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The Advent Season’s Brightest Jewels

Antiphons

“Come, Lord Jesus!”  “Tomorrow, I will be there!”

During the final week of Advent the Church offers us an intense time of preparation for the feast of the Nativity, and the Roman Church in particular sings a series of antiphons at Vespers that magnificently set forth the nature of the coming One.

In the Liturgy of the Hours, Evening Prayer, also know as Vespers, always includes Mary’s great hymn known as the Magnificat. Each evening, the Magnificat is preceded by a short verse or “antiphon” that links the prayer to the feast of the day or the season of the year. In the last seven days of Advent (December 17-24), the antiphons before the Magnificat are very special.  Each begins with the exclamation “O” and ends with a plea for the Messiah to come. As Christmas approaches the prayer becomes increasingly urgent.

It is believed that the “O Antiphons” were composed in the 7th or 8th century when monks put together texts from the Old Testament, particularly from the prophet Isaiah that looked forward to the coming of our salvation. They form a rich mosaic of scriptural images. The “O Antiphons” became very popular in the Middle Ages when it became traditional to ring the great bells of the church each evening as they were being sung.

Each of the O Antiphons highlights a different title for the Messiah: O Sapientia (O Wisdom), O Adonai (O Lord), O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse), O Clavis David (O Key of David), O Oriens (O Rising Sun), O Rex Gentium (O King of the Nations), and O Emmanuel.  Also, each one refers to the prophecy of Isaiah of the coming of the Messiah.  A particularly fascinating feature of the O Antiphons is that the first letter of each invocation, when read backwards, forms an acrostic in Latin: the first letters of Sapientia, Adonai, Radix, Clavis, Oriens, Rex, and Emmanuel in reverse form the Latin words: ERO CRAS.  These can be understood as the words of Christ, responding to his people’s plea, saying  “Tomorrow I will be there.”

Here is a rendering of this ‘season’s brightest jewels’ that can help us understand more clearly how Jesus has fulfilled the hopes, dreams and aspirations of Israel.

O antiphons 1December 17  O Wisdom, O Holy Word of God (Sir. 24:3), you govern all creation with your strong yet tender care (Wisd. of Solomon  8:1).  Come and show your people the way to salvation (Isa. 40:3-5).

December 18  O Sacred Lord of Ancient Israel (Exod. 6:2, 3, 12), who showed yourself to Moses in the burning bush (Exod. 3:2), who gave him the holy law on Sinai mountain:  come, stretch out your mighty hand to set us free.

December 19  O Flower of Jesse’s Stem, you have been raised up as a sign for all peoples (Isa. 11:10; Rom. 15:12); kings stand silent in your presence (Isa. 5:15); the nations bow down in worship before you.  Come, let nothing keep you from coming to our aid (Hab. 2:3; Heb. 10:37).

December 20  O Key of David, O royal Power of Israel, controlling at your will the gate of heaven (Isa. 22:22; Rev. 3:7); come, break down the prison walls of death for those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death; and lead your captive people into freedom (Isa. 42:7; Ps. 107:14; Luke 1:79).

December 21  O Radiant Dawn (Zech. 6:12), splendor of eternal light (Heb. 1:3), sun of justice (Mal 4:2):  come, shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death (Luke 1:78-79; Isa. 9:2).

December 22  O King of all the Nations, the only joy of every human heart (Hag 2:8); O Keystone (Isa. 28:16) of the mighty human arch (Eph. 2:14); come and save the creature you fashioned from the dust (Gen. 2:7).

December 23  O Emmanuel (Isa. 7:14; 8:8), king and lawgiver (Isa. 33:22), desire of the nations (Gen. 49:10), Savior of all, come and set us free, Lord our God.


How Do We Solve a Problem Like Maria?

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Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year B – December 21, 2014

“The Sound of Music” stage play and I are the same age — both from that vintage year of 1959 — and the film version was the first “motion picture” I saw as child in the mid 1960’s with my family. God alone knows how many times I have seen it since on stage, at the theater and on television!

The famed Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “The Sound of Music” has been delighting audiences around the world for decades, making theatres across the globe “alive” with the sound of music. This magnificent production first opened in England under the direction of Andrew Lloyd Weber, and arguably contains the best-loved songs of all time.

Solving the problem of Maria von Trapp

One of the memorable songs of the play is “Maria,” sometimes known as “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?” It is sung brilliantly by Sister Berthe, Sister Sophia, Sister Margaretta and the Mother Abbess at the Benedictine Nonnberg Abbey in Salzburg, Austria. The nuns are exasperated with Maria for being too frivolous, flighty and frolicsome for the decorous and austere life at the abbey. It is said that when Oscar Hammerstein II wrote the lyrics for this song, he was taken by the detail of her wearing curlers in her hair under her wimple!

When older Austrians in Salzburg speak of Maria, it is the “Gottesmutter,” the Mother of the Lord! When the foreigners, especially North Americans, arrive in Salzburg and speak about Maria, it is usually the other one: Maria Augusta Kutschera, later Maria Augusta von Trapp, who was a teacher in the abbey school after World War I and whose life was the basis for the film “The Sound of Music.”

Because of this Maria, the abbey acquired international fame, to the consternation of some of the sisters! Having visited Nonnberg Abbey on several occasions while I was studying German in nearby Bavaria, I spoke with a few of the elderly sisters about the impact of “The Sound of Music” on their life. The prioress told me that they have no plaques up about Maria von Trapp and her escapades at the abbey nor in Salzburg! One elderly sister said to me, with a smile, “Das ist nur Hollywood!” (That is only Hollywood!)

