before our very eyes?

What do we do when powerful and faceless institutions suddenly crush someone to whom we have given total loyalty? And what do we do when our immediate reaction in the actual moment of crisis is to run and hide, for fear of the madding crowds? Such were the questions of most of the disciples, including Thomas, who had supported and followed Jesus of Nazareth for the better part of three years.

Do we not often like Thomas, never seem to be there when Jesus arrived? Has the absurdity of the resurrection rumour sent us away? Jesus keeps on appearing to us, again and again – unlocking the barriers between faith and doubt, between life and death, between past and future, between fear and joy. The Good News of the Gospel is eminently clear: when and where we least expect him, and when we most need him, Jesus just appears.

Centuries after Thomas, we remain forever grateful for the honesty and humanity of his struggle. Though we know so little about Thomas, his family background and his destiny, we are given an important hint into his identity in the etymology of his name in Greek: Thomas (Didymous in Greek) means “twin.” Who was Thomas’ other half, his twin? Maybe we can see his twin by looking into the mirror. Thomas’ other half is anyone who has struggled with the pain of unbelief, doubt and despair, and has allowed the presence of the Risen Jesus to make a difference.

The doubting Thomas within each of us must be touched. We are asked to respond to the wounds within others and ourselves. Even in our weakness, we are urged to breathe forth the Spirit so that the wounds may be healed and our fears overcome. With Thomas we will believe, when our seeking hand finally and hesitantly reaches out to the Lord in the community of faith. Blessed are we who have not seen and have believed!

Easy Yokes, Light Burdens and a Gentle, Smiling Lord

Jesus smiling cropped

Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A – July 6, 2014

During one of my summer undergraduate study programs in France, I recall visiting the Abbey of Saint-Honorat on the Iles de Lerins in southern France. I was particularly struck by a Medieval figure of the crucified Christ in the Abbey Church. The crucified one, hanging on the cross with his eyes closed and head tilted to the right, was smiling. The old monk who showed us around that day told us that this was “Christ souriant” (Christ smiling). Several of my classmates from various countries, especially those of other faiths, were quite perplexed in seeing the crucified Christ with a peaceful smile on his face and asked the monk how this could be possible.

Christ souriantI have often wondered why we in our own time don’t depict Jesus smiling or laughing. Yes, there are some well-known prints or depictions of a smiling Christ, but they are few and far between. I dare say that many of our depictions of Christ specialize in capturing the rather bleak, serious and sad images of Christ that are reflective of the late Middle Ages — a period when the Dance of Death and the Black Plague haunted Europe.

While it is true that the New Testament is silent about Jesus smiling, laughing, or enjoying himself and those around him, the Scriptures are not afraid to tell us that he did express other human emotions. We know that he wept bitter tears at his friend Lazarus’ death. He was not afraid to show his anger in the Temple when people turned it into a shopping mall. He expressed irritation at the traps being set for him by some religious leaders of his time. How many times did he get frustrated with his disciples’ inability to grasp the situation and meaning of his words, parables, predictions of the passion and imminent departure from them? We must ask ourselves: how is it that the Scriptures don’t mention anything about Jesus smiling or his humorous responses to his slow disciples? How could he not have laughed and smiled when he was swarmed by children who obviously loved his company?

What did Jesus look like when he stared at Zacchaeus hiding in that Jericho sycamore tree? I am certain that there were smiles, laughter, and humor. When the crowds took leave of him on that Galilean hillside, having eaten their fill… how could Jesus not have smiled in relief? When Jesus spoke about the hypocites’ gloomy looks in Matthew’s Gospel, he was also saying something about himself. There are many in the Church today who have difficulty in the image of a smiling happy Jesus. They would prefer a stern, dour, tragedy-stricken figure who doesn’t seem to offer much hope!

Jesus’ prayer of rejoicing

Throughout his life, Jesus experienced that the humble of heart found it easier to accept his revolutionary doctrine than did those who were full of their own self-importance. In today’s Gospel, Matthew’s Jesus offers an exultant prayer of praise that defines for us more clearly who he is and with whom he wishes to be identified (11:25-30).

There are three movements in today’s section of Matthew’s Gospel (11:25-30). In the first movement, Jesus addresses himself to the Father, rejoicing that the Father’s special love for the poor and lowly is being manifested in his ministry. In the second movement, Jesus addresses himself in a kind of self-definition. Jesus is the Son to whom full knowledge of the Father is given. The heart of the Son’s mission is to reveal the Father to us. Finally in the third movement, Jesus speaks directly to all those who long for relief, consolation and refreshment. I cannot help but think that in each moment, Jesus smiled, breathed deeply and was filled with joy at what was happening among his own disciples. He smiled with compassion as he invited the broken and lowly to find peace.

