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Deacon-structing: #ThankANun

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When I was a kid, growing up in Panama, quite often, our parents would take us to the Convent of the Visitation to visit with (no pun intended) the sisters. The Order of the Visitation of Holy Mary was founded by St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane Frances de Chantal in France in 1610 to help care for the sick and poor of the community. The order was named after Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth, from the first chapter in the Gospel of Luke. They have a special devotion and love for the Sacred Heart of  Jesus and the order has been in Panama since 1925. Of course, as a child, I didn’t know any of this. All I knew was the joy that these women radiated. That and the goodies that we always received from their bakery!

We also knew the story: Once when my grandparents were travelling out of the country and my mother, already a young professional, was home alone, she began going to the nearby convent and befriended the sisters. On many occasions she would spend the night there so as to not be home alone. Thus began a lifelong friendship that continued after my parents’ marriage. In fact, although the sisters are cloistered, on many occasions my dad was allowed behind the cloister, so as to help the sisters with an electrical or plumbing issue. (I was very much reminded of this, when I was allowed behind a Carmelite cloister for 12 hours when making A Day in a Life: The Carmel of St. Joseph.)

When I think of nuns I always think of these sisters and in particular Sr. Maria Celina, who was about 4ft tall and always came to open the gate for us and Sr. Margarita Ines, who was Mother Superior. Since then, I have met many religious sisters – interviewed many of them and have been invited to dinner by many  more – have come across many different congregations and have worked with many sisters (too many to name here, but you know who you are: I love you!) and so I am very excited about a new initiative called #ThankANun, to take place on May 5th.

I learned about #ThankANun from John Schlimm, author of Five Years in Heaven: The Unlikely Friendship that Answered Life’s Greatest Questions (Image, May 5, 2015). I recently interviewed John for our radio program, the SLHour. He told me that “Thank a Nun Day” is an organized social media effort that invites participants of all ages from around the world to unite under the hashtag #ThankANun to share messages of gratitude to the Catholic nuns—past and present—who have made a difference in their lives. The effort to celebrate the service and contribution of Catholic nuns is being jointly sponsored by Image, the Catholic division of Penguin Random House, and John Schlimm.

In Five Years in Heaven, John Schlimm recounts the heartwarming story of his five-year friendship with Sister Augustine, who was in her nineties and who helped him discover the true meaning and purpose of his life.“For as long as I live, Sister Augustine will be one of the most extraordinary people I’ll ever know,” John said. “For me, she was a light in the darkness. A mentor. A friend. I know many others feel the same way about the special nuns who have passed through their lives as well.”All day, on May 5, we are encouraged to use the hashtag #ThankANun in sharing written messages and photos on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest as a way to say “Thank You” to the Catholic Sisters who have dedicated their lives to serving, encouraging and inspiring others.There are several ways to participate in Thank A Nun Day:

  •  Join Thunderclap:  Link
  • Check out the fun COLOR A NUN activity for kids to share. Go to http://www.imagecatholicbooks.com/ThankANun/ to download a “Color A Nun” picture. Once you’ve coloured it remember to share your finished COLOR A NUN page on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest using #ThankANun.
  • Start sharing now! Follow @saltandlighttv, @ImageCatholic and @JohnSchlimm on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and/or Pinterest, and start sharing your pictures and stories about Catholic nuns who have inspired you!
  • Be sure to use the hashtag #ThankANun
  • If the religious congregation has a Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or Pinterest account be sure to tag them.

And don’t forget to send a direct message or make a phone call to those Sisters who’ve made a difference in your life. Tell them how much you are grateful for the tireless and thankless work that they do and for saying yes to the vocation of religious life. This is something we should be doing all the time, not just once a year, but perhaps we can all contribute to make sure that nuns are trending on May 5 and that #ThankANun becomes a yearly event.

PedroGM1Every week, Deacon Pedro takes apart a particular topic, not so much to explore or explain the subject to its fullness, but rather to provide insights that will deepen our understanding of the subject. And don’t worry, at the end of the day he always puts the pieces back together. There are no limits to deaconstructing: Write to him and ask any questions about the faith or Church teaching: pedro@saltandlighttv.org @deaconpedrogm

Deacon-structing the Voice

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In the Gospel of John, Chapter 10, Jesus tells the disciples that he is the Good Shepherd and he says that he leads the sheep and they hear his voice. He also says that He knows his sheep and his sheep know him. In Chapter 14: 23, the Gospel of John tells us that Jesus says that those who “love me will keep my word.” And so I’ve been thinking about what it means to “know” Jesus and what it means to keep his word. This is the Jesus who can be known. That’s why in all the resurrection stories, it’s very clear that Jesus is not a ghost (Luke 24:39), but he is flesh and bones and he eats (Luke 24:41-42; John 21:9). He is alive and He is real. He can be known.

But I can’t help but think that there is a connection between knowing Jesus, keeping his word and hearing his voice.

But Jesus’ voice is but one voice among many: the voice of pleasure and the voice of power; the voices of pride and despair, of fear and doubt. How do we know the voice of Christ? We listen. That’s it. We have to make quiet time for listening so we can tune in to the voice of Jesus. If our prayer time is consumed with speaking: thanksgiving prayers and petition prayers and asking for forgiveness and offering praise – all the while listening to praise and worship music – then it’s a bit one-sided. We have to be quiet – silent – so we can listen. We need to start this today. Set aside quiet time each day. Be silent and listen.

And when you do, how do you know you’re listening to the voice of Jesus so that you can know him? How do we discern His voice among all the voices in the world? And how do we recognize his voice when it’s about something that Jesus didn’t speak about? It’s easy to keep His word when it’s about something that Jesus spoke about, but how do we keep His word about stuff that Jesus never spoke about? How can you “know” him if it’s not in Scripture?

Let me make a proposal: The voice of Jesus is the voice of the Church. Or rather, the voice of the Church is the voice of Jesus. Jesus gives His voice to the Church. He gives His voice to the apostles; He gives them His authority and that’s the way it’s been from the beginning of Christianity.

It was happening right in Book of Acts. In Acts 15:1—29 we have the disciples doing what Jesus asked them to do: They are keeping His word. They are going to the ends of the earth making disciples. And Paul and Barnabas are disciple-making machines. And most of their converts are gentiles: people of non-Jewish background. But what happens? They’re in Antioch and to Antioch comes a group of Jewish-Christians (converts from Judaism; called the Judaizers) and they tell the gentile-Christians that in order for them to be Christian, they have to follow the Law of Moses: all the Jewish Levitical laws.

Remember the Jewish people had strict laws about what they could eat and not eat, about washing about rituals and sacrifice and other things. And the main issue was the issue of circumcision. They said that in order to be saved, you had to be circumcised. Now, Jesus never spoke about this, but Paul and Barnabas are pretty sure that this teaching is wrong. But is it up to Paul and Barnabas to make this decision? No – they are not the Church leadership. They are important – but they are not the Church leadership.

So they take the matter to Jerusalem, to the Church leadership, the Apostles. And we have the first Church council. We call it the Council of Jerusalem. And ever since then, when the Church encounters a matter that needs to be defined or clarified, they gather in a council in order to define doctrine or teaching. We heard of the Council of Trent and the Council of Chalcedon and the two Vatican Councils. Well, in the Book of Acts we have the first Council in Jerusalem. They had a problem that had to be solved; a teaching that had to be defined. And it’s something that Jesus never spoke about: Circumcision. Jesus never spoke about what Gentiles should or shouldn’t do if they became Christians. So the Apostles and Church leaders gather and make a decision. And we know that they decide that you do not have to be Jewish, in order to be a Christian.

How do they decide? With the Holy Spirit. The letter they send back to Antioch says, “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and us…” It doesn’t say they decided under the guidance of the Holy Spirit or that the Holy Spirit inspired them to decide… no: They decided together with the Holy Spirit. And that’s the way the Church has been since then. Together with the Holy Spirit, doctrine can be defined because the Church speaks with the authority and the voice of Jesus.

Back in the Gospel of John, Jesus says to the Apostles: “The Father will send you the Holy Spirit in my name and He will teach you everything and will remind you of everything that I have spoken.” (John 14:25-26) What does that mean? It means that of the things Jesus spoke about, the Spirit will remind us; but of the things Jesus didn’t speak about, the Spirit will teach us. So we are guaranteed that the Church leadership will always, together with the Holy Spirit speak with the authority and voice of Christ, whenever they speak as a whole. Jesus does not give His Spirit to 12 individual people; He gives His Spirit to them as Church and so it’s not whatever an individual Bishop says, but when the Bishops and the Holy Father speak as the College of Bishops or in the context of a Ecumenical Council.

Church leadership is important and it’s always been this way. The Book of Revelation (21:10-23) presents us with a beautiful and immense city: The New Jerusalem. And many scholars agree that when the Book of Revelation speaks of the New Jerusalem, it refers to the Church. See what this city looks like: It has a wall with 12 gates and over each gate are written the names of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. That’s where we came from. That’s our heritage – the old Jerusalem, the first Covenant. But the foundation – there are 12 foundations and over each foundation are written the names of the 12 apostles. Jesus said to Peter, you are a rock and on this rock I will build my Church. The foundation of the Church is the 12 apostles and it’s always been that way – and that foundation continues today with the successor of the Apostles, the Bishops and our Holy Father, Pope Francis.

