From the Wound in His Heart Flows the Great Wave of Mercy…

Divine Mercy cropped

Second Sunday of Easter, Year A – Sunday, April 27, 2014

“Doubting Thomas” is a term often used to describe someone who refuses to believe something without direct, personal evidence; a skeptic. It refers of course to Thomas, one of the Twelve, whose name occurs in all the gospel lists of the apostles. Thomas is called “Didymus,” the Greek form of an Aramaic name meaning “twin.” When Jesus announced his intention of returning to Judea to visit Lazarus, Thomas said to his fellow disciples: “Let us also go, that we may die with him (John 11:16).” It was Thomas who, during the great discourse after the Last Supper, raised an objection: “Lord, we do not know where you are going; and how can we know the way (John 14:5)?”

Little else is recorded of Thomas the Apostle in the New Testament, nevertheless thanks to John’s gospel text for today (John 20:19-31) his personality is clearer to us than that of some others of the twelve. Thomas would have listened to Jesus’ words, and he certainly experienced dismay at Jesus’ death. That Easter evening when the Lord appeared to the disciples, Thomas was not present. When he was told that Jesus was alive and had shown himself, Thomas stated: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe” (John 20:25). Eight days later, Thomas made his act of faith, drawing down the rebuke of Jesus – “Because you have seen me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.”

The real Thomas

Thomas the Apostle is one of the greatest and most honest of the lovers of Jesus, not the eternal skeptic, nor the bullish, stubborn personality that Christian tradition has often painted. This young apostle stood before the cross, not comprehending the horrors of what had happened. All his dreams and hopes were hanging on that cross. Thomas rediscovered his faith amidst the believing community of apostles and disciples. This point must never be forgotten, especially in an age when so many claim that faith and spirituality are attainable without the experience of the ecclesial community. We do not believe as isolated individuals, but rather, through our Baptism, we become members of this great family of the Church. It is precisely the faith professed by the ecclesial community we call Church that reinforces our personal faith. Each Sunday at mass, we profess our faith either in the Nicene Creed or the Apostles’ Creed. In doing so, we are saved from the danger of believing in a God other than the one revealed by Christ. 

Faith is not an isolated act

Let us not forget #166 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

“Faith is a personal act – the free response of the human person to the initiative of God who reveals himself. But faith is not an isolated act. No one can believe alone, just as no one can live alone. You have not given yourself faith as you have not given yourself life. The believer has received faith from others and should hand it on to others. Our love for Jesus and for our neighbor impels us to speak to others about our faith. Each believer is thus a link in the great chain of believers. I cannot believe without being carried by the faith of others, and by my faith I help support others in the faith.”

Divine Mercy Sunday

Divine Mercy Sunday celebrates the merciful love of God shining through the Easter Triduum and the whole Easter mystery. The feast recovers an ancient liturgical tradition, reflected in a teaching attributed to St. Augustine about the Easter Octave, which he called “the days of mercy and pardon,” and the Octave Day itself “the compendium of the days of mercy.”

Pope John Paul II’s interest in Divine Mercy goes back to the days of his youth in Krakow when Karol Wojtyla was an eyewitness to so much evil and suffering during World War II in occupied Poland. He witnessed the round ups of many people who were sent to concentration camps and slave labor. In his hometown of Wadowice, he had many Jewish friends who would later die in the Holocaust. During that time of terror and fear, Karol Wojtyla decided to enter Cardinal Sapieha’s clandestine seminary in Krakow. He experienced the need for God’s mercy and humanity’s need to be merciful to one another. While in the seminary, he met another seminarian, Andrew Deskur (who would later become Cardinal), who introduced Karol to the message of the Divine Mercy, as revealed to the Polish mystic nun, St. Maria Faustina Kowalska, who died at the age of 33 in 1938.

The Pope of Divine Mercy

At the beginning of his pontificate in 1981, Pope John Paul II wrote an entire encyclical dedicated to Divine Mercy – “Dives in Misericordia” (Rich in Mercy) illustrating that the heart of the mission of Jesus Christ was to reveal the merciful love of the Father. In 1993 when Pope John Paul II beatified Sr. Faustina Kowalska, he stated in the homily for her beatification mass: “Her mission continues and is yielding astonishing fruit. It is truly marvelous how her devotion to the merciful Jesus is spreading in our contemporary world, and gaining so many human hearts!”

Four years later in 1997, the Holy Father visited Blessed Faustina’s tomb in Lagiewniki, Poland, and preached powerful words: “There is nothing that man needs more than Divine Mercy…. From here went out the message of Mercy that Christ Himself chose to pass on to our generation through Blessed Faustina.”

In the Jubilee year 2000, Pope John Paul II canonized Sr. Faustina – making her the first canonized saint of the new millennium – and established “Divine Mercy Sunday” as a special title for the Second Sunday of Easter for the universal Church. Pope John Paul II spoke these words in the homily: “Jesus shows His hands and His side [to the Apostles]. He points, that is, to the wounds of the Passion, especially the wound in His Heart, the source from which flows the great wave of mercy poured out on humanity.”

One year later, in his homily for Divine Mercy Sunday in 2001, the Pope called the message of mercy entrusted to St. Faustina: “The appropriate and incisive answer that God wanted to offer to the questions and expectations of human beings in our time, marked by terrible tragedies…. Divine Mercy! This is the Easter gift that the Church receives from the risen Christ and offers to humanity at the dawn of the third millennium.”

Again in Lagiewniki, Poland in 2002, at the dedication of the new Shrine of Divine Mercy, the Holy Father consecrated the whole world to Divine Mercy, saying: “I do so with the burning desire that the message of God’s merciful love, proclaimed here through St. Faustina, may be made known to all the peoples of the earth, and fill their hearts with hope.”

In his Regina Caeli address of April 23, 2006, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said: “The mystery of God’s merciful love was at the centre of the pontificate of my venerated predecessor.” Now that same Providence has desired that this year, on Divine Mercy Sunday, three years after he was beatified on this same feast, Pope John Paul II, the great apostle and ambassador of Divine Mercy, will be proclaimed a saint.

Mercy is our hallmark

We must ask ourselves: what is new about this message of Divine Mercy? Why did Pope John Paul II insist so much on this aspect of God’s love in our time? Is this not the same devotion as that of the Sacred Heart of Jesus? Mercy is an important Christian virtue, much different from justice and retribution. While recognizing the real pain of injury and the rationale for the justification of punishment, mercy takes a different approach in redressing the injury. Mercy strives to radically change the condition and the soul of the perpetrator to resist doing evil, often by revealing love and one’s true beauty. If any punishment is enforced, it must be for salvation, not for vengeance or retribution. This is very messy business in our day and a very complex message… but it is the only way if we wish to go forward and be leaven for the world today; if we truly wish to be salt and light in a culture that has lost the flavor of the Gospel and the light of Christ.

Where hatred and the thirst for revenge dominate, where war brings suffering and death to the innocent, abuse has destroyed countless innocent lives, the grace of mercy is needed in order to settle human minds and hearts and to bring about healing and peace. Wherever respect for human life and dignity are lacking, there is need of God’s merciful love, in whose light we see the inexpressible value of every human being. Mercy is needed to insure that every injustice in the world will come to an end. The message of mercy is that God loves us – all of us – no matter how great our sins. God’s mercy is greater than our sins, so that we will call upon Him with trust, receive His mercy, and let it flow through us to others. Essentially, mercy means the understanding of weakness, the capacity to forgive.

Apostle of Divine Mercy

Throughout his priestly and Episcopal ministry, and especially during his entire Pontificate, Pope John Paul II preached God’s mercy, wrote about it, and most of all lived it. He offered forgiveness to the man who was destined to kill him in St. Peter’s Square. The Pope who witnessed the scandal of divisions among Christians and the atrocities against the Jewish people as he grew up did everything in his power to heal the wounds caused by the historic conflicts between Catholics and other Christian churches, and especially with the Jewish people. 

