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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)

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)

Do You Also Wish to Go Away?

Depart from Me cropped

Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B – August 23, 2015

In today’s Gospel (John 6:60-69), we hear of the mixed reactions of Jesus’ disciples to the Bread of Life discourse that we have heard over the past weeks. Jesus provided bread, but his bread is not like the manna that God provided in the wilderness; this bread is himself, his very life; and those who eat it “will live forever.”

As is often the case in John’s Gospel, small, ordinary words such as bread and life are loaded with theological meaning. Centuries of Eucharistic theology and reflection give us a way to understand these words, but at the time they were first spoken, they were more than puzzling — they probably were offensive to some people. Rightly reading the mood of his audience, Jesus says, “Does this offend you?”

Jesus’ challenge sets up a critical turning point in the Gospel. Not only are we told that one of Jesus’ followers would betray him; we also learn that some of those who had been following Jesus “turned back and no longer went about with him.”

The group gets smaller as the stakes get higher. Whatever explanation Jesus gives, some choose to walk away, thus revoking their loyalty. John uses the word “disciples” for those who turn back. These were not casual or seasonal listeners: They were disciples who knew him and were most likely known by him.

You too?

Then Jesus called the Twelve together and put the question to them straightforward: “Do you also wish to go away?”

Peter plays the role of spokesperson, just as he does in the other Gospels: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” While the words are different, this exchange is much the same as Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi. There, Jesus asks, “Who do people say that I am?” — to which Peter responds, “You are the Messiah” (Mark 8:27-30). In both cases, the miracle of the feeding is the backdrop for the crucial question: who is Jesus really?

Paul’s marriage challenge

If we want to find out how the relationship between a man and woman in marriage should be according to the Bible, we must look at the relationship between Christ and the Church. In today’s second reading from the letter to the community at Ephesus, Paul exhorts married Christians to a strong mutual love.

At the origin and center of every Christian marriage, there must be love: “You, husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her.” Paul’s teaching on Christian marriage was difficult then as it is today.

Holding with Genesis 2:24 that marriage is a divine institution (Ephesians 5:31), Paul sees Christian marriage as taking on a new meaning symbolic of the intimate relationship of love between Christ and the Church. The wife should serve her husband in the same spirit as that of the church’s service to Christ (Ephesians 5:22, 24), and the husband should care for his wife with the devotion of Christ to the church (Ephesians 5:25-30).

Paul gives to the Genesis passage its highest meaning in the light of the union of Christ and the Church, of which Christ-like loyalty and devotion in Christian marriage are a clear reflection (Ephesians 5:31-33).

Parts of today’s Ephesians reading can be problematic, especially when one takes the line, “wives should be subordinate to their husbands,” out of context. Some have justified abuse of their spouse by taking this line (Ephesians 5:22) completely out of context. They have justified their bad behavior, but the passage (v. 21-33) refers to the mutual submission of husband and wife out of love for Christ: “Husbands should love their wives as they love their own body, as Christ loves the Church.”

The Scriptures cannot be used to justify violence toward, or abuse of, any other human being. The Gospel calls all of us to show mutual care and respect to one another. This must be present in any healthy marriage or other committed relationship.

This mutual love and respect must also extend to relationships between nations and other groups of people. It must be reflected in the structures and rules of our society. Mutuality and loving, selfless service are the keys to an authentic, loving marriage, and of just relationships.

Foundations of society

In his third encyclical, “Caritas in Veritate,” Benedict XVI wrote:

“It is thus becoming a social and even economic necessity once more to hold up to future generations the beauty of marriage and the family, and the fact that these institutions correspond to the deepest needs and dignity of the person.

“In view of this, states are called to enact policies promoting the centrality and the integrity of the family founded on marriage between a man and a woman, the primary vital cell of society, and to assume responsibility for its economic and fiscal needs, while respecting its essentially relational character” (44).

Though “Caritas in Veritate” is touted as a response to the economic crisis of the time, but is much more than that. A defense of family, the sanctity of life, a caution to not undermine the importance of human dignity: The Holy Father prudently explores each area, dissecting each topic on its own, as well as relating it to economics.