So, if we want to know Jesus and keep his word we have to listen to the Church. If we do we will keep His word and the Father will come to us and the Father, Son and Spirit will come to us and make their home with us (John 14:23).

PedroGM1Every week, Deacon Pedro takes apart a particular topic, not so much  to explore or explain the subject to its fullness, but rather to provide insights that will deepen our understanding of the subject. And don’t worry, at the end of the day he always puts the pieces back together. There are no limits to deaconstructing: Write to him and ask any questions about the faith or Church teaching: pedro@saltandlighttv.org @deaconpedrogm

Deacon-structing New Life: Waste Management

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On Easter Sunday I wrote that it’s not hard to find physical signs of new life and resurrection everywhere we look. In fact, I would say that one of the arguments for life after death and even for the divine life is the fact that there are physical signs everywhere. Whether it’s a seed that dies in order to bear fruit, winter melting into spring or people overcoming challenges in order to do great good, resurrection is all around us. In fact, I am reminded of new life, once a week, when I take my recycling and composting bins out to the curb.

Recently, as part of our Creation series pre-production, I was corresponding with Robert Reed, Public Relations Manager at San Francisco’s Recology. Almost immediately I received a response from Fr. Bob Reed at Catholic TV  in Boston. Fr. Bob wrote, “Nice to hear from you Deacon Pedro, but I think this email was intended for someone else.” I responded right away to apologize: “Fr. Bob, what a nice opportunity to hear from you. Did you know that you have a “brother” with the same name that works in waste management in San Francisco?” Fr. Bob responded: “What a coincidence! I am in waste management too – the spiritual kind.” And so began my journey into the world of waste management.

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In California we went to The San Francisco Department of the Environment or SF Environment. They are the municipal department dedicated to creating policies and programs that promote social equity, protect human health, and lead the way toward a sustainable future. They have green building, toxics reduction and clean transportation programs, programs to do with climate change, energy, urban agriculture and environmental justice, as well as a zero waste program.

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It was the Zero Waste program that we were interested in. Jack Macy, who is in charge of the program told me that the goal is zero waste by 2020, which means that nothing goes to landfills or incinerators; everything is either composted or recycled. If you can’t compost or recycle it, you can’t purchase it.

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Part of the waste problem is that we don’t see it. When you arrive at SF Environment, the first thing you see is an 8 ft pile of clothing. The caption reads, “Every 7 minutes San Franciscans thrown 560 pounds of textiles into landfill – the equivalent of this 8-foot tower or textiles.” According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in 2012, Americans generated about 251 million tons of waste. Of this material, only 87 million tons was either recycled or composted. That’s only 34.5%. That means that, on average, Americans recycled and composted 1.51 pounds of our individual waste generation of 4.38 (2kgs) pounds per person per day. According to Environment Canada, the average Canadian produces 1.8 kilograms (4lbs.) of waste per day!

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Today in San Francisco, they are able to compost or recycle 90% of people’s waste. That means that mostly everything, construction debris, rubber, metals, batteries, empty paint containers, textiles, shoes, electronics, light bulbs, furniture and household appliances can be recycled, and food scraps, organic waste, soiled paper products, and yard waste can be composted.

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Robert Reed (from Recology, not the priest) took us to one of their Recycling Facilities. The plant at Pier 96 receives paper, cardboard, plastics and glass. Robert explained how recycling saves resources like water. By recycling glass, we achieve 50% in water savings. By recycling paper, we help paper mills reduce their water use by up to 60%. Recycling also reduces energy use. Recycling newsprint, for example, results in an almost 40% reduction in total energy demand. Recycled aluminum provides a 94% reduction in energy use compared with making aluminum from virgin ore. Recycling also keeps materials out of landfills and incinerators. Recycling also avoids pollution. More importantly, recycling means that industries reduce their need to extract more timber, crude oil and ores. By reducing extraction from natural resources we help protect natural habitats and biodiversity. This also helps reduce pollution.

Lastly, as we saw at the Pier 96 plant, recycling creates 10 times more jobs than landfilling or incineration.

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Robert Reed then took us to a compost facility. This used to be a landfill. Basically, when waste goes into a landfill, it is sealed so that toxic substances cannot leak into the soil. Because there is no oxygen, the waste does not biodegrade. If you have the choice of throwing out organic waste or paper into the garbage or in your green bin – consider that what goes in the garbage, if it ends up in a landfill, will not biodegrade. Sr. Damien-Marie Savino, fse, who is a doctor in environmental engineering and chair of the Environmental Science and Studies department at the University of St. Thomas – Houston (and who is working closely with us on Creation), remembers her early days as a student, doing research at a landfill in Puerto Rico. She says that when they uncovered the waste, it was like a time capsule. She was able to find newspapers from the 1920s that had not decomposed. She was able to read them!

On top of that, when organic waste is compressed into a landfill without oxygen, methane gas is produced. Robert Reed told us that more carbon pollution results from this methane gas than from the carbon produced by vehicles on the road. Landfills are not a good idea. Jack Macy at SF Environment commented that in nature there is no waste; everything is used. Robert Reed would agree. This is what composting does; what God intended.

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Compost improves soil health and protects topsoil from erosion. Compost promotes healthy microbial activity in soil, providing micronutrients to plant roots, and discouraging soil diseases. Composting returns nutrients to farms so they can grow healthy fruits and vegetables. As opposed to landfills which are producing methane gas, compost sequesters carbon deep in the soil. This means that carbon that is produced by fossil fuel emissions can be recaptured into the soil (where it belongs). Lastly, compost is a great alternative to chemical fertilizers and a more healthy way to grow food.  Composting is a very good idea.

Which led me back to Robert Reed, the priest. One of the things I’ve learned from Sr. Savino is that the soil is an analogy for the soul: When the soul is far from God, we see the effects in the soil, in the land. You can see this consistently in the story of the Jewish people in the Old Testament. It is not a coincidence that God is described as a Gardener or that man was created in a garden – or that man was created out of dirt.

I don’t mean, however, that if celebrating the Sacrament of Reconciliation is spiritual waste management, that we should be recycling or composting our “waste”. Rather, what happens at Reconciliation, as with all the Sacraments is a transformation. God takes what we have – and sometimes that is “waste” – and transforms it. He takes our sinfulness and transforms it. We lay our difficulties, our challenges, all our doubts, fears and insecurities – those things that can often lead us to sin – and lay them at the foot of the Cross. Christ takes them and transforms them. That’s recycling and composting: taking what God has given us, that we have changed and misused, that we have damaged, and giving it back to Him so He can restore it.

That’s exactly what happens in many of the Resurrection stories. Whether it’s Jesus pushing his way into the locked upper room, either according to John or to Luke, to find the disciples huddled in fear, or whether it’s Jesus joining two distraught disciples on their walk to Emmaus, or speaking Mary Magdalene’s name at the garden (another garden), or calling to them from the beach as when they had gone back to fishing, Jesus always brings us peace. That’s why the first thing he says to the disciples is “shalom”. He forgives them by giving them peace. Then he stays with them and by his presence and by simple mundane things like eating with them, he transforms them, “opening up their minds” so they can understand the Scriptures.

Jesus does the same for us. Always. We in turn, must also always give life to others and to all creation. Maybe it starts with a simple mundane act like taking your green bin or recycling to the curb.

Want to find out more about what the Church has to say about recycling and composting? Keep your ears and eyes open for our new six-part series Creation, coming to you at the end of the year.

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Deacon-structing Unbelief

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Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe

I don’t know about you, but when I imagine the scene from John 20:19-31, I don’t think Jesus is giving St. Thomas a hard time. I think he’s encouraging him, consoling him.

Think about it: Your friend, the man you loved, your teacher, has just been arrested, tortured and killed. This just happened. Today is Sunday. He was arrested on Thursday, killed on Friday. It just happened. You’re devastated. On top of that, you’re terrified because the people who killed him will probably come and kill you next.

The Gospel tells us that the disciples were hiding with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish authorities. They were terrified. So, you’re devastated, sad, and terrified, and on top of that, this guy who you thought was the Messiah, the Christ – you staked your life on that – turns out that he wasn’t. He’s dead. You left everything to follow him and now what? You just wasted the last three years of your life. How are you going to go back home now? What are you going to tell your wife and family? You feel like an idiot, like a loser, like you’ve been taken in. Imagine the shame. And now these women (women were not considered credible witnesses at the time) say that the tomb is open and the body is gone. They’ve stolen his body…

That’s not un-belief or cynicism. That’s reality. All of us would come to the same conclusion. There’s nothing wrong with Thomas not believing. In fact, none of the disciples believed without seeing.

In the Gospel of Matthew, it says that even after they had seen Jesus (Mt.28:17), some worshiped him but some doubted. After they had seen him; they doubted. In the Gospel of Mark it says that no one believed Mary Magdalene when she said she had seen Jesus. They would not believe it (Mk 16:11). When Jesus appears to them he “upbraids them for their lack of faith and stubbornness” (Mk. 16:14). In the Gospel of Luke; same thing: The women say they saw angels and that Jesus is alive. But “to the disciples this seemed like an idle tale and they did not believe them” (Lk 24:11). Then it says that Peter got up and went to the tomb and it doesn’t say that he believed. It only says that he was amazed (Lk 24:12). Did he believe? I don’t know but when Jesus appears to them they thought they were seeing a ghost. Jesus says, “Why are you frightened and why do doubts arise in your hearts? (Lk. 24:37). And in John’s Gospel, Peter and John (or the beloved disciple) run to the tomb and it says that John “saw and believed” (Jn. 20:8). It doesn’t say that Peter believed. Then it adds that they “did not yet understand”.

