My God I know this place. I am home.

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Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed – Sunday, November 2nd, 2014

Why do Catholic Christians commemorate the dead during the month of November? The feast of All Souls and the month of November are sources of consolation for each of us. If our hearts are broken and suffering because of the loss of loved ones, or if we are dealing with unresolved issues about goodbyes that were never said, peace that was not made, gratitude that was not expressed – let us ask the faithful departed to intercede for us and for our own peace. The consoling doctrine of the Communion of Saints allows us to feel ever close to those who have died and gives us much hope in moments of despair and sadness.

I share with you two texts that have remained with me throughout my priestly life. In his little book Encounters with Silence, the great Jesuit theologian Fr. Karl Rahner, SJ, wrote about those who have died:

That’s why our heart is with them now, our loved ones who have taken leave of us. There is no substitute for them; there are no others who can fill the vacancy when one of those whom we really love suddenly and unexpectedly departs and is with us no longer. In true love no one can replace another, for true love loves the other person in that depth where he is uniquely and irreplaceably himself. And thus, as death has trodden roughly through our lives, every one of the departed has taken a piece of our hearts with them – and often enough – our whole heart.

As he was dying in the fall of 1996, the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago wrote a moving, personal testament, The Gift of Peace, which speaks powerfully about life and death (pp. 152-153):

Many people have asked me to tell them about heaven and the afterlife. I sometimes smile at the request because I do not know any more than they do. Yet, when one young man asked if I looked forward to being united with God and all those who have gone before me, I made a connection to something I said earlier in this book. The first time I traveled with my mother and sister to my parents’ homeland of Tonadico di Primiero, in northern Italy, I felt as if I had been there before. After years of looking through my mother’s photo albums, I knew the mountains, the land, the houses, the people. As soon as we entered the valley, I said, “My God, I know this place. I am home.” Somehow I think crossing from this life into eternal life will be similar. I will be home.

May I suggest that each of you do the following during these days of November? Spend some time reflecting on those who have been close to you, who have died, and are now with the Lord.

Slowly read this Scripture passage – Wisdom 3:1-3:

But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be a disaster, and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace.

Remember one person close to you who has died. Bring this person’s image into your mind’s eye. As you remember his or her life, imagine the Lord Jesus escorting the person into heaven at the time of death. Finally, imagine this loved one waiting for you. Know that when your time of passing comes, the Lord and your loved ones who have gone before you will escort you into the kingdom of heaven.

End your short remembrance with this prayer:

Lord, you are the resurrection and the life. You promised that whoever believes in you will never die. Lord, through the power of your rising, help me believe in my own resurrection. Amen.

May we spend our earthly pilgrimage filling our minds with the thoughts of heaven, so that when we finally cross over into eternal life, the images we see may not be foreign, startling, or strange. Let us pray that we, too, may be able to say: “My God, I know this place. I am home.”

(Photo courtesy CNS/Dominic Ebenbichler, Reuters)

The Beatitudes: Blueprint for Holiness

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Solemnity of All Saints – Saturday, November 1, 2014

The following words of Cardinal Angelo Amato, S.D.B., Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, spoken during the Synod of Bishops on the Word of God in 2008, still resound in my mind and heart on this Solemnity of All Saints:

Jesus says: “Learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:29). For more than 2,000 years men and women, old and young, wise and ignorant, in the East as in the West, applied themselves to the school of the Lord Jesus, which caused this sublime commandment to echo in their hearts and minds: “You must therefore be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (5:48) […]

Their library was largely composed of the life and the words of Jesus: blessed are the poor, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the gentle, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for uprightness, blessed are the merciful, blessed are the pure in heart, blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are those who are persecuted. The saints, understanding that the Beatitudes are the essence of the Gospel and the portrait of Christ Himself, became their imitators. 

The Beatitudes: Blueprint for Holiness

The Beatitudes in Christ’s Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1-12) are a recipe for extreme holiness. As has been pointed out by many others in the past, though the Mount of the Beatitudes is a few dozen feet above sea level, it is the really the highest peak on earth! On this holy mountain in Galilee, Jesus proclaimed the new law that was expression of Christ’s holiness. They are not an abstract code of behavior. Jesus is the poor in spirit, the meek, the persecuted, the peacemaker. He is the new “code of holiness” that must be imprinted on hearts, and that must be contemplated through the action of the Holy Spirit. His Passion and Death are the crowning of his holiness.

Holiness is a way of life that involves commitment and activity. It is not a passive endeavour but rather a continuous choice to deepen one’s relationship with God and then to allow this relationship to guide all of one’s actions in the world. Holiness requires a radical change in mindset and attitude. The acceptance of the call to holiness places God as our final goal in every aspect of our lives.

Looking at Jesus, we see what it means to be poor in spirit, gentle, and merciful, to mourn, to care for what is right, to be pure in heart, to make peace, to be persecuted. This is why he has the right to say to each of us, “Come, follow me!” The call of Christ is not simply, “Do what I say.” He says, “Come, follow me!” 

Taking stock of our treasury of Saints

The Saints and Blesseds are travel companions along our journey, in our joy and in our suffering. They are men and women who turned a new page in their own lives and in the lives of so many people. This was the core of Saint John Paul II’s message to humanity: holiness is not a gift reserved for a few. We can all aspire to it, because it is a goal within our capacity – a great lesson articulated by the Second Vatican Council and its call to universal holiness (cf. Lumen Gentium).

The Solemnity of All Saints is a wonderful opportunity for the whole Church to take stock once again of the way that Pope John Paul II changed our way of viewing the Saints and Blesseds. In nearly 27 years of his pontificate, he gave the Church 1,338 Blesseds and 482 Saints!

John Paul II reminded us that the heroes and heroines the world offers to young people today are terribly flawed. They leave us so empty. The real “stars” are the Saints and Blesseds who never tried to be regarded as heroes, or to shock or provoke. To believe greatness is attainable, we need successful role models to emulate. There is a desperate need for real heroes and heroines, models and witnesses of faith and virtue that the world of sports, cinema, science, and music simply cannot provide.

Standing at the radical centre

Many think that sainthood is a privilege reserved only for the chosen few. In fact, to become a saint is the task of every Christian, and what’s more, we could even say it’s the task of everyone! How many times have we thought that the Saints are merely “eccentrics” that the Church exalts for us to try to imitate – people who were so unrepresentative of and out of touch with the reality of the human scene? It is certainly true that all of those men and women were “eccentric” in its literal sense: they deviated from the centre, from usual practice, from the ordinary ways of doing things, the established methods. Another way of looking at the saints is that they stood at the “radical centre.”

Be the Saints of the New Millennium

Saint John Paul II spoke powerfully to young people about the call to holiness and their vocation to be saints. In his message for World Youth Day 2000 in Rome, he wrote to his “dear young friends” throughout the world unforgettable words that became the rallying cry for the greatest celebration of the Jubilee Year:

Young people of every continent, do not be afraid to be the saints of the new millennium! Be contemplative, love prayer; be coherent with your faith and generous in the service of your brothers and sisters, be active members of the Church and builders of peace. To succeed in this demanding project of life, continue to listen to His Word, draw strength from the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist and Penance. The Lord wants you to be intrepid apostles of his Gospel and builders of a new humanity.

Two years later for our World Youth Day 2002 in Canada, John Paul II took up the theme of holiness and saints with renewed vigour:

Just as salt gives flavor to food and light illumines the darkness, so too holiness gives full meaning to life and makes it reflect God’s glory. How many saints, especially young saints, can we count in the Church’s history! In their love for God their heroic virtues shone before the world, and so they became models of life which the Church has held up for imitation by all. […] Through the intercession of this great host of witnesses, may God make you too, dear young people, the saints of the third millennium!

At the concluding World Youth Day Mass at Downsview Park in Toronto on July 28, 2002, Saint John Paul issued a stirring challenge:

And if, in the depths of your hearts, you feel the same call to the priesthood or consecrated life, do not be afraid to follow Christ on the royal road of the Cross! 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, just as Kateri Tekakwitha did here in America and so many other young people have done.

