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Jesus, the Beautiful and Noble Shepherd

Good Shepherd cropped

Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year B – April 26, 2015

In the Bible and in the ancient Near East, “shepherd” was a political title that stressed the obligation of kings to provide for their subjects. The title connoted total concern for and dedication to others. Tending flocks and herds is an important part of the Palestinian economy in biblical times. In the Old Testament, God is called the Shepherd of Israel who goes before the flock (Psalm 68:7), guides it (Psalm 23:3), leads it to food and water (Psalm 23:2), protects it (Psalm 23:4), and carries its young (Isaiah 40:11). Embedded in the living piety of believers, the metaphor brings out the fact that God shelters the entire people.

In Psalm 23, the author speaks of the Lord as his shepherd. The image of shepherd as host is also found in this beloved psalm. Shepherd and host are both images set against the background of the desert, where the protector of the sheep is also the protector of the desert traveler, offering hospitality and safety from enemies. The rod is a defensive weapon against wild animals, while the staff is a supportive instrument; they symbolize concern and loyalty.

The New Testament does not judge shepherds adversely. They know their sheep (John 10:3), seek lost sheep (Luke 15:4ff.), and hazard their lives for the flock (John 10:11-12). The shepherd is a figure for God himself (Luke 15:4ff.). The New Testament never calls God a shepherd, and only in the parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15:4ff.; Matthew 18:12ff.) does the comparison occur. Here God, like the rejoicing shepherd of the parable, takes joy in the forgiveness and restoration of the sinner. The choice of the image reflects vividly the contrast between Jesus’ love for sinners and the Pharisees’ contempt for them. It can be said that the Emmaus story in Luke’s Gospel (24:13-35) is a continuation of Jesus’ journey, his pursuit of wayward disciples which was already prefigured by the parable of the shepherd who went in search of lost sheep until he found them and returned them to the fold (15:3-7).

Confidence

On the Fourth Sunday of Easter, traditionally called Good Shepherd Sunday, we encounter the Good Shepherd who is really the beautiful or noble shepherd [in the Greek text] who knows his flock intimately. Jesus knew shepherds and had much sympathy for their lot and he relied on one of his favorite metaphors to assure us that we can place our confidence in him. For those who heard Jesus claim this title for himself, it meant more than tenderness and compassion; there was the dramatic and startling degree of love so great that the shepherd is willing to lay down his life for his flock.

Unlike the hired hand, who works for pay, the good shepherd’s life is devoted to the sheep out of pure love. The sheep are far more than a responsibility to the good shepherd — who is also their owner. They are the object of the shepherd’s love and concern. Thus, the shepherd’s devotion to them is completely unselfish; the good shepherd is willing to die for the sheep rather than abandon them. To the hired hand, the sheep are merely a commodity, to be watched over only so they can provide wool and mutton.

The beauty of Jesus, our Good Shepherd, lies in the love with which he offers his life even unto death for each and every one of his sheep. In so doing, he establishes with each one a direct and personal relationship of intense love. Jesus’ beauty and nobility are revealed in his letting himself be loved by us. In Jesus we discover the Father and his Son who are shepherds who care for us, know us and even love us in our stubbornness, deafness and diffidence.

Sometimes, it seems that followers are expected to put the needs of the leader first. The people are the means to an end: the leader’s pleasure. Does it not often seem that shepherds are first, sheep last? The emphasis in today’s readings is on the sheep and their welfare. The shepherd is the means to ensure the end: the well-being of the flock. Sheep are first, shepherds last. John’s gospel portrays Jesus as the life-giving shepherd.

Vocations

The Fourth Sunday of Easter is also the World Day of Prayer for Vocations. The readings are very fitting for as we beg the Lord of the harvest and of the Church to send more laborers into his vast vineyards. As a model of religious leadership, Jesus shows us that love can be the only motivation for ministry, especially for pastoral ministry. He also shows us that there must be no exclusiveness on the part of the religious leader. If there are sheep outside the fold (even sheep excluded by the fold itself), the good shepherd must go fetch them. And they must be brought in, so that there will be one flock under one shepherd. The motivation for inclusion is love, not social justice, not ethical fairness, not mere tolerance, and certainly not political correctness or impressive statistics. Only love can draw the circle that includes everyone.

Shepherds have power over sheep. As we contemplate Jesus, the Good Shepherd, we call to mind everyone over whom we exercise authority — children, elderly parents, our coworkers and colleagues, people who ask us for help throughout the week, people who depend on us for material and spiritual needs. Whatever title we bear, the rod and staff we carry must be symbols not of oppression but of dedication. Today’s readings invite us to ask for forgiveness for the times we have not responded to those for whom we care, and ask for the grace to be good shepherds. We fix our eyes anew on the Good Shepherd who knows that other sheep not of this fold are not lost sheep, but his sheep.

One final thought on shepherding. Anthropologists tell us that between the hunting and the farming stages of cultural development shepherds stood as people who existed in both worlds and tied them together. For that reason, shepherds appear in ancient myths and sagas as a symbol for the divine unity of opposites. What the ancient pagans hinted at, Christian faith has brought into a crisp reality with Jesus Christ as the great reconciler. He is the Good Shepherd, who has come into the center of every great conflict in order to establish beauty, unity and peace.

May it be ever so for each person who strives to be a good shepherd today, in the Church and in the world. As we enter those places of conflict and tribulation in our own times, may the Lord use us as his instruments to establish beauty, nobility, unity and peace.

[The readings for this Sunday are: Acts 4:8-12; 1 John 3:1-2; and John 10:11-18.]