Regardless of any economic aspect, the wisdom shared concerning these areas stands on its own. It serves us well to take note of this as we strive for authentic human development. This is not some antiquated teaching or remnant of the past. It is the living foundation for the present and the future of humanity. And like many of Jesus’ words, some will take offense at this and “walk away.”

Without married people, we cannot build the future of society and the Church. I am convinced beyond any doubt that from solid families will come forth vocations to serve the church. The “vocation crisis” in many parts of the world is due in great part to the break up and dissolution of the family.

A scandalous teaching

The depth and significance of Christ’s message, and the teaching of the Church, scandalizes, in the sense that it is often a stumbling block for the disbeliever and it is a test for the believer.

The theme of scandal, in the New Testament is connected with faith, as free acceptance of the mystery of Christ. Before the Gospel we cannot remain indifferent, lukewarm or evasive: The Lord calls each of us personally asking us to declare ourselves for him (cf. Matthew 10:32-33).

When we are faced with the difficult teachings of Jesus and the Church, do we also wish to go away? Is it not true that many times, because of the complexity of the issues, and the pressures of the society around us, we may wish to “go away?”

Peter’s response to Jesus’ question — “Do you also wish to go away?” — in today’s Gospel is striking. He doesn’t say, “yes, of course,” but he doesn’t quite say “no” either.

Instead, in good Gospel-style, he answers back with another question: “To whom else can we go?” It is not the most flattering answer in the world, but it is honest. Peter and the others stay with Jesus precisely because he has been a source of life for them. Jesus liberated them and given them a new life.

Following Jesus and the teaching of the Church may not always be easy, or pleasant, or even totally comprehensible, but when it comes to the eternal-life business, there’s not much out there in the way of alternatives.

This week let us not forget the words of Jesus: “Whoever eats me will live because of me.” Let us give witness to our Catholic faith and to God’s plan that marriage be the sacred union of one man and one woman, to family life as the foundation of our society.

Blessed are we if we do not take offense, but are led by these words to abundant life.

[The readings for the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time are: Joshua 24:1-2a, 15-17, 18b; Ephesians 5:21-32 or 5:2a, 25-32; and John 6:60-69]

Give Us This Bread Always!

Last Supper Bouveret cropped

Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B – August 2, 2015

We can certainly understand God’s frustration with his people in today’s first reading from Exodus (16:2-4,12-15).

The God of Israel has just delivered his people from slavery and has set them on the way to their promised land. Yet after crossing the Red Sea and celebrating their victory, the first recorded action in the Sinai proves to be grumbling and dissatisfaction, first over the bitter water at Mara (Exodus 15:22-27), and then more complaining and nostalgic longing for the fleshpots in the land of Egypt, where they were able to eat their fill!

Into this setting of ingratitude and lamentation, God rains down bread from heaven (manna) and quail for their food. The Exodus passage (16:2-4,12-15) contrasts the nonbeliever (who grumbles that the manna and quail are meager nourishment) with the believer (who sees these as God’s generous gifts to the hungry).

A different kind of food

In today’s Gospel text (John 6:24-35) that follows the miraculous multiplication of the loaves, Jesus says to the crowds who were seeking him: “Truly, truly I say to you, you seek me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of man will give to you” (John 6:26-27).

Jesus’ hearers continue the conversation and ask him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” (John 6:28). Jesus answers: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent” (John 6:29). It is an exhortation to have faith in the Son of Man, in the giver of the food that does not perish. Without faith in him whom the Father has sent, it is not possible to recognize and accept this gift which does not pass away.

The miraculous multiplication of the loaves had not evoked the expected response of faith in those who had been eyewitnesses of that event. They wanted a new sign: “Then what sign do you do, that we may see, and believe? What work do you perform? Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: He gave them bread from heaven to eat'” (John 6:30-31). The disciples gathered around Jesus expecting a sign like the manna, which their ancestors had eaten in the desert. But Jesus exhorts them to expect something more than a mere repetition of the miracle of the manna, to expect a different kind of food. He says: “It was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven; my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (Jn 6:32-33).

Along with physical hunger there is within each of us another hunger, a more basic hunger, which cannot be satisfied by ordinary food. It is a hunger for life, a hunger for eternity, nostalgia for God. The sign of the manna was the proclamation of the coming of Christ who was to satisfy our hunger for eternity by Himself becoming the “living bread” that “gives life to the world.”