Today, on the day that the Church canonizes this great apostle of mercy and peace, I remember with affection and deep gratitude the stirring words that soon-to-be Saint John Paul II spoke at the concluding mass of World Youth Day 2002 at Downsview Park in Toronto. These words keep us focused on the importance and necessity of mercy in the Church today.

“…At difficult moments in the Church’s life, the pursuit of holiness becomes even more urgent. And holiness is not a question of age; it is a matter of living in the Holy Spirit…”

“…Do not let that hope die! Stake your lives on it! We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures; we are the sum of the Father’s love for us and our real capacity to become the image of his Son.” 

Today let us pray with joy and gratitude:

O God, who are rich in mercy
and who willed that Saint John Paul II
should preside as Pope over your universal Church,
grant, we pray, that instructed by his teaching,
we may open our hearts to the saving grace of Christ,
the sole Redeemer of mankind.
Who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
One God forever and ever. Amen.

[The readings for the Second Sunday of Easter are: Acts 2:42-47; 1 Peter 1:3-9; and John 20:19-31.]

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

Holy Popes! Significance of the Canonization of John XXIII & John Paul II

John XIII John Paul II Official Photos
Theories abound as to why Pope Francis decided to canonize both John XXIII and John Paul II on April 27. Some imagine that this was a politically strategic move on the part of Francis to unify a divided Church and to reconcile the divisions that exist among the Roncalli fans and bearers of the “spirit of Vatican II” and the Wojtyla disciples of a robust, doctrinaire Pope. They reduce the lives of these two great men to be the adventures of a progressive pope who dreamed up the Council and a conservative pope who put the brakes on the speed of its implementation. Nothing could be further from the truth, and such thoughts usually reflect the machinations of those who have yet to understand the Petrine Ministry of unity and the Call to Holiness that lies at the foundation of our existence as Catholic Christians.

The church doesn’t beatify or canonize people and use them as banners or standards under which groups can assemble and march, nor does she ever raise up for us role models who are arrows or weapons to attack others for ignorance, error and sin. Rather, the church offers the lives of outstanding women and men such as Angelo Roncalli and Karol Wojtyla to present to us models of holiness.

Yes, John will be forever linked to the dream and convocation of the Ecumenical Council we now know as Vatican II, and John Paul II will be forever linked to a new era of a truly global Church that took its message from the home office on the Tiber to the ends of the earth.

But even more than those historical factors, John XXIII and John Paul II modeled for us the call to holiness and reminded us, by the simplicity and joy of their Gospel-rooted lives, that we, too, are called to be saints. The Church is the “home of holiness,” and holiness is our most accurate image, our authentic calling card and our greatest gift to the world. It describes best who and what we are and strive to be.

That a person is declared “Blessed” or “Saint” is not a statement about perfection. It does not mean that the person was without imperfection, blindness, deafness or sin. Nor is it a 360-degree evaluation of a particular pontificate or of the Vatican. Beatification and canonization mean that a person lived his or her life with God, relying totally on God’s infinite mercy, going forward with God’s strength and power, believing in the impossible, loving enemies and persecutors, forgiving in the midst of evil and violence, hoping beyond all hope, and leaving the world a better place. That person lets those around him or her know that there is a force or spirit animating his or her life that is not of this world, but of the next. Such a person lets us catch a glimpse of the greatness and holiness to which we are all called, and shows us the face of God as we journey on our pilgrim way on earth.

Angelo Roncalli was a man of international reach before he was pope. His preparation for the papacy was international in scope. He worked at the peripheries of Roman Catholicism, meeting with grace and peace the hostile challenges of both Orthodox Christianity and Islam, long before the buzz words of ecumenism or interreligious dialogue were the order of the day. Roncalli’s mission was personal, human; he excelled in using his own, innate common sense, understanding, and warmth so mightily evident to all and his priestly ministry flowed from his deep humanity.

From the very beginning of his priestly, episcopal and Petrine ministry, Roncalli taught us to see goodness in others, to love people and to hope beyond all hope when situations indicated otherwise. He won over the world, in many similar ways that Pope Francis is doing now because of his unabashed simplicity and genuine goodness and humor. He showed us that far more than realizing every project and program, we must dream bold dreams, nurture them, and hand them on to future generations.

In the life of Karol Wojtyla, holiness was contagious. Pope John Paul II was not only our Holy Father, but a Father who was and is holy. On April 2, 2005, he died a public death that stopped the world for several days. When the throngs of people began chanting “Santo Subito!” at the end of Pope John Paul II’s funeral mass on April 8, 2005, what were they really saying? They were crying out that in Karol Wojtyla, they saw someone who lived with God and lived with us. He was a sinner who experienced God’s mercy and forgiveness. He was the prophetic teacher who preached the Word in season and out of season. He looked at us, loved us, touched us, healed us and gave us hope. He taught us not to be afraid. He showed us how to live, how to love, how to forgive and how to die. He taught us how to embrace the cross in the most excruciating moments of life, knowing that the cross was not God’s final answer.

Both men have deeply marked my entire life. I was born the year the Second Vatican Council was called and it has been the wind beneath my wings for my entire life, especially in my 28 years of ordained ministry. I had the privilege of working closely with Pope John Paul II on his last World Youth Day in 2002.

I am convinced that both men were gifts of God to the world at very specific moments in history. They also remind me that the Lord provides for the Church the shepherds we need at the right moments. That they receive the highest honor of my Church on the same day is a statement to the world of two important realities: that the Church’s best calling card is still holiness. And second: that Vatican II was their dream, their life’s work, their vision and their gift to the world. The world is a better place because Angelo Roncalli and Karol Wojtyla handed their dream on to us.


Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB is the CEO, Salt and Light Catholic Television Network, Canada and the English language assistant to Holy See Press Office.

Agent of the Gospel of Joy

Christian Riesbeck was born in Montreal on February 7, 1970. He grew up in Ottawa, specialized in Social Sciences at the University of Ottawa, and pursued studies for the priesthood in the Companions of the Cross. Ordained to the priesthood in 1996, he did pastoral work in the Archdiocese of Kingston as well as in the Archdiocese of Ottawa and the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston (USA). After obtaining his degrees in Canon Law in December 2010, Fr. Christian was appointed Chancellor of the Archdiocese of Ottawa in January 2011. In early 2014 he was named Auxiliary Bishop of Ottawa by Pope Francis. In this WITNESS interview, you will meet one of the youngest bishops in North America, a great ambassador of the Gospel of Joy, and an articulate, convincing agent of the new evangelization in the Canadian Church.

Jesus’ Resurrection: A Footprint Within History but Pointing Beyond

Jesus Risen cropped

Easter Sunday – Sunday, April 20, 2014

In reading the resurrection chapters of the four gospels, the differences of the four accounts are very obvious. Not one of the evangelists recounts Jesus’ resurrection itself. It is an event taking place within the mystery of God between Jesus and the Father. By its very nature the resurrection event lies outside human experience. What lessons can we learn about resurrection from each of the Gospel accounts, particularly from Matthew’s story that we hear proclaimed today?

Mark’s account

In the earliest Gospel account in Mark’s Gospel (chapter 16) the last scene is a startling one… for the story ends with (v 8) “[The women] came out and fled from the tomb, for they were possessed by fear and trembling, and they said nothing to anyone. The most striking aspect of Mark’s ending is we never encounter the Risen Lord. Instead, we see an awe-inspiring, almost eerie scene. In the darkness of early morning, the women arrive at the tomb to accomplish a nearly impossible task. These women are the only ones who follow Jesus to the foot of the cross and to the tomb. They find the tomb opened and empty, and are greeted by a heavenly figure who gives them a commission: “Go and tell his disciples and Peter that he goes before you into Galilee; there you will see him as he told you” (v 7). Mark’s resurrection account is meant to disturb the Christian reader; to undo the ease that makes one forget that the call to discipleship is the call to the cross. Readers of Mark’s account are invited to view their lives in the shadow of the cross.