May the Memory of Rabbi Elio Toaff be a Blessing for Us

JP II Rabbi Toaff 1986

The Jewish community around the world mourms the death of Rabbi Elio Toaff who died today (April 19) in Rome at the age of 99. He would have turned 100 on April 30 of this year. Born in Livorno on April 30, 1915, Toaff is universally regarded as one of the highest authorities of the spiritual and moral Jewish Italy after World War II. In 1947 he served as a rabbi in Venice and in 1951 he became the Chief Rabbi of Rome holding that position until 2002.

Rabbi Toaff was also loved by Christians and Catholics for the critical role he played in Jewish-Christian relations during the long pontificate of St. John Paul II. It was Rabbi Toaff, then chief of Rome’s great synagogue, who welcomed the Pope to his synagogue on April 14, 1986. This one-mile trip across the Tiber River to Great Synagogue of Rome was believed to be the first time since Peter that a pope had entered the Rome synagogue, and symbolically it marked a watershed in Catholic-Jewish relations. Christianity has an organic relationship to Judaism that it does not have to any other faith.

I remember the day vividly. As John Paul II arrived on the steps of the imposing Victorian synagogue overlooking the Tiber River, he was embraced by Chief Rabbi Toaff. The Pope returned the embrace and then entered the synagogue to a thundering ovation from a congregation of 1,000 people, many of them descendants of Jews who had been forced to live apart from other Romans.

”The Jews are beloved of God, who has called them with an irrevocable calling,” John Paul said, speaking in Italian and, briefly, in Hebrew. ”The Jewish religion is not ‘extrinsic’ to us, but in a certain way is ‘intrinsic’ to our own religion,” he said elsewhere in his address. ”With Judaism, therefore, we have a relationship which we do not have with any other religion. You are our dearly beloved brothers, and, in a certain way, it could be said that you are our elder brothers.”

“The heart opens itself,” Rabbi Toaff declared in the gathered assembly, ”to the hope that the misfortunes of the past will be replaced by fruitful dialogue.”

JP II Rabbi Toaff Synagogue 1986

For the Jewish people, a traditional Jewish expression of sympathy at the death of loved ones is “Zikhrono li-verakhah” (May his memory be for a blessing). The lives of St. John Paul II and Rabbi Elio Toaff are blessings for the Catholic and Jewish communities, and for the unique relationship between them. As the years pass, may their memories also be a blessing, a model, a point of embarkation and an inspiration, that another generation of Catholics and Jews will commit themselves to pursuing with energy, commitment, respect and faith the dialogue which was so close to the hearts of Pope John Paul II and Rabbi Elio Toaff.

Upon John Paul II’s death in April 2005, Rabbi Gerald Zelizer, of Neve Shalom Synagogue in New Jersey, offered one of the most touching and hopeful evaluations of John Paul’s legacy in terms of Catholic-Jewish dialogue:

“When Michelangelo was on his deathbed, his students at his bedside wailed: ‘Michelangelo, how will Rome ever get along without you?’ To which, it is reported, Michelangelo faintly waved his hand to the window, with its vision of his sculptures and architecture, and whispered, ‘Rome will never be without me.’ Surely, John Paul would not be so boastful. But because he has reshaped the Catholic Church during his long tenure, we Jews, “the elder brother,” are hopeful in declaring, “We Jews shall never be without you.”

(“Respect for faith’s ‘elder brother’,” USA Today (April 5, 2005)

Tonight we say those words about Rabbi Toaff: “Zikhrono li-verakhah” (May his memory be for a blessing). We Catholics shall never be without you, remembering with affection and gratitude your embrace and deep desire for reconciliation and understanding with us.

Remembering Cardinal George: Chicago’s Archbishop celebrates 50 years of priestly ordination

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This post was originally published on December 18, 2013, when Cardinal Francis George celebrated 50 years of priestly ordination. 

Ad multos annos, Cardinal Francis George, OMI
Chicago’s Archbishop celebrates 50 years of priestly ordination

By Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB

Today Cardinal Francis George, OMI, of Chicago celebrates his 50th Anniversary of priestly ordination. Sebastian Gomes and I will be present for the Eucharistic celebration in Chicago’s Holy Name Cathedral as well as at the dinner to follow in the Windy City’s Drake Hotel.

Francis Eugene George was born in Chicago in 1937.  He entered the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate in 1957 and was ordained a priest in 1963.  He served his Oblate Congregation as Provincial Superior of the Midwestern US Province from 1973-1974, and was then elected the following year, at age 37, as Vicar General of his international Congregation, a position which he held in Rome from 1974-1986.  From 1987-1990, he served as the Coordinator of the Circle of Fellows at the Cambridge Centre for the Study of Faith and Culture.  The Church recognized his remarkable qualities when Pope John Paul II named him Bishop of Yakima, Washington in 1990.  In 1996, he was appointed Archbishop of Portland, Oregon, a position he held for less than one year.  In April 1987, the Pope appointed him to the very important See of Chicago in the USA to succeed the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin.  George was the  first native Chicagoan to be Archbishop of that city.  In February 1998, Francis George was created Cardinal priest by Pope John Paul II.

Cardinal Francis George is a philosopher and theologian, a man who possesses the rather remarkable qualities of a warm, humble gentleman, a distinguished scholar and  a listening, compassionate, shepherd and faithful servant.  He has been an outstanding, gifted, leader of the Universal Church who has become an articulate teacher and pastor to people far beyond the confines of the Archdiocese of Chicago.