What is so startling about Jesus’ remarks in this discourse is that he is not claiming to be another Moses, or one more messenger in along line of human prophets. In giving us the bread of life, Jesus does not offer temporary nourishment, he gives us the eternal bread of his word. It will not pass away. It will nourish and give life forever. Jesus is this bread, and in offering to share it with us he calls us to faith in him.

Jesus invites us to “come to him,” “believe in him,” “look upon him,” “be drawn to him,” “hear him,” and to “learn of him.” All of these verbs invite the active response of our faith (cf. John 6:36, 37, 40, 44, 45). His word is nourishment for our faith.

Those who heard Jesus ask him to fulfill what had been proclaimed by the sign of the manna, perhaps without being conscious of how far their request would go: “Lord, give us this bread always” (John 6:34). How eloquent is this request! How generous and how amazing is its fulfillment! “I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst.”

Grumblings and ideologies

How difficult it was for Jesus’ hearers to make this passage from the sign to the mystery indicated by that sign, from daily bread to the bread “which endures to eternal life”! Nor is it easy for us, the people of the 21st century to make such passages in our own life, from sign to mystery.

At times our grumblings and murmurings about the Eucharist and the Church often rise to fevered pitch, not much different than the grumbling and murmuring of Israel in the desert. Excessive tensions arising from Church politics, gender issues, liturgical practices, language — all of these influence today’s Eucharist — and can lead us to a feeling of God’s absence.

Our Eucharistic celebrations are not taking place at Massah and Meribah — places of murmuring in the desert. We are often stuck in endless arguments between devotion and liturgy, or in a constant dispute between charity and justice. When devotion is treated as the enemy of liturgy and charity as the betrayer of justice, or when liturgy is reduced to private devotion and justice not recognized as constitutive to the Gospel.

Adoration rediscovered

Here is one concrete example to illustrate the above point about liturgy and devotion. Many of my generation have responded very negatively to the younger generation’s rediscovery of Eucharistic adoration and devotion.

Benedict XVI put a great emphasis on Eucharistic adoration and devotion in Catholic life. Many of us have failed to see that our public worship is intimately related to adoration, so much so that that they could be considered as one. Piety and devotion can be springboards to mature faith. Each time we gather together to celebrate the Eucharist as the Christian community, we profess, together with the whole Church, our faith in Christ the Eucharist, in Christ — the living bread and the bread of life.

During the 49th International Eucharistic Congress in Quebec City that took place in 2008, then-Bishop Luis Antonio Tagle of the Philippines, now Cardinal-Archbishop of Manila, delivered a remarkable catechesis that concluded with a profound explanation of the meaning of authentic Adoration of the Eucharist.

Bishop Tagle said:

“In the Eucharist, the Church joins Jesus in adoring the God of life. But the practice of Eucharistic adoration enlivens some features of worship. We believe that the presence of Christ in the Eucharist continues beyond the liturgy. Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament connotes being present, resting, and beholding. In adoration, we are present to Jesus whose sacrifice is ever present to us. Abiding in him, we are assimilated more deeply into his self-giving. Beholding Jesus, we receive and are transformed by the mystery we adore. Eucharistic adoration is similar to standing at the foot of the Cross of Jesus, being a witness to his sacrifice of life and being renewed by it. The sacrifice or spiritual worship of Jesus on the cross is his supreme act of adoration.”

This week let us ask ourselves: What does Jesus’ Eucharistic presence mean for us? Does our participation in the weekly (and for some, daily) celebration of the Lord’s meal transform us into people of gratitude, loving kindness and justice? Let us consider what Jesus requires of us who partake of the Eucharistic banquet. In what ways does the Eucharist symbolize the life we are living and our life symbolize the Eucharist? How do we express gratitude? Is the Eucharist the spiritual exercise giving direction to our life?

May our Eucharistic celebrations continue to transform our parish communities and the society around us into a civilization of love! May they nourish in us a hunger and thirst for justice. May our longing for the Eucharist make us ever more patient and kind with one another. Let us pray that we may truly become what we receive in the Eucharistic meal.

