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Set Free the Gifts of the Spirit

Pentecost Restout cropped

Solemnity of Pentecost, Year B – Sunday, May 24, 2015

Christian theology of the Holy Spirit is rooted in Judaism. The term Spirit translates the Hebrew word (ruah) and even in the pronunciation of it we detect God’s wind and breath. The wind of God, the breath of God, the presence of God are all ways of referring to God’s presence.

The expression “Holy Spirit” was used only seven times in the Old Testament, whereas the terms “Spirit of God” or “Spirit of the Lord” occurs 67 times in the Hebrew Scriptures. In the very first line of the book of Genesis 1:1, God’s Spirit was gently hovering over the primordial waters waiting for the opportune moment of drawing order from that chaos.

Jesus, himself, uses the sensory image of the wind in the mysterious, nocturnal conversation with Nicodemus when he talks about the Spirit as the wind that blows where it wills [cf. John 3]. This, then, is the Spirit’s first function in the Scriptures: to be the mysterious presence of God in history, not reducible to human or earthly logic.

The second function of the Spirit in the Old Testament is that of putting things in order. The Genesis creation account [Chapter 1] reveals a descending Spirit upon this formless world and its descent produces the miracle of creation, the transformation of chaos into cosmos, of disorder, into order, of anonymity into community.

The third function of the Spirit in the Old Testament is life-giver. In Genesis 2:7, we read: “The Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the Spirit, the breath of life and man became a living being. As a result of this divine breath, the human creature is transformed into a living being, no longer to be simply a creature but a partner made in the image and likeness of God, with whom and to whom God speaks and confides responsibility for the world.”

The fourth function of the Holy Spirit is guide. We read in Isaiah 11: “The Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord.” The fear of the Lord is not something that terrorizes people but could be understood as our ability to say “wow,” “awesome” before God’s handiwork and God’s creation.

The fifth function of the Spirit is healer, articulated so powerfully in the prophecy of Ezekiel 36:26-27 — “I will give you a new heart and place a new spirit within you, I will put my spirit within you and make you live by my statutes, careful to observe my decrees.” The Spirit enters, recreates, restores to health and vanquishes sin.

The sixth function of the Holy Spirit is the universal principle. We read in Joel 3:1-2: “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh, your sons and your daughters shall prophecy, even upon the men-servants and the maid-servants, in those days I will pour out my spirit.” The day will come when all humanity will be truly possessed by the spirit and that day will coincide with the eagerly awaited Messianic age of which the prophets speak. It was this principle that captivated Jesus’activity and ministry in a remarkable way.

The seventh function of the Holy Spirit takes place on the feast of Pentecost when the disciples were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. The coming of the Holy Spirit signals the start of a world-wide mission for Christians beyond their geographic boundaries of Israel, first from Israel to Rome, and then from Rome then to the ends of the earth. It is a mission that overcomes human obstacles and has the Spirit as its driving force.

The Catholic Experience

The Holy Spirit makes the Christian experience truly Catholic and universal, open to all human experience. To be Catholic is to be universal and open to the world. Not only to Canada, North America Europe or Asia, or a certain familiar part of the world or segment of society, but it must be open to all, to every single person. The mind of Christ is not intended to be a selective mentality for a few but the perspective from which the whole world will be renewed and redeemed. An insight like this, the universal scope of salvation did not however come easily and without much pain and confusion.

In fact, the whole of the New Testament can be understood precisely as the emergence of the Catholic, the universal, in Christian life. Christianity, had it not moved from where it was particular and small would have just been a small modification of the Jewish experience, a subset of Jewish piety that was still focused in and around Jerusalem and the restoration of a literal kingdom of Israel. The first two generations of Christians discovered that Christianity could not be just that. Because they had received the Holy Spirit, which is the universal principle, the Holy Spirit opened peoples’ eyes to the universal import of the Christian truth and through the encounter with non-Jews who received the Holy Spirit.

