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Voice of the Good Shepherd

Lost sheep

Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year C – April 17, 2016

As we move away from the day of Christ’s resurrection, the Sunday Scripture readings for the Easter Season help to deepen our understanding of what happened to Jesus and to the Church through his triumph over death. On the Second Sunday of Easter, we looked carefully at the wounds of Christ and renewed friendship with him at table in a locked upper room.

The Third Sunday of Easter this year (C) enabled us to peer into the intimate lakeshore scene, leading us through the ruins of denial and despair, and offering us a chance to recommit ourselves to loving Christ as friends.

On this Fourth Sunday of Easter, we encounter the Good Shepherd who is really the beautiful or noble shepherd who knows his flock intimately. “Good Shepherd Sunday” is also the World Day of Prayer for Vocations in the Church. In all three liturgical cycles, the Fourth Sunday of Easter presents a passage from John’s Gospel about the Good Shepherd.

In the Old Testament, God himself is represented as the shepherd of his people. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” (Psalm 23:1). “He is our God and we are his people whom he shepherds” (Psalm 95:7). The future Messiah is also described with the image of the shepherd: “Like a shepherd he feeds his flock; in his arms he gathers the lambs, carrying them in his bosom, and leading the ewes with care” (Isaiah 40:11).

In the Bible and the ancient Near East, “shepherd” was also a political title that stressed the obligation of kings to provide for their subjects. The title connoted total concern for and dedication to others. Shepherd and host are both images set against the background of the desert, where the protector of the sheep is also the protector of the desert traveler, offering hospitality and safety from enemies. The rod is a defensive weapon against wild animals, while the staff is a supportive instrument; they symbolize concern and loyalty.

Ideal image

This ideal image of the shepherd finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ. He is the “Good Shepherd” who goes in search of the lost sheep; he feels compassion for the people because he sees them “as sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36); he calls his disciples “the little flock” (Luke 12:32). Peter calls Jesus “the shepherd of our souls” (1 Peter 2:25) and the Letter to the Hebrews speaks of him as “the great shepherd of the sheep” (Hebrews 13:20).

Today’s Gospel passage (John 10:27-30) highlights two important characteristics of Jesus’ role as shepherd. The first has to do with the reciprocal knowledge that the sheep and shepherd have: “My sheep hear my voice and I know them and they follow me.” The sheep remained for many years in the company of the shepherd who knew the character of each one and gave them affectionate names. Thus it is with Jesus and his disciples: He knows his disciples “by name,” intimately. He loves them with a personal love that treats each as if they were the only one who existed for him.

There is also a second aspect of the shepherd’s vocation in today’s Gospel. The shepherd gives his life to his sheep and for his sheep, and no one can take them out of his hand. Wild animals and thieves were a nightmare and constant threat for the shepherds of Israel. Herein lies the difference between the true shepherd who shepherds the family’s flock, and the hired hand who works only for the pay he receives, who does not love, and indeed often hates, the sheep. When the mercenary is confronted with danger, he flees and leaves the sheep at the mercy of the wolf or bandits; the true shepherd courageously faces the danger to save the flock.

The sheep are far more than a responsibility to the Good Shepherd: They are the object of the shepherd’s love and concern. Thus, the shepherd’s devotion to them is completely unselfish; the Good Shepherd is willing to die for the sheep rather than abandon them. To the hired hand, the sheep are merely a commodity, to be watched over only so they can provide wool and mutton.

Gift from God

Today’s Gospel passage presents to us one of the deepest mysteries of the human spirit. Faith, the ability to hear and to follow a call, is a gift to Jesus and a gift to the followers of Jesus. Why are some capable of hearing that leads to faith? Why are some capable of recognizing the Father in the words of Jesus? The only answer presented is that faith is a gift. Our God and his Son are shepherds that care for us and know us and even love us in our stubbornness, deafness and diffidence. Do we really rejoice in hearing the voice of the Good Shepherd?

