The Suffering and Death of a Shepherd

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Good Friday – Friday, April 18, 2014

For our Good Friday Reflection this year, and in preparation for the Canonization of Blessed Pope John Paul II next Sunday, April 27, 2014, I have chosen to share with you the this reflection on what Pope John Paul II taught us at the end of his life. I cannot celebrate Good Friday without remembering Pope John Paul II, especially his final Good Friday on earth in 2005. This reflection is part of a major address I gave at the Knights of Columbus Museum in New Haven, Connecticut, for the opening of the special exhibit, “Blessed,” that commemorates the life of this great man. 

On Human Suffering

One of the beautiful and not frequently cited writings of John Paul II was his 1984 apostolic letter Salvifici Doloris, “On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering.” The late Pope, following the Apostle Paul and the entire Catholic Tradition, maintained throughout his life that it is precisely in suffering that Christ displayed his solidarity with humanity, and in which we can grow in solidarity with Christ, who is our life.

In Salvifici Doloris suffering is the consequence of sin, and Christ embraces that consequence, rather than repudiating it. By embracing suffering, he shares fully in it, he takes the consequence of sin into and onto himself. He does this out of love for us, not simply because he wants to redeem us, but because he wants to be with us, to share what we share, to experience what we experience. And it is this shared love, this shared suffering in love, which completes and perfects the relationship broken in sin, and so redeems us.

Pope John Paul II taught us that the meaning of suffering is fundamentally changed by the Incarnation. Apart from the Incarnation, suffering is the consequence of sin. It offers opportunities for insight into oneself, for personal growth, and for demonstrating practical love for others, but these are incidental. Because of the Incarnation, however, we become sharers in the Body of Christ. Our suffering becomes his suffering, and becomes an expression of redeeming love.

Because he was the leader of a billion Roman Catholics; because he was the first pontiff of the satellite and Internet age, reaching out to billions more, and because he was John Paul II, who has ruled the church for more than 26 years—in that public experience of suffering was found enormous power. And that he certainly knew. In 1981, after recovering from the gunshot wound that almost took his life in St. Peter’s Square, John Paul declared that suffering, as such, is one of the most powerful messages in Christianity.

During the final years of his pontificate, John Paul II brought suffering back into the realm of the expected in human life. Everyone could see that his spirituality gave him an inner strength – a spirituality with which one can also overcome fear, even the fear of death. What an incredible lesson for the world! His struggle with the physical effects of aging was also a valuable lesson to a society that finds it hard to accept growing older, and a culture that sees no redemption in suffering. 

In 1994, as age and infirmity began to incapacitate John Paul publicly, he told his followers he had heard God and was about to change the way he led the church. “I must lead her with suffering,” he said. “The pope must suffer so that every family and the world should see that there is, I would say, a higher gospel: the gospel of suffering, with which one must prepare the future.”

A consoling letter to his peers

In 1999, in preparation for the Great Jubilee, Pope John Paul II published his “Letter to the Elderly.” Following his Letters to the young in 1985, to families in 1994, to children in 1994, to women in 1995 and to artists in 1999 year – and not counting those Letters that he wrote each year to priests on Holy Thursday, since the beginning of his pontificate, he wrote deeply moving and encouraging words to his peers in the Letter to the Elderly. He had no fear in placing before the eyes of the world the limits and frailties that the years placed upon him. He did nothing to disguise them. In speaking to young people, he has no difficulty in saying of himself: ‘I am an old priest’.” John Paul II “continued to fulfill his mission as the Successor of Peter, looking far ahead with the enthusiasm of the only youth that does not deteriorate, that of the spirit, which this Pope maintains intact. The letter had a very personal, almost confidential, tone and was not an analysis of old age. Rather, it was a very intimate dialogue between people of the same generation.

“The passage of time,” wrote the Pope in that memorable letter, “helps us to see our experiences in a clearer light and softens their painful side.” Moreover, he says, the daily difficulties can be eased with God’s help. In addition, “we are consoled by the thought that, by virtue of our spiritual souls, we will survive beyond death.”

“Guardians of shared memory” was the title of the one part of the Pope’s Letter. Pointing out that “in the past, great respect was shown to the elderly,” the Pope remarks that this is still true in many cultures today, “while among others, this is much less the case, due to a mentality which gives priority to immediate human usefulness and productivity.” He wrote: “It has come to the point where euthanasia is increasingly put forward as a solution for difficult situations. Unfortunately, in recent years the idea of euthanasia has lost for many people the sense of horror which it naturally awakens in those who have a sense of respect for life.”

The Pope added: “Here it should be kept in mind that the moral law allows the rejection of ‘aggressive medical treatment’ and makes obligatory only those forms of treatment which fall within the normal requirements of medical care, which in the case of terminal illness seeks primarily to alleviate pain. But euthanasia, understood as directly causing death, is another thing entirely. Regardless of intentions and circumstances, euthanasia is always an intrinsically evil act, a violation of God’s law and an offense against the dignity of the human person.”

