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Viewing the Church through the Lenses of Pentecost

Pentecost cropped

Solemnity of Pentecost, Year A – Sunday, June 8, 2014

Pentecost is the fiftieth day after Easter that signals the start of the universal mission of the Church – a mission that overcomes human obstacles and has the Spirit as its driving force. The mighty breath of God and the fire of the Spirit’s presence engulf the group of disciples gathered in prayer around Mary, Mother of the Lord in the upper room.

Luke’s narrative of Pentecost in today’s first reading from Acts (2:1-13) consists of an introduction, a speech ascribed to Peter declaring the resurrection of Jesus and its messianic significance (14-36), and a favorable response from the audience (2:37-41). The Twelve were not originally in a position to proclaim publicly the messianic office of Jesus without incurring immediate reprisal from those religious authorities in Jerusalem who had brought about Jesus’ death precisely to stem the rising tide in his favor.

Psalm 104 reminds us that this Holy Spirit, this breath of God that we as Christians have received, is the same Spirit that sustains the constant renewal of all created things.

Paul’s theology of charisms

In today’s second reading, (I Cor 12:3b-7, 12-13) St. Paul reminds the Corinthian Christians that the different gifts of the Holy Spirit are given for a purpose: a service to be offered for the good of all. They are not ends in themselves. Christians are called to establish a unity that brings together in Jesus Christ all peoples, religions and states of life.

Ecstatic and charismatic activity were common in early Christian experience, as they were in other ancient religions. But the Corinthians seem to have developed a disproportionate esteem for certain phenomena, especially tongues, to the detriment of order in the liturgy. Paul reminds the Corinthians that ecstatic phenomena must be judged by their effect. Power to confess Jesus as Lord can come only from the Spirit, and it is inconceivable that the Spirit would move anyone to curse the Lord. We learn that there are some features common to all charisms, despite their diversity: all are gifts (charismata), grace from outside ourselves; all are forms of service (diakoniai), an expression of their purpose and effect; and all are workings (energemata), in which God is at work. Paul associates each of these aspects with what later theology will call one of the persons of the Trinity, an early example of “appropriation.”

The image of a body (12-26) is introduced to explain Christ’s relationship with believers (12). Paul applies this model to the church: by baptism all, despite diversity of ethnic or social origins, are integrated into one organism. The reading then develops the need for diversity of function among the parts of a body without threat to its unity.

He breathed on them

The Gospel of John (19:20-23) describes another way the Holy Spirit is given to the apostles: the risen Jesus breathing on the apostles to impart the Holy Spirit. The power of the Spirit not only authorizes, but also empowers the apostles to forgive and to retain sins. Jesus formally sends out to the world his apostles, as he had been sent to the world by the Father. Jesus’ breathing on the apostles huddled in the Upper Room recalls Genesis 2:7, where God breathed on the first man and gave him life; just as Adam’s life came from God, so now the disciples’ new spiritual life comes from Jesus.

The lenses of Pentecost

In my work at Salt and Light Television Network in Canada, I have had to quickly learn about broadcast technology, and all that goes into making a good film. One important aspect of television is the intricate camera work “behind the scenes.” The close up and wide-angle camera shots make all the difference in filming and telling a story. If we use too many close-ups, we lose sight of the bigger picture. If we overuse the wide-angle lens without attention to the particulars, it doesn’t make for good television. Good television combines the wide-angle or panoramic shots, the intermediate views of the surface, and finally the close-ups that offer attention to detail and often provide necessary depth for understanding the whole picture.

I would like to offer three lenses through which we might consider this feast: 1) the wide-angle lens that looks at our belonging to the Church; 2) an intermediate lens that focuses in on the ideologies at work in the Church today, and 3) a zoom lens to sharpen our hope, the great manifestation of the Holy Spirit to the Church.

“Sentire cum ecclesia”

Pentecost is considered to be the birth of the Church. Our baptismal consecration in service to Christ cannot be separated from consecration in service to the Church. One of the main themes permeating the thought of St. Ignatius of Loyola is his exhortation “Sentire cum ecclesia” or “think with the Church.” “Sentire cum ecclesia” also means to feel with the Church and to love the Church. Pentecost invites us once again to walk with the Church, breathe with the Church, hope with the Church, feel with the Church, “sentire cum ecclesia.” What does the Church mean for me as an individual? What is my personal relationship with the Church? Do I love the Church? Do I feel loved by the Church?

Moving Beyond Ideology

From the wide-angle view of the Church, let us take a closer look at our current ecclesial reality. Today, some of us seem to be stuck in the ideological battles that followed the Second Vatican Council. Perhaps we are frozen in categories of left and right; traditional vs. avant-garde; male vs. female; hierarchical vs. lay-led, or prophetic vs. static. Our inter-ecclesial and inter-community fixations and polarizations on all sides of the ecclesial spectrum can distract us from addressing with requisite depth and discernment the issues facing us today. Whatever is not purified and transformed within us is transmitted to others — especially to the next generation. When we sell ourselves to cynicism and despair, meanness of heart, smallness of spirit and harshness in ecclesial discourse, we betray our deepest identity as bearers of joy, hope and truth. Is joy present in our Christian witness? What prevents me as an individual and us as a community from giving a robust, joyful witness to Jesus Christ, the Catholic Faith and the Church?

Hope: a manifestation of the Spirit

Finally, let us zoom in on hope, a true manifestation of the Spirit at Pentecost. Is it not true that for the past few years, many of us in the Church have felt like we are frequently caught in a flash flood that is unexpected, powerful, destructive and filled with despair? The flame seems to have gone out and our influence was terribly diminished. The flash flood bears down with immense force on all of us. Some can easily view our present situation with great pessimism and grow disheartened, depressed, and even cynical. But so much of that mood has changed drastically since the night of March 13, 2013, when Pope Francis appeared on the loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica. Many have said that the Cardinal who came from the ends of the earth in Buenos Aires ushered into the Church the new Pentecost of which Pope John XXIII spoke so beautifully when he convened the Second Vatican Council over 50 years ago. For the world of sound bites, hope usually means that we make ourselves believe that everything is going to turn out all right. We use the word hope lightly and cheaply. This is not the hope of Christians. We must be icons of hope, a people with a new vision, a people that learn to see the world through the lenses of Christ, the Spirit, and the Church.

Signs of the times and signs of hope

The Second Vatican Council encouraged Christians to read the signs of the times, and for Pope John XXIII these were signs of hope and glimpses of the Kingdom’s presence in our midst. It is not a kingdom of this world, so that it cannot be identified specifically in this or that location, but it is nevertheless here already, fostered by the Eucharist which is the pattern to be reproduced in all society, as well as still to come. The Kingdom manifests itself through the gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, understanding, counsel, courage, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. And the Spirit’s fruits make the Kingdom palpable and palatable: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, long suffering, mildness, faith, modesty, continence, and chastity.

It is also possible to follow a via negativa and to say where the Kingdom is not. Where there is no justice, no peace, no sharing, no mutual trust, no forgiveness, there is no Kingdom. Where there is rancor, envy, distrust, hatred, ignorance, indifference, unchastity, cynicism, there is no Kingdom and certainly no life.

“Duc in altum!”

We cannot weigh the life of faith and judge the vitality of the Church solely on the basis of demographical or sociological indicators, numbers, polls, and outside statistics, as helpful as they may be. The fire of Pentecost invites us to rediscover the depth, beauty and vastness of the Church’s mission. What is required of those imagining and building the Church is to think big, and to cast our nets into the deep. “Duc in altum!” We must shape our vision on the firm conviction in the victory of the Cross and in Jesus Christ’s triumph over sin and death. Individuals and communities without vision and a Church without a mission are like a person without relationships. Unless we are able to go beyond ourselves, we will remain undeveloped personalities. When the Spirit truly dwells within us, we will be blessed anew with creativity, imagination and hope.