Pope Benedict XVI continued the momentum of John Paul’s invitations and exhortations to holiness at World Youth Day 2005 in Cologne, Germany. At the opening ceremony on August 18, 2005, Benedict addressed the throng of young people gathered from across the entire world:

Dear young people, the Church needs genuine witnesses for the new evangelization: men and women whose lives have been transformed by meeting with Jesus, men and women who are capable of communicating this experience to others. The Church needs saints. All are called to holiness, and holy people alone can renew humanity. Many have gone before us along this path of Gospel heroism, and I urge you to turn often to them to pray for their intercession.

Benedict XVI continued this theme at the great Vigil on Saturday evening, August 20, 2005 at Marienfeld:

It is the great multitude of the saints – both known and unknown – in whose lives the Lord has opened up the Gospel before us and turned over the pages; he has done this throughout history and he still does so today. In their lives, as if in a great picture book, the riches of the Gospel are revealed. They are the shining path which God himself has traced throughout history and is still tracing today.

Then Pope Benedict XVI cried out in that great assembly of over one million young people gathered in prayer at Marienfeld in Cologne:

The saints…are the true reformers. Now I want to express this in an even more radical way: only from the saints, only from God does true revolution come, the definitive way to change the world.

The core of the proclamation of Saints and Blesseds

Every crisis that the Church faces, every crisis that the world faces, is a crisis of holiness and a crisis of saints. Holiness is crucial because it is the real face of the Church. The core of the proclamation of the Saints and Blesseds was always hope, even in the midst of the darkest moments of history. It’s almost as if in those times of darkness the light of Christ shines ever more brightly. We are living through one of those times, and the Lord is still taking applications for his extreme form of holiness and sanctity.

Believers in Jesus and his message must allow themselves to be enticed and enchanted by his life and his message contained in the Beatitudes. Today we must hold up the Beatitudes as a mirror in which we examine our own lives and consciences. “Am I poor in spirit? Am I humble and merciful? Am I pure of heart? Do I bring peace? Am I ‘blessed,’ in other words, ‘happy’?” Jesus not only gives us what he has, but also what he is. He is holy and makes us holy.

[The readings for the Solemnity of All Saints are: Revelation 7:2-4, 9-14; 1 John 3:1-3; and Matthew 5:1-12a.]
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Being Christian is not the Result of an Ethical Choice

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Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A – October 26, 2014

Today’s first reading from Exodus (22:21-27) and Matthew’s Gospel story about the greatest commandment (22:34-40) challenge us in the ways that we love God and neighbour. The Exodus reading relates some specific provisions of the Law regarding widows, orphans, and the poor. The Lord reminds his people that they themselves were once strangers in a foreign land. To the strangers, widows, orphans, and the poor we must show justice and compassion. If not, the Lord himself will punish wrongdoers and defend the helpless.

The Lord deals severely with our negative attitudes and action towards others, particularly the poor, strangers, the disadvantaged, and those different from us. The authenticity of our faith, our love of God, and our relationship with Christ is measured by the way we treat others.

The readings challenge us to seek repentance and forgiveness for our negative attitudes towards others and the way we tend to treat them. Today’s Gospel contains the fundamental prayer of the Shema – the Hebrew profession of faith: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord” (Deuteronomy 6:4). Just as we profess our faith with the Creed in Christian worship, the Jewish people profess their faith with the Shema in their synagogue services. The Shema is a summary of true religion: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (6:4-5).

Matthew 22:34-40 has a Marcan parallel (12:28-34) which is an exchange between Jesus and a scribe who is impressed by the way Jesus has conducted himself in the previous controversy, and compliments him for the answer he gives him. Jesus responds by saying he is, “not far from the kingdom of God” (12:34). Matthew has further developed that scene.

The scholarship of the Pharisees was the knowledge of the Law, which they regarded as the sum of wisdom and the only true learning. The position of scribe in the Jewish community was a respected place of leadership. At first glance, the scholar’s question to Jesus appears to be very honest.

The teachers of the Torah (scribes and Rabbis) had always argued about the relative importance of the commandments in the Old Testament. Scribes were the scholars and intellectuals of Judaism. The Pharisees identified 613 commandments in the Torah (the first five books of the Bible). Of those 613: 248 were positive, “you shall” commandments, while 365 were negative, “you shall not” commandments. The fundamental question, “Which is the first of all the commandments?” offers Jesus an important teaching moment as he is “put to the test.”

In his response, Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and the Shema, recited daily by the Jews. Even though Jesus is asked for one commandment, he provides two in his response. In combining the two commandments, Jesus goes beyond the extent of the question put to him and joins to the greatest and the first commandment, a second: love your neighbour (Leviticus 19:18). The double commandment is the source from which the whole law and the prophets are derived. Jesus does not discard other commandments. He explicitly adds: “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:40). The remarkable thing about the Marcan parallel is that the “scholar” expresses agreement with Jesus by paraphrasing him without any hint of hostility or irony (Mark 12:33-34).

Love of God and neighbour not an original idea of Jesus

Love of God and love of neighbour as the fulfilment of the law is not an original idea of Jesus. It exists very early in the Hebrew Scriptures. There is something unique, however, in Jesus’ assertion that they are alike. Jesus teaches that we cannot have one without the other.

Motivation to love our neighbour springs from our love of God; our love of God is demonstrated and strengthened by our love of neighbour. Love of neighbour is not only a love that is demanded by the love of God, an achievement flowing from it; it is also in a certain sense its antecedent condition. There is no real love for God that is not, in itself, already a love for neighbour; and love for God comes to its own identity through its fulfilment in a love for neighbour.

Teaching of Moses and Jesus

Moses teaches in the Shema (cf. Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:34) – and Jesus reaffirms in today’s Gospel – that all of the commandments are summed up in the love of God and loving-kindness towards one’s neighbour. Every time that Jews recite the “Shema Israel” and when Christians recall the first and second great commandments, we are, by God’s grace, brought closer to each other. Whenever we make the sign of the Cross, we are tracing the Shema upon our bodies as we touch our head, heart, and shoulders and pledge them to God’s service.

God is Love

In light of today’s Scripture readings, let us reflect on two texts this week. The first is #42 of Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church from the Second Vatican Council:

“God is love, and he who abides in love, abides in God and God in Him.” But, God pours out his love into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, Who has been given to us; thus the first and most necessary gift is love, by which we love God above all things and our neighbour because of God. Indeed, in order that love, as good seed may grow and bring forth fruit in the soul, each one of the faithful must willingly hear the Word of God and accept His Will, and must complete what God has begun by their own actions with the help of God’s grace. These actions consist in the use of the sacraments and in a special way the Eucharist, frequent participation in the sacred action of the Liturgy, application of oneself to prayer, self-abnegation, lively fraternal service and the constant exercise of all the virtues. For charity, as the bond of perfection and the fullness of the law, rules over all the means of attaining holiness and gives life to these same means. It is charity which guides us to our final end. It is the love of God and the love of one’s neighbour which points out the true disciple of Christ.

The second text is from the opening paragraphs of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s first encyclical letter Deus Caritas Est (“God is Love”), published in 2005, and beautifully summarizes the message of today’s Scripture readings:

Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction […] In acknowledging the centrality of love, Christian faith has retained the core of Israel’s faith, while at the same time giving it new depth and breadth. The pious Jew prayed daily the words of the Book of Deuteronomy which expressed the heart of his existence: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God is one Lord, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your might” (6:4-5). Jesus united into a single precept this commandment of love for God and the commandment of love for neighbour found in the Book of Leviticus: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (19:18; cf. Mk 12:29-31). Since God has first loved us (cf. 1 Jn 4:10), love is now no longer a mere “command”; it is the response to the gift of love with which God draws near to us.

Blessed Teresa of Calcutta

I once had some lengthy discussions with several good Catholics who claimed to be “prophetic” in their embrace of social justice issues in the Church. While they held up some great role models of authentic social justice in the Catholic tradition like Archbishop Oscar Romero and Dorothy Day, they were quite negative about Blessed Teresa of Calcutta and claimed that she never addressed the “systemic evils” of our day. They said that Mother Teresa never embodied authentic prophetic criticism, claiming that she was simply a safe role model for a male-dominated Church!