The artists of the Middle Ages often contrasted the Tower of Babel with the “Tower” of the Upper Room. Babel symbolizes the divisions of people caused by sin. Pentecost stands for a hope that such separations are not a tragic necessity. The babbling mob of Babel compares poorly with the heartfelt unity of the Pentecost crowd. Babel was a mob. Pentecost was a community. A people without God lost the ability to communicate. A people suffused with the Spirit spoke heart to heart.

At Pentecost the full meaning of Jesus’life and message is poured into our hearts by the Spirit alive in the community. The New Testament seems to say that – for a fleeting moment – the nations of the earth paused from their customary strife and experienced a community caused by God. The brief and shining hour of Pentecost remains to charm and encourage us to this day.

World Youth Day

One of the finest teachings on the Holy Spirit in recent times took place during the prayer vigil at World Youth Day 2008 in Sydney, Australia. The Saturday evening event at the Randwick Racecourse began in darkness, gradually illuminated by torches borne by dancers on the podium, representing the opening to the Holy Spirit.

“Tonight we focus our attention on how to become witnesses,” Benedict XVI told the young people in his address. “You are already well aware that our Christian witness is offered to a world which in many ways is fragile. The unity of God’s creation is weakened by wounds that run particularly deep when social relations break apart, or when the human spirit is all but crushed through the exploitation and abuse of persons. Indeed, society today is being fragmented by a way of thinking that is inherently shortsighted, because it disregards the full horizon of truth, the truth about God and about us. By its nature, relativism fails to see the whole picture. It ignores the very principles which enable us to live and flourish in unity, order and harmony.”

Yet, the Pope went on, “such attempts to construct unity in fact undermine it. To separate the Holy Spirit from Christ present in the Church’s institutional structure would compromise the unity of the Christian community, which is precisely the Spirit’s gift! […] Unfortunately the temptation to ‘go it alone’ persists. Some today portray their local community as somehow separate from the so-called institutional Church, by speaking of the former as flexible and open to the Spirit and the latter as rigid and devoid of the Spirit.”

“Let us invoke the Holy Spirit: He is the artisan of God’s works,” the Pope concluded. “Let His gifts shape you! Just as the Church travels the same journey with all humanity, so too you are called to exercise the Spirit’s gifts amidst the ups and downs of your daily life. Let your faith mature through your studies, work, sport, music and art. Let it be sustained by prayer and nurtured by the Sacraments. […] In the end, life is not about accumulation. It is much more than success. To be truly alive is to be transformed from within, open to the energy of God’s love. In accepting the power of the Holy Spirit you too can transform your families, communities and nations. Set free the gifts! Let wisdom, courage, awe and reverence be the marks of greatness!”

Come Holy Spirit!

We read in the gospels “the one whom the Father will send will teach us everything and remind us of all that Jesus has said to us” [John 14:26]. This act of reminding and recalling is stated very clearly in the Catechism of The Catholic Church [No. 1099]: “The Holy Spirit is the Church’s living memory.”  On this great feast and birth of the Church, let us pray for the gift of memory, and for the courage to move from the empowering mystery of the Upper Room to the reality of daily life.

Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful
And kindle in us the fire of your Love!

Lord, send us your Spirit,
And renew the face of the earth…
The face of our Church, the face of our communities,
Our own faces, our own hearts. Amen.

[The readings for the solemnity of Pentecost are: Acts 2:1-11; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-7, 12-13 or Galatians 5:16-25; and John 20:19-23 or John 15:26-27; 16:12-15]

(Image: “Pentecost” by Jean Restout)

Goodness and Friendship Through the Ages

Last Supper Champaigne cropped

Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year B – May 10, 2015

On this Sixth Sunday of Easter, I wish to offer some reflections on the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles [10:25-26, 34-35, 44-48], and then some thoughts on friendship flowing from John’s Gospel [15:9-17] and Benedict XVI’s teaching.

Christianity demands that the believer not only grasp intellectually the main tenets of the faith, but also act on them in daily life. The extraordinary story of Cornelius’ conversion in today’s first reading certainly illustrates this message. It is the longest individual narrative in the Acts of the Apostles. The theme of this narrative is divine compulsion: Peter is the least prepared to accept Cornelius into the Christian community, and he even refuses to admit him two times.

