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Those who watch for Christ

First Advent cropped

First Sunday of Advent, Year C – November 29, 2015

Every now and then when the world seems to be falling apart and problems appear to be insurmountable, I recall with gratitude the heroes of the Velvet Revolution who helped to bring down the reign of Communism over twenty years ago. I cherish the words of hope of former Czech president Vaclav Havel, during his days of imprisonment. Those words captivated the imagination of many people as we witnessed the Communist regime finally come to an end:

The more unpropitious the situation in which we demonstrate hope, the deeper that hope is. Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. In short, I think that the deepest and most important form of hope, the only one that can keep us above water and urge us to good works, and the only true source of the breathtaking dimension of the human spirit and its efforts is something we get, as it were, from ‘elsewhere’.

I also turn frequently to the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s section on “The Theological Virtues” and read the paragraphs on hope (#1817-1821). I always find hope and peace of mind and heart from those paragraphs on hope. I have been particularly struck by the thoughts found in #1818 of the Catechism:

The virtue of hope responds to the aspiration to happiness which God has placed in the heart of every man; it takes up the hopes that inspire men’s activities and purifies them so as to order them to the Kingdom of heaven; it keeps man from discouragement; it sustains him during times of abandonment; it opens up his heart in expectation of eternal beatitude. Buoyed up by hope, he is preserved from selfishness and led to the happiness that flows from charity.

Day-to-day following of Jesus

Such thoughts are important for us as we enter the season of Advent with a bang this year- with a section from Luke’s chapter on the end times! In today’s Gospel story [21:25-28; 34-36], we can see, hear and feel Jesus’ eschatological discourse in Mark 13. The actual destruction of Jerusalem by Rome in A.D. 70 upon which Luke and his community look back [Luke 21:20-24] provides the assurance that, just as Jesus’ prediction of Jerusalem’s destruction was fulfilled, so too will be his announcement of their final redemption (21:27-28).

The evangelist Luke has made some significant alterations to Mark’s description of the end times. Luke maintains the belief in the early expectation of the end of the age but, by focusing attention throughout the Gospel on the importance of the day-to-day following of Jesus and by reinterpreting the meaning of some of the signs of the end from Mark 13, he has come to terms with what seemed to the early Christian community to be a delay of the Parousia (Second Coming). In dealing with the persecution of the disciples (21:12-19) and the destruction of Jerusalem (21:20-24) Luke is pointing to eschatological signs that have already been fulfilled.

The central message of Christianity does not consist in knowing the exact details of the end of the world. As a matter of fact, there are very few specifics about the future in Jesus’ preaching other than that God is going to accomplish his purpose and he’s going to accomplish it through Jesus. When my students would ask me about the Second Coming, I always tell them that I suspect it’s going to be as big a surprise as the first coming was. It is in God’s hands. God will bring about his Kingdom and that is what is most important.

Blameless in holiness

In the second reading from St. Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians [3:12-4:2] we encounter Paul trying to strengthen his Thessalonian converts in their new faith about twenty years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. For Paul, an essential part of the Christian message was the Parousia, or the Second Coming. Without that event, the drama of salvation was incomplete. Paul believed the Parousia was imminent, but preparation was required. Paul asked two things: (1) an increase in mutual and universal love and (2) the attainment of the Christian goal. The goal was holiness expressed in loving concern for one another. Holiness would be achieved through daily, ordinary acts of goodness, kindness, charity and hope.

The work of Advent

Advent confronts us and wakes us from our stupor. What is the work of Advent for each of us this year? We are invited to quietly prepare our hearts and our lives for the coming of the ever-greater one in the flesh. For what or for whom are we waiting in life? What virtues or gifts are we praying to receive this year? What material things do we seek? The people, qualities, things we await give us great insights into who we are. Advent, far from being a penitential time or a time of despair, is a time of rejoicing in hope and a time of patient waiting. God knows how impatient we are as a people and as individuals. Nevertheless, patience is a blessed virtue for which we should pray during Advent.

Long ago St. Cyril of Jerusalem wrote that almost everything about our Lord Jesus Christ is twofold:

He has two births: one from God before the ages, the other from the Virgin at the end of all ages. He has two comings: the one is hidden and resembles the falling of the dew upon a fleece; the other – the future one – on the contrary will be manifest. At his first coming, he was wrapped in linens and laid in a manger; at the second, light shall be his robe. In the first coming he endured the Cross-, heedless of its shame; in his second coming he will be in glory surrounded by an army of angels. Let us therefore not stop at his first coming but look forward to the second. We hailed him at his first coming with the words, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” And we shall hail him in the same way at his second coming. For we shall go out to meet the Lord and his angels, and, prostrating ourselves before him, we shall cry, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”

As Christians, we proclaim the coming of Christ – not just a first coming but another as well that will be far more glorious than the first. The first took place under the sign of patient suffering; the second, on the contrary, will see Christ wearing the crown of God’s kingdom. Advent teaches us that there are two ways of looking at history: one is sociological and the other is religious. The first, chronos, is essentially unredeemed and cyclic. The second, xairos, is redeemed by God in Christ Jesus and becomes the possibility of providence and sacrament.

Let me leave you with some reflections on hope as we enter this most blessed season of patient longing and joyful expectation of the Lord Jesus. First, a wonderful section of the Parochial and Plain Sermons of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman:

They watch for Christ who are sensitive, eager, apprehensive in mind, who are awake, alive, quick-sighted, zealous in honoring him, who look for him in all that happens, and who would not be surprised, who would not be over-agitated or overwhelmed, if they found that he was coming at once… This then is to watch: to be detached from what is present, and to live in what is unseen; to live in the thought of Christ as he came once, and as he will come again; to desire his second coming, from our affectionate and grateful remembrance of his first.

Finally, this moving reflection on hope by the late Fr. James Keller, M.M., Founder of The Christophers:

Hope looks for the good in people instead of harping on the worst.
Hope opens doors where despair closes them.
Hope discovers what can be done instead of grumbling about what cannot.
Hope draws its power from a deep trust in God and the basic goodness of human nature.
Hope “lights a candle” instead of “cursing the darkness.”
Hope regards problems, small or large, as opportunities.
Hope cherishes no illusions, nor does it yield to cynicism.
Hope sets big goals and is not frustrated by repeated difficulties or setbacks.
Hope pushes ahead when it would be easy to quit.
Hope puts up with modest gains, realizing that “the longest journey starts with one step.”
Hope accepts misunderstandings as the price for serving the greater good of others.
Hope is a good loser because it has the divine assurance of final victory.

[The readings for this Sunday are Jeremiah 33:14-16; Ps 25; 1 Thessalonians 3:12-4:2; Luke 21:25-28, 34-36]

(Photo — Advent candles: CNS photo/Bob Roller)

The King Who Did Not Bow Down

Christ the King cropped

Biblical Reflection for the Solemnity of Christ the King, Year B – Sunday, November 22, 2015

The liturgical year ends with the Solemnity of Christ the King. In John’s poignant trial scene of Pilate and Jesus (18:33-37), we see a great contrast between power and powerlessness.

In coming to the Romans to ensure that Jesus would be crucified, the Jewish authorities fulfilled his prophecy that he would be exalted (John 3:14; 12:32-33). Pilate asks Jesus: “Are you the King of the Jews?” (v 33). The accused prepares his answer with a previous question, which provokes the Roman official: “Do you ask this on your own or did others tell you about me?” (v 34).

Pilate’s arrogance does not intimidate Jesus, who then gives his own answer in the well-known words: “My kingdom is not from this world” (v 36). At once, Jesus gives the reason: “My kingdom does not use coercion, it is not imposed.” Jesus reiterates his point: “My kingdom is not from this world.”

Pilate is very astute. He does not see in Jesus’ answer a denial of his kingship. In fact, Pilate infers and insists: “So you are a king” (v 37). Jesus accepts his claim without hesitation: “You say that I am a king. For this I came into the world.”

For what? To inaugurate a world of peace and fellowship, of justice and respect for other people’s rights, of love for God and for one another. This is the kingdom that penetrates our human history, illuminating it and leading it beyond itself, a kingdom that will have no end. When we pray the Our Father, we pray for this kingdom to come in its fullness.