What has always impressed me about Mother Teresa and her sisters is that when they speak of loving God and neighbour, and “sharing poverty,” it defies the logic of many of our institutions and agencies today that prefer political agendas for the poor instead of deep, personal communion with individual poor people. The agents and instruments of this type of communion are dismissed as being irrelevant.

What the Church looks for in saints is not just good works – for that there are Nobel Peace Prizes and other such worldly awards – but solid evidence that the candidate for canonization or beatification was transformed, inwardly and outwardly, by God’s grace and embodied a deep love of God and neighbour.

Years ago when I first met Mother Teresa of Calcutta after teaching a group of her young sisters at their formation house on the outskirts of Rome, she placed firmly into my hands one of her famous business cards unlike any “business” card I had ever seen. On the front of the card were printed these words:

The fruit of silence is PRAYER.

The fruit of prayer is FAITH.

The fruit of faith is LOVE.

The fruit of love is SERVICE.

The fruit of service is PEACE.

God bless you. Mother Teresa

I still carry that card with me. There was no address, phone number, e-mail or FAX on the card. Today, we don’t need any of her contact information, as she is available to all of us in the communion of saints. May Blessed Teresa of Calcutta pray for us and teach us how to love God and neighbour in unity and harmony.

[The readings for the Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time are: Exodus 22:21-27; 1 Thessalonians 1:5c-10; and Matthew 22:34-40.]

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.

We Are Marked and Sent Into the World

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Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A – October 19, 2014

In today’s Gospel (Matthew 22:15-21), the Pharisees try once again to entrap Jesus in his speech. They realize that they are being portrayed by Jesus as having refused an invitation to conversion of heart (as in last Sunday’s banquet story of Matthew 22:1-14). Therefore they begin to plot against Jesus by launching an attack. They begin their questioning by flattering Jesus, attempting to take him off-guard. Disciples of the Pharisees, together with Herodians, compliment Jesus for being honest, teaching the way of God authentically, and taking no account of any person’s status or opinion.

In asking Jesus the question, “Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” (22:17) they acknowledge that Jesus is qualified to explain the Torah. Jesus was certainly aware of the hidden agenda behind this question, and he understood the challenge before him. The Pharisees intended to force him to take either a position contrary to that held by the majority of the people or one that will bring him into conflict with the Roman authorities.

The significance of the poll tax

The specific tax described in today’s Gospel is a head or poll tax required of every man, woman, and slave between the ages of twelve and sixty-five. It amounted to a denarius, that is, one day’s wages. This hated poll tax, instituted in 6 AD when Judea had become a Roman province, was fuel on the flames of nationalist opposition to the occupying power. From such sentiments emerged the Zealot movement, which fomented the disastrous Jewish War of 66-70 AD. The Pharisees resisted the poll tax, while the Herodians openly supported the Romans and favoured payment of the tax.

If Jesus supported paying tribute to Caesar, he would be discredited as a prophet. If however, he argued against paying this tax, it could be used later to portray him to the Romans as a dangerous revolutionary. Jesus saw through their trap and asked for the coin used to pay the tax. The Pharisees handed Jesus the Roman coin (22:19). The mere fact of producing this currency indicated their use of it and their acceptance of the financial advantages of the Roman occupation in Palestine.

Jesus inquired about the image and inscription found on the coin. Most Jews considered the coin blasphemous because it had a human representation and violated the commandment against graven images. Its inscription “Tiberius Caesar, august son of the Divine Augustus, high priest” made a claim that rivalled God’s exclusive sovereignty over Israel. The coin was therefore rightly despised by the Jews.

Give to Caesar…

Jesus’ response, “Give therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (22:21), implies that neither the Pharisees nor the Herodians are doing that. This is a serious charge. Those who willingly use Caesar’s coin should repay him in kind. Jesus’ answer avoids taking sides in the question of the lawfulness of the tax.

Jesus is fully aware of the hypocrisy of his opponents (22:18), and he does get the better of them, but he does so with the simple truth. Jesus raises the debate to a new level and he does not compromise his integrity and honesty. Those who have hypocritically asked about tax in respect to its relation to the law of God should be concerned rather with repaying God with the good deeds that are his due.

Service to God and to Caesar

Two images are before us: that of Caesar and that of God. To the first image, Jesus asks a simple question: “Whose picture is on the coin?” And the answer is simple, “Caesar.” Therefore, give to Caesar what belongs to him, i.e. the part of your possession that belongs to him. But Jesus also has a second, penetrating question: whose image and blessing is on every human being? And the answer is simple, “God’s.” Therefore, give to God what belongs to him, i.e. your entire being, whole and undivided.

From whom do we receive the blessings of life and to whom do we owe thanksgiving and allegiance? Is it God? Are service to God and to Caesar compatible? Or are they competing loyalties that carry with them divergent senses of blessing? The Lord commands not only to give to God what is God’s (that is, everything), but also to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, that is to say, to live completely the requirements of justice and peace in social relationships, and to work for the common good.

Cyrus was an instrument in God’s hands

In today’s first reading from Isaiah 45:1, 4-6, we encounter Cyrus, King of Persia. Isaiah tells us that he was “anointed,” a word that originally referred only to those of Israel, but it is applied here to Cyrus because he is the agent of the Lord (45:1). Israel’s period of slavery ended when Cyrus, King of Persia, permitted the Israelites to return to their land and rebuild the temple that had been torn down in Jerusalem. Cyrus represents the Messiah awaited by Israel. He is an image of the promised Redeemer who was to set the People of God free from the slavery of sin and bring them into the kingdom of true freedom. Though he was raised as a pagan, he was anointed of God to be the deliverer of his people. Though he did not know God, he came to know that he was called by God. The Lord God gave everything into Cyrus’ hands for the accomplishment of his purpose. God raised him up specifically for the purpose of delivering the Jews out of Babylon.

Remembering Gaudium et Spes

In light of today’s Gospel, let us recall one of the most important Church documents that speaks about the Church’s mission to, and involvement in, the modern world. The Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church, Gaudium et Spes, offered the Church a new strategy which emphasized neither withdrawal, triumphalism, nor assimilation, but critical conversation (listening and speaking) along with principled cooperation with other social institutions and communities of people. The mission of the Church must be expressed in social categories and had to take seriously the realities of secularization and pluralism. It is good to recall some of the key points of this landmark document.

The Church’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World promoted an attitude of openness to the reality of the presence of the sacred in dimensions of temporal existence, too often understood simply as secular and therefore bereft of religious significance.

Gaudium et Spes developed a Christian humanism which has shaped the social teaching of Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and certainly the life and ministry of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis. The document provided an understanding of the human person, which took into account the contemporary concern for human freedom, equality, and solidarity. It helped to redefine the mission of the Church as the sign and safeguard of human dignity. The Pastoral Constitution thus provided a theological basis for the Church’s social mission.

Finally, it suggested an ecclesial strategy for how the Church might engage the world with an attitude of respect and reverence for the activity of the Spirit working through the many events, institutions, and communities of our world. The work of Gaudium et Spes is far from complete or over. We need further integration of social mission into the centre of Catholic life. We need to insist that social ministry is the work of the whole Church, not a task for a few people or an elite group of experts. Pope Francis is an example par excellence to be emulated in this regard.

Ultimate evaluation of Vatican II

The ultimate evaluation of Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes, and all of our pastoral and theological efforts, lies in this key point: if we truly believe that Jesus Christ is the Lord of history, and that our world and our times belong to him, should we not judge our efforts according to the mind and heart of Christ? Should we not evaluate everything we are and do in terms of how well we have opened our eyes and the eyes of others to the radiant and saving beauty of Christ? Should we not ask ourselves if our efforts have deepened our commitment and trust in the kingship, presence, and power of Jesus Christ in human history?

