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Moving Forward: From Benedict to Francis

It’s been a year since Pope Benedict shocked the world by announcing his resignation, and so much has happened since: At not even a year of Pope Francis’ papacy it’s almost as if he’s been Pope forever. Join Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB as he looks back at the historic events of the last year in Rome, with Cheridan Sanders, Alicia Ambrosio and Sebastian Gomes, who provide expert analysis.

Where were you on 2/11?

A year ago, perhaps this was not the question most people asked themselves. But today we ask, where were you on February 11th, 2013, the day Pope Benedict made the historic announcement that he would be retiring?

Today, a year later we seem to have gotten used to a new Pope. It seems that Pope Francis has been pope forever, but we would not be here today, had it not been for Pope Benedict’s courage.

Today let’s remember Pope Emeritus Benedict, who one day will likely be named a Doctor of the Church. Let’s also take stock of where the Church is today, a year later, and how much we’ve experienced in the first year of Francis’ pontificate.

Join us tonight at 8pm ET (5pm PT, with a repeat at midnight ET and 9pm PT) for Moving Forward: From Benedict to Francis, as Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB looks back at the year that has passed, with Alicia Ambrosio, Sebastian Gomes and Cheridan Sanders, who provide excellent analysis.

The 90-minute special will repeat on
Wednesday, February 12, at 12:30pm ET (9:30am PT);
Friday, February 14 at 9am ET (6am PT)
and on Sunday, February 16 at 9pm ET (6pm and 10pm PT).

Baptism Makes Us Members of the Family of Jesus

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Feast of the Baptism of the Lord – Sunday, January 12, 2014

In 2009, Salt + Light Television produced a magnificent documentary, “Within Your Gates,” on Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s historic pilgrimage to Jordan and Israel.  Among the moving scenes in the film are the Holy Father’s visit, along with Jordan’s King Abdullah II and his wife, Queen Rania, to what is strongly believed to be the baptismal site of Jesus at the Jordan River in Jordan.  Reviewing all the footage and listened closely to the Pope’s moving homily at the Jordan, I could not think of a more fitting way to prepare for the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord that we celebrate today.

Benedict XVI reflected on Jesus’ baptism, which he described as being “brought vividly before us in this place.”  The Pope said:

“Jesus stood in line with sinners and accepted John’s baptism of penance as a prophetic sign of his own passion, death and resurrection for the forgiveness of sins. Down through the centuries, many pilgrims have come to the Jordan to seek purification, renew their faith and draw closer to the Lord. Such was the pilgrim Egeria, who left a written account of her visit during the late fourth century. The Sacrament of Baptism, drawing its power from Christ’s death and resurrection, will be cherished especially by the Christian communities that gather in the new church buildings. May the Jordan always remind you that you have been washed in the waters of baptism and have become members of the family of Jesus. Your lives, in obedience to his word, are being transformed into his image and likeness. As you strive to be faithful to your baptismal commitment of conversion, witness and mission, know that you are being strengthened by the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

Scriptural insights into the Lord’s Baptism

Three rich Scripture readings are spread before us for the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord.  Each reading gives us some profound insights into the Baptism of Jesus and our own baptism.

Today’s first reading from Isaiah’s second “Suffering Servant Song”  [42:1-4, 6-7] introduces us to the Suffering Servant of the Lord who lives in union, communion and sympathy with the entire human family.  The Lord has chosen a special servant to be and to show the divine glory in the world.  The striking fact about Isaiah 42:1-9 is that the Servant is never clearly identified. What is emphasized is the activity and character of the Servant. This Servant was chosen by God; he was given God’s Spirit, so he would bring justice to everyone, Jew and foreigner alike. For the society of the time, the servant would be counter-cultural; he would not be interested in fame or power. But his rule would be gentle but would be sure.  His rule would precede his teaching to the coastlands, areas west (the Mediterranean world) and south (along the Red Sea).

Isaiah 42:1-4 reminds the people of God to be humble since they are not God’s sole agents of justice and righteousness. In some cases God may be accomplishing his plans for his people through the nations (e.g., 44:28).  In verses 6-7, God, himself, commissioned the Servant. God called the servant to justice and to act as his own representative.  The Servant would give the blind sight and prisoners freedom. These images of sight and liberation could be taken literally or figuratively. At the time of Second Isaiah, the ruling elite of Judea were captives held by the blind ambition of foreign dictators. In a figurative sense, the blindness and imprisonment could be the people’s lack of faith. In either case, the Servant would be God’s instrument of healing, wholeness and liberation.

The deep goodness of Cornelius and his household

The extraordinary story of Cornelius’ conversion in today’s second reading [Acts 10:34-38] certainly sheds light on the meaning and implications of baptism.  It is the longest individual narrative in the Acts of the Apostles.  The theme of this narrative is divine compulsion: Peter is the least prepared to accept Cornelius into the Christian community and he even refuses to admit him two times.  Peter had to be converted before he could convert Cornelius.  Peter came to the realization that God’s gifts were given to all those who listened to the Word of God.  His question “Can anyone forbid water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” [10:47] echoes the Ethiopian’s question and Philip’s response in the earlier story: “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” [8:36]?

Peter’s actions with Cornelius had far-reaching implications.  Struck at once with the exceptional sincerity, hospitality and deep goodness of Cornelius and his household, Peter spontaneously exclaimed: “God has made it clear to me that no one should call anyone unclean or impure… God shows no partiality.”  That statement broke centuries of customs and even of theology, that Israel, alone was God’s chosen people, separated from all other nations as God’s very own [cf. Deuteronomy 7:6-8; Exodus 19:5-6].  Peter had no choice but to baptize the household of Cornelius and he was criticized for his ‘ecumenical’ approach but responded to his critics: “Who am I that I could withstand God [11:17]?  When his critics heard these words, they were silenced and began to glorify God [11:18].