Solving the problem of Maria von Nazareth

The Gospel story of the Annunciation presents another Maria, the great heroine of the Christmas stories — Mary of Nazareth — the willing link between humanity and God. She is the disciple par excellence who introduces us to the goodness and humanity of God. She received and welcomed God’s word in the fullest sense, not knowing how the story would finally end. She did not always understand that word throughout Jesus’ life but she trusted and constantly recaptured the initial response she had given the angel and literally “kept it alive,” “tossed it around,” “pondered it” in her heart (Luke 2:19). At Calvary she experienced the full responsibility of her “yes.” We have discovered in the few Scripture passages relating to her that she was a woman of deep faith, compassion, and she was very attentive to the needs of others.

Maria von Trapp followed the captain and his little musical family through the Alpine mountain passes of Austria, fleeing a neo-pagan, evil regime that tried to deny the existence of God and God’s chosen people. Some would say that they lived happily ever after in Vermont in the United States, and that their musical reputation lives on through the stage production enchanting Toronto audiences at present. The hills are still alive with their music!

The “problem” of Maria of Nazareth began when she entertained a strange, heavenly visitor named Gabriel. The young woman of Nazareth was greatly troubled as she discovered that she would bear a son who would be Savior and Son of the Most High.

“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.”

“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.” The angel left her and then the music began: “Magnificat anima mea Dominum.” It would become a refrain filling the world with the sound of its powerful music down through the ages.

The message Mary received catapulted her on a trajectory far beyond tiny, sleepy Nazareth and that little strip of land called Israel and Palestine in the Middle East. Mary’s “yes” would impact the entire world, and change human history.

Problem solved

Mary of Nazareth accepted her “problem” and resolved it through her obedience, fidelity, trust, hope and quiet joy. At that first moment in Nazareth, she could not foresee the brutal ending of the story of this child within her. Only on a hillside in Calvary, years later, would she experience the full responsibility of her “yes” that forever changed the history of humanity.

If there are no plaques commemorating Maria von Trapp’s encounter with destiny at Nonnberg Abbey, there is one small plaque commemorating Mary of Nazareth’s life-changing meeting in her hometown. Standing in the middle of the present day city of Nazareth in Galilee is the mammoth basilica of the Annunciation, built around what is believed to be the cave and dwelling of Mary. A small inscription is found on the altar in this grotto-like room that commemorates the place where Mary received the message from the angel Gabriel that she would “conceive and bear a son and give him the name Jesus” (Luke 1:31). The Latin inscription reads “Verbum caro hic factum est” (Here the word became flesh).

I can still remember the sensation I had when I knelt before that altar for the first time in 1988. That inscription in the grotto of the Annunciation is profound, otherworldly, earth shaking, life changing, dizzying and awesome. The words “Verbum caro hic factum est” are not found on an ex-voto plaque in the cave of the Nativity in Bethlehem, nor engraved on the outer walls of the Temple ruins or on governmental tourist offices in Jerusalem. They are affixed to an altar deep within the imposing structure of Nazareth’s centerpiece of the Annunciation. “This is where the word became flesh.” This is where history was changed because Mary said “yes.”

Could such words be applied to our own lives, to our families, communities, and churches — “Here the word becomes flesh”? Do we know how to listen to God’s Word, meditate upon it and live it each day? Do we put that word into action in our daily lives? Are we faithful, hopeful, loving, and inviting in our discourse and living? What powerful words to be said about Christians — that their words become flesh!

However beautiful and catchy are the tunes of Maria of Salzburg, the music of the other Maria, the one from Nazareth, surpasses anything I have ever heard.

[The readings for this Sunday are 2 Samuel 7:1-5, 8b-12, 14a, 16; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38]

Rejoicing and Waiting

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Third Sunday of Advent, Year B – December 14, 2014

Advent is the season of the prophets and the Scripture readings of these weeks before Christmas help us to focus our vision and deepen our longing for the Messiah.

In this year’s Gospel for the Third Sunday of Advent, the figure of John the Baptist appears once again on the stage of salvation history. John’s whole mission was a preparation for the Messiah’s coming. When the time had come, John led his own disciples to Jesus and indicated to them the Messiah, the True Light, and the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. John, himself, was not the light. He came to testify to the light. He didn’t spend time thinking about his shadow. He just allowed the light to shine on him.

John considered himself to be less than a slave to Jesus, “There is one among you whom you do not recognize — the one coming after me — the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to unfasten” (John 1:26-27). When John’s own disciples came to him and were troubled about the meaning of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, he answered them confidently: “No one can receive anything except what is given them from above.” John says he is only the friend of the bridegroom, the one who must decrease while his master increases (John 3:25-30). The Baptizer defined his humanity in terms of its limitations.

In one of the most poignant scenes of Luke’s Gospel, John the Baptist is imprisoned by Herod Antipas because of his public rebuke of the tetrarch for his adulterous and incestuous marriage with Herodias (Matthew 4:12; Mark 1:14; Luke 3:19). Alone, dejected and near the end of his life, John the Baptist, hailed as the “greatest of all prophets,” had to ask the question, “Are you really the Messiah?” John probably expected a fiery social reformer to come and bring about the Kingdom, certainly not someone who would associate with the poor, the lame, the blind, outcasts and sinners. Yet Christ comes in the most unexpected ways and often in the most unlikely people.

Jesus invites John to look around and see the works that had already been accomplished in the midst of people. The blind recovered their sight and the lame were walking again. Diseases and illness were healed and all those who were deaf could hear. The Good News was now preached to the poor. That was the greatest wonder of all! This is a great consolation for us. We should never be surprised if we often find ourselves asking the same question — “Is Christian living really worth it?” “Is Jesus really the answer to all the evils and sadness of the world and of our own lives?