Peter had to be converted before he could convert Cornelius. Peter came to the realization that God’s gifts were given to all those who listened to the Word of God. His question “Can anyone forbid water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” [10:47] echoes the Ethiopian’s question and Philip’s response in the earlier story: “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” [8:36].

Peter and CorneliusPeter’s actions with Cornelius had far-reaching implications. Struck at once with the exceptional sincerity, hospitality and deep goodness of Cornelius and his household, Peter spontaneously exclaimed: “God has made it clear to me that no one should call anyone unclean or impure. God shows no partiality.”

That statement broke centuries of customs, and even of theology, that Israel alone was God’ s chosen people, separated from all other nations as God’ s very own [cf. Deuteronomy 7:6-8; Exodus 19:5-6]. Peter had no choice but to baptize the household of Cornelius and he was criticized for his ‘ecumenical’ approach, but responded to his critics: “Who am I that I could withstand God?” [11:17]. When his critics heard these words, they were silenced and began to glorify God [11:18].

Paul, too, found the same spontaneous manifestation of the faith among the gentiles, and so made the exciting declaration: “We now turn to the Gentiles!” The controversy over the law was to linger for a long time, so that Paul dedicated to this topic his most comprehensive theological work: the Letter to the Romans.

I call you friends

In today’s Gospel text from St. John [15:15], we hear the powerful words: “No longer do I call you servants … but I have called you friends.” We are not useless servants but friends! The Lord calls us friends; he makes us his friends; he gives us his friendship.

Jesus defines friendship in two ways. There are no secrets between friends: Christ tells us everything he hears from the Father; he gives us his full confidence and, with confidence, also knowledge. He reveals his face to us, his heart. He shows his tenderness for us, his passionate love that goes to the folly of the cross.

If we were to name one of the most frequent and important themes of Benedict XVI’s teaching and preaching over the past four years, it would certainly be his invitation to be a friend of Jesus. He sounded this theme clearly during the Mass “for the election of the Roman Pontiff” in St. Peter’s Basilica, before the conclave. “Adult and mature is a faith profoundly rooted in friendship with Christ. This friendship opens us to all that is good and gives us the measure to discern between what is true and what is false, between deceit and truth,” he said.

I remember how moved I was as I listened to the Holy Father’s homily at the beginning of the Petrine Ministry of the Bishop of Rome on April 24, 2005. Three times during that memorable homily, Benedict XVI spoke of the importance of “friendship” with Jesus:

“The Church as a whole and all her pastors, like Christ, must set out to lead people out of the desert, towards the place of life, toward friendship with the Son of God, toward the One who gives us life, and life in abundance. […]

“There is nothing more beautiful than to know him and to speak to others of our friendship with him. […]

“Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation.”

Eight months later, in his Angelus address of Jan. 15, 2006, Benedict XVI said:

“Friendship with the Teacher guarantees profound peace and serenity to the soul, even in the dark moments and in the most arduous trials. When faith meets with dark nights, in which the presence of God is no longer ‘felt’ or ‘seen,’ friendship with Jesus guarantees that in reality nothing can ever separate us from his love” (cf. Rom 8: 39).

Again on Aug. 26, 2007, the theme of friendship was front and center:

“True friendship with Jesus is expressed in the way of life: It is expressed with goodness of heart, with humility, meekness and mercy, love for justice and truth, a sincere and honest commitment to peace and reconciliation.”

We might say that this is the “identity card” that qualifies us as his real “friends”; this is the “passport” that will give us access to eternal life. How do we understand the tremendous gift of friendship in our lives?

Matter of the heart

For many years, I have looked to the life and writings of Cardinal John Henry Newman [1801-1890] as a brilliant model of friendship. Newman truly speaks heart-to-heart — “cor ad cor loquitur” — a phrase that he chose as his personal motto. There was nothing superficial about Newman’s way of relating to so many different people. He looked at them and loved them for who they were.