Paul, too, found the same spontaneous manifestation of the faith among the gentiles and so made the exciting declaration: “We now turn to the Gentiles!”  The controversy over the law was to linger for a long time, so that Paul dedicated to this topic his most comprehensive theological work: the letter to the Romans.

Jesus’ Messianic Vocation

The Gospel reading for this feast, Matthew 3:13-17, contains echoes of Isaiah 42. Jesus’ anointing by the Spirit of God [3:16] and recalls the Lord God’s declaration in 42:1, “I have put my spirit on him.” The affirmation of Jesus as God’s “Beloved, with whom [he is] well pleased” [3:17] evokes God’s designation of his Servant as “[his] chosen, in whom [his] soul delights” [Isaiah 42:1].  The commissioning of Jesus to a vocation of Servanthood at his Baptism indicates this new age has begun.

In Matthew’s baptism scene, we catch a glimpse of not only the intimate relationship between Father and Son but also the consequences of that relationship.  The private believer is a public servant.  According to Matthew, when Jesus rises, dripping, from the waters of the Jordan, John has moved on to the next baptism and the crowds are busy with repentance.  Jesus alone sees the Spirit descending on wings of light to rest upon his soggy head.  Jesus alone hears the well-pleased voice of God calling him “Beloved Son.”  The experience drives him out alone into the desert for 40 days to hone his calling.  No wonder that when he returns to begin his ministry, one of his first actions is to call disciples.  Enough solitude already!  It’s time for company!

Baptism and Eucharist: Sacraments of Initiation

In receiving the life of Christ in baptism, we Christians are also called upon to sustain the life of the Church.  Baptism is truly a leap into the mystery of Jesus, a leap and an immersion that transform us fully into his likeness.  Like the Servant in today’s reading from the prophet Isaiah [Isaiah 42:1-4,6-7], we are to replace darkness with light.  Like the Servant in Matthew, we are to replace pain with healing.  Far from being purely a private gift, faith is a public responsibility.  We must stand up and take our rightful place in the Church.  Our sharing in the Eucharist bonds us together with our brothers and sisters who have been immersed into the life of Christ through the waters of baptism.

As the New Year begins, we need sight to see beyond our limitations and freedom from our self-imposed faults.  Our relationship with God helps us to see beyond the little worlds in which we live.  How does God help us to see the possibilities? How does faith in Christ help lift us up and radically change us? Let us pray that the grace of our own baptism will help us to be light to others and to the world, and give us the strength and courage to make a difference, to be counted among the family and friends of Jesus.

Responsibility for the proclamation of the Gospel

As we continue our reflection on Pope Benedict’s Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini that followed the Synod of Bishops on the Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church we read in paragraph #94 that all the baptized are responsible for the proclamation of the Gospel:

“Since the entire People of God is a people which has been “sent”, the Synod reaffirmed that “the mission of proclaiming the word of God is the task of all of the disciples of Jesus Christ based on their Baptism”.  No believer in Christ can feel dispensed from this responsibility which comes from the fact of our sacramentally belonging to the Body of Christ. A consciousness of this must be revived in every family, parish, community, association and ecclesial movement. The Church, as a mystery of communion, is thus entirely missionary, and everyone, according to his or her proper state in life, is called to give an incisive contribution to the proclamation of Christ. Bishops and priests, in accordance with their specific mission, are the first to be called to live a life completely at the service of the word, to proclaim the Gospel, to celebrate the sacraments and to form the faithful in the authentic knowledge of Scripture. Deacons too must feel themselves called to cooperate, in accordance with their specific mission, in this task of evangelization.

“Throughout the Church’s history the consecrated life has been outstanding for explicitly taking up the task of proclaiming and preaching the word of God in the ‘missio ad gentes’ and in the most difficult situations, for being ever ready to adapt to new situations and for setting out courageously and boldly along fresh paths in meeting new challenges for the effective proclamation of God’s word.

“The laity are called to exercise their own prophetic role, which derives directly from their Baptism, and to bear witness to the Gospel in daily life, wherever they find themselves. In this regard the Synod Fathers expressed “the greatest esteem, gratitude and encouragement for the service to evangelization which so many of the lay faithful, and women in particular, provide with generosity and commitment in their communities throughout the world, following the example of Mary Magdalene, the first witness of the joy of Easter”.  The Synod also recognized with gratitude that the ecclesial movements and the new communities are a great force for evangelization in our times and an incentive to the development of new ways of proclaiming the Gospel.”

[The readings for the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord are: Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7; Acts 10:34-38; and Matthew 3:13-17.]


This reflection first appeared on the Zenit International News Service in 2010 as well as on the Salt + Light Blog. The complete collection of reflections for Year B, entitled “Words made Flesh,” is now available in book form through our online store. Book editions for Year A and C reflections are coming soon.

Experiencing Forgiveness and Salvation

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The Second Sunday of Advent, Year A – December 8th, 2013

In today’s Scripture readings, two of the three outstanding Advent guides (Isaiah, John the Baptist and Mary) show us the proper attitude to assume as we prepare to welcome the Saviour of the world.  First of all, Isaiah, the prophet of consolation and singer of hope.  The idyllic reading from the prophet Isaiah [11:1-10] speaks of a shoot that will sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom [1].  This is a reference to the fact that after the Babylonian Exile only a stump of the Davidic dynasty would remain; from it would arise the new shoot, the messianic King.  In verses 2-3 we have the source of the traditional names of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

An image of the idyllic harmony of paradise in vv 6-9 is a dramatic symbol of the universal peace and justice of messianic times.  Throughout this season of Advent, Isaiah proclaims a true and proper Gospel for the people of Israel, enslaved in Babylon, and urges them to remain vigilant in prayer, to recognize “the signs” of the coming of the Messiah.