If the image of Caesar was stamped on Roman coins that were to be rendered to him, the human heart bears the imprint of the Creator, the one Lord of our life. He has marked us for his own and sent us on mission to the world. Do our human projects make us better prophets, servants, and agents of the Kingdom of Jesus? Let us never be ashamed of working publicly for Jesus’ Kingdom, and telling people about him. He alone guarantees us authentic joy and deep hope, a real “gaudium et spes” for the people “in our time.” His Kingdom will have no end.

Let us pray this week for the courage and wisdom to give simple, truthful answers when we find ourselves in ambiguous and compromising situations. We are marked and blessed with God’s image. Let us never forget to whom we really belong, and why we really do the things we do. We are not called for ourselves, but we are summoned by the Lord and sent to the world, to proclaim his name and his saving works. It is a daunting mission. But it is also cause for rejoicing.

[The readings for the Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time are: Isaiah 45:1, 4-6; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-5ab; and Matthew 22:15-21.]

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.

Dressing Properly for the Feast

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Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A – October 12, 2014

Matthew’s parable of the wedding feast and the declined invitations (22:1-14) is the last of three successive parables of judgment (beginning in 21:28) against Israel, especially her leadership. There are obvious connections among the three parables. Each has an “authority figure” (father, landowner, and king respectively). “Sons” or “a son” appear in all three. The second and third parables share the two groups of slaves and the severe judgment against those who oppose the son.

In today’s parable, the king represents God; the son, Jesus; and the wedding banquet, the time of divine-human celebration symbolized by the kingdom. The beautiful spousal imagery of the Lord (YHWH) and Israel (Hosea 2:19-20; Isaiah 54:4-8; 62:5) provides a rich, biblical backdrop. Today’s story incorporates two favourite Old and New Testament images: a feast and a marriage.

Matthew has provided many allegorical traits to today’s story, e.g. the burning of the city of the guests who refused the invitation (22:7), which corresponds to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD. It has similarities with the preceding parable of the tenants: the sending of two groups of servants (22:3, 4), the murder of the servants (22:6), the punishment of the murderers (22:7), and the entrance of a new group into a privileged situation of which the others had proven themselves unworthy (22:8-10). The parable ends with a section that is very peculiar to Matthew (22:11-14) which some take as a distinct parable on its own.

Matthew’s parable appears in significantly different form in Luke 14:16-24. Today’s story most likely comes from “Q,” a hypothetical written source for the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. “Q” (short for the German Quelle or “source”) is defined as the “common” material found in Matthew and Luke but not in the Gospel of Mark. This ancient text supposedly contained the logia or quotations from Jesus.

The King’s Feast

In today’s story, the king has gone to great trouble preparing a wedding feast for his son, slaughtering enough oxen and fatted calves to feed several hundred people. It was not uncommon in Jesus’ day that invitations would be sent out in two instalments: first, a general invitation to a future event; then, on the day itself or just before, a “reminder” to come since everything was prepared for the celebration. Not only do the guests refuse, but some of them seize the king’s messengers and kill them. In response, the king sends his troops to burn their city. Then he sends out another invitation requesting that all persons – the “good” and the “bad” – be brought to the celebration.

The succession of invitations corresponds to God’s declaration of truth concerning his Kingdom and his Son – first to Israel and then to the Gentile nations. Matthew presents the Kingdom in its double aspect: already present and something that can be entered here and now (22:1-10); and something that will be possessed only by those present members who can stand the scrutiny of the final judgment (22:11-14).

Proper attire for the feast

Matthew’s addition of the guest without the wedding garment (22:11-14) can certainly leave the reader perplexed. I remember my first reaction to reading about this poor man without the proper vesture. Who is this king who dared to ask the poor man: “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?” Was it not the king who commanded his slaves to go out to the highways and byways and bring in anyone they could find? How then could the king be so cold and harsh to someone who has been “rounded up” for the royal feast, without even having the time to procure clean and proper clothing?

It is important to recall that this story is an allegory and doesn’t necessarily follow normal ways of thinking and acting. Some scholars believe that the king provided the proper attire for his guests. It is not surprising then that the king becomes furious upon seeing a man improperly attired. This shows that this man deliberately refuses to receive the generous gesture of the king in providing proper attire.

The garment of righteousness and holiness

The parable of the wedding feast is not only a statement of God’s judgment on Israel but a warning to Matthew’s Church. As early as the second century, Irenaeus wrote that the wedding garment signified works of righteousness. The wedding garment signified repentance and a change of heart and mind. This is the condition for entrance into the Kingdom and must be continued in a life of good deeds.

The saying: “For many are called, but few are chosen” (22:14), should not be taken as a forecast of the proportion of the saved to the damned. Rather the saying is meant to encourage vigorous efforts to live the Christian life. The wedding feast is not the Church but the age to come. Matthew’s parable confronts us with the paradox of God’s free invitation to the banquet with no strings attached and God’s requirement of “putting on” something appropriate to that calling. Who are the many and the few concerning the wedding garment? Are there some people God doesn’t choose? How is being chosen different from being called?

The wedding garment of love

Let us consider the moving words of St. Augustine of Hippo in his sermon (#90) on today’s Gospel passage:

What is the wedding garment that the Gospel talks about? Very certainly, that garment is something that only the good have, those who are to participate in the feast… Could it be the sacraments? Baptism? Without baptism, no one comes to God, but some people receive baptism and do not come to God… Perhaps it is the altar or what a person receives at the altar? But in receiving the Lord’s body, some people eat and drink to their own condemnation (1 Corinthians 11:29). So what is it? Fasting? The wicked also fast. Going to church often? The wicked go to church just like others…

So what is this wedding garment? The apostle Paul tells us: “What we are aiming at… is the love that springs from a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith” (1 Timothy 1:5). That is the wedding garment. Paul is not talking about just any kind of love, for one can often see dishonest people loving others… but one does not see among them this love “that springs from a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith. ” Now that is the love that is the wedding garment.

The apostle Paul said: “If I speak with human tongues and angelic as well, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong, a clanging cymbal… If I have the gift of prophecy and, with full knowledge, comprehend all mysteries, if I have faith great enough to move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:1-2). He said that even if he had all that, without Christ “I am nothing.” It would be useless, because I can act in that way for love of glory… “If I have not love, it is of no use.” That is the wedding garment. Examine yourselves: if you have it, then come to the Lord’s banquet with confidence.

Invite everyone to the banquet

Let us consider section #22, “Evangelizers and Educators as Witnesses,” of the Lineamenta for the 2012 Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization:

The formation and concern needed to sustain those already engaged in evangelization and recruiting new forces should not be limited simply to practical preparation, albeit necessary. Instead, formation and pastoral care is predominantly to be spiritual in nature, namely, a school of faith, enlightened by the Gospel of Jesus Christ and under the guidance of the Spirit, which teaches people the implications of experiencing the Fatherhood of God. People are able to evangelize only when they have been evangelized and allow themselves to be evangelized, that is, renewed spiritually through a personal encounter and lived communion with Jesus Christ. Such people have the power to transmit the faith, as St. Paul the Apostle testifies: “I believed, and so I spoke” (2 Cor 4:13).

The new evangelization, then, which is primarily a task-to-be-done and a spiritual challenge, is the responsibility of all Christians who are in serious pursuit of holiness. In this context and with this understanding of formation, it will be useful to dedicate space and time to considering the institutions and means available to local Churches to make baptized persons more conscious of their duty in missionary work and evangelization. For our witness to be credible, as we respond to each of these areas requiring the new evangelization, we must know how to speak in ways that are intelligible to our times and proclaim, inside these areas, the reasons for our hope which bolsters our witness (cf. 1 Pt 3:15). Such a task is not accomplished without effort, but requires attentiveness, education and concern.

Questions for reflection this week

  1. Do our Christian communities plan pastoral activity with the specific aim of preaching conformity to the Gospel and conversion to Christianity?
  1. What priority have individual Christian communities placed on the commitment to attempt bold new ways of evangelization? What initiatives have been most successful in opening Christian communities to missionary work?
  1. How do the local churches view the role of proclamation and the necessity of giving greater importance to the genesis of faith and the pastoral programme for baptism?
  1. How are our Christian communities displaying their awareness of the urgency of recruiting, forming, and supporting persons to be evangelizers and educators through the witness of their lives?