The beloved English Cardinal had a great appreciation for the nobility of human virtues as evidenced in the literature and history of ancient Rome and Greece. At the same time the saints that he most admired — St. Paul, the ancient Church Fathers, his spiritual father St. Philip Neri, and St. Francis De Sales — could all be described as humanly attractive

Newman had an extraordinary capacity and gift for friendship, which often translated into leadership. No one could describe Cardinal Newman as extroverted or light-hearted. We need only to glance at the many volumes of his letters and diaries, or look at the index of names in his autobiographical works, to see that he shared deep friendships with hundreds of people throughout his life. This personal influence has been exerted very powerfully upon millions of people who have read his works and discovered what friendship really means.

Authenticity

I could not write about friendship without passing along a warning to countless women and men who search for it every day. The great popularity of online social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook merits careful attention, reflection and scrutiny. It has been said that if Facebook were a country, it would be the eighth most populated nation worldwide!

We must carefully ask several questions: What is it doing for us?

These tools help to bring people together and improve social networks. For example, homebound, infirm, chronically ill and elderly people can connect with a community of others in the same situation and new bonds of solidarity are born.

But there are also related questions: What is it doing to us? What is it doing to our sense of social boundaries? To our sense of individuality? To our friendships?

Friendship in these virtual spaces is quite different from real time friendship. Friendship is a relationship that involves the sharing of mutual interests, reciprocity, trust, and the revelation of intimate details over time and within specific contexts. True friendship depends on mutual revelations, and can only flourish within the boundaries of privacy and modesty.

On social networking sites, however, there is a concept of public friendship which is not the friendship spoken of by Jesus in the Gospel, nor Benedict XVI in his wonderful writings, nor Cardinal Newman in his letters. The distance and abstraction of our online friendships and online relationships can lead to a kind of systemic desensitization as a culture if we are not wise, prudent and attentive to these new realities.

We expose everything, but are we feeling anything?

Such friendships, or rather acquaintances, are quite different from the “cor ad cor loquitur” so ardently desired and experienced by Jesus with his disciples, or by an impetuous Peter, a Roman official named Cornelius, a British Cardinal named John Henry and a German Pope named Benedict XVI who have modeled their lives on the Good Shepherd and faithful friend to every human being.

[The readings for this Sunday are: Acts 10:25-26, 34-35, 44-48; 1 John 4:7-10; John 15:9-17.]

(Images: “Last Supper” by Philippe de Champaigne; “Peter baptizing Cornelius” by Francesco Trevisani)

Nicodemus’ Search for the “Soul of Theology”

Jesus and Nicodemus cropped

Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year B – Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Gospel for the Fourth Sunday of Lent (Year B) features a nocturnal conversation between two important religious teachers: on the one hand a notable “teacher of Israel” named Nicodemus, and on the other, Jesus whom this Nicodemus calls a “teacher from God.”

Nicodemus came to Jesus at night. His prominent role and position in the national cabinet called the Sanhedrin made him the custodian of a great tradition. He was expected by many to be a national expert on God!

It is important to provide some background for the Gospel passage for this Sunday. The conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus is one of the most significant dialogues of the New Testament and his coming to Jesus secretly at night suggests the darkness of unbelief. The whole visit and conversation are shrouded in ambiguity and the Johannine penchant for strong contrasts such as darkness and light can be seen in this highly symbolic story.

Jesus speaks to Nicodemus of the need to experience the presence of God and offer oneself to him. Knowing God is much more than a gathering of theological information and data about him. In speaking about being born again from above, Jesus does not mean that one must reenter the mother’s womb for a second time; but Jesus refers to a rebirth, which the Spirit of God makes possible.

Lifted up

In today’s Gospel text, Jesus tells Nicodemus, and all who will hear this story in future generations, that the Son of Man must be lifted up on a pole so that people may gaze upon him and find healing and peace. During Israel’s sojourn in the desert, the people were afflicted by a plague of serpents. Moses raised up a serpent on a stake, and all who gazed upon it were restored to health. Both the bronze serpent and Jesus crucified symbolize human sinfulness. When Jesus is “raised up,” it is not only his suffering on the cross that is intimated. The Greek word used for “raised up” has a double meaning: both a physical lifting up from the ground, as in the crucifixion, or the spiritual lifting up which is an exultation.