The crowds came to John and asked him, “What then shall we do?” The Baptist advises no one to leave the world they are in, however ambiguous it may be. Rather he told those with two coats to share one with those who had none. Likewise, those with an abundance of food were to share with the hungry. Tax collectors were told to collect no more than was appointed to them. Soldiers were to rob no one by violence or by false accusation. They were to be content with their wages. What were people to do to prepare for the imminent coming of the Messiah? To be generous, just, honest, grateful and compassionate (cf. Luke 3:10-14).

John the Baptist’s life and mission reminds us how badly we need a Savior to save us, in order that we might be all that we are called to be and do all that we have to do to live in the Light. How are we courageous and prophetic in our Christian witness to the Light, who has already come into our world? So often we fail to recognize the one among us who is our True Light.

May John the Baptist give us strength and courage to bear the light to others, and the generosity and ability to rejoice as we wait. “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing,” Paul writes in his letter to the Thessalonians. We can also reverse the order of these two sentences: “Pray without ceasing, so that we will be able to rejoice always.”

In prayer we experience God’s gathering up all of our concerns and hopes into his own infinite love and wisdom, his setting us back on our feet, and his giving us fullness of life and light.

[The readings for this Sunday are Isaiah 61:1-2a, 10-11; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28]

John the Baptizer, the Advent Prophet

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Second Sunday of Advent, Year B – December 7, 2014

One of the great stars of the Advent and Christmas stories, John the Baptizer, makes his appearance on the biblical stage today. Let us consider some of the details of John’s life and see how he is such a good model for us.

John the Baptist didn’t mince words. He got right to the point and said what needed to be said. He would speak with equally straightforward words to us — words that would zero in on the weak points of our lives. John the Baptist was a credible preacher of repentance because he had first come to love God’s word that he heard in the midst of his own desert.

He heard, experienced and lived God’s liberating word in the desert and was thus able to preach it to others so effectively because his life and message were one. One of the most discouraging things we must deal with in our lives is duplicity. How often our words, thoughts and actions are not coherent or one. The true prophets of Israel help us in our struggle against all forms of duplicity.

The desert wilderness

Throughout biblical history, leaders and visionaries have gone to the desert to see more clearly, to listen intently for God’s voice, to discover new ways to live. The Hebrew word for wilderness midvar is derived from a Semitic root that means, “to lead flocks or herds to pasture.” Eremos, the Greek word used to translate midvar, denotes a desolate and thinly populated area and, in a stricter sense, a wasteland or desert.

The term “wilderness” has two different but related meanings, referring to something judged to be wild and bewildering. It is probably the unknown (bewildering) and uncontrolled (wild) character of the place that earned it the name “wilderness.” There is also another way of understanding the meaning of desert or wilderness.

A careful look at the root of the word midvar reveals the word davar meaning “word” or “message.” The Hebraic notion of “desert” or “wilderness” is that holy place where God’s word is unbound and completely free to be heard, experienced and lived. We go to the desert to hear God’s Word, unbound and completely free.

The Spirit of God enabled the prophets to feel with God. They were able to share God’s attitudes, God’s values, God’s feelings, God’s emotions. This enabled them to see the events of their time as God saw them and to feel the same way about these events as God felt. They shared God’s anger, God’s compassion, God’s sorrow, God’s disappointment, God’s revulsion, God’s sensitivity for people, and God’s seriousness. Nor did they share these things in the abstract; they shared God’s feelings about the concrete events of their time.

John the Baptist is the Advent prophet. His image is often portrayed in the finger pointing to the one who was coming: Jesus Christ. If we are to take on John’s role of preparing the way in today’s world, our lives also will become the pointing fingers of living witnesses who demonstrate that Jesus can be found and that he is near. John gave the people of his time an experience of forgiveness and salvation, knowing full well that he himself was not the Messiah, the one who could save. Do we allow others to have experiences of God, of forgiveness and of salvation?

John the Baptist came to teach us that there is a way out of the darkness and sadness of the world and of the human condition, and that way is Jesus himself. The Messiah comes to save us from the powers of darkness and death, and to put us back on the path of peace and reconciliation so that we might find our way back to God.

The late Jesuit theologian, Father Karl Rahner, once wrote: “We have to listen to the voice of the one calling in the wilderness, even when it confesses: I am not he. You cannot choose not to listen to this voice, ‘because it is only the voice of a man.’ And, likewise, you cannot lay aside the message of the Church, because the Church is ‘not worthy to untie the shoelaces of its Lord who goes on before it.’ It is, indeed, still Advent.”

We may not have the luxury of traveling to the wilderness of Judah, nor the privilege of a week’s retreat in the Sinai desert this Advent. However, we can certainly carve out a little desert wilderness in the midst of our activity and noise this week. Let us go to that sacred place and allow the Word of God to speak to us, to heal us, to reorient us, and to lead us to the heart of Christ, whose coming we await this Advent.

[The readings for the Second Sunday of Advent are: Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11; 2 Peter 3:8-14; and Mark 1:1-8.]

(Image: Detail of St. John the Baptist from the “Isenheim Altarpiece” by Matthias Grunewald)

This reflection first appeared on the Zenit International News Service in 2008 as well as on the Salt + Light Blog. The complete collection of reflections for Year B, entitled “Words made Flesh,” is available in book form through our online store.

Rehearsal of the Great History of Memories

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First Sunday of Advent, Year B – Sunday, November 30, 2014

This weekend the Church enters into the liturgical season of Advent. Christians proclaim that the Messiah has indeed come and that God’s reign is “at hand.”