Guarantee of the Spirit’s presence

What is the deepest and surest assurance and intimation that the Holy Spirit is present in our world and Church today? The answer is: joy. If there is joy present you can bet that the Holy Spirit has something to do with this precious gift. St. Augustine who was the most musically passionate of the Fathers of the Church memorably evokes the experience of this joy with these words:

“Whenever people must labor hard they begin with songs whose words express their joy. But when joy brims over and words are not enough they abandon even this coherence and give themselves to the sheer sound of singing. What is this jubilation? What is this exultant song? It is the melody that means our hearts are bursting with feelings that cannot express themselves. And to whom does this jubilation most surely belong? Truly to God who is unutterable, if words will not come and may not remain silent what else can you do but let the melody soar? This is the song of the Holy Spirit.”

On this great feast of the birth of the Church, let us ponder anew the whole reality of the Church, from the wide-angle view of its vastness and beauty, to the sometimes turbulent and complex surface, zooming in finally on hope, one of the deepest manifestations of the Spirit alive in the Church. In doing so, we can marvel once again at the mercy and generosity of God and give thanks to the Lord who continues to call us to fidelity and joy.

Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful,

and reignite in us the fire of your Love!

Make us joyful witnesses to your hope in the Church!

Move us beyond our ideologies that divide and blind us.

Lord, send us your Spirit, and renew the face of the earth…

the face of our Church, the face of our local communities,

our own faces, our own hearts. Amen.

[The readings for the Solemnity of Pentecost are: Acts 2:1-11; Psalm 104; 1 Cor. 12:3-7, 12-13; and John 20:19-23.]

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

(Image: Pentecost by Jean II Restout)

Ascension of the Lord: “Space Travel” of the Heart

Men of Galilee cropped

Ascension of the Lord, Year A – Sunday, June 1, 2014

Matthew’s Gospel for the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord (28:16-20) presents us the majestic, final scene in Galilee that brings the evangelist’s account to a fitting conclusion. In perfect harmony with his presentation of Jesus, Matthew has chosen to end his Gospel not with a visual or pictorial representation of Jesus’ new heavenly power, nor with sharing bread or touching his body, but with a profoundly simple scene featuring the words of Jesus, the great teacher and master (23:8-10). The ascension scene is the goal to which the Gospel tends and a provocative synthesis of its fundamental message.

Today’s passage is divided into two parts: the appearance of the risen Christ to the disciples in Galilee (16-18a), as promised in 28:7, and the instructions of Jesus, which conclude the Gospel (18b-20). The disciples go to the mountain Jesus had commanded, a reminder of three earlier mountains: the mountain (5:1-2) where Jesus gives the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7); the high mountain (17:1) where he was transfigured and his passion prediction (16:21) was ratified; and the Mount of Olives (24:3), the location of his eschatological discourse (chapters 24-25).

Matthew’s eleven

Let us consider the reality of this small group of apostles and disciples commissioned on the mountain in Galilee. Could any group of people be more human, more ordinary, more dysfunctional, more unpromising? How much more obvious could human frailty be than in this group… in the midst of treachery, cowardice, denial to name but a few of the weak points of those who would become the “pillars” of our Church! Only when the one called “Rock” realized the full significance of his denial would the ministry of church leadership and unity be placed on his shoulders. Two of them, James and John, displayed such naked ambition. Some would ask questions that clearly revealed their profound ignorance of the master’s message and life. Such pathetic frailty and brokenness… . Yet Matthew’s Gospel cuts through all of it by telling us that “the eleven disciples” made their way to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. No longer the twelve, that symbolic number that gave them continuity with the long history of Judaism, but the eleven, recalling the tragic defection of Judas Iscariot who would fail miserably. Yet in spite of such blatant humanity and brazen failure, the eleven are entrusted with the dream and mission of the Risen Lord.

A universal mission

In verse 18, the Risen Jesus claims universal power in heaven and on earth. Since this universal power belongs to the Risen Lord, he gives the eleven a mission that is universal. They are to make disciples of all nations. While “all nations” is understood by some scholars as referring only to all Gentiles, it is probable that it included the Jews as well. Baptism is the means of entrance into the community of the Risen One – the Church. The end of Matthew’s Gospel also contains the clearest expression in the New Testament of Trinitarian belief. It may have been the baptismal formula of Matthew’s church, but primarily it designates the effect of baptism, the union of the one baptized with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

In verse 20, Jesus’ injunction “to observe all that I have commanded you” refers certainly to the moral teaching found in Matthew’s gospel, preeminently that of the Sermon on the Mount (5-7). The commandments of Jesus are the standard of Christian conduct, not the Mosaic law as such, even though some of the Mosaic commandments have been invested with the authority of Jesus.

The words “And lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world” (20) have a special ring to them. They send us back to the beginning of Matthew’s account when Jesus is given the name “Emmanuel.” In that name we find the answer to humanity’s deepest longings for God throughout the ages. Emmanuel is both a prayer and plea (on our behalf) and a promise and declaration on God’s part. When we pronounce the word, we are really praying and pleading: “God, be with us!” And when God speaks it, the Almighty, Eternal, Omnipresent Creator of the world is telling us: “I am with you” in Jesus. At the conclusion of the Gospel, the name Emmanuel is alluded to when the Risen Jesus assures his disciples of his continued presence: “I am with you always, until the end of the age” (20). God did indeed keep his promise in Jesus.

It is the Eucharist that confirms these words “I am with you.” Christ said to his Apostles, “Go forth . . . and teach all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” From Christ the way of Christian initiation leads directly to the Eucharist: “I am with you,” “I am with every one of you.” “I become part of your flesh and blood.” “I share your very existence.”

Touching the Risen Lord

In his book “Jesus of Nazareth – Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection” (Ignatius Press, San Francisco – USA – 2011), Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI writes of the mystery of the Ascension of the Lord (p. 286):

…The old manner of human companionship and encounter is over. From now on we can touch Jesus only “with the Father”. Now we can touch him only by ascending. From the Father’s perspective, in his communion with the Father, he is accessible and close to us in a new way. This new accessibility presupposes a newness on our part as well. Through Baptism, our life is already hidden with Christ in God—in our current existence we are already “raised” with him at the Father’s right hand (cf. Col 3:1–3).

If we enter fully into the essence of our Christian life, then we really do touch the risen Lord, and then we really do become fully ourselves. Touching Christ and ascending belong together. And let us not forget that for John the place of Christ’s “exaltation” is his Cross and that our own ever-necessary “ascension”, our “going up on high” in order to touch him, has to be traveled in company with the crucified Jesus. Christ, at the Father’s right hand, is not far away from us. At most we are far from him, but the path that joins us to one another is open. And this path is not a matter of space travel of a cosmic-geographical nature: it is the “space travel” of the heart, from the dimension of self-enclosed isolation to the new dimension of world embracing divine love.”

“Christ has come so close to us”

Only in his physical separation from the historical scene can Jesus’ spiritual union with the entire world for all time be complete. Jesus left the world one day in order to be available to all people throughout all time. He had to dissolve bonds he had made with his friends, in order to be available for everybody. We move towards heaven to the extent that we approach Jesus. The words of one of Blessed John Henry Newman’s parochial sermons inspire us on this great feast (PPS, vol. 6, no. 10):

Christ’s going to the Father is at once a source of sorrow, because it involves His absence; and of joy, because it involves His presence. And out of the doctrine of His resurrection and ascension, spring those Christian paradoxes, often spoken of in Scripture, that we are sorrowing, yet always rejoicing; as having nothing, yet possessing all things (II Cor 6:10).