I cannot help but call to mind the profound teaching on the Good Shepherd that was offered to us by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI during the Mass of inauguration of his Petrine Ministry five years ago, on Sunday, April 24, 2005, at the Vatican. In his very first homily as the Successor of Peter, Benedict XVI said: “One of the basic characteristics of a shepherd must be to love the people entrusted to him, even as he loves Christ Whom he serves. ‘Feed my sheep,’ says Christ to Peter, and now, at this moment, He says it to me as well. Feeding means loving, and loving also means being ready to suffer. Loving means giving the sheep what is truly good, the nourishment of God’s truth, of God’s word, the nourishment of His presence, which He gives us in the Blessed Sacrament.”

External and internal deserts

Benedict XVI continued:

“For the Fathers of the Church, the parable of the lost sheep, which the shepherd seeks in the desert, was an image of the mystery of Christ and the Church. The human race — every one of us — is the sheep lost in the desert which no longer knows the way. The Son of God will not let this happen; he cannot abandon humanity in so wretched a condition. He leaps to his feet and abandons the glory of heaven, in order to go in search of the sheep and pursue it, all the way to the Cross. He takes it upon his shoulders and carries our humanity; he carries us all — he is the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. […]

“The pastor must be inspired by Christ’s holy zeal: For him it is not a matter of indifference that so many people are living in the desert. And there are so many kinds of desert. There is the desert of poverty, the desert of hunger and thirst, the desert of abandonment, of loneliness, of destroyed love. There is the desert of God’s darkness, the emptiness of souls no longer aware of their dignity or the goal of human life. The external deserts in the world are growing, because the internal deserts have become so vast. Therefore the earth’s treasures no longer serve to build God’s garden for all to live in, but they have been made to serve the powers of exploitation and destruction. 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, towards the One who gives us life, and life in abundance.

“One of the basic characteristics of a shepherd must be to love the people entrusted to him, even as he loves Christ whom he serves. ‘Feed my sheep,’ says Christ to Peter, and now, at this moment, he says it to me as well. Feeding means loving, and loving also means being ready to suffer. Loving means giving the sheep what is truly good, the nourishment of God’s truth, of God’s word, the nourishment of his presence, which he gives us in the Blessed Sacrament. My dear friends — at this moment I can only say: pray for me, that I may learn to love the Lord more and more. Pray for me, that I may learn to love his flock more and more — in other words, you, the holy Church, each one of you and all of you together. Pray for me, that I may not flee for fear of the wolves. Let us pray for one another, that the Lord will carry us and that we will learn to carry one another.

“Only when we meet the living God in Christ do we know what life is. We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary. There is nothing more beautiful than to be surprised by the Gospel, by the encounter with Christ. There is nothing more beautiful than to know Him and to speak to others of our friendship with Him. The task of the shepherd — the task of the fisher of men — can often seem wearisome. But it is beautiful and wonderful, because it is truly a service to joy, to God’s joy which longs to break into the world.”


[The readings for the 4th Sunday of Easter are: Acts 13:14, 43-52; Revelation 7:9, 14b-17; John 10:27-30]

(Image: The Good Shepherd finding the Lost Sheep by Jeremy Sams)

Following Jesus on the Royal Road of the Cross

Palm Sunday cropped

Palm Sunday, Year C – March 20, 2016

On Palm Sunday this year we hear two sections of Luke’s Gospel – the first at the blessing of the palms and the second at the reading of St. Luke’s Passion narrative. With the royal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem (19:28-40), a new section of the Gospel begins – the ministry of Jesus in Jerusalem before his death and resurrection.

In a burst of enthusiasm, the people of Jerusalem waved palm branches and greeted Jesus as he entered the city riding on an ass. The acclamation: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord” (19:38) is only found in Luke’s Gospel where Jesus is explicitly given the title king when he enters Jerusalem in triumph. Luke has inserted this title into the words of Psalm 118:26 that heralded the arrival of the pilgrims coming to the holy city and to the temple.

Jesus is thereby acclaimed as king and as the one who comes (Malachi 3:1; Luke 7:19). The disciples’ acclamation: “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest” (19:38), echoes the announcement of the angels at the birth of Jesus (Luke 2:14). The peace Jesus brings is associated with the salvation to be accomplished in Jerusalem. There is an internal unity between the Infancy and Passion Narratives of Luke’s Gospel.