What lesson does Nicodemus teach us today? He alerts us to what happens when we buy into a system and try to “master” theology, scripture, tradition, rules and regulations. He teaches us that courses in religion and theology are no substitute for faith and conviction. For Nicodemus, God is much more than information and data — God is first and foremost a friend, a lover, a Lord and a Savior, who patiently waits for us by day, and even by night. Rather than approaching Scripture as something to master, we must allow the Word of God to master us.

We know nothing more about Nicodemus, except that months afterward, he is able to postpone the inevitable clash between Jesus and the Sanhedrin. Later on, Nicodemus assists Joseph of Arimathea in retrieving the broken body of the dead Jesus.

Nicodemus and the synod

I cannot help but read the story of Nicodemus in light of the 2008 Synod of Bishops at the Vatican on the Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church. I had the privilege of serving as the Vatican’s English language media attaché and I can tell you the experience was a rich retreat steeped in Scripture and the documents of the Second Vatican Council.

At the synod, the Holy Father and the bishops of the world addressed the present impasse in Scriptural studies, often caused by the atomization and dissection of the Scriptures, and a lack of integration of biblical studies with faith, the liturgy and lived spirituality. If Biblical texts are read and taught only for their historical and philological accuracy or inaccuracy, we fail to read the Bible as a book of faith that is the privileged possession of a living, breathing, praying community. We run the risk of selectivist and relativist interpretations of God’s Word.

Over the past 18 years of lecturing in Scripture at the Graduate School of Theology of the University of St. Michael’s College in Toronto, Canada, numerous students confided in me that their Scripture courses were “without a soul,” divorced from the reality of the Church and unrelated to her liturgical life. Their simple yet revealing comments pointed toward one of the significant themes evoked during the Synod of Bishops on the Word of God.

On October 14, 2008, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI shared some profound reflections on this very topic. In his brief, crystal-clear address to the whole assembly at the Vatican, the Pope touched upon one of the important themes that emerged in spades during this synod. When Catholic biblical exegesis is divorced from the living, breathing community of faith in the Church, exegesis is reduced to historiography and nothing more. The hermeneutic of faith disappears. We reduce everything to human sources and can simply explain everything away. Ultimately, we deny the One about whom the Scriptures speak, the one whose living presence lies underneath the words.

Referring to “Dei Verbum,” the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, the Pope reaffirmed unequivocally of the importance of the historical-critical method that finds its roots in John 1:14, the Word becoming flesh. Nothing that can help us understand the Biblical text should be excluded as long as the purpose of the different approaches and their limits are kept clear.

All the while the Pope was speaking, the New Testament figure of Nicodemus was on my mind, as well as numerous other personalities who were led by Jesus beyond theories, systems, structures into the encounter with the living Lord who is the Word among us. Nicodemus certainly had an endless amount of knowledge and learning, and he developed a great system of religion in which God is categorized and analyzed. Jesus does not say that this is evil or even undesirable. He simply says that it is not enough.

Every since my years of study at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome, I have carried this little prayer of St. Bonaventure in my pocket. The words are from his “Itinerarium Mentis in Deum” inviting Christians to recognize the inadequacy of “reading without repentance, knowledge without devotion, research without the impulse of wonder, prudence without the ability to surrender to joy, action divorced from religion, learning sundered from love, intelligence without humility, study unsustained by divine grace, thought without the wisdom inspired by God.”

Those words serve as a measure and guide for each of us, as we study theology and the Word of God, and allow the Word to master us. May our knowledge, learning, science and intelligence humbly lead us into an encounter, by day and by night, with Jesus Christ, the ultimate goal of our journey.

[The readings for this Sunday are: 2 Chronicles 36:14-16, 19-23; Ephesians 2:4-10; John 3:14-21. For use with RCIA: 1 Samuel 16:1b, 6-7, 10-13a; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41 or 9:1, 6-9, 13-17, 34-38]

(Image: “Christ and Nicodemus” by Matthias Stomer)

The Decree on Ecumenism: 50 Years Later part 2

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On January 17, 2015, the Archdiocese of Vancouver sponsored a Symposium on Christian Unity, titled Have We Answered the Call?, at St. Francis Xavier Church, in honour of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB, of Salt + Light Catholic Media Foundation, gave the keynote address titled The Decree on Ecumenism: 50 Years Later. In part 2 of his address, Fr. Rosica focuses on identifying problems and raising important questions regarding the ecumenical movement in the Catholic Church.