This, indeed, is our state at present; we have lost Christ and we have found Him; we see Him not, yet we discern Him. We embrace His feet, yet He says, “Touch Me not.” How is this? it is thus: we have lost the sensible and conscious perception of Him; we cannot look on Him, hear Him, converse with Him, follow Him from place to place; but we enjoy the spiritual, immaterial, inward, mental, real sight and possession of Him; a possession more real and more present than that which the Apostles had in the days of His flesh, because it is spiritual, because it is invisible.”

Christ, the reason for our joy

Finally, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI leaves us with a consoling image of the Risen Lord who never leaves us. Once again “Jesus of Nazareth – Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection” (Ignatius Press, San Francisco – USA – 2011), he writes (pp. 284-285):

Because Jesus is with the Father, he has not gone away but remains close to us. Now he is no longer in one particular place in the world as he had been before the “Ascension”: now, through his power over space, he is present and accessible to all—throughout history and in every place. There is a very beautiful story in the Gospel (Mk 6:45–52 and parallel passages) where Jesus anticipates this kind of closeness during his earthly life and so makes it easier for us to understand.

After the multiplication of the loaves, the Lord makes the disciples get into the boat and go before him to Bethsaida on the opposite shore, while he himself dismisses the people. He then goes “up on the mountain” to pray. So the disciples are alone in the boat. There is a headwind, and the lake is turbulent. They are threatened by the power of the waves and the storm. The Lord seems to be far away in prayer on his mountain. But because he is with the Father, he sees them. And because he sees them, he comes to them across the water; he gets into the boat with them and makes it possible for them to continue to their destination.

This is an image for the time of the Church—intended also for us. The Lord is “on the mountain” of the Father. Therefore he sees us. Therefore he can get into the boat of our life at any moment. Therefore we can always call on him; we can always be certain that he sees and hears us. In our own day, too, the boat of the Church travels against the headwind of history through the turbulent ocean of time. Often it looks as if it is bound to sink. But the Lord is there, and he comes at the right moment. “I go away, and I will come to you”—that is the essence of Christian trust, the reason for our joy.”

[The reading for the Ascension of the Lord are: Acts 1.1-11; Ephesians 1.17-23; and Matthew 28.16-20.]

The Advocate Gives Us A Reason For Our Hope

Holy Spirit cropped

Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year A – Sunday, May 25, 2014

The first six Chapters of Acts tell the story of the foundation and up building of the Church in Jerusalem. In today’s first reading (Acts 8:5-8, 14-17) and again in Acts 10:44-48 and Acts 19:1-6, Luke distinguishes between baptism in the name of the Lord Jesus and the reception of the Spirit. In each case, the Spirit is conferred through members of the Twelve (Peter and John) or their representative (Paul). This is most likely Luke’s way of describing the role of the church in the bestowal of the Spirit. Elsewhere in Acts, baptism and the Spirit are more closely related (Acts 1:5; 11:16).

What can we learn from this experience? Luke’s writings in the Acts of the Apostles make clear that the gift of the Spirit is not a personal privilege. Nor is the proclamation of the Scriptures a mere cerebral process involving theory and intelligence. Rather, it is a process that demands an experiential knowledge of Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified and risen one. No apparent obstacle – whether physical defect, race or geographical remoteness – can place a person beyond the saving call of the good news. God is actively fulfilling his purposes for the scope of the church’s mission (Lk 24:47; Acts 1:8). The Lord Jesus sets his eyes on potential witnesses and does all he can to form them, empower them and send them out on the roads of the Word.

Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts

Today’s second reading from the First Letter of Peter 3:15-18 reminds us that by Christ’s suffering and death, the righteous one saved the unrighteous (I Peter 3:18); by his resurrection he received new life in the spirit, which he communicates to believers through the baptismal bath that cleanses their consciences from sin. As Noah’s family was saved through water, so Christians are saved through the waters of baptism (I Peter 3:19-22). Hence they need not share the fear of sinners; they should rather rejoice in suffering because of their hope in Christ. Their innocence disappoints their accusers (I Peter 3:13-16; cf Matthew 10:28; Romans 8:35-39).

Peter’s words to the early Church continue to speak powerfully to us two thousand years later (I Peter 3:15ff): “Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts. Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence, keeping your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who defame your good conduct in Christ may themselves be put to shame.”

What is the reason for our hope? I wish to recall the words of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in his homily for the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul in Rome on June 29, 2009:

“Very briefly, I would like to call your attention further to two other affirmations in the First Letter of St Peter which concern us in a special way in our time. There is first of all the sentence, today discovered anew, on the basis of which medieval theologians understood their task, the task of the theologian: “in your hearts reverence Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you”. (3: 15). Christian faith is hope. It paves the way to the future. And it is a hope that possesses reasonableness, a hope whose reason we can and must explain. Faith comes from the eternal Reason that entered our world and showed us the true God. Faith surpasses the capacity of our reason, just as love sees more than mere intelligence. But faith speaks to reason and in the dialectic confrontation can be a match for reason. It does not contradict it but keeps up with it and goes beyond it to introduce us into the greater Reason of God.

“As Pastors of our time it is our task to be the first to understand the reason of faith. It is our task not to let it remain merely a tradition but to recognize it as a response to our questions. Faith demands our rational participation, which is deepened and purified in a sharing of love. It is one of our duties as Pastors to penetrate faith with thought, to be able to show the reason for our hope within the debates of our time.”

The new advocate among us

In John’s Gospel, the sense of loss among the apostles is palpable as Jesus prepares to take leave of them. Peter asks: “Lord where are you going?” (Jn 13:36) and “Lord, why can I not follow you now?” (Jn 13:37). To this poignant longing Jesus responds: “If you love me you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father and he will give you another Advocate to be with you forever” (Jn 14:15). Then Jesus identifies the new Advocate (paraclete) as the Spirit of truth, unknown to the world but an abiding presence within the disciples (Jn 14:17). This then is the foundation of our trust in the guidance of the Spirit.

The Greek term “paraclete” has its roots in legal terminology, meaning advocate or defense attorney. It can also mean spokesman, mediator, intercessor, comforter, consoler, although no one of these terms encompasses the meaning in John. The Paraclete in John is a teacher, a witness to Jesus, and a prosecutor of the world, who represents the continued presence on earth of the Jesus who has returned to the Father.

Jesus is the first advocate (paraclete); see 1 John 2:1, where Jesus is an advocate in the sense of intercessor in heaven. The coming of the Paraclete in the Christian community signals the start of a worldwide mission impelling the early Christians beyond their geographic boundaries. If Jesus was Advocate during his earthly presence, the Spirit now is a new Advocate, the presence of Jesus until his return. This Advocate is not a stranger, but is the guarantee of fidelity to Jesus: “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I have sent to you” (Jn 14:26). Again he adds that the Advocate will testify on his behalf and enable the disciples also to testify. As background to these passages we recall the uncertainty and fear of the disciples at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles. With the coming of the Spirit they are enlightened and emboldened and become witnesses with clarity and courage.

Not trapped in the past

The Advocate will not only be the assurance of faithfulness and the source of bold proclamation but also the guide into a veiled future: “I have still many things to say to you, but you cannot hear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come” (Jn 16:12-13). This assurance of the presence and guidance of the Spirit empowers the disciples to move into the future, to meet new challenges in creative ways. Authentic disciples are faithful to the person and message of Jesus yet they are not trapped in the past. It is the Spirit that enables flexibility, adjustment, adaptation and newness to occur, always within a context of fidelity.