Luke is dependent upon Mark for the composition of his Passion narrative (22:14-23:56), but he has also incorporated much of his own special tradition. Among the distinctive sections in Luke’s Passion story of Jesus are: (1) the tradition of the institution of the Eucharist (22:15-20); (2) Jesus’ farewell discourse (22:21-38); (3) the mistreatment and interrogation of Jesus (22:63-71); (4) Jesus before Herod and his second appearance before Pilate (23:6-16); (5) words addressed to the women followers on the way to the crucifixion (23:27-32); (6) words to the penitent thief (23:39-41); (7) the death of Jesus (23:46, 47b-49).

Palm of Triumph

The peaceful figure of Jesus rises above the hostility and anger of the crowds and the tortuous legal process he endures. Jesus remains a true model of reconciliation, forgiveness, and peace. In the midst of his own agony and trial, we realize the depths of Jesus’ passion for unity: he is capable of uniting even Pilate and Herod together in friendship (23:12). From the Cross, Luke presents Jesus forgiving his persecutors (23:34) and the dying Jesus allows even a thief to steal paradise! (23:43)

Throughout his account, Luke stresses the innocence of Jesus (23:4, 14-15, 22) who is the victim of the powers of evil (22:3, 31, 53) and who goes to his death in fulfilment of his Father’s will (22:42, 46). Luke emphasizes the mercy, compassion, and healing power of Jesus (22:51; 23:43) who does not go to death lonely and deserted, but is accompanied by others who follow him on the way of the Cross (23:26-31, 49).

In Luke’s moving story, the palm of triumph and the Cross of the Passion are not a contradiction. Herein lies the heart of the mystery proclaimed during Holy Week. Jesus gave himself up voluntarily to the Passion; he was not crushed by forces greater than himself. He freely faced crucifixion and in death was triumphant.

Role Models

Along the way of the Cross, Luke offers us role models who teach us to live in our daily lives Jesus’ Passion as a journey towards resurrection. As the execution detail leads Jesus from the governor’s palace to the rock quarry outside the gates of the city where public executions took place, they impound Simon of Cyrene, a passerby, to carry the Cross of Jesus. Luke’s wording makes it clear that he sees in the figure of Simon an image of discipleship: Simon takes up the cross of Jesus and carries it “behind Jesus” (23:26).

The phrase is identical to Jesus’ own teaching on discipleship: “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27). Those who would live the way of Jesus must be willing to pour out their life on behalf of others. The mere fact of carrying the cross is not what is most important. Many persons in this world suffer dramatically: every people, every family has on its shoulders sorrows and burdens to bear. That which gives fullness of meaning to the cross is to carry it behind Jesus, not in a journey of anguished solitude, hopeless wandering or rebellion, but rather in a journey sustained and nourished by the presence of the Lord.

In Luke 23:27 we read, “Large crowds of people followed Jesus including many women who mourned and lamented him.” A sharing, which consists only in compassionate words or even in tears, is not enough. Each of us must be aware of our own responsibility in the drama of suffering, especially in the suffering of the just and the innocent. Jesus’ words in Luke 23:31 invite us to a realistic reading of the history of individuals and of communities. “For if these things are done when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?” (23:31) For example, if the innocent one is struck down in this way, what will happen to those who are responsible for the evil that comes about in the history of individuals and nations?

Jesus did not understand his earthly existence as a search for power, as a race for success or a career, as a desire to dominate others. On the contrary, as we read in today’s second reading from St. Paul’s letter to the community at Philippi, he gave up the privileges of his equality with God, took the form of a servant, became like men, and was obedient to the Father’s plan unto death on the Cross (2:6-11). In commemorating the events of Holy Week, we do much more than just recall Christ’s suffering and glorification. We actually celebrate his life and share in his victory. The saving power of his Death and Resurrection enters our lives. And Jesus becomes light and salvation for each individual and for all of humanity.

An Anniversary

Each Palm Sunday marks the anniversary of the institution of World Youth Day on Palm Sunday in 1985. Benedict XVI once described World Youth Day with the following words:

This great event, so ardently desired by Pope John Paul II, was a prophetic initiative that has borne abundant fruits, enabling new generations of Christians to come together, to listen to the Word of God, to discover the beauty of the Church and to live experiences of faith that have led many to give themselves totally to Christ.