Advent does not change God. Advent deepens our longing and anticipation that God will do what prophets and the anointed have promised. We pray that God will yield to our need to see and feel the promise of salvation here and now.

During this time of longing and waiting for the Lord, we are invited to pray and to ponder the Word of God, but most of all, to become a reflection of the light of Christ, indeed of Christ himself. But we all know how difficult it is to mirror the light of Christ, especially when we have become disillusioned with life, accustomed to the shadowy existence of the world, or grown content with mediocrity and emptiness. Advent reminds us that we must be ready to meet the Lord at any and every moment of life. Just like a security alarm wakes up a homeowner, Advent wakes up Christians who are in danger of sleeping through their lives.

For what or for whom are we waiting in life? What virtues or gifts are we praying to receive this year? Do we long for healing and reconciliation in broken relationships? What meaning and understanding do we desire to have in the midst of our own darkness, sadness, and mystery? How are we living out our baptismal promises? What qualities of Jesus are we seeking in our own lives this Advent? Many times, the things, qualities, gifts, or people we await give us great insights into who we really are. Tell me whom you are waiting for and I will tell you who you are!

Advent is a time for opening eyes, focusing views, paying attention, keeping perspective on God’s presence in the world and in our own lives.

In the first reading from the prophet Isaiah on the first Sunday of Advent, the Almighty One breathes hope back into the heart and soul of Israel and shapes Israel and events anew just as a potter shapes his pottery.

In the second Scripture reading, writing to his beloved community at Corinth, Paul looked forward to the “Day of the Lord” when the Lord Jesus will be revealed to rescue those whom He has called. And in Gospel for the first Sunday of Advent this year, Mark’s depiction of the doorkeeper watching out for the Lord whenever he “suddenly” appears is an image of what we are expected to be doing all year long but especially during the season of Advent.

Our own baptism is a share in the royal, messianic mission of Jesus. Anyone who shares this mission also shares royal responsibilities, in particular, care for the afflicted and the hurting. Advent is a wonderful opportunity to “activate” our baptismal promises and commitment.

Then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger once wrote: “The purpose of the Church’s year is continually to rehearse her great history of memories, to awaken the heart’s memory so that it can discern the star of hope. It is the beautiful task of Advent to awaken in all of us, memories of goodness and thus to open doors of hope.”

This Advent, allow me to suggest that you mend a quarrel. Build peace. Seek out a forgotten friend. Dismiss suspicion and replace it with trust. Write a love letter. Share some treasure. Give a kind answer even though you would like to respond harshly. Encourage a young person to believe in him/herself. Manifest your loyalty in word and deed. Keep a promise. Find the time. Make time. Forego a grudge. Forgive an enemy. Celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation. Listen more. Apologize if you were wrong. Be kind even if you weren’t wrong!

Try to understand. Flout envy. Examine the demands you make on others. Think first of someone else. Appreciate. Be kind, be gentle. Laugh a little. Laugh a little more. Deserve confidence. Take up arms against malice. Decry complacency. Express gratitude. Go to Church. Stay in Church a little while longer than usual. Gladden the heart of a child. Take pleasure in the beauty and wonder of the earth. Speak your love. Speak it once again. Speak it even more loudly. Speak it quietly. Rejoice, for the Lord is near!

[The readings for this Sunday are Isaiah 63:16b-17, 19b; 64:2-7; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:33-37.]

This reflection first appeared on the Zenit International News Service in 2008 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.

(CNS Photo/Bob Roller)

 

The Universe Turns Upon a Cup of Water Given to the Little Ones

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Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, Year A – Sunday, November 23, 2014

During my graduate studies at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome in the late 1980s, I had the privilege of teaching Scripture on several occasions to the Missionaries of Charity at their formation house on the outskirts of Rome. Several times when I was with the sisters, Mother Teresa of Calcutta was visiting the formation community. I will never forget that little, bent-over, Albanian-born woman sitting on the floor of the chapel as I led the sisters in biblical reflections. It was a daunting experience for me to be expounding on Sacred Scripture to someone many considered even back then a living saint; one who, without exegetical skills and ancient biblical languages in her repertoire, understood far better the meaning of God’s Word than I ever would. One evening after I had finished the lecture and was gathering my books together to begin the trip back to the Canadian College in Rome, Mother came over to speak with me. At the end of the conversation, I asked her: “How do you do it day in and day out? How do you deal with the crowds of people trying to see you when you are out in public.” She raised her hand before my face and shook her five fingers at me. “Five words,” she said; “five words: You did it to me.”

“You did it to me.”

On this final Sunday of the liturgical year, also known as the Solemnity of Christ the King, we are presented with the great scene of the final judgment (Matthew 25:31-46), peculiar to Matthew’s Gospel. The final judgment will accompany the parousia (second coming of Christ) and is the last teaching of Jesus before he goes to Jerusalem to face his crucifixion and death. The stirring refrain of today’s Gospel is found precisely in these words: “You did it to me” (25:40).

The crux of today’s Gospel is not so much trying to identify who are sheep and who are goats. The sheep that are at the Son of Man’s right hand are those that recognized and accepted the messenger and the message. The goats on his left did not recognize or accept the messenger or the message.

Christ the Lord of history and king of the universe will separate the sheep from the goats at the end of time based on whether or not they have accepted the Word of God by accepting the ambassadors who were sent to proclaim that Word. Such acceptance or rejection is ultimately acceptance or rejection of the God who sent Jesus. To reject Jesus the Son is to reject God the Father. To reject a disciple sent by Jesus is to reject Jesus himself.