[The readings for the Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time are: Isaiah 25:6-10a; Philippians 4:12-14, 19-20; and Matthew 22:1-14.]

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 Lord Will Never Abandon His Vineyard

Vineyard green

Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A – October 5, 2014

We are back in the vineyard again this week, immersed in another of Matthew’s complex Gospel parables. Jesus told these parables in answer to the question: “What is the kingdom of God like?” His parables are short narratives that combine realistic details from first-century Palestinian life in little villages with details that are foreign to the ways that things happen in daily life.

Today’s Gospel parable is often called the parable of the wicked tenants. Like last week’s parable of the two sons and next week’s parable of the royal wedding feast (22:1-14), today’s story is clearly one of judgment at the centre of Jesus’ threefold response to the religious leaders who are putting his authority to the test (21:23-27).

In the Old Testament, “vineyard” or “vine” is often used as a metaphor for God’s people. The vineyard figures frequently in Jesus’ parables, setting the stage for the Kingdom of God to take root and the drama of salvation to unfold. The work in the vineyard is hard labour; patience is essential, and wages are unpredictable as we saw in a previous Gospel parable (Mathew 20:1-16). The vineyard can also be a dangerous place to work. Scuffles between workers can erupt (Mark 9:33), and violence may erupt as we see in today’s story (Matthew 21:33-43).

A story of violence and want

The juxtaposition of peace and plenty with violence and want in today’s parable is part of what makes this Gospel story so powerful. A closer look helps us understand the harsh reality of people’s lives in Jesus’ day.

The estate of the landlord would have housed between 50 and 70 people, mostly slaves or servants. The most trusted servants would have had significant responsibilities. The landlord’s servants did not hesitate to “lord it over” those in his charge (21:35). In early fall, when the harvest was ready, the landlord sent out a succession of his workers to collect the rent. The landlord would not go out himself to collect the rent. On the contrary, landlords protected themselves, their families, and their considerable possessions in fortified tower-residences.

The people of Jesus’ day were also all too familiar with the violence the story portrays. When the landlord finally sent his son to collect the rent, the tenants said: “This is the heir. Come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours” (21:38). What remains very odd is that the tenants would repeatedly mistreat and even kill the one sent to them without any reprisal by the vineyard owner. In interpreting parables, the glimpse into the kingdom of God often comes to us through the strange details that are not the way things are in life around us, then or now.

The vineyard is Israel and the landowner is God

Today’s parable is not just an allegory of hot-headed and greedy servants. Those who listened to this parable from Jesus also perceived something underlying the story. Earlier they had asked Jesus about the authority he was claiming for himself. They knew he was telling the story for a reason, and this upset them. The first hearers would have recognized some familiar themes under the surface.

The vineyard imagery invites us to look at the first reading from Isaiah 5, where the vineyard symbolizes Israel. Since the vineyard has been planted by God, it represents the gift, grace, and love of God. Yet the vineyard also demands the labour of the farmer that enables it to produce grapes that yield wine. Thus it symbolizes the human response: personal effort and the fruit of good deeds.

If the vineyard refers to Israel, then the tenant farmers represent Israel’s religious leaders, who despite their professed loyalty to Israel’s law (Torah), refuse to give God his due by acknowledging and accepting his mighty presence in the life and mission of John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth.

When successive “prophets” are sent to the “tenants” – and killed – they heard Jesus remind them of the habit leaders had of ignoring many of the warnings the prophets had previously announced. The religious leaders were being criticized for ignoring their own God-sent messengers. This of course would lead to the reaction we see in Matthew 21:45-46: “Then they looked for a way to arrest him because they knew he had spoken the parable against them. But they were afraid of the crowd; so they left him and went away.”

Matthew has transformed this allegorical parable into a rich account of salvation history. The vineyard is Israel and the landowner is God. The slaves sent to collect the produce are the prophets sent to Israel. The son whom the tenants throw out of the vineyard and kill is Jesus, who died outside the walls of the city of Jerusalem.

The fact that the vineyard is to be taken from the wicked tenants and given to others (21:41) does not refer to Israel but to the kingdom of God (21:43). It is not suggested that God will remove Israel’s present leadership and provide it with more faithful leaders. Rather, “the kingdom of God” will be taken “from you” and given to a nation that will produce the fruits of the kingdom. The “you” addressed consists not only of the opponents mentioned in the context but of all who follow their leadership in rejecting John and Jesus. The nation to whom the kingdom will be transferred is the Church. The reach of the parable extends to include the Resurrection when Jesus directs his hearers (21:42) to the prophecy about the “stone that was rejected” that has become the “corner stone” (Psalm 118:22-23), while the final comment (21:43) reinforces the sense of the Church as inheritor of the kingdom removed from the original tenants.

Avoiding anti-Semitism

We must always avoid an anti-Semitic reading of this parable. The first way is to hear it as a piece of prophetic invective addressed by a Jew to fellow Jews. We must focus attention not so much on what the passage has to say explicitly about Jewish leaders as to what it implies about Christians. The “others” to whom the vineyard is given over in verses 41 are accountable to the owner. They too are charged with the heavy responsibility of producing the fruits of the kingdom (21:43).

The vineyard will not be destroyed

In his homily at the Mass to mark the opening of the XII Synod of Bishops on “The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church” on October 5, 2008, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI spoke beautifully of today’s parable:

In the end, the owner of the vineyard makes a final attempt: he sends his own son, convinced that at least they will listen to him. Instead the opposite happens: the labourers in the vineyard murder him precisely because he is the landowner’s son, that is, his heir, convinced that this will enable them to take possession of the vineyard more easily. We are therefore witnessing a leap in quality with regard to the accusation of the violation of social justice as it emerges from Isaiah’s canticle. Here we clearly see that contempt for the master’s order becomes contempt for the master: it is not mere disobedience to a divine precept, it is a true and proper rejection of God: the mystery of the Cross appears.

Yet there is a promise in Jesus’ words: the vineyard will not be destroyed. While the unfaithful labourers abandon their destiny, the owner of the vineyard does not lose interest in his vineyard and entrusts it to other faithful servants. This means that, although in certain regions faith is dwindling to the point of dying out, there will always be other peoples ready to accept it. For this very reason, while Jesus cites Psalm 118:117, “The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone” (v. 42), he gives the assurance that his death will not mean God’s defeat. After being killed, he will not remain in the tomb, on the contrary, precisely what seems to be a total defeat will mark the beginning of a definitive victory. His painful Passion and death on the Cross will be followed by the glory of his Resurrection. The vineyard, therefore, will continue to produce grapes and will be rented by the owner of the vineyard: “to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons” (Mt 21:41).

The vineyard is the house of Israel

The parable of the wicked tenants reminds us once again that we cannot control God’s continuous merciful outreach to others. It compels us to look at our lives, our attitudes, and actions, in light of whether they are an embrace or rejection of Jesus’ saving message. Rather than putting the focus on what the story says about Jewish leaders, we must ask: what does it say about us Christians? What is my vision of the kingdom of God? How am I producing a harvest for God’s kingdom, in my private and in our communal lives? What does the parable say to me about my own troubled relationships with family, friends, and colleagues? What does the story teach me about my inability to forgive others and forgive myself? Yes, the wicked tenants in today’s Gospel do indeed try God’s patience. But I do as well! How do I respond to the boundless mercy and goodness that God offers me each day?

[The readings for the Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time are: Isaiah 5:1-7; Philippians 4:6-9; and Matthew 21:33-43.]

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.

Is your neighbor a Saint?

SebastianAssisi

Historically speaking, the church had to take root somewhere. When in the early 30’s AD Jesus of Nazareth was executed, rose from the dead and sent his Spirit to be with his little band of disciples, Rome was the dominant political and social player. Peter and Paul brought the faith to Rome before being executed there, and the institutional church has been intimately tied with the city ever since.