Pope John Paul II continued in that letter: “Man has been made for life, whereas death … was not a part of God’s original plan but came about as a consequence of sin.” “However rationally comprehensible death may be from a biological standpoint, it is not possible to experience it as something ‘natural’.” We ask ourselves, he says here, “What is on the other side of the shadowy wall of death?” The answer comes from faith “which illuminates the mystery of death and brings serenity to old age, now no longer lived passively as the expectation of a calamity, but rather as a promise-filled approach to the goal of full maturity.” 

Pope John Paul’s Letter to the Elderly closed with a section entitled “An encouragement to live life to the full.” He writes: “I feel a spontaneous desire to share fully with you my own feelings at this point of my life, after more than twenty years of ministry on the throne of Peter. … Despite the limitations brought on by age I continue to enjoy life. For this I thank the Lord. It is wonderful to be able to give oneself to the very end for the sake of the Kingdom of God! “At the same time,” he concludes, “I find great peace in thinking about the time when the Lord will call me: from life to life! … ‘Bid me to come to you’: this is the deepest yearning of the human heart, even in those who are not conscious of it.” What a magnificent signature piece of Pope John Paul II! He not only wrote the letter but enacted it in his own life. We were eyewitnesses.

The public suffering

Pope John Paul II taught us that life is sacred, no matter how painful his own life became for him. Rather than hide his infirmities, as most public figures do, Pope John Paul II let the whole world see what he went through. The suffering and dying of this Pope did not take place in private, but before television cameras and the whole world. 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. John Paul II’s final homily was an icon of his Galilean Master’s final words to Simon Peter: “Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” …After this he [Jesus] said to him, “Follow me” [John 21:18-19].

Many Catholics and non-Christians saw the pope’s suffering as something like the agony of Jesus himself, and neither John Paul nor those around him discourage such comparisons. When asked a few years ago if he might consider resigning, John Paul reportedly asked, in reply, “Did Christ come down from the cross?” His close aides say that debate about his ability to administer the church, as if he were the CEO of a secular corporation, essentially misses the point. This pope is not doing a job, he is carrying out a divine mission, and his pain is at its core.

That final Good Friday evening

One of my most vivid memories from the last week of our late Holy Father Pope John Paul II’s life was during the Way of the Cross on Good Friday evening in 2005, in which he participated by watching the service at the Coliseum in his chapel on television. The television camera in his chapel was behind him so that he would not be distracted from taking part in this ceremony in which he always took part personally. Then-Archbishop John Foley was doing the television commentary in English from Rome, reading the very provocative meditations prepared by a certain Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger.

At one point toward the end of the Way of the Cross, someone put a rather large crucifix on the knee of the Holy Father, and he was gazing lovingly at the figure of Jesus. At the words, “Jesus Dies on the Cross,” Pope John Paul drew the crucifix to himself and embraced it. I will never forget that scene. What an incredibly powerful homily without words! Like Jesus, Pope John Paul II embraced the cross; in fact, he embraced the crucifix of Jesus Christ on Good Friday night.

The death of a patriarch

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 suffering face of Jesus in a remarkable way.

The Pope of Holiness

Karol Wojtyla himself was an extraordinary witness who, through his devotion, heroic efforts, long suffering and death, communicated the powerful message of the Gospel to the men and women of our day. A great part of the success of his message is due to the fact that he has been surrounded by a tremendous cloud of witnesses who stood by him and strengthened him throughout his life. For John Paul II, the call to holiness excludes no one; it is not the privilege of a spiritual elite.

“Lumen Gentium,” the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of the Second Vatican Council notes that the holiness of Christians flows from that of the Church and manifests it. It says that holiness “is expressed in many ways by the individuals who, each in his own state of life, tend to the perfection of love, thus sanctifying others” (LG 39). In this variety “one and the same holiness is cultivated by all, who are moved by the Spirit of God…and follow the poor Christ, the humble and cross bearing Christ in order to be worthy of being sharers in his glory” (LG 41). 

When the throngs of people began chanting “Santo Subito” at the end of the Pope’s funeral mass on April 8, 2005, what were they really chanting? They were crying out that in Karol Wojtyla, they saw someone who lived with God and lived with us. He was a sinner who experienced God’s mercy and forgiveness. He was the prophetic teacher who preached the word in season and out of season. He looked at us, loved us, touched us, healed us and gave us hope. He taught us not to be afraid. He showed us how to live, how to love, how to forgive and how to die. He taught us how to embrace the cross in the most excruciating moments of life, knowing that the cross was not God’s final answer.

