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“The Future of Humanity Passes Through the Family”

Holy Family cropped

Feast of the Holy Family – Sunday, December 27, 2015

In the afterglow of Christmas, the Church celebrates the feast of the Holy Family, inviting the faithful to reflect on the gift and mystery of life, and in particular the blessing of family.

Today’s Gospel story (Luke 2:41-52) relates an incident from Jesus’ youth that is unique in the New Testament. Luke’s infancy Gospel, however scarce in details concerning the first part of Jesus’ life, mentions that “his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the feast of the Passover” (2:41), an indication of their piety, their fidelity to the law and to the tradition of Israel.

“When [Jesus] was 12 years old, they went up according to custom” (2:42). “When they were returning, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, without his parents knowing it” (2:43). After searching for three days “they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions” (2:46).

Jesus’ mysterious words to his parents seem to subdue their joy at finding him: “How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (2:49). This phrase can also be translated, “I must be immersed in my Father’s work.” In either translation, Jesus refers to God as his Father. His divine sonship, and his obedience to his heavenly Father’s will, take precedence over his ties to his family.

Apart from this event, the whole period of the infancy and youth of Jesus is passed over in silence in the Gospel. It is the period of his “hidden life,” summarized by Luke in two simple statements: Jesus “went down with [Mary and Joseph] and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them” (Luke 2:51); and “He progressed steadily in wisdom and age and grace before God and men” (Luke 2:52). With this episode, the infancy narrative ends just as it began, in the setting of the Jerusalem temple.

We learn from the Gospels that Jesus lived in his own family, in the house of Joseph, who took the place of a father in regard to Mary’s son by assisting and protecting him, and gradually training him in his own trade of carpenter. The people of the town of Nazareth regarded him as “the carpenter’s son” [Matthew 13:55].

When he began to teach, his fellow citizens asked with surprise: “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary?” (Mark 6:3). Besides his mother, they mentioned also his “brothers” and his “sisters,” who lived at Nazareth. It was they who, as the evangelist Mark mentions, sought to dissuade Jesus from his activity of teaching (Mark 3:21). Evidently, they did not find in him anything to justify the beginning of a new activity. They thought that Jesus was just like any other Israelite, and should remain such.

School of Nazareth

The words of Pope Paul VI spoken in Nazareth on Jan. 5, 1964, are a beautiful reflection on the mystery of Nazareth and of the Holy Family. His words inspire all of us to imitate God’s family in their beautiful values of silence, family life and work. He said:

“Nazareth is a kind of school where we may begin to discover what Christ’s life was like and even to understand his Gospel.  Here we can observe and ponder the simple appeal of the way God’s Son came to be known, profound yet full of hidden meaning.

“And gradually we may even learn to imitate him. Here we can learn to realize who Christ really is. And here we can sense and take account of the conditions and circumstances that surrounded and affected his life on earth: the places, the tenor of the times, the culture, the language, religious customs, in brief everything which Jesus used to make himself known to the world. […]

“First we learn from its silence. If only we could once again appreciate its great value. We need this wonderful state of mind, beset, as we are, by the cacophony of strident protests and conflicting claims so characteristic of these turbulent times.  The silence of Nazareth should teach us how to meditate in peace and quiet, to reflect on the deeply spiritual, and to be open to the voice of God’s inner wisdom and the counsel of his true teachers. Nazareth can teach us the value of study and preparation, of meditation, of a well-ordered personal spiritual life, and of silent prayer that is known only to God.

“Second, we learn about family life. May Nazareth serve as a model of what the family should be. May it show us the family’s holy and enduring character and exemplifying its basic function in society: a community of love and sharing, beautiful for the problems it poses and the rewards it brings — in sum, the perfect setting for rearing children — and for this there is no substitute.

“Finally, in Nazareth, the home of a craftsman’s son, we learn about work and the discipline it entails. I would especially like to recognize its value — demanding yet redeeming — and to give it proper respect. I would remind everyone that work has its own dignity. On the other hand, it is not an end in itself. Its value and free character, however, derive not only from its place in the economic system, as they say, but rather from the purpose it serves.”

Challenges for today

Today we are witnesses to a worrisome lack of educational environments not only outside the Church, but even within the Church. The Christian family is no longer capable on its own of passing on the faith to the next generation, and neither is the parish, even though it continues to be the indispensable structure for the Church’s pastoral mission in any given place.

As a Christian community and as a society in general, we must do more to encourage the committed relationship of man and woman that remains so basic to all civilizations, and has proven to be the best support for the rights and needs of children. We must reflect carefully on the social consequences involved in the redefinition of marriage, examining all that is entailed if society no longer gives a privileged place and fundamental value to the lifelong union of a man and a woman in marriage.

As the keystone of society, the family is the most favorable environment in which to welcome children. At the same time, freedom of conscience and religion needs to be ensured, while also respecting the dignity of all persons, whatever their sexual orientation.

Two distinct challenges emerge from this great debates of our times surrounding marriage and family life. Today’s feast of the Holy Family issues an urgent invitation, especially to lay people, to uphold the dignity of the important institution and sacrament of Marriage. Support the Marriage Preparation Programs in your parish communities. Insist that in your parishes and dioceses, there are solid vocational programs for young adults and young people. Parishes, dioceses and lay movements that do not have creative pastoral strategies and vocational programs about marriage for young people leave the door open to tremendous moral confusion and misunderstanding, misinformation, emptiness.

At the same time, we cannot 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 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 inherent capacity to bring forth children.

On this feast of the Holy Family, let us recommit ourselves to building up the human family, to strengthening and enshrining 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.

Foundation of society

“The future of humanity passes through the family,” as Saint John Paul II would say so often. Today’s readings remind us that the family has a vital impact on society.

The foundation of society is the family. And the foundation of the family is marriage. The vocation to marriage is written in the very nature of man and woman. As the keystone of society, the family is the most favorable environment in which to welcome children.

We need young adults to say their “I do” with joy, conviction, faith and hope. They are our future and our hope. Without married people, we cannot build the future of society and the Church. Without committed, married people, we will not have holy families today.