The kingdom of heaven is at hand

Then there is John the Baptist [Matthew 3:1-12], the precursor of the Messiah, who is presented as a “voice crying in the wilderness”, preaching “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”  Unlike Luke, Matthew says nothing of the Baptist’s origins and does not make him a relative of Jesus.

Matthew takes up the order of Jesus’ ministry found in the gospel of Mark, beginning with the preparatory preaching of John the Baptist.  The Baptist calls for a change of heart and conduct, a turning of one’s life from rebellion to obedience towards God. It is the only condition for recognizing the Messiah already present in the world.  The kingdom of heaven is at hand: “heaven” (literally, “the heavens”) is a substitute for the name “God” that was avoided by devout Jews of the time out of reverence. The expression “the kingdom of heaven” occurs only in the gospel of Matthew. It means the effective rule of God over his people. In its fullness it includes not only human obedience to God’s word, but the triumph of God over physical evils, ultimately over death.  In the expectation found in Jewish apocalyptic, the kingdom was to be ushered in by a judgment in which sinners would be condemned and perish, an expectation shared by the Baptist. This was later modified in Christian understanding where the kingdom was seen as being established in stages, culminating with the parousia (second coming) of Jesus.

John’s wardrobe

Matthew presents John the Baptist as the first Christian preacher.  Wearing the clothes of a latter-day Elijah [II Kings 1:8], John solemnly proclaims that God is undertaking a new involvement with humankind.  The expectation of the return of Elijah from heaven to prepare Israel for the final manifestation of God’s kingdom was widespread, and according to Matthew this expectation was fulfilled in the Baptist’s ministry [Matthew 11:14; 17:11-13].

Ritual washing [6] was practiced by various groups in Palestine between 150 B.C. and A.D. 250. John’s baptism may have been related to the purificatory washings of the Essenes at Qumran along the shores of the Dead Sea.  John’s is a baptism of repentance requiring the convert to adopt a new way of thinking and acting.

The Pharisees, Sadducees and us

The unlikely combination of Pharisees and Sadducees in today’s Gospel passage is evidence of this desire to reform. [7] The Pharisees were marked by devotion to the law, written and oral, and the scribes, experts in the law, belonged predominantly to this group. The Sadducees were the priestly aristocratic party, centered in Jerusalem. They accepted as scripture only the first five books of the Old Testament, followed only the letter of the law, rejected the oral legal traditions, and were opposed to teachings not found in the Pentateuch, such as the resurrection of the dead. Matthew links both of these groups together as enemies of Jesus.  The threatening words that follow are addressed to them rather than to “the crowds” as in Luke 3:7. The “coming wrath” is the judgment that will bring about the destruction of unrepentant sinners.

At the end of our days on earth, at the moment of death, we will be evaluated on our acceptance of Jesus’ words and imitation of his life.  God calls each of us to follow in Jesus’ footsteps, making our existence, as he did, a gift of love. And the fruit of love is that fruit which “befits repentance”, to which John the Baptist refers while he addresses cutting words to the Pharisees and Sadducees among the crowds who had come for Baptism.

In verse 11 we hear of the baptism with the Holy Spirit.  The water baptism of John will be followed by an “immersion” of the repentant in the cleansing power of the Spirit of God, and of the unrepentant in the destroying power of God’s judgment. However, some see the Holy Spirit and fire as synonymous, and the effect of this “baptism” as either purification or destruction.  The discrimination between the good and the bad [12] is compared to the procedure by which a farmer separates wheat and chaff. The winnowing fan was a forklike shovel with which the threshed wheat was thrown into the air. The kernels fell to the ground; the light chaff, blown off by the wind, was gathered and burned up.

The Baptist’s Mission

John’s whole mission was a preparation for the Messiah’s coming.  When his own disciples came to him and were troubled about the meaning of Jesus’ baptizing in the Jordan, he answered them confidently:  “No one can receive anything except what is given them from heaven…”  John says that he is only the friend of the bridegroom, the one who must decrease while his master increases [Jn 3:25-30].  The Baptizer defined his humanity in terms of its limitations.  When the time had come, John led his own disciples to Jesus and indicated to them the Messiah, the True Light, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.  Jesus’ own testimony to John makes the Baptizer the greatest of all Israelite heroes [Mt 11:7-19; Lk 7:24-35].

John considered himself to be less than a slave to Jesus:  “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire [Matt 3:11].  John gave the people of his time an experience of forgiveness and salvation, knowing full well that he himself was not the Messiah, the one who could save. Do we allow others to have experiences of God, of forgiveness and of salvation?

The crowds came to John and asked him, “What then shall we do?” The Baptist didn’t mince words.  He got right to the point and said what needed to be said.  He advised no one to leave the world they are in, however ambiguous it may be.  Rather he told those with two coats to share one with those who had none.  Likewise those with an abundance of food were to share with the hungry.  Tax collectors were told to collect no more than was appointed to them.  Soldiers were to rob no one by violence or by false accusation.  They were to be content with their wages.  What were people to do to prepare for the imminent coming of the Messiah?  To be generous, just, honest, grateful and compassionate. [Lk 3:10-14]. 

The perennial message of John the Baptist

The Israelite prophet is one who has received a divine call to be a messenger and interpreter of the Word of God.  The word which came to the prophet compelled him to speak.  The prophet is also the conscience of a community and the conscience of a nation.  Ezekiel tells us a prophet is like the watchman, the person who is out there watching for what might happen to the community, issuing a warning, trying to alert everyone, “Things are going the wrong way” or “We’re in danger. We have to change. We have to be ready to protect ourselves.” The prophet is the one who sees farther, perhaps, than others, and the one who sees implications in what is going on.