You know what? None of them believed without seeing.  Why do we pick on poor Thomas for not believing? He was just like everyone else. They saw and touched and then believed. Maybe there’s nothing wrong with wanting to understand.

While working on our Creation series, I was at a faith and science event at the University of St. Thomas in Houston (named after the famous unbeliever) a few years ago and I was speaking to a physicist and astronomer who works with the Hubble Telescope. He’s a Catholic and he said that he believed in the resurrection because of evidence. Evidence? Really? What evidence? He said that we had the evidence of the first-hand testimony of credible witnesses.

And if you think about it, it makes perfect sense. When there is a trial – we watch them on Law and Order all the time– if there’s been a murder, for example, there’s physical evidence: DNA evidence or the murder weapon. Then there’s circumstantial evidence; evidence that we can deduce by logic, motive; and then there are witnesses. If someone actually witnessed the crime, “I saw the man pull the trigger; and it’s that man sitting right there,” that’s considered evidence. And then it’s up to the defense and the Crown or District attorneys to show whether these witnesses are credible or not.

Well, we have the credible first-hand testimony of witnesses to the resurrection. The Book of Acts tells us the disciples were looked upon with high esteem and they were baptising new Christians by the thousands (Acts 5:12-16). Why? ‘Cause they were authentic, credible witnesses. And what was their testimony? “This man was dead, and now he’s alive.” That was the first confession of our Faith. Today’s first reading (2nd Sunday, Easter, Cycle B: Acts 4:32-35) says that “with great power the apostles bore witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus and great favour was accorded them all.”

In fact, if you read the Book of Acts, every time someone is professing the Faith, that’s what they say, “Jesus was dead, he died, he was crucified; and God raised him from the dead; He is alive.” It was only later that the longer creed was developed. All the early professions of Faith were simply that.

And we profess that at every Mass too: Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again. In fact, it’s called the Profession of Faith. The priest says, “The mystery of Faith” and we all respond, “We proclaim your death, oh Lord and profess your resurrection, until you come again.” That’s the earliest profession of Faith.

I started  thinking about this after Pope Francis’ first homily. It was very short – he spoke about three words: walking, building and confessing – a whole theology of life right there in those three words: walking, building and confessing. And I started thinking about “confessing.” What does that mean? What does it mean to confess our faith? Most of us are OK with learning about our Faith, living our Faith, and even sharing our Faith – but do we confess our Faith? Do we profess that Jesus was dead and now he’s alive? We’re ok professing it at Mass, but do we profess it when we leave the church building?

We can make that profession of Faith because we have evidence. We have witnesses like Thomas. So why does it sound like Jesus is giving Thomas a hard time for not believing? “Blessed are those who have not seen, and still believe.” It’s because that statement is not for Thomas. It’s for us. It’s for all the people who were reading the Gospel when it was first written. Remember that the Gospel of John was written about 70 years after the resurrection. All the first-hand witnesses had already died. And the early Christians were persecuted. The gospels were written to encourage them, to give them hope. That’s why John’s gospel has Jesus giving them peace. In other Gospels he says, “Don’t be afraid.”?

That message is for us today: If you’re afraid, if you’re struggling with doubt, have peace, don’t be afraid. Jesus is alive. He has triumphed over death. Have faith. In today’s second reading from 1 John 5:1-6, we hear that “the victory that conquers the world is our faith.”

And it is not a blind faith.  There’s a saying that says that Faith isn’t believing that God can do something; it’s knowing that He will. There’s a certainty in Faith. And it’s a certainty based on trust.

 This may seem a bit strange to you because we’re always hearing about how Faith has to be blind or that we have to believe without seeing, but think about it, we actually live by this kind of Faith every day. Do you believe that there is a $1000 bill? Have you ever seen one? Do you believe that there are black holes in space? Do you believe that there is dark matter? Do you believe that pi is 3.14159? Do you believe that climate change is a problem, or that it isn’t a problem? If you trust the news source, you’re going to believe the news. We do this all the time: we believe in things that people that we trust tell us.

Do we believe that the Church is a credible witness? Do we have a relationship with the Church that shows us that the Church is a credible witness, so we can believe everything that the Church teaches: That Jesus is present in the Eucharist; that Mary was conceived without original sin; that our sins are forgiven at Confession; that Marriage is a free, faithful, fruitful, total covenantal union between one man and one woman? Do we believe that the Church is a credible witness, or do we need physical evidence?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that: “Believing is not contrary to human freedom nor to human reason” (n. 154). And Pope Benedict in the document that kicked-off the Year of Faith, Porta Fidei, says that we have to understand Faith. If we can understand Faith, it means that it can’t be completely blind.

Thomas and the disciples believe because they saw and touched. The apostle John says, “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands” (1 Jn. 1:1). Thomas believed that Jesus was alive because he saw and touched him. The disciples saw and believed so that you and I can believe without seeing.

But Thomas is blessed for believing something without seeing: When he sees Jesus, he says, “My Lord and my God.” This is the only time in all of Scripture that someone calls Jesus God. He can see Jesus and so believes in the resurrection, but he cannot see God, but still, he believes that Jesus is God. And that’s his confession of Faith.

Do you know that at Mass during the Consecration when the priest raises the host and the chalice and says, “Do this in memory of me,” we should respond with the words of Thomas, “My Lord and my God”? In fact, at that moment, the priest genuflects and he says that silent prayer, “My Lord and my God.” And that’s also the appropriate response for us. And it doesn’t have to be quiet. I don’t know if you learned to do this, but if not, starting today at Mass, this is what you should respond, “My Lord and my God.” And today when you go to Mass do something else: When you receive the Eucharist, when you drink from the Cup, make your confession of Faith. Respond with the words of Thomas, “My Lord and my God.” Make that your profession of Faith, so that we can go out there and be credible witnesses so that others can come to believe too.

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Photo: Dylan Martinez/CNS

 

Deacon-structing New Life

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It is not hard to find images of new life everywhere to highlight the joy and Good News of Easter – especially in this part of the world in at springtime! (Maybe these bunnies are a bit too much, but you get my point – and they are cute.)

But recently, I’ve been doing quite a bit of traveling that has also been a constant reminder to me that our world- our fallen world, with all its suffering and brokenness- is full of life and that life is being made new all the time.

And so, this week, and for the next couple of weeks, let me “deacon-struct” new life: not to “take it apart”, but to reflect on that gift that has been granted to all humans: the gift to begin again.

One of my favourite canticles from Scripture is commonly known as the Canticle of the Three Youths or the Canticle of Daniel. It is, according to Daniel 3:57-88, 56, one of the “songs” sung by the three young men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (Ananias, Azarias, Mishael) as they were in the furnace that King Nebuchadnezzar had thrown them in. It is a beautiful song of praise to God: “Bless the Lord, all you works of the Lord – praise and exult him above all forever!” The canticle names all the creatures who praise the Lord: “angels of Lord, sun and moon, stars of heaven, shower and dew, ice and snow, nights and days, lightning and clouds, mountains, hills, seas and rivers, beasts wild and tame; all creation bless the Lord, praise and exult his name above all forever!”

This Canticle is sung with Morning Prayer at every Solemnity and so we are praying it daily throughout the Easter Octave. I have been praying it in a special way since we began working on Creation, a six-part series that will look at the Church’s Ecological teachings. Filming for Creation has taken us all over North America and we have seen “all creatures” and we have also seen “all creatures bless the Lord.”

Many of the stories we are telling in Creation are stories that show how we must care for God’s Creation. Sometimes our care for Creation is not what it should be; we are not the stewards or caretakers that God intended us to be from the beginning. When we don’t respect Creation or don’t live in the balance between the Natural and the Human Ecology, it sometimes leads to death. That is part of the fallen-ness of Creation. But when we do respect Creation, when we live in the balance and harmony, it is very much life-giving.

And that is the Good News of Easter.

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One place that we visited which is full of new life is the Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Clearwater, FL. It is a fascinating place.

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You may have heard about CMA since this is the place where both Dolphin Tale films were made. The films tell the story of Winter and Hope, two dolphins who were orphaned at a very young age and the stories are based on this facility. In fact, Winter and Hope are real dolphins who still live at CMA.

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Clearwater Marine Aquarium is not a typical aquarium. You will not find a “dolphin show” here. CMA is primarily a rehab hospital for animals. Animals are rescued and brought here for rehabilitation and hopeful release back into the wild. In some cases, if the animal is not able to survive in the wild, they are able to stay at CMA or are taken to live at another facility that can care for them.

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CMA is also an educational institution. Every day hundreds of children come through the facility – many school groups come too. During a visit, you may have the opportunity to watch while they do surgery. When we were there they were working on a turtle.