Matthew’s account

Matthew tells the story of the resurrection in four scenes: the women’s experience at the tomb (28:1-7); their short encounter with the risen Lord (8-10); the Jewish leaders’ attempt to suppress the story (11-15); the appearance to the disciples in Galilee (16-20). The final scene, ending with the Great Commission (19-20) stands on its own as a programmatic conclusion to the entire gospel. The women present in Matthew’s resurrection chapter do not witness the resurrection. They do experience the earthquake, the appearance of the angel, the emptiness of the tomb- all of which are signs or traces of divine activity that has brought these things about.

Matthew literally makes Jesus present in the last scene of the gospel on the mountain where Jesus had directed the disciples to go (28:16-20). At the end of the gospel, he points us back to the first programmatic sermon of Jesus on the mountain in Galilee (5:1-7:21). Matthew’s meek and humble Jesus is the teacher as well as the example of meekness and humility. In revising Mark’s Gospel, Matthew deliberately completes the picture of Jesus and of the Christian life. The bleak image and invitation of the cross and the dead Jesus are filled out with a living and present Jesus, whose words, reflected upon the Scriptures of Israel, offer a consoling and learnable “way” to disciples willing to learn from him. Matthew issues the call to learn of the meek and humble Jesus.

Luke’s account

The Easter chapter of Luke’s Gospel (24), like a beautiful symphony, presents us with a biblically oriented pastoral practice and distinct way of Christian living: in the first movement (vv.1-12) God, alone breaks open a helpless situation. In the second movement of the marvelous story of Jesus and the disciples on the road to Emmaus (13-35), God, in the person of Jesus, accompanies people on their journeys through despair. The stories of the third movement (36-53) lead people into an experience of community.

John’s account

John tells of appearances of the Risen Lord in both Jerusalem and Galilee. The resurrection stories of the fourth gospel are a series of encounters between Jesus and his followers that reveal diverse faith reactions. Whether these encounters are with Simon Peter and the Beloved Disciple, Mary Magdalene, the disciples or Thomas, the whole scenario reminds us that in the range of belief there are different degrees of readiness and different factors that cause people to come to faith.

The nature of Jesus’ resurrection

Pope Benedict XVI writes about “The Nature of Jesus’ Resurrection and Its Historical Significance” in “Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week – From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection” (Ignatius Press, San Francisco – USA – 2011). I would like to highlight several points made by Pope Benedict in this masterful text:

“Jesus did not simply return to normal biological life as one who, by the laws of biology, would eventually have to die again.”

“Jesus is not a ghost (“spirit”). In other words, he does not belong to the realm of the dead but is somehow able to reveal himself in the realm of the living.”

“…the encounters with the risen Lord are not the same as mystical experiences, in which the human spirit is momentarily drawn aloft out of itself and perceives the realm of the divine and eternal, only to return then to the normal horizon of its existence. Mystical experience is a temporary removal of the soul’s spatial and cognitive limitations.” (pp. 272-273)

Benedict continues:

“[The resurrection] is a historical event that nevertheless bursts open the dimensions of history and transcends it. Perhaps we may draw upon analogical language here, inadequate in many ways, yet still able to open up a path toward understanding: as already anticipated in the first section of this chapter, we could regard the Resurrection as something akin to a radical “evolutionary leap”, in which a new dimension of life emerges, a new dimension of human existence.” (p. 273)

“As something that breaks out of history and transcends it, the Resurrection nevertheless has its origin within history and up to a certain point still belongs there. Perhaps we could put it this way: Jesus’ Resurrection points beyond history but has left a footprint within history. Therefore it can be attested by witnesses as an event of an entirely new kind.” (p. 275)

Fathoming the Resurrection Today

In our highly technological world, the reality of the resurrection becomes increasingly difficult to fathom. So many spend their lives explaining it away rather than probing the depths of its mystery. And they try to do this alone, separated from a believing community of Christians, locked in the prison of self and of ideas, frozen before a computer screen as they try to fathom what happened on Easter morning. Some people state quite frankly that the whole story is simply out of date. But resurrection is not a matter of the head, of theory and ideas, but a matter of the heart that can only be experienced and learned through a community’s worship and liturgy. To be fully experienced and grasped, the resurrection requires an environment of hauntingly beautiful music, of smoke and incense, bread and wine, murmurs of greeting and shouts of joy, dazzling colors and most of all, three-dimensional bodies of real people, even those who aren’t necessarily “regulars” of our parish communities, who gather together every year to hear the Easter proclamation.

One doesn’t sit at a computer and tap out “Jesus is risen.” It has to be performed and enacted. If the resurrection were meant to be a historically verifiable occurrence, God wouldn’t have performed it in the dark without eyewitnesses. Resurrection was an event transacted between God the Father and God the Son by the power of God the Holy Spirit. Not a single Gospel tells us how it happened. We don’t know what he looked like when he was no longer dead, whether he burst the tomb in glory or came out like Lazarus, slowly unwrapping his shroud and squinting with wonder against the dawn of Easter morning in a garden in Jerusalem.

The proper environment for resurrection

How shall we find words for the resurrection? How can we give expression to the conquest of death and the harrowing of hell and the washing which has joined us to God’s life? There are no words– there are only the wrong words – metaphors, chains of images, verbal icons – that invite us into a mystery beyond words.

For four years I lived in the Holy City of Jerusalem and visited the remains of the Church building that houses the place of Calvary and the Holy Sepulcher hundreds of times. It is truly holy ground for Christians and being there never failed once to move me. That old building is truly a microcosm of our own lives, our hearts and our Church. In the midst of the dark, dirty and chaotic Holy Sepulcher Basilica is the tomb of Jesus, a shrine to the risen Christ. But he is not there. All around that tomb are the remnants of 2000 years of dreadfully human corruption. Nevertheless it is the most important shrine and holy place for Christians. Christ is risen from the dead!

At Calvary, and elsewhere in the Holy Land, corruption seems so rampant…but God shall be victorious, because 70 feet away from Calvary there is a tomb which is empty. And there is also another startling truth about that Church and the moments which it commemorates: every single one of us has within us a shrine to the risen Christ. That shrine is our first love for him, and him alone. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. Do we truly live as children of the light, of the Living One? The Resurrection of Jesus is the sign that God is ultimately going to win.

In the midst of all the chaos found in the Holy Sepulcher building, I found that if I knelt long enough in some corner of the Church amidst religious groups seemingly at war with each other, disquiet disappeared and I often experienced a strange peace and deep joy and consolation because of the resurrection of the man who was God’s Son and our Savior. The only way to discern, detect and discover the presence of the Risen Lord is on one’s knees, in the midst of the chaos of the Church and the world.

Jesus’ victory over death belongs to the Church’s ongoing pastoral and sacramental life and its mission to the world. The church is the community of those who have the competence to recognize Jesus as the risen Lord. It specializes in discerning the Risen One. As long as we remain in dialogue with Jesus, our darkness will give way to dawn, and we will become “competent” for witness. In an age which places so much weight on competency, we would do well to focus every now and then on our competence to discern resurrection.

What is the resurrection? Pope Benedict explains it so well in his book “Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week – From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection”:

“It is part of the mystery of God that he acts so gently, that he only gradually builds up his history within the great history of mankind; that he becomes man and so can be overlooked by his contemporaries and by the decisive forces within history; that he suffers and dies and that, having risen again, he chooses to come to mankind only through the faith of the disciples to whom he reveals himself; that he continues to knock gently at the doors of our hearts and slowly opens our eyes if we open our doors to him. And yet—is not this the truly divine way? Not to overwhelm with external power, but to give freedom, to offer and elicit love. And if we really think about it, is it not what seems so small that is truly great?” (p. 276)

[The readings for Easter Sunday are: Acts 10.34a, 37-43; Colossians 3.1-4 or 1 Corinthians 5.6b-8; and John 20.1-18.]