In this Gospel scene, Pilate reveals himself as a deeply perplexed leader as he encounters one who is Truth. What is there of Pilate inside of each of us? What prevents us from being free? What are our fears? What are our labels? What costumes and masks are we wearing in public and really don’t care to jeopardize? What is our capacity for neglecting and trampling on others for the sake of keeping up appearances, maintaining the façade, or the important job, or people’s good opinion with regard to our respectability, our reputation or good name?

The Kingdom of Jesus

In the Fourth Gospel, the focus is on the kingship of Christ. The core of Jesus’ message is the kingdom of God, and the God of Jesus Christ is the God of the kingdom, the one who has a word and an involvement in human history from which the image of the kingdom is taken. In the kingdom of Jesus, there is no distance between what is religious and temporal, but rather between domination and service.

Jesus’ kingdom is unlike the one that Pilate knows and is willingly or unwillingly part of. Pilate’s kingdom, and for that matter the Roman kingdom, was one of arbitrariness, privileges, domination and occupation. Jesus’ kingdom is built on love, justice and peace.

Jesus proclaims the kingdom of God, the kingdom of holiness and grace, of justice, love and peace. This kingdom is God’s final aim and purpose in everything he has done from the beginning. It is his final act of liberation and salvation. Jesus speaks of this kingdom as a future reality, but a reality that is mysteriously already present in his being, his actions and words and in his personal destiny.

If today’s solemnity of Christ the King upsets some of us, is it not due to our own disillusionment of earthly kings and leaders, rather than the kingship of Jesus? The kingship and leadership of God’s Son refuses rank and privilege, and any attempt to be master of the world. In him there is no lust, greed and ambition for power. He, the innocent king who executes no one, is himself executed. His reign completely overturns our notions of earthly kingship. His is a kingship of ultimate service, even to the point of laying down his life for others.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus goes to his death as a king. The crucifixion is Jesus’ enthronement, the ultimate expression of royal service. Because of Christ, the coronation of suffering is no longer death, but rather eternal life. Very few can measure up to Jesus’ kingly stature, remaining powerless in the face of the powerful. Many of us resist with power, even though we resort to very refined forms of pressure and manipulation. Jesus never responded to violence with more violence.

Two crowns

The solemnity of Christ the King has had particular significance for me since I lived at Ecce Homo Convent, the Sisters of Sion Center on the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem’s Old City during the years of my graduate studies in Scripture. The whole complex is built over what is believed to be Pontius Pilate’s judgment hall, the setting for today’s striking Gospel scene between Jesus and Pontius Pilate.

The holy sites in Jerusalem, which commemorate events in the life, passion and death of Jesus, often have two feasts throughout the year, feasts that remember the joyful and sorrowful aspects of Jesus’ life. Ecce Homo Center’s “patronal” feasts are the joyful solemnity of Christ the King at the end of the liturgical year, and the sorrowful feast of Jesus crowned with thorns on the first Friday of Lent.

Two feasts, two crowns, two images of Jesus the Lord set before the Christian community to ponder and imitate.

The feast of Christ the King presents us with the image of Christ crowned — first with thorns, then with the victor’s laurel hat, the evergreen crown of glory. On the day of our baptism, the crown of our head was smeared with the holy oil of chrism, that royal oil that makes us another Christos, another Anointed One. We have the power to live faithfully and love fiercely as Jesus did. The crown of glory — Christ’s very own — is promised to each of us. Which crown is found at the center of our faith and our proclamation?

Who, if not the condemned Savior?

Jesus answered the Roman governor’s questions by declaring that he was a king, but not of this world (cf. John 18: 36). He did not come to rule over peoples and territories, but to set people free from the slavery of sin and to reconcile them with God. He states: “For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice” (John 18: 37).

What is this “truth” that Christ came into the world to witness to? The whole of his life reveals that God is love: So this is the truth to which he witnessed to the full with the sacrifice of his own life on Calvary. Jesus established the kingdom of God once and for all from the cross. The way to reach this goal is long and admits of no short cuts: Indeed, every person must freely accept the truth of God’s love.

God is Love and Truth, and neither Love nor Truth are ever imposed. They stand gently knocking at the doors of our minds and hearts, waiting for us to open the door and welcome them. Yet so often we are afraid to usher in such guests into our lives and earthly kingdoms because of the serious implications associated with such gifts. Many of us resist the truth with power, while others will resort to very refined forms of pressure and manipulation to keep the Truth at bay.

As we contemplate Christ crucified, we understand something of why Christ has remained a king even up to modern times: He didn’t bow down. He who was Truth incarnate never imposed himself on others. He stood, waited and knocked. He never responded to violence with more violence.

At the conclusion of the Stations of the Cross at Rome’s Coliseum on Good Friday night in the Jubilee Year 2000, Pope John Paul II spoke these moving words: “Who, if not the condemned Savior, can fully understand the pain of those unjustly condemned?

“Who, if not the King scorned and humiliated, can meet the expectations of the countless men and women who live without hope or dignity? 

“Who, if not the crucified Son of God, can know the sorrow and loneliness of so many lives shattered and without a future?”

Jesus took his wounds to heaven, and there is a place in heaven for our wounds because our king bears his in glory.

On this last Sunday of the liturgical year, our Crucified King hangs in our midst, arms outstretched in loving mercy and welcome. May we have the courage to ask him to remember us in his kingdom, the grace to imitate him in our own earthly kingdoms, and the wisdom to welcome him when he stands knocking at the doors of our lives and hearts.

[The readings for the solemnity of Christ the King are: Deuteronomy 7:13-14; Revelations 1:5-8; and John 18:33b-37]

Know That He Is Near, at the Gates

Apocalypse cropped

Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B – November 15, 2015

Today’s Gospel story is taken from the most difficult chapter of Mark’s Gospel (13:24-32) and is often interpreted as announcing the end of the world.

Mark 13 is often called the “little apocalypse.” Like Daniel 7-12 and the Book of Revelation, it focuses on a world of persecution. When we take the chapter as a whole, we will be able to see that we are dealing with the theme of meaning rather than chronology.

Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the temple (Mark 13:2) provoked questions that the four disciples put to him in private regarding the time and the sign when all these things are about to come to an end (Mark 13:3-4). The response to their questions was Jesus’ eschatological discourse prior to his imminent death. It contained instruction and consolation exhorting the disciples and the Church to faith and obedience through the trials that would confront them (Mark 13:5-13).

The sign is the presence of the desolating abomination (Mark 13:14; see Daniel 9:27), i.e., of the Roman power profaning the temple. Flight from Jerusalem is urged rather than defense of the city through misguided messianic hope (Mark 13:14-23). Intervention will occur only after destruction (Mark 13:24-27), which will happen before the end of the first Christian generation (Mark 13:28-31).

No one but the Father knows the precise time, or that of the parousia (Mark 13:32); hence the necessity of constant vigilance (Mark 13:33-37). Luke sets the parousia at a later date, after “the time of the Gentiles” (Luke 21:24). See also the notes on Matthew 24:1-25,46.

Son of Man

Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel deal with two realities: Jesus himself will fulfill the Old Testament Scripture texts about the end and the disciples are not to worry about the precise time of Jesus’ second coming. When we read v. 26, we know that Jesus is the heavenly being who will come in power and glory.

Like Daniel’s Son of Man, Mark’s Jesus will return and gather his elect “from the four winds, from the end of the earth to the end of the sky” (Mark 13:27). When Jesus spoke, he didn’t paint a glistening future for his disciples. He addressed the very era in which Mark’s first readers lived and, indeed, in which we ourselves live. Jesus foretold wars, earthquakes and famines, and identifies these as “the beginning of the birth pangs:” the prophesied events signal the painful advent of the new age, which comes about even as the powers of the old age struggle to prevent it.