Winter

Winter is the protagonist of both films. “Dolphin Tale” is the story of how she lost her tail and survived against all odds. This story is the one that has made CMA famous. It is also a story that has moved so many people. It is truly a story of new life – not just because of how Winter survived against all odds, but because of what she is now giving back to all who come to see her. Daily, people with various disabilities and challenges, war veterans and amputees, come to see her and are inspired by her will to live and to help give meaning to others.

Hope

There are three resident dolphins at CMA. Hope is another dolphin who was found when she was very young. Here she is being fed after a training exercise. Hope was introduced in Dolphin Tale 2.

Nicholas

Nicholas is the only male of the three dolphins. Young people can come to CMA to be “trainers for the day” and learn all about the animals, how to train them and how to care for them. You can see the white blotches on Nicholas’ back. It is damage from sun exposure from when they found him as a baby.

Abby and Winter

Senior Trainer Abby Stone works with Winter at Clearwater Marine Aquarium. When we interviewed Abby she said that she believes Winter knows that she is helping people. You see, Winter does not have a tail and so in order to swim as most dolphins she requires a prosthetic tail. She wears her prosthetic tail about 30 minutes every day for therapy purposes only. We had the chance to watch as Abby worked with Winter and her “tail”.

Being at CMA was truly inspiring. Despite the secular environment, I was brought very deeply into the Mystery of God’s Creation. We are all Creation and we are all to live in harmony with each other– being at CMA truly helped me understand that not just humans and angels bless the Lord, but also flowers and trees, stars of heaven; birds of the air and beasts wild and tame; all the earth blesses the Lord. Even “dolphins and all water creatures bless the Lord” (Daniel 3:79).

 

Canticle of Daniel
Bless the Lord, all you works of the Lord;
Praise and exalt him above all forever.
Angels of the Lord, bless the Lord;
You heavens, bless the Lord;
All you waters above the heavens, bless the Lord.
All you hosts of the Lord; bless the Lord.
Sun and moon, bless the Lord;
Stars of heaven, bless the Lord.
Every shower and dew, bless the Lord;
All you winds, bless the Lord.
Fire and heat, bless the Lord;
Cold and chill, bless the Lord.
Dew and rain, bless the Lord;
Frost and cold, bless the Lord.
Ice and snow, bless the Lord;
Nights and days, bless the Lord.
Light and darkness bless the Lord;
Lightning and clouds, bless the Lord.
Let the earth bless the Lord;
Praise and exalt him above all forever.
Mountains and hills, bless the Lord
Everything growing from the earth, bless the Lord.
You springs, bless the Lord;
Seas and rivers, bless the Lord.
You dolphins and all water creatures, bless the Lord;
All you birds of the air, bless the Lord.
All you beasts, wild and tame, bless the Lord;
Praise and exalt him above all forever.
You sons of men, bless the Lord;
O Israel, bless the Lord.
Priests of the Lord, bless the Lord;
Servants of the Lord, bless the Lord.
Spirits and souls of the just, bless the Lord;
Holy men of humble heart, bless the Lord.
Ananias, Azarias, Mishael, bless the Lord;
Praise and exalt him above all forever.
Let us bless the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost;
Let us praise and exalt God above all forever.
Blessed are you in the firmament of heaven;
Praiseworthy and glorious forever.

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Photo: Public Domain

Integral Ecology and the Horizon of Hope: Concern for the Poor and for Creation in the Ministry of Pope Francis

Cardinal_Turkson_Blog

Pope Francis’ universal prayer intention for April is for Creation: That people may learn to respect creation and care for it as a gift of God. The environment is a topic that many do not expect the Church to be vocal on, but if you followed Pope Benedict’s many addresses, you would know that he spoke about the environment and ecology quite often. We also now that the topic is close to Pope Francis’ heart: Pope Francis’ second Encyclical will be on this very topic.

This is very exciting for us at S+L and especially for me, since for the last four years, I have been working on a six-part documentary series titled Creation, that looks at the ecological teachings of the Catholic Church.

If you’re wondering what those teachings are, recently, Cardinal Peter Turkson, President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace (the council under which the encyclical will be released), delivered the Trócaire 2015 Lenten Lecture at Saint Patrick’s Pontifical University in Maynooth, Ireland. Trócare is the overseas aid agency of the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference. The Trócaire theme for Lent 2015 highlights the growing problem of drought as a result of climate change. Cardinal Turkson’s address was titled  Integral Ecology and the Horizon of Hope: Concern for the Poor and for Creation in the Ministry of Pope Francis.

This address gives us a very good idea of what Pope Francis’ encyclical’s content and direction will be.

Introduction

Your Grace, Archbishop Martin, Brother Bishops, Seminarians, ladies and gentlemen, I thank Éamonn for his very kind introduction. I also thank Bishop William Crean, Chairman of Trócaire and Monsignor Hugh Connolly, President of Maynooth for their warm welcome and for the invitation to give the Annual Trócaire Lenten lecture in Maynooth. I have learned that in the very distinguished history of this University, thousands of men and women have left these halls over the years to bring the Gospel of charity and justice to the four corners of the world. I am aware of the leading role played by this University in dialogues between faith and science, between philosophy and praxis, between economics and development, and between environmental sciences and policy decisions regarding climate change.

This evening, I am also very conscious that the Irish people themselves have an outstanding reputation for generous giving and for commitment to development issues. According to the Charities Aid Foundation World Giving Index, Ireland is consistently among the five most generous countries of the world. It is the most generous country in Northern Europe. So when I come to Ireland, I already know that people in Ireland really do care about outreach to those in need, commitment to development aid, and engagement with the issues of international development. On behalf of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, I acknowledge and pay tribute to your tremendous generosity and compassion. I am glad to have this opportunity to pay particular tribute to the outstanding work of Trócaire. As the development agency of the Irish Bishops’ Conference and a member of Caritas Internationalis, Trócaire is a worthy ambassador of Ireland’s compassion and concern for justice across the world. Its professionalism and experience also make it a world leader and a respected voice in terms of insight into issues of international development and a leader in working for a more just world.

Misericordia in Latin, or Trócaire in Irish or Mercy in English: this has become a keyword in the ministry of Pope Francis. As in the Scriptures, Pope Francis often associates mercy and tenderness. Indeed, in his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, he appeals to all of us to bring about a “revolution of tenderness,” a revolution of the heart. For “there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor” when our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests, or when our national life and economy become caught up in their own interests.

Pope Francis intends to publish an encyclical letter later this year on the theme of human ecology. It will explore the relationship between care for creation, integral human development and concern for the poor. The timing of the encyclical is significant: 2015 is a critical year for humanity. In July, nations will gather for the Third International Conference on Financing for Development in Addis Ababa. In September, the U.N. General Assembly should agree on a new set of sustainable development goals running until 2030. In December, the Climate Change Conference in Paris will receive the plans and commitments of each Government to slow or reduce global warming. The coming 10 months are crucial, then, for decisions about international development, human flourishing and care for the common home we call planet Earth.

So this evening is a good time to look at the relationship between development, concern for the poor and responsibility for the environment in the ministry of Pope Francis. I do so under the title: “Integral ecology and the horizon of hope: concern for the poor and for creation in the ministry of Pope Francis.” I will focus on four principles of integral ecology. Through his teaching on these themes, Pope Francis is promoting integral ecology as the key to addressing the inter-related issues of human ecology, development and the natural environment.

The Holy Father has echoed the sense of crisis that many in the scientific and development communities convey about the precarious state of our planet and of the poor. What he adds to the conversation about future approaches is the particular perspective of Catholic Social thought, rooted in the Sacred Scriptures and natural reason. This offers something unique and vital to the efforts of the international community. Ultimately, of course, what Pope Francis seeks to bring to this sense of crisis is the “warmth of hope”. Indeed, from his very first homily as Pope, a fundamental aim of his ministry has been to point us to the “horizon of hope” in the midst of those he has called the “Herods,” the “omens of destruction and death” that so often “accompany the advance of this world.” In that spirit of hope, let me reflect on the four themes that are woven through the ministry and teaching of Pope Francis on integral ecology.

First Principle: The call to be protectors is integral and all-embracing

The first principle is this: that the call to be protectors is integral and all-embracing. We are called to protect and care for both creation and the human person. These concepts are reciprocal and, together, they make for authentic and sustainable human development.

At the inaugural Mass of his Petrine Ministry, Pope Francis put the protection of creation to the very forefront of his own ministry and the vocation of every Christian. He offered St Joseph as a model of protecting Christ in our lives, “so that we can protect others, so that we can protect creation,” and explained that the vocation of being a protector “has a prior dimension which is simply human, involving everyone.” Its scope is very broad; it involves

“protecting creation, the beauty of the created world, as the Book of Genesis tells us and as Saint Francis of Assisi shows us. It means respecting each of God’s creatures and respecting the environment in which we live. It means protecting people, showing loving concern for each and every person, especially children, the elderly, those in need, who are often the last we think about. It means caring for one another in our families: husbands and wives…they protect one another, and then, as parents, they care for their children, and children themselves, in time protect their parents. It means building sincere friendships in which we protect one another in trust, respect, and goodness.”

Clearly this is not some narrow agenda for the greening the Church or the world. It is a vision of care and protection that embraces the human person and the human environment in all possible dimensions.

Saint Pope John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI on human ecology.