Cardinal George has been a very good friend for many years, and a great supporter of our work at Salt and Light Catholic Television Network from the very beginning.  My friendship with him was born in Rome in 1985 when I first met him at the Oblate Generalate on Via Aurelia.  I was a newly ordained deacon and had accompanied my Basilian confrère Cardinal George Flahiff to the Extraordinary Synod on Vatican II and a special meeting of  the College of Cardinals.  The Oblates extended hospitality to us for the duration of the meetings and the kindness of then Fr. Francis George. Vicar General of his Religious Congregation, left a lasting impression upon me.  Several years later, in February 1994, our paths crossed again when Fr. George, now bishop of Yakima, Washington arrived in Jerusalem to take part in an international conference Religious Leadership in Secular Society. I was attending that conference as graduate student at Jerusalem’s Ecole Biblique et Archéologique Française.  We renewed our friendship and spent some memorable moments together in the Holy City.

Over the past 29 years, our paths have crossed many times, including Cardinal George’s memorable visit to the Newman Centre Catholic Mission at the University of Toronto in 1998 and his great lecture on the Papacy.  We have been together at World Youth Days, congresses, assemblies and conventions of all kinds, and at the Synod of Bishops on the Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church in 2008.

During that Synod, the Cardinal gave a very eloquent address on the theme of reclaiming our biblical roots.  Synod Fathers had grappled with the fact that many of us had lost touch with the world of Scripture and of how important it was to see the hand of providence in life’s events. Cardinal George, in his role as then President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, spoke of the “lived contexts in which believers hear the Word of God and the need for pastoral attention to conversion of the imagination, the intellect and the will.”

I still remember Cardinal George’s pointed words:“Western culture has been historically shaped in conversation with the Bible,” he said. “References to ‘the prodigal son’ or ‘the Good Samaritan’ or ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’ could be taken for granted as images popularly recognizable.   …This familiarity, that has now largely disappeared from popular imagination, disappeared a generation ago from the world of art and theatre.”

“Behind this loss of biblical images lies the loss of a sense and an image of God as an actor in human history,” Cardinal George continued. “In Scripture, God is both the principal author and the principal actor. In Scripture, we encounter the living God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ.   …Our people, for the most part, do not live confidently in the biblical world of active spirit, of angels and demons, of the search for God’s will and God’s intentions in the midst of this world governed by God’s providence.”

“Scripture takes on the genre of fantasy fiction, and the biblical world becomes an uninhabitable embarrassment.”

“A love of Scripture,” Cardinal George said, “feeds the desire to worship in spirit and in truth, and, in turn, our worship gives God the opportunity to transform us more profoundly into the image of Christ.”

In a recent interview with Chicago’s Catholic newspaper, Cardinal George, reflecting on his priestly and episcopal ministry, said:

“What I would try to do is avoid mistakes I’ve made; but in terms in what I’ve done, it’s been what I’ve been told to do and I did it. The fundamental evangelical virtue is the obedience of faith in charity. Christ was obedient unto death. We don’t talk about obedience, but in fact we are all obedient to God or else we’re on our own, which is a way of saying we are sinners. If you’re in touch with God, you’re obedient to God. I’ve tried to be obedient to the Lord’s will as expressed by the church.”

The Cardinal has appeared in numerous interviews, programs and series of Salt and Light Television over the past decade. His intelligent, articulate reflections on so many topics have inspired our entire team and countless viewers of our programming.  We will long remember his warm hospitality to our crew when they filmed an extensive interview with the Cardinal at his Chicago residence for our major series “The Church Alive” several years ago.

Cardinal George’s WITNESS interview, gives us some great insights into his depth of knowledge and love of the Church.

You can watch that interview here:

I have learned much from this great shepherd, teacher and friend.  May the Lord grant him health, happiness and peace on this momentous occasion of 50 years of priestly ministry.

A few of Cardinal George’s favorite things

Favorite saints? St. Francis is my patron. I was taught to love him by the Franciscan sisters who taught me in grade school, so I’ve always had a devotion to him. My mother had a great devotion to St. Anthony, whom I pray to also when I lose something. St. Therese of Lisieux is the patroness of the missions. She had a great influence on Oblate missionaries. And I suppose the most important one for all of us of course is the Blessed Virgin Mary. I’ve always felt very protected by her. She was the mother of Christ and therefore our mother too.

Favorite prayers? I like to say the Memorare. The most important prayer is the Lord’s own, the Our Father. There’s a prayer also that is in 17th century French spirituality that isn’t perhaps so well known. “Jesus, living in Mary, come and live in your servants.” It’s a classical prayer, a short one, but I say it every morning at the end of meditation because it expresses who we are, united to Christ in Mary, and how we are expected to transform our lives day by day. So beyond that, every priest prays the office for his people, and the Psalms, the Psalms are tremendously important as prayers. They express so many sentiments that are always part of one’s relationship to God, even though they are 3,000 years old. The Mass of course is the most important prayer that the church has — a great gift.

Prayer for the archdiocese? Every day I pray for people who ask me to pray for them, especially the sick. My prayer is simply that we be a praying people, close to the Lord, and let him direct us. What we have to do is keep the infrastructure strong so that the ministries can be effective, but after that, it’s individuals who are living their life in the world who are to be the agents for converting the world. The purpose of the church is to convert the world to its Savior. I would hope that everything we do in the archdiocese would be oriented toward that goal more and more clearly.

What do you want your legacy as a priest to be? I’ve been a priest for 50 years. All that I would hope people would remember is, “He tried to be a good priest.” That’s what my father told me when I told him I wanted to be a priest: “If you’re going to be a priest, be a good one.” So I would hope that people would remember that I tried to be a good priest and a good bishop, and that’s enough.

Source: Office for Radio and Television, Archdiocese of Chicago

Photo: CNS/Karen Callaway, Catholic New World

Luke’s Resurrection Symphony in 4 Movements

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Third Sunday of Easter, Year B – April 19, 2015

I often consider Chapter 24 of Luke’s Gospel to be a Resurrection Symphony in four brilliant movements.