That a person is declared a “Saint” is not a statement about perfection. It does not mean that the person was without imperfection, blindness, deafness or sin. Nor is it a 360-degree evaluation of the Pontificate or of the Vatican. Canonization means that a person lived his or her life with God, relying totally on God’s infinite mercy, going forward with God’s strength and power, believing in the impossible, loving one’s enemies and persecutors, forgiving in the midst of evil and violence, hoping beyond all hope, and leaving the world a better place. That person lets those around him know that there is a force or spirit animating his or her life that is not of this world, but the next. Such a person lets us catch a glimpse of the greatness and holiness to which we are all called, and shows us the face of God as we journey on our pilgrim way on earth.

In the life of Karol Wojtyla, the boy from Wadowice who would grow up to be a priest and Bishop of Krakow, the Bishop of Rome, and a hero for the ages, holiness was contagious. We have all been touched and changed by it. Pope John Paul II was not only “Holy Father” but “a Father who was and is Holy.” At his funeral mass on April 8, 2005, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger told the world that the Holy Father was watching us and blessing us “from the window of the Father’s House.”

As we prepare for the Canonization of this great shepherd and holy priest and bishop on Sunday April 27, 2014, may we learn from “Papa Wojtyla” how to cross thresholds, open doors, build bridges, embrace the Cross of suffering and proclaim the Gospel of Life to the people of our time. May we learn how to live, to suffer and die unto the Lord. Let us pray to have a small portion of the fidelity of Peter’s witness and the boldness of Paul’s proclamation that were so mightily present in Karol Wojtyla – Saint John Paul II. May he intercede for us and for all those who suffer in body and spirit, and give us the desire to help carry one another’s crosses, to grow in holiness and to become saints. 

[The readings for Good Friday are: Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Hebrews 4:14-16, 5:7-9; and John 18:1-19:42.]

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

Are we too preoccupied with the new evangelization?

One of the first times that I heard the phrase “the new evangelization” was in John Paul II’s Apostolic letter Novo Millennio Ineunte (at the close of the Great Jubilee of 2000):

Over the years, I have often repeated the summons to the new evangelization. I do so again now, especially in order to insist that we must rekindle in ourselves the impetus of the beginnings and allow ourselves to be filled with the ardour of the apostolic preaching which followed Pentecost. We must revive in ourselves the burning conviction of Paul, who cried out: “Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel” (NMI 40).

It seems to me that the Holy Father was calling us to this new evangelization and that in order to do it effectively, he was giving us a pastoral plan. But today, everyone is speaking about the new evangelization. Pope Benedict created a Pontifical council for the new evangelisation and right here at S+L we’ve even created a whole series, The Church Alive, on the major themes of the new evangelization. But, are we putting all our eggs in the new evangelization basket? Are we making too much of this strategy? Are we too preoccupied with the new evangelisation?

That’s the question we’re asking this week on Perspectives: The Weekly Edition. Join me as I speak with Marcel Dion, from Magnificat Ministries  about how to best go about the work of evangelization.

The canonization of John XXIII in the context of Vatican II

VCII picIn a recent interview with ZENIT, Salt and Light’s Sebastian Gomes reflected on the significance of Pope John’s upcoming canonization in the context of the 50th anniversary celebrations of Vatican II.  What does “the Good Pope’s” canonization mean for a generation of Catholics who came of age long after the Council closed?  Read the full interview here:
John XXIII and Vatican II: Salt and Light Producer Weighs In on Canonization of Pope Who Opened Council

Perspectives Daily: September 30th, 2013

Today on Perspectives: the date for the canonization of Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII has been set. At the same time Pope Francis released another papal chirograph, establishing a Council of Cardinals to advise him on how to govern the church. In Canada, Vancouver hosted a Truth and Reconciliation event which ended with a walk through the city and a moving homily from Archbishop Michael Miller.

Santi Subito! Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II to be canonized together

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The Herald and the Servant of the Council to be Canonized together on Divine Mercy Sunday, April 27, 2014

This morning Pope Francis presided over the Public Ordinary Consistory for the forthcoming Canonizations of Blessed Pope John XXIII and Blessed Pope John Paul II. During the course of the special gathering of Cardinals in the Vatican’s Consistory Hall, the Pope decreed that his two predecessors will be raised to Sainthood together on April 27, 2014, the day on which the Church celebrates the Second Sunday of Easter and Divine Mercy.

In a recent summer opinion piece in the Chicago Tribune (July 14, 2013 Even popes can be saints), Kenneth L. Woodward, former religion editor of Newsweek and the author, among other books, of “Making Saints: How the Catholic Church Determines Who Becomes a Saint, Who Doesn’t, And Why” and an expert on the saint-making process, said the plan was not simply an exercise in placating two divergent ideological wings in contemporary Catholicism.

Rather by yoking the two popes in a single ceremony, Francis is reminding the rest of the church that the holiness each man manifest in his own way is more important than the papal office they had in common, Woodward wrote.