In his insistence on an integral, relational vocation of protector, Pope Francis continues the thought of his two predecessors. In his social encyclical, Solicitudo rei socialis, Saint John Paul II spoke of the need to respect the constituent and inter-related elements of the natural world: “One cannot use with impunity the different categories of beings…animals, plants, the natural elements – simply as one wishes, according to one’s own economic needs. On the contrary, one must take into account the nature of each being and of its mutual connection in an ordered system, which is precisely the cosmos.” A recently republished pastoral of the Irish Bishops echoes his point: “Our earth is complex, its systems of life are interdependent and finely balanced. Small changes in one part of the planet’s rhythms and systems can have significant, if not dramatic consequences for the whole of the earth and its creatures.” For the natural environment to be respected, the human environment and its objective moral structure must also be respected.  When we ignore or neglect one, it has a destructive impact on the other.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI also had this point as a central theme in his teaching. Some called him the “Green Pope” because of the priority he gave to concern over our destruction of nature. He echoed the call of Saint John Paul II to “change our way of life… [to] eliminate the structural causes of global economic dysfunction, and to correct models of growth that seem incapable of guaranteeing respect for the environment and for integral human development.”

Pope Benedict’s message for the 43rd World Day of Peace in 2010 was abundantly clear: “The book of nature is one and indivisible; it includes not only the environment but also individual, family and social ethics. Our duties towards the environment flow from our duties towards the person, considered both individually and in relation to others.” On this basis too, in Caritas in Veritate, he famously called contemporary society to a serious review of its lifestyle, which is so often prone to hedonism and consumerism, regardless of their harmful consequences. What is needed, he said, is an effective shift in mentality which can lead to the adoption of “new lifestyles” in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common growth are the factors which determine consumer choices, savings and investments.

It is such integral ecology that Pope Francis took up, in eminently pastoral terms, in his inaugural homily. He does so again in his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium when he calls all people to a new solidarity, “the creation of a new mind-set which thinks in terms of community and the priority of the life of all over the appropriation of goods by a few” (n.188).

Second Principle: care for creation is a virtue in its own right

Compelled by the scientific evidence for climate change, we are called to care for humanity and to respect the grammar of nature as virtues in their own right.  This is the second principle that underpins Pope Francis’ approach to integral ecology as the basis for authentic development.

In an airplane interview while returning from Korea last August, the Holy Father said that one of the challenges he faces in his encyclical on ecology is how to address the scientific debate about climate change and its origins. Is it the outcome of cyclical processes of nature, of human activities (anthropogenic), or perhaps both? What is not contested is that our planet is getting warmer. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has undertaken the most comprehensive assessment of climate change. Its November 2014 Synthesis Report was as stark as it was challenging. In the words of Thomas Stocker, the co-chair of the IPCC Working Group I: “Our assessment finds that the atmosphere and oceans have warmed, the amount of snow and ice has diminished, sea level has risen and the concentration of carbon dioxide has increased to a level unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years.”

Yet even the compelling consensus of over 800 scientists of the IPCC will have its critics and its challengers. For Pope Francis, however, this is not the point. For the Christian, to care for God’s ongoing work of creation is a duty, irrespective of the causes of climate change. To care for creation, to develop and live an integral ecology as the basis for development and peace in the world, is a fundamental Christian duty. As Pope Francis put it in his morning homily at Santa Marta on 9 February, it is wrong and a distraction to contrast “green” and “Christian.” In fact, “a Christian who doesn’t safeguard creation, who doesn’t make it flourish, is a Christian who isn’t concerned with God’s work, that work born of God’s love for us.”

In this, Pope Francis is affirming a truth revealed in the first pages of Sacred Scripture. In the second creation account of the Book of Genesis, humankind is placed in the Garden by the Creator to “till it and keep it” (Gen 2:15). These concepts of “tilling” and “keeping” involve a vital and reciprocal relationship between humanity and the created world. They involve humankind, every individual and every community in a sacred duty to draw from the goodness of the earth, and at the same time to care for the earth in a way that ensures its continued fruitfulness for future generations.

Justice in this context is essentially a relational term. Its defining quality is fidelity to the demands of the threefold relationship within which each of us stands and upon which each of us depends for life itself: our relationship with the Creator, with our neighbour, and with the natural environment in which we live. To neglect or violate one of these relationships is an offense, quite literally a sin. In the Scriptures, the “just person” is one who maintains these relationships by respecting the demands that they entail. The just person is one who therefore preserves communion with God, with neighbour and with the land, and by doing so, also makes peace!  The various holiness and justice codes of the Old Testament are unequivocal. Those who till and keep the land have a responsibility to share it fruits with others, especially the poor, the stranger, the widow and the orphan. The law of the Covenant is clear; the gift of the land and its fruitfulness belongs to the whole people of Israel together.

So when Pope Francis says that destroying the environment is a grave sin; when he says that it is not large families that cause poverty but an economic culture that puts money and profit ahead of people; when he says that we cannot save the environment without also addressing the profound injustices in the distribution of the goods of the earth; when he says that this is “an economy that kills” – he is not making some political comment about the relative merits of capitalism and communism. He is rather restating ancient Biblical teaching. He is pointing to the fact that being a protector of creation, of the poor, of the dignity of every human person is a sine qua non of being Christian, of being fully human. He is pointing to the ominous signs in nature that suggest that humanity may now have tilled too much and kept too little, that our relationship with the Creator, with our neighbour, especially the poor, and with the environment has become fundamentally “un-kept”, and that we are now at serious risk of a concomitant human, environmental and relational degradation.

Third principle: we will – we must – care for what we cherish and revere

Thirdly, binding regulations, policies, and targets are necessary tools for addressing poverty and climate change, but they are unlikely to prove effective without moral conversion and a change of heart. Think of the present Pope’s choice of the name Francis. Saint Francis of Assisi is an example par excellence of a lived and integral ecology. In fact, Saint Pope John Paul II had declared him the patron saint of those who promote ecology. His love for creation, for creatures and for the poor, are one, they form an integral whole. And the prior and fundamental source of that integrated whole was his religious faith. In pointing to Saint Francis as a model, Pope Francis holds that a truly practical and sustainable integral approach to ecology, has to draw on more than the scientific, the material and the economic, more than laws and policies. When Saint Francis gazed upon the heavens, when he surveyed the wonder and beauty of the animals, he did not respond to them with the abstract formulae of science or the utilitarian eye of the economist. His response was one of awe, wonder and fraternity. He sang of “Brother Sun” and “Sister Moon.” In other words, his response was that of reverence – of a deep and relational respect based on kinship and fraternity, the kinship with God, our neighbour and the land spoken of in the book of Genesis and praised throughout the wisdom literature and the psalms.

There have been many attempts in recent years to implement international agreements on development goals, carbon emission targets and climate change limits, with varying degrees of success. For example, the Millennium Development Goals – many of which sought to remedy the particular crises that I have mentioned – have only achieved partial success, with half remaining unfulfilled. For instance, between 1.2 and 1.5 billion people are still mired in “extreme poverty.” Global inequalities continue to widen. Sub-Saharan Africa has the second highest rate of economic growth in the world (after developing Asia). Nevertheless, the region remains locked in a negative cycle of poverty and underdevelopment, with development aid shifting away from some of the poorest countries. The wealth of the top 1% has grown 60% in the last twenty years, and it continued to grow through the global economic crisis. Despite the UN Framework Convention of Climate Change signed in Rio in 1992 and subsequent agreements, global emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) continue their upward trend, almost 50 per cent above 1990 levels. The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has reached a level last seen 3 million years ago – when the planet was significantly warmer than it is today. Millions of hectares of forest are lost every year, many species are being driven closer to extinction, and renewable water resources are becoming scarcer.

The list could go on. Certainly international agreements are important, they can help. But they are not enough in themselves to sustain change in human behaviour. As Saint John Paul II put it, we require an “ecological conversion,” a radical and fundamental change in our attitudes to creation, to the poor and to the priorities of the global economy. By pointing us to the example of Saint Francis of Assisi, Pope Francis teaches the world that the ancient wisdom, insights and values of religious faith, most notably the tradition of Catholic Social Doctrine, can contribute something of value to the search for sustainable development, based on an integral ecology. Genuine “ecological conversion” involves the whole person. Commitment assumes a relationship, an emotional and relational attachment. It is the kind of kinship and fraternity with creation, creatures and the poor that flowed so clearly and directly from the relationship between Saint Francis and the Creator.

This is why the cultural trend of relegating religious language, religious motivation and religious faith to the sphere of the purely private and personal undermines a vital and powerful source of meaning and action in the common effort to address both climate change and sustainable development. The Judaeo-Christian insight into creation can transform our relationship from that of remote observers or technical managers of nature, to that of “brother and sister,” of nurturer and protector of all. Religious insights into creation in this sense can help to orient and integrate us as humans within the wider universe, to identify what is most important to us, what we revere, sustain and protect as sacred. Giving space to the religious voice and to its ancient experience, wisdom and insight therefore can transform our attitudes to creation and to others in a way that purely scientific, economic or political approaches are less likely to achieve. What more radical and comprehensive charter for sustainable development and environmental care do we have after all than the Beatitudes, than the call to generosity that permeates Evangelii Gaudium: the command to go the extra mile, to give to the least, to give our tunic as well as our cloak to the one who asks us.