The first movement is the story of the women at the tomb, which ends with Peter’s visit to the tomb to check it (verses 1-12). The second movement tells the great story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, culminating in their learning that the Lord had also appeared to Peter (verses 13-35). The third movement is the appearance of the Lord to his disciples at a meal, ending with their commissioning by Jesus (verses 36-49). And the fourth movement — Jesus’ ascension into heaven (verses 50-52).

The most well-known of these stories is the Emmaus episode that begins in verse 13. It serves as a transition between the events of the Passion and discovery of the tomb and the appearance tradition. It is different from the other resurrection appearances because the Lord disappears at the moment of recognition. The Emmaus narrative (24:13-35) serves as a bridge between the empty tomb (24:1-12) and Jesus’ self-revelation to his apostles (24:36ff.) immediately following the Emmaus disciples’ meal, their recognition of Jesus, and hasty return to Jerusalem.

Cleopas and his companion are going away from the locality where the decisive events have happened, toward a little village of no significance. They did not believe the message of the Resurrection, due to the scandal of the cross. Puzzled and discouraged, they are unable to see any liberation in the death, the empty tomb, or the message about the appearances of Jesus to the others. In their eyes, either the mission of Jesus had entirely failed, or else they, themselves, had been badly deceived in their expectations about Jesus.

As the two downtrodden disciples journeyed with Jesus on that Emmaus road, their hearts began to gradually catch fire within them as they came to understand with their minds the truth about the suffering Messiah. At the meal in Emmaus, they experienced the power of the Resurrection in their hearts. The solution to the problem of these two disciples was not a perfectly logical answer.

Emmaus at the synod

The most frequently quoted Gospel story at the October 2008 synod on the Word of God was undoubtedly Luke’s account of the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13:35). Cited by cardinals, bishops, experts and special guests in many of the presentations coming from every corner of the earth, the Emmaus story proved once again to be a great model or paradigm for catechesis, teaching, Bible study and above all for Christian living.

The journey motif of the Emmaus story (and one can say of the entire synod on the Word of God) is not only a matter of the distance between Jerusalem and Emmaus, but also of the painful and gradual journey of words that must descend from the head to the heart; of a coming to faith, and a return to a proper relationship with the stranger who is none other than Jesus the Lord.

Eating and drinking with Jesus

The Gospel for the Third Sunday of Easter (Year B) is the continuation of the Emmaus story — how God always leads people into an experience of community and table fellowship (Luke 24:36-48). There are several aspects of the story — the appearance of Jesus among the startled and frightened disciples (verses 36-43) and the words about the fulfillment of Scripture and commissioning of the disciples (verses 44-48). Many elements that were present in the Emmaus story are made more explicit. The Lukan stories also represent the Risen Lord as the One who receives hospitality and food from the disciples. Only after the disciples have extended an invitation to the Stranger to remain with them is it possible for full recognition to take place. They were unable to fully recognize him on the road, but they did recognize him in the breaking of the bread.

Table fellowship reveals the depth of humanity. The touching, human scene of Jesus taking bread and fish and eating it with his disciples drives home the fact that ghosts don’t eat — humans do — and it reassures the disciples that the Risen Lord is truly in their midst. No theological or dogmatic assertion will prove this to them. Rather, the striking humanity of Jesus, at table, will finally convince them that he is alive.

In spite of the testimony from the women and the two travelers, the disciples still could not believe their eyes when Jesus appeared before them. Only Jesus could validate the experience and supply its proper understanding. Jesus would first prove their experience was no hoax. Like the appearance to Thomas in John’s Gospel, Jesus showed his wounds and challenged his followers to “touch” him. The experience of the Risen Lord was tactile. Jesus has substance, unlike a ghost. Unlike John 20, Jesus showed his followers his hands and feet (not his hands and side). Luke inferred that Jesus had been nailed in his feet.

Today’s passage also parallels John 21 with the subject of the cooked fish. In John 21:9-14, Jesus was cooking the fish. In Luke, the disciples gave Jesus the cooked fish to eat. If Luke 13:35-48 is combined with the narrative from the Road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35), both stories involved the breaking of bread (Luke 24:30, 35 and John 21:13). The most notable narratives with the blessing of bread and fish were the multiplication of the loaves and fishes (Mark 6:30-44, 8:1-9; Matthew 14.13-21, Matthew 15.32-39; Luke 9.10-17; John 6.1-14). A meal that featured fish and bread was common around the Sea of Galilee and in Jerusalem. Such meals were a regular part of life on the road with Jesus and his followers.

The real heart of the story, however, is not the meal but the quality of the appearance or vision. Jesus appeared as a living, solid form. The Holy and Divine could be found in the tangible. Holiness was not only a matter of ecstasy, touching the transcendent, while leaving the world behind. God reached his people through his creation, not in spite of it. This insight became the foundation of the Church’s self-awareness as the Body of Christ. It also grounded worship in the Church as sacramental. The believer encounters the Risen Christ through the bodily senses. His followers saw, touched, and heard the Risen One. We see, hear, and touch Christ today through the sacraments, through shared witness and service to others.

The Eucharist is a summary of Jesus’ life, a call to lay down one’s life for others. The breaking of bread is also a powerful sign of unity. When we break bread, it is a means of sharing in the body of Christ. Paul says, “Because there is one bread … we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (I Corinthians 10:16-17).