Four hundred and fifty years later, the Roman Empire fell and the then predominant Christian religion became the last surviving bastion of Roman memory and culture. It’s with good reason then, that we call it the Roman Catholic Church. The natural result of this planting of the church in a particular city and country has been the ‘Romanization,’ and in modern history the ‘Italianization,’ of the Catholic Church.

Among other things, the Roman and Italian church has produced a huge percentage of our saints and blesseds – men and women held up as models of the Christian life. Many have been influential, not only in the development of the Christian faith, but also in the development of what we know today as the Western world. St. Francis of Assisi is arguably the greatest, and certainly the most beloved example.

Another dominant figure is Benedict of Nursia (“Norcia” in Italian), the founder of Western monasticism. Living some seven hundred years before Francis, Benedict sought refuge from the wild city life of Rome at a place called Subiaco in central Italy before moving to Monte Cassino where he established a monastery based on his Rule.

The vast influence of both Benedict and Francis is undeniable. And so it’s quite remarkable that they were born only a short distance from each other; it’s about 80 kilometers from Assisi to Norcia, through the hills and mountains of Umbria.

I recently made the trip from Assisi to Norcia to visit the birthplace of St. Benedict, and what struck me most was the proximity of the two cities. And, I discovered, Sts. Francis and Benedict aren’t even the only saints in the region! Coming from a country like Canada, where we have only a handful of saints, I was taken aback.

I spoke to the Franciscan Sisters I was with as well as a few of the locals and the question arose as to why Italy has so many saints; so many saints from so many small and peripheral cities! Almost every little Italian town or city, it seems, has its own saint or blessed, most of whom we’ve never heard of and are venerated especially in his or her hometowns.

The fact that the church has been established in Italy for so many centuries was the obvious answer. But then the idea of a simple and practical sanctity arose, and the fact that historically, the Italian people may have a gift for recognizing holiness in others. This, I thought, was a great topic and lesson for those of us from some of the “younger” parts of the world.

Imagine, the ability to see a simple and perhaps a common holiness in the people around us. I immediately recalled those wonderful words of Pope John Paul I, the smiling pope who was known for his simplicity and humility: “Lived holiness is very much more widespread than officially proclaimed holiness… Coming into Paradise, we will probably find mothers, workers, professional people, students, set higher than the official saints we venerate on earth.” (Omnia opera, vol. VI)

There are many things we can do on a daily basis to become better Christians, and the church certainly provides good examples for us in the lives of the saints. Do we need, perhaps, to spend a bit more time recognizing the saints around us: people in our parish, coworkers, community activists, parents, teachers, family members? Could holiness really be an inclusive rather than an exclusive quality? There certainly is a case to be made, as Pope Francis has said, “I have a dogmatic certainty: God is in every person’s life.” (The Jesuit Interview)

Are we faithful and generous workers in his vineyard?

Vineyard cropped

Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A – September 28, 2014

Immediately preceding today’s Gospel story, Jesus has returned to the Temple (Matthew 21:23a) and reclaimed this sacred space for his healing ministry (21:14) and the stage for teaching and challenging his opponents. The chief priests and elders of the people continue to pressure him: “By what authority are you doing these things and who gave you this authority?” (21:23b). It is God himself who is the source of Jesus’ authority, but stating this fact clearly would be nothing short of blasphemy on Jesus’ part. Instead of directly answering his opponents, Jesus challenges them with his own question about the baptism of John. Those gathered around Jesus refuse to see God at work in John’s ministry. They therefore reject Jesus in the process. This withholding of faith in God and in Jesus is thus exemplified in his opponents’ reaction to John the Baptist.

Today’s story begins by introducing us to the familiar scenario of a father who asks each of his sons to go out and work in the vineyard (21:28-32). To Jewish listeners familiar with the stories of the Hebrew Scriptures, this would already have been an important clue that problems would ensue! We need only recall myriad stories of Biblical brothers that are almost always tales of conflict, alienation, misunderstanding, competition, and tension. We need only recall Jacob and Esau, Isaac and Ishmael, or Joseph and his brothers. Jesus is truly a gifted storyteller who draws his listeners into the teaching moment. I can only imagine what the listeners were thinking as Jesus began his story: “What do you think? A man had two sons…”

After giving his command, the father expects an answer from them. Not satisfied with mere words, the father desires a real commitment. Initially the first son responds negatively but then repents or has a complete change of heart and goes out to work. The second son acknowledges with lip service his father’s request and gives in, but does not follow through on his promise.

Blindness to God’s work

The two sons represent the religious leaders and the religious outcasts who followed John’s call to repentance. By the answer they give to Jesus’ question (21:31) the leaders effectively condemn themselves. As religious leaders, they claim to be faithfully obedient to God, but they are blind to the fact that authentic obedience includes responding in faith to the new things God is doing. In the end, the sinners in Israel, exemplified by the tax collectors and prostitutes who had carelessly ignored the demands of their religion, will take their place in the kingdom, while Jesus’ adversaries will be shut out. Those who would otherwise be judged as outside the reach of salvation because of their rejection of the outward form of religion may in fact be those who are most sensitive to their need for God’s grace and thus repent and serve the Master most meaningfully. This same strange and surprising way of God is found in today’s Old Testament reading, in which the ways of God and the ways of God’s people stand in stark contrast (Ezekiel 18:25-28).

Insight into the kingdom

Today’s parable gives us a glimpse into the radical nature of the Kingdom of God. Although this parable may contain a judgment on Jewish religious leaders, Matthew intended a much wider application of its message, even to us. In this parable each one of us can recognize his or her own personal experience. We ourselves can become blind to what God is doing in the world around us. Could the parable be speaking about those who seem to be very religious and subservient at the start but in reality may never sufficiently probe the depths of God’s mercy to truly know the heart and mind of God? The parable is a lesson for those who claim to be Christian, but do not worship as Christians or live the Christian life; compared to those who come to Christ later but never claimed to be righteous.

Today many claim to know Christ but do not live the Christian life. It doesn’t matter so much what you say on the outside if it is not matched by your heart on the inside, or your actions. Lip service to Christ that is merely an outward mouthing of polite promises and pious platitudes is empty by comparison with the inward acceptance of the message that prompts people to repentance and action. What God looks for is the final outcome in people’s lives. God is infinitely patient with us and can certainly tolerate our initial “no” on the way to our final, definitive “yes.”

Evangelization and renewal require enthusiasm

How easily our “church efforts” end up being little more than simply maintaining the institution, with no excitement concerning what God’s active grace is doing and consequently no enthusiasm for true evangelization and renewal. We say that we are going to work in the vineyard but instead of harvesting the grapes we spend our time complaining, moaning, ridiculing, despairing, collecting the stones along the path and not rejoicing in the abundant growth that is taking place around us.

The mind and lenses of Jesus Christ

Today’s second reading from St. Paul to the Philippians (2:1-11) contains one of the most beautiful Christological hymns of the New Testament. The short rhythmic lines fall into two parts: verses 6–8 in which Christ is the subject of every verb, and verses 9–11 where God is the subject. The general pattern is thus of Christ’s humiliation and then exaltation.

Although Paul is in prison and no longer can visit and preach to his beloved community at Philippi, they are not without his intercession and assistance. From his prison cell, Paul begs them to make his joy complete by being of “the same mind” and “having the same love” (2:2). Rather than being caught up in the upward mobility and passing things of the world, of society, and of all of our broken and sinful ways of life, we are invited to enter into the downward mobility of Jesus Christ who empties himself in order to find fullness and life.

Jesus and the Law in the Catechism of the Catholic Church

The Catechism elaborates the relationship between Christ and the Law in the following way (#580-581):

The perfect fulfilment of the Law could be the work of none but the divine legislator, born subject to the Law in the person of the Son. In Jesus, the Law no longer appears engraved on tables of stone but “upon the heart” of the Servant who becomes “a covenant to the people,” because he will “faithfully bring forth justice.” Jesus fulfils the Law to the point of taking upon himself “the curse of the Law” incurred by those who do not “abide by the things written in the book of the Law, and do them,” for his death took place to redeem them “from the transgressions under the first covenant.”