Fourth principle: the call to dialogue and a new global solidarity

Fourthly, for Pope Francis, integral ecology, as the basis for justice and development in the world, requires a new global solidarity, one in which everyone has a part to play and every action, no matter how small, can make a difference.

During World Youth Day celebrations in Brazil in July 2013, this call to solidarity became most explicit in his address to Varginha, a favela community. Pope Francis noted that the rich could learn much from the poor about solidarity: “I would like to make an appeal to those in possession of greater resources, to public authorities and to all people of good will who are working for social justice: never tire of working for a more just world, marked by greater solidarity… The culture of selfishness and individualism that often prevails in our society is not what builds up and leads to a more habitable world: it is the culture of solidarity that does so, seeing others not as rivals or statistics, but brothers and sisters.”

The Holy Father then added that giving “bread to the hungry,” while required by justice, is not enough for human happiness. “There is neither real promotion of the common good nor real human development when there is ignorance of the fundamental pillars that govern a nation, its nonmaterial goods,” he said. The Pope identified those goods as life; family; “integral education, which cannot be reduced to the mere transmission of information for the purposes of generating profit”; health, “including the spiritual dimension” of well-being; and security, which he said can be achieved “only by changing human hearts.”

As this year’s Drop in the Ocean campaign by Trócaire implies, and as the Pastoral Letter of the Irish Bishops’ Conference, The Cry of the Earth, points out, “Action at a global level, as well as every individual action which contributes to integral human development and global solidarity, helps to construct a more sustainable environment and therefore, a better world.” Thanks to the Trócaire box in many homes and classrooms during Lent, you already know how little gestures add up to make a difference.

Conclusion: Let us become artisans of the revolution of tenderness

Allow me to summarize all that I have said this evening:

  • The threats that arise from global inequality and the destruction of the environment are inter-related; and they are the greatest threats we face as a human family today.
  • In responding to this combined threat, every action counts. We all have a part to play in protecting and sustaining what Pope Francis has repeatedly called our common home.
  • Our efforts in this regard require an integral approach to ecology, not one limited to scientific, economic or technical solutions.
  • At the heart of this integral ecology is the call to dialogue and a new solidarity, a changing of human hearts in which the good of the human person, and not the pursuit of profit, is the key value that directs our search for the global, the universal common good.

In this, we have the core elements of an integral ecology which in turn provides the basis for authentic and sustainable approaches to human development.

In conveying my thanks to you once again for the honour of giving this annual Lenten lecture, and in commending Trócaire for its excellent and timely Climate Justice campaign, I encourage you to give great attention to the forthcoming encyclical from Pope Francis on the themes we have just considered.  As we confront the threat of environmental catastrophe on a global scale, I am confident that a shaft of light will break through the heavy clouds and bring us what Pope Francis describes as the warmth of hope! Most importantly, as we become revolutionaries of tenderness overcoming the world’s pervasive inequities, these years can indeed initiate a millennium of respect for life, of care for God’s creation, of solidarity and síocháin.  Peace!

Thank you for listening.

(CNS photo/Bob Roller)

Deacon-structing: A Memorial

Crucifix

I set out to deacon-struct Holy Week and soon found that I was faced with a monumental task. I looked at each of the key moments of the Passion: the entry into Jerusalem, the Last Supper, Gethsemane, the trial, the way of the Cross and crucifixion… the burial… there is so much there. I have always been drawn to the mysteries of Holy Week and the more I study and pray with these mysteries, the more I feel I am over my head.

I guess that’s why it’s a Mystery. When we use the word “mystery” in our Faith, we don’t mean it’s something that has to be solved, like an Agatha Christie novel. Rather, it means that it is something so profound, so amazing, so vast, that it cannot be fully understood in human terms; it cannot be fully explained in human language. And so we are called to understand it only in part and to stand at the foot of the Mystery and contemplate it; to gaze upon it and let it change us. As Pope Francis says so beautifully in Joy of the Gospel with regards to the neighbour: “remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other” (EG 169). That’s what we do when faced with Mystery.

And that’s how we should approach Holy Week. It is not something to “understand” but something to behold: to gaze upon. We are called to walk with Jesus through his passion and death.

But that doesn’t mean that we are not meant to try to understand it as much as possible. This understanding can help us enter more deeply into the Mystery of the Passion.

For example, a few times I have been honoured to be part of a Jewish Seder meal. This is the Passover meal that Jesus would have been celebrating. I remember coming out from the meal with a whole new understanding of the Mass. Once we know what the ritual of the Seder is, we come to appreciate what Scriptures tell us about the Last Supper much more deeply. For example, why are they dipping bread in a dish (Mk. 14:20; Jn 13:26)? Which of the four ritual cups of wine is the cup that Jesus is says is “the cup of the New Covenant” (Mt. 17:28; Mk 14:24; Lk 22:20)? What is the hymn that they sang when it says, “after they had sung the hymn…” (Mt. 26:30; Mk 14:26)? Or the fact that in the synoptic Gospels Jesus dies on the day after Passover (Mt. 26:17; Mk 14:12; Lk 22:7) , but according to the Gospel of John, it was the day of preparation for the Passover (Jn 19:31). There is so much there and I don’t think I could do it justice. It is certainly enough for a lifetime of prayer and meditation.

But today I can’t stop thinking about one thing: The Cross. We have no idea what people at the time thought about or felt about this instrument of torture and death. When Jesus said “pick up your cross and follow me” (Mt. 16:24; Lk 9:23) what did people think? Was that a common expression at the time? Would he have said today, “pick up your electric chair and follow me?”

 And the fact that almost immediately, the followers of Jesus seemed to embrace this “Cross.” I’m sure they remembered Jesus saying “pick up your cross and follow me” but did they remember him saying “do this in memory of me” (Lk 22:19)?

Did they understand that it is through the Cross that Jesus saves us? That it is through the Cross that Jesus makes all things new: by destroying death forever and forgiving our sins. I wonder when they started signing themselves with this sign, the “sign of the Cross.”

I wonder if they began signing themselves with this sign as a reminder of who they were: As a reminder of the love of God. Did they remember what Jesus told Nicodemus that “God so loved the world that he “gave” his only Son? (John 3:16?) Did they think that this thing that Jesus did for all of us they were called to do for others?

What did Jesus mean when He said, “do this in memory of me?” I don’t think he was just talking about eating bread and drinking wine. Was He speaking about washing each other’s feet? Did he mean going up on the Cross like him? I’m pretty sure He wasn’t talking about merely “remembering” him.

In Spanish, when Jesus said, “do this in memory of me,” He says, “hagan esto en conmemoración mia.” That means something closer to “do this to honour me.” It is not about remembering Jesus. That when we remember Jesus we are to do something or when we do something we are to remember Jesus. I suppose it could mean that, but I think it means that we are to do something so as to commemorate Jesus and what He did for us. Commemorate is not just to remember. It is not just to honour. According to the Oxford Dictionary, commemorate means “to keep in the memory by means of a celebration or ceremony” and “to be a memorial to.” But I don’t even think this is exactly what Jesus meant. After all, He didn’t say “do this to commemorate me” (hagan esto para conmemorarme). Perhaps, “do this so that it is a memorial to me and to what I have done.”

St. Paul refers to this very moment in his first letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 11:23-26). To them he writes that, “whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” Our “eating of this bread” (which symbolically can mean doing all the things I mentioned above) is a proclamation of the Lord’s death and a reminder and sign that He will come again.

It’s almost as if when we celebrate the sacrifice of the Eucharist, we are transported back in time to the foot of the Cross. Not that Christ dies again everytime we are at Mass, but that we are taken right back there and we are part of that sacrifice once more. I don’t know how to explain it better; we don’t recreate the sacrifice of the Cross. We don’t repeat the sacrifice of the Cross. Rather, it’s more like God makes us present to the sacrifice of the Cross, which it happening all the time in Kairos time. This is the commemoration, the memorial, the proclamation. It is more than just a memory, although a memory, more than just an honouring, although very much in honour.

In fact, memory is very important in Jewish tradition. For a Jew to “remember” actually had this significance: to make present again that which had already taken place. Many Jewish prayers and Psalms call us to “remember.” For the Jews at the time, and to this day, the Passover meal is a “participation” in the Exodus. The Passover for Jews is a memorial, a remembering, but also a “making present” the deliverance that God had granted their ancestors with the exodus from Egypt.

And we “do this” in a very special way every time we celebrate the Eucharist. But let me offer a very simple way that all of us can “remember” in a practical way, every day. We remember by making the Sign of the Cross. When I sign myself with the Cross, I am calling to mind all of this. Especially, I am calling to mind the sacrifice that I am called to do like Jesus on the Cross. I am reminded that I am called to die to my own petty ego needs; my own desire to be loved and to be special; my own needs to be right and to be needed. I am called to “die to myself.” I am called to sacrifice my own needs for the needs of others. As a husband, that is what I am called to do: put my wife’s needs before mine. Every time. As a father, I am called to place my children’s needs before mine. Every time. As a Christian, I am called to put others’ needs before mine. Of course, this doesn’t mean I become a throw rug for everyone to walk on but it does mean that I am called to consider other people’s needs to be more important than mine, every time. This, I believe, is true freedom: freedom from my own petty needs. And that is what Jesus did on the Cross: He set us free!