The Church’s living memory

The new Advocate is not a kind of a proxy sent to replace the absent Lord: on the contrary, it assures his presence as well as the Father’s. They will “come to” the one who remains faithful to Jesus’ word, and they will dwell “with” him. Not with the others–those who do not love the Lord and do not keep his word. The Paraclete dwells in everyone who loves Jesus and keeps the commandments, and so his presence is not limited by time (14:15-17). The Paraclete is just as present in the modern disciples of Jesus as he was in the first generation. No one should think that Jesus has abandoned his Church in our times. Jesus continues to send us God’s Spirit of Truth. We are told in the Gospel that the “one whom the Father will send will teach us everything, and remind us of all that Jesus has said to us (v. 26). This reminding or calling to memory is beautifully expressed in a new term used in the Catechism of the Catholic Church to describe the work of the Paraclete: “the Holy Spirit is the Church’s living memory” (#1099).

The coming of the Paraclete signals the start of a worldwide mission impelling the early Christians beyond their geographic boundaries. As Christians, the person of Jesus Christ is our “starting-point”, our hope and our goal. Christ asks the Church to “make disciples of all nations.” (Mt 28:19). To guide the work of the Church in its mission, Christ sends the Holy Spirit into our midst. Jesus identifies the new Advocate as the ‘Spirit of truth’, unknown to the world but an abiding presence within the disciples (Jn 14:17). This then is the foundation of our trust in the guidance of the Spirit. Jesus was Advocate during his earthly presence with the disciples. The Holy Spirit is a new Advocate, the presence of Jesus guiding the Church until His return. This Advocate is not a stranger, but is the guarantee of fidelity to Jesus: The Advocate, the Holy Spirit whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I have said to you (John 14:26).

[The readings for the Sixth Sunday of Easter are: Acts 8.5-8, 14-17; 1 Peter 3.15-18; and John 14.15-21.]

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.

(Image: The Holy Spirit by Corrado Giaquinto)

The Master Builder and His Community of Living Stones

 Jesus Christ lds

Fifth Sunday of Easter – May 18, 2014

The mystery of our spiritual union with Christ lies at the heart of the liturgy for the Fifth Sunday of Easter this year. In the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles (6:1-7), we learn that a clear perception of the diversity of offices and duties in the first apostolic community arose very quickly.

In verses 1-7, the Hellenists were not necessarily Jews from the diaspora, but were more probably Palestinian Jews who spoke only Greek. The Hebrews were Palestinian Jews who spoke Hebrew or Aramaic and who may also have spoken Greek. Both groups belong to the Jerusalem Jewish Christian community. The conflict between them leads to a restructuring of the community that will better serve the community’s needs.

Service of the Word

The essential function of the Twelve (2-4) is the “service of the word,” including development of the kerygma by formulation of the teachings of Jesus. In verse 2 we read: “It is not right for us to neglect the word of God to serve at table.” Some scripture commentators think that it is not the serving of food that is described here but rather the keeping of the books that recorded the distribution of food to the needy members of the community. At the Apostles’ invitation the disciples chose seven men: “Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas and Nicolaus. The Apostles prayed over them and laid their hands upon them” (5-6). 

The real purpose of this whole episode is to introduce Stephen as a prominent figure in the community whose long speech and martyrdom will be recounted in Acts 7. After Stephen and the others are chosen, they are never presented carrying out the task for which they were appointed (2-3). Rather, two of their number, Stephen and Philip, are presented as preachers of the Christian message. Stephen is the most representative of the group of seven companions. Our tradition sees in this group the origins of the future ministry of “deacons”, although we should keep in mind that this particular ministerial distinction is not present in the Acts of the Apostles.

Let us remember that in addition to charitable work, Stephen carried out the work of evangelization among his own people- the so-called “Hellenists”. Luke insists on the fact that Stephen, “full of grace and power” (8), presented in Jesus’ Name a new interpretation of Moses and of God’s Law itself. Stephen reread the Old Testament in the light of the proclamation of Christ’s death and Resurrection.

One of the powerful lessons we learn from Stephen’s witness is that charitable social works must never be separated from the bold, explicit and courageous proclamation of the faith. There is no question that Stephen was one of the seven entrusted with the works of charity. But it was impossible to separate charity and faith. Thus, with charity, he proclaimed the crucified Christ, even unto his own martyrdom. Charity and the proclamation of faith always go hand in hand.

Christ the cornerstone

Today’s second reading from the First Letter of Peter (2:4-9) presents us with the striking image of Christ who is the cornerstone that is the foundation of the spiritual edifice of the Christian community (5). To unbelievers, Christ is an obstacle and a stumbling block on which they are destined to fall (8). Christ who is “the living stone” of the “spiritual house” will transform us too into “living stones” (5). Each time we gather together in Church, we, as the community of faith, the “living stones” of God’s edifice, are called to be the true “spiritual house” of which the Lord is the “cornerstone” and in which are offered “the spiritual sacrifices which Jesus Christ has made acceptable to God” (6).

A community of living stones

I recall my first visit to the site of Capernaum on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee back in 1988. I was privileged to be guided that day by one of my mentors and great friends, the late Passionist Fr. Carroll Stuhlmueller who was teaching at Chicago’s Catholic Theological Union. Fr. Stuhmueller gave us a marvelous teaching on the “Bread of Life” discourses in the ruins of the third century synagogue in the center of the town. He then led us through the narrow streets of Jesus’ home base in Galilee, pointing out to us how the dwellings of the town were built of small, blackish stones. It appeared that no mortar kept these stones together. He told the small group with him that these were called “living stones.” They were rubbed together until they fit together perfectly. That image has remained with me ever since. I always found it to be a very apt image of the church today- a community of living stones – where are all-too-frequent friction is actually useful for the whole edifice. It is only when we rub up against one another or are forced to do so, that we learn what real charity and real community are all about. Only then are we able to grow and change and to fit together in a way that is strong, sturdy and durable for the long haul.

Jesus’ master building project

In the second reading, Peter suggests that, “like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood.” So we offer ourselves to God as living stones, but just what is this “spiritual house” that’s being built? That leads us to today’s Gospel (John 14:1-12). John’s Gospel presents us with the other house – in fact a mansion with many dwelling places. Is it not natural to assume that “My Father’s house” refers to heaven, and that the “many dwelling places” are the places in heaven that await each of us as we move from earthly life into the next? It is a viable and a beautiful interpretation of this passage, and we should allow it to penetrate our hearts especially in lonely and troubling moments when we have lost a loved one. But we cannot limit the text only to moments of loss. 

Jesus is concerned not only with the afterlife but with the here and now. When Jesus spoke to his disciples at the last supper about “many dwelling places,” he was also speaking to them about the present moment. The disciples and the early Church needed to hear that they would be able to carry out their mission and ministry even after Jesus ascended to the Father. Jesus says, “Let not your hearts be troubled . . . in my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.” Not one place, but many! The Lord has gone ahead of us to prepare many places, even for those who are “outside” the Church community. In his day, Jesus went out of his way to prepare a room for all, especially for those for whom no one else would make room. The master building project of Jesus is one that makes a home of many rooms for the variety of God’s people. And this dwelling of many rooms is built with living stones.