Blessed John XXIII

In 1958, at nearly 77 years old, Cardinal Angelo Roncalli was elected Pope upon the death of Pius XII. He was expected by many to be a caretaker and transitional Pope, but he astonished the Church and the world with his energy and reforming spirit. He expanded and internationalized the college of cardinals, called the first diocesan synod of Rome in history, revised the Code of Canon Law, and called the Second Vatican Council with the specific purpose of renewing the life of the Church and its teachings and reuniting Christians throughout the world.

In his opening address on October 11, 1962 (the date established as his feast and not the customary date of one’s death), at the beginning of the Vatican Council, Pope John said, “In the every day exercise of our pastoral ministry, greatly to our sorrow we sometimes have to listen to those who, although consumed with zeal, do not have very much judgment or balance. To them the modern world is nothing but betrayal and ruination. They claim that this age is far worse than previous ages and they go on as though they had learned nothing from history and yet history is the great teacher of life. Blessed John XXIII

On that same night of October 11, 1962, the day of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, Papa Giovanni appeared at his window in answer to the chanting and singing below from a crowd estimated at half a million people assembled in St. Peter’s square. Many were young people who came in procession with candles and singing. His impromptu window address, now known as “the moonlight speech” is now part of Rome’s legends. He cried out to the crowd of hundreds of thousands of torch bearing young people:

“Cari giovani, cari giovani, Dear children, I hear your voice.” In the simplest language, he told them about his hopes for the Council. He pointed out that the moon, up there, was observing the spectacle. “My voice is an isolated one,” he said, “but it echoes the voice of the whole world. Here, in effect, the whole world is represented.” He concluded: “Tornando a casa … As you return to your homes, give your little children a kiss — tell them it is from Pope John.”

For more on Pope John XXIII watch this video:

Pope John XXIII – Reflection

Blessed John Paul II: The Pope of Holiness

Karol Wojtyla was an extraordinary witness who, through his devotion, heroic efforts, long suffering and death, communicated the powerful message of the Gospel to the men and women of our day. A great part of the success of his message is due to the fact that he has been surrounded by a tremendous cloud of witnesses who stood by him and strengthened him throughout his life. For John Paul II, the call to holiness excludes no one; it is not the privilege of a spiritual elite.

Throughout his priestly and Episcopal ministry, and especially during his Petrine Ministry as Bishop of Rome, John Paul II preached God’s mercy, wrote about it, and lived it. He offered forgiveness to the man who was destined to kill him in St. Peter’s Square. The Pope who witnessed the scandal of divisions among Christians and the atrocities against the Jewish people as he grew up did everything in his power to heal the wounds caused by the historic conflicts between Catholics and other Christian churches, and especially with the Jewish people.

The Pope of Divine Mercy

Near the beginning of his pontificate in 1981, Pope John Paul II wrote an entire encyclical dedicated to Divine Mercy – Dives in Misericordia (Rich in Mercy) illustrating that the heart of the mission of Jesus Christ was to reveal the merciful love of the Father. In 1993 when Pope John Paul II beatified Sr. Faustina Kowalska, the protagonist and apostle of Divine Mercy, he stated in the homily for her beatification mass: “Her mission continues and is yielding astonishing fruit. It is truly marvelous how her devotion to the merciful Jesus is spreading in our contemporary world, and gaining so many human hearts!”

1978 photo of newly elected Pope John Paul II as he greets world from balcony of St. Peter's BasilicaIn the Jubilee year 2000, Pope John Paul II canonized Sr. Faustina – making her the first canonized saint of the new millennium – and established “Divine Mercy Sunday” as a special title for the Second Sunday of Easter for the universal Church. Pope John Paul II spoke these words in the homily that day: Jesus shows His hands and His side [to the Apostles]. He points, that is, to the wounds of the Passion, especially the wound in His Heart, the source from which flows the great wave of mercy poured out on humanity.

Why did Pope John Paul II insist so much on God’s divine mercy and love in our time? Is this not the same devotion as that of the Sacred Heart of Jesus? Mercy is an important Christian virtue, much different from justice and retribution. While recognizing the real pain of injury and the rationale for the justification of punishment, mercy takes a different approach in redressing the injury. Mercy strives to radically change the condition and the soul of the perpetrator to resist doing evil, often by revealing love and one’s true beauty. If any punishment is enforced, it must be for salvation, not for vengeance or retribution. This is very messy business in our day and a very complex message but it is the only way if we wish to go forward and be leaven for the world today; if we truly wish to be salt and light in a culture that has lost the flavor of the Gospel and the light of Christ.

Where hatred and the thirst for revenge dominate, where war brings suffering and death to the innocent, abuse has destroyed countless innocent lives, the grace of mercy is needed in order to settle human minds and hearts and to bring about healing and peace. Wherever respect for human life and dignity are lacking, there is need of God’s merciful love, in whose light we see the inexpressible value of every human being. Mercy is needed to insure that every injustice in the world will come to an end. The message of mercy is that God loves us – all of us – no matter how great our sins. God’s mercy is greater than our sins, so that we will call upon Him with trust, receive His mercy, and let it flow through us to others. Essentially, mercy means the understanding of weakness, the capacity to forgive.