Inclusion in the Royal Kingdom

The Son who “sits upon his glorious throne with all the nations gathered before him” (25:31-32) is the same one who, at the very peak of his cosmic power, reveals that the universe turns upon a cup of water given to the little ones in his name. Jesus tells us that whenever we practice works of mercy, forgiveness, and kindness, we are doing these things to him. He fully identifies himself with the needy, the marginalized, and the dependent; the hungry, the thirsty, the strangers, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned. Everyone is included in the Royal Kingdom of the humble Jesus. His reign completely overturns our notions of earthly kingship. The kingship and royalty of Jesus are of ultimate service, even to the point of laying down his life for others.

The righteous will be astonished that in caring for the needs of those who suffer, they were ministering to the Lord himself (25:37-38). The accursed (25:41) will also be astonished that their neglect of those suffering was neglect of the Lord and they will receive from him a similar fate.

When God will be all in all

In today’s second reading from the first letter to the Corinthians (15:20-26, 28), Paul describes Christ’s relations to his enemies and his Father. Paul’s vision includes cosmic dimensions as he attempts to describe the goal of all history. The reading is theological and Christological, for God is the ultimate agent in and culmination of history. In the end we are all saved by this God who has entered human history in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. When God finally rules, there will be no further resistance to his saving power. God will be all in all. This is what lies at the heart of the word “subjection” (15:28): that God may fully be God and accomplish his saving acts on our behalf.

Three final thoughts on the kingship of God’s Son

At the end of the liturgical year, and in light of the majestic scene of the final judgment, let us first consider two texts of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. First, from his Apostolic Letter of October 11, 2011, Porta Fidei, for the Indiction of the Year of Faith:

Faith without charity bears no fruit, while charity without faith would be a sentiment constantly at the mercy of doubt. Faith and charity each require the other, in such a way that each allows the other to set out along its respective path. Indeed, many Christians dedicate their lives with love to those who are lonely, marginalized or excluded, as to those who are the first with a claim on our attention and the most important for us to support, because it is in them that the reflection of Christ’s own face is seen. Through faith, we can recognize the face of the risen Lord in those who ask for our love. “As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Mt 25:40). These words are a warning that must not be forgotten and a perennial invitation to return the love by which he takes care of us. It is faith that enables us to recognize Christ and it is his love that impels us to assist him whenever he becomes our neighbour along the journey of life. Supported by faith, let us look with hope at our commitment in the world, as we await “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Pet 3:13; cf. Rev 21:1).

The Kingdom of Christ cannot be built by force

Next, let us consider Pope Emeritus Benedict’s moving reflection on Christ’s kingship, spoken on October 26, 2011 during the celebration of the Word held on the eve of the “Day of Reflection, Dialogue and Prayer for Peace and Justice in the World: Pilgrims of Truth, Pilgrims of Peace” held in Assisi the following day.

In his homily, Pope Emeritus Benedict quoted Zechariah 9, in which God promises salvation through a king:

But the announcement does not refer to a king with human powers and force of arms. It does not refer to a king who dominates with political and military might. This is a gentle king who reigns with humility and gentleness before God and man, a king quite different from the great sovereigns of the earth.

The Apostles recalled the prophet’s words particularly following Christ’s passion, death and resurrection when, […] with the eyes of faith, they reconsidered their Master’s joyful entry into the Holy City. He rode a donkey which had been lent to Him, […] not a horse as the powerful did. He did not enter Jerusalem accompanied by a mighty army of chariots and horsemen. He is a poor king, the king of the poor of God, […] of those who have inner freedom enabling them to overcome the greed and selfishness of the world, of those who know that God alone is their treasure. […] He is a king who will make the chariots and steeds of battle disappear, who will break the weapons of war, a king who brought peace on the Cross, uniting heaven and earth and building a bridge between all mankind. The Cross is the new arch of peace, the sign and instrument of reconciliation, […] the sign that love is stronger that any form of violence or oppression, stronger than death. Evil is overcome through goodness, through love.

The kingdom that Christ inaugurates is universal. The horizon of this poor and meek king is not the territorial horizon of a State, it is the confines of the world. He creates communion. He creates unity. And where do we see His announcement take concrete form today? In the great network of Eucharistic communities covering the earth, wherein the prophecy of Zechariah re-emerges in splendour. […] Everywhere, in all cultures, […] He comes and is present; and by entering into communion with Him, mankind is united into a single body, overcoming divisions, rivalry and rancour. The Lord comes in the Eucharist to divest us of our selfishness, our fixations which exclude others, to make us a single body, a single kingdom of peace in a divided world. […]

How can we build this kingdom of peace in which Christ is king? […] Like Jesus, the messengers of peace of His kingdom must begin a journey. […] They must journey, but not with the might of war or the force of power. […] It is not with power, force or violence that Christ’s kingdom of peace grows, but with the giving of self, with love carried to its extreme consequences, even towards out enemies. Jesus does not conquer the world by force of arms but by the power of the Cross, which is the true guarantee of victory.

Viva Cristo Rey!

Finally, let us remember the life of a young martyred Mexican Jesuit who was deeply devoted to Christ the King: Blessed Miguel Agustin Pro, S.J. (1891-1927). Born January 13, 1891, at Guadalupe Zacatecas, Mexico, Miguel “Miguelito” Pro was the son of a mining engineer and a pious and charitable mother. From his earliest days, Miguel had a special affinity for the working classes, which he kept all of his life. At age 20, he entered the Jesuit novitiate and shortly thereafter was exiled because of the Mexican Revolution. He traveled to the United States, Spain, Nicaragua, and Belgium, where he was ordained a priest in 1925. Father Pro suffered from chronic stomach ailments and when after several operations his health did not improve, his Jesuit superiors allowed him to return to Mexico in 1926 despite the horrible religious persecution underway in Mexico.