[The readings for the feast of the Holy Family are Sirach 3:2-6, 12-14 or 1 Samuel 1:20-22, 24-28; Colossians 3:12-21 or 3:12-17 or 1 John 3:1-2, 21-24; and Luke 2:41-52]

The King Who Did Not Bow Down

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Kingdom of Jesus

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

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

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

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

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

Two crowns

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

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

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

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

Who, if not the condemned Savior?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marriage and the Family: Humanity’s Future

Holy Family cropped

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

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

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

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

Divorce, annulment and remarriage

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

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

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

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

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

The future of humanity passes through marriage and the family

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

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

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

Signs of hope for marriage, family life and vocations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For reflection, discussion and prayer

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

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

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

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

(Image: Holy Trinity and Holy Family by Murillo)

The Meaning of Christian Wisdom

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Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B – September 20, 2015

The picture of the righteous one in today’s first reading from the Book of Wisdom is based on the fourth Servant Song [Isaiah 52:13-53:12], as well as on Isaiah 42:1 and Psalm 22:8. Though the Book of Wisdom book was not accepted into the canon by the rabbis of Palestine, nonetheless it seems to have influenced the writers of the New Testament, especially in their portrait of Jesus, the righteous one who was unjustly condemned.

The haunting description of the wicked who lie in wait for the righteous in today’s first reading (Wisdom 2:12 and 17-20) leaves the hearers shocked. The thoughts and actions of the wicked are cold and calculated: “Let us see if his words are true, and let us test what will happen at the end of his life; for if the righteous man is God’s child, he will help him, and will deliver him from the hand of his adversaries. Let us test him with insult and torture, so that we may find out how gentle he is, and make trial of his forbearance. Let us condemn him to a shameful death, for, according to what he says, he will be protected” (2:17-20).

The righteous one is attacked because his lifestyle is a condemnation of the wicked: “He reproaches us for sins against the law” (2:12). The righteous one’s fidelity is vindicated. He does not die because he shares community with God. The righteous person is characterized by gentleness and patience, is tested, persecuted and even killed by the self-confident wicked. They resolve to persecute the righteous one because his life and words are a reproach to them (2:12-16), and they determine to test the claims of the righteous one (17-20). The wicked invite death by their evil deeds.

Who is wise among you?

The question introduced at the beginning the Letter of James 3 frames the entire discussion: “Who is wise and understanding among you?” In other words, how is wisdom perceived? James (3:13-4:3) addresses the symptoms of wisdom, both godly wisdom and another kind of wisdom, which is “earthly, unspiritual, devilish” (3:15). With 4:4, James spells out a sharp dichotomy between the wise and the unwise, characterizing the wise person as one who is an enemy of the world and the unwise as one who is “an enemy of God” (4:4). “Real wisdom is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy” [3:17].

The assigning of various vices and virtues to differing wisdoms becomes more intense in 4:1-3, where the author introduces questions of internal conflict with one another. When motives and behaviors are in conflict with one another, they provide another clue that wisdom is absent. The author of James defines wisdom as being docile, lenient, and peaceful. All of these are qualities of children, yet James and the Wisdom literature of the Bible also recognize these as mature adult qualities. Without such qualities, the person turns into a monster guilty of conflicts, disputes, wars, murder, envy, quarreling and fights. Such people squander what they receive on their own pleasures. True Christian wisdom is dedicated to others; jealousy and strife are self-centered. This passage makes it clear that we should imitate wisdom rather than fame and wealth.

Ingredients

Today’s Gospel passage (Mark 9:30-37) is the second of the Passion predictions of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel. Jesus’ announcement of his passion and death leaves the disciples without words. In the meantime, they argue who was the most important among them. We find the same pattern as in last week’s Gospel — the prediction, misunderstanding, and instruction on the nature of discipleship.

For Mark, these scenes contain all the ingredients of Christian wisdom. Like the other predictions, today’s passage is followed by a series of sayings on discipleship (9:30-37). In this brief discussion with Jesus, three features of the disciples are revealed.

First, even after failure, the disciples are singled out for special instruction. The immediate preceding incident details the inability of the disciples to help the father and his son who was troubled with an unclean spirit (9:14-29). Jesus scolds them harshly, since their failure has led to another confrontation with the scribes: “How much longer must I put up with you?” (9:19). Yet the weakness of the disciples has not diminished his zeal to prepare them for life in the Kingdom of God.

Second, the disciples find Jesus’ message baffling. This is the second time that Jesus predicts his destiny in Jerusalem, yet the disciples fail to understand and are so intimidated that they will not even ask any questions (9:32). When Jesus asks them what they are arguing about on the road, they were so embarrassed that they had nothing to say. They may not have understood much but they knew enough that their argument was completely out of order. They are baffled and humiliated. But Jesus has not given up on them yet.

The third thing that happens to the disciples is that they learn a profound lesson about what it means to be servant. When Mark uses the word “servant” in today’s Gospel, he is using the Greek word which also means deacon. This word is first used of the waiters who serve the water-made-wine at the wedding feast at Cana (John 2:5,9). Matthew uses it for the king’s servants in the parable of the marriage feast (Matthew 22:13). St. Paul describes himself as a servant of the Gospel (Colossians 1:23; Ephesians 3:7), servant of the Church (Colossians 1:25), servant of the new covenant in the Spirit (2 Corinthians 6:4). John uses it of Jesus’ adherents in general; they are his “deacons,” his servants (John 12:26).

Jesus tells us that he himself did not come on earth to be served; he came to serve [Mt 20:28; Mk 10:45]. The previous words on cross-bearing and losing one’s life (8:34-38) are given added meaning and specificity when Jesus speaks of being last of all and servant of all (9:35).

Greatness redefined

The whole notion of greatness is redefined for the disciples. New categories are established for determining success and failure, winning and losing, achievement and unfulfillment. At this point Jesus introduces the child into their midst. It is not the child’s naïveté or innocence, trustfulness or playfulness that is highlighted here, but the child’s lowly status, as one always under the authority of another and without rights. Jesus forges a new system of relationships: welcome the little child in my name and you welcome me; welcome me and you are welcoming no less than God himself. A communion of hospitality is established between the little child, Jesus, and God.

The child is an apt symbol for powerlessness and total reliance on others. Mark teaches us to welcome the powerless and the disenfranchised. Through this gesture, Jesus illustrates the qualities of the little child within each of us. Jesus possessed the child within in himself and he expects nothing less than these childlike qualities from his disciples.

The disciples become mirrors in which we see ourselves all too clearly. Their failures, their inability to understand typify the patterns of future generations of disciples like us who are also slow to understand the radical message of Jesus.