And when I remember, by making the Sign of the Cross, I do it in the name of the Father, of the Son and the Holy Spirit – a reminder of another awesome Mystery – the Mystery of the Holy Trinity. Not only do I remember in my mind, but also in my mind, my thoughts, my knowledge, my head; and in my heart, in my feelings, in my emotions and soul; and with my arms, through my actions, my service. It also reminds me that I am to love God back; with all my mind; with all my soul and my heart; and all my strength, and to love my neighbour as myself.

This Holy Week, let us walk with Jesus and let us remember. When we do, at Mass and at daily prayer; every time we make the Sign of the Cross; every time you put other people’s needs before your own – when we wash others’ feet, when we “remove our sandals at the sacred ground of the other” – remember the memorial. Let Christ be present to you and let yourself be present to him.
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Send me your comments – especially if you know what the original Aramaic is for “do this in memory of me.”

 

(CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)

 

Deacon-structing St. Joseph

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When Joseph awoke he did as the angel of the Lord had directed him…
(From the Gospel for March 19, the Solemnity of Joseph, the Husband of Mary, Matthew 1:16, 18-21, 24)

Last week, I ended by saying that I would deacon-struct Holy Week, but I can’t let this week go by without saying something about my favourite Saint. Sometimes, because it’s Lent we may overlook some feasts or solemnities that fall during the season. It’s hard to ignore the Feast of St. Patrick, but how many really pay attention to the Solemnity of St. Joseph?

There isn’t much that we know about Joseph. We know that his Father’s name was Jacob and that he was the husband of Mary. We know that before they lived together he found out she was pregnant and instead of shaming her or causing scandal, he decided to divorce her quietly. Matthew’s Gospel tells us that he was an upright man, a man of principle. We also know that he was a righteous man who followed the law: He observed religious law – we know he went to Jerusalem for the Jewish festivals. He also followed civil law – he went to Bethlehem for the census. We also know that Joseph had dreams. God spoke to him in his dreams and he followed his dreams.

One thing we don’t know about Joseph are his words. In all of the Gospels, no where do we ever hear anything Joseph says. He never says anything. But he’s a man of action: He does what the angel tells him; he takes Mary as his wife; he goes to Bethlehem; he finds a place to stay for the night; he takes his family to Egypt. He’s a man of action – not a man of words.

For centuries, scholars and artists have tried to figure out Joseph’s words. One of my favourite Christmas songs is Joseph’s Song by Michael Card. In it, Joseph prays:

“How can it be, this baby in my arms, sleeping now, so peacefully. The son of God, the angel said, how could it be? O Lord I know he’s not my own, not of my flesh, not of my bone. Still Father let this baby be the son of my love.”

Then Joseph prays:

“Father show me where I fit into this plan of yours. How can a man be father to the son of God? Lord, for all my life I’ve been a simple carpenter… how can I raise a king? How can I raise a king?”

I like this song because to me it shows what Joseph models perfectly: He was a man after God’s will. He longed to know God’s will and searched to see how he fit into the Father’s plan.

And just like God had a plan for Joseph, God has a plan for each one of us. The plan does not need to be more than that He wants us to be upright and righteous. He wants us to be loving parents, loving husbands and wives. God wants us to follow the law: observe the commandments. But, just like Joseph in the song, we may feel that we don’t have anything to contribute, that we are nothing but simple carpenters. Just like Joseph we may never see the fruit of our work. We may never reap the harvest. The first reading on the Solemnity of St. Joseph, March 19, is from the Book of Samuel (2 Samuel 7:4-5, 12-14, 16). In it, we hear about a promise to King David. We hear about it in Psalm 89 as well: “The son of David will live forever” or “his line will continue forever.” In the second reading for the same feast day (Romans 4:13, 16-18, 22) Paul tells the Romans about another upright man who never saw the fruit of his work: Abraham. He did God’s will, but never saw the fulfilment of God’s promise to him.

But the promise was fulfilled. St. Joseph may have been a simple carpenter, who did not amount to much during his life, but today, 2000 years later, he is venerated as one of the greatest saints in the Church. Every March 19th we celebrate the Solemnity of St. Joseph, Husband of Mary. There aren’t a lot of Saints for whom we have solemnities. The Church has been observing this feast since the 10th century and it has been a universal feast since the 16thcentury. And Joseph gets another feast day on May 1st: Feast of St. Joseph, the Worker. Except for Mary, no other saint has more than one feast day.

St. Joseph is the patron saint of husbands, of fathers, the patron saint of families, the patron saint of homes and the patron saint of workers. Joseph is also the unofficial patron saint against doubt and hesitation, of fighting against communism and of a good and happy death. We also believe that Joseph prays for all pregnant women, for immigrants, travellers and for those buying or selling a house.

In 1870, Pope Pius IX declared St. Joseph patron of the universal Church. He is the Patron of the Universal Church! And for us in our country, we should know that St. Joseph is the principal patron of Canada. That’s a huge responsibility for a man of so few words. But it’s a perfect job for a man of action.

As we journey through Lent – especially when we gather around the Eucharistic table, let’s pray to St. Joseph. Let him guide us and help us open our hearts to God’s plan for us: that we may be upright and righteous; that we may be men and women after God’s will; that we may be able to pray, “Father show me how I fit into this plan of yours.” And dream. Let God speak to you in your dreams and then get up and do as the angel of the Lord directs you. God has a great plan for everyone. Even for a simple carpenter.

Deacon-structing Lent: part 4

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So far in part 1, we looked at questions people have regarding fasting and abstinence, in part 2 we looked at suffering and in part 3 we looked at what Scripture has to tell us about why Jesus had to suffer.  I think when people think of Lent, that’s what they think about: fasting, abstinence and suffering. Add to that penance.

It is true that Lent is a penitential season, but do you know that the word “Lent” comes from the old English word, “lencten” which  was the word used for “Springtime?” It comes from the old Germanic: “Lengen-tinza” which literally means “long days” (think of the English word “lengthen,” to make long – that’s the same root as the word Lent.) So the word ‘Lent’ refers to the lengthening of days; to the light that is defeating the darkness.  I think most of us think of penance and fasting when we think of Lent, but Lent is also about light defeating darkness. That’s what we see in the fourth Sunday of Lent this year. (On 4th Sunday in Cycle B with Jesus speaking with Nicodemus and also in Cycle A with the story of the man born blind).

How many of you, when you think of Lent, think of Baptism? (I would hope that those preparing for Baptism are thinking of Baptism during Lent; but the rest of us?) Recently, I received a book by Jerry Galipeau titled, You Have Put On Christ: Cultivating a Baptismal Spirituality. In it, he says that Lent is a baptismal time. He quotes the Second Vatican Council Document Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, #109:

“The season of Lent has a twofold character: primarily by recalling or preparing for baptism and by penance, it disposes the faithful, who more diligently hear the word of God ad devote themselves to prayer, to celebrate the paschal mystery. This twofold character is to be brought into greater prominence both in the liturgy and by liturgical catechesis.”

 And so, Lent has a two-fold character; two equally important strands: a baptismal one and a penitential one – we tend to over-emphasize the penitential one.  Traditionally, those preparing to be baptised or received in the Church do their final preparations during Lent. They are called Catechumens and we do see a special baptism emphasis for them during Lent, but all of us should be recalling our Baptism. At the Easter Vigil we will all be renewing our Baptismal promises.

I interviewed Jerry Galipeau for the SLHour for the first week in Lent and afterwards I decided that this Lent I was going to pay extra attention to the readings and prayers and look for all the baptismal themes. I was not sure as to what I was going to find. Then I came to the readings for the first Sunday in Lent. There are Baptismal elements in all the readings all throughout Lent, but let me use the first Sunday, Cycle B as an example:

The first reading from Genesis 9:8-15 takes place just after the flood. God is establishing a Covenant with all Creation; He will never again destroy with a flood. The flood was a cleansing, but also an opportunity for a new life, a regeneration. St. Peter, in the second reading (1 Peter 3:18-22) , tells us that the flood and the Ark prefigure Baptism. That’s what happens at Baptism: it is a cleansing and also an entering into a new life, a new life in Christ.

But the first reading is not directly about the flood; it is about God establishing a Covenant. Guess what I found: The YouCat (the Church’s youth catechism given to us by Pope Benedict XVI.) It says that “Baptism is a covenant with God” because “the individual must say Yes to it.” (YC#194) That makes sense since every Sacrament involves our action and God’s action: We do something and God does something – that’s a covenant. In Baptism, we do something: the prayers, the ritual, everything with the water, the oils, the white garment, the candle – that our part. Then God does his part; He sends us his Grace. In Baptism, we primarily receive two Graces: We are freed from sin and we are reborn as children of God (CCC#1213).  By going through the waters of Baptism, literally plunging into the waters (the word baptism comes from the Greek baptizein, which means “to plunge”) just as the people in the time of Noah went through the flood, we die to sin, all sin is buried in the waters, and we come up on the other side, reborn into Christ. Baptism is a death and a resurrection. St. Paul says that all who are baptised are baptised into the death of Christ, we are buried with him, so that as Christ is raised, we too can walk in the newness of life (Rom 6:3-4; Col 2:12). In Baptism, we are freed from all sin and we become children of God, no longer slaves to sin, but as adopted sons and daughters of God, who now have access to God’s very life, to the life that Adam and Eve had in the Garden of Eden. We must say yes to that. God does his part and we must agree. That’s what makes it a Covenant.