At times prophets shared God’s anger, God’s compassion, God’s sorrow, God’s disappointment, God’s revulsion, God’s sensitivity for people, and God’s seriousness.  They did not share these things in the abstract; rather, they shared God’s feelings about the concrete events of their time.  This is the type of prophet that John the Baptist was.  He didn’t mince words.  He got right to the point and said what needed to be said.  How often our words, thoughts and actions are incoherent and ambiguous!  How often do the skirt the issues and great questions of our time and of our Church!  The true prophets of Israel model for how to counter all forms of duplicity in our own lives.

John the Baptist continues to speak down the centuries to every generation.  The “voice” of the great prophet asks us to prepare the way of the Lord, who comes in the external and internal wildernesses of today, thirsting for the living water that is Christ. May the memory of John guide us to true conversion of heart, so that we may make the necessary choices to harmonize our mentalities and lives with the Gospel.

“Verbum Domini” along the Advent journey

May I suggest to you a wonderful way to prepare a way for the Lord in your own lives this Advent?  Read Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini [The Word of the Lord Abides Forever].  This important document is the culmination of the Synod of Bishops on the Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church that took place in October 2008.  I especially suggest section #11 on the “Christology of the word”:

Christology of the word

11.  From this glimpse at all reality as the handiwork of the Blessed Trinity through the divine Word, we can understand the statement made by the author of the Letter to the Hebrews: “in many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world” (1:1-2). It is very beautiful to see how the entire Old Testament already appears to us as a history in which God communicates his word: indeed, “by his covenant with Abraham (cf. Gen 15:18) and, through Moses, with the race of Israel (cf. Ex 24:8), he gained a people for himself, and to them he revealed himself in words and deeds as the one, living and true God. It was his plan that Israel might learn by experience God’s ways with humanity and, by listening to the voice of God speaking to them through the prophets, might gradually understand his ways more fully and more clearly, and make them more widely known among the nations (cf. Ps 21:28-29; 95:1-3; Is 2:1-4; Jer 3:17)”.

[The readings for the Second Sunday of Advent are: Isaiah 11.1-10; Psalm 72; Romans 15.4-9; and Matthew 3.1-12.]

This reflection first appeared on the Zenit International News Service in 2010 as well as on the Salt + Light Blog. The complete collection of reflections for Year B, entitled “Words made Flesh,” is now available in book form through our online store. Book editions for Year A and C reflections are coming soon.

“Preferring Nothing to the Love of Christ” On the feast of Saint Benedict – July 11

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On 27 April 2005, at his first General Audience, Pope Benedict XVI told the assembled crowds why he had chosen that name for his ministry as Bishop of Rome. Among other reasons, this was an homage to Saint Benedict, whose feast we celebrate today, who has played such a role in the spiritual and cultural formation of Europe, particularly Pope Benedict’s beloved Bavaria.

Yet there was also a profoundly spiritual reason. Pope Benedict quoted Chapter 72 of the Holy Rule, “Prefer nothing to the love of Christ,” placing his ministry decisively under the watchful care of Saint Benedict: “At the beginning of my service as Successor of Peter, I ask St. Benedict to help us keep Christ firmly at the heart of our lives. May Christ always have pride of place in our thoughts and in all our activities!”

Pope Benedict has honored his patron in more than words. An old friend who saw him a few weeks ago quoted him saying that he was spending his retirement living like a monk – nothing would be more pleasing to Saint Benedict.

Perhaps the best way to honor Saint Benedict is to attend to his teaching and to love the same things that he loves. He wrote a Rule which serves as the foundation of life for many, many religious communities. One reason why this Rule has endured for over 1500 years is that it is so balanced, so humane. Benedict demonstrates a profound understanding of human nature, and his Rule looks on human weakness with a compassionate eye while making it clear that life in the school of the Lord’s service is not always easy. As the Prologue states, “In drawing up its regulations, we hope to set down nothing harsh, nothing burdensome. The good of all concerned, however, may prompt us to a little strictness in order to amend faults and safeguard love.” The Rule is designed to help communities of Christians live a moderate life of prayer and work, so that in all things, God may be glorified.

One bit of wisdom Benedict’s example imparts to the wider Church is the necessity of a rule of life for serious discipleship. There are all manner of profound spiritual traditions in the Church, from Saint Benedict to Pope Francis’ beloved Saint Ignatius, to more contemporary figures such as Charles de Foucauld or Blessed Teresa of Calcutta. To be saved from abstraction, though, these profound teachings need to be integrated into a rule of life for the serious Christian: what time in my day am I giving to prayer? Where in my life is concrete service to the poor? Through his Rule, Benedict wants to be sure that the Gospel permeates every aspect of life. This need not be limited to women and men who live in monasteries.

Another great contribution of Saint Benedict to the wider Church was the generous time he allowed each day to holy reading, lectio divina. There are numerous resources to help Christians learn and practice this form of prayer, but an old spiritual director liked to tell me that the heart of lectio divina, the prayerful reading of the Word of God, isn’t really confined to a method. When teaching and practicing this prayer with students, I would say that lectio is really working well when the Word of God is influencing you in ways that you aren’t even really aware. It need not be complicated. Read the scripture readings for the day’s Mass, and spend a few minutes with a single line.

Perhaps one example of this is Pope Francis. Summaries of his daily homilies at the chapel next to the Vatican guesthouse where he is living have become required reading for many. It is said that these homilies emerge from the very early mornings that Pope Francis keeps, rising to pray over that day’s readings for Mass. Sounds awfully Benedictine to me. While Pope Francis is a joyful Jesuit, his recent invitation to spend five minutes each day with Psalm 102 could have come straight from the lips of Saint Benedict himself!