Wisdom and virtue

One of the profound, universal lessons about acquiring true wisdom was taught by Saint John Paul II during his historic address to the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York City on Oct. 5, 1995. Those words still ring in my heart and mind today. Addressing the leaders of the nations of the world, the Holy Father said:

“We must overcome our fear of the future. But we will not be able to overcome it completely unless we do so together. The ‘answer’ to that fear is neither coercion nor repression, nor the imposition of one social ‘model’ on the entire world. The answer to the fear which darkens human existence at the end of the 20th century is the common effort to build the civilization of love, founded on the universal values of peace, solidarity, justice, and liberty. And the ‘soul’ of the civilization of love is the culture of freedom: the freedom of individuals and the freedom of nations, lived in self-giving solidarity and responsibility.

“We must not be afraid of the future. We must not be afraid of man. It is no accident that we are here. Each and every human person has been created in the ‘image and likeness’ of the One who is the origin of all that is. We have within us the capacities for wisdom and virtue. With these gifts, and with the help of God’s grace, we can build in the next century and the next millennium a civilization worthy of the human person, a true culture of freedom. We can and must do so! And in doing so, we shall see that the tears of this century have prepared the ground for a new springtime of the human spirit.”

Let us pray that the Lord will bring to harvest the seeds of righteousness, wisdom and virtue sown in human hearts. Without these gifts, the civilization of love and the culture of freedom for which we all long will not be possible.

[The readings for the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time are: Wisdom 2:12, 17-20; James 3:16-4:3; and Mark 9:30-37]

(Image: “Sermon on the Mount” by Carl Bloch)

Caught Up in the Externals

Christ and the Pharisees cropped

Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B – August 30, 2015

How many times have we heard, or perhaps even said ourselves: “So-and-so is a Pharisee.” “That person is so Pharisaical.” “They are caught up in Pharisaism.”

Today’s Gospel (Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23) offers us a good opportunity to understand the role of the Pharisees in Judaism, and why Jesus and others had such strong feelings against their behavior. Who were the Pharisees of Jesus’ time, and who are their modern-day contemporaries?

Let me try to simplify a very complex topic to help us understand today’s Gospel. The Pharisees sought to make the Law come alive in every Jew, by interpreting its commandments in such a way as to adapt them to the various spheres of life.

The doctrine of the Pharisees is not opposed to that of Christianity. At the time of Jesus, the Pharisees were the “conservative party” within Judaism. They adhered strictly to the Torah and the Talmud and were outwardly very moral people. They were the leaders of the majority of the Jews and were revered by their followers for their religious zeal and dedication. Their main opposition was the party of the Sadducees, who were the “liberal party” within Judaism. The Sadducees were popular among the high-class minority.

Pharisees are mentioned when John the Baptist condemns them and the Sadducees in Matthew 3:7-10: “But seeing many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, offspring of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Why would John the Baptizer say that the Pharisees, who were outwardly moral, zealous, and religious, were the offspring of vipers?

Jesus reserved his harshest words for the Pharisees as well. In Matthew 16:6, Jesus warned the disciples, “Watch and take heed from the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” What were the disciples to beware of? Were they to beware of the immorality of the Pharisees and Sadducees?

Adherence to the law

The Pharisees in Jesus’ time promoted adherence to the law with a genuine interior response and advocated ordinary day-to-day spirituality. There were some Pharisees who were caught up only in external prescriptions, but they would have been criticized by other Pharisees even as the prophet Isaiah criticized hypocrisy in the past. Similarly, Jesus reprimanded aberrant Pharisees occasionally and had some clashes with them over his reinterpretation of the law. Jesus did not condemn Pharisaism as such or all Pharisees.

The Pharisees “relied on themselves, that they are righteous.” They believed that their own works — their doing what God commands and their abstaining from what God forbids — were what gained and maintained God’s favor and recommended them to God. The Pharisees self-righteously and hypocritically despised all others who did not meet the same standard of law keeping that they met.

They would not eat with the tax collectors and other sinners, because they were self-righteously aloof. They spent their time murmuring about who was eating and drinking with Jesus. Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:31-32).

No etiquette lesson!

In today’s Gospel passage, (Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23), the Pharisees and scribes come from Jerusalem to investigate Jesus. Jesus abolishes the practice of ritual purity and the distinction between clean and unclean foods. The watchdogs of religious tradition cite Jesus for running a rather lax operation! Some of his disciples were eating with unwashed hands (Mark 7:2). Pharisees and scribes seize this infraction of the law and challenge Jesus, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” (v. 5).

Jesus doesn’t respond with an etiquette lesson or an explanation of personal hygiene. Instead, he calls the Pharisees and scribes what they are: “you hypocrites” (v. 6). Quoting Isaiah, Jesus exposes the condition of the legalists’ hearts. They cling to human precepts and put their trust in the traditions of their elders over the commandment of God (v. 8).

Against the Pharisees’ narrow, legalistic, and external practices of piety in matters of purification (Mark 7:2-5), external worship (7:6-7), and observance of commandments, Jesus sets in opposition the true moral intent of the divine law (7:8-13).

But he goes beyond contrasting the law and Pharisaic interpretation of it. Mark 7:14-15 in effect sets aside the law itself in respect to clean and unclean food. Jesus’ point is well taken — and most Pharisees would have agreed — that internal attitude is more important than the externals of the law.

Pharisaical notion of sin

Jesus rejects the Pharisees’ and the scribes’ notion of sin. For Jesus, sin is the human spirit gone wrong, not a failure to distinguish between types of food. Jesus’ attitude toward sin is consistent with his views regarding the Sabbath. The letter of the law without compassion is dehumanizing.

We can see how Jesus wants his message to be made known to the Pharisees and scribes (vv. 1-8), the crowd (“Listen to me, all of you, and understand” vv. 14-15) and his disciples (vv. 21-23). It is good news to all that God doesn’t desire legalism. Instead, because of what God has done in Jesus Christ, the Father offers a new kind of life. One doesn’t have to worry about how well one is obeying the rules and keeping oneself clean.

Having been made clean, we are now free to use our hands to serve others. We might even get them dirty in the process. God gives freedom from the law. God offers his grace. That is the same good news we get to share as we serve the legal-minded, the crowds, and even the disciples of Jesus who are around us.

Contemporary Pharisees

Who are the modern-day Pharisees and their followers? The blind modern-day Pharisees and their blind followers are very religious, moral, zealous people. They strive to keep God’s law, and they are zealous in their religious duties. They diligently attend Church every Sunday. They are hardworking, outwardly upright citizens. They keep themselves from and preach against moral evil.

In addition to being moral and religious and zealous, modern-day Pharisees and their followers do not believe that salvation is conditioned on the work of Christ alone; instead, they believe that salvation is ultimately up to human efforts and what the sinner adds to Christ’s work!