Jesus described to the people of his day all the things that would arouse fear in people today: wars, persecution, catastrophes, scandals, and people in misery. Jesus used these predictions of distress as a basis for hope. We are invited to fix our gaze on him! I take great consolation is the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel (vv.29-31): “When you see these things happening, know that he is near, at the gates. Amen, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”

Eschatological testing

Eschatological testing will take a variety of forms. First, there will be betrayals. Just as Jesus was “betrayed” or “handed over” to the hands of sinners for testing, so Mark’s readers will be “betrayed” or “given over” to councils, beaten in synagogues, and called to give testimony before governors and kings. They will be “betrayed” or “given over” to death not only by their enemies, but even by their fathers and children, their own kin!

Second, false Christs and false prophets will appear, to “lead many astray.” These deceivers will promise deliverance and perform signs and wonders so as to trick people into abandoning their faith in Jesus.

Third, there will be trials or temptations even for those who enjoy relative peace and stability. Jesus speaks about this last sort of trial in his concluding parable in chapter 13, about a man who goes on a journey, having put his servants in charge and commanded his doorkeeper to “watch” or to “keep awake.” The parable suggests that Mark’s readers are in danger of failing to “watch,” of falling asleep. They are threatened by “the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things,” which Jesus elsewhere warns may choke out the seed before it matures.

Mark’s Gospel teaches us that all who follow Jesus will be put to the test. They will be tested by great affliction or by powerful seducers who do signs and wonders to lead them astray. They will be tested by the ordinary routines of daily existence and by fleshly desires. Whatever the form of the tests we face, Mark tells us that we must remain vigilant and pray, for if we have divided minds and hearts, we will fail the tests and so be unprepared to greet the master and be vindicated before him when he comes.

We shall be put to the test, but we need not fear, for Jesus has changed forever the context in which testing occurs. Because of his endurance of his own testing, Jesus offered himself as the perfect sacrifice to God, thereby rendering the cult in the Jerusalem temple obsolete. From now on, the appropriate “offerings” of the righteous will be prayers made in the gathered community of believers, rather than sacrifices made in the temple. God accepted Jesus’ self-offering as sufficient to atone for human sin; those who follow Jesus have therefore been “ransomed” from wrathful punishment by the just God. They can be confident that they are destined for salvation.

The community of those who pray

Mark indicates that in the wake of the temple’s destruction, the community of those who pray will be the “house of prayer for all nations,” the new temple to be raised up by Jesus. Single-minded prayer is the hallmark of this new community, the temple built of living stones. But how might Mark and his readers have understood this notion of “single-minded prayer”? How did one go about praying in such a manner, and what were the consequences of such prayer for daily life? Jesus promised that faithful prayer will be answered, but his promise is qualified: Those who pray must not doubt in their hearts.

In the darkness and anguish of Gethsemane, Jesus earnestly requests that God save him from the agony that lies ahead, and he is fully convinced that God can do so. But at the same time, Jesus submits himself to the will of God his Father. Jesus’ endurance, his single-mindedness, his deliberate laying aside of his own vision for himself in favor of God’s vision for him is what triumphs in the garden at the foot of the Mount of Olives. For Mark, this prayer in Gethsemane is a model of how “disciples on trial” ought to pray.

Put to the test

What are the great cataclysmic events that shake us in our world today? How are we being put to the test daily? Are experiences of rejection, or suffering, death or loss, deprivation and emptiness leading us to give up the Word of life that we once received with joy? Are our concerns about money, success at work or in school, health, release from addiction, job security, status and recognition, family or relationships choking out the word of God which has been planted in our hearts? Are we gripped by passions such as anger, grief or lust, which block us from following Jesus? Is there any joy left in our life?

The Good News of Mark’s Gospel is that we do not have to replicate Jesus’ faithfulness in time of trial by the sheer force of our own will. We do not have to face satanic tests devoid of divine power. Jesus of Nazareth has changed our situation forever. Mark phrases the Good News in terms of the empowering of believers that takes place in prayer. The Christian community is empowered to engage in single-minded prayer that cannot be derailed by fear, grief, persecution, or deceptive powers at work in the world. Jesus has atoned for human sin and undermined the very powers that seek to separate humans from God. Therefore all things are possible when we come to God in prayer.

Bigger picture

Let us never lose sight of the bigger picture of salvation history as we face the setbacks, losses and tragedies of daily life. As Christians, we are invited each day to respond to the dialectics of hope and gloom, which often have gripped our age. Collective anxiety can easily become mass hysteria in the midst of any crisis.

That is why it is so important to be firmly established in the Word of God, to draw life from that word and live in that Word. It is then that we realize the prophet Daniel’s words (12:1-3)in our daily life: “But the wise shall shine brightly like the splendor of the firmament, and those who lead the many to justice shall be like the stars forever.”

[The readings for the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time are: Deuteronomy 12:1-3; Hebrews 10:11-14, 18; and Mark 13:24-32]

Two Mighty and Courageous Widows

Widow Mite Tissot cropped

Thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B – November 8, 2015

Today’s Old Testament reading from 1 Kings 17:10-16 and the Gospel story from Mark 12:38-44 present us with two remarkable widows who challenge us by their conviction, generosity and faith.

They force us to reexamine our understanding of the poor and poverty, and look at our own ways of being generous with others.

I would like to offer some reflections on the stories of these two biblical figures and then apply their example to our own lives, through the lenses of Pope Benedict XVI’s last encyclical letter “Caritas in Veritate.”

Elijah’s faith

Whenever I read stories from the Elijah and Elisha cycle in the first and second books of Kings, I always say a prayer of thanksgiving for one of my professors from the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome, Jesuit Father Stephen Pisano, who taught the best course I had in the Old Testament: “The Man of God in the Books of Kings.” God knows how many times I have gone back to those notes and appreciated anew the stories of Elijah and his disciple Elisha, and their efforts to make God’s Word known and loved in the land of Israel!

In I Kings 17:8-16, God’s continues to test the Prophet Elijah. While today’s lectionary reading begins with Verse 10, it is important to go back to Verse 8 to understand the full meaning of the text. In Verse 8 we read: “The word of the Lord came to him, saying… .”

Elijah did not set out until he received the message from God. It is essential for us to be in communication with God through listening to God’s Word before setting out on mission.

Elijah is then told to go to Zarephath (v. 9), which is part of Sidon. Verse nine contains three commands: “arise,” “go,” and “stay.” The prophet will be tested with each of these commands through faith, trust, obedience, availability and commitment. When Elijah is told to “arise,” it is not only a physical movement but a spiritual one. For Elijah, following the Lord obediently is the result of his own spiritual reawakening.

The second command — “go to Zarephath” — carries with it the idea of a journey, including risks, hardships and dangers. Elijah is sent to a specific place, Zarephath, which means “a smelting place, a place of testing.”

Furthermore, Zarephath was in the land of Sidon, which belonged to the wicked Jezebel. Elijah is hardly being sent to a vacation destination for rest and relaxation!

The third command — “stay there” — was a great challenge to his commitment, trust and vision as a man of God who was simply seeking to serve the Lord. Elijah’s provision would come from a poor, destitute, depressed widow facing starvation in the pagan nation of the Sidonians who represented the forces clearly in opposition to the God of Israel.

Elijah encounters his benefactress, not living in a large house and sharing her excess with itinerant prophets, but rather at the gate of the city, collecting a few sticks since she had no fuel at home to cook even a meager meal.

The God who commanded the ravens and who provided for Elijah in the desert (I Kings 17:1-7), was the same God who had commanded the widow and would provide for the prophet through her. At Zarephath, the poor woman listened to Elijah’s instruction and it was just as he had promised according to the Word of the Lord. She saw the power of God: The widow, her son, and Elijah were all sustained.

What lessons can we learn from this passage?

Because of a poor woman’s generosity and goodness, and Elijah’s faithfulness, God strengthened the prophet’s faith, renewed his capacity for ministry, using him to comfort the widow and her son at the same time. The Lord God will provide for us, beyond outward appearances of weakness, failure and fear. God always does far more than we can ever ask for or imagine.