Churches were closed and priests fled into hiding. Father Pro spent the rest of his life in a secret ministry to Mexican Catholics. He strengthened people in their faith and was deeply involved in serving the poor in Mexico City. He was known for wearing all kinds of disguises that enabled him to work quietly among the poor. Miguel would dress as a beggar and go during the night to baptize infants, bless marriages, and celebrate Mass. He would appear in jail dressed as a police officer to bring Holy Viaticum to condemned Catholics. When going to wealthy neighbourhoods to provide for the poor, he would show up at the doorstep dressed as a fashionable executive with a fresh flower on his lapel. His was the stuff of a modern spy movie or award winning television series! However in all that he did, Fr. Pro always remained obedient to his superiors and was filled with the joy of serving Christ, his King.

He was falsely accused in the bombing attempt on a former Mexican president and declared a wanted man. Handed over to the police, he was sentenced to death without recourse to any legal process. On the day of his execution by a firing squad, Fr. Pro forgave his executioners, bravely refused the blindfold and died proclaiming, Viva Cristo Rey, “Long live Christ the King!”

The image of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta standing before me and raising those five fingers before my face is engraved on my memory, especially when I listen to today’s Gospel of the last judgment. “You did it to me.” The image of Blessed Miguel Pro, boldly kneeling before his executioners and forgiving them, before proclaiming the real kingship of the non-violent Lord is also deep within me.

Vindicated in the court of heaven

When we listen attentively to today’s first reading from the prophet Ezekiel 34:11-12, 15-17, and today’s powerful Gospel, how could we not have the images of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta and Blessed Miguel Pro before our eyes, as well as all of those women and men like them throughout history who tend the Lord’s scattered sheep, rescuing them when it was cloudy and dark, pasturing them, and giving them rest? Their work of shepherding, binding up the sick and healing them gives flesh and blood to today’s Gospel. “You did it to me.” Today we have the consolation that our acts of mercy toward God’s little ones are already vindicated in the court of heaven, because God sees everything from above, and is the ultimate beneficiary of any of our poor yet sincere efforts to care for the needy, the marginalized, and the dependent; the hungry, the thirsty, the strangers, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned citizens of God’s kingdom.

Christ the King

Our faith is rooted firmly in Jesus of Nazareth who was declared a king at his execution. He was not a king who craved for power, nor a dictator who dominated and trampled underfoot those who encountered him. In his kingdom, his poor subjects were cherished and loved; they were his friends, the little ones, his brothers and sisters who partook in his very life. Worldly kingdoms will come and go. The kingdom of Jesus Christ will never pass away. Together with Blessed Teresa of Calcutta and Blessed Miguel Pro of Mexico, let us acclaim our King: Viva Cristo Rey! Long live Christ the King, now and forever.

[The readings for the Solemnity of Christ the King are: Ezekiel 34:11-12, 15:-17; 1 Corinthians 15:20-26, 28; Matthew 25:31-46.]

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: Fr. Miguel Pro; CNS Photo)

What Christ Has Given Us Is Multiplied In Its Giving

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Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A – November 16, 2014

Today’s Gospel story presents us with the last of the three parables that form Jesus’ final discourse in Matthew’s Gospel. Each of the three parables relates a different kind of accountability required of Christians as they prepare for their glorious encounter with Christ. The well-known Gospel text of the master, the slaves, and their talents (25:14-30) addresses what we do with the native abilities or talents that we have been given, those things which we hold most dear, and that which we have a tendency to possess too tightly. The central message of today’s Gospel parable concerns the spirit of responsibility with which to receive God’s Kingdom: a responsibility to God and to humanity.

Why Jesus taught the parables

We must not forget that Jesus taught the parables based on the way he saw life being lived out before his very eyes. As he taught the different parables, he neither blessed nor condemned the behaviour he described in each story. Rather, he used the way that his contemporaries were carrying out their everyday lives and activities to teach and model appropriate behaviour in view of God’s in-breaking Kingdom.

Today’s parable raises several questions and problems for us. The story seems to endorse a highly capitalistic mode of living regarding the use of one’s wealth and appears to be at odds with Jesus’ teaching on the use of money elsewhere in the Gospels. A second problem surfaces regarding the master’s method of reckoning upon his return. His behaviour towards his servants has some allegorical reference to the final judgment.

By means of this parable, was Jesus illustrating differing human capacities regarding God’s gift of the Kingdom? The first two slaves understand that the gifts they have are freely given by a God who is abundantly generous, and they therefore try to imitate the giver of all good gifts in the very ways that they live out their daily lives. Does God conform to the master described by the unhappy third slave: “a harsh man who reaps where he did not sow and gathers where he did not scatter” (25:24)?

The poverty of the cautious slave

I have always been intrigued by the reaction of the third slave whom I consider to be the “cautious” or “careful” slave. He seems to be an upright, honest man. He was not the smartest of the three, for he got the least amount of money, but if he weren’t a decent person, his master would have hardly entrusted him with a share of his money at all. The first and second slaves were shrewd operators; they knew how to play the market and doubled their investment. The third slave lived in fear because his master was a greedy, demanding man who liked his money and did not look kindly upon the foolishness and failure of those in his employ. Deciding to play it safe, the third slave refused to take any risks and thus buried his money. The rabbinical tradition taught that burying one’s money was the best security measure against theft or loss. I know many people who behave like this third slave.