Foretelling his departure

At several moments during this Paschal season, Jesus foretells his departure – his ascension and return to the Father. Let us recall those moments. First at the Last Supper: “When Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world to the Father…knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God…” (Jn 13:1-3). Jesus had in mind his death which was already near, and yet he was looking beyond that and spoke such words in view of his imminent departure, of his return to the Father through the ascension into heaven: “Now I am going to him who sent me” (Jn 16:5); “I go to the Father, and you will see me no more” (Jn 16:10). At that time the disciples could not fully comprehend what Jesus had in mind, all the more so since he spoke in a mysterious way: “I go away and I will come to you,” and then he added: “If you loved me, you would have rejoiced because I go to the Father; for the Father is greater than I” (Jn 14:28). After his resurrection the disciples would understand these words as a prophecy of his ascension into heaven.

Thomas’ question to Jesus: “Master, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” expresses the concern felt by every human being when awakened to a sense of responsibility for the life that God has so generously given us, when faced with the need to give direction to life’s activities. When Jesus identifies himself as “the way”, this expression is also a designation of Christianity (Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22.) In the early Church, Christians were known as the followers of the Way.

Challenges in transmitting the faith today

In light of today’s rich readings, I would like to refer to another section of the Lineamenta (preparatory document) for the Synod of Bishops on “The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith.” The Synod will took place in October 2012 at the Vatican. This particular section deals with “The Fruits of Transmitting the Faith (#17).”

“The goal of the entire process of transmitting the faith is to make the Church a community of witnesses of the Gospel. Pope Paul VI states: “She is the community of believers, the community of hope lived and communicated, the community of brotherly love, and she needs to listen unceasingly to what she must believe, to her reasons for hoping, to the new commandment of love. She is the People of God immersed in the world, and often tempted by idols, and she always needs to hear the proclamation of the ‘mighty works of God’ which converted her to the Lord; she always needs to be called together afresh by Him and reunited. In brief, this means that she has a constant need of being evangelized, if she wishes to retain freshness, vigor and strength in order to proclaim the Gospel.”

“The results of this ongoing project of evangelization, which are generated in the Church as a sign of the life-giving power of the Gospel, take concrete form in the responses given to the challenges of our times. Families need to become true and real signs of love and sharing, with a capacity to hope in virtue of their openness to life. Forces are needed in building communities which have a true ecumenical spirit and are capable of dialogue with other religions. Courage is needed to sustain initiatives of social justice and solidarity, which put the poor at the centre of the Church’s concern. Joy needs to be more evident in the dedication of one’s life to a vocation to the priesthood or the consecrated life. A Church which transmits her faith, a Church of the “new evangelization”, is capable in every situation of demonstrating that the Spirit guides her and transforms the history of the Church, of individual Christians and of entire peoples and their culture.”

Questions for reflection this week

Recalling that charity and the proclamation of faith always go hand in hand, how do our charitable efforts and activities and programs of social justice offer us distinct opportunities to proclaim Jesus Christ and his message to those we are assisting?

How are our Christian communities “living stones”, places in the Church which provide people with a spiritual experience? To what extent do our faith programs have as an objective not only the intellectual adherence to Christian truth, but also the creation of an experience of a personal encounter, communion and “living” the mystery of Christ?

How have listening and discussion groups on the Word of God becoming common tools in the Christian life of our communities? How do our communities express the centrality of the Eucharist (celebrated and adored), and, based on this, program their life and activity?

What major fruits have been produced in our Churches through the transmission of the faith? How much are individual Christian communities prepared to acknowledge these fruits, to sustain them and to nourish them? What fruits are greatly lacking?

What obstacles, trials and scandals impede this proclamation? How have communities learned to live these moments by drawing from them opportunities for spiritual and missionary renewal?

[The readings for the Fifth Sunday of Easter are: Acts 6.1-7; Psalm 33; 1 Peter 2.4-9; and John 14.1-12.]

Jesus Never Ceases to be the Sheepgate…

Jesus the Shepherd

Fourth Sunday of Easter – Sunday, May 11, 2014. 

Of all the images of Jesus throughout the ages, what shows his tenderness and compassion more than the Good Shepherd? Even before Jesus’ time, the image of shepherd was used to describe the tenderness and provident care God shows us. Shepherd and host are both images set against the background of the desert, where the protector of the sheep is also the protector of the desert traveler, offering hospitality and safety from enemies. In the Bible and the ancient Near East, “shepherd” was often used as a political title to stress a king’s obligation to provide for his subjects. The title connoted concern for and dedication to others.

The image of the shepherd also expresses great authority. The entire Good Shepherd discourse (John 10:1-21) from which is drawn today’s Gospel text, continues the theme of critique on the Pharisees at the end of chapter 9. Nourishing the flock means that the shepherd must protect them from heresy, ever ready to defend the sheep from marauders. The shepherd’s rod is a defensive weapon against wild animals, while the staff is a supportive instrument symbolizing care and loyalty.

Gates and doors in Israel

Before we consider the significance of the sheepgate, let us recall that in ancient Israel, the gates of Zion symbolized the very idea of entrance into God’s presence. When Isaiah speaks of the day of universal peace he describes it as a time when God’s “gates shall stand open constantly; day and night they shall not be closed.” (Isaiah 60:11) Likewise, the altar of holocausts was placed not within the tabernacle, but “in front of the entrance of the Dwelling of the meeting tent.” (Exodus 40:6) Christ is the fulfillment of all these expectations: he is the door through which we have “access to the Father” (Ephesians 2: 18). He is the “new and living way” (Hebrews 10:20). How often do we repeat the words of the Psalmist, especially during the Advent season (24:7-10):

Lift up your heads, O gates;

rise up, you ancient portals,

that the king of glory may enter.

Who is this king of glory?

The LORD, a mighty warrior,

the LORD, mighty in battle.

Lift up your heads, O gates;

rise up, you ancient portals,

that the king of glory may enter.

Who is this king of glory?

The LORD of hosts is the king of glory.

The Sheepgates of the New Testament

In today’s Gospel (John 1:1-10), Jesus makes references to two types of sheepfolds before he identifies himself as the sheepgate. In the first two verses he describes the kind of “communal sheepfold” which each village would maintain and to which the shepherds might return their flocks each night. The pen was protected by a strong door which could be opened only by the chief shepherd’s key.

The second type of sheepfold is described in subsequent verses. Such a containment was provided for those nights when the sheep were to be kept in the fields (as on the night of Jesus’ birth). Such temporary sheepfolds usually consisted of a circle of rocks, with an opening at one end. The shepherd himself would serve as the gate to such sheepfolds, laying across its entrance to sleep. Whether a sheep tried to leave or a wolf tried to enter, they would have to do so by way of the shepherd himself! The shepherd himself was the door.

The Sheep Gate in Jerusalem

It is important to remember that Jesus first identifies himself, not as the Good Shepherd, but as the gate for the sheep. In the ancient walls of Jerusalem, there was a gate on the north of the city, by which animals were brought in from the surrounding areas for sacrifice. It was called the Sheep Gate. Once inside the city and within the temple courts, there was only one door where the sheep went in, and no lamb ever came back out after entering the temple precincts. They traveled in only one direction, and there they were sacrificed for the sins of human beings. For that first audience who heard Jesus’ teaching about sheep, such knowledge added to the shock of his words: “I tell you the truth, I am the gate for the sheep…. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture” (John 10:7,9). In the very temple area filled with sheep on their way to slaughter, Jesus declared there was a way out: “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. I am the Good Shepherd” (John 10:11).