In contrast to the modern-day Pharisees and their followers, true Christians are those who boast in Christ crucified and no other, meaning that they believe that Christ’s work ensured the salvation of all whom He represented and is the only thing that makes the difference between salvation and condemnation. They know that their own efforts form absolutely no part of their acceptance before God. They rest in Christ alone as their only hope, knowing that it is the work of Christ by the grace of God that guarantees salvation.

Jesus showed that only those who were sinners in need of a healer, who do not have righteousness in themselves, who are devoid of divine entitlement, who do not deserve to be in fellowship with God, are the ones He came to call to repentance.

The medicine of mercy

Whenever I hear Jesus’ words about legalism in today’s Gospel, I cannot help but recall with gratitude and emotion Pope John XXIII. In his historic, opening address on Oct. 11, 1962, at the beginning of the momentous Second Vatican Council, John XXIII made it clear that he did not call Vatican II to refute errors or to clarify points of doctrine. The Church today, he insisted, must employ the “medicine of mercy rather than that of severity.”

The “Good Pope” as he was called, rejected the opinions of those around him who were “always forecasting disaster.” He referred to them as “prophets of gloom” who lacked a sense of history, which is “the teacher of life.” Divine Providence, he declared, was leading the world into a new and better order of human relations. “And everything, even human differences, leads to the greater good of the Church.”

“Papa Roncalli” was a human being, more concerned with his faithfulness than his image, more concerned with those around him than with his own desires. With an infectious warmth and vision, he stressed the relevance of the church in a rapidly changing society and made the church’s deepest truths stand out in the modern world. He knew that the letter of the law without compassion is dehumanizing.

“Papa Giovanni” was beatified by his successor, John Paul II in 2000. In 2014 he was canonized together with John Paul by Pope Francis. May he soften the hearts of the modern-day Pharisees and Sadducees who are alive and well in the Church and world today!

[The readings for the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time are: Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8; James 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27; and Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23]

(Image: “Christ and the Pharisees” by Ernst Zimmerman)

It Is Never Enough, Until We Give It Away

Kurelek cropped

Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B – July 26, 2015

Today’s Old Testament reading from 2 Kings 4:42-44 is a fitting prelude to John’s version of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes (6:1-21). The author of Kings tells us about one of Elisha’s servants who doubts that 20 loaves of barley is enough to feed 100 people. Elisha, however, trusts the promise of the Lord and overrules his servant. The miracle vindicates Elisha’s trust. The numbers fed are modest in comparison with the feeding of the 5,000 in John’s Gospel!

Bread is a symbol of the person and work of Jesus in John’s great Eucharistic teaching in Chapter 6, and this Eucharistic theme continues over the next four weeks of Scripture readings. Today’s Gospel is John’s marvelous story of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes. The various accounts of the multiplication of loaves and fishes, two each in Mark and in Matthew and one each in Luke and in John, indicate the wide interest of the early Church in their Eucharistic gatherings (e.g., Mark 6:41; 8:6; 14:22); and recall also the sign of bread in Exodus 16; Deuteronomy 8:3-16; Psalm 78:24-25; 105:40; Wisdom 16:20-21. The miraculous event, recounted by the four evangelists, points forward to the idea of life in God’s kingdom as a banquet at which the Messiah will preside.

Unique perspectives

Mark’s readers saw this incident as an anticipation of the Last Supper (14:22) and the messianic banquet, both of which were celebrated in the community’s Eucharists.

Matthew’s addition of the number of people present and fed is significant, because the total figure could well have come to 20,000 or 30,000 people and the miracle is repeated again in 15:38. The sheer numbers of those fed give the feeding stories a distinct social character.

Luke links his feeding account with Jesus’ prediction of his passion and his instructions about bearing one’s cross daily (9:18-27). To celebrate the Eucharist in memory of Jesus (22:19) is to share not only his mission (9:1-6) but also his dedication and destiny, symbolized by the cross (9:18-27). The Eucharist is part of a journey in Luke’s Gospel, nourishing and strengthening us for continuing faithfully in our way of life.

Johannine details

John’s multiplication story is a central part of Jesus’ important teaching on the Bread of Life (6:1-15). This story is immediately followed by Jesus’ walking on water. John’s multiplication story has been expanded in the introduction by the addition of 1) the vague chronological marker “after these things”; 2) the specification of the place, Lake of Tiberias. This is also the place of the appearance of the risen Lord in John 21:1; 3) the motivation for the crowd — they have seen Jesus’ healings (signs); 4) the reference to the impending “Passover of the Jews.”

As in other Johannine miracle stories, the initiative for this miracle clearly lies with Jesus. Philip does not perceive that Jesus’ question is an appeal to his faith and simply refers to the amount of money required. Jesus teases Philip to have bigger dreams and better hopes rather than to reduce them down to reality. In verses 14-15, the crowds respond correctly that Jesus is the messianic prophet, but misunderstand what they are really saying. The true nature of Jesus’ kingship, which is not that of a national liberator, will only be revealed at his trial (18:33-37; 19:12-15).

One unique Johannine touch is the role of the young boy in this miracle story. What human reason did not dare to hope became a reality with Jesus thanks to a young boy’s generous heart.

Living bread

The multiplication of the loaves is an enduring image of the Eucharist. Jesus wanted to use this humble gift of a few loaves and fishes to feed a multitude, and more (12 baskets were left!). Logic and human reason often say to us, “We have no more than five loaves and two fish.” But Jesus asks that even such meager provisions as these, together with the trust and generosity of disciples of every age, be stretched to their limits. “Let’s see. It will never be enough until we start to give it away.”

For the believer, Jesus is much more than a miracle worker; he himself is heavenly food. The believer will never again experience hunger or thirst. As bread sustains life, Jesus will sustain all who approach him in faith. To acknowledge Jesus as the living bread is the ultimate expression of God’s love in Christ’s death and glorification.

Prolonging the miracle

Whenever I read the miracle stories of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, I recall these stirring words from Pope John Paul II’s 1998 Apostolic Letter “Dies Domini” — On Keeping the Lord’s Day (No. 71). These words illustrate what lies at the heart of today’s miracle of the loaves and fishes and challenge each of us about our duties to truly put the Eucharist into practice in daily life:

“The teachings of the Apostles struck a sympathetic chord from the earliest centuries, and evoked strong echoes in the preaching of the Fathers of the Church.