Just a mite

In today’s well-known Gospel story (Mark 12:38-44), Jesus praises the poor widow’s offering, and makes it clear that the standard measurement for assessing gifts is not how much we give to the works of God or how much we put in the collection basket, but how much we have left for ourselves. Those who give out of their abundance still have abundance left.

Is Jesus exalting this woman because she emptied her bank account for the temple? Is Jesus romanticizing and idealizing the poor? I have yet to meet people who dream of growing up destitute, poor, hungry and homeless. I don’t know anyone who delights in living from one government social assistance check to the next, nor people who enjoy rummaging through garbage bins and are proud that they cannot afford to pay for electric and water bills for their inadequate and even dangerous housing situations during cold Canadian winters.

The woman in today’s provocative Gospel story was poor because she was a widow. She was completely dependent on her male relatives for her livelihood. To be widowed meant not only losing a spouse, but more tragically, losing the one on whom you were totally dependent. Widows were forced to live off of the generosity of other male relatives and anyone in the community who might provide for one’s needs.

The two coins in the woman’s hand were most likely all she had. When one has so little, a penny or two isn’t going to move that person from complete social assistance to employment. With the coins or without them, the widow was still a dependent person. She had no status in life. She was totally dependent on the grace of God, yet she was indeed rich in God’s mercy.

Jesus never condemns the rich but simply says that they will find it difficult to enter the kingdom. What matters is not how much money is stored in bank accounts or kept in stocks and bonds, but rather for what that money is destined.

Will the money be used to assist others, to make the world a better place? Will be it used to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, provide for the homeless and destitute poor? Will it be used to build a culture of life? Do our lives revolve around the money or are we dependant on God who truly makes us rich? Do we behave as owners or live as stewards?

The widow tossed her only signs of independence into the collection basket, but she maintained her complete dependence on God and neighbor. Her example of faith is grounded in the love of God: her love for God and God’s love for her. She was a steward and not an owner of her meager possessions. This poor widow teaches us that dependence, far from being oppressive and depressive, can really lead to a life lived in deep joy and profound gratitude.

Charity in truth

Four brief sections from Benedict XVI’s encyclical letter “Caritas in Veritate” merit our careful reflection and meditation this week.

1. “The search for love and truth is purified and liberated by Jesus Christ from the impoverishment that our humanity brings to it, and he reveals to us in all its fullness the initiative of love and the plan for true life that God has prepared for us. In Christ, charity in truth becomes the Face of his Person, a vocation for us to love our brothers and sisters in the truth of his plan. Indeed, he himself is the Truth (cf. John 14:6).”

23. “The mere fact of emerging from economic backwardness, though positive in itself, does not resolve the complex issues of human advancement, neither for the countries that are spearheading such progress, nor for those that are already economically developed, nor even for those that are still poor, which can suffer not just through old forms of exploitation, but also from the negative consequences of a growth that is marked by irregularities and imbalances.”

42. “For a long time it was thought that poor peoples should remain at a fixed stage of development, and should be content to receive assistance from the philanthropy of developed peoples. Paul VI strongly opposed this mentality in ‘Populorum Progressio.’

“Today the material resources available for rescuing these peoples from poverty are potentially greater than before, but they have ended up largely in the hands of people from developed countries, who have benefited more from the liberalization that has occurred in the mobility of capital and labor. The world-wide diffusion of forms of prosperity should not therefore be held up by projects that are self-centered, protectionist or at the service of private interests.”

75. “While the poor of the world continue knocking on the doors of the rich, the world of affluence runs the risk of no longer hearing those knocks, on account of a conscience that can no longer distinguish what is human. God reveals man to himself; reason and faith work hand in hand to demonstrate to us what is good, provided we want to see it; the natural law, in which creative Reason shines forth, reveals our greatness, but also our wretchedness insofar as we fail to recognize the call to moral truth.”

[The readings for the 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time are: 1 Kings 17:10-16; Hebrews 9:24-28; and Mark 12:38-44 or 12:41-44]

(Image: The Widow’s Mite by Jacques Joseph Tissot)

The Beatitudes: Blueprint for Holiness

Saints cropped copy

Solemnity of All Saints – Sunday, November 1, 2015

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.]

Watch Fr. Thomas Rosica’s video reflection for All Saints Day.

Master, I Want to See!

Bartimaeus cropped

Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B – October 25, 2015

Mark’s healing stories of the blind man of Bethsaida (8:22-26) and the healing of Bartimaeus, the blind man on the road to Jericho (10:46-52) were undoubtedly popular stories in the early Church and they remain very significant stories for the contemporary Church.

These miracles have always fascinated me because I grew up with my father who was an eye doctor. How frequently we spoke about sight impairments, eye diseases, stigmatisms, cataracts and 20/20 vision! My father was also a member of a charitable society that assisted the blind, and I remember vividly volunteering as a child with my father and his doctor colleagues who hosted memorable Christmas parties for blind people.

Road to Jericho

Mark tells the story of Jesus’ encounter with Bartimaeus, a blind man and a beggar (10:46-52) in the Gospel for the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B). Jesus had made the long, arduous journey down the desert valley from Galilee in the north. He was on his way to Jerusalem, a daunting climb from an oasis on the desert floor to the hills of Judea.

As Jesus passed through Jericho, Bartimaeus heard the din of the crowd and knew that the chance of a lifetime was within his grasp. Bartimaeus was not about to miss this opportunity! From the roadside, he began to cry out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Some people in Jesus’ entourage were embarrassed to have this dirty, rude beggar bother the master and they attempted to silence him.

What were they embarrassed about? Bartimaeus was simply trying to engage the culture around him and let the people know that he, too, had a right to see Jesus. If individuals in the crowd had heard the rumors about Jesus’ healing powers, wouldn’t they be kind to this poor beggar and bring him to Jesus for healing?

Bartimaeus would not be denied — and neither would Jesus. As the shouts of the beggar reached his ears, Jesus brushed aside the restraints of his disciples and called to the blind man. Bartimaeus threw off his cloak and drew near to that welcoming voice, which responded to his pleas, “What do you want me to do for you?”

“Lord, that I may see.” And Bartimaeus did see, not just with his eyes but more importantly, with his heart. Though Bartimaeus was blind to many things, he clearly saw who Jesus is. Seeing “who Jesus is” is the goal of faith, and it leads to discipleship. At the end of the story, Bartimaeus regained his sight and followed Jesus on the way. Given that the very next verse in Mark narrates the entry into Jerusalem, we can be certain that Bartimaeus followed Jesus on the way to the cross.

Blindness metaphor

Compassion for the outcast was a hallmark of Jesus’ ministry and healing stories in the Gospels never seem to be simply a reversal of physical misfortune. In the stories of those who “once were blind, but now they see,” the connections between seeing and believing are so strong that these miracles worked by Jesus are more about growing in faith than letting the scales of blindness fall away.

Disciples of Jesus have vision problems. How often do we use the metaphor of blindness to describe our inability to grasp the meaning of the suffering we endure? We sometimes describe our blindness as an inability to see the forest for the trees, but that is a rather simplistic analysis. More worrisome is the inherited blindness which so often assumes that there are no lessons left to learn. Arrogance is very often the root of our blindness. We need the miracle of restored sight each day.

What corners of the church, of society and of our culture need serious healing, restoration and reformation in our time? Where are our blind spots? Where are the big problems with near-sightedness and far-sightedness? How often do we prefer monologue to dialogue, refusing to believe that we might learn from those who oppose us and disagree with us; refusing to engage the culture around us and preferring a narrow, obstinate and angry way of existing? How often do we say that there are no other ways to look at an issue than our way … or the highway!

How often do we behave like those who tried to prevent Bartimaeus from seeing and meeting the Lord? Against the cries of the scoffers and cynics in our midst, do we dare to bring our friends, colleagues and loved ones into the very presence of the Lord? How can we not, when we know the result of a lifetime without Christ?

Healing, restoration and sight

Abortion is the most serious wound inflicted not only on individuals and their families who should provide the sanctuary for life, but inflicted as well on society and its culture, by the very people who ought to be society’s promoters and defenders. It is important to recall Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s words and pro-life vision at the opening ceremony of World Youth Day 2008 in Sydney, on July 17, 2008:

“And so we are led to reflect on what place the poor and the elderly, immigrants and the voiceless, have in our societies. How can it be that domestic violence torments so many mothers and children? How can it be that the most wondrous and sacred human space — the womb — has become a place of unutterable violence?”