Of course, one cannot look at Saint Benedict without considering his twin sister, Saint Scholastica. In the Office of Readings for her feast day, we read from Book II of the Dialogues of Saint Gregory the Great. Benedict and Scholastica meet once each year and spend the day in spiritual conversation. When evening comes, Benedict is ready to return to his monastery.  Scholastica protests, asking Benedict to remain for yet further conversation about the things of God. When Benedict refuses, Scholastica begins to pray, and a great thunderstorm begins that settled the argument: Benedict could go nowhere. Gregory the Great explains Scholastica’s success: “It is not surprising that she was more effective than he, since as John says, God is love, it was absolutely right that she could do more, as she loved more.”

This is a fine summary of the goal of Saint Benedict and his Rule, lectio divina, and all Christian living: to love more. Through Saint Benedict’s prayers, may God bring to fulfillment that good work in us.

Fr Becker


This blog post comes to us from Fr. Nickolas Becker, OSB, a Benedictine monk of Saint John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota. Father Nickolas professed his final vows as a Benedictine monk in 2010, and currently is pursuing a doctorate in moral theology at the Alphonsian Academy in Rome.

Transforming the Whole Person: A Reflection on Lumen Fidei

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What are we to make of this latest encyclical written by the four hands of Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI?  Remember that encyclicals make up a very significant part of the magisterial teaching of the Church.  Not only are they written and promulgated by the pope, but they focus on and are particularly relevant to the historical context in which they are written.  They are attempts to read the signs of the times through the lenses of the Gospel and the living tradition of the Church.

What is the current historical context in which we read Lumen Fidei?  Certainly from the faith perspective we must take into consideration the Year of Faith, the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, the New Evangelization, and the resignation of Benedict XVI followed by the election of Francis.  Much could be said about each of these points, but it is enough here to isolate a common thread (and there are many) that has helped me begin to digest this latest papal teaching.

All of these events and efforts in the Church over the past year have directly or indirectly said the same thing about faith: that what is needed today, in the contemporary culture and in the Church, is a clear and credible presentation of the basic elements of Christianity.  What is the faith?  Where did it come from?  Who is Jesus?

Pope Benedict must be credited with recognizing this need many years ago, if not decades ago, and especially for taking it upon himself to articulate for the Church in the form of a trilogy of encyclicals on what I would call the basic Christian virtues of Hope (Spe Salvi), Love (Deus Caritas Est), and now Faith (Lumen Fidei).  With this in mind we can think of Lumen Fidei as the final piece of a mosaic that Benedict spent many years preparing for us.  We can thank Francis for unveiling it to the world.

What do we find in this encyclical?  It is through and through a treatise on the most elementary dimensions of faith that have been articulated in various ways throughout the history of the Church.  Theologians will find the characteristically Benedictine nuances for discussion and debate, but everyone should be able to see from the outset that this was always intended to be a promotion of the basics, the essentials.  Pope Francis, who so far has given every indication that he’s a pope of the basics, surely sympathized with this approach during the redaction process.

What I find very interesting about the structure of the encyclical is the initial emphasis on the significance of faith for the progress of collective humanity, that is, for the world outside the Church as well.  This theme is found elsewhere in the document, but only for the purpose of reminding the reader of context.  That context, which must be the starting point for any discussion on the current crisis of faith that we find in the contemporary culture, is succinctly articulated in the introduction of Lumen Fidei and can serve a greater purpose in coming years, I think, of getting our feet firmly planted so as to confront the crisis with confidence.

In paragraph 3, following a description of the rapid process of secularization that the popes associate primarily with the philosophy of Nietzsche in the 19th century, they write:

There were those who tried to save faith by making room for it alongside the light of reason.  Such room would open up wherever the light of reason could not penetrate, wherever certainty was no longer possible.  Faith was thus understood either as a leap in the dark, to be taken in the absence of light, driven by blind emotion, or as a subjective light, capable perhaps of warming the heart and bringing personal consolation, but not something which could be proposed to others as an objective and shared light which points the way.

This is a fascinating analysis for two reasons.  First, it identifies the initial attempt by many believers and non-believers alike to counter the system of atheist humanism that Nietzsche and others were building.  According to Francis and Benedict, it was a futile attempt because in the search for common ground between a rapidly progressing scientific philosophy and the ancient Christian outlook, both reason and faith were watered down.  In essence, too much credit was given to the scientific philosophy so that faith lost its sure-footing in the historical (I dare say scientific) reality of the Incarnation.  The “God of the gaps” was born.

Second, this analysis is a snapshot of the origin of our current situation.  What the popes say about those who tried to save faith by making room for it alongside the light of reason is exactly what many enlightened people are still doing in 2013.  Do we not live in a culture that sees faith only as a “subjective light,” as a personal and private lifestyle void of any objective or collective reliability?

We could say that Lumen Fidei is a radical challenge to this modern understanding of faith and reason.  Francis and Benedict have thrown a curve ball into our collective outlook and leveled the playing field so that a new conversation about faith can begin – an open and honest conversation in which reason and fidelity to truth are paramount.  This, it seems to me, is the foundation of Lumen Fidei.  The popes go on to describe in considerable depth the roots of our Judeo-Christian faith and its indispensable role in the progress of humanity.  It is now up to the bishops and the faithful to delve into this encyclical and bring it to life in the local church.