It is not only that the person sharing the cup and the broken bread establishes a union with Christ: A further union is established through the “partaking” of the same loaf — the union between all the members of the celebrating community. The unity expressed here is not just a matter of human conviviality; it is a gift given in the breaking of bread, a sharing in the body of Christ. The Eucharist makes the members of the body celebrate their oneness, a oneness experienced on three levels: one in Christ, one with each other, and one in service to the world.

The sacramental encounter of young people with Christ

Allow me to share a final thought with you about eating and drinking with Jesus.

During the synod on the Word of God, one of the memorable interventions was made by Salesian Father Pascual Chávez Villanueva, president of the Union of Superiors-General and Rector of the Salesian Society of St. John Bosco. Father Pascual, whose Salesian Congregation has a special charism for working with young people, offered the Emmaus story as model of bringing the Word of God closer to the world of youth. He drew our attention to the fact that young people today share very few things with the two disciples on the road but perhaps nothing as much as the frustration of their dreams, the fatigue in their faith and the disenchantment in discipleship.

“Young people need a Church that meets them there where they are. Arriving to Emmaus, the disciples still did not recognize the person of Jesus. What Jesus was unable to do in accompanying them, conversing with them, interpreting the Word of God, he accomplished with the Eucharistic gesture. An education in faith which forgets or postpones the sacramental encounter of young people with Christ, is not a secure, efficient way to find him.”

Those final words have remained with me. How do we teach young people the importance of the sacraments in their own lives? How do we provide opportunities for young people to encounter Christ? Do we not open the door to this importance and foster such encounters by beginning with simple table fellowship with young people?

It is often the very ordinary moments of table fellowship that bring about the realization that we are human, loving, loveable and genuinely interested in others, their tribulations, their hopes and their futures. Table fellowship does indeed reveal the depth of humanity, and the depth of compassion. It is a springboard to adult faith, and to a living encounter with the Risen Lord who wishes to share his own life with us each day. Stay with us, Lord!

[The readings for this Sunday are: Acts 3:13-15, 17-19; 1 John 2:1-5a; Luke 24:35-48.]

The Lessons we learned from Archbishop Fulton Sheen

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Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB
Catholic University of America – Washington, DC
April 13, 2015

The Fulton Sheen story is about a remarkable man whose life spans one of the most exciting periods in Church history, from an era characterized by growth, discipline, evangelism, self-confidence, and exclusivity, to the post-Vatican II period known for its change, excitement, hope, dissent, disillusionment, ecumenism, and openness to the modern world. Fulton Sheen was a first class theologian and philosopher and one of the American Church’s most prolific writers. Over a period of 54 years, he authored 64 books and published 65 booklets, pamphlets, magazine and newspaper articles, and printed radio and television talks. In the early 1950s, he wrote for two regular newspaper columns, God Love You and Bishop Sheen Writes (syndicated in the secular press and running for 30 years). He edited two magazines.

Fulton Sheen prayingWhen Sheen began his career on public television in February 1952, his Life Is Worth Living programs became wildly popular overnight, competing against shows starring Mr. Television, Milton Berle and Frank Sinatra. One television critic quipped, “Bishop Sheen can’t sing, can’t dance, and can’t act. All he is is sensational.” In his first year on television, Sheen won the Emmy for Most Outstanding Television Personality, beating out Lucille Ball, Arthur Godfrey, Edward R. Murrow, and Jimmy Durante. After the Emmy, he was featured on the covers of Time, TV Guide, Colliers, and Look. No Catholic bishop had burst on the world stage with such power as Sheen wielded since long before the Protestant Reformation. By early 1955, his programs were reaching 5.5 million households a week.

Archbishop Sheen taught us that faith cannot be relegated to the protective atmosphere of an isolated glasshouse. In today’s world a strong faith can only develop within the public square in a challenging debate and dialogue with the real world and with the concrete realities and experiences of the individuals and the interactions of individuals who make up society.

His critics were many – and nothing is quite like clerical and ecclesial jealousy! We learned from him that when faith becomes an ideology, it loses its true identity. When a particular form of faith becomes a dominant ideology, it can be transformed against itself, deceive itself and can easily explode into aggressive rejection, resulting in cynicism, hostility, or even worse – indifference. Fulton Sheen taught us that the Gospel is Good News and must always be presented with enthusiasm that is the inevitable characteristic of those who believe that they are bearers of good news.  The joy of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is never alien to the world of any time.

Fulton Sheen TIMESheen was frequently outspoken and often stirred controversy with his strong statements on communism, socialism, the Spanish Civil War, World War II diplomacy, psychiatry, secularism, education, and the left in general. He defied efforts to place him on the political left or right. He was equally critical of capitalists, irresponsible labor union leaders, and idealistic advocates of the welfare state. He supported reform, eager to help create a world rid of inequality, insensitivity, hatred, crime, and corruption. In 1967, he fell under attack from the right by opposing the Vietnam War. He was the first American bishop to attempt to implement in an Upstate New York diocese the full teachings of the Second Vatican Council, producing severe criticism from conservatives. He called those years “his exile.” I was part of his exilic period as a young boy in grade school from 1966-1969 in my home diocese of Rochester, New York!

“Catholic journalism” – and “Catholic Media” are not conformism but must also be able to capture in writing, style and creative presentation the real identity of the Church.  Catholic journalists, Catholic communicators and the Catholic press must constantly come up with new forms of expression and communications, able to tell the ancient story in fresh, new and enticing ways. This requires a genuine ecclesial sense and an awareness of the “sensus fidelium.”

More than anything, Fulton Sheen taught us that a Church which retreats from the world and from the culture that surrounds it will not be truly missionary. The Church must be in dialogue with the world in which it exists. This sense of dialogue with men and women of culture and of different understandings of life is something that distinguishes both Pope Benedict and Pope Francis.