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

Like Alabaster Jars of Nard

Resurrection-Women

Reflection for Holy Saturday, Year A – Saturday, April 19, 2014

The tragic story of Good Friday does not end with the death of Jesus. There is a sequel. God raises Jesus from the dead and thereby writes another chapter in the history of salvation. There will be a tomorrow because the grave is not the end. The announcement, which changed the sadness of these pious women into joy, re-echoes with unchanging eloquence throughout the Church in the celebration of this Easter Vigil.

Tomb in Jerusalem

In the midst of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem is the tomb of Jesus, a shrine to the risen Christ. He is not there. He is among us. Having lived in Jerusalem for nearly four years, I can assure you that all around that tomb are the remnants of over 2,000 years of dreadfully human discord, chaos and corruption that continues to this very day.  Nevertheless, it is the most important shrine and holy place for Christians.

The resurrection of Jesus is the sign that God is ultimately going to win. At Calvary, and elsewhere throughout the Church, corruption seems so rampant. On this night when the Lord broke the bonds of death, we know deep within that God is ultimately victorious. I know this within my flesh and bones, in my heart of hearts, because 70 feet away from Calvary there is a tomb, which is now empty.

Women and Easter

There are some profound lessons to learn from the women who ran to the tomb that first Easter morning. They represented countless, nameless, yet devoted women who were part of the crowds that Jesus addressed and in the homes he frequented.

They were the courageous ones who reached out fearlessly to touch the fringe of his cloak. They shouted after him; they entered his hosts’ houses uninvited, they poured most expensive, perfumed nard over his feet to the consternation of the critics. They knew the promise made to them, they welcomed him, they knew from Jesus’ own treatment of them the strength of their own testimony to him, and they were unafraid to show him great love.

In the end, they stood beneath his dying body, while the men were hiding for fear of the authorities. It was the women who ground spices for his burial and they calculated how to roll back the stone from his tomb. They attended firmly to the business of his living and dying. They were rewarded for their fidelity by being the first recipients of the Good News of the Resurrection.

Women of the Church

Whenever I read the Easter Gospels, I cannot help but think of the lives of countless women religious who greatly influenced my life from my childhood, and encouraged me to be a Christian and a priest.  I remember with gratitude the Religious of the Sacred Heart and the Sisters of St. Joseph of Rochester, New York, my first teachers.

I recall with deep emotion the Sisters of the Holy Family of Spoleto and the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary with whom I had the privilege of working in my first years of pastoral ministry in Canada. The Sisters of Sion, the Salvatorian Sisters of Emmaus el-Quebeibeh and Nazareth and the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Apparition showed me how to love and imitate the Lord in his own homeland during my graduate studies.

Later on the Sisters of St. Joseph of Toronto and Hamilton and the Sisters of Mercy of Ireland shared with me very fruitful years of ministry at the Newman Center of Toronto and most especially during World Youth Day 2002. The diminishment of many of these religious congregations in the Church is cause for sadness, yet also of profound gratitude. I regret that several generations of young people will never have the grace of getting to know women religious as I knew them: as teachers, pastoral workers, colleagues and friends.

Though their “charisms” will live on through lay-led institutions in many instances, nothing can ever replace their presence in the life of the Church and in our own personal stories. Their lives were alabaster jars of nard poured out in active service, in decisive, courageous, prophetic works, and in watchful presence at the end.  Their action on Jesus’ behalf was hopeful, positive, courageous, and unambiguous. Their active faith in him and their decisive following of him are, finally, the unchanging beauty and eloquence of the Church’s vocation. When I think of that first Easter, in an eerie, garden-like setting outside the walls of Jerusalem, I cannot help but remember the faithful women in my life who have carried the message of the Resurrection to the ends of the earth.

“This is the day that the Lord has made: let us rejoice in it and be glad. Alleluia!”

[The readings for the Easter Vigil are: Genesis 1:1-2:2;  Genesis 22:1-18; Exodus 14:15-15:1; Isaiah 54: 5-14; Isaiah 55:1-11; Baruch 3:9-15, 3:32-4:4; Ezekiel 36:16-28; Romans 6:3-11; and Matthew 28:1-10.]

The Bare Facts and Bare Feet of the Last Supper

Bergoglio foot washing
by Father Thomas Rosica, CSB

Both the Jewish and Christian traditions view eating and feasting as more than simply an opportunity to refuel the body, enjoy certain delicacies, or celebrate a particular occasion. Eating and feasting became for both traditions, encounters with transcendent realities and even union with the divine. In the New Testament, so much of Jesus’ own ministry took place during meals at table.

Jesus attends many meals throughout the four Gospels: with Levi and his business colleagues, with Simon the Pharisee, with Lazarus and his sisters in Bethany, with Zacchaeus and the crowd in Jericho, with outcasts and centurions, with crowds on Galilean hillsides, and with disciples in their homes.

It is ultimately during the final meal that Jesus leaves us with his most precious gift in the Eucharist. The Scripture readings for Holy Thursday root us deeply in our Jewish past: celebrating the Passover with the Jewish people, receiving from St. Paul that which was handed on to him, namely the Eucharistic banquet, and looking at Jesus squarely in the face as he kneels before us to wash our feet in humble service. Instead of presenting to us one of the synoptic Gospel stories (Matthew, Mark, Luke) of the “institution” of the Eucharist, the Church offers us the disturbing posture of the Master kneeling before his friends to wash their feet in a gesture of humility and service.

As Jesus wraps a towel around his waist, takes a pitcher of water, stoops down and begins washing the feet of his disciples, he teaches his friends that liberation and new life are won not in presiding over multitudes from royal thrones nor by the quantity of bloody sacrifices offered on temple altars but by walking with the lowly and poor and serving them as a foot washer along the journey.

On this holy night of “institution,” as Jesus drank from the cup of his blood and stooped to wash feet, a new and dynamic, common bond was created with his disciples and with us. It is as though the whole history of salvation ends tonight just as it begins — with bare feet and the voice of God speaking to us through his own flesh and blood: “As I have done for you, so you must also do.” The washing of the feet is integral to the Last Supper. It is John’s way of saying to Christ’s followers throughout the ages: “You must remember his sacrifice in the Mass, but you must also remember his admonition to go out and serve the world.”

At the Last Supper, Jesus teaches us that true authority in the Church comes from being a servant, from laying down our lives for our friends. His life is a feast for the poor and for sinners. It must be the same for those who receive the Lord’s body and blood. We become what we receive in this meal and we imitate Jesus in his saving works, his healing words, and his gestures of humble service. From the Eucharist must flow a certain style of communitarian life, a genuine care for our neighbors, and for strangers.

Finally, the celebration of the Eucharist always projects us forward towards others, especially those who are poor, marginalized, abandoned or forgotten.

Last year on Holy Thursday evening, many questions and concerns were raised over Pope Francis washing the feet of 12 young people at the Roman Juvenile Detention Centre and especially that two were young women, and two were Muslims.

One can easily understand that in a great celebration, men would be chosen for the foot washing because Jesus, himself washed the feet of the twelve apostles who were male. However the ritual of the washing of the feet on Holy Thursday evening in the Juvenile Detention Centre in Rome took place in a particular, small community that included young women. When Jesus washed the feet of those who were with him on the first Holy Thursday, he desired to teach all a lesson about the meaning of service, using a gesture that included all members of the community. The washing of the feet is a gesture of ultimate humble service, not of power or privilege.

We now know of the many photos and stories that show Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, then-Archbishop of Buenos Aires, who in various pastoral settings washed the feet of young men and women. To have excluded the young women from the ritual washing of feet on Holy Thursday night in a Roman juvenile detention centre last year, would have detracted our attention from the essence of the Holy Thursday Gospel, and the very beautiful and simple gesture of a father who desired to embrace those who were on the fringes of society; those who were not refined experts of liturgical rules and rubrics that at times, when improperly understood and transmitted, do not mirror the profound messages of the Gospels and of the Lord of the Church.