World Youth Days, by design, draw in as many participants as possible, and remain a living memorial to Saint John Paul II, who understood instinctively why young people would respond to them. In remarks at the concluding Mass thanking Benedict XVI for his participation in Australia’s 2008 World Youth Day, Sydney’s Cardinal George Pell said that World Youth Day acts as an antidote to images of Catholicism as in decline or wracked by controversy – “It shows the Church as it really is, alive with evangelical energy.”

Cardinal Pell concluded his address to the Pope with prophetic and affirming words:

Your Holiness, the World Youth Days were the invention of Pope John Paul the Great. The World Youth Day in Cologne was already announced before your election. You decided to continue the World Youth Days and to hold this one in Sydney. We are profoundly grateful for this decision, indicating that the World Youth Days do not belong to one Pope, or even one generation, but are now an ordinary part of the life of the Church. The John Paul II generation – young and old alike – is proud to be faithful sons and daughters of Pope Benedict.

Remembering Toronto

Let me conclude by sharing the deeply moving words of Pope John Paul II in his final homily at Canada’s 2002 World Youth Day in Toronto. We need to hear these words, now more than ever. He said:

Even a tiny flame lifts the heavy lid of night. How much more light will you make, all together, if you bond as one in the communion of the Church! If you love Jesus, love the Church!

Do not be discouraged by the sins and failings of some of her members. The harm done by some priests and religious to the young and vulnerable fills us all with a deep sense of sadness and shame. But think of the vast majority of dedicated and generous priests and religious whose only wish is to serve and do good!

There are many priests, seminarians and consecrated persons here today; be close to them and support them! 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.

May Saint John Paul II continue to watch over us and bless us from the window of the Father’s house.

[The readings for Palm Sunday are Isaiah 50:4-7; Philippians 2:6-11; and Luke 22:14-23:56 or 23:1-49]

(Image: Le cortège dans les rues de Jerusalem by James Tissot)

Baptism is a Call to a Prophetic Career

Baptism of Jesus cropped

Baptism of our Lord, Year C – Sunday, January 10, 2016

The theme of Christ’s epiphany — of Jesus inaugurating his divine mission on earth — reaches its fulfillment in the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. The feast seemingly brings an end to the Christmas season, but Christmas really ends with the feast of the Presentation of the Lord on Feb. 2.

In today’s Gospel story (Luke 3:15-16, 21-22), Jesus begins his ministry in Galilee after the baptism preached by John. In describing the expectation of the people (3:15), Luke is characterizing the time of John’s preaching in the same way as he had earlier described the situation of other devout Israelites in the infancy narrative (2:25-26, 37-38). John the Baptist tells of one far greater than he, one with a more powerful baptism.

In contrast to John’s baptism with water, Jesus is said to baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire (Luke 3:16). From the point of view of the early Christian community, the Spirit and fire must have been understood in the light of the fire symbolism of the pouring out of the Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4). As part of John’s preaching, the Spirit and fire should be related to their purifying and refining characteristics (Ezekiel 36:25-27; Malachi 3:2-3).

When Jesus is baptized, the voice from heaven booms out and names him: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” This affirmation is the defining moment for the prophet from Nazareth. It is God’s declaration of love to God’s new Israel; it is God’s naming to supreme accountability; it is God’s surprise for the world of the proud and powerful.

Through his baptism by John in the muddy waters of the Jordan, Jesus opens the possibility to us of accepting our human condition and of connecting with God the way we were intended to. Jesus accepts the human condition, and this includes suffering and death. He stretched his arms out in the Jordan River and on the cross. In the Jordan, Jesus received his commission. On the cross he completed it. Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan identifies him deeply with the people he has come to redeem.

We, too, are called to a prophetic career.

When we were baptized into Christ Jesus, we were baptized into his death. Our baptism is a public, prophetic and royal anointing. We receive the life of the Church and are called to sustain that faith life. Faith is about concern for others. Faith is a public — not private — responsibility.

Baptism is a call to a prophetic career. How we live that out may vary from person to person. The ways may not be as dramatic as the adventures of an Isaiah or a John the Baptist, yet they are in that same great prophetic tradition. To be prophetic is to become involved and to get our hands and feet dirty.