Part II

Is the ecumenical movement in crisis?
So much has been achieved in joint efforts for Christian unity over the past 50 years. Separated Christians no longer consider one another as strangers, competitors or even enemies, but as brothers and sisters. We have largely removed the former lack of understanding, misunderstanding, prejudice, and indifference; we pray together, together we give witness to our common faith; in many fields we work together. We have experienced that “what unites us is much greater than what divides us.” Such a change was unthinkable at the turn of the twentieth century and those who wish to go back to those times seriously risk being forsaken not only by a good, warm, friendly spirit but also by the Holy Spirit.

Yet after the first rather euphoric phase of the ecumenical movement that followed the Second Vatican Council, the last decades have seen us experiencing signs of tiredness, disillusionment and stagnation. Some go so far as to speak even of a crisis, and many Christians no longer understand the differences on which the churches are arguing with each other. Others hold that ecumenism is outmoded and that interreligious dialogue is now the agenda du jour. Let us be very clear about such discussions: there is a difference but not a competition between the two dialogues, for ultimately to be effective, interreligious dialogue presupposes that Christians can speak one and the same language. The necessity of interreligious dialogue makes ecumenical dialogue even more urgent.

 In light of the current situation in the world and in the Church, and because of the scandalous divisions that still exist among Christians, it is all the more necessary to raise a number of questions regarding our efforts for Christian unity: What did the Council really say about Church unity? Where are we today on the ecumenical journey? Why the current ecumenical crisis? How do we overcome the current problems? What are these problems? Let me try to answer some of the questions and raise new ones.

1) The decisive element of the Second Vatican Council’s ecumenical approach is the fact that the Council no longer identifies the Church of Jesus Christ simply with the Roman Catholic Church, as had Pope Pius XII as late as in the Encyclical Mystici corporis (1943).

2) In its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium, the Council replaced “est” (the Catholic Church “is” Jesus Christ’s Church) with “subsistit”: the Church of Jesus Christ subsists in the Catholic Church, which means that the Church of Jesus Christ is made concretely real in the Catholic Church; in her she is historically and concretely present and can be met. This does not exclude that also outside the visible structure of the Catholic Church there are not only individual Christians but also elements of the Church, and with them an “ecclesial reality”. We cannot think that beyond the boundaries of the Catholic community there is a huge, ecclesial vacuum!

3) The Council speaks of “elementa ecclesiae” outside the Catholic Church, which, as gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, are forces impelling towards Catholic unity. The concept “elementa” or “vestigia” comes from Calvin. Obviously, the Council – unlike Calvin – understands the elementa not as sad remains but as dynamic reality, and it says expressly that the Spirit of God uses these elementa as means of salvation for non-Catholic Christians. Both the Council and the ecumenical decree acknowledge explicitly that the Holy Spirit is at work in the other churches in which they even discover examples of holiness leading to martyrdom.

4) The Council is fully aware of the sinfulness of the members of its own Church, and of sinful structures existing in the Church itself; and it knows about the need of reforming the shape of the Church. The Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium and the Decree on Ecumenism state expressly that the Church is a pilgrim Church, an ecclesia “semper purificanda”, which must constantly take the way of penance and renewal. Ecumenism is not possible without conversion and renewal. Ecumenism therefore is no one-way street, but a reciprocal learning process, or – as stated in St. John Paul II’s masterful ecumenical Encyclical Ut unum sint – an exchange of gifts.