Finally, in reading and studying Lumen Fidei we must never forget about the world and the people outside the Church.  This encyclical is as much for them as it is for us.  And it would be a perilous mistake on our part to consider this teaching only insofar as it exposes the disoriented first principles of the modern conceptions of faith and reason.  We must avoid, and condemn where necessary, any inclination within the Church toward Gnosticism – the secret faith, the pure faith – that would see nothing good in modernity or the contemporary culture.  That is not the Christian faith.  “Faith transforms the whole person precisely to the extent that he or she becomes open to love.” (Lumen Fidei, 26)

What Benedict stored, Francis scatters…Some Reflections on the Papal Transition

Francis and Benedict seated cropped

The following address was given to over 500 Catholic journalists and those working in Catholic Media in Canada and the United States at the Presidential Medallion Awards Luncheon of the Catholic Media Convention in Denver, Colorado on June 21, 2013.

Dear Colleagues and Friends,

First of all I wish to thank you for the great work that you all did during the Papal transition.  I had the pleasure of dealing with many of you during those momentous days from my position in Rome and was able to witness up close your dedication, zeal and journalistic excellence.  I wish to thank in particular our friends from Catholic News Service for their outstanding work and assistance to the secular media, and many television and radio networks.  CNS, along with Catholic News Agency helped us to fill in the gaps of solid, Catholic information on many occasions.

For four solid weeks this past Lent, through the momentous transition in the papacy, we had a golden opportunity to teach, catechize and evangelize the nations and put the Synod on the New Evangelization into practice.    Pope Benedict’s resignation on 2/11, shifted the plates of the earth for the Church.  We had no playbook, script, notes or film footage left behind by that Benedictine monk, Pietro Morrone who would later become Pope Celestine V.  Overwhelmed by the demands of the office, Celestine stepped down after five months as pope in 1294.

Almost six hundred years later, acknowledging what he called his “incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me,” Benedict told us that we must be painfully honest with the human condition, that we cannot be enchained by history.  A man who has been the champion of tradition and labeled “conservative” left us with one of the most progressive gestures made by any pope. This man known for brilliant writing, exquisite kindness, charity, gentleness, humility and clarity of teaching, offered us the epitome of a courageous and humble decision that will forever mark the papacy and the life of the Church.

Two Popes in PrayerOne of the most poignant moments of my Roman sojourn took place on February 28, the last day of Benedict’s pontificate.  His carefully orchestrated departure from the Apostolic Palace and the Vatican captured the heart and mind of the world.  The touching farewell from his co-workers on that crisp, Italian afternoon, the brief helicopter flight to Castel Gandolfo, his final words as Pope, reminding us that he would become “a pilgrim” in this final stage of his life, moved the world.  I experienced that moment with the heads of many of the television networks of the world.  There were no dry eyes in Rome that evening.

Then began the ‘Sede Vacante.’  We were off to the races!  I cannot tell you enough what a great pleasure it was to work closely with Fr. Federico Lombardi, SJ throughout the entire transition.  He is a good and honest man skilled in communicating.  We owe him an immense debt of gratitude.  Sitting at his side, spending hours with him on daily scavenger hunts for Vatican information, admiring his patience with journalists taught me many lessons about patience, charity and the necessity of humor through it all!

The Vatican strategy of spreading the multi-lingual banquet table of information during the papal transition bore much fruit this past Lent. As Cardinals gathered in Rome and met in secret sessions (at least we thought they were secret!) to assess the state of the Church and trace a profile of the next pope, many of you saw Fr. Lombardi, Msgr. Gil Tamayo and me answering hundreds of questions on a daily basis from the media around the world.  Those daily televised press conferences and briefings topped some of the Italian soap operas for viewership.

Questions coming to us at press conferences and briefings revealed an immense interest (some would say obsession) in things Church!  From the Italian fascination with the retired Pope’s abandonment of the red shoes; to the Mexicans’ delight with the emeritus Pope’s predilection for brown loafers from Leon, Mexico; to the Germans’ intense preoccupation with environmental dangers of black and white smoke pollution over the city of Rome; to the French “souci” with just about everything, and again to the Italian preoccupations with the sealing of Papal apartments and the smashing of Papal seals… we had our hands full.  The world was watching and listening.  I chuckled several times thinking that the Church had made such great strides these past years in the area of social communications.  But for such a major event and happening as a conclave, we still relied on smoke signals.

I was asked to handle the media requests in English (and later French) and thus worked 18-hour days with television, print and radio media from every corner of the globe.  My young colleague, Sebastian Gomes guided me through the maze of media requests and kept me steady through it all.  I lost count after doing 165 television and radio interviews with every possible network you can imagine… first in English, then French, Spanish, Italian, and German.

The Conclave

When the College of Cardinals finally entered into the conclave on Tuesday, March 12, the excitement and expectation were palpable.  As much as Italy tried to dominate the whole process, and delight in the so-called Vatileaks that continued to flow during the pre-conclave meetings, they got it all wrong… as did many others throughout the world who stared in utter amazement at the man who appeared on the loggia of St. Peter’s basilica the night of March 13.

With the “Habemus Papam” came the name of a stranger, and outsider, who instantly won over the crowd in the Piazza and the entire world with the words, “Fratelli e Sorelle, buona sera!” (Brothers and sisters, good evening!)  Who would believe a pontificate beginning with those simple, common words?  Never in my wildest imaginings did I expect a Pope to be called Francis!  Nor could I comprehend the scene of well over one hundred thousand cheering people suddenly becoming still and silent as Papa Franceso bowed and asked them to pray for him and pray over him.  It was the most moving moment I have ever experienced at a Vatican celebration.  His words “Pray for me…” still resound in my ears.

From the very first moments, Pope Francis stressed his role with the ancient title of “bishop of Rome” who presides in charity, echoing the famous statement of Ignatius of Antioch.  Francis has brought to the papacy a knack for significant gestures that immediately convey very powerful messages.