Through our own baptism, we can become a light to others, just as Jesus is a light to us, and to the world. Our own baptism fills us with a certain boldness, confidence and enthusiasm, reminding us that the Gospel must be proclaimed with gratitude for its proven beauty.

When we slowly discover the demands of that faith, and where the way of repentance leads, when we can tell good from evil; when we search for what God wants to do in our lives and ask him to help us accomplish it; when we learn as much as we can about God and his world; when we come near to God, then — at that moment — the person for whom the heavens opened is revealed also to us.

Baptism in today’s Church

In many parts of the world today, baptizing children has already become the exception. The number of unbaptized infants, children, young people, and adults is on the rise. The decline in the practice of baptism is the result of an erosion of family ties and a departure from the Church. During numerous priests’ retreats, gatherings of priests and pastors, I have often heard it discussed that when the priest does not see visible signs of the practice of faith, then the Church would have the right to refuse the sacraments to people, especially baptism. It is a very complex question.

Could we not, however also listen anew to the Gospel missionary injunction to “baptize, preach and teach” not by waiting for the people to come to us but by going out to meet the people where they are in today’s messy world? What is demanded of us is a new missionary fervor and zeal that do not require extraordinary events. It is in ordinary, daily life that mission work is done. Baptism is absolutely fundamental to this fervor and zeal.

The sacraments are for the life of men and women as they are, not as we would like them to be! I can hear Saint Pope John Paul II crying out to us: “Duc in altum!” It is not in the shallow, familiar waters that you will find those who most need you!

The dilemma of withholding baptism and other sacraments from those believed to be unfit because they are not practicing has always been present in the Church. It is a dilemma that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger experienced personally as a young man, and finally resolved later in life. Listen to what Ratzinger, now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, said in replying to a related question from a priest of Bressanone in northern Italy, in a public question-and-answer session with the clergy of the diocese on Aug. 6, 2008. The priest, Father Paolo Rizzi, a pastor and professor of theology, asked Benedict XVI a question about baptism, confirmation, and first communion:

“Holy Father, 35 years ago I thought that we were beginning to be a little flock, a minority community, more or less everywhere in Europe; that we should therefore administer the sacraments only to those who are truly committed to Christian life. Then, partly because of the style of John Paul II’s Pontificate, I thought things through again. If it is possible to make predictions for the future, what do you think? What pastoral approaches can you suggest to us?”

Benedict XVI responded with these words, so fitting for us on the feast of the Baptism of the Lord this year:

“I must say that I took a similar route to yours. When I was younger I was rather severe. I said: the sacraments are sacraments of faith, and where faith does not exist, where the practice of faith does not exist, the Sacrament cannot be conferred either. And then I always used to talk to my parish priests when I was Archbishop of Munich: here too there were two factions, one severe and one broad-minded. Then I too, with time, came to realize that we must follow, rather, the example of the Lord, who was very open even with people on the margins of Israel of that time. He was a Lord of mercy, too open — according to many official authorities — with sinners, welcoming them or letting them invite him to their dinners, drawing them to him in his communion. […]

“I would say, therefore, that in the context of the catechesis of children, that work with parents is very important. And this is precisely one of the opportunities to meet with parents, making the life of faith also present to the adults, because, it seems to me, they themselves can relearn the faith from the children and understand that this great solemnity is only meaningful, true and authentic if it is celebrated in the context of a journey with Jesus, in the context of a life of faith. Thus, one should endeavor to convince parents, through their children, of the need for a preparatory journey that is expressed in participation in the mysteries and that begins to make these mysteries loved. […]

“I would say that this is definitely an inadequate answer, but the pedagogy of faith is always a journey and we must accept today’s situations. Yet, we must also open them more to each person, so that the result is not only an external memory of things that endures but that their hearts that have truly been touched. The moment when we are convinced the heart is touched — it has felt a little of Jesus’ love, it has felt a little the desire to move along these lines and in this direction, that is the moment when, it seems to me, we can say that we have made a true catechesis. The proper meaning of catechesis, in fact, must be this: to bring the flame of Jesus’ love, even if it is a small one, to the hearts of children, and through the children to their parents, thus reopening the places of faith of our time.”