That the Holy Father, Francis, washed the feet of young men and women on his first Holy Thursday as Pope, should call our minds and hearts to the simple and spontaneous gesture of love, affection, forgiveness and mercy that have been the hallmarks of the current Bishop of Rome, more than to legalistic, liturgical or canonical discussions among those who do not yet understand Pope Francis’ love for and outreach to those on the peripheries of society.

This year, as previously announced, Pope Francis will visit the Centro Santa Maria della Provvidenza Don Carlo Gnocchi home, celebrate the Mass of the Lord’s supper with residents, staff and their families, and wash the feet of the residents, many of whom are elderly and have disabilities. The foot-washing ritual is rooted in the story of the Last Supper, when Jesus humbles himself and washes the feet of his apostles on the eve of his death.

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Photo: Pope Francis, as cardinal of Buenos Aires, Argentina, washes and kisses the feet of residents of a shelter for drug users during Holy Thursday Mass in 2008 at a church in a poor neighborhood of the city. (CNS photo/Enrique Garcia Medina, Reuters) (March 4, 2014)

The Suffering and Death of a Shepherd

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Good Friday – Friday, April 18, 2014

For our Good Friday Reflection this year, and in preparation for the Canonization of Blessed Pope John Paul II next Sunday, April 27, 2014, I have chosen to share with you the this reflection on what Pope John Paul II taught us at the end of his life. I cannot celebrate Good Friday without remembering Pope John Paul II, especially his final Good Friday on earth in 2005. This reflection is part of a major address I gave at the Knights of Columbus Museum in New Haven, Connecticut, for the opening of the special exhibit, “Blessed,” that commemorates the life of this great man. 

On Human Suffering

One of the beautiful and not frequently cited writings of John Paul II was his 1984 apostolic letter Salvifici Doloris, “On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering.” The late Pope, following the Apostle Paul and the entire Catholic Tradition, maintained throughout his life that it is precisely in suffering that Christ displayed his solidarity with humanity, and in which we can grow in solidarity with Christ, who is our life.

In Salvifici Doloris suffering is the consequence of sin, and Christ embraces that consequence, rather than repudiating it. By embracing suffering, he shares fully in it, he takes the consequence of sin into and onto himself. He does this out of love for us, not simply because he wants to redeem us, but because he wants to be with us, to share what we share, to experience what we experience. And it is this shared love, this shared suffering in love, which completes and perfects the relationship broken in sin, and so redeems us.

Pope John Paul II taught us that the meaning of suffering is fundamentally changed by the Incarnation. Apart from the Incarnation, suffering is the consequence of sin. It offers opportunities for insight into oneself, for personal growth, and for demonstrating practical love for others, but these are incidental. Because of the Incarnation, however, we become sharers in the Body of Christ. Our suffering becomes his suffering, and becomes an expression of redeeming love.

Because he was the leader of a billion Roman Catholics; because he was the first pontiff of the satellite and Internet age, reaching out to billions more, and because he was John Paul II, who has ruled the church for more than 26 years—in that public experience of suffering was found enormous power. And that he certainly knew. In 1981, after recovering from the gunshot wound that almost took his life in St. Peter’s Square, John Paul declared that suffering, as such, is one of the most powerful messages in Christianity.

During the final years of his pontificate, John Paul II brought suffering back into the realm of the expected in human life. Everyone could see that his spirituality gave him an inner strength – a spirituality with which one can also overcome fear, even the fear of death. What an incredible lesson for the world! His struggle with the physical effects of aging was also a valuable lesson to a society that finds it hard to accept growing older, and a culture that sees no redemption in suffering. 

In 1994, as age and infirmity began to incapacitate John Paul publicly, he told his followers he had heard God and was about to change the way he led the church. “I must lead her with suffering,” he said. “The pope must suffer so that every family and the world should see that there is, I would say, a higher gospel: the gospel of suffering, with which one must prepare the future.”

A consoling letter to his peers

In 1999, in preparation for the Great Jubilee, Pope John Paul II published his “Letter to the Elderly.” Following his Letters to the young in 1985, to families in 1994, to children in 1994, to women in 1995 and to artists in 1999 year – and not counting those Letters that he wrote each year to priests on Holy Thursday, since the beginning of his pontificate, he wrote deeply moving and encouraging words to his peers in the Letter to the Elderly. He had no fear in placing before the eyes of the world the limits and frailties that the years placed upon him. He did nothing to disguise them. In speaking to young people, he has no difficulty in saying of himself: ‘I am an old priest’.” John Paul II “continued to fulfill his mission as the Successor of Peter, looking far ahead with the enthusiasm of the only youth that does not deteriorate, that of the spirit, which this Pope maintains intact. The letter had a very personal, almost confidential, tone and was not an analysis of old age. Rather, it was a very intimate dialogue between people of the same generation.

“The passage of time,” wrote the Pope in that memorable letter, “helps us to see our experiences in a clearer light and softens their painful side.” Moreover, he says, the daily difficulties can be eased with God’s help. In addition, “we are consoled by the thought that, by virtue of our spiritual souls, we will survive beyond death.”

“Guardians of shared memory” was the title of the one part of the Pope’s Letter. Pointing out that “in the past, great respect was shown to the elderly,” the Pope remarks that this is still true in many cultures today, “while among others, this is much less the case, due to a mentality which gives priority to immediate human usefulness and productivity.” He wrote: “It has come to the point where euthanasia is increasingly put forward as a solution for difficult situations. Unfortunately, in recent years the idea of euthanasia has lost for many people the sense of horror which it naturally awakens in those who have a sense of respect for life.”

The Pope added: “Here it should be kept in mind that the moral law allows the rejection of ‘aggressive medical treatment’ and makes obligatory only those forms of treatment which fall within the normal requirements of medical care, which in the case of terminal illness seeks primarily to alleviate pain. But euthanasia, understood as directly causing death, is another thing entirely. Regardless of intentions and circumstances, euthanasia is always an intrinsically evil act, a violation of God’s law and an offense against the dignity of the human person.”

Pope John Paul II continued in that letter: “Man has been made for life, whereas death … was not a part of God’s original plan but came about as a consequence of sin.” “However rationally comprehensible death may be from a biological standpoint, it is not possible to experience it as something ‘natural’.” We ask ourselves, he says here, “What is on the other side of the shadowy wall of death?” The answer comes from faith “which illuminates the mystery of death and brings serenity to old age, now no longer lived passively as the expectation of a calamity, but rather as a promise-filled approach to the goal of full maturity.” 

Pope John Paul’s Letter to the Elderly closed with a section entitled “An encouragement to live life to the full.” He writes: “I feel a spontaneous desire to share fully with you my own feelings at this point of my life, after more than twenty years of ministry on the throne of Peter. … Despite the limitations brought on by age I continue to enjoy life. For this I thank the Lord. It is wonderful to be able to give oneself to the very end for the sake of the Kingdom of God! “At the same time,” he concludes, “I find great peace in thinking about the time when the Lord will call me: from life to life! … ‘Bid me to come to you’: this is the deepest yearning of the human heart, even in those who are not conscious of it.” What a magnificent signature piece of Pope John Paul II! He not only wrote the letter but enacted it in his own life. We were eyewitnesses.

The public suffering

Pope John Paul II taught us that life is sacred, no matter how painful his own life became for him. Rather than hide his infirmities, as most public figures do, Pope John Paul II let the whole world see what he went through. The suffering and dying of this Pope did not take place in private, but before television cameras and the whole world. In the final act of his life, the athlete was immobilized, the distinctive, booming voice silenced, and the hand that produced voluminous encyclicals no longer able to write. John Paul II’s final homily was an icon of his Galilean Master’s final words to Simon Peter: “Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” …After this he [Jesus] said to him, “Follow me” [John 21:18-19].

Many Catholics and non-Christians saw the pope’s suffering as something like the agony of Jesus himself, and neither John Paul nor those around him discourage such comparisons. When asked a few years ago if he might consider resigning, John Paul reportedly asked, in reply, “Did Christ come down from the cross?” His close aides say that debate about his ability to administer the church, as if he were the CEO of a secular corporation, essentially misses the point. This pope is not doing a job, he is carrying out a divine mission, and his pain is at its core.