“St. Ambrose addressed words of fire to the rich who presumed to fulfill their religious obligations by attending church without sharing their goods with the poor, and who perhaps even exploited them: ‘You who are rich, do you hear what the Lord God says? Yet you come into church not to give to the poor but to take instead.’

“St. John Chrysostom is no less demanding: ‘Do you wish to honor the body of Christ? Do not ignore him when he is naked. Do not pay him homage in the temple clad in silk only then to neglect him outside where he suffers cold and nakedness. He who said: ‘This is my body’ is the same One who said: ‘You saw me hungry and you gave me no food,’ and ‘Whatever you did to the least of my brothers you did also to me’ … What good is it if the Eucharistic table is overloaded with golden chalices, when he is dying of hunger? Start by satisfying his hunger, and then with what is left you may adorn the altar as well.’

“These words effectively remind the Christian community of the duty to make the Eucharist the place where fraternity becomes practical solidarity, where the last are the first in the minds and attentions of the brethren, where Christ himself — through the generous gifts from the rich to the very poor — may somehow prolong in time the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves.”

Questions for reflection

What does Jesus’ Eucharistic presence mean for us? Does our participation in the weekly and daily celebrations of the Lord’s meal transform us into people of gratitude, loving kindness, justice and charity? 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 giving direction to our life?

Do we not often wonder where we shall get the means to accomplish what seems good and necessary? Today’s miracle reveals the extraordinary resources of life within each of us. In order to sustain our hopes, we must believe in miracles. We must feast on the Body and Blood of the Lord for our real energy and life.

[The readings for the 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time are: 2 Kings 4:42-44; Ephesians 4:1-6; and John 6:1-15]

(Image: Mural of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes by William Kurelek at St. Thomas More College, Saskatoon)

May the Memory of Rabbi Elio Toaff be a Blessing for Us

JP II Rabbi Toaff 1986

The Jewish community around the world mourms the death of Rabbi Elio Toaff who died today (April 19) in Rome at the age of 99. He would have turned 100 on April 30 of this year. Born in Livorno on April 30, 1915, Toaff is universally regarded as one of the highest authorities of the spiritual and moral Jewish Italy after World War II. In 1947 he served as a rabbi in Venice and in 1951 he became the Chief Rabbi of Rome holding that position until 2002.

Rabbi Toaff was also loved by Christians and Catholics for the critical role he played in Jewish-Christian relations during the long pontificate of St. John Paul II. It was Rabbi Toaff, then chief of Rome’s great synagogue, who welcomed the Pope to his synagogue on April 14, 1986. This one-mile trip across the Tiber River to Great Synagogue of Rome was believed to be the first time since Peter that a pope had entered the Rome synagogue, and symbolically it marked a watershed in Catholic-Jewish relations. Christianity has an organic relationship to Judaism that it does not have to any other faith.

I remember the day vividly. As John Paul II arrived on the steps of the imposing Victorian synagogue overlooking the Tiber River, he was embraced by Chief Rabbi Toaff. The Pope returned the embrace and then entered the synagogue to a thundering ovation from a congregation of 1,000 people, many of them descendants of Jews who had been forced to live apart from other Romans.

”The Jews are beloved of God, who has called them with an irrevocable calling,” John Paul said, speaking in Italian and, briefly, in Hebrew. ”The Jewish religion is not ‘extrinsic’ to us, but in a certain way is ‘intrinsic’ to our own religion,” he said elsewhere in his address. ”With Judaism, therefore, we have a relationship which we do not have with any other religion. You are our dearly beloved brothers, and, in a certain way, it could be said that you are our elder brothers.”

“The heart opens itself,” Rabbi Toaff declared in the gathered assembly, ”to the hope that the misfortunes of the past will be replaced by fruitful dialogue.”

JP II Rabbi Toaff Synagogue 1986

For the Jewish people, a traditional Jewish expression of sympathy at the death of loved ones is “Zikhrono li-verakhah” (May his memory be for a blessing). The lives of St. John Paul II and Rabbi Elio Toaff are blessings for the Catholic and Jewish communities, and for the unique relationship between them. As the years pass, may their memories also be a blessing, a model, a point of embarkation and an inspiration, that another generation of Catholics and Jews will commit themselves to pursuing with energy, commitment, respect and faith the dialogue which was so close to the hearts of Pope John Paul II and Rabbi Elio Toaff.

Upon John Paul II’s death in April 2005, Rabbi Gerald Zelizer, of Neve Shalom Synagogue in New Jersey, offered one of the most touching and hopeful evaluations of John Paul’s legacy in terms of Catholic-Jewish dialogue:

“When Michelangelo was on his deathbed, his students at his bedside wailed: ‘Michelangelo, how will Rome ever get along without you?’ To which, it is reported, Michelangelo faintly waved his hand to the window, with its vision of his sculptures and architecture, and whispered, ‘Rome will never be without me.’ Surely, John Paul would not be so boastful. But because he has reshaped the Catholic Church during his long tenure, we Jews, “the elder brother,” are hopeful in declaring, “We Jews shall never be without you.”

(“Respect for faith’s ‘elder brother’,” USA Today (April 5, 2005)

Tonight we say those words about Rabbi Toaff: “Zikhrono li-verakhah” (May his memory be for a blessing). We Catholics shall never be without you, remembering with affection and gratitude your embrace and deep desire for reconciliation and understanding with us.

Gazing Upon the Face of Jesus

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Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year B – March 22, 2015

The Fifth Sunday of Lent (Year B) invites us to fix our gaze upon Jesus, the model priest of suffering, compassion, and human solidarity.

First, let us consider John’s Gospel story from Chapter 12 — a fitting climax to Jesus’ public ministry. It is the last official act before the events of his passion next Sunday. There are Gentiles, non-Jews, who seek Jesus out for the first time. They do not come simply to catch a glimpse of him, to have some general audience with him, but rather to “see” him. In John’s Gospel, “seeing” Jesus is believing in him. How simple yet how stunning a request: “Sir, we would like to see Jesus” [John 12:21]!

Throughout the entire Scriptures, men and women have longed to see God, to gaze upon God’s countenance, beauty and glory. How many times in the psalms do we ask to see the face of God? “Shine your face on your servant” (Psalm 119:135). Not only do we beg to see God’s face, but we are told to look for it. “Seek my face,” says the Lord (Psalm 27:8).

But we cannot seem to find the face we are told to look for. Then the laments begin: “Do not hide your face from me” (Psalm 102:2). “Why do you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 88:14). “How long will you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 13:2). We beg, we seek, but we cannot find God’s face. Then we are distraught. Moses, speaking as friend-to-friend, asked to see God’s face. But God said to him, “You cannot see my face; for no one shall see my face and live” (Exodus 33:20).