Fulton SheenFulton Sheen was both a catechist and an evangelist. Not all catechists can evangelize and not all evangelists can catechize and teach! Sheen was able to do both! Our evangelization must be open to the people of our time and address the challenges they face in their search for truth and meaning. And once we have ignited or reignited the flame of faith, we must strive to teach others the Good News of Jesus and the Church. The great challenge before those of us involved in Catholic television, Catholic broadcasting, and communication of any form is that we preach to the gallery, communicate in an echo chamber, act like we are the only true elect of the Church, the only remaining faithful who have not lost their way! In such a mindset, the only way to deal with the world is to flee from it, and construct our broadcast platforms in inaccessible, remote places, to build hermetically sealed fortresses that keep the outside world outside! Communications becomes an internal affair, preaching to the restricted gallery of the saved, the clean and the pure. Fulton Sheen showed us another way. He went to the airwaves and big networks to share the message of Christ and the Church.

Just as Jesus bonded himself with the unclean, with sinners and those living on the fringes of society, so did Fulton Sheen with his vast array of friends, pen pals, media moguls, ordinary folks, and people from every walk of life. Jesus taught us that by “being with people” he also healed, restored, renewed and reconciled broken humanity. The stories of Sheen doing the same thing are legion.

The dominant word of the Petrine ministry of Pope Francis is la periferia: “the periphery”, “the outskirts”, “the frontiers”.   Pope Francis constantly calls the Church to boldly break out of herself and go towards the outskirts, not only the outskirts of place but also to the outskirts and the frontiers of our existence; those of the mystery of sin, of suffering, of ignorance; the outskirts of indifference, the frontiers of human wretchedness.  And he adds when the Church does not break out of herself in that way she becomes self-referential and so shuts herself in. “The evils which as time passes afflict ecclesial institutions are rooted in self-reference, a sort of theological narcissism”.

Fulton Sheen NBCSheen, like Pope Francis, had an amazing ability to find simple words to pose fundamental questions about the life of the Christian and of the Church. He continues to challenge us to become “the tender embrace of the Church” for all who are marginalized and on the fringes and on the frontiers of the society in which we live. Long before John Paul II invited us not to be afraid; before Benedict asked us to fall in love again with Jesus Christ, and Francis begged us not to be locked up in Catholic ghettos, Fulton Sheen was reaching out to the peripheries big time! May he continue to inspire us, teach us, guide us and intercede for us from his new broadcast platform in heaven.

Misericordias Domini in aeternum cantabo!

Quebec_Holy_Door

As Pope Francis formally launched today the Jubilee Year of Mercy, Cardinal Gérald Cyprien Lacroix of Quebec City explained the only Holy Door in North America to the world thanks to CNN.

Bravo, Eminence for being the voice, face and story of Quebec and Canada to the world!

See video here: http://cnn.it/1CFu6Iy

See second video here: http://cnn.it/1ynkhnQ

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Holy Door Quebec City

 

Cardinal Jean-Claude Turcotte, Merci!

Turcotte St. Andre Olympic Stadium

The death of Cardinal Jean-Claude Turcotte (1936-2015), Archbishop-emeritus of Montreal, fills our hearts with sadness at the loss of a good shepherd, a great friend and long-time supporter of Salt + Light. At the same time, his entrance into eternal life during the Easter octave is cause for rejoicing. I would like to think that the first to welcome him home was one of heaven’s gatekeepers, St. André Bessette, CSC, of Montreal. I am sure that Brother André then introduced the Cardinal to St. Joseph, then to the many saints and blesseds of Montreal and Quebec. Together they brought Jean-Claude to the Lord whom he served with much love and devotion as priest, bishop, archbishop and cardinal.

Cardinal Turcotte loved Brother André and imitated him in so many ways, especially in his care for the poor and those on the margins and peripheries of society. In one of the Cardinal’s most memorable homilies at the mass of thanksgiving for St. André in Montreal’s Olympic Stadium on October 30, 2010, he said:

“Brother André was convinced that God could use him to accomplish wonderful things. For many decades, people came to him as a worker of wonders. It never went to his head. In fact, he often said: “The world is silly if it thinks that Brother André is doing miracles. It is the good God who does the miracles. Saint Joseph obtains them.” And, following Saint Paul, he said, in reference to God, “An artist makes the most beautiful paintings with the smallest of brushes”.

This is not a small Saint that has been canonized, but a great, great one. This great saint—Brother André—is from our home. Among our parents and grandparents, or among the friends of our parents and grandparents, many knew him. He lived close to us on Mount Royal and said, “When I die, I’ll be much closer to the good God than I am now, I will have much more power to help you.”

Brother André…Saint Brother André, we pray to you, keep your promise. Pray for us: pray that we become women and men of attentiveness and compassion, women and men who love God with a great love because they know they are very loved by Him, women and men who, having become “disciples” of Jesus, become “meek and humble of heart” like Him and in Him find “rest”.”

Monsieur le Cardinal, today we speak those words about you and to you! Thank you for allowing the Lord to use you as his paintbrush all these years. The Lord used you to write words of compassion and mercy upon the canvas of your diocese and upon the Canadian Church. Your tall stature among us rallied the Canadian Church and our entire nation together at moments of great sadness, upheaval, confusion and uncertainty. Your calming, encouraging words gave hope to many people, especially to all who worked on World Youth Day 2002 and to each of us at Salt and Light Television. Thank you for believing in us. Though a Cardinal with great responsibilities at the universal level, you never lost the common touch with us ordinary folks. We say to you today: “Merci. Pray for us: pray that we become women and men of attentiveness and compassion, women and men who love God with a great love because they know they are very loved by Him, women and men who, having become “disciples” of Jesus, become “meek and humble of heart” like Him and in Him find “rest”.”