[The readings for the 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time are: Exodus 16:2-4, 12-15; Ephesians 4:17, 20-24; and John 6:24-35]

(Image: The Last Supper by Pascal-Adolphe-Jean Dagnan-Bouveret)

Little Sisters of the Poor Lose in Court – Perspectives Daily

Today on Perspectives, the Little Sisters of the Poor lose in Appeals Court to the Federal Government, the Holy See optimistic about Iranian nuclear deal, Pope-Emeritus Benedict XVI returns to the Vatican, Archbishop Fisher of Sydney defends marriage.

Arise, Live and Love Again!

Talitha koum cropped

Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B – June 28, 2015

Last week we witnessed Jesus’ divine power at work on the forces of nature (Mark 4:37-41). Today’s Gospel stories reveal his power over disease and death.

In these powerful accounts, Jesus reminds us of the importance of faith. Nothing is possible without faith. On the way to Jairus’ house (Mark 5), Jesus encounters interruptions, delays, and even obstacles along the road. The people in the passage transfer their uncleanness to Jesus, and to each Jesus bestows the cleansing wholeness of God. Let us consider for a moment each situation.

The hemorrhaging woman

Jesus’ miraculous healing of this woman who had been hemorrhaging for 12 years is narrated in three of the four Gospels (Matthew 9:20-22; Mark 5:25-34; Luke 8:43-48). The law regarded three forms of uncleanness as serious enough to exclude the infected person from society: leprosy, uncleanness caused by bodily discharges, and impurity resulting from contact with the dead (Numbers 5:2-4). The woman in Mark 5 had a disease that made her ritually unclean (Leviticus 15:25-27). It would have excluded her from most social contact and worship at the temple. She desperately wanted Jesus to heal her, but she knew that her bleeding would cause Jesus to become ritually unclean under Jewish law.

Anyone who had one of the diseases was made unclean. Anything or anyone that one touched became unclean. Those who were unclean also suffered from estranged relationships with others and with God. Anything unclean was unfit or unworthy to be in the presence of a God who was holy. Those deemed unclean had to go through a rite of purification or cleansing in order to be welcomed back into society and into the presence of God.

The woman’s bold invasion of Jesus’ space, and her touching of Jesus’ garment, thus making Jesus unclean, could have put him off. On the contrary, Jesus not only heals the woman, but also restores her relationships with others. When Jesus calls the woman “daughter,” he established a relationship with one with whom he should not have a relationship.

Jairus’ daughter

The very touching story of Jairus’ daughter is “sandwiched” in the story about the hemorrhaging woman. Jairus was an elected leader of the local synagogue, responsible for supervising the weekly worship, operating the school, and caring for the building. Some synagogue leaders had been pressured not to support Jesus, but Jairus had not caved into that pressure. Jairus bowed before Jesus and uttered his anguished request for help: “My daughter is at the point of death. Please, come lay your hands on her that she may get well and live.” Jairus’ gesture was a significant and daring act of respect and worship.

The story continues: “Jesus took the child by the hand, and said to her, ‘Talitha koum,’ which means, ‘Little girl, I say to you, arise!’ The girl arose immediately and walked around” (5:41-42). By calling her “little girl,” he established the same kind of relationship with her as Jairus has with his daughter.

In each situation, Jesus’ holiness transforms the person’s uncleanness. The flow of blood is stopped. The woman is healed. The corpse comes back to life. The young girl gets out of bed. Jesus raises each person up to his level, making that individual worthy to be in the presence of God.

Jesus, the healer

In so many of the healing stories, Jesus manifests the power to give people health, healing and even to bring the dead back to life. Remember the young man of Nain in Luke 7 who had died. Jesus said, “Young man, I tell you, arise!” Luke reports that the “dead man sat up and began to speak.”

Jesus responded to the cries of the leper who begged him, “If you will, you can cure me!” Moved with compassion, Jesus gave a word of command which was proper to God and not to a mere human being: “I do will it. Be made clean!” Mark wrote: “The leprosy left him immediately, and he was made clean” (Mark 1:42). How can we forget the case of the paralytic who was let down through an opening made in the roof of the house, Jesus said, “I say to you, rise, pick up your mat, and go home” (cf. Mk 2:1-12).