Francis the “defibrillator”

Some have called the man from Argentina a “tweetable” Pope made for 140 characters! We delight in his words of wisdom telling us: “Eternity will not be boring”; “Long faces cannot proclaim Jesus”; “War is madness.  It is the suicide of humanity”; “We are not part-time Christians”; and “The Church is not ‘spa therapy’.”  He’s got the world talking, and listening!  With each day’s new provocative statements, Pope Francis tells those privileged to work at the Vatican and for the Vatican that it’s time for a change, that the Church does not belong to them, that the movement of the Holy Spirit cannot be managed or scripted. He is sending a message with the style, as well as the substance, of his remarks.

Pope Francis embraces emeritus Pope Benedict XVI at papal summer residence in Castel GandolfoA French journalist recently referred to Francis as a “defibrillator” pope. We need defibrillators when we have serious heart problems.  Defibrillation is a common treatment for life-threatening heart rythms, blocked arteries, and problems with pulses.  Defibrillation consists of delivering a therapeutic dose of electrical energy to the affected heart.  This depolarizes a critical mass of the heart muscle, terminates the dysrhythmia, and allows rhythm to be reestablished by the body’s natural pacemaker.  Francesco is a badly needed ecclesial defibrillator for our times!

Let’s look at a few of Francis’ electroshocks over the past three months:  He started changing the tune of the papacy from day one, when he returned to the Casa Paolo VI to pack his bags and pay his bills!  He has made it pretty clear to us that he is not fascinated with a certain form of unhealthy traditionalism and pomp which seemed to be on the rise.

He jolted some liturgists and canonists on Holy Thursday night when, in a Roman prison, he washed the feet of outcasts, including two women and two Muslims in a gesture of profound service.

He has established a new form of magisterium at Domus Sanctae Marthae, by celebrating mass with various groups of Vatican employees each morning and giving a homily  which has become a staple in spiritual nourishment for millions around the world – Chrstian and non-Christian.  The colorful, provocative and off-the-cuff homilies he delivers have become one of the distinctive features of his pontificate.  Perhaps some curial types are wringing hands and quietly singing a new version of one of Rogers and Hammerstein’s masterpieces: “How do we solve a problem like Francesco?  How do we hold a moonbeam in our hands?”

He has railed against the scandal of poverty and stressed the importance of personal involvement with the poor.  Money must “serve” man, not “rule” over him.  The pope’s condemnation of runaway capitalism and an exclusive focus on profit are ideologically in line with Pope Benedict, but the energy and frequency with which Francis strikes these chords are definitely new.

He has decried the “self-referential” mentality of Catholics.  He has challenged the mentality of ecclesial framework managers and been critical of a Church  that loses its dynamic spiritual principles.

He has challenged priests and bishops in the exercise of their ministry and their stewardship of material goods.  This morning, in a long, heartfelt address to a rare meeting of the Nuncios of the world gathered in Rome, Francis told them that pastors “must know how to be ahead of the herd to point the way, in the midst of the flock to keep it united, behind the flock to prevent someone being left behind, so that the same flock… has the sense of smell to find its way.”

Christianity, for Francis, is not a “salon Christianity” where we sit around at high tea and discuss religious or theological things that do not have a direct impact on our lives.

He has cried out against hypocrisy, clericalism, duplicity, narcissism, consumerism and hedonism in all their ugly forms.

To representatives of communities and movements gathered in Rome on Pentecost weekend,  Francis asked them if they were open to surprises of God?   Are we brave enough to go through the new paths that the novelty of God offers us, or do we defend ourselves, trapped in obsolete structures that have lost the purpose?

Pope Francis’ daily mantra can be summed up in one expression: “Go out to the peripheries.”  He calls us out of our cocoons to go to “the existential peripheries.”  Think outisde the box.  Go to uncharted places on the fringes.  You will be surprised who you find there!  For the Pope, the Church is Missionary or she will die.  Do we really want to go to these “existential peripheries”?  How many times do we feel assaulted and challenged by them?

Personally, I needed to experience these “Franciscan” electroshocks.  I think the Church needed to experience them.  They are never pleasant, but they often reverse death-dealing powers, unblock arteries of life, give us back our pulse, depolarize our atrophied muscles and help us to live again and love again.  They invite us into a deep conversion of mind and heart.

Benedict and Francis

My favorite biography of St. Francis of Assisi is that of the great British writer, G.K. Chesterton. I have read that work many times throughout my life, and one passage has taken on new meaning for me over the past months.  Listen to Chesterton’s words:

“St. Francis must be imagined as moving swiftly through the world with a
sort of impetuous politeness; almost like the movement of a man who
stumbles on one knee half in haste and half in obeisance.  The eager
face under the brown hood was that of a man always going somewhere, as
if he followed as well as watched the flight of the birds.  And this
sense of motion is indeed the meaning of the whole revolution that he
made; for the work that has now to be described was of the nature of an
earthquake or a volcano, an explosion that drove outwards with dynamic
energy the forces stored up by ten centuries in the monastic fortress or
arsenal and scattered all its riches recklessly to the ends of the

In a better sense than the antithesis commonly conveys, it is
true to say that what St. Benedict had stored St. Francis scattered; but
in the world of spiritual things what had been stored into the barns
like grain was scattered over the world as seed.  The servants of God
who had been a besieged garrison became a marching army; the ways of the
world were filled as with thunder with the trampling of their feet and
far ahead of that ever swelling host went a man singing; as simply he
had sung that morning in the winter woods, where he walked alone.”