Jesus speaks of sheep in the very place where they were about to be slaughtered. Unlike the shepherd among innocent lambs in many of our imaginary scenes of sheep and shepherds on verdant hillsides, tending these sheep requires something more than a gentle hand and a watchful eye. They must be protected from the powers of death. Jesus teaches that anyone who does not enter into the sheepfold to care for the sheep through this gate – Jesus Himself – is a thief and a bandit. No one comes to the Father except through Him. Jesus himself is the gate by which the shepherd goes to the sheep, therefore the only authentic shepherds are those admitted by him. In verses 7-8, the figure is of a gate for the shepherd to come to the sheep; in verses 9-10, the figure is of a gate for the sheep to come in and go out. The Pharisees, since they do not come through Jesus, are thieves. Those who come through this gate that is Jesus will have life.

The Model Shepherd

Jesus with herdJesus is the water of life, the bread of life and the gate of life. Jesus is the model (good) shepherd in three ways. First of all he is willing to lay down his life for his sheep.The Pharisees are hirelings who shear the sheep but have no loyalty to them. The faithful shepherd, like David of old, protects his flock. 

Second, he knows his sheep. This intimate knowledge of his flock, which involves love and long night watches, is his reason for laying down his life for them. And his love goes out beyond “his own sheep” of the Johannine Community to others who believe in him. Third, Jesus is the gate of the sheepfold – not a trap door but rather the entrance into the loving security of God – into the protection of the good shepherd.

Christ is not only the door; he is the king who enters and the temple to whom the door leads! In ancient times the “door to heaven” was the sky from which God gave us manna (Psalm 78:22), but now Christ is the true bread come down from heaven (Nicodemus). Jacob saw the “the gateway to heaven” (Gen 28:17) in the earthly shrine at Bethel, but when the martyr Stephen gazes at the door to heaven he sees “glory of God and Jesus.” (Acts 7:55) Christ not only invites us to enter the Kingdom of heaven through him, he even leaves the keys to his apostles, assuring them that “whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Mt 16:18-20)

Remembering the visit of a Blessed Shepherd in Denver

I cannot help but recall one of the teachings of St. John Paul II on today’s Gospel passage during World Youth Day 1993 in Denver, Colorado. During the Vigil on August 14, 1993 in Denver’s Cherry Creek State Park, the Holy Father said:

“…In Jesus Christ, the Father expresses the whole truth concerning creation. We believe that in the life, death and Resurrection of Jesus the Father reveals all his love for humanity. That is why Christ calls himself “the sheepgate” (Jn. 10:7). As the gate, he stands guard over the creatures entrusted to him. He leads them to the good pastures: “I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be safe. He will go in and out, and find pasture” (10:9).

“…As the Third Millennium approaches, the Church knows that the Good Shepherd continues, as always, to be the sure hope of humanity. Jesus Christ never ceases to be the “sheepgate”. And despite the history of humanity’s sins against life, he never ceases to repeat with the same vigor and love: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (Jn 10:10)”

“…Christ – the Good Shepherd – is present among us, among the peoples, nations, generations and races, as the One who “lays down his life for the sheep”. …Yes, the Good Shepherd lays down his life. But only to take it up again (Jn 10:17). And in the new life of the Resurrection, he has become – in the words of Saint Paul – “a life-giving spirit” (I Cor 15:45), who can now bestow the gift of Life on all who believe in him.”

“Life laid down – Life taken up again – Life given. In him, we have that Life which he has in the unity of the Father and of the Holy Spirit. If we believe in him. If we are one with him through love, remembering that “whoever loves God must also love his brother” (I Jn 4:21).”

Reflection questions for us this week

Jesus says that the sheep will know the voice of their shepherd, and that they will not follow a stranger. How well do I listen for the voice of the Good Shepherd? Where do I seek to hear Him? Do I follow where He leads?

Jesus says that He has come that we might have life, and have it abundantly. What does He mean by this? Do I live the abundant life that God has prepared for me?

Jesus says that He has other sheep that do not belong to the fold, but that must also come in. By this many scholars believe He meant the Gentiles who were not awaiting the Messiah but would receive the Good News with joy. Who are the sheep in today’s world that must come into God’s sheepfold? What are we doing to bring them to Christ?

[The readings for the Fourth Sunday of Easter are: Acts 2.14a, 36b-41; Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2.20b-25; and John 10.1-10.]

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.

The Transmission Faith is Always a Communal, Ecclesial Event

Emmaus cropped

Third Sunday of Easter – Sunday, May 4, 2014

Today’s first reading from the Acts of the Apostles (2:14, 22-33) presents us with the first of six discourses (along with Acts 3:12-26; 4:8-12; 5:29-32; 10:34-43; 13:16-41) dealing with the resurrection of Jesus and its messianic significance. Five of these are attributed to Peter, the final one to Paul. We may call these discourses in Acts the “kerygma,” the Greek word for proclamation (I Cor 15:11). In Peter’s address we can distinguish an introduction and two parts: in the first part (vv 16-21) he is explaining that the messianic times foretold by Joel have now arrived; in the second (vv 22-36) he proclaims that Jesus of Nazareth, whom the Jews crucified, is the Messiah promised by God and eagerly awaited by the righteous of the Old Testament; it is He who has effected God’s saving plan for mankind.

To demonstrate that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah foretold by the prophets, Peter reminds his listeners of our Lord’s miracles (v 22), as well as of his death (23), resurrection (24-32) and glorious ascension (33-35). Peter’s address ends with a brief summary (36). Peter was able to declare the message that can change the life of every one who heard it. That message has not changed nor lost its power in our day. It is a message that still brings hope to the hopeless, life to those dead in sin and forgiveness to those struggling under the burden of their sins.

A catechetical and liturgical story

The Emmaus story of today’s Gospel is at the heart of Luke’s resurrection chapter (24). Luke’s story of the two disciples on the road (vv 13-35) focuses on the interpretation of scripture by the risen Jesus and the recognition of him in the breaking of the bread. The references to the quotations of scripture and explanation of it (24:25-27), the kerygmatic proclamation (34), and the liturgical gesture (30) suggest that the episode is primarily catechetical and liturgical rather than apologetic.

When we meet the disciples on the road to Emmaus, it is evening, and the glow of that first Easter day has begun to fade. Resurrection at this point is nothing more than a rumor or a tale. Buried beneath their verbal exchange lies a deep yearning and a holy hunger. Intimately intertwined with their skepticism is their hope, and their need for God to be alive, vibrant and present in their world of death. But the baggage of their doubt impedes the fervor of their faith and they fail to recognize Jesus. Without being aware of what they are really saying along the road, the two disciples profess many of the central elements of the creed of the Christian faith yet they remain blind to the necessity of the Messianic suffering predicted in the Scriptures.

The stranger on the road to Emmaus takes the skepticism and curiosity of the disciples and weaves them into the fabric of the Scripture. Jesus challenges them to reinterpret the events of the past days in light of the Scriptures. However, Cleopas and his companion are “foolish and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have said!” (v.25) The Messiah had to suffer and die in order to enter into his glory. Luke is the only New Testament writer to speak explicitly of a suffering Messiah (Luke 24:26, 46; Acts 3:18; 17:3; 26:23). The idea of a suffering Messiah is not found in the Old Testament or in other Jewish literature prior to the New Testament period, although the idea is hinted at in Mark 8:31-33.

Finally in the intimacy of the breaking of the bread were their eyes opened and they recognized the Risen One in their midst. At Emmaus, the risen Christ performs the same basic actions that he performed at the multiplication of the loaves (9:16) and at the Last Supper. The many meals of Jesus, especially his last supper, can be said to be in the background of the evangelist’s mind in describing this moment of recognition (cf. Lk 5:29; 7:36; 14:1,12,15,16; 22:14). With this experience of the Risen Jesus the Emmaus disciples believe.