Jesus’ story continues in the Acts of the Apostles when we hear about people who “carried the sick out into the streets and laid them on cots and mats so that when Peter came by, at least his shadow might fall on one or another of them” (Acts 5:15). These “wonders and signs” were performed by the apostles not in their own name, but in the name of Jesus Christ, and were therefore a further proof of his divine power.

“Talitha koum”

The story of Jairus’ daughter not only speaks about the death of a child and the raising of that young girl back to life, but it also speaks about death of the heart and spirit, a disease that affects so many young people today.

Those powerful words — “Talitha koum” (Little girl, arise) — are not only addressed to this little girl in Mark’s story, but also to many young people, perhaps to each one of us. How many young children live with fear and sadness because of divided family situations, tragedy and loss! How many young people are caught up in vicious cycles of death: drugs, abortion, pornography, violence, gangs and suicide.

Today our young people are afflicted with anxiety, discouragement and other serious psychological and even physical illnesses in alarming ways. Many don’t know what joy, love hope and truth really mean any more.

Sadness, pessimism, cynicism, meaninglessness, the desire not to live, are always bad things, but when we see or hear young people express them, our hearts are even more heavy and sad. Living in a big city such as Toronto, I have the opportunity of meeting many young people, and when I hear some of their stories of brokenness, sadness and despair, I realize how much work the churches must do to bring young people back to life.

Jesus continues today to resurrect those dead young people to life. He does so with his word, and also by sending them his disciples who, in his name, and with his very love, repeat to today’s young people his cry: “Talitha koum,” “young man, young woman, arise! Live again! Love again! You are loved!”

“Alive” in Darlinghurst

As I reflect on today’s Gospel and Jesus’ powerful words: “Talitha koum,” I recall vividly one of Benedict XVI’s special moments during World Youth Day 2008 in Australia.

The Holy Father went to the University of Notre Dame’s Sacred Heart chapel in Darlinghurst (Sydney) where he met young people with histories of drug addiction and other problems, who are following the “Alive” rehabilitation program. The Pope Emeritus recalled Moses’ words in the Old Testament:

“‘I set before you life or death, blessing or curse. Choose life, then, so that you and your descendants may live in the love of the Lord your God, […] for in this your life consists.”

“It was clear what they had to do,” the Pope explained, “they had to turn away from other gods and worship the true God Who had revealed himself to Moses — and they had to obey His commandments. You might think that in today’s world, people are unlikely to start worshipping other gods. But sometimes people worship ‘other gods’ without realizing it. False ‘gods’ […] are nearly always associated with the worship of three things: material possessions, possessive love, or power.”

“Authentic love is obviously something good,” the Pope continued. “When we love, we become most fully ourselves, most fully human. But […] people often think they are being loving when actually they are being possessive or manipulative. People sometimes treat others as objects to satisfy their own needs. […] How easy it is to be deceived by the many voices in our society that advocate a permissive approach to sexuality, without regard for modesty, self-respect or the moral values that bring quality to human relationships!”

“Dear friends, I see you as ambassadors of hope to others in similar situations. You can convince them of the need to choose the path of life and shun the path of death, because you speak from experience. All through the Gospels, it was those who had taken wrong turnings who were particularly loved by Jesus, because once they recognized their mistake, they were all the more open to his healing message.

“Indeed, Jesus was often criticized by self-righteous members of society for spending so much time with such people. ‘Why does your master eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ they asked. He responded: ‘It is not the healthy who need the doctor, but the sick … I did not come to call the virtuous but sinners’ (cf. Mt 9:11-13).

“It was those who were willing to rebuild their lives who were most ready to listen to Jesus and become his disciples. You can follow in their footsteps, you too can grow particularly close to Jesus because you have chosen to turn back towards him. You can be sure that, just like the Father in the story of the prodigal son, Jesus welcomes you with open arms. He offers you unconditional love — and it is in loving friendship with him that the fullness of life is to be found.”

I am sure that Jesus was smiling upon Benedict XVI and that wonderful gathering in Sydney. Jesus’ words — “Talitha koum” — be heard every anew, Down Under and throughout our world, to invite the young and all people to rise up, to live and to love again.