Now, the Gospel from the first Sunday in Lent is always about Jesus going to the desert. It’s easy to look at Mark’s version (1:12-15) and focus on the fact that Jesus goes into the desert – that’s very Lenten, very penitential. But what happens just before Jesus goes into the desert according to Mark? He is baptised! Then all Mark says about Jesus going to the desert is that “he was driven by the Spirit into the wilderness” and in the desert he overcomes temptation; he overcomes sin and he is among wild beasts and the angels minister to him. Who else lived among wild beasts and the angels ministered to them? Adam and Eve. So according to Mark, Jesus going into the desert is an analogy to what happens at baptism: We are freed from sin (Jesus never sins; he overcomes temptation), no longer slaves to sin but having all the benefits that come with being children of God, the Communion with God that Adam and Eve had.

And then what does Jesus do? He begins his ministry. And that’s what we forget about Baptism. Baptism is not the end of the journey, but the beginning. Baptism is the door to Faith and to ministry in the Church. God establishes a Covenant with us and we have to do our part.

So Lent is a time to remember and reflect on our Baptism. For most of us, we were baptised many, many years ago – we don’t remember it – some of us don’t even know when we were baptised or where. Some don’t have a relationship with their Godparents. We should know, at the very least when and where we were baptised. I was baptised on February 8th, 1969 at San Francisco de la Caleta Parish in Panama City, Panama. I know who was there, I have photos and I know who my Godparents are. Do you? Your baptism is where it all began. I would not be here today, as a Deacon, working at S+L and writing this, had I not been baptised. Most of you would not be reading this and would not be in Church every Sunday had you not been baptised – and I don’t mean Catholic baptism; I mean all Christian Baptism, because it’s all the same. We believe in one Baptism. If you are baptised in any Christian denomination, you are baptised – you’ve been freed from Original Sin and you have become a child of God. But we forget and don’t give Baptism the importance that it requires.

I used to think that since I was so young at my baptism and still very young at my Confirmation, there should be a second Confirmation – around our 30s when we truly accept, with full knowledge that we want to be Catholic followers of Jesus Christ – when we would renew our baptismal promises with full consent and knowledge. Most of us have forgotten our baptismal promises. But we don’t need a second Confirmation. At every Mass, when we pray the Creed, we are renewing our baptismal promises, and it is done with special importance, as a community during the Easter Vigil, at the end of Lent. So Lent is a time when we remember and reflect on our Baptism, so that at the Easter Vigil we can renew with vigour our part of the Covenant. God does his part; let’s prepare during this Lenten season so we can do ours.

Come back next time and we’ll deacon-struct Holy Week.

Deacon-structing Lent: part 3

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In part 1 we looked at fasting and abstinence and in part 2 we looked at the meaning of suffering. Today, let me share with you something I like to do as part of my prayer (and we all know that Lent is a time to re-focus our prayer life.)

I love Scripture. I take to heart the words of St. Jerome, “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.” I truly believe that we must read the Bible daily. We must read it, study it and pray with it. That is definitely one way to get closer to Christ. But it’s also a good way to measure how you’re doing in your own life. When I was doing my pastoral placement while studying for the Permanent Diaconate, we were required to do “scriptural reflections” on specific pastoral experiences we’d had. So if I had met a patient who was in crisis in the hospital, I had to reflect on that experience by looking at it through a scriptural lens. I loved doing this and it was extremely helpful. Basically it’s looking at the life of Jesus (or other Bible characters) and seeing what it tells me about my life.  A lot of people will tell us that the Gospels are not factual. That Jesus didn’t really multiply the loaves and the fishes or that it wasn’t really water turned into wine, or that Lazarus wasn’t really dead. They’ll say that “resurrect” meant something else or that Jesus didn’t really die on the cross or didn’t really “resurrect.” See, (and I may get some responses from you for saying this) I don’t know if it really matters whether Jesus literally fed 5000 people with 5 loaves and 2 fishes or if he really walked on water; what matters is how these stories affect my life today. What really matters is the TRUTH behind all these stories.  The Bible may not always be FACT – but it is always TRUTH.

Let me explain to you the difference between “Fact” and “Truth.”

Let’s say you ask my five-year-old son how tall I am. My son says that I am 20 feet tall. Clearly that statement is not factual. I am not 20 ft. tall. But the truth behind that statement is that I am much, much taller than he is. He is short and I am a lot taller than him. So, in a way, his statement is true just not fact. Understand?

So the Bible is full of stories to show us the Truth.  That’s why we have to read the Bible as THEOLOGY and not so much as HISTORY. When we look at the Gospel stories and during Lent when we look at all the Passion Narratives, in trying to understand all the suffering, we must look for the Truth that is found in them.

The first Truth that I see is (as I said in part 2) that, although we may not be able to understand suffering, we believe in a God who suffers with us. He reigns from the Cross.

Jesus had to die because in dying He destroyed death. He destroyed Sin. His death frees us. In the Gospel of John, Jesus says: “I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” (A cliché from Jn 12:24?) What I take from this passage is that unless I die I will not produce fruit.  It means I have to die to myself. It means I have to not be so selfish and self-centred. If I stop being so self-consumed and focus a little bit more on others, chances are I will produce some good fruit. Lent is a good time to practice dying to ourselves.

Jesus dying on the cross in a way represents how we each have to die:  We have to die to ourselves. In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus says to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Mt.16:24). Deny yourself. That means stop being so self-centred.

In Luke, Jesus says: “And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” (Lk 14:27) Does “our cross” mean, “our suffering”?  Does it mean that if I am not willing to suffer, then I can’t be a follower of Jesus?  Is He preaching a religion that requires suffering? But as I said last week this doesn’t mean that I have to create my own suffering. Our cross is not suffering for the sake of suffering.

What does Jesus say about suffering?  He healed the sick, he cured the lame and the blind; he resurrected Lazarus. He fed the hungry. So Jesus fought against suffering at every turn. In fact, when Lazarus died, people chastised Jesus for not going to Lazarus when he was sick and curing him. (Jn: 11:4) When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” So Lazarus died so that God may be glorified through it.

On the fifth Sunday in Lent, this year (Cycle B) we will hear the reading from John 12:20-33 about the kernel of wheat dying, that I mentioned above. It’s worth reading the whole passage. Jesus says:

“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.

Amen, amen, I say to you,

unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies,

it remains just a grain of wheat;

but if it dies, it produces much fruit.

Whoever loves his life loses it,

and whoever hates his life in this world

will preserve it for eternal life.

Whoever serves me must follow me,

and where I am, there also will my servant be.

The Father will honor whoever serves me.”

He says it in response to some Greeks who wanted to see him. He’s speaking about what we have to do if we want to follow him.

But in a less-known passage, which follows, he says,

“I am troubled now. Yet what should I say?

‘Father, save me from this hour’?

But it was for this purpose that I came to this hour.

Father, glorify your name.”
Then a voice came from heaven,

“I have glorified it and will glorify it again.”

The crowd there heard it and said it was thunder;

but others said, “An angel has spoken to him.”

Jesus answered and said,

“This voice did not come for my sake but for yours.

Now is the time of judgment on this world;

now the ruler of this world will be driven out.

And when I am lifted up from the earth,

I will draw everyone to myself.”

He said this indicating the kind of death he would die.

Jesus is saying that some suffering glorifies God. Which kind of suffering? Self-centred suffering won’t glorify God, that’s for sure. He also says that we must accept the suffering that comes with following Him.

In the Passion of the Christ by Mel Gibson there’s a very moving scene: Jesus is carrying the cross on the way to his crucifixion. He has been tortured and can barely stand or walk. His face is bruised and bleeding and his eye is swollen shut. He has fallen a lot more than three times. Mary, his mother is trying to get to him through the crowds. She finally breaks through as Jesus falls one more time. He looks up at her and says: “See Mother, I make all things new.”

Jesus came to make all things new.  He came to renew.  He talked about a new commandment: Love one another. A new Covenant: His blood is the blood of the new Covenant. In Mark He says: “And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, He pours new wine into new wineskins.” (Mark 2:22)  And how does He do this? By suffering and dying on the Cross. Lent is a time when we focus on dying to ourselves – even if it means a little suffering – so that we can glorify God. That, in turn, will make us new. That is why Lent is also a time for transfiguration. The season of Lent may begin with the story of Jesus going into the desert, but the second Sunday in Lent always has the story of the Transfiguration.

When Pope Francis was interviewed for America Magazine and was asked, “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” he paused. He thought for a bit and then he said, “I am sinner. I am a sinner, whom the Lord has looked upon.”

That’s who we are: sinners, but that is just half of the story: We are sinners, whom the Lord has looked upon. Lent is not Lent if it doesn’t lead to Easter. Lent is a time when we focus a bit more on our sinfulness because the Lord has looked upon us; because Easter is just around the corner.

Come back next week and we’ll look at the two-fold character of Lent.

CNS photo/Vincent West, Reuters