Merci beaucoup, Eminence. Rest in peace and please don’t forget us.

Cardinal Turcotte - Brother André

Watch Fr. Thomas Rosica speak on CBC regarding the passing of Cardinal Turcotte, Archbishop Emeritus of Montreal.

 

Witness interview: Carinal Turcotte (French)

Allowing the Presence of the Risen Jesus to Make a Difference

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Second Sunday of Easter, Divine Mercy Sunday, Year B – April 12, 2015

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 in today’s very familiar Gospel story that provides 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. It is evening, the first day of the week, and the doors were bolted shut. Anxious disciples are sealed inside. A suspicious, hostile world is forced tightly outside. Jesus is missing. Suddenly, the Risen One defies locked doors, blocked hearts, and distorted vision and simply appears. Jesus reaches out ever so gently to the broken and wounded Apostle. Thomas hesitatingly put his finger into the wounds of Jesus and love flowed out. How can you hear this story without thinking of Caravaggio’s magnificent painting of this scene?

Who is this Thomas? He, along with many of the other male disciples, stood before the cross, not comprehending. Thomas’ dreams were hanging on that cross and his hopes had been shattered. Over the years I have come to see Thomas as 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. I have never enjoyed being called “doubting Thomas” when I was growing up, simply because I liked to ask questions! I used to secretly hope that I was named after Aquinas, More, Becket or Villanova. But my mother insisted that it was the Apostle they chose for me!

Thomas’ struggle and ours

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.

The doubting Thomas within each of us must be touched. We are asked to respond to the wounds first within ourselves then in others. 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 trembling hand finally and hesitantly reaches out to the Lord in the community of faith. The words addressed to Thomas were given to us: “Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed!”

Long ago St. Gregory the Great said of Thomas the Apostle: “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.”

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.

Divine Mercy is not an option!

Over the past few years, I have listened to not a few liturgists and pastoral ministers complaining about the fact that this Sunday was given a new name by Saint John Paul II in the Jubilee Year 2000. Officially called the Second Sunday of Easter after the liturgical reform of Vatican II, now, by Decree of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, the name has been changed to: “Second Sunday of Easter, or Divine Mercy Sunday.”

Pope John Paul II made the surprise announcement of this change in his homily at the canonization of St. Maria Faustina Kowalska on April 30, 2000. On that day he declared: “It is important then that we accept the whole message that comes to us from the Word of God on this Second Sunday of Easter, which from now on throughout the Church, will be called ‘Divine Mercy Sunday.'”

What do the visions of a Polish nun have to do with Thomas the Apostle’s encounter with the Risen Lord? Do we have to ‘force’ a link between Divine Mercy and the Gospel story of Thomas and the Risen Jesus? The answer to the first question is: “Everything!” and to the second: “No!”

Clearly, the celebration of Divine Mercy Sunday does not compete with, nor endanger the integrity of the Easter Season, nor does it take away from Thomas’ awesome encounter with the Risen Lord. Divine Mercy Sunday is the Octave Day of Easter, celebrating the merciful love of God shining through the whole Easter Triduum and the whole Easter mystery.

The connection is more than evident from the scripture readings for this first Sunday after Easter. At St. Faustina’s canonization, Pope John Paul II said in his moving homily: “Jesus shows his hands and his side [to the Apostles]. He points, that is, to the wounds of the Passion, especially the wound in his heart, the source from which flows the great wave of mercy poured out on humanity.”

The Meaning of the Day

Divine Mercy Sunday is not a new feast established to celebrate St. Faustina’s revelations. In fact it is not about St. Faustina at all! Rather it recovers an ancient liturgical tradition, reflected in a teaching attributed to St. Augustine about the Easter Octave, which he called “the days of mercy and pardon,” and the Octave Day itself “the compendium of the days of mercy.”

The Vatican did not give the title of “Divine Mercy Sunday” to the Second Sunday of Easter merely as an “option,” for those dioceses who happen to like that sort of thing! This means that preaching on God’s mercy is not just an option for this Sunday. To fail to preach on God’s mercy this day would mean largely to ignore the prayers, readings and psalms appointed for that day, as well as the title “Divine Mercy Sunday” now given to that day in the Roman Missal.

Several years ago, when I, too, was finding difficulty in seeing the internal links between the Second Sunday of Easter, my patron saint, Thomas, and Sr. Faustina’s revelation for this day, I came across this wonderful quote by St. Bernard (Canticle 61, 4-5: PL 183, 1072):

“What I cannot obtain by myself, I appropriate (usurp!) with trust from the pierced side of the Lord, because he is full of mercy.

“My merit, therefore, is God’s mercy. I am certainly not poor in merits, as long as he is rich in mercy. If the mercies of the Lord are many (Psalm 119:156), I too will abound with merits. And what about my justice? O Lord, I will remember only your justice. In fact, it is also mine, because you are for me justice on the part of God.”

Then the light went on for me. From that moment onward, I no longer regret being named after this Thomas and not the others! Thomas’ encounter with the Risen Lord gave me a whole new perspective on the meaning of mercy.

And that has made all of the difference.

[The readings for the Second Sunday of Easter or Divine Mercy Sunday are: Acts 4:32-35; Psalm 118:2-4, 13-15, 22-24; 1 John 5:1-6; John 20:19-31]

Easter Video Reflection: How shall we find words for the Resurrection?