[The readings for the 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time are: Wisdom 1:13-15; 2:23-24; 2 Corinthians 8:7, 9, 13-15; and Mark 5:21-43 or 5:21-24, 35b-43]

(Image: “Talitha Koum” by Ilja Jefimowitsch Repin)

The Slow Progress in the Growth of God’s Kingdom

Sower Van Gogh cropped

Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B – June 14, 2015

The growth of plants, trees, flowers and grass, takes place very quietly and slowly, without our knowing. This growth permeates three of the four readings for this Sunday (Ezekiel 17:22-24, Psalm 92, Mark 4:26-34). Let us look at each of three readings then apply the plant images to the growth of God’s kingdom in our midst.

Today’s first reading from Ezekiel (17:22-24) is part of a lengthy allegory that combines fables from nature with concrete historical judgments, thus enabling the prophet to include the promise of future restoration in the historical framework of Judah’s own experience. In the midst of Israel’s great exile, Ezekiel knows that God does the unexpected – bringing low the high tree and making high the low. The great cedar represents the king of Judah, and the other trees are the kings of the surrounding nations. God will plant on Mount Zion in Jerusalem a young, tender sprig from the top of the same cedar. This is referring to the final king or messiah who will rise up from the house of David. This king will be enthroned in Jerusalem, atop the highest mountain of Israel (2 Samuel 7:13). Many other nations will come and find refuge under this new kingdom.

The God of Isarel always does the unexpected – bringing low the high tree and making high the low. God makes desert areas bloom and makes what may be superficially blooming wither (Ezekiel 17:24). God restores broken hearts and decimated hopes. Though the prophet Ezekiel’s words referred at first to the hopes of ancient Israel, they still resound in our midst today. Even though the worldly dynasty of David would disappear, David’s hopes would be fulfilled in a way far more glorious than he ever imagined!

We believe that the full realization of God’s kingdom is found in Jesus of Nazareth, Son of Abraham and Son of David, who came to establish the kingdom in our midst. God’s kingdom in Jesus grows in a hidden, mysterious way, independently of human efforts. The prophet Ezekiel’s words stir our hearts and minds, and remind us of God’s constant fidelity, especially when growth seems delayed or even impossible: “I the Lord have spoken, and I will do it” (17:24).

The just shall grow as tall as palms…

Psalm 92 is a psalm of praise extolling God’s providence. Two dominant images of this psalm are the cedar tree and the date palm. While the date palm can bear fruit, it lacks the lasting strength and stamina of the cedar. The cedar is mighty, but it cannot bear fruit. In biblical lands, the palm tree and the towering cedar of Lebanon suggest strength, justice, righteousness and beauty. Both the date palm and the cedar are planted deliberately in the house of the Lord. It is there, in the Sanctuary of God’s Law, that they have their roots; it is from there that they derive all their vigor and strength. Both trees are presented as models for those who wish to live lives of righteousness and justice, planted firmly in God’s presence. 

Our homeland is the Lord

St. Paul builds on the the theme of Ezekiel’s prophecy as he speaks about the mystery of our union with Christ’s death and resurrection (2 Cor 5:6-10). Paul faces the fear of his own death and admits his difficulty at wanting to be “at home in the body/away from the Lord” or “away from the body/at home with the Lord”. His confidence flows from his faith. In this life, we are separated from Christ. For this reason Paul would prefer death, “to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” At present we are citizens in exile, far away from our home. The Lord is the distant homeland, believed in but unseen (7). Paul affirms his confidence by contrasting what is of permanent value with what is only passing. Paul drives home the point that the sufferings of the present are not a valid criterion of apostleship because the true home of all believers is elsewhere.

So too with us – God is mysteriously drawing us towards our heavenly homeland. From this earthly home we prepare for our heavenly home; heaven is constantly calls us forward, instilling within us a deep longing to be with the Lord while we are still in the flesh here below. Paul’s message speaks to us today: it is only from this earthly home that we will learn and prepare for the heavenly home; the way that we live our lives here and now with the Lord will be a very good indication of how we will spend our eternity with Him.