That final Good Friday evening

One of my most vivid memories from the last week of our late Holy Father Pope John Paul II’s life was during the Way of the Cross on Good Friday evening in 2005, in which he participated by watching the service at the Coliseum in his chapel on television. The television camera in his chapel was behind him so that he would not be distracted from taking part in this ceremony in which he always took part personally. Then-Archbishop John Foley was doing the television commentary in English from Rome, reading the very provocative meditations prepared by a certain Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger.

At one point toward the end of the Way of the Cross, someone put a rather large crucifix on the knee of the Holy Father, and he was gazing lovingly at the figure of Jesus. At the words, “Jesus Dies on the Cross,” Pope John Paul drew the crucifix to himself and embraced it. I will never forget that scene. What an incredibly powerful homily without words! Like Jesus, Pope John Paul II embraced the cross; in fact, he embraced the crucifix of Jesus Christ on Good Friday night.

The death of a patriarch

Several hours before his death, Pope John Paul’s last audible words were: “Let me go to the house of the Father.” In the intimate setting of prayer, as Mass was celebrated at the foot of his bed and the throngs of faithful sang below in St. Peter’s Square, he died at 9:37 p.m. on April 2. Through his public passion, suffering and death, this holy priest, Successor of the Apostles, and Servant of God, showed us the suffering face of Jesus in a remarkable way.

The Pope of Holiness

Karol Wojtyla himself was an extraordinary witness who, through his devotion, heroic efforts, long suffering and death, communicated the powerful message of the Gospel to the men and women of our day. A great part of the success of his message is due to the fact that he has been surrounded by a tremendous cloud of witnesses who stood by him and strengthened him throughout his life. For John Paul II, the call to holiness excludes no one; it is not the privilege of a spiritual elite.

“Lumen Gentium,” the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of the Second Vatican Council notes that the holiness of Christians flows from that of the Church and manifests it. It says that holiness “is expressed in many ways by the individuals who, each in his own state of life, tend to the perfection of love, thus sanctifying others” (LG 39). In this variety “one and the same holiness is cultivated by all, who are moved by the Spirit of God…and follow the poor Christ, the humble and cross bearing Christ in order to be worthy of being sharers in his glory” (LG 41). 

When the throngs of people began chanting “Santo Subito” at the end of the Pope’s funeral mass on April 8, 2005, what were they really chanting? They were crying out that in Karol Wojtyla, they saw someone who lived with God and lived with us. He was a sinner who experienced God’s mercy and forgiveness. He was the prophetic teacher who preached the word in season and out of season. He looked at us, loved us, touched us, healed us and gave us hope. He taught us not to be afraid. He showed us how to live, how to love, how to forgive and how to die. He taught us how to embrace the cross in the most excruciating moments of life, knowing that the cross was not God’s final answer.

That a person is declared a “Saint” is not a statement about perfection. It does not mean that the person was without imperfection, blindness, deafness or sin. Nor is it a 360-degree evaluation of the Pontificate or of the Vatican. Canonization means that a person lived his or her life with God, relying totally on God’s infinite mercy, going forward with God’s strength and power, believing in the impossible, loving one’s enemies and persecutors, forgiving in the midst of evil and violence, hoping beyond all hope, and leaving the world a better place. That person lets those around him know that there is a force or spirit animating his or her life that is not of this world, but the next. Such a person lets us catch a glimpse of the greatness and holiness to which we are all called, and shows us the face of God as we journey on our pilgrim way on earth.

In the life of Karol Wojtyla, the boy from Wadowice who would grow up to be a priest and Bishop of Krakow, the Bishop of Rome, and a hero for the ages, holiness was contagious. We have all been touched and changed by it. Pope John Paul II was not only “Holy Father” but “a Father who was and is Holy.” At his funeral mass on April 8, 2005, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger told the world that the Holy Father was watching us and blessing us “from the window of the Father’s House.”

As we prepare for the Canonization of this great shepherd and holy priest and bishop on Sunday April 27, 2014, may we learn from “Papa Wojtyla” how to cross thresholds, open doors, build bridges, embrace the Cross of suffering and proclaim the Gospel of Life to the people of our time. May we learn how to live, to suffer and die unto the Lord. Let us pray to have a small portion of the fidelity of Peter’s witness and the boldness of Paul’s proclamation that were so mightily present in Karol Wojtyla – Saint John Paul II. May he intercede for us and for all those who suffer in body and spirit, and give us the desire to help carry one another’s crosses, to grow in holiness and to become saints. 

[The readings for Good Friday are: Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Hebrews 4:14-16, 5:7-9; and John 18:1-19:42.]

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

Sacramentum and Exemplum: the Gift and the Task

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Holy Thursday – Thursday, April 17, 2014

Holy Thursday formally concludes the Lenten season. On this night we enter into the three days that are the center of our liturgical year, and indeed of the Christian faith. The scripture readings root us deeply in our Jewish past…celebrating the Passover with the Jewish people (Exodus 12:1-8, 11-14), receiving from St. Paul (I Cor 11:23-26) that which was handed on to him, namely the Eucharist, and looking at Jesus square in the face as he kneels before us to wash our feet in humble service (John 13:1-15). Remembering is at the heart of this celebration.

On this night, Lord invites us to return with him to the Upper Room, to enable us to penetrate the depths of his Paschal Mystery. On the eve of his death, he gave us two signs that are renewed every year in the liturgy. First, the sign of the washing of the Apostles’ feet, through which Jesus left his friends an example of love that reveals itself in humble, concrete service. Second, Jesus consecrated bread and wine as the sacrament of his Body and his Blood, given in sacrifice for our salvation.

A night of remembering

Let us first consider the Eucharist as a memorial. In the Book of Exodus, we read: “God remembered his covenant with ‘Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob” (Exodus 2:24). The book of Deuteronomy states: “You shall remember the Lord your God” (8:18). “You shall remember what the Lord your God did” (7:18). The memory of God and men and women in the Bible is intimately linked together and constitutes a fundamental component of the life of the people of God. However, this remembering is not a mere commemoration of something that happened long ago, but rather of a “zikkaron,” (Hebrew) namely, a “memorial.” It is the proclamation of the mighty works that God has done for us throughout the ages and continues to do for us now. In the liturgical celebration of these events, they become in a certain way present and real (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1363). The memorial recalls a bond of the covenant that never fails: “The Lord has been mindful of us; he will bless us” (Psalm 115:12). Authentic biblical faith involves the fruitful remembrance of the wonderful works of our salvation.

In the Old Testament, the “memorial” par excellence of God’s works in history was the paschal liturgy of Exodus. Every time the people of Israel celebrated Passover, God offered them the gift of freedom and salvation. In the celebration of Passover, the two memories intersected, the divine and the human, – saving grace and acknowledged faith: “This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast of the Lord…. And it shall be to you as a sign on your hand and as a memory between your eyes, that the law of the Lord may be in your mouth; for with a strong hand the Lord has brought you out of Egypt” (Exodus 12:14; 13:9).

At the heart of the Eucharist: remembering

This meeting of the memory of God and of human beings lies at the center of the Eucharist, which is the “memorial” of the Christian Passover par excellence. At the heart of the celebration of the sacrifice of Christ is the act of remembering. We remember the sacrifice of Christ, this unique event, fulfilled “once and for all” (Hebrews 7:27; 9:12,26; 10:12), whose graces we continue to receive throughout history. “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26). The Eucharist therefore is a memorial of the death of Christ, but it is also the presence of his sacrifice and anticipation of his glorious coming. We can certainly understand Paul’s exhortation to Timothy: “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David” (II Timothy 2:8). This remembrance lives and works in a special way in the Eucharist.