The Roman Catholic Church offers a teaching on the inviolability, the sacredness and the dignity of the human person: a 20/20 vision for which we must strive each day if we claim to be pro-life.

Opposition to abortion and euthanasia does not excuse indifference to those who suffer from poverty, violence and injustice. We must strive to see the whole picture, not with tunnel vision.

To say that we are pro-life means that we are against whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia or wilful self-destruction. We stand firmly against whatever violates the dignity of the human person such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself, whatever insults human dignity such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children, and disgraceful working conditions where people are treated as instruments of gain rather than as free and responsible persons. All of these things and more destroy human life and poison human society.

Capuchin Cardinal Sean O’Malley, archbishop of Boston, wrote:

“Our ability to change people’s hearts and help them to grasp the dignity of each and every life, from the first moment of conception to the last moment of natural death, is directly related to our ability to increase love and unity in the Church, for our proclamation of the Truth is hindered when we are divided and fighting with each other.”

Being pro-life is one of the deepest expressions of our baptism: We stand up as sons and daughters of the light, clothed in humility and charity, filled with conviction, speaking the truth to power with firmness, conviction and determination, and never losing joy and hope.

Being pro-life is not an activity for a political party or a particular side of the spectrum. It is an obligation for everyone: left, right and center! If we are pro-life, we must engage the culture around us, and not curse it. We must see others as Jesus does, and we must love them to life, even those who are opposed to us.

As we recognize the things that blind us from the Lord and paralyze us from effective action, let us never cease begging the Lord to heal us! “Lord, that I may see!” And when our vision is restored, let us get up to follow him joyfully along the way to the Kingdom.

A Prayer for Sight (Origen, 185-253)

May the Lord Jesus touch our eyes,
As he did those of the blind.
Then we shall begin to see in visible things
Those which are invisible.
May He open our eyes to gaze not on present realities,
But on the blessings to come.
May he open the eyes of our heart to contemplate God in Spirit,
Through Jesus Christ the Lord,
To whom belong power and glory through all eternity. Amen.

[The readings for the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time are: Jeremiah 31:7-9; Hebrew 5:1-6; and Mark 10:46-52]

(Image: “Jesus healing the blind man” by Eustace Le Sueur)

Christ and the Priesthood

Last Supper Boulogne cropped

Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B – October 18, 2015

The readings for the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time invite us to prayerfully consider the priesthood and priestly ministry. The first reading is the passage of Isaiah’s mysterious suffering servant who takes upon himself the people’s iniquity (Isaiah 53:2-11).

The second reading speaks of Christ the high priest, tried in every way like us but sin, and the Gospel passage speaks of the Son of Man who has come to give his life in ransom for many (Mark 10:35-45.) These three passages bring to light a fundamental aspect of the heart of priestly ministry and one that we celebrate together as God’s people in the Eucharistic mystery.

Recognizing that we are in the midst of celebrating the Year for Priests to mark the 150th anniversary of the death of St. John Mary Vianney, and knowing that many priests around the world are reading these reflections each week, I offer these thoughts that are particularly inspired by the second readings from this Sunday and next Sunday (Hebrews 4:14-16 and 5:1-5).

Isaiah’s mysterious servant

First, allow me to offer a brief thought on today’s reading from the prophet Isaiah (53:10-11). Isaiah’s mysterious figure of the “suffering servant” is not only a sign of God’s love for us, but he also represents all human beings before God.

Only God appreciated his servant’s true greatness. Because he suffered, he was regarded as a sinner and therefore as one to be spurned. Because the servant fulfilled the divine will by suffering for the sins of others, the servant will be rewarded by the Lord.

Jesus, our great High Priest

In the letter to the Hebrews 4:14-16, the author calls Jesus a great high priest (v 14). Jesus has been tested in every way, yet without sin (v 15); this indicates an acquaintance with the tradition of Jesus’ temptations, not only at the beginning (as in 1:13) but throughout his public life (cf Luke 22:28). The similarity of Hebrews 4:16 to Hebrews 10:19-22 indicates that the author is thinking of our confident access to God, made possible by the priestly work of Jesus. Jesus’ entire life is steeped in the Scriptures of Israel and he lived and acted out of God’s Word.

Our “great high priest” is Jesus, the Child of Bethlehem who becomes the “Ecce Homo” of Jerusalem, not one distant from us and our condition, but he is the one who sympathizes with us, for he has experienced our weakness and pain, even our temptations (Hebrews 4:14-15). We must ask ourselves: Are we priestly people like he was? Do we live for others? Is the world any less violent, any less hostile, any more merciful, patient, kind and just, because of us?

In his very memorable and ever valid 1975 apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Nuntiandi” (On Evangelization in the Modern World), Pope Paul VI rightly noted: “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.”

Lest we experience emptiness, and the effectiveness of our ministry be compromised, we need to constantly ask ourselves: Are we truly inhabited by the Word of God? Is that Word truly the nourishment we live by, even more than bread and the things of this world? Do we really know that Word? Do we love it? Do we act upon it? Are we deeply engaged with this Word to the point that it really leaves a mark on our lives, shapes our thinking, and motivates and inspires others to act?

Old and New

The Old Testament never dreamed of requiring the high priest to make himself like his brothers and sisters, but was preoccupied on the contrary with separating him from them. No text ever required that the high priest should be free from all sin. In the Old Testament, an attitude of compassion toward sinners appeared to be incompatible with the priesthood.

Unlike the Levitical priests, the death of Jesus was essential for his priesthood. He is a priest of compassion. His authority attracts us- because of his compassion. Ultimately, Jesus exists for others: he exists to serve. He has been tested in all respects like us — he knows all of our difficulties; he is a tried man; he knows our condition from the inside and from the outside — only by this did he acquire a profound capacity for compassion.

The opposite of a priestly person is a consumer: one who buys, amasses, collects things. The priest is one who spends and consumes himself for others. Is it any wonder that vocations to the priesthood face immense challenges in cultures of wealth, abundance, consumption, and excess?

Can you drink this cup?

In today’s Gospel, Jesus asks the enigmatic question: “Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” (Mark 10:38-40): the metaphor of drinking the cup is used in the Old Testament to refer to acceptance of the destiny assigned by God.

In Jesus’ case, this involves divine judgment on sin that Jesus the innocent one is to expiate on behalf of the guilty (Mark 14:24; Isaiah 53:5). His baptism is to be his crucifixion and death for the salvation of the human race. The request of James and John for a share in the glory (Mark 10:35-37) must of necessity involve a share in Jesus’ sufferings, the endurance of tribulation and suffering for the gospel (Mark 10:39). The authority of assigning places of honor in the kingdom is reserved to God (Mark 10:40).

Whatever authority is to be exercised by the disciples must, like that of Jesus, be transformed into service to others (Mark 10:45) rather than for personal aggrandizement (Mark 10:42-44). The service of Jesus is his passion and death for the sins of the human race (Mark 10:45).

Today’s Gospel passage concludes with one of the most important Gospel sayings that indicates Jesus’ messianic mission: “For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Jesus did not come into the world seeking personal gain, privilege or prestige. Rather, he came for service, and this entailed giving his life up as a ransom.

The Old Testament never explained how God could “pay a price” for his people. Only in the passion, suffering and death of his only Son does the price become clear. We become capable of salvation only by offering our flesh and blood.

All of the sinfulness and evil in the world around us must be borne on our shoulders and in our own flesh. In this way, we share the pain in our own flesh and bones, making it part of our very selves just as Jesus did. For as St. Paul tells us in his second letter to the Corinthian community: “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Cor. 5:21).

Difficult times

As priestly shepherds, we are given a share in arduous and awesome duties in difficult and trying times. We are ordained to gather God’s people, to boldly proclaim the Word of the Lord, to baptize, to celebrate the breaking of the Bread, and to constantly give thanks to God for so many gifts.