When we ask in the Psalms to see God’s face, we are really asking to see God as God truly is, to gaze into the depths of God. In the last chapter of the last book of the Scriptures, it is written: “They will see his face” (Revelation 22:4). We see God’s face revealed to us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. How often do we long to “see” the face of Jesus? Where are we seeking his face today? What do we do when we finally “see” the face of Jesus?

Garden of suffering

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews is filled with the thoughts and theology of Paul and John, but he also contemplates Jesus’ agony in the garden in relation to temple sacrifices and the priesthood according to the Hebrew Scriptures. The Old Testament never dreamed of requiring the high priest to make himself like his brothers and sisters, but was preoccupied on the contrary with separating him from them. An attitude of compassion toward sinners appeared to be incompatible with the priesthood of the Old Covenant. Furthermore, no text ever required that the high priest should be free from all sin.

Hebrews 5:7-9 presents us with a different type of priesthood — one of extraordinary compassion and solidarity. In his days on earth, Jesus shared our flesh and blood, crying out with prayers and silent tears. Jesus has been tested in all respects like us — he knows all of our difficulties; he is a tried man; he knows our condition from the inside and from the outside — only by this did he acquire a profound capacity for compassion. That is the only kind of priesthood that makes a difference, and that matters, then and now.

What does this image of Jesus teach us today? Far from creating an abyss between Jesus Christ and ourselves, our own daily trials and weaknesses have become the privileged place of our encounter with him, and not only with him, but with God himself. The consequence is that from now on, not one of us can be bowed down under a painful situation without finding that Christ is, by that very fact, at our side. Jesus was “heard because of his ‘reverence’ or his ‘pious submission.'” And we are given the consolation that we, too, will be heard because of our own persistence in prayer, our reverence before God and our pious submission to his will for us.

John Paul II’s agony

We read in today’s Gospel passage that the Greeks address themselves first to Philip, who is from the village of Bethsaida on the Sea of Galilee: “Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus” (John 12:22). To see Jesus, one must be led to him by an apostle. The testimony of those who lived with him, at his side, shows him to us and we cannot do without this testimony.

We need the apostolic writings, especially the Gospels, handed down to us by tradition, of which our parents, priests, deacons, teachers, catechists, preachers and other believers are witnesses and bearers of the Good News. How important and necessary it is to recognize those key people in our lives who are living witnesses and links to the tradition and the Good News about Jesus Christ! One such person for millions of people throughout the world was Karol Wojtyla, the man we know as Saint John Paul II.

Almost exactly ten years ago, the world witnessed the agony and passion of this Successor of Peter in a most public way. As we commemorate the tenth anniversary of the John Paul II’s death on April 2, I cannot help but recall those moving days and see how much he revealed to us the face of God and the image of Jesus crucified.

One of the most powerful lessons he taught us in the twilight of his Pontificate was that everyone must suffer, even the Vicar of Christ. Rather than hide his infirmities, as most public figures do, he let the whole world see what he went through. In the final act of his life, the athlete was immobilized, the distinctive, booming voice silenced, and the hand that produced voluminous encyclicals no longer able to write. Yet nothing made John Paul II waver, even the debilitating sickness hidden under the glazed Parkinsonian mask, and ultimately his inability to speak and move. Many believe that the most powerful message he preached was when the words and actions failed.

One of the unforgettable, silent, teaching moments of those final days took place on Good Friday night 2005, while the Pope, seated in his private chapel in the Vatican, viewed the television coverage of the Via Crucis from Rome’s Colosseum. At the station commemorating the death of the Lord, a television camera in the papal chapel showed the Pope embracing a cross in his hands with his cheek resting against the wood. His accepting of suffering and death needed no words. The image spoke for itself.

Several hours before his death, Pope John Paul’s last audible words were: “Let me go to the house of the Father.” In the intimate setting of prayer, as Mass was celebrated at the foot of his bed and the throngs of faithful sang below in St. Peter’s Square, he died at 9:37 p.m. on April 2. Through his public passion, suffering and death, this holy priest, Successor of the Apostles, and Servant of God, showed us the face of Jesus in a remarkable way.

[The readings for this Sunday are: Jeremiah 31:31-34; Hebrew 5:7-9; and John 12:20-33. For use with RCIA, Ezekiel 37:12-14; Romans 8:8-11; John 11:1-45 or 11:3-7, 17, 20-27, 33b-45.]

(Image: CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano)

The Beatitudes: Blueprint for Holiness

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Solemnity of All Saints – Saturday, November 1, 2014

The following words of Cardinal Angelo Amato, S.D.B., Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, spoken during the Synod of Bishops on the Word of God in 2008, still resound in my mind and heart on this Solemnity of All Saints:

Jesus says: “Learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:29). For more than 2,000 years men and women, old and young, wise and ignorant, in the East as in the West, applied themselves to the school of the Lord Jesus, which caused this sublime commandment to echo in their hearts and minds: “You must therefore be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (5:48) […]

Their library was largely composed of the life and the words of Jesus: blessed are the poor, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the gentle, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for uprightness, blessed are the merciful, blessed are the pure in heart, blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are those who are persecuted. The saints, understanding that the Beatitudes are the essence of the Gospel and the portrait of Christ Himself, became their imitators. 

The Beatitudes: Blueprint for Holiness

The Beatitudes in Christ’s Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1-12) are a recipe for extreme holiness. As has been pointed out by many others in the past, though the Mount of the Beatitudes is a few dozen feet above sea level, it is the really the highest peak on earth! On this holy mountain in Galilee, Jesus proclaimed the new law that was expression of Christ’s holiness. They are not an abstract code of behavior. Jesus is the poor in spirit, the meek, the persecuted, the peacemaker. He is the new “code of holiness” that must be imprinted on hearts, and that must be contemplated through the action of the Holy Spirit. His Passion and Death are the crowning of his holiness.

Holiness is a way of life that involves commitment and activity. It is not a passive endeavour but rather a continuous choice to deepen one’s relationship with God and then to allow this relationship to guide all of one’s actions in the world. Holiness requires a radical change in mindset and attitude. The acceptance of the call to holiness places God as our final goal in every aspect of our lives.

Looking at Jesus, we see what it means to be poor in spirit, gentle, and merciful, to mourn, to care for what is right, to be pure in heart, to make peace, to be persecuted. This is why he has the right to say to each of us, “Come, follow me!” The call of Christ is not simply, “Do what I say.” He says, “Come, follow me!” 