Priority over relationships

Though this particular message does provide rest and encouragement to the downtrodden, Matthew’s Gospel as a whole is not always so comforting or easy to receive. In chapter 10:37 we read: “They who love father and mother, son or daughter more than me are not worthy of me” [10:37]. Jesus takes priority over the relationships between even parents and children! These texts must be understood in their original context– the losses incurred by first-century Christians who joined the Christian movement and who, in doing so, left behind everything that had given them comfort and strength– parents, siblings, children, indeed all family ties and all possessions, however great or meager.

Today’s Gospel responds directly to those who lost everything or gave up everything– it is Jesus, the great comforter, the one who opens his arms in welcome to those beaten down by their experience, those who find themselves ostracized and rejected, overburdened and crushed. This saying found in 11:25-26 is identical with Luke 10:21-22 except for minor variations, and introduces a joyous note into this section, so dominated by the theme of unbelief. While the wise and the learned, the scribes and Pharisees, have rejected Jesus’ preaching and the significance of his mighty deeds, the childlike have accepted them.

Accepting the Lord’s yoke

To accept the yoke of Christ upon our shoulders is to be assured of a gentle and humble master; any burden given and accepted in mutual love will seem light. Today’s Gospel also contains one of the most well-known and most popular passages from all of the Christian Scriptures. Who of us cannot be moved in some way by the consolation that Jesus offers when he says: [28-30]

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens,

and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me;

for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.

For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

The word “yoke” is used metaphorically to describe those things that control the lives of people. Peasants always had a yoke. For the most part, their lives as tenant farmers were governed by the wills and whims of the landowners. Their lives were controlled by religious leaders who grew fat on tithes that they hoarded in the Temple instead of redistributing to the needy. Pharisees laid the yoke of their 613 commandments upon the followers and others who sought their advice about how to please God. For all Israelites, reciting and living according to Deuteronomy 6:4ff.: “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart…” was known as “bearing the yoke of the reign of God.”

In today’s Gospel, Jesus invites his listeners to “learn from me; I am your model.” His invitation echoes that offered by Wisdom in Sirach [51:23,26]: “Draw near to me, you who are uneducated, and lodge in the house of instruction… Put your neck under her yoke, and let your souls receive instruction.” In place of the yoke of the law, complicated by scribal interpretation, Jesus invites the burdened to take the yoke of obedience to his word, under which they will find rest; cf Jeremiah 6:16.

Jesus demonstrates a way of life, a yoke, that differs markedly from the one other religious leaders taught in his day. He promises a yoke that is easy and a burden that is light. No wonder that many poor people found his words enormously appealing! Spiritual elitism repels many more than it attracts. The best guides are those who practice what they preach. Jesus walked his talk, and gives us a wonderful and challenging example to embrace and imitate each day. And I cannot help but imagine Jesus uttering these words of consolation with a gentle smile.

Why Jesus is still attractive today

Jesus was attractive then, and still is attractive now, to millions upon millions. The Messiah came among us, not as a conquering warrior, but in lowliness and peace. Not like the last kings of Judah, who rode in chariots and on horses (Jeremiah 17:25; 22:4), but like the princes of old (Genesis 49:11; Judges 5:10; 10:4), the Messiah will ride on an ass. The Evangelists see a literal fulfillment of this prophecy of today’s first reading from Zechariah in the Savior’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem (Matthew 21:4-5; John 12:14-15).

Jesus of Nazareth attracted townspeople and country people, poor and rich, fishermen and tax collectors, women like Mary of Magdalene and her cohort who provided for him and so many others. He had the ability to wow simple and sophisticated souls alike. I am sure he did it with his powerful words, but also with a gentle smile, with humor, kindness and just plain love. His divine origins, despite the utter seriousness of his mission toward Cross and Resurrection, made him an extraordinary human being who was able to bond with others. How could he not have smiled when he uttered those words of today’s Gospel: “Come to me. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” These are hardly admonitions that necessitate a stern gaze and heavy voice! They are words that flow from one who is a lover and a friend.

Constant challenge of Christian living

After his warning in Romans 7 against the wrong route to fulfillment of the objective of holiness expressed in Romans 6:22, Paul points his addressees to the correct way. Christians still retain the flesh, but it is alien to their new being, which is life in the spirit, namely the new self, governed by the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:9; 11-13). Under the direction of the Holy Spirit Christians are able to fulfill the divine will that formerly found expression in the law (Romans 8:4). The same Spirit who enlivens Christians for holiness will also resurrect their bodies at the last day (11). Christian life is therefore the experience of a constant challenge to put to death the evil deeds of the body through life of the spirit (13).

[The readings for the Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time are: Zechariah 9.9-10; Romans 8.9, 11-13; and Matthew 11.25-30.]

This reflection first appeared on the Zenit International News Service in 2011 as well as on the Salt + Light Blog. The complete collection of reflections for Year B, entitled “Words made Flesh,” is now available in book form through our online store. Book editions for Year A and C reflections are coming soon.