To remember is to bring the heart back in memory and affection, but it is also celebration of a presence ever with us. The Eucharist arouses in us the memory of Christ’s love. In the Eucharist, Christians nourish the hope of the final meeting with their Lord. The Eucharist is the memorial in the full sense: the bread and the wine, through the action of the Holy Spirit, truly become the Body and Blood of Christ, who gives himself to be the food of men and women on their earthly pilgrimage. To stay faithful to this mandate, to abide in him like branches joined to the vine and to love as he loved, it is necessary to be nourished with his Body and his Blood. In telling the Apostles: “Do this in memory of me,” the Lord bound the Church to the living memorial of his Passover.

The New Passover

In his masterful book “Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week – From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection” (Ignatius Press, San Francisco – USA – 2011), Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI explains very carefully and clearly what the Last Supper really was. He writes:

“One thing emerges clearly from the entire tradition: essentially, this farewell meal was not the old Passover, but the new one, which Jesus accomplished in this context. Even though the meal that Jesus shared with the Twelve was not a Passover meal according to the ritual prescriptions of Judaism, nevertheless, in retrospect, the inner connection of the whole event with Jesus’ death and Resurrection stood out clearly. It was Jesus’ Passover. And in this sense he both did and did not celebrate the Passover: the old rituals could not be carried out – when their time came, Jesus had already died. But he had given himself, and thus he had truly celebrated the Passover with them. The old was not abolished; it was simply brought to its full meaning.” (p. 114)

The Washing of the Feet

Pope Benedict writes beautifully about the washing of the feet that is at the heart of the Holy Thursday Gospel (Jn 13:1-15). Benedict explains:

“Let us return to chapter 13 of Saint John’s Gospel. “You are clean”, says Jesus to his disciples. The gift of purity is an act of God. Man cannot make himself fit for God, whatever systems of purification he may follow. ‘You are clean’—in Jesus’ wonderfully simple statement, the grandeur of the mystery of Christ is somehow encapsulated. It is the God who comes down to us who makes us clean. Purity is a gift.” (p. 61)

“Yet an objection springs to mind. A few verses later, Jesus says: ‘If I, then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you’ (Jn 13:14–15). Does this not after all suggest a purely moral conception of Christianity?” (p. 61)

Sacramentum and exemplum

“The Fathers expressed the difference between these two aspects, as well as their mutual relationship, using the categories of sacramentum and exemplum: by sacramentum they mean, not any particular sacrament, but rather the entire mystery of Christ—his life and death—in which he draws close to us, enters us through his Spirit, and transforms us. But precisely because this sacramentum truly ‘cleanses’ us, renewing us from within, it also unleashes a dynamic of new life. The command to do as Jesus did is no mere moral appendix to the mystery, let alone an antithesis to it. It follows from the inner dynamic of gift with which the Lord renews us and draws us into what is his.” (p. 62)

“The gift—the sacramentum—becomes an exemplum, an example, while always remaining a gift. To be a Christian is primarily a gift, which then unfolds in the dynamic of living and acting in and around the gift.” (p. 65)

Concluding his reflection on the washing of the feet, Benedict writes:

“…Looking back over the whole chapter on the washing of the feet, we may say that in this humble gesture, expressing the entire ministry of Jesus’ life and death, the Lord stands before us as the servant of God—he who for our sake became one who serves, who carries our burden and so grants us true purity, the capacity to draw close to God. In the second Suffering Servant Song from Isaiah, there is a phrase that in some sense anticipates the essence of John’s theology of the Passion: The Lord said to me, ‘You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.’” (pp.74-75)

Holy Thursday and the Ministerial Priesthood

As I write these words for Holy Week, this Saturday I mark 28 years of ordained priesthood. Over these years I have returned to the Holy Thursday Gospel countless times to draw strength and inspiration for what I strive to be each day: an ordained minister who keeps alive the memory of Jesus among the people, and who serves the community as foot washer and servant. What an incredible model of priesthood we find in tonight’s Gospel: the Lord and Saviour of the world who kneels before us to wash our feet in a gesture of humility and service!

The very nature of the Eucharist implies a bond with God and with the community. Our destinies are intertwined. It is this “intertwining” that lies at the heart of the priesthood of Jesus Christ, and our priesthood. When we receive the Eucharist, we partake of the one who becomes food and drink for others. So must it be for us who receive the Lord’s body and blood: our lives, too, must become a feast for the poor. We too must become food and drink for the hungry.

Throughout his life, Jesus is a priestly model of compassion. He was a priestly person who lived for others, who offered up everyone and everything to the God who loved him. That’s the only kind of priesthood that makes a difference, and that matters, then and now. The very opposite of a priest is a consumer, one who buys and amasses things. A priestly person is one who spends himself or herself gladly for others. This evening’s celebration of the Lord’s supper invites us to look at what we have done with our baptism, and how we are a Eucharistic and Priestly people. We must look at our own priesthood, whether it be the priesthood of the baptized or the ministerial priesthood, and ask ourselves for whom we really live and who we really love. Do we spend ourselves gladly for others?

If I am an ordained priest and called “Father”, it is not simply because I have a prestigious academic background, a good formation, a title, or a place of privilege in society or in the Church. The crises facing the priesthood at present throughout the world remind us that there is no place for prestige, privilege, rank or upward mobility. It is about humble service and intercessory prayer for those entrusted to us by the Lord.

One is a priest because one is ultimately a servant. This means that I try to lay down my life publicly for the community. The title “Father” reflects the relationship that exists between priests and the people they serve. It is an awesome, daunting, beautiful relationship that at its best, generates life and communicates love. Jesus teaches us in the profound Gospel story for Holy Thursday that the true source of authority in the Church comes from living the life of a servant, from laying down our lives for our friends. The only authority and power found in the priesthood is Gospel authority that comes from living the Paschal mystery. Tonight in particular, I and all ordained ministers must ask ourselves: do we really function as one who keeps the memory of Jesus alive in the community; as one who elicits the act of faith from people; as one who builds up God’s community that is the Church? Are we foot washers and servants? Do we pattern our living and dying on Jesus Christ, the eternal priest of compassion and service?

I give thanks to God in a very special way for the privilege granted to me these past years, in particular, to break open God’s Word for the world through these weekly reflections. I am grateful for the countless messages I receive every week from people throughout the world who have found these reflections helpful. Oremus pro invicem.

Holy Thursday in Summary

Here are some key points to remember about Holy Thursday from the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

In what way did Christ offer himself to the Father?

620. The entire life of Christ was a free offering to the Father to carry out his plan of salvation. He gave “his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45) and in this way he reconciled all of humanity with God. His suffering and death showed how his humanity was the free and perfect instrument of that divine love which desires the salvation of all people.

How is Jesus’ offering expressed at the Last Supper?

621. At the Last Supper with his apostles on the eve of his passion Jesus anticipated, that is, both symbolized his free self-offering and made it really present: “This is my Body which is given for you” (Luke 22:19), “This is my Blood which is poured out…” (Matthew 26:28) Thus he both instituted the Eucharist as the “memorial” (1 Corinthians 11:25) of his sacrifice and instituted his apostles as priests of the new covenant.

What happened in the Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane?

612. Despite the horror which death represented for the sacred humanity of Jesus “who is the Author of Life” (Acts 3:15), the human will of the Son of God remained faithful to the will of the Father for our salvation. Jesus accepted the duty to carry our sins in his Body “becoming obedient unto death” (Philippians 2:8).

What are the results of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross?

622-623. Jesus freely offered his life as an expiatory sacrifice, that is, he made reparation for our sins with the full obedience of his love unto death. This love “to the end” (John 13:1) of the Son of God reconciled all of humanity with the Father. The paschal sacrifice of Christ, therefore, redeems humanity in a way that is unique, perfect, and definitive; and it opens up for them communion with God.

[The readings for Holy Thursday are: Isaiah 61.1-3a, 6a, 8b-9; Revelation 1.4-8; and Luke 4.16-21.]