Taking stock of our treasury of Saints

The Saints and Blesseds are travel companions along our journey, in our joy and in our suffering. They are men and women who turned a new page in their own lives and in the lives of so many people. This was the core of Saint John Paul II’s message to humanity: holiness is not a gift reserved for a few. We can all aspire to it, because it is a goal within our capacity – a great lesson articulated by the Second Vatican Council and its call to universal holiness (cf. Lumen Gentium).

The Solemnity of All Saints is a wonderful opportunity for the whole Church to take stock once again of the way that Pope John Paul II changed our way of viewing the Saints and Blesseds. In nearly 27 years of his pontificate, he gave the Church 1,338 Blesseds and 482 Saints!

John Paul II reminded us that the heroes and heroines the world offers to young people today are terribly flawed. They leave us so empty. The real “stars” are the Saints and Blesseds who never tried to be regarded as heroes, or to shock or provoke. To believe greatness is attainable, we need successful role models to emulate. There is a desperate need for real heroes and heroines, models and witnesses of faith and virtue that the world of sports, cinema, science, and music simply cannot provide.

Standing at the radical centre

Many think that sainthood is a privilege reserved only for the chosen few. In fact, to become a saint is the task of every Christian, and what’s more, we could even say it’s the task of everyone! How many times have we thought that the Saints are merely “eccentrics” that the Church exalts for us to try to imitate – people who were so unrepresentative of and out of touch with the reality of the human scene? It is certainly true that all of those men and women were “eccentric” in its literal sense: they deviated from the centre, from usual practice, from the ordinary ways of doing things, the established methods. Another way of looking at the saints is that they stood at the “radical centre.”

Be the Saints of the New Millennium

Saint John Paul II spoke powerfully to young people about the call to holiness and their vocation to be saints. In his message for World Youth Day 2000 in Rome, he wrote to his “dear young friends” throughout the world unforgettable words that became the rallying cry for the greatest celebration of the Jubilee Year:

Young people of every continent, do not be afraid to be the saints of the new millennium! Be contemplative, love prayer; be coherent with your faith and generous in the service of your brothers and sisters, be active members of the Church and builders of peace. To succeed in this demanding project of life, continue to listen to His Word, draw strength from the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist and Penance. The Lord wants you to be intrepid apostles of his Gospel and builders of a new humanity.

Two years later for our World Youth Day 2002 in Canada, John Paul II took up the theme of holiness and saints with renewed vigour:

Just as salt gives flavor to food and light illumines the darkness, so too holiness gives full meaning to life and makes it reflect God’s glory. How many saints, especially young saints, can we count in the Church’s history! In their love for God their heroic virtues shone before the world, and so they became models of life which the Church has held up for imitation by all. […] Through the intercession of this great host of witnesses, may God make you too, dear young people, the saints of the third millennium!

At the concluding World Youth Day Mass at Downsview Park in Toronto on July 28, 2002, Saint John Paul issued a stirring challenge:

And if, in the depths of your hearts, you feel the same call to the priesthood or consecrated life, do not be afraid to follow Christ on the royal road of the Cross! At difficult moments in the Church’s life, the pursuit of holiness becomes even more urgent. And holiness is not a question of age; it is a matter of living in the Holy Spirit, just as Kateri Tekakwitha did here in America and so many other young people have done.

Pope Benedict XVI continued the momentum of John Paul’s invitations and exhortations to holiness at World Youth Day 2005 in Cologne, Germany. At the opening ceremony on August 18, 2005, Benedict addressed the throng of young people gathered from across the entire world:

Dear young people, the Church needs genuine witnesses for the new evangelization: men and women whose lives have been transformed by meeting with Jesus, men and women who are capable of communicating this experience to others. The Church needs saints. All are called to holiness, and holy people alone can renew humanity. Many have gone before us along this path of Gospel heroism, and I urge you to turn often to them to pray for their intercession.

Benedict XVI continued this theme at the great Vigil on Saturday evening, August 20, 2005 at Marienfeld:

It is the great multitude of the saints – both known and unknown – in whose lives the Lord has opened up the Gospel before us and turned over the pages; he has done this throughout history and he still does so today. In their lives, as if in a great picture book, the riches of the Gospel are revealed. They are the shining path which God himself has traced throughout history and is still tracing today.

Then Pope Benedict XVI cried out in that great assembly of over one million young people gathered in prayer at Marienfeld in Cologne:

The saints…are the true reformers. Now I want to express this in an even more radical way: only from the saints, only from God does true revolution come, the definitive way to change the world.

The core of the proclamation of Saints and Blesseds

Every crisis that the Church faces, every crisis that the world faces, is a crisis of holiness and a crisis of saints. Holiness is crucial because it is the real face of the Church. The core of the proclamation of the Saints and Blesseds was always hope, even in the midst of the darkest moments of history. It’s almost as if in those times of darkness the light of Christ shines ever more brightly. We are living through one of those times, and the Lord is still taking applications for his extreme form of holiness and sanctity.

Believers in Jesus and his message must allow themselves to be enticed and enchanted by his life and his message contained in the Beatitudes. Today we must hold up the Beatitudes as a mirror in which we examine our own lives and consciences. “Am I poor in spirit? Am I humble and merciful? Am I pure of heart? Do I bring peace? Am I ‘blessed,’ in other words, ‘happy’?” Jesus not only gives us what he has, but also what he is. He is holy and makes us holy.

[The readings for the Solemnity of All Saints are: Revelation 7:2-4, 9-14; 1 John 3:1-3; and Matthew 5:1-12a.]
All-Saints-Rosica

Triumph of the Cross

JPII Cross cropped

The Exaltation of the Holy Cross –  Sunday, September 14, 2014

At the heart of every World Youth Day is a very simple, powerful, ancient Christian symbol: two large planks of wood, known as the World Youth Day Cross, that not a few journalists have called the “Olympic Torch” of the huge Catholic Festival that we were blessed to have in Canada in July 2002.

In 1984, at the close of the 1983 Holy Year of the Redemption at the
Vatican, Saint John Paul II entrusted to the young people of the world a
simple, twelve-foot wooden Cross, asking them to carry it across the world
as a sign of the love which the Lord Jesus has for humankind and “to proclaim to everyone that only in Christ who died and is risen is there salvation and redemption.” Since that day, carried by generous hands and loving hearts, the Cross has made a long, uninterrupted pilgrimage across the continents, to demonstrate, as Pope John Paul II had said, “the Cross walks with young people and young people walk with the Cross.”