Santo Subito

When the throngs of people began chanting “Santo Subito” at the end of John Paul’s funeral mass on April 8, 2005, what were they really chanting? They were crying out that in Karol Wojtyla, they saw someone who lived with God and lived with us. He was a sinner who experienced God’s mercy and forgiveness. He was the bold, prophetic teacher who preached the word in season and out of season. He taught us not to be afraid. He showed us how to live, how to love, how to forgive and how to die.

In over 27 years as Vicar of Jesus Christ John Paul II tirelessly traveled the world, not only bringing to men and women the Gospel of the love of God made flesh in Jesus Christ, beyond all geographical boundaries; but he also crossed the continents of the spirit, often far from one another and set against each other, to bring strangers close, to make the distant friends, and to make room in the world for the peace of Christ (cf. Eph 2:17). Truly he has been Pontifex, a builder of bridges in a world that too often erects walls and divisions.

In the life of Karol Wojytyla, the boy from Wadowice who would grow up to be a priest and Bishop of Krakow, the Bishop of Rome, and a hero for the ages, holiness was contagious. We have all been touched and changed by it. At his funeral mass on April 8, 2005, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger told the world that the Holy Father was watching us and blessing us from the window of the Father’s House.

For more on John Paul II’s legacy, watch this video:

Thank you John Paul II

Holiness is the calling card of the Church

Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of the Second Vatican Council notes that the holiness of Christians flows from that of the Church and manifests it. It says that holiness “is expressed in many ways by the individuals who, each in his own state of life, tend to the perfection of love, thus sanctifying others” (LG 39). In this variety “one and the same holiness is cultivated by all, who are moved by the Spirit of God…and follow the poor Christ, the humble and cross-bearing Christ in order to be worthy of being sharers in his glory” (LG 41).

That a person is declared Blessed or Saint is not a statement about perfection. It does not mean that the person was without imperfection, blindness, deafness or sin. Nor is it a 360-degree evaluation of a Pontificate or of the Vatican. Beatification and Canonization mean that a person lived his or her life with God, relying totally on God’s infinite mercy, going forward with God’s strength and power, believing in the impossible, loving one’s enemies and persecutors, forgiving in the midst of evil and violence, hoping beyond all hope, and leaving the world a better place. That person lets those around him know that there is a force or spirit animating his or her life that is not of this world, but the next. Such a person lets us catch a glimpse of the greatness and holiness to which we are all called, and shows us the face of God as we journey on our pilgrim way on earth.

Holiness is the calling card of the Church. It is the face of the Church as we have seen in the remarkable lives of Angelo Roncalli of Sotto il Monte and Karol Wojtyla of Wadowice. Both of these men did not get caught up in the quarrels, squabbles and passing things of their age. They based their lives on God’s Word, immersed themselves in the liturgy of the Church, drew strength from the Eucharist and the Sacraments, and put their devotion into practice through clear teaching, compassionate loving, gentle yet firm shepherding, patient suffering, and generously serving the poor. They allowed God’s will to be done in their lives on a daily basis. The Lord worked through their doubts, strengths and human weaknesses to unite the Church. Their action on Jesus’ behalf was all very positive, hopeful, courageous, and straightforward. Their active faith in him and their decisive following of him are the unchanging quintessence of the Church’s vocation. They are the real heroes and role models for those who wish to serve the Lord as disciples and witnesses today.

Two Righteous Popes

While there are indeed many points of convergence in their lives and ministries, I would like to call attention to one particular unifying theme in the lives and ministries of John XXIII and John Paul II. As millions of Roman Catholics rejoice today in the news that two beloved popes have been fast-tracked to sainthood, many Jews are also smiling with them. Jews throughout the world remember both of these men for taking steps that were a millennium in the making.

As Angelo Roncalli, papal representative in Istanbul during World War II, he provided bogus papers to help Jewish refugees flee the Nazis and escape to Palestine. He personally prodded the Catholic queen of Bulgaria to persuade her husband to protect the Jews of that nation. Roncalli is credited with saving the lives of tens of thousands of Jews. He was truly a righteous among the nations. POPE JOHN XXIII LEADS OPENING SESSION OF SECOND VATICAN COUNCIL

Perhaps because of what he saw during the Holocaust, John XXIII never lost an opportunity to modify church practices that nurtured anti-Semitism. He removed the term “perfidious” Jews from the Good Friday prayer. The pontiff condemned theological anti-Semitism. During one audience with a visiting Jewish delegation, he introduced himself with a Biblical verse that alluded to his baptismal name and underscored the relationship between Christians and Jews: “I am Joseph your brother.”