The assurance of the harvest

In today’s well-known Gospel story of the sower, Jesus announces the fulfillment of Ezekiel’s hopes, though with a kingdom even more unexpected than Ezekiel could ever imagine. This new kingdom would not be rooted in a geographical or political reality, but rather in human hearts. In today’s parable of the sower, Mark (4:26-34) links two of Jesus’ parables, featuring the image of a growing seed to speak of the kingdom of God. In the parable of the seed growing of itself (26-29), Mark contrasts the relative inactivity of the farmer with the assurance of the harvest. The sower need only do only one thing: wait for the crop to mature and then reap the harvest. Only Mark records the parable of the seed’s growth (26-29). Sower and harvester are the same. The emphasis is on the power of the seed to grow of itself without human intervention (27). Mysteriously it produces blade and ear and full grain (28). Thus the kingdom of God initiated by Jesus in proclaiming the word develops quietly yet powerfully until it is fully established by him at the final judgment (29).

The mustard seed

The second parable is better known. Jesus uses the mustard seed to show the beginnings of the kingdom, exaggerating both the smallness of the mustard seed and the size of the mustard plant. The mustard seed is really not the smallest seed and the plant is only bush, not a tall tree. Jesus used this image to show that the kingdom will grow and flourish even though its beginnings seem very small and insignificant. The seed in Jesus’ hand is tiny, simple and unimpressive. Yet the Kingdom of God is like that.

From these small seeds will arise the great success of the Kingdom of God and of God’s Word. Since the harvest symbolizes the last judgment, it is likely that the parable also addresses the burning issue of slow progress in the growth of God’s kingdom, especially when that growth was hindered by persecution, failure or sinfulness. Patience is called for in the face of humble beginnings. Jesus reassures the crowd that growth will come; it is only at the harvest that the farmer reappears. The growth of God’s kingdom is the result of God’s power, not ours. Like the tiny mustard seed, the kingdom of God is something that grows from a tiny beginning.

The Lord uses the vivid image of the mustard seed to speak about our faith. When we have faith, the Lord will accomplish great things in us. Whenever and wherever we take ourselves and our efforts too seriously, seeking by our plans and programs to “bring forth the kingdom of God,” we will go away frustrated and sad. We must never forget that it is the Lord who sows, the Lord who waters, the Lord who reaps the harvest. We are merely servants in the vineyard. Let us beg the Lord to bless the desires he has planted deep in our hearts. As the mustard seed grows into a tree of shelter for birds, may our families and faith communities be signs of the Kingdom every person our communities is protected, respected and loved.

The silent and vigorous growth of the Church

I was very struck by Pope Benedict XVI’s use of the mustard seed imagery in his interview with journalists aboard the Papal flight to Madrid, Spain for the World Youth Day on August 18, 2011. The Holy Father was asked how the fruits of the World Youth Days can be ensured in the future? Do World Youth Days effectively produce fruits that last longer than the momentary bursts of enthusiasm? Pope Benedict responded to the questions with these words:

“God always sows in silence. The results are not immediately apparent in the statistics. And the seed the Lord scatters on the ground with the World Youth Days is like the seed of which he speaks in the Gospel: some seeds fell along the path and were lost; some fell on rocky ground and were lost, some fell upon thorns and were lost; but other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth abundant fruit.

It is exactly like this with the sowing of the WYDs: a great deal is lost — and this is human. To borrow other words from the Lord: the mustard seed was small, but it grew and became a great tree. And with yet other words: of course, a great deal is lost, we cannot say straight away that there will be an immense growth of the Church tomorrow. God does not act in this way. However, the Church grows in silence and vigorously. I know from other World Youth Days that a great many friendships were born, friendships for life; a great many experiences that God exists. And let us place trust in this silent growth, and we may be certain, even if the statistics do not tell us much, that the Lord’s seed really grows and will be for very many people the beginning of a friendship with God and with others, of a universality of thought, of a common responsibility which really shows us that these days do bear fruit.”

To those words, I say Amen! Alleluia!


  1. When was the last time that God has worked in your life, bringing about the most unexpected result?
  1. What are the necessary conditions for the Word of God to be heard?
  1. When have I been frustrated with the growth of God’s kingdom? Why?
  1. What has been my experience of World Youth Days and other great programs and activities of the Church? How have they caused me to grow?

(Image: Sower with the Setting Sun by Vincent Van Gogh)

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.


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)