The problem with the third slave is that he refused to take risks; he would not step out into the unknown. Filled with anxiety and fear, he projected his guilt upon his own master. In the end, he loses everything he owned. Had he acted with some degree of innocence, he may have received a much more understanding treatment from his master.

The moral of the story for us

Those who have a poor, limited, negative, or miserly image of God and God’s dealings with human beings, will end up treating their fellow human beings in the same poor, limited, and miserly ways. Such people are incapable of seeing the Kingdom of God unfolding before their very eyes and in their own time. Is this not the poverty and blindness of the third slave? He was incapacitated by fear, and was impeded from reaching out to those in need around him. Fear paralyzes each one of us and prevents us from reaching out to those in need around us.

The Good News of Jesus Christ is that we must abandon fear and be industrious, reliable, and creative in doing God’s will, lest we turn out to be like the third slave, “worthless, lazy louts”! To be a disciple of Christ, we have to lose our life in order to find it. If we risk ourselves for a perfect Christ we cannot see, we risk perhaps more in committing ourselves to an imperfect Church we can see. If our faith is seen as something that has to be protected, it is probably not genuine – and it certainly will not grow and mature if its fundamental approach is to “play it safe.”

Next Sunday’s magnificent Gospel scene of the last judgment presents us with the opposite example of the third slave. It will teach us that we find the deepest truth about ourselves when we move beyond our own fears and limitations and feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and imprisoned.

The element of surprise in today’s parable

From the beginning of today’s parable, we are told that the master gave each slave a certain amount of money as pure gift. The master demonstrated a gratuitous generosity. The third slave pigeonholed his master and simply could not fathom that the master was being so generous. The slave seemed to be basing his actions on some kind of strict or literal justice that enabled him to justify his own miserly actions. In the end, the third slave lost everything.

When we apply this concept to God and Jesus, a lesson emerges for us. When we truly understand and appreciate the greatness of God’s gift to us in his Son Jesus, we experience a special freedom and gratitude, and we are willing to take risks. To do God’s will becomes an enterprising, risk-taking adventure, based on God’s gratuitous generosity, justice, mercy, and boundless trust in human beings. Today’s parable emphasizes actions and enterprise, and helps us to prepare the way for the great works of mercy and justice in the final judgment scene of Matthew’s Gospel.

A treasure made to be spent, invested and shared

In his Angelus address of Sunday, November 16, 2008, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI referred to today’s parable and revealed its rich teaching for us:

The “talent” was an ancient Roman coin, of great value, and precisely because of this parable’s popularity it became synonymous with personal gifts, which everyone is called to develop. In fact, the text speaks of “a man going on a journey [who] called his servants and entrusted to them his property” (Mt 25: 14). The man in the parable represents Christ himself, the servants are the disciples and the talents are the gifts that Jesus entrusts to them. These gifts, in addition to their natural qualities, thus represent the riches that the Lord Jesus has bequeathed to us as a legacy, so that we may make them productive: his Word, deposited in the Holy Gospel; Baptism, which renews us in the Holy Spirit; prayer the “Our Father” that we raise to God as his children, united in the Son; his forgiveness, which he commanded be offered to all; the Sacrament of his Body sacrificed and his Blood poured out; in a word: the Kingdom of God, which is God himself, present and alive in our midst.

This is the treasure that Jesus entrusted to his friends at the end of his brief life on earth. Today’s parable stresses the inner disposition necessary to accept and develop this gift. Fear is the wrong attitude: the servant who is afraid of his master and fears his return hides the coin in the earth and it does not produce any fruit. This happens, for example, to those who after receiving Baptism, Communion and Confirmation subsequently bury these gifts beneath a blanket of prejudice, beneath a false image of God that paralyzes faith and good works, thus betraying the Lord’s expectations. However, the parable places a greater emphasis on the good fruits brought by the disciples who, happy with the gift they received, did not keep it hidden with fear and jealousy but made it profitable by sharing it and partaking in it. Yes, what Christ has given us is multiplied in its giving!

It is a treasure made to be spent, invested and shared with all, as we are taught by the Apostle Paul, that great administrator of Jesus’ talents. The Gospel teaching that the liturgy offers us today has also had a strong effect at the historical and social level, encouraging an active and entrepreneurial spirit in the Christian people.

[The readings for the Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time are: Proverbs 31:10-13, 16-18, 20, 26, 28-31; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-6; and Matthew 25:14-30.]

(Image: Parable of the Talents by Willem de Poorter)

“Mother and head of all the churches on earth”

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Dedication of the Lateran Basilica – Sunday, November 9, 2014

Today we celebrate the feast of the Dedication of the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome. It is known as “Mother and head of all churches on earth” because it was the original residence of the Pope. There is a formidable and significant stone inscription on the façade of the Basilica that reads: Sacrosancta Lateranensis ecclesia omnium urbis et orbis ecclesiarum mater et caput, “Most Holy Lateran Church, of all the churches in the city and the world, the mother and head.”

Steeped in historical significance

The basilica was built by the Emperor Constantine at the beginning of the fourth century AD and was dedicated on November 9, 324, by Pope Sylvester I. The anniversary of the dedication of this church has been observed since the 12th century. An added significance to this feast is the fact that the first Holy Year was proclaimed from this church in the year 1300.

The magnificent church was first called the Basilica of the Saviour but later was also dedicated to St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist, and so it acquired the name of the Basilica of St. John Lateran. When the papacy was transferred to Avignon for about a century, the condition of the Lateran deteriorated so greatly that when the Pope returned to Rome he lived in two other locations before finally settling adjacent to St. Peter’s Basilica, where he lives now.