“What Benedict had stored, Francis scattered…”  Yesterday Pope Francis marked his first 100 days in office next week, but what is that in light of an institution that thinks in centuries?  These days offer us a time to look back, to give thanks, and to look forward.  Many of us in both religious and secular media have been a bit too quick to interpret Francis’ gestures as a sign of discontinuity with the work of his predecessor. What we forget is that more than any of the choices made by Francis, it was Benedict XVI’s resignation that represented the greatest change of the papal office.  Benedict’s decision does not in any way undermine the papacy.  It really does make little difference what vestments the Pope choses to wear or not to wear, or whether he wears a fanon at a canonization mass or prefers fancy thrones or heavy golden crosses.

There is no question that all of these external things place proper emphasis on the sacredness, uniqueness and universality of the papal ministry.  Benedict, the great teacher also taught us something else: that the Petrine ministry is not about externals, power, prestige and privilege.  Pope Benedict brilliantly emphasized the need for intense theological life, constant prayer and quiet contemplation which would naturally give way to good moral living, a commitment to others, and a life of charity and justice. With Francis, it seems that the perspective is the other way around – it is concrete, charitable actions and visible human affection that redefine the theological life, giving it depth and breath.  And such actions attract others to Christ and the Church and serve as privileged instruments of evangelization.

Francesco Piazza JeepWhat Benedict stored, Francis scatters…  Francis has not yet promulgated any encyclicals or “moto proprios.”  But his striking symbolism is becoming substance. Francesco seeks a simpler church, more closely identified with the poor.  He is undoubtedly aware of the scandals, the corruption, the hypocrisy, the challenges, the leaks and the lobbies, and the things that need to be fixed inside the Vatican.  But many around the world, inside and outside the Church, from the left, right and centre of the Church are witnessing something new happening.  Smallness of mind and meanness of spirit are slowly transformed into wideness of thought and generosity of spirit.  We have heard that many people are returning to the Sacrament of Reconciliation because of what is happening in Rome.  Could this not be a gift of the Spirit and a sign that the New Evangelization has begun in some unexpected places?

What Benedict stored, Francis scatters…  “In the world of spiritual things what had been stored into the barns like grain was scattered over the world as seed… .”  Let us never forget the deep continuity between Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, Bishop of Rome. It is manifested in their outlook on faith and their awareness that it is the Lord who leads the Church, not the Pope.  Francis teaches the doctrine identical to that of his predecessors.  He reminds us of the words of his predecessor Blessed John over 50 years ago at the beginning of the Second Vatican Council: “The substance of the ancient doctrine of the Deposit of Faith is one thing, and the way it is presented is another.”  With Francis, it’s the same Petrine brand but the packaging has changed!

And now, in the frequent words of the reigning Supreme Pontiff, Vicar of Christ,  Successor of St. Peter, Prince of The Apostles; Patriarch of The West; Servant of the Servants of God; Primate of Italy; Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman Province; and Sovereign of Vatican City State and Bishop of Rome:

Buon pranzo!

Buen provecho!

Buon appetito!

Have a good day and a good lunch!

Thank you!

Momentous transitions and awesome joy

Pope Francis and Fr. Thomas Rosica
Photo caption: Pope Francis greeting Fr. Thomas Rosica, C.S.B., at Audience for Journalists following the Papal election on Saturday, March 16, 2013 at the Vatican.  Courtesy of L’Osservatore Romano photographic service.

The following article appeared in the Catholic Courier of the Diocese of Rochester, New York on May 2, 2013.

Source: http://www.catholiccourier.com/

Editor’s note:

Basilian Father Thomas Rosica is a Rochester native who attended Nazareth Hall, St. Ambrose School, Aquinas Institute and St. John Fisher College before being ordained to the priesthood for the Congregation of St. Basil by Bishop Emeritus Matthew H. Clark on April 19, 1986, at St. Ambrose Church, Rochester. Chief executive officer for the past decade of Canada’s Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation in Toronto, Father Rosica assisted in the Holy See Press Office with media relations subsequent to the resignation of Benedict XVI through the election of Pope Francis. Father Rosica agreed to our request that he offer some reflections on the experience for his hometown readers.

February 11, 2013, did not only shift the plates of the earth for the church, but marked a seismic shift in my life. Early that morning in Rome, the pope resigned and caught the world and the church off guard. When my colleague and friend, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, director of the Holy See Press Office, phoned and asked me to come quickly to Rome to assist him, I understood that help was needed in dealing with a deluge of media requests in the aftermath of the pope’s surprise resignation.
Having run World Youth Day in Canada in 2002, founded and led Salt and Light Catholic Television Network in Canada since 2003, and served as the Vatican-appointed media attaché at two world Synods of Bishops in 2008 and 2012, I had some idea of media work for the church. But nothing came close to the daunting experience of serving as a Vatican spokesperson during Lent 2013. The adventure included a papal resignation, the sede vacante (or interregnum), a conclave taking place without the atmosphere of a papal funeral, and the surprise election of the first pope from the Americas — not just any pope, but a Jesuit pope — the first modern pope to have been ordained to the priesthood after the Second Vatican Council.

Over the next month, I experienced not a deluge but a tsunami of images, stories, encounters, people and opportunities that would change the life and direction of the church! Thank God I was accompanied by one of the young producers from Salt and Light Television in Canada, Sebastian Gomes. Together we worked day and night, and Sebastian kept me steady through the experience. [Read more…]

Photo of the Day: Pope Francis greets Pope Benedict

Two Popes at Home OR

Pope Francis greets Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI inside the doorway of the Mater Ecclesia monastery in Vatican City. Benedict XVI returned to Vatican City for the first time after his resignation became official on February 28, 2013.

Photo courtesy of L’Osservatore Romano Photographic Service

Getting to Habemus Papam: Timeline

Over the past few days in our mini-blog series, Getting to Habemus Papam we invited you to remember the conclaves which have elected the Popes of the past two centuries. In fact, we went one step further and thought you might also enjoy using this timeline to browse your way back and forth through the conclaves that made church history.