The Jewish people and their spiritual leaders viewed Jesus as a rabbi. He often argued within the framework of rabbinical interpretation of the Law. Yet Jesus could not help but offend the teachers of the Law, for he was not content to propose his interpretation alongside theirs but taught the people “as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.” In Jesus, the same Word of God that had resounded on Mount Sinai to give the written Law to Moses, made itself heard anew on the Mount of the Beatitudes. Jesus did not abolish the Law but fulfilled it by giving its ultimate interpretation in a divine way: “You have heard that it was said to the men of old… But I say to you…” With this same divine authority, he disavowed certain human traditions of the Pharisees that were “making void the word of God.”

Questions for reflection this week

1. The world around us longs for truly Good News from workers in the vineyard of the Lord: joyful evangelizers who are not dejected, discouraged, impatient, or anxious; but ministers of the Gospel whose lives glow with fervour, who have first received the joy of Christ, and who are willing to risk their lives so that the Kingdom may be proclaimed and the Church established in the midst of the world. How do we evangelize? Do we approach the new evangelization with a sense of enthusiasm?

2. What prevents us from becoming real communities, true fraternities, and a living body, rather than a mechanical institution or enterprise?

3. How have certain events in the world and in the Church helped us to refine and rethink our proclamation? 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?

4. Are we faithful, generous, enthusiastic and hopeful workers in the vineyard of the Lord?

[The readings for the Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time are: Ezekiel 18:25-28; Philippians 2:1-11; Matthew 21:28-32.]

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.

“Are you envious because I am generous?”

Red Vineyard cropped

Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time – September 21, 2014

When Jesus teaches through parables, he expresses profound truths with simple stories and images that engage minds and hearts. In the Old Testament, the use of parables reflects an ancient, culturally universal method of teaching an ethical lesson applicable to everyday life, by using symbolic stories with concrete characters and actions. Most of the time, the original audience that first heard these stories was left to draw their own conclusions. Other times, the evangelists provided an explanation of Jesus’ story. Often the indirectness of parables makes the wisdom of Jesus inaccessible to hostile literalists.

The parable of the workers in the vineyard in today’s Gospel (Matthew 20:1-16) serves as a corrective to false notions of entitlement and merit. The story reflects the socio-economic background of Palestine at the time of Jesus. The parable is offensive to us and it challenges our sense of justice. In order to grasp the full impact of the story, it is essential to understand the sequence of events in the parable. The householder hires labourers for his vineyard about 6:00 a.m. for a denarius, which would be considered a fair day’s wage. We are already given a hint of the householder’s generosity as he engages labourers at varying hours during the day. Could it be that the householder has a compassionate concern for the unemployed and their families as opposed to actually needing them for the harvest? The question is open-ended.

The workers who were hired first appeal to common sense, equitable treatment, logic, and reason. Their complaint is not necessarily that the last hired received a payment, but that if the householder was so generous with the last, then certainly he might provide them with a “bonus” for having endured the heat of the whole day. Some interpreters have attempted to minimize this breach of fairness by explaining that perhaps the quality of work done by the late-comers during the last hour was equivalent to the work done the entire day by the others. Certain others use the rationale that a contract is indeed a contract, and therefore the labourers hired at the beginning of the day have no reason whatsoever to argue about the wages due to them. The fact of the matter is that from the purely human, logical point of view, they had reason to complain. However, this parable is not about ethical and fair labour management, but rather about the radical nature of God’s generosity, compassion, and the in-breaking Kingdom.

The radical moment of the parable (as indicated by 19:30 and 20:16) is noted in 20:8-9 as those who were employed not only receive payment in reverse order, but also receive equal payment for their efforts! The parable reaches its crescendo in verse 15 with the question: “Or am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Are you envious because I am generous?” The owner of the vineyard reserves the right to pay his employees not on the basis of their own merits but rather on the basis of his own compassion.

Generosity condemned as injustice

In today’s parable, why should such generosity be condemned as injustice? This idea finds its roots and deepest meaning in the Old Testament understanding of God the Creator who is good and generous to all who turn to him. This is the God in whom Jesus believed and lived, but in the person of Jesus, the divine compassion, mercy, and goodness surpass the divine justice. Therefore all who follow Jesus as his disciples and friends must imitate this extraordinary compassion and lavish generosity and never question, deny, or begrudge it.

The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ reveals his identity to us in today’s first reading from the prophet Isaiah: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9)

We are like the eleventh-hour workers

Perhaps many of us feel strongly with the disgruntled workers of verse 12. How often have we known whimsical employers who have compensated lazy or problematic workers far too generously, rather than acknowledging the faithful, dedicated, day-in day-out workers. We may ask ourselves: How can God be so unfair? How can God overlook his most faithful workers? Underneath this parable is the issue of bargaining with God. From the very beginnings of religion it has been assumed that we mortals can bargain with the gods to obtain from them what we want.

How many times have we experienced this in our belonging to and service in the Church? Some may grumble and claim that their long, dedicated, tireless service qualifies them instantly for higher pay, higher rank, and greater privilege and prestige. It is precisely at moments like this that we must humbly acknowledge that we are like those eleventh-hour workers. Not one of us deserves the blessings that God has prepared for us. Our grumbling and lateral gazing often leads to serious resentments that are hard to shake off. All our good works give us no claim upon God. How much less do we have the right to demand, even if we have done everything we ought to do, that we should be honoured and rewarded by God in a special manner as if we were such meritorious, indispensable persons in his service? The word “entitlement” does not exist in the vocabulary of the Kingdom of God.

The only remedy to such sentiments is to look upon the merciful face of Jesus and thus recognize God’s lavish generosity in the flesh. Human logic is limited, but the mercy and grace of God know no limits or boundaries. God doesn’t act by our standards. This means that we must see and accept God in our sister and brother, just as God has wished them to be. When God chooses a person, granting him/her particular graces, blessings, or gifts, God does not reject the other person nor deprive him/her of his grace. God’s graces and blessings are boundless, and each person receives his or her own share. God’s choice of a person or people should not be a cause of pride for those chosen, or of rejection for those not chosen. It is only when both parties live in humility and simplicity, and recognize together a God of love and mercy at work in their lives that they will begin to learn the real meaning of love and justice, and finally come to reconciliation and deep, mutual understanding.

For your reflection

In the New Testament, Jesus teaches us that we must overcome jealousy and envy. This is brought out in today’s parable of the labourers who come to work at different times of the day, but receive the same salary nevertheless. Those who came at the first hour grumbled against the landowner. “He said to one of them in reply, ‘My friend, I am not cheating you… Are you envious because I am generous?’” (Matthew 20:13-15)

Consider these two sections from the Catechism of the Catholic Church (#2552-2553):

The tenth commandment forbids avarice arising from a passion for riches and their attendant power.

Envy is sadness at the sight of another’s goods and the immoderate desire to have them for oneself. It is a capital sin.

Envy is that fault in the human character that cannot recognize the beauty and uniqueness of the other, and denies them honour. In order to approach God, who is total goodness, beauty, and generosity, this attitude must be broken from within. Envy can no longer see. Our eyes remain nailed shut. Envy and avarice are sins against the tenth commandment. What can we do to move beyond this blindness and hardness of heart?

Caritas in Veritate

In light of today’s Gospel about compensation, I offer you section #63 of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s Encyclical Letter Caritas in Veritate “On Integral Human Development in Charity and Truth”:

No consideration of the problems associated with development could fail to highlight the direct link between poverty and unemployment. In many cases, poverty results from a violation of the dignity of human work, either because work opportunities are limited (through unemployment or underemployment), or “because a low value is put on work and the rights that flow from it, especially the right to a just wage and to the personal security of the worker and his or her family.” For this reason, on 1 May 2000 on the occasion of the Jubilee of Workers, my venerable predecessor Pope John Paul II issued an appeal for “a global coalition in favour of ‘decent work,’” supporting the strategy of the International Labour Organization. In this way, he gave a strong moral impetus to this objective, seeing it as an aspiration of families in every country of the world. What is meant by the word “decent” in regard to work? It means work that expresses the essential dignity of every man and woman in the context of their particular society: work that is freely chosen, effectively associating workers, both men and women, with the development of their community; work that enables the worker to be respected and free from any form of discrimination; work that makes it possible for families to meet their needs and provide schooling for their children, without the children themselves being forced into labour; work that permits the workers to organize themselves freely, and to make their voices heard; work that leaves enough room for rediscovering one’s roots at a personal, familial and spiritual level; work that guarantees those who have retired a decent standard of living.