In the course of its history, St. John Lateran suffered just about as many disasters and revivals as did the papacy it hosted. Sacked by Alaric in 408 and Genseric in 455, it was rebuilt by Pope Leo the Great (440-461), and centuries later by Pope Hadrian I (772-795). The basilica was almost entirely destroyed by an earthquake in 896, and was again restored by Pope Sergius III (904-911). Later the church was heavily damaged by fires in 1308 and 1360. When the Popes returned from their sojourn in Avignon, France (1304-1377), they found their basilica and palace in such disrepair that they decided to transfer to the Vatican Basilica (also built by Constantine, it had until then served primarily as a pilgrimage church).

Several important relics are kept within the Lateran Basilica. The wooden altar on which St. Peter celebrated Mass while in Rome is believed to be inside the main altar. The heads of Saints Peter and Paul were once believed to be inside busts above the main altar. Part of the table on which the Last Supper was celebrated is said to be behind a bronze depiction of the Last Supper. At one time the basilica also contained the Holy Stairs on which Jesus is said to have walked during his trial in the house of Pontius Pilate. The stairs are marble and are now covered with wood to protect them. They are currently located in the former Lateran Palace. Pilgrims ascend them on their knees, contemplating Jesus’ Passion. As they ascend, drops of blood may be seen on the marble stairs beneath protective glass. The stairs were brought to Rome by Constantine’s mother Saint Helena.

Many important historic events have also taken place in St. John Lateran, including five Ecumenical Councils and many diocesan synods. In 1929 the Lateran Pacts, which established the territory and status of the State of Vatican City, were signed here between the Holy See and the Government of Italy.

A feast of the People of God

There are two dimensions to today’s feast: it is the celebration of a building that is the mother church of Christendom. We focus our minds and hearts on the unity and love of the whole Church that finds expression in our fidelity to the one who walks in Peter’s shoes: the Pope.

It is also the feast of the People of God who form the Church. The Second Vatican Council helps us to focus our attention on the mystery of the Church – the sign of unity and the instrument of Christ’s peace on earth.

The Cleansing of the Temple

The Gospel of John’s account of Jesus cleansing the Temple seems at first to be a bit out of place for the feast of the dedication of the Mother Church of Rome. John’s account of the cleansing of the Temple (2:13-22) stands in sharp contrast to the other Gospel accounts of this powerful story (Matthew 21:12-17; Mark 11:15-19; Luke 19:45-48). In the Synoptic Gospels, this same scene takes place at the end of the “Palm Sunday Procession” into the holy city. With the people shouting out in triumph, he entered into the Temple area. But this time, not to do homage but to challenge the Temple and its leaders. He overturned the tables of the moneychangers and upset the stalls of those selling birds and animals for sacrifice. It was an electrifying moment. He quoted the Scriptures: “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations; but you have made it a den of robbers” (Matthew 21:13; Mark 11:17; Luke 19:46; Isaiah 56:6-7; Jeremiah 7:11).

John uses this incident to give meaning to Jesus’ entire ministry and he is alone among the evangelists in linking the cleansing of the Temple of Jerusalem with the prediction of its destruction. This destruction is symbolic of the end of the Old Covenant and its forms of worship. John says that Jesus was speaking about his own body rather than the temple building (2:21). The new Temple will be his resurrected Body. In the new Covenant, true worship will be “in Christ.”

John’s account of the cleansing of the Temple is quite provocative for many reasons. In the Fourth Gospel, Jesus quotes from Psalm 68:10: “Zeal for your house will consume me.” I have preferred to translate that verse: “I am filled with a burning love for your house…” The Temple was not an emporium (a mall!) but his Father’s house. Like the prophets before him, Jesus tried to awaken the hearts of his people. Their prayer had to come from the heart; their sacrifices, however good and true, were no substitute for justice.

The Messiah would purify Israel’s worship but John goes beyond that to suggest an even more radical change: Israel’s worship will not only be purified, it will also be replaced. The presence of God in Israel shall be replaced by the presence of God in the Temple which is the Body of Jesus. These startling words and actions of Jesus in the Temple took on new meaning for later generations of Christians.

One intriguing aspect of this story is the portrait of an angry Jesus contained in the cleansing scenes. These provocative images can give way to two extremes in our own image of God’s Messiah. Some people wish to transform an otherwise passive Christ pictured above many altars into a whip-cracking revolutionary. Others prefer to excise any human qualities of Jesus and paint a very meek, bland character who would never upset anyone.

The errors of the old extreme, however, do not justify a new extremism. Jesus was not exclusively – not even primarily – concerned with social reform. Jesus was filled with a deep devotion and love for his Father and the things of his Father. His disciples recognized in Jesus a passionate figure – one who was committed to life and to losing it for the sake of truth and fidelity.

Have we given in to these extremes in our own understanding of and relationship with Jesus? Are we passionate about anything in our lives today? Are they the right things? Are we filled with a deep and burning love for the things of God and for his Son, Jesus?

On this feast of the dedication of the cathedral of the Bishop of Rome, let us pray for a strengthening of our communion with each other and with all God’s people across the face of the earth. May the Lord purify the sanctuary of our hearts, and build us up as living stones into a holy temple. May we be filled with consuming zeal for the house of the Lord, our Church, and our churches. May our communion with the Church of Rome confirm us as a vibrant, loving, hospitable universal Church, a place of welcome for all who seek God’s face.

[The readings for the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica are: Ezekiel 47:1-2, 8-9, 12; 1 Corinthians 3:9b-11, 16-17; John 2:13-22.]

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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