We are also commissioned to assist those in need and to rouse generosity to the poor. Our ordained ministry demands that we lead by wholehearted example.

Nevertheless we remain unworthy servants, yet sent to do the work of Christ. Who of us can ever be worthy of such a great calling? As human beings, we priests can err, but the priestly gestures we carry out at the altar or in the confessional, are not invalid or ineffective because of our weakness and sinfulness.

God’s people and ours are not deprived of divine grace because of our own unworthiness. After all it is Christ who baptizes, celebrates, reconciles and forgives; the priest is only the instrument.

Only if we are servant shepherds who suffer will people be stung by Jesus’ call to tend one another, and to wash the feet of the world. Only if we allow our own hearts to be broken over and over again, in joyful service of God’s people, will we be effective priests and good shepherds to the Lord’s people.

It is this broken, wounded heart that lies at the heart of authentic ministry and shepherding today in the Church. Not a heart broken in a state of despair, but one opened in loving embrace to the world […] a broken heart that leads to ultimate joy because we have given it all to God and made place for the entire world in our own hearts.

Jesus is the perfect priest who burns, spends and consumes himself gladly for his brothers and sisters; one who lays down his life for others. The suffering servant of the Lord lives in union, communion and sympathy with the entire human family. Just as the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many, so must it be for us.

Above and beyond eloquent words in homilies and written texts, we must know Christ and love him. Our friendship with him will be contagious to our contemporaries, and others might recognize the Lord’s nobility, beauty and greatness though our faces, our smiles, our hands, our feet, our heart and our weaknesses. We cannot forget that people will fall in the love with the Lord in spite of us, and hopefully because of us.

[The readings for the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time are: Isaiah 53:10-11; Hebrew 4:14-16; and Mark 10:35-45 or 10:42-45]

(Image: “The Last Supper” by Valentin de Boulogne)

How to Inherit Eternal Life

Jesus and the Rich Young Man cropped

Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B – October 11, 2015

Mark’s Gospel story of Jesus’ encounter with the man seeking eternal life is essentially a vocation story (Mark 10:17-30). It is the only story in Mark in which the individual called responds not by following, but by going away.

The story is narrated in all three Synoptic Gospel accounts. Matthew (19:16-22) tells us that the man was young; only Luke (18:18-23) tells us he was ruler. The three evangelists agree that the man was rich, and in Mark, this is the only description given. The rich man’s concern is to “inherit eternal life.”

Let us consider several aspects of Mark’s account of the Gospel episode. First of all, Jesus repudiates the term “good” for himself and directs it to God, the source of all goodness, who alone can grant the gift of eternal life.

Is Jesus’ directive to this man with many possessions a requirement for all who wish to inherit eternal life? Is it true that Jesus did not ask other disciples to sell their possessions (1 Tim 6:17-19)? Wasn’t Peter able to keep his house and boat for a short period of time (Mark 1:29; John 21:3)? Didn’t the women of Galilee continue to have access to their personal, material resources (Mark 15:41), just as Joseph of Arimathea did (15:43)?

It seems that in the case of this man with many possessions in Mark’s story, Jesus issued a very personal invitation for very specific reasons. Why does this young man find the teaching of Jesus so difficult to accept? In the Old Testament, wealth and material goods are considered a sign of God’s favor (Job 1:10; Psalm 128:1-2; Isaiah 3:10).

Religious Jews believed that wealth was a sign of God’s blessing. Rich people were regarded as those God had blessed, and poor people were regarded as those God had cursed.

Power of possessions

The words of Jesus in Mark 10:23-25 provoke astonishment among the disciples because of their apparent contradiction with the Old Testament concept (Mark 10:24.26). Since wealth, power, and merit generate false security, Jesus rejects them utterly as a claim to enter the kingdom. The negative outcome of the man’s choice to walk away strikes a note of realism.

It also attests the special power of possessions to hinder Christian discipleship. Jesus uses the rich man’s departure as a teaching moment to instruct his disciples about the dangerous snare that earthly possessions, success and prosperity can have. Total detachment from one’s possessions is required of every authentic disciple. Jesus saw the danger of material possessions. They can fix our heart to the world and make us think of everything in terms of price rather than value.

Jesus was trying to completely overturn what the apostles and all other good Jews had been taught. But his teaching on wealth and richness was incomprehensible to the listeners. When Jesus said, “how hard it would be for rich people to enter the Kingdom of God” the Gospel says, “They, the disciples, were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, ‘Then who can be saved?'” (v.26).

Anyone of us would naturally ask the same question! Jesus reminded them that salvation is purely a gift from God. Grace is God’s gift and only those whose arms and hands are empty of self can stretch out to receive the gift of grace. The achievement of salvation is beyond human capability and depends solely on the goodness of God who offers it as a gift (Mark 10:27).

A Christian contradiction

In many societies, wealth is a sign of God’s approval, and poverty and hardship are the signs of God’s disapproval. Every Christian is challenged by the teaching of Jesus and the values of the society, which upholds the principle that worth really does come from material wealth; for example from the number of cars we own, the size of our homes, the amount in our investment portfolios.

When capitalist systems are solely market-driven, heartless, and materialistic, they contradict the Gospel teachings of Jesus. The Gospel of Jesus challenges the “prosperity gospel mentality.” Jesus is not speaking against material wealth, but condemns being enslaved to and enchained by wealth. It becomes a blessing when it is shared with others, and it becomes an obstacle and a prison for those who do not have the wisdom to share it with others.

As Jesus looked at the rich young man, he looks at each one of us with love. He is reminding us to do “one thing more.” We have to allow his loving gaze penetrate us to the core, and unlike the young man we must open ourselves to transform our lives, upset our values and rearrange our priorities.

When, considering his language too demanding, many of his disciples left him, Jesus asked the few who had remained: “Will you also go away?”

Peter answered him: “Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:67-68).

And they chose to remain with him. They stayed because the Master had “the words of eternal life,” words that promised eternity and also gave full meaning to life here and now.

Wisdom and happiness

King Solomon, as seen in the first reading (Wisdom 7:7-11), realized that only true wisdom could bring happiness. He prayed for it and it alone, rather than power, riches, health or good looks. God gave him everything.

For us, wisdom has become a person and his name is Jesus. Wisdom was born in a manger and died on a cross, and in between said that our only shot at ever being filled up is if we follow him in the life of self-emptying love.

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!”

He does not say simply, “Do what I say.” He says, “Come, follow me!”

In the end, Jesus looks intently and lovingly at each one of us and reminds us that life is to be had in its fullness not by accumulating things, honors, privileges, reputations, and prestige, but by letting go of things.

Initially, his invitation might surprise, upset, shock, and grieve us. With God’s grace, may we realize Jesus’ word is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart (Hebrews 4:12-13). Hopefully, we will not go away sad.

Ordinary life

Following today’s Gospel, I encourage you to consider three important teachings of our Catholic tradition, from the Catechism of the Catholic Church and Benedict XVI’s last encyclical, “Caritas in Veritate.”

1) The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches (2404-2405) that our material goods are entrusted to us by God not for our own personal advantage but for the privilege of using them for the good of others. “The ownership of any property makes its holder a steward of Providence, with the task of making it fruitful and communicating its benefits to others, first of all his family. Goods of production — material or immaterial — such as land, factories, practical or artistic skills, oblige their possessors to employ them in ways that will benefit the greatest number. Those who hold goods for use and consumption should use them with moderation, reserving the better part for guests, for the sick and the poor.”

2) “The second truth is that … authentic human development concerns the whole of the person in every single dimension. Without the perspective of eternal life, human progress in this world is denied breathing space. Enclosed within history, it runs the risk of being reduced to the mere accumulation of wealth; humanity thus loses the courage to be at the service of higher goods, at the service of the great and disinterested initiatives called forth by universal charity.

“Man does not develop through his own powers, nor can development simply be handed to him. In the course of history, it was often maintained that the creation of institutions was sufficient to guarantee the fulfillment of humanity’s right to development” (No. 11 Caritas in Veritate).