FrancisBartholomew

5) Recent decisions and directions by our sister Churches in the areas of moral theology, ethics, life and death issues, ordained ministries, questions regarding the family, marriage, sexuality and human life are essential issues that must not be ignored out of fear of jeopardizing our ecumenical consensus. In the business of authentic ecumenism, communication must be frank and robust, respectful and charitable. Catholic participants are expected to hold fast to the Church’s teachings, presenting doctrines clearly and avoiding all forms of reductionism or facile agreement. When we are in dialogue with other Christian churches, must treat each other as partners and presuppose that each partner desires unity, even when we speak about contentious or divisive issues. We must avoid giving the impression of a“divide et impera” attitude to Christians of other churches and communions.

6) For many in my generation and older, the Second Vatican Council’s ecumenical thrust and movement was a powerful hopeful, energizing new experience. In the meantime we have several new generations of Catholics who were not yet born at the time of the Council nor did they experience its dynamic impulse in the decades following the Council, so they do not really understand what, how and why things have changed. They do not understand our theological problems and they are not interested in them! For many, the ecumenical questions have lost their fascination, momentum, passion and dynamism. This is very often connected with a lack of catechetical, homiletic and proper theological instruction. Many do not know what Catholic or Protestant doctrine is all about and what the differences are. Often they have only a superficial and sound bite knowledge through the media and Social Media. In this situation we are faced with a double task and challenge. Firstly, we have to promote ecumenical education and the reception of ecumenical results. The results of ecumenical progress have not yet penetrated into the hearts and into the flesh of our Catholic community and of other churches as well. Ecumenical theology is not present as an inner dimension in theological programs and ministerial formation.

7) The crisis of the ecumenical movement is paradoxically the result of its success. Ecumenism for many became obvious. But the closer we come to one another, the more painful is the perception that we are not yet in full communion. We are very impatient. We are hurt by what still separates us and hinders us from joining around the table of the Lord; we are increasingly dissatisfied with the ecumenical status quo; in this atmosphere, ecumenical frustration and sometimes even opposition develops. Paradoxically it is ecumenical progress that is also the cause for the ecumenical malaise!

8) As we move closer to Jesus Christ, in him we move nearer to one another. Therefore, it is not a question of Church political debates and compromises, nor of some kind of superficial union, but of a reciprocal spiritual exchange and a mutual enrichment. Ecumenism is a spiritual journey, in which the question is not about a way backwards but about a way forwards. Such unity is ultimately a gift of God’s Spirit and of his guidance. The oikoumene is neither a mere academic nor only a diplomatic matter; its soul is spiritual ecumenism. The practice of prayer is an indispensable means of sustaining the activities of common witness and dialogue as we progress along the path to Christian unity. All are invited to enter into the prayer of Jesus, who before his passion asked the Father that his disciples might be one, so that the world may believe (Jn 17:21).

9) During his pontificate, Pope-emeritus Benedict XVI emphasized that the proclamation of Jesus Christ is not about gaining “as many members as possible for our community, and still less in order to gain power. … We speak of him [Christ] because we feel the duty to transmit that joy which has been given to us.”

Benedict also expressed his concern over a growing interest among governments to sponsor programs intended to promote interreligious and intercultural dialogue.  Speaking in “Rotunda” Hall of the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center of Washington, D.C. on April 17, 2008,  Benedict said: “These are praiseworthy initiatives. At the same time, religious freedom, interreligious dialogue and faith-based education aim at something more than a consensus regarding ways to implement practical strategies for advancing peace. The broader purpose of dialogue is to discover the truth. What is the origin and destiny of mankind? What are good and evil? What awaits us at the end of our earthly existence? Only by addressing these deeper questions can we build a solid basis for the peace and security of the human family, for wherever and whenever men and women are enlightened by the splendor of truth, they naturally set out on the path of peace.”

10) Massive problems of poverty in today’s world cry out to us as Christians. There are too many women and men who suffer from severe malnutrition, growing unemployment, the rising numbers of unemployed youth, and from increasing social exclusion.  These can give rise to criminal activity and even the recruitment of terrorists as we are witnessing at present.  We cannot remain indifferent or deaf to the cries of our brothers and sisters who ask of us not only material assistance – needed in so many circumstances – but above all, our help to defend their inherent dignity as human persons, so that they can find the spiritual energy to become once again protagonists in their own lives. As Christians we are called together to eliminate that globalization of indifference which today seems to reign supreme, while building a new civilization of love and solidarity.