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How shall we find words for the Resurrection? How can we give expression to the conquest of death and the harrowing of hell and the washing which has joined us to God’s life? There are no words – there are only the wrong words – metaphors, chains of images, verbal icons – that invite us into a mystery beyond words. Jesus’ victory over death belongs to the Church’s ongoing pastoral and sacramental life and its mission to the world. The Church is the community of those who have the competence to recognize Jesus as the Risen Lord. It specializes in discerning the Risen One. As long as we remain in dialogue with Jesus, our darkness will give way to dawn, and we will become “competent” for witness. In an age that places so much weight on competency, we would do well to focus every now and then on our competence to discern Resurrection.

The Silence and Courage of the Resurrection Witnesses

Resurrection Women cropped

Easter Sunday – Sunday, April 5, 2015

Easter is the promise that death will visit each of us. But more important, it is the assurance that death is not the last word. The Resurrection of Jesus prompts us to recall, from the darkest moments of grief to life’s smallest trials, how much God comforts us and gives us the strength to persevere. The Easter mysteries give us a new identity and a new name: we are saved, redeemed, renewed; we are Christian, and we have no more need for fear or despair.

Through the powerful Scripture readings of the Triduum, and especially the Gospels of the Easter Vigil and Easter morning, we catch glimpses of just what resurrection means. How can we give expression to the conquest of death and the harrowing of hell? We must honestly admit to ourselves that there are no words. Therefore we turn to the experiences of the women at the tomb in Mark’s Resurrection account and to Mary Magdalene, witness of the Risen Lord, to find images and words to describe what has happened.

The Silence of the Women

Mark’s Gospel text for the Easter Vigil [16:1-8] leaves us more than perplexed. We read that after discovering Jesus’ tomb to be open and empty and hearing the angelic message about the resurrection and a future meeting with him in Galilee, the women “went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Is it possible that Mark’s Gospel can really end with 16:8? Early Christian editors, puzzled by such a shocking ending, supplied two more conventional endings for the Gospel; the longer of these is printed in most bibles as Mark 16:9-20. Nevertheless, the question lingers: What can we say about a resurrection story in which the risen Jesus, himself never appears? How could Mark differ so much from Luke’s masterful resurrection chapter [24] or John’s highly developed portraits of the first witnesses of the resurrection [20-21]?

Rather than dismiss the strangeness of Mark’s ending, let us reflect carefully on what Mark’s Gospel offers us. First of all, we never see the Risen Jesus, himself. We are offered instead a rather haunting scene. It early morning, still dark, and the women arrive at the tomb for a near impossible task. The tomb is already opened and they are greeted by someone from heaven who commissions them: “Go and tell his disciples and Peter that he goes before you into Galilee; there you will see him as he told you.” [16:7]

The fear and trembling that accompanies the women prevents them from telling anyone about what they have seen. Of what are they afraid? By remaining silent, are they disobeying the message of the angel to “Go and tell…?” What are we to make of the silence of the women?

Mark’s resurrection story contains an initial declaration and summary statement of all of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel: “Do not be alarmed!” [16:6]. The reader is told to abandon every fear. Second, the reader is told: “you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him” [16:6].

The crucifixion of the Lord Jesus was not the final, definitive moment of his life. As Christians, our faith is not placed in a crucified, dead man, nor in an empty tomb, but in a risen, living Lord who lives among us with a whole new type of presence. “He is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you” [16:7]. The message of the resurrection in Mark’s Gospel is given to us. The event is simply too great to be presented with meager words!

Mark’s resurrection account is constructed to unsettle us–to undo the ease that makes us forget that the call to discipleship is the call to the cross.  Throughout the entire Gospel, we are invited to view our lives in the shadow of the cross.

The women go to the tomb, drawn unconsciously by the powerful and enticing mystery of God about to be revealed to them. They flee from the tomb [16:8] shocked by the awesome message of Jesus’ resurrection. Faced with this rather incredible news of the resurrection of the crucified Jesus, the silent and fearful flight of the women is not only understandable but also highly appropriate.

Is it not also the same for you and for me? When faced with the awesome power of God at work in our lives, raising those dead parts back to life and restoring our dashed hopes and crushed spirits, a response of silence and fear, wonder and awe, is also understandable and at times appropriate –even for us.

The Witness of Mary Magdalene

Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany (sister of Martha and Lazarus), and the unnamed penitent woman who anointed Jesus’ feet (Luke 7:36-48) are sometimes understood to be the same woman. From this, plus the statement that Jesus had cast seven demons out of Mary Magdalene (Luke 8:2), has risen the tradition that Mary Magdalene had been a prostitute before she met Jesus. 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, ministered to him, and who, according to each of the evangelists, was present at His crucifixion and burial, and went to the tomb on Easter Sunday to anoint His body.

Jesus lived in an androcentric society. Women were property, first of their fathers, then of their husbands; they did not have the right to testify; they could not study the Torah. In this restricting atmosphere, Jesus acted without animosity, accepting women, honoring them, respecting them, and treasuring their friendship. He journeyed with them, touched and cured them, loved them and allowed them to love him.

In our Easter Sunday Gospel [John 20 :1-18], we peer once again into the early morning scene of sadness as Mary Magdalene weeps uncontrollably at the grave of her friend, Jesus. We hear anew their conversation: “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, “Rabbouni!” (which means, 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. (John 20:15-18)

Because of her incredible message and mission, 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 no secret code about this story, which is still astonishingly good news more than 2,000 years later. Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!

[The readings for Easter Sunday are: Acts 10:34a, 37-43; Colossians 3:1-4 or 1 Corinthians 5:6b-8; John 20:1-9 or Mark 16:1-7 or Luke 24:13-35]

(Image: “Holy Women at the Tomb” by William-Adolphe Bourgeureau)