Understanding the resurrection therefore implies a two-fold process of knowing the message of the Scriptures and experiencing the one about whom they all speak: Jesus the Lord, through the breaking and sharing of bread with the community of believers.

Emmaus journeyThe journey motif

The journey motif of the Emmaus story is not only a matter of the distance between Jerusalem and Emmaus, but also of the painful and gradual journey of words that must descend from the head to the heart; of a coming to faith, of a return to a proper relationship with the stranger who is none other than Jesus the Lord. The Lord always listens to us and is always there. It is part of the Lords’ pedagogy with regard to his disciples to always listen to them, especially when times are hard, when one has fallen, experiences doubt, disillusionment and frustration. His words make the hearts of the disciples “burn”, they remove them from the darkness of sadness and desperation, provoking in them the desire to remain with him: Stay with us, Lord.

The dejected disciples begin to change only when they are enlightened by the risen Christ, who explains from the Sacred Scriptures how God works in a resistant world and among resistant, sinful people like us. It is indeed an ironic victory because the forces of rejection and experiences of suffering and sinfulness, themselves, become the means by which God’s purpose is accomplished in the world!

Words that transmit life

Allow me to share with you a very striking section on “the Duty to Evangelize” from the Lineamenta (preparatory document) for the 2012 Synod of Bishops on “The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith.” This passage offers a unique perspective on today’s Emmaus story.

(#2) “The words of the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Lk 24:13-35) illustrate that proclaiming Christ is open to failure; their words were incapable of transmitting life. In recounting their frustration and loss of hope, the two disciples proclaimed someone who was dead (vv 21-24). For the Church in every age, their words speak of the possibility of a proclamation which, instead of giving life, keeps both those who proclaim and those who hear bound in the death of the Christ proclaimed.

The transmission of the faith is never an individual, isolated undertaking, but a communal, ecclesial event. It must not consider responses as a matter of researching an effective plan of communication and even less analytically concentrating on the hearers, for example, the young. Instead, these responses must be done as something which concerns the one called to perform this spiritual work. It must become what the Church is by her nature. In this way, the matter is placed in context and treated correctly and not extrinsically, namely, by placing at the centre of discussion the entire Church in all she is and all she does. Perhaps in this way the problem of unfruitfulness in evangelization and catechesis today can be seen as an ecclesiological problem which concerns the Church’s capacity, more or less, of becoming a real community, a true fraternity and a living body, and not a mechanical thing or enterprise.”

Questions for reflection this week

1) As Church, as pastoral ministers, as lay leaders, have we ever felt that our words are incapable of transmitting life to others? Have we proclaimed someone who was dead rather than the living Lord? How have our words and the message of the Church kept people bound in the death of the Christ proclaimed?

2) What prevents us from becoming a real community, a true fraternity and a living body, rather than a mechanical thing or enterprise?

3) What have been the historical events that have influenced, hindered and impeded our proclamation and our way of being Church? How have certain events helped us to refine and rethink our proclamation?

4) What does the Spirit say to our Church through these events? What new forms of evangelization is the Spirit teaching us and requiring of us?

We are once again pilgrims

During my first visit to the French ecumenical community of Taizé many years ago, I heard this meditation offered by the late Brother Roger Schutz and his community. It has remained with me ever since.

“We are once again pilgrims on the road to Emmaus…
Our heads are bowed as we meet the Stranger
who draws near and comes with us.
As evening comes, we strain to make out His face
while he talks to us, to our hearts.
In interpreting the Book of Life,
He takes our broken hopes and kindles them into fire:
the way becomes lighter as,
drawing the embers together, we learn to fan the flame.
If we invite Him this evening, He will sit down
and together we shall share the meal.
And then all those who no longer believed
will see and the hour of Recognition will come.
He will break the bread of tears at the table of the poor
and each will receive manna to their fill.
We shall return to Jerusalem to proclaim aloud
what He has whispered in our ear.
And no doubt we shall find brothers and sisters there
who will greet us with the words:
“We, too have met Him!”
For we know: the mercy of God
has come to visit the land of the living!

[The readings for the Third Sunday of Easter are: Acts 2.14, 22b-28; Psalm 16; 1 Peter 1.17-21; and Luke 24.13-35.]

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.

Pope Francis’ Homily for the Canonization of John XXIII and John Paul II

Here below is the full text in English of Pope Francis’ homily at the mass of Canonization of Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII:

At the heart of this Sunday, which concludes the Octave of Easter and which John Paul II wished to dedicate to Divine Mercy, are the glorious wounds of the risen Jesus.

He had already shown those wounds when he first appeared to the Apostles on the very evening of that day following the Sabbath, the day of the resurrection.  But Thomas was not there that evening, and when the others told him that they had seen the Lord, he replied that unless he himself saw and touched those wounds, he would not believe.  A week later, Jesus appeared once more to the disciples gathered in the Upper Room, and Thomas was present; Jesus turned to him and told him to touch his wounds.  Whereupon that man, so straightforward and accustomed to testing everything personally, knelt before Jesus with the words: “My Lord and my God!” (Jn 20:28).

The wounds of Jesus are a scandal, a stumbling block for faith, yet they are also the test of faith.  That is why on the body of the risen Christ the wounds never pass away: they remain, for those wounds are the enduring sign of God’s love for us.  They are essential for believing in God.  Not for believing that God exists, but for believing that God is love, mercy and faithfulness.  Saint Peter, quoting Isaiah, writes to Christians: “by his wounds you have been healed” (1 Pet 2:24, cf. Is 53:5).

John XXIII and John Paul II were not afraid to look upon the wounds of Jesus, to touch his torn hands and his pierced side.  They were not ashamed of the flesh of Christ, they were not scandalized by him, by his cross; they did not despise the flesh of their brother (cf. Is 58:7), because they saw Jesus in every person who suffers and struggles.  These were two men of courage, filled with the parrhesia of the Holy Spirit, and they bore witness before the Church and the world to God’s goodness and mercy.

They were priests, bishops and popes of the twentieth century.  They lived through the tragic events of that century, but they were not overwhelmed by them.  For them, God was more powerful; faith was more powerful – faith in Jesus Christ the Redeemer of man and the Lord of history; the mercy of God, shown by those five wounds, was more powerful; and more powerful too was the closeness of Mary our Mother.

In these two men, who looked upon the wounds of Christ and bore witness to his mercy, there dwelt a living hope and an indescribable and glorious joy (1 Pet 1:3,8).  The hope and the joy which the risen Christ bestows on his disciples, the hope and the joy which nothing and no one can take from them.  The hope and joy of Easter, forged in the crucible of self-denial, self-emptying, utter identification with sinners, even to the point of disgust at the bitterness of that chalice.  Such were the hope and the joy which these two holy popes had received as a gift from the risen Lord and which they in turn bestowed in abundance upon the People of God, meriting our eternal gratitude.

This hope and this joy were palpable in the earliest community of believers, in Jerusalem, as we read in the Acts of the Apostles (cf. 2:42-47).  It was a community which lived the heart of the Gospel, love and mercy, in simplicity and fraternity.

This is also the image of the Church which the Second Vatican Council set before us.  John XXIII and John Paul II cooperated with the Holy Spirit in renewing and updating the Church in keeping with her pristine features, those features which the saints have given her throughout the centuries.  Let us not forget that it is the saints who give direction and growth to the Church.  In convening the Council, John XXIII showed an exquisite openness to the Holy Spirit.  He let himself be led and he was for the Church a pastor, a servant-leader.  This was his great service to the Church; he was the pope of openness to the Spirit.