3) “While the poor of the world continue knocking on the doors of the rich, the world of affluence runs the risk of no longer hearing those knocks, on account of a conscience that can no longer distinguish what is human. God reveals man to himself; reason and faith work hand in hand to demonstrate to us what is good, provided we want to see it; the natural law, in which creative Reason shines forth, reveals our greatness, but also our wretchedness insofar as we fail to recognize the call to moral truth.” (No. 75 Caritas in Veritate).

[The readings for the 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time are: Wisdom 7:7-11; Hebrew 4:12-13; and Mark 10:17-30 or 10:17-27]

(Image: Jesus and the Rich Young Man by Heinrich Hofmann)

Marriage and the Family: Humanity’s Future

Holy Family cropped

Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B – October 4, 2015

Rather than commenting in detail on each of the readings for the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B), I would like to offer some general reflections on marriage and family life that flow from today’s readings. In today’s Gospel (Mark 10:2-16) the Pharisees once again confront Jesus with the divisive issue of divorce and its legitimacy: “Is it lawful for a husband to divorce his wife?”

“What did Moses command you?” Jesus asked. They replied that Moses permitted a husband to write a bill of divorce and dismiss the wife. Jesus declares that the law of Moses permitted divorce (Deuteronomy 24:1) only because of the hardness of hearts (Mark 10:4-5). In citing Genesis 1:27 and 2:24, Jesus proclaims permanence to be the divine intent from the beginning concerning human marriage (Mark 10:6-8). He reaffirms this with the declaration that what God has joined together, no human being must separate (verse 9).

Jesus wisely and prudently responds to the loaded question by appealing to God’s plan of complete unity and equality in drawing men and women together in marriage. He affirms that husband and wife are united so intimately that they actually become one and indivisible. In answering a direct question that was deliberately designed to entrap him, Jesus was speaking of the nature of marriage and of that only. His emphasis is on its holiness and covenant fidelity and not on the illegitimacy of divorce. The goal of marriage is not divorce and annulment!

Divorce, annulment and remarriage

Jesus did not condemn people who did their best and ended up divorced. He was not judging such people, throwing them out of the community of the Church, or assigning them places in hell. He was only affirming the outlook taken by couples themselves when they stand before the Church’s minister and pronounce their wedding vows.

Today Catholic annulments look to many like a simple Catholic divorce. Divorce says that the reality of marriage was there in the beginning and that now the reality is broken. Annulment is a declaration that the reality was never there. The Church declares many marriages invalid because of some impediment present at the time of the marriage.

Over the years of my pastoral ministry, I have met many divorced people who feel very alienated from the Church. For many, divorce was the last thing they ever dreamed of or wanted. In many instances, it hit them unexpectedly, forcefully and tragically. No one I met ever told me that they looked forward to a divorce. They simply didn’t see any other alternative.

Some divorced men and women have erroneously been told by well-meaning people that they are excommunicated from the Catholic Church, which is certainly not true. Their pain is often enormous; their need for understanding and acceptance is great. They need unambiguous Catholic teaching to enlighten them and lead them to Christ. They need friends, people to pray for and with them, and they need God in their lives in the midst of rupture and brokenness. They deserve our understanding and our prayerful care.

A positive teaching on annulments should be offered in every parish community. Though it may be a tedious and painful process for some people, an annulment can be an instrument of grace, healing, closure, and peace of mind and heart.

The future of humanity passes through marriage and the family

In the papal encyclicals from “Humanae Vitae” (1968) to “Evangelium Vitae” (1995) and especially the apostolic exhortation “Familiaris Consortio” (1981) and the magnificent “Letter to Families” (1994), Popes Paul VI and John Paul II have dedicated much attention to marriage and the family in today’s culture. From the first year of his pontificate, John Paul II constantly emphasized: “the family is the way of the Church.” The family is a school of communion, based on the values of the Gospel.

In 2008, on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the encyclical “Humanae Vitae,” the bishops of Canada released a very important document in which they wrote (#19):

“In short, Pope Paul Vl’s encyclical ‘Humanae Vitae’ and the subsequent ‘theology of the body’ developed by Pope John Paul II issue an immense challenge to a world that is too often occupied with protecting itself against the extraordinary life potential of sexuality. In the wake of these two prophetic Popes, the Church, ‘expert in humanity,’ issues an unexpected message: Sexuality is a friend, a gift of God. It is revealed to us by the Trinitarian God who asks us to reveal it in turn in all its grandeur and dignity to our contemporaries at this start of the third millennium. The theology of the body has been compared to a revolution that would have positive effects throughout the 21st century of Christianity. We invite the faithful to be the first to experience its liberating potential.”

Signs of hope for marriage, family life and vocations

To accept Jesus’ teaching on marriage requires the openness of children and a sense of dependence on God’s strength matching the child’s sense of dependence on parents. When love is authentic, strong, sincere and firm, it is accompanied by vision, joy and creativity, new life and a desire for holiness. When married couples allow Christ to be at the center of their project, they experience deeply the peace outpoured by God — a peace that flows forth to their children and grandchildren.

The crisis of vocations in the Western world requires that we rethink not only our manner of promoting vocations, but the terrain where seeds of vocations are sown. This fertile soil for vocations is the family, the domestic Church. This reality is brought about by the presence of Christ in the home, from the graces of the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, and from fidelity to the Gospel and the teachings of the Church.

There are some voices in our society and Church that don’t have much hope for the sacrament of marriage and for family life. I beg to differ with such voices of doom and despair. Each of us is responsible for fostering a true culture of marriage and family life as well as a culture of vocations to the priesthood and religious or consecrated life.

In recent years, I have witnessed some very hopeful signs for marriage and family life among young adults in various parts of the world. Several years ago I had the privilege of leading two retreats for university students — one for the John Paul II Catholic Chaplaincy of Sheffield’s Hallam University in England and the other for the Catholic Students’ Association of Victoria University in British Colombia in Canada.

The wise, ecclesial leadership of university chaplains — Sister Anne Lee, NDS in Hallam and Father Dean Henderson in Victoria — gathered together some remarkable young adults from many countries of the world. They are the young men and women of the generations of John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis, freed from the ideological strangleholds and liberated from the barren, spiritual wastelands of my generation. Their eyes are fixed on Christ and they love the Church with all of her shadows and light.

I never had more open conversations about marriage and family life than I did with those students in Hallam and Victoria these past months. Many spoke openly about their parents who were divorced and alienated or simply absent from the Church. The students said that they learned from the mistakes and losses of their parents, and wanted to pursue the path of a holy marriage and family life. They desire to have Christ, the sacramental life, and the teachings of the Church at the center of their lives.

I have also been very moved and edified by the young men and women who form the staff of the Salt and Light Television Network in Canada. Their simple and clear faith, deep joy, sterling commitment, visible love of Christ and the Church and ardent desire for evangelization is inspiring. Over the past thirteen years, I have been privileged to witness the religious professions and ordinations of several Salt and Light colleagues, and to celebrate seven marriages of my staff — several who worked with me in preparing World Youth Day 2002. And now we are into the season of baptisms! It is from this generation of children that will come forth vocations for the Church. How could there not be vocations when the terrain was so fertile and the parents so open to the Gospel and to the Church?

For reflection, discussion and prayer

We must never forget that other bonds of love and interdependency, of commitment and mutual responsibility exist in society. They may be good; they may even be recognized in law. They are clearly not the same as marriage; they are something else. No extension of terminology for legal purposes will change the observable reality that only the committed union of a man and a woman carries, not only the bond of interdependency between the two adults, but the capacity to bring forth children.

This week, let us recommit ourselves to building up the human family, to strengthening marriage, to blessing and nurturing children, and to making our homes, families and parish communities holy, welcoming places for women and men of every race, language, orientation and way of life.

In our pastoral strategies, programs and preaching, how do we welcome the sanctifying role of Jesus Christ in the marriage of a man and woman? Are we ready to offer Jesus’ teaching on marriage with the openness to children? What are some of the weaknesses and painful situations that afflict marriages today? Can these marriages be saved and the brokenness in the husband-wife relationships be healed? What is the role of faith in all of this?