The memories of the World Youth Day 2002 Cross Pilgrimage throughout Canada continue to stir many hearts and evoke wonderful memories many years after the great pilgrimage began in our land on April 11, 2001. The WYD Cross literally touched the three oceans that border Canada. It visited our cities, towns, and rural areas, inviting throngs of people into the streets for processions, prayers, all-night vigils, tears, and moments of reconciliation, healing, and peace.

Such expressions of popular piety had been absent for far too many years from the Canadian ecclesial landscape. In the midst of the carefully orchestrated pilgrimage throughout the 72 dioceses of Canada, the Cross took a detour in February 2002, which was not part of the normal World Youth Day preparations in previous host countries. A convoy of buses left Toronto early on a cold Sunday morning, accompanied by representatives of Canadian police, ambulance, and fire fighters, and set out with the WYD Cross in tow for 48 hours in New York City.

After a Sunday evening Mass in Manhattan’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral with a Canadian Bishop, and an early morning Mass with the Vatican’s permanent observer at the United Nations, we carried the cross to Ground Zero, into the “pit,” to pray for the victims of the September 11th tragedies at the World Trade Centre and elsewhere throughout the United States. The visit, which received international media coverage, was a sign of hope, consolation, solidarity, and peace to the people of America and the entire world, struggling to understand the evil, terror, violence, and death-dealing forces that humanity experienced on September 11, 2001.

The journey into Ground Zero was for us a very public act of defiance and
courage. Six young people from the World Youth Day 2002 National Team
carried the large cross up to the special platform built for the families of the victims of the World Trade Centre tragedy. While they processed with the cross, the rest of us sang the Taizé refrain: “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your Kingdom.” As the cross was placed in its metal stand at the edge of the huge crater where the twin towers once stood, the singing grew louder. It was an act of defiance because there, in a place that spoke loudly of destruction, devastation, terror, and death, we raised up a wooden cross – an instrument of death that has been transformed into the central life-giving symbol of the Christian faith. The significance of the action was lost on no one.

Earlier that morning at Mass in the Church of the Saviour near the United
Nations, Archbishop Renato Martino, told us in his moving homily:

The Sacred Scriptures speak to us about sin, and the desperate need we all have for conversion. What you will see today when you visit Ground Zero is the consequence of sin: a crater of dirt and ashes, of human destruction and sorrow; a vestige of sin that is so evil that words could never suffice to explain it.

Nevertheless, it is never enough to talk about the effects of terrorism, the destruction it causes, or those who perpetrate it. We do a disservice to those who have died in this tragedy if we fail to search out the causes. In this search, a broad canvas of political, economic, social, religious, and cultural factors emerge. The common denominator in these factors is hate, a hate that transcends any one people or region. It is a hatred of humanity itself, and it kills even the one who hates.

The Cross of Jesus Christ blessed and marked World Youth Day 2002 in an
extraordinary fashion. Each catechetical site was graced by a replica of the World Youth Day Cross. It was present at each of the main ceremonies. It led our processions, called us to prayer and reflection, healed us, reconciled us, and touched our hearts. Its memory lingers among us several years later.

Who can ever forget the hauntingly beautiful images of the World Youth Day Cross leading over half a million people – mostly on their knees – in the Stations of the Cross on Friday evening, July 26, 2002: up Toronto’s majestic University Avenue, passing before its court houses, the American Consulate, Government Buildings, hospitals, the university, Provincial Parliament, and various museums? A principal street of a great city was transformed into a contemporary Via Dolorosa, while over a billion people watched the scenes of this modern-day passion play unfold via satellite and television.

On Saturday evening, July 27, 2002, during the Great Vigil of World Youth Day 2002, at a former military base that is now Toronto’s Downsview Park, Pope John Paul II begin his address to over 600,000 young people with these words:

The new millennium opened with two contrasting scenarios: one, the sight of multitudes of pilgrims coming to Rome during the Great Jubilee to pass through the Holy Door which is Christ, our Saviour and Redeemer; and the other, the terrible terrorist attack on New York, an image that is a sort of icon of a world in which hostility and hatred seem to prevail. The question that arises is dramatic: on what foundations must we build the new historical era that is emerging from the great transformations of the twentieth century?

During the closing Eucharistic celebration on Sunday, July 28, 2002, the
Holy Father presented to young pilgrims in the crowd of more than 850,000 people gathered with him small wooden crosses, hand made by young people living in the poorest barrios of Bogotá and Medellín in Colombia. We could have chosen many places to have these crosses made – but World Youth Day 2002 chose to have the crosses made in a land that has had its share of cross over the past years.

Because we follow a crucified Christ, we enter into solidarity with the world’s suffering masses. We experience the power and love of God through the vulnerable and suffering. The Cross teaches us that what could have remained hideous and beyond remembrance is transformed into beauty, hope, and a continuous call to heroic goodness.

At the conclusion of the closing Eucharistic liturgy, the elderly Pontiff told young people not to 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.” He invited his young friends to “learn from that cross.”

The feast of the Triumph or the Exaltation of the Cross originated in the
tradition that Emperor Constantine’s mother, Helena, discovered the Cross on which Jesus died on September 14, 320 AD in Jerusalem. From very early on, the triumph attributed to the Cross functioned more within the “normal” understanding of triumph: namely, a victory won over another, achieved by violence of some sort. But is it not rather outrageous to speak of a cross as triumphant? The crucifixion of Jesus is the great, divine paradox. The Cross, an instrument of death, is transformed into our life-giving tree. Through the mystery of the Cross, Jesus crucified becomes our life and our light in the midst of death and darkness.

When all the commotion and frenzied activity of World Youth Day was over, I was convinced that one of the lasting memories that would remain in our country was that simple, wooden Cross, which was such a huge blessing and source of consolation, healing, strength, and peace to the hundreds of thousands of people who embraced it, touched it, kissed it, learned from it, and allowed themselves to be touched by the awesome message and memory of the One who died upon it.

To celebrate the Triumph of the Cross is to acknowledge the full, cruciform
achievement of Jesus’ career. Jesus asks us to courageously choose a life
similar to his own. Suffering cannot be avoided nor ignored by those who follow Christ. Following Jesus implies suffering and a cross. The mark of the Messiah is to become the mark of his disciples.

[The readings for the Exaltation of the Holy Cross are: Numbers 21:4-9; Philippians 2:6-11; and John 3:13-17.]