In his own service to the People of God, John Paul II was the pope of the family.  He himself once said that he wanted to be remembered as the pope of the family.  I am particularly happy to point this out as we are in the process of journeying with families towards the Synod on the family. It is surely a journey which, from his place in heaven, he guides and sustains.

May these two new saints and shepherds of God’s people intercede for the Church, so that during this two-year journey toward the Synod she may be open to the Holy Spirit in pastoral service to the family.  May both of them teach us not to be scandalized by the wounds of Christ and to enter ever more deeply into the mystery of divine mercy, which always hopes and always forgives, because it always loves.

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.

Pope Francis’ Easter Urbi et Orbi message: Grant us life; grant us peace!

Easter urbi et orbi

Before a crowd of over 150,000 people in St. Peter’s Square this morning, April 20, 2014, Pope Francis celebrated the Mass of Easter Sunday. He did not deliver a homily during mass but gave the traditional “Urbi et Orbi” (to the city and the world) Message and Blessing to the crowd at the conclusion of mass.

Here is the English translation of “Urbi et Orbi” Easter Message and Blessing:

Dear Brothers and Sisters, Happy Easter!

The Church throughout the world echoes the angel’s message to the women: “Do not be afraid! I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised… Come, see the place where he lay” (Mt 28:5-6).

This is the culmination of the Gospel, it is the Good News par excellence: Jesus, who was crucified, is risen! This event is the basis of our faith and our hope. If Christ were not raised, Christianity would lose its very meaning; the whole mission of the Church would lose its impulse, for this is the point from which it first set out and continues to set out ever anew. The message which Christians bring to the world is this: Jesus, Love incarnate, died on the cross for our sins, but God the Father raised him and made him the Lord of life and death. In Jesus, love has triumphed over hatred, mercy over sinfulness, goodness over evil, truth over falsehood, life over death.

That is why we tell everyone: “Come and see!” In every human situation, marked by frailty, sin and death, the Good News is no mere matter of words, but a testimony to unconditional and faithful love: it is about leaving ourselves behind and encountering others, being close to those crushed by life’s troubles, sharing with the needy, standing at the side of the sick, elderly and the outcast… “Come and see!”: Love is more powerful, love gives life, love makes hope blossom in the wilderness.

With this joyful certainty in our hearts, today we turn to you, risen Lord!

Help us to seek you and to find you, to realize that we have a Father and are not orphans; that we can love and adore you.

Help us to overcome the scourge of hunger, aggravated by conflicts and by the immense wastefulness for which we are often responsible.

Enable us to protect the vulnerable, especially children, women and the elderly, who are at times exploited and abandoned.

Enable us to care for our brothers and sisters struck by the Ebola epidemic in Guinea Conakry, Sierra Leone and Liberia, and to care for those suffering from so many other diseases which are also spread through neglect and dire poverty.

Comfort all those who cannot celebrate this Easter with their loved ones because they have been unjustly torn from their affections, like the many persons, priests and laity, who in various parts of the world have been kidnapped.

Comfort those who have left their own lands to migrate to places offering hope for a better future and the possibility of living their lives in dignity and, not infrequently, of freely professing their faith.

We ask you, Lord Jesus, to put an end to all war and every conflict, whether great or small, ancient or recent.

We pray in a particular way for Syria, that all those suffering the effects of the conflict can receive needed humanitarian aid and that neither side will again use deadly force, especially against the defenseless civil population, but instead boldly negotiate the peace long awaited and long overdue!

We ask you to comfort the victims of fratricidal acts of violence in Iraq and to sustain the hopes raised by the resumption of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.

We beg for an end to the conflicts in the Central African Republic and a halt to the brutal terrorist attacks in parts of Nigeria and the acts of violence in South Sudan.

We ask that hearts be turned to reconciliation and fraternal concord in Venezuela.

By your resurrection, which this year we celebrate together with the Churches that follow the Julian calendar, we ask you to enlighten and inspire the initiatives that promote peace in Ukraine so that all those involved, with the support of the international community, will make every effort to prevent violence and, in a spirit of unity and dialogue, chart a path for the country’s future.

Lord, we pray to you for all the peoples of the earth: you who have conquered death, grant us your life, grant us your peace!

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Photo: Pope Francis delivers his Easter blessing “urbi et orbi” from the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican March 31, 2013. (CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano via Reuters) (April 1, 2013)

Pope Francis’ homily at the Easter Vigil

Pope Francis holds a candle as he celebrates the Easter Vigil

19 April 2014  –  The Gospel of the resurrection of Jesus Christ begins with the journey of the women to the tomb at dawn on the day after the Sabbath.  They go to the tomb to honour the body of the Lord, but they find it open and empty.  A mighty angel says to them: “Do not be afraid!” (Mt 28:5) and orders them to go and tell the disciples: “He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee” (v. 7).  The women quickly depart and on the way Jesus himself meets them and says: “Do not fear; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me” (v. 10).

After the death of the Master, the disciples had scattered; their faith had been utterly shaken, everything seemed over, all their certainties had crumbled and their hopes had died.  But now that message of the women, incredible as it was, came to them like a ray of light in the darkness.  The news spread: Jesus is risen as he said.  And then there was his command to go to Galilee; the women had heard it twice, first from the angel and then from Jesus himself: “Let them go to Galilee; there they will see me”.

Galilee is the place where they were first called, where everything began!  To return there, to return to the place where they were originally called.  Jesus had walked along the shores of the lake as the fishermen were casting their nets.  He had called them, and they left everything and followed him (cf. Mt 4:18-22).

To return to Galilee means to re-read everything on the basis of the cross and its victory.  To re-read everything – Jesus’ preaching, his miracles, the new community, the excitement and the defections, even the betrayal – to re-read everything starting from the end, which is a new beginning, from this supreme act of love.

For each of us, too, there is a “Galilee” at the origin of our journey with Jesus.  “To go to Galilee” means something beautiful, it means rediscovering our baptism as a living fountainhead, drawing new energy from the sources of our faith and our Christian experience.  To return to Galilee means above all to return to that blazing light with which God’s grace touched me at the start of the journey.  From that flame I can light a fire for today and every day, and bring heat and light to my brothers and sisters.  That flame ignites a humble joy, a joy which sorrow and distress cannot dismay, a good, gentle joy.

In the life of every Christian, after baptism there is also a more existential “Galilee”: the experience of a personal encounter with Jesus Christ who called me to follow him and to share in his mission.  In this sense, returning to Galilee means treasuring in my heart the living memory of that call, when Jesus passed my way, gazed at me with mercy and asked me to follow him.  It means reviving the memory of that moment when his eyes met mine, the moment when he made me realize that he loved me.

Today, tonight, each of us can ask: What is my Galilee?  Where is my Galilee?  Do I remember it?  Have I forgotten it?  Have I gone off on roads and paths which made me forget it?  Lord, help me: tell me what my Galilee is; for you know that I want to return there to encounter you and to let myself be embraced by your mercy.

The Gospel of Easter is very clear: we need to go back there, to see Jesus risen, and to become witnesses of his resurrection.  This is not to go back in time; it is not a kind of nostalgia.  It is returning to our first love, in order to receive the fire which Jesus has kindled in the world and to bring that fire to all people, to the very ends of the earth.

“Galilee of the Gentiles” (Mt 4:15; Is 8:23)!  Horizon of the Risen Lord, horizon of the Church; intense desire of encounter…  Let us be on our way!

 

- Photo Credit: (CNS photo/Paul Haring) Pope Francis holds a candle as he celebrates the Easter Vigil in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican on March 30.