Let us pray today for married people, that they may grow in this awareness of the sacramentality of marriage and its capacity to reflect the love of God to our world. Let us continue to help one another to bear the blessings, burdens and crosses that the Lord has given to us. And let us never forget those who have loved and lost, and those who have suffered the pain of separation, divorce and alienation. May they find healing in the community of the Church, and welcome from those whose marriages have borne much fruit.

(Image: Holy Trinity and Holy Family by Murillo)

The Importance of Self-criticism and Humility

Jesus Child cropped

Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B – September 27, 2015

The biblical prophet is one who has received a divine call to be a messenger and interpreter of the Word of God. The word that comes to the prophet compels him to speak.

Amos asks: “The Lord has spoken, who can but prophesy?” (Amos 3:8). Jeremiah, despondent because of his unrelieved message of woe to the people he loved would stifle the word: “If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,’ there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, I cannot” (Jeremiah 20:9). Whatever the form of the message, the true Israelite prophet’s vision of God has permeated the manner of his thoughts so that he sees things from God’s point of view and is convinced that he so sees them. Fundamental to the mission of the prophet is obedience to God’s Word.

Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets!

In today’s first reading from Numbers (11:25-29), God sent the spirit of prophecy upon others who took Moses by surprise. Moses had earlier complained to God that he could not provide for Israel in the desert all by himself. To alleviate the situation, God promised to confer Moses’ prophetic spirit on 70 elders. Even though Eldad and Medad were not present in the camp when God conferred Moses’ spirit, they still received the gift and began to prophesy.

When Moses’ aide, Joshua, wished to squelch the so-called rebellion against authority, Moses replies: “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” (Numbers 11:29). Moses is pleased that the spirit of prophecy is shared with those not immediately present in the first commissioning of the elders. Joshua is upbraided for his jealousy. Spiritual authority can lead to serious abuses. It must be handled carefully, humbly and justly. The lesson is that God’s ability to share the spirit is not restricted. God is the measure.

The present worthlessness of wealth

The severe denunciation of the unjust rich in today’s second reading from the Letter of James (5:1-6) is reminiscent of the Old Testament prophets (e.g., Amos 8:4-8). It is not intended to influence the rich to whom it is rhetorically addressed, but is rather a salutary warning to the faithful of the terrible fate of those who abuse riches and perhaps also a consolation to those now oppressed by the rich (James 2:5-7). The identical mode of introduction in 5:1-6 and 4:13-17 and the use of direct address throughout indicate the parallelism of the two sections. However, the present passage is harsher in tone and does not seem to allow the chance for repentance. In 5:2-3, the perfect tense of the verbs used (rotted, moth-eaten, rusted) probably indicate the present worthlessness of wealth. Furthermore, although silver and gold do not actually rust (verse 3), the expression used for them indicates their basic worthlessness.

This reading from James does not parallel the other two readings, especially in the matter of spiritual gifts manifesting themselves outside the immediate circle of Jesus’ disciples. Nevertheless it offers hard words against the wealthy who abused their workers and withheld wages and insight into abuse of power. James is speaking explicitly of the secular realm of employment, salaries and just recompense for work. The author of James maintains that the rich have mistreated their employees. Since they withheld the wages that were due, their silver and gold will corrode and their garments will fall prey to ravaging moths. The wealthy have not realized that God is the God of the poor, and intercedes on their behalf.

Problems in Mark’s Church community

Today’s Gospel passage (Mark 9:38-43, 45, 47-48) is rather loosely put together and seems to reflect the problems of Mark’s Church community. First there is the exchange between John and Jesus about the foreign exorcist (9:38), followed by Jesus’ rejection of the elitism of the disciples (verses 39-40). In the second part (verse 41), anyone who gives the disciple a drink will belong to Christ; in the third part (verse 42), Jesus holds up the little ones as totally dependent on God, whom no one may lead astray.

There is a certain irony about Jesus’ explanation of the disciples’ action in trying to stop the foreign exorcist. In 9:14-29, the disciples, themselves, fail to exorcise an unclean spirit from a young boy and are sharply rebuked by Jesus. Now they want to restrain a successful exorcist simply because he is not part of their own group. The issue is clearly not whether the exorcist is acting in the name and power of Jesus, but whether he is part of their own chosen establishment. The exclusivist attitudes of the disciples are exposed for all to see. The success of the foreign exorcist is a threat to the status of the “official” disciples! Jesus answers with an inclusive word, and yet one that realistically recognizes the problem of unauthorized ministries (9:39). The disciples need to nurture the gifts of generosity and graciousness.

The need for self-criticism

In the second half of the passage, we find a miscellaneous collection of sayings that call for a stance of self-criticism. The disciples are directed to reflect on their own style of life and ministry. Do any of their words or actions serve as stumbling blocks for the children of the Church? Mark uses words of Jesus against scandal and the misuse of one’s hands, eyes and feet. Jesus does not mandate mutilation. He has a typically Semitic way of speaking — graphic, vivid, even exaggerated. Nothing, no one comes before Christ. Jesus’ command to “cut it off” is not mutilation, but rather an invitation to liberation. It liberates us to love without reservation, not trapped in the self-love where everything and perhaps everyone, even God, himself, must revolve around me. The fascinating paradox of this story is this: The more we focus on the God who lives in us, on the people God cherishes in a special way because they are more needy, and on the earth that God saw as being “very good” (Genesis 1:31), the richer will be our delight in ourselves. Human life is a matter of relationships: with God, with people, with earth.

Despite its disjointedness, today’s Gospel passage provides a strong antidote to the ever-present temptation to overestimate one’s own position as the chosen of God. Human nature tends to be judgmental. Sometimes our inclination to judge results in elitism, concluding that others are not worthy of our company. We make difficulties, not thinking of others but blindly plunging ahead with feet, hands and eyes. We ignore God’s consecration of our hands to work, of our eyes to perceive, and of our feet to walk God’s special ways. We reject others as outsiders, foreign to our own ranks and status in life. Instead of questioning the validity of other active, and perhaps successful groups, we are reminded in graphic fashion of the importance of self-criticism and humility.

A final thought on humility

Jesus said, “Learn of me, because I am meek, and humble of heart: and you shall find rest to your souls” (Matthew 11:29). Most of the saints prayed for and manifested humility in their lives. Many of us live in societies and cultures that value self-promotion of worth, assertiveness, competitiveness, communicating our accomplishments if we wish to get anywhere and make a difference.

The virtue of humility is a quality by which a person considering his or her own defects has a lowly opinion of himself and willingly submits himself or herself to God and to others for God’s sake. How can we strike a balance between being humble and meek, and assertive enough to succeed in the world today? Or do we need to sacrifice one for the other? In living just and upright lives, we can do a good job as a humble leader, but that is different from been able to succeed and being placed in greater positions of responsibility.

Mother Cabrini’s humility

When I was growing up in an Italian-American household, we often heard stories of the saints and blesseds from my grandparents and parents. Two Italians, of course, were at the top of the list: Mother Cabrini and Padre Pio. St. Frances Xavier Cabrini (1850 – 1917) was the first American citizen to be canonized by the Church. As a child, Mother Cabrini’s prayer for humility was given to us and I have kept it ever since in my Bible. The life of Mother Cabrini and the words of this prayer embody many of the thoughts found in today’s Scripture readings.

“Lord Jesus Christ, I pray that you may fortify me with the grace of your Holy Spirit, and give your peace to my soul, that I may be free from all needless anxiety and worry. Help me to desire always that which is pleasing and acceptable to you, so that your will may be my will.

“Grant that I may be free from unholy desires, and that, for your love, I may remain obscure and unknown in this world, to be known only to you.

“Do not permit me to attribute to myself the good that you perform in me and through me, but rather, referring all honor to you, may I admit only to my infirmities, so that renouncing sincerely all vainglory which comes from the world, I may aspire to that true and lasting glory that comes from you. Amen.”

(The readings for the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time are: Numbers 11:25-29; James 5:1-6; Mark 9:38-43, 45, 47-48)