[The readings for the Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time are: Isaiah 55:6-9; Philippians 1:20-24, 27; Matthew 20:1-16.]

Triumph of the Cross

JPII Cross cropped

The Exaltation of the Holy Cross –  Sunday, September 14, 2014

At the heart of every World Youth Day is a very simple, powerful, ancient Christian symbol: two large planks of wood, known as the World Youth Day Cross, that not a few journalists have called the “Olympic Torch” of the huge Catholic Festival that we were blessed to have in Canada in July 2002.

In 1984, at the close of the 1983 Holy Year of the Redemption at the
Vatican, Saint John Paul II entrusted to the young people of the world a
simple, twelve-foot wooden Cross, asking them to carry it across the world
as a sign of the love which the Lord Jesus has for humankind and “to proclaim to everyone that only in Christ who died and is risen is there salvation and redemption.” Since that day, carried by generous hands and loving hearts, the Cross has made a long, uninterrupted pilgrimage across the continents, to demonstrate, as Pope John Paul II had said, “the Cross walks with young people and young people walk with the Cross.”

The memories of the World Youth Day 2002 Cross Pilgrimage throughout Canada continue to stir many hearts and evoke wonderful memories many years after the great pilgrimage began in our land on April 11, 2001. The WYD Cross literally touched the three oceans that border Canada. It visited our cities, towns, and rural areas, inviting throngs of people into the streets for processions, prayers, all-night vigils, tears, and moments of reconciliation, healing, and peace.

Such expressions of popular piety had been absent for far too many years from the Canadian ecclesial landscape. In the midst of the carefully orchestrated pilgrimage throughout the 72 dioceses of Canada, the Cross took a detour in February 2002, which was not part of the normal World Youth Day preparations in previous host countries. A convoy of buses left Toronto early on a cold Sunday morning, accompanied by representatives of Canadian police, ambulance, and fire fighters, and set out with the WYD Cross in tow for 48 hours in New York City.

After a Sunday evening Mass in Manhattan’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral with a Canadian Bishop, and an early morning Mass with the Vatican’s permanent observer at the United Nations, we carried the cross to Ground Zero, into the “pit,” to pray for the victims of the September 11th tragedies at the World Trade Centre and elsewhere throughout the United States. The visit, which received international media coverage, was a sign of hope, consolation, solidarity, and peace to the people of America and the entire world, struggling to understand the evil, terror, violence, and death-dealing forces that humanity experienced on September 11, 2001.

The journey into Ground Zero was for us a very public act of defiance and
courage. Six young people from the World Youth Day 2002 National Team
carried the large cross up to the special platform built for the families of the victims of the World Trade Centre tragedy. While they processed with the cross, the rest of us sang the Taizé refrain: “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your Kingdom.” As the cross was placed in its metal stand at the edge of the huge crater where the twin towers once stood, the singing grew louder. It was an act of defiance because there, in a place that spoke loudly of destruction, devastation, terror, and death, we raised up a wooden cross – an instrument of death that has been transformed into the central life-giving symbol of the Christian faith. The significance of the action was lost on no one.

Earlier that morning at Mass in the Church of the Saviour near the United
Nations, Archbishop Renato Martino, told us in his moving homily:

The Sacred Scriptures speak to us about sin, and the desperate need we all have for conversion. What you will see today when you visit Ground Zero is the consequence of sin: a crater of dirt and ashes, of human destruction and sorrow; a vestige of sin that is so evil that words could never suffice to explain it.

Nevertheless, it is never enough to talk about the effects of terrorism, the destruction it causes, or those who perpetrate it. We do a disservice to those who have died in this tragedy if we fail to search out the causes. In this search, a broad canvas of political, economic, social, religious, and cultural factors emerge. The common denominator in these factors is hate, a hate that transcends any one people or region. It is a hatred of humanity itself, and it kills even the one who hates.

The Cross of Jesus Christ blessed and marked World Youth Day 2002 in an
extraordinary fashion. Each catechetical site was graced by a replica of the World Youth Day Cross. It was present at each of the main ceremonies. It led our processions, called us to prayer and reflection, healed us, reconciled us, and touched our hearts. Its memory lingers among us several years later.

Who can ever forget the hauntingly beautiful images of the World Youth Day Cross leading over half a million people – mostly on their knees – in the Stations of the Cross on Friday evening, July 26, 2002: up Toronto’s majestic University Avenue, passing before its court houses, the American Consulate, Government Buildings, hospitals, the university, Provincial Parliament, and various museums? A principal street of a great city was transformed into a contemporary Via Dolorosa, while over a billion people watched the scenes of this modern-day passion play unfold via satellite and television.

On Saturday evening, July 27, 2002, during the Great Vigil of World Youth Day 2002, at a former military base that is now Toronto’s Downsview Park, Pope John Paul II begin his address to over 600,000 young people with these words:

The new millennium opened with two contrasting scenarios: one, the sight of multitudes of pilgrims coming to Rome during the Great Jubilee to pass through the Holy Door which is Christ, our Saviour and Redeemer; and the other, the terrible terrorist attack on New York, an image that is a sort of icon of a world in which hostility and hatred seem to prevail. The question that arises is dramatic: on what foundations must we build the new historical era that is emerging from the great transformations of the twentieth century?

During the closing Eucharistic celebration on Sunday, July 28, 2002, the
Holy Father presented to young pilgrims in the crowd of more than 850,000 people gathered with him small wooden crosses, hand made by young people living in the poorest barrios of Bogotá and Medellín in Colombia. We could have chosen many places to have these crosses made – but World Youth Day 2002 chose to have the crosses made in a land that has had its share of cross over the past years.

Because we follow a crucified Christ, we enter into solidarity with the world’s suffering masses. We experience the power and love of God through the vulnerable and suffering. The Cross teaches us that what could have remained hideous and beyond remembrance is transformed into beauty, hope, and a continuous call to heroic goodness.

At the conclusion of the closing Eucharistic liturgy, the elderly Pontiff told young people not to be afraid “to follow Christ on the royal road of the Cross! At difficult moments in the Church’s life, the pursuit of holiness becomes even more urgent.” He invited his young friends to “learn from that cross.”

The feast of the Triumph or the Exaltation of the Cross originated in the
tradition that Emperor Constantine’s mother, Helena, discovered the Cross on which Jesus died on September 14, 320 AD in Jerusalem. From very early on, the triumph attributed to the Cross functioned more within the “normal” understanding of triumph: namely, a victory won over another, achieved by violence of some sort. But is it not rather outrageous to speak of a cross as triumphant? The crucifixion of Jesus is the great, divine paradox. The Cross, an instrument of death, is transformed into our life-giving tree. Through the mystery of the Cross, Jesus crucified becomes our life and our light in the midst of death and darkness.

When all the commotion and frenzied activity of World Youth Day was over, I was convinced that one of the lasting memories that would remain in our country was that simple, wooden Cross, which was such a huge blessing and source of consolation, healing, strength, and peace to the hundreds of thousands of people who embraced it, touched it, kissed it, learned from it, and allowed themselves to be touched by the awesome message and memory of the One who died upon it.

To celebrate the Triumph of the Cross is to acknowledge the full, cruciform
achievement of Jesus’ career. Jesus asks us to courageously choose a life
similar to his own. Suffering cannot be avoided nor ignored by those who follow Christ. Following Jesus implies suffering and a cross. The mark of the Messiah is to become the mark of his disciples.

[The readings for the Exaltation of the Holy Cross are: Numbers 21:4-9; Philippians 2:6-11; and John 3:13-17.]