In 1965, the Catholic Church did an about-face regarding anti-Jewish teachings with the release of the ground breaking conciliar document, Nostra Aetate, or In Our Age, a 1965 declaration of the Second Vatican Council. Pope John XXIII, the architect and dreamer of Vatican II, shepherded the Council along even though Nostra Aetate was released two years after his death.

Crossing the Tiber

If John XXIII brought about a Copernican revolution in the way that Christians and Catholics think, speak and teach about Jews, John Paul II boldly put that change of attitudes into action and went where no pope had ever gone before. As a young man in Poland under Hitler’s evil empire, Karol Wojtyla witnesssed hell on earth. On April 13, 1986, the Polish born Pontiff crossed the Tiber and entered Rome’s Great Synagogue, embracing Rome’s Chief Rabbi Elio Toaff and calling Jews the “elder brothers” of Christians.

John Paul II visited Jerusalem and the Western Wall during the Jubilee Year of 2000, praying there for forgiveness for the way Christians had mistreated Jews for almost 2,000 years. He visited blood-drenched killing fields of Auschwitz-Birkenau. He established full diplomatic relations with Israel.

During John Paul II’s final illness, the leaders of the Simon Wiesenthal Center requested an audience with him simply to say thank you. A group of Jewish leaders surrounded the very ill John Paul II and extended their hands in blessing over their brother, Karol. I have no doubt that the Jewish people will continue to offer thanks to the God of Israel for John Paul II and John XXIII. And they see their hopes and dreams realized beyond their wildest imaginations in the person of Pope Francis who continues to reach out to Jews, love them, embrace them and host them at table at Domus Sanctae Marthae for Jewish Sabbaths and holy days!

Instruments and agents of Mercy and Tenderness

As we prepare for Sunday April 27, 2014, the canonizations of these two great servants, priests and bishops, may we learn from Papa Giovanni and Papa Wojtyla how to cross thresholds, open doors, build bridges, embrace the Cross of suffering and proclaim the Gospel of Life to the people of our time. May we learn how to be instruments and agents of mercy and tenderness, instead of poor models of harshness, rigidity, and smallness of mind and heart.

We can only hope to have a small portion of the fidelity of Peter’s witness and the boldness of Paul’s proclamation that were so mightily present in Angelo Roncalli and Karol Wojtyla. May they intercede for us and for all, helping us to become real pontifexes, bridge builders, to the men and women of our time.

Dives and Lazarus: A Story of Personal Relationships

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Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C – September 29, 2013

In today’s first reading (Amos 6:1a, 4-7), the prophet Amos is quite serious about the complacent folk who pamper themselves at the expense of others and have apparently lost interest in the sufferings of their fellow human beings.

Amos is the great champion of the poor. The idle rich are the target of his wrath primarily because their conspicuous consumption of delicacies is always at the expense of those who lack even the bare necessities. The “lambs taken from the flock, and calves from the stall” upon which they feast are supposed to be set aside for sacrifice to the Lord; thus, they add sacrilege to their sins of gluttony. They do not lament the imminent moral collapse of Joseph (meaning the whole people); indeed, they contribute to it.

The entire scene from today’s first reading capitalizes on the stereotypes we recognize even in our own day. But there is nothing exaggerated about the promise of divine retribution — not for mere excess and self-indulgence but for the neglect of the hungry and the poor. While the social revolution inherent in Christianity is scheduled for the next world, it begins here: “God puts down the mighty and exalts the humble.” This reversal is brought about by God: the lowly will be exalted; the exalted will be brought down low.

A study in contrasts

In today’s Gospel (Luke 16:19-31), the provocative parable of the rich man and Lazarus again illustrates Luke’s concern with Jesus’ attitude toward the rich and the poor. The parable presents a remarkable study in contrasts. The oldest Greek manuscript of Luke dating from circa 175-225 A.D. records the name of the rich man as an abbreviated form of “Nineveh,” but there is very little textual support in other manuscripts for this reading. “Dives” of popular tradition is the Latin Vulgate’s translation for “rich man.”

Dives’ life was consumed in self-centered living. He is dressed nicely, eats well, lives it up every day. He is clearly on the inside. He has everything in this life that a person could want and yet he had no compassion for the poor or anyone else but himself. His values were based on gaining worldly possessions and wealth. The rich man did not have a desire to serve God nor did he feel a need for God’s guidance. He only felt a need to satisfy his own worldly desires and wants. The rich man knew Lazarus in real life (we know that because he knew his name in heaven), but he ignored him. Treatment of Lazarus on earth revealed the rich man’s true relationship to God. Since the rich man only cared about himself and was not right with God, after he died, he woke up in hell, tormented and frustrated. The rich man was not with Father Abraham in paradise like he expected to be.