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

Centre of renewal

Brother Emile first heard of Taizé in 1974 in his small hometown in Northern Ontario where there was not much to interest young people in Christianity. Accepting an invitation to visit the little community tucked in Burgandy, France, he rediscovered the Christian faith that had been part of his childhood, but that he had abandoned as a young teenager. He entered the community in 1976 and stayed! Watch this hour-long WITNESS interview for wonderful insights into this renowned ecumenical community where the practices of monastic life – prayer, work, and hospitality, as well as the commitments the brothers make: celibacy, pooling of goods, and the ministry of Christian unity- form the foundation of one of the greatest centres of renewal and hope in the Church and in the world.

Hosanna! Let Us Welcome the Lord Who Still Comes to Us Today!

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Palm Sunday, Year A – Sunday, April 13, 2014

In preparation for Easter three years ago, I had the privilege of an early Lenten retreat on the events of Holy Week as I read and pondered Pope Benedict XVI’s latest book: “Jesus of Nazareth – Holy Week – From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection” (Ignatius Press, San Francisco – USA – 2011). This book should be required reading for every bishop, priest, pastoral minister and serious Catholic who would like to meet Jesus of Nazareth and deepen one’s knowledge of the very person of Jesus and the central mysteries of our faith that we celebrate this week. I could think of no better way to prepare for Holy Week and Easter than to read this masterful text. I recommend it to all those who have found these weekly Scripture texts helpful for your personal prayer and preaching of the Word of God.

Each year during Holy Week, we accompany Jesus up to Jerusalem amidst the crowds crying out “Hosanna, Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” A day filled with exceeding praise and jubilation, but looming on the horizon is a wave of hatred, destruction and death. We, too, are caught up with the crowd acclaiming their Messiah and King as he descends the Mount of Olives… coming not with the trappings of a royal motorcade but on a beast of burden. What striking images of royalty, humility and divinity all packed into this paradoxical scene of Jesus’ entering his city! Full of enthusiasm, they welcome him on Palm Sunday as the King of Peace and the Bearer of Hope. Full of hate, five days later, the people demand his death on the cross.

The Gospel Passion narratives recount how the sins of some of the people and their leaders at the time of Jesus conspired to bring about the Passion and death of Christ, and thereby suggest the fundamental truth that we are all to blame. Their sins and our sins bring Christ to the cross, and He bears them willingly. And we must learn from what happened to Jesus and ask ourselves not only about the identity of those who tried, condemned and killed Him long ago, but also what killed Jesus and what vicious circles of violence, brutality, and hatred continue to crucify Him today in His brothers and sisters of the human family.

Matthew’s Passion Narrative

This year we read Matthew’s Passion Narrative (Matthew 26:14-27:66). Matthew follows his Marcan source closely but with omissions (e.g., Mark 14:51-52) and additions (e.g., Matthew 27:3-10, 19). Some of the additions indicate that he utilized traditions that he had received from elsewhere; others are due to his own theological insight (e.g., Matthew 26:28 “…for the forgiveness of sins”; Matthew 27:52). In his editing Matthew also altered Mark in some minor details. But there is no need to suppose that he knew any passion narrative other than Mark’s.

As we listen to Matthew’s account, we are caught up in Jesus’ encounter with destiny made inevitable by the strong commitments of Jesus’ mission from God and the fierce resistance of the power of death. In the first chapter of “Jesus of Nazareth” entitled “The Entrance into Jerusaelm,” Pope Benedict invites us to consider Zechariah 9:9, the text that Matthew and John quote explicitly for an understanding of “Palm Sunday”: “Tell the daughter of Zion, Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Mt 21:5; cf. Zech 9:9; Jn 12:15). Benedict writes: “He [Jesus] is a king who destroys the weapons of war, a king of peace and a king of simplicity, a king of the poor. And finally we saw that he reigns over a kingdom that stretches from sea to sea, embracing the whole world; we were reminded of the new world encompassing kingdom of Jesus that extends from sea to sea in the communities of the breaking of bread in communion with Jesus Christ, as the kingdom of his peace. None of this could be seen at the time… .” (p. 4).

The Meaning of Hosanna

“Hosanna” was originally a pilgrim blessing that priests addressed in the Temple, but when it was joined to the second part of the acclamation “who enters in the name of the Lord” it took on Messianic significance. It had become a designation of the one promised by God. It now became praise of Jesus, a greeting to him as the one who comes in the name of the Lord, the one awaited and proclaimed by all the promises.

We can ask why the word “hosanna” was preserved for us in Hebrew. Why ask didn’t the Gospels translate it into Greek? The full translation of “hosanna” could read: “Help [or save], please, O Son of David. Blessed in the name of the Lord is he who comes. Help [or save], please, O Most High.” The crowd’s welcome of Jesus with cries of “hosanna,” for help, and the waving of palm fronds, thereby invoked the liturgical formulas of Sukkot, which had already been politicized by its use in the festival of independence, the first Hanukkah. The use of this liturgical formula to welcome Jesus was clearly purposeful. Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem was followed by his cleansing of the Temple (Matthew 21:14-16). This was plainly a scenario in emulation of the Maccabean liberation, calculated to stir messianic hopes. When the crowd called “hosanna” and waved palm fronds, they knew full well what they were doing.

In the hosanna acclamation, we find an expression of the complex emotions of the pilgrims accompanying Jesus and of his disciples: joyful praise of God at the moment of the processional entry, hope that the hour of the Messiah had arrived, and at the same time a prayer that the Davidic kingship and hence God’s kingship over Israel would be reestablished (“Jesus of Nazareth” pp. 8-10).

“Hosanna” as an urgent plea to help and save is universally valid. It is perennially appropriate to the human situation. It is a one-word prayer with potential political impact to unsettle oppressors everywhere, now as in ancient days, and should thus be translated and understood.

The prophet from Nazareth

In the beginning when people had heard of the prophet from Nazareth, he did not appear to have any importance for Jerusalem, and the local inhabitants did not know him. The crowd that paid homage to Jesus at the gateway to the city was not the same crowd that later demanded his crucifixion. In this two-stage account of the failure to recognize Jesus— through a combination of indifference and fear— Benedict XVI says that we see something of the city’s tragedy of which Jesus spoke a number of times, most poignantly in his eschatological discourse.

Unique emphases of Matthew’s Passion

For Matthew, the ultimate turning point in Jesus’ history was his death and resurrection. At the very instant of Jesus’ death, a death suffered in fidelity to his mission, new life breaks out: The earth quakes, the rocks are split, the tombs are opened and the saints of old are raised from their tombs to march triumphantly into God’s city. In writing these words, Matthew evokes the great vision of the dry bones in Ezekiel 37. God breathes spirit into the bones, and they rise from the dead to become a new people. Matthew believed that out of the death of Jesus came new life for the world; out of the seeming death of the Jewish Christian mission to Israel, the early community rose to envelop the Mediterranean world and to forge a new people from Jew and gentile. Death-resurrection was not only the pattern for Jesus’ destiny but would also be the pattern for the destiny of the community itself within history.

Contemporary Meaning

What does Matthew’s passion say to us today? I am convinced that it offers us distinct biblical lenses through which we look upon this current moment of the history of the Church and the world. We receive our marching orders and pastoral plan for mission, not only from the Church but also from the world in which we live. The tremendous biblical drama found in Matthew’s passion teaches us that what we often consider to be “secular events”, even those that are destructive, damaging and even terrorizing and blinding, move us forward into God’s future for us, and set the stage for God to reveal himself to us.

Greeting the Lord in the Eucharist

I conclude with Benedict’s words on this Palm Sunday Gospel scene:

“The Church greets the Lord in the Holy Eucharist as the one who is coming now, the one who has entered into her midst. At the same time, she greets him as the one who continues to come, the one who leads us toward his coming. As pilgrims, we go up to him; as a pilgrim, he comes to us and takes us up with him in his “ascent” to the Cross and Resurrection, to the definitive Jerusalem that is already growing in the midst of this world in the communion that unites us with his body.” (Jesus of Nazareth p. 11).

[The readings for Palm Sunday are: Isaiah 50.4-7; Philippians 2.6-11; and Matthew 26.14-27.66.]

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