11) A second piercing cry comes to us from the victims of the conflicts in so many parts of our world. Nations are scarred by an inhumane, brutal war and senseless terrorism. The cry of the victims of conflict urges us to move with haste along the path of reconciliation and communion especially between Catholics and Orthodox. Pope Francis has written: “Christians of the East and West must give common witness so that, strengthened by the Spirit of the risen Christ, they may disseminate the message of salvation to the entire world.” Both Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew are not only motivated by the cause of ecumenism but also by forming a united front against the persecution of Christianity in the Middle East where the number of Catholics and Orthodox have dwindled over the past couple decades.

12) A third cry which challenges us is that of young people who tragically live without hope, overcome by mistrust and resignation.  Many of the young, influenced by the prevailing culture, seek happiness solely in possessing material things and in satisfying their fleeting emotions. It is precisely the young who today implore us to make progress towards full communion. Not for naught did St. John XXIII refer to the Taizé community as “that little springtime” where tens of thousands of young people go on pilgrimage not because they ignore the differences which still separate us, but because they are able to see beyond them; they are able to embrace what is essential and what already unites us.

(CNS photo/Catholic Press Photo)

(CNS photo/Paul Haring)

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)

 

What Christ Has Given Us Is Multiplied In Its Giving

Parable Talents cropped

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)

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.]
All-Saints-Rosica

Being Christian is not the Result of an Ethical Choice

Mt Teresa cropped

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love of God and neighbour not an original idea of Jesus

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

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

Teaching of Moses and Jesus

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

God is Love

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

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

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

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

Blessed Teresa of Calcutta

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

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

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

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

The fruit of silence is PRAYER.

The fruit of prayer is FAITH.

The fruit of faith is LOVE.

The fruit of love is SERVICE.

The fruit of service is PEACE.

God bless you. Mother Teresa

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

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

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

Vatican Connections: May 30, 2014

This week we’re unpacking the souvenirs from Pope Francis’ pilgrimage to the Holy Land, including the pending prayer meeting with Mahmoud Abbas and Shimon Peres. We speak to Fr. Thomas Rosica about the symbolism of the papal itinerary and the significance of his gestures during the visit.

Late Breaking Update: Shimon Peres and Mahmoud Abbas will meet at the Vatican on June 8 for their Prayer meeting.

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Pope Francis is not the only pontiff to leave his hosts, and the world, with long lasting souvenirs of his visit.

The soon to be beatified Pope Paul VI could be the first pope who left his mark while traveling. His 1964 pilgrimage to the Holy Land was the first time a pope traveled outside Italy. It changed the idea of a pope being a monarch of monarchs to whom others made pilgrimage, into a traveling pastor who left home to tend to his flock.

During that 1964 voyage, Paul VI met with Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras. It the first time in 1000 years that a pope and patriarch formally met. It also launched a dialogue process that continues to this day.

JPII in Poland

In 1979 Pope John Paul II visited his homeland for the first time since being elected pope. He gave an electrifying homily during Mass at Warsaw’s Victory Square. He closed his homily calling on the Holy Spirit to descend and renew the face of the earth, “this earth.” Although it was more than ten years before the country would be free of its Soviet-backed regime, that homily is seen as the catalyst, encouraging Poles to slowly, quietly, build a new nation.

Cuba

John Paul II had a more direct and immediate impact when he visted Cuba in 1998. He asked Fidel Castro to make Christmas Day a public holiday. Days later, Castro announced Christmas Day would indeed be a holiday for Cubans. Benedict XVI followed in his predecessors footsteps in 2012, asking Raoul Castro to make Good Friday a public holiday. His request was also granted. To this day Good Friday and Christmas Day are national holidays in Cuba.

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

Men of Galilee cropped

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

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

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

Matthew’s eleven

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

A universal mission

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

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

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

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

Touching the Risen Lord

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

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

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

“Christ has come so close to us”

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

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

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

Christ, the reason for our joy

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

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

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

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

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