Lazarus, on the other hand, lived all his life in poverty, yet his heart was right with God because he never gave up his faith in God. He is dressed in rags, hungry, struggling to survive, filled with open sores — therefore unclean, too weak to fight off the dogs. He is clearly on the outside. At his death, the angels took Lazarus immediately to Paradise to be with Abraham and God. Now in Abraham’s bosom — in heaven — Lazarus is very happy as he reclines at the great heavenly banquet with Abraham. He is on the inside!

When they were in this life, there was no chasm between Lazarus and Dives. In fact Lazarus was begging just outside Dives’ gate. The rich man could have gone out and helped Lazarus any time he felt like it. But in eternal life there is a great chasm separating heaven and hell. Jesus uses space to emphasize that this gap is uncrossable and permanent. “Send Lazarus to help me,” Dives pleads! This rich man still believes that he can command and control the situation! Some chasms cannot be crossed. There is a point of no return.

The rich man did not listen to the law and the prophets, which taught about how to love one’s neighbor (Micah 6:8). He did not love his neighbor. The prophets also predicted that Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, be the friend of outcasts, etc. (cf. Micah 5:2f; 4:6, Isaiah 61:1-2). The rich man rejected that truth also. He was too good to be the friend of outcasts.

A parable of personal relationships

Luke 16 is not just about money or wealth. When we really understand the chapter, the key element in both the parables is personal relationships. Almsgiving is good but involvement is better. Ministering to the financially poor and the spiritually bankrupt develops our potential to enrich others as we are enriched in the process. Our focus must be on the well being of the poor and downtrodden. It is in giving that we receive. And God loves cheerful givers! What are we depending on? Do we think being rich means we are right with God? Do we worry enough about eternity?

John Paul II and Benedict XVI on human solidarity

As I reflect on today’s readings, the teachings of two Popes come immediately to mind. During his historic 1984 pastoral visit across Canada, Pope John Paul II delivered a stirring homily in Edmonton, Alberta, on Sept. 17, 1984. In a loud and clear voice that rang out across the airport where Mass was celebrated, he said:

“The human person lives in a community, in society. And with the community he shares hunger and thirst and sickness and malnutrition and misery and all the deficiencies that result there from. In his or her own person the human being is meant to experience the needs of others. So it is that Christ the Judge speaks of ‘one of the least of the brethren,’ and at the same time he is speaking of each and of all.

“Yes. He is speaking of the whole universal dimension of injustice and evil. He is speaking of what today we are accustomed to call the North-South contrast. Hence not only East-West, but also North-South: the increasingly wealthier North, and the increasingly poorer South.

“Yes, the South — becoming always poorer; and the North — becoming always richer. Richer too in the resources of weapons with which the superpowers and blocs can mutually threaten each other. And they threaten each other — such an argument also exists — in order not to destroy each other.

“This is a separate dimension — and according to the opinion of many it is the dimension in the forefront — of the deadly threat, which hangs over the modern world, which deserves separate attention.

“Nevertheless, in the light of Christ’s words, this poor South will judge the rich North. And the poor people and poor nations — poor in different ways, not only lacking food, but also deprived of freedom and other human rights — will judge those people who take these goods away from them, amassing to themselves the imperialistic monopoly of economic and political supremacy at the expense of others.”

Twenty-six years after Pope John Paul II spoke those powerful words in Edmonton in Canada, Pope Benedict XVI addressed these words to the British Government assembled in historic Westminster Hall in London on Sept. 17, 2010:

“The inadequacy of pragmatic, short-term solutions to complex social and ethical problems has been illustrated all too clearly by the recent global financial crisis. There is widespread agreement that the lack of a solid ethical foundation for economic activity has contributed to the grave difficulties now being experienced by millions of people throughout the world. Just as ‘every economic decision has a moral consequence,’ so too in the political field, the ethical dimension of policy has far-reaching consequences that no government can afford to ignore. [...]

“In recent years it has been encouraging to witness the positive signs of a worldwide growth in solidarity towards the poor. But to turn this solidarity into effective action calls for fresh thinking that will improve life conditions in many important areas, such as food production, clean water, job creation, education, support to families, especially migrants, and basic healthcare. Where human lives are concerned, time is always short, yet the world has witnessed the vast resources that governments can draw upon to rescue financial institutions deemed ‘too big to fail.’ Surely the integral human development of the world’s peoples is no less important: here is an enterprise, worthy of the world’s attention, that is truly ‘too big to fail.’”

Humble openness to God is difficult

The rich, the powerful, and the “just” find it very difficult to be humbly open to God; they are full of confidence in their own treasures and securities. The only real security is the one based on friendship with God and service of God: to be a servant of human beings and of God after the example of Jesus of Nazareth. Exalting oneself is a form of self-reliance, as opposed to reliance on God. This makes clear why being rich, prosperous, satisfied almost naturally implies being arrogant, proud, godless. As human beings, we are radically weak and constantly try to cover up our weakness by finding security in power, wealth and status. This deception will ultimately be unmasked by God’s act of judgment. The only way to salvation is to recognize one’s weakness before God and to find one’s security in God alone. To humble oneself does not only mean lowliness and misery, but also a willing acceptance of this misery as an act of service.