May today’s feast of the Lord’s Baptism be an invitation to each of you to remember with gratitude and renew your own baptismal promises. Relive the moment of the water that rushed over you. Pray that the grace of your own baptism will help you to be light to others and to the world, and give you the strength and courage to make a difference in the world and in the Church. 

[The readings for the feast of the Baptism of the Lord are: Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7, or Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11; Acts 10:34-38, or Timothy 2:11-14; 3:4-7; and Luke 3:15-16, 21-22]

Mary: Model and Paradigm of Belief for Christians

Madonna and Child cropped

Reflection for the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God – Friday, January 1st, 2016

The Christian New Year is celebrated on Jan. 1, one week after the celebration of the birth of Jesus. Jan. 1 has been given several different names that reveal something of the nature of the feast. First of all, the Christian New Year is within the Octave of Christmas (i.e., eight days after the birth of Jesus.) Before the liturgical renewal of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) the Feast of the Circumcision of Jesus or the Naming of Jesus (Holy Name of Jesus) was celebrated on this date to commemorate the Gospel account of Jesus’ circumcision according to the ritual prescriptions of the Mosaic law, thus becoming officially a member of the people of the covenant: “At the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus” (Luke 2:21-24).

Following the liturgical renewal of the Second Vatican Council, Jan. 1 has now been known as the Solemnity of Mary the Mother of the Lord, and it has also been designated as the World Day of Prayer for Peace.

We may wonder if New Year’s Day has accumulated so many different meanings that people no longer pay attention to the feast. Is it also not true that the atmosphere of revelry attached to New Year’s Eve hardly leaves anyone with the energy, desire or willingness to consider New Year’s Day as a religious feast? Let us consider some of the biblical foundations for the various meanings attached to the Christian New Year.

Feast of the Circumcision and Naming of Jesus

In antiquity and in the Scriptures, it is a common belief that the name given to a person is not just a label but part of the personality of the one who bears it. The name carries will and power. The name conjures up the person; there is a desire to know the name and even a reluctance to give it in the Scriptures.

Jesus of Nazareth was born in Bethlehem to Jewish parents (Matthew 1-2; Luke 1-2). At his conception, it was announced by an angel that his name would be “Jesus.” The Hebrew and Aramaic name “Yeshua” (Jesus) is a late form of the Hebrew “Yehoshua” or Joshua. It was a very common name in New Testament times. The meaning of the name is “The Lord is salvation” and it is alluded to in Matthew 1:21 and Luke 2:21.

“Yeshua” refers to the Savior and was one of the Christian ways of naming and identifying Jesus. The Greek christos translates the Hebrew mashiah, “anointed one”; by this name Christians confessed their belief that Jesus was the Messiah. In the New Testament, the name, person and work of God are inseparably linked to those of Jesus Christ. True disciples of Jesus are to pray in his name (John 14:13-14). In John 2:23 believing in the name of Jesus is believing in him as the Christ, the Son of God (3:18). The name of Jesus has power only where there is faith and obedience (Mark 9:38-39). Believing in the holy name of Jesus leads to confession of the name (Hebrews 13:15). Calling on this name is salvation.

Solemnity of Mary, Mother of the Lord

The second person who is celebrated and honored on the Christian New Year is the mother of Jesus. This young woman of Jewish descent took upon herself the full responsibility of the word “yes” to a mysterious visitor at the Annunciation. By her response, she broke out of the cultural and religious boundaries of her time, manifesting great courage and faith. She literally brought heaven down to earth. Mary of Nazareth lived the memory of events and their meaning — always showing the ability to interpret the whole thread of her life through repeatedly calling to mind words and events.

“Mary” comes from the Hebrew “Miriam” whose etymology is probably from the Egyptian word meaning “beloved.” She is the disciple par excellence who introduces us to the goodness and humanity of God. Her womanhood is not in itself a sign of salvation but it is significant for the manner and way in which salvation happens. There is salvation in no other name but that of the man Jesus; but through this woman, Mary, we have humanity’s assent to salvation. Only in this way can we speak of a feminine realization of God’s salvation.

Today we celebrate the Mary, Mother of God, who is a model for every believer. I cannot help but recall the powerful words of Anglican Bishop N. T. Wright of Durham, England, during the 2008 synod on the Word of God in the life and mission of the Church. Bishop Wright, one of the papally-appointed fraternal delegates to the synod, spoke of the four great moments of Mary’s life with four words: Fiat, Magnificat, Conservabat and Stabat. Through her “fiat,” Mary gave assent to God’s Word with her mind. Through her “magnificat,” the Virgin Daughter of Nazareth reveals her strength and courage. In her heart, Mary meditated on and kept God’s Word: “conservabat.” Her fidelity to the end is described by the word “stabat” as she stood at the foot of the cross and waited patiently in her soul for the fulfillment of Simeon’s prophecy and experienced the new, unexpected and perhaps unwelcome, but yet saving revelation.

God calls each one of us through Scripture in complete love and grace, and the response of the obedient mind is “fiat”: Let it be to me according to your word. We, too, celebrate, with our strength, the relevance of the word to new personal and especially political situations: “magnificat.” Then we ponder in the heart what we have seen and heard: “conservabat.” But Scripture tells us that Mary, too, had to learn hard things: She wanted to control her son, but could not. Her soul is pierced with the sword, as she stands “stabat” at the foot of the cross. We too must wait patiently, letting the written Word tell us things that may be unexpected or even unwelcome, but which are yet salvific. We read humbly, trusting God and waiting to see his purpose unfold. Mary is truly a model and paradigm of belief for Christians.

World Day of Prayer for Peace

The World Day of Peace is an observance launched by the Church under Pope Paul VI in 1967. Christians are invited to begin a New Year praying for peace. The message of Pope Benedict XVI for the celebration of the 43rd World Day of Peace had as its theme: “If You Want To Cultivate Peace, Protect Creation,” a deliberate play on Paul VI’s famous words, “If you want peace, work for justice.”

In his message that year Pope Benedict presented “a cosmic vision of peace” a peace which “comes about in a state of harmony between God, humankind and the creation. In this perspective, environmental degradation is an expression not only of a break in the harmony between humankind and the creation, but of a profound deterioration in the unity between humankind and God.”

Benedict XVI had already earned a reputation as the “green Pope” because of his repeated calls for stronger environmental protection. The Pope’s language in that New Year’s message was quite forceful. “How can one remain indifferent in the face of problems such as climate change, desertification, the degradation and loss of productivity in vast agricultural areas, the pollution of rivers and aquifers, the loss of biodiversity, the increase in extreme weather, and the deforestation of equatorial and tropical areas?

“How can one overlook the growing phenomenon of so-called ‘environmental refugees,’ meaning persons who, because of environmental degradation, have to leave — often together with their belongings — in a kind of forced movement, in order to escape the risks and the unknown? How can we not react to the conflicts already underway, as well as potential new ones, linked to access to natural resources? […]

“These are all questions that have a profound impact on the exercise of human rights, such as the rights to life, to food, to health and to development.”

Benedict accented a vision of the cosmos as a gift of God, which human beings have an obligation to “care for and cultivate.” The Pope called for “a profound and farsighted revision of the model of development,” based not only on the needs of today’s “living beings, human and non-human,” but those of generations to come.

At the same time, Benedict XVI insisted that protecting the environment is “the duty of every person,” one which demands changes in personal habits and attitudes. Benedict called for “new styles of life,” based not solely upon the logic of consumption but also “sobriety and solidarity,” as well as “prudence.” For this reason, it is imperative that mankind renew and strengthen “that covenant between human beings and the environment, which should mirror the creative love of God, from whom we come and towards whom we are journeying.”

“Our present crises … are ultimately also moral crises, and all of them are interrelated. They require us to rethink the path which we are traveling together.”

Today, as we celebrate the Mother of the Lord who truly reconciled the many meanings given to today’s feast in her very life and witness, let us echo the words of St. Basil the Great whose feast immediately follows today’s celebration (Jan. 2):

“Let us give glory to God with the shepherds,
Let us dance in choir with the Angels,
for “this day a Savior has been born to us, the Messiah and Lord,”

He is the Lord who has appeared to us,
not in divine form, in order to terrify us in our weakness,
but in the form of a Servant, that He might set free
what had been reduced to servitude …”

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)

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