[The readings for the Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time are the following: Amos 6:1a, 4-7; Psalm 146:7, 8-9, 9-10; 1 Timothy 6:11-16; Luke 16:19-31.]

This reflection first appeared on the Zenit International News Service in 2010 as well as on the Salt + Light Blog. The complete collection of reflections for Year B, entitled “Words made Flesh,” is now available in book form through our online store. Book editions for Year A and C reflections are coming soon.

(Photo courtesy CNS/Lucy Nicholson, Reuters)

Prayer to St. Augustine

augustine_crop

Below is the prayer written by Pope John Paul II to St. Augustine on the occasion of 1,650th anniversary of the saint’s birth.

O great Augustine, our father and teacher,
who knows the shining paths of God
and also the crooked paths of men,
we admire the marvels that divine Grace
has worked in you,
making you a passionate witness
to truth and goodness
at the service of your neighbour.

At the start of a new millennium marked by the Cross of Christ,
teach us to read history
in the light of divine Providence,
which guides events to the
final encounter with the Father.
Guide us towards goals of peace,
kindling in our hearts
your own desire for the values
upon which we,
with the strength that comes from God,
can build the “city of Man”.

May the profound teaching that you drew,
with loving and patient study,
from the ever-living sources of Scripture
enlighten all who are tempted today
by alienating mirages

May you obtain for them the courage
to set out on the way
towards that “inner man” in whom the One,
who alone can restore peace
to our restless hearts, awaits.

So many of our contemporaries seem to have
lost the hope of reaching,
amidst the many conflicting ideologies,
the truth that they continue to yearn for
in depths of their hearts.

Teach them never to give up their quest
in the certainty that,
in the end, their efforts will be rewarded
by the fulfilling encounter
with that supreme Truth, who is the Source
of every created truth.

Lastly, O St Augustine,
communicate to us too a spark
of that burning love for the Church,
the Catholic mother of the Saints,
which sustained and gave life
to the efforts of your own long ministry.

Enable us, as we walk together under
the guidance of our legitimate Pastors,
to reach the glory of the heavenly Homeland
where, with all the Blesseds,
we can join in singing
the new and eternal Alleluia.

Amen.

The conversion of St. Augustine (Tolle Lege) / Benozzo Gozzoli

Perspectives Daily: Thursday, Aug. 8, 2013

Tonight on Perspectives: The Knights of Columbus wrap up their Supreme Annual Convention with a relic from John Paul II and the launch of a new prayer campaign. Meanwhile, Pope Francis creates new financial laws at the Holy See in order to meet international anti-money laundering norms. Get the details on Perspectives.

Perspectives Daily – Wednesday, July 3

Tonight on Perspectives: John Paul II and John XXIII could be canonized as early as this fall, Pope Francis speaks about meeting Jesus in the poor and suffering, and CNS Rome Bureau on Pope Francis’ first encyclical.

The Word Made Flesh – The Journey of the Magi, a reflection by Bishop William McGrattan


The feast of the Epiphany is celebrated in the Christmas season and through Matthew’s Gospel we become aware of the visit of the wise men or Magi who come in search of the Christ child so that they might present their gifts. It is interesting that in the homily of an early saint and bishop he preached that “this feast of the Epiphany manifests even more wonders than the feast of Christmas.” This is a bold statement but nevertheless this event in scripture raises great curiosity about its details.

In the Christmas season what might the wonders of the Epiphany event be in our lives? What can we learn from the details of the journey of the wise men, the guidance they sought, the questions they asked, the gifts they brought to Christ and finally the decision they made to return to their home country by a different route?

The identity of the Magi begins with the fact that they come from the East. It is not clear if they are from one location in the Orient or from several. We also see from scripture that we do not know exactly how many there were. This is where tradition begins to take over from scripture and we see them depicted as being three in number, coinciding with the gifts which they brought gold, frankincense and myrrh. They are also traditionally pictured as being black, white and brown in representation of all the peoples of the earth.

The reference to their being wise is also assumed to mean that they were astrologers and thus familiar with searching the stars of the heavens for meaning and direction in life. This also suggests that they were themselves pagan and unbelievers in the mysteries of God. Other traditions also referred to them as the “Three Kings” who were coming to give homage to the “infant King of the Jews”.

In this journey they first come to King Herod with questions which he could not answer and so he turns to the chief priests and scribes to learn that scriptures had foretold of such an event and that the Christ “would be born in Bethlehem of Judea”. With this new insight from scripture the wise men continued to follow the familiar sign of the star until it halts in front of the place where the child was. As their gaze comes to rest upon the child with his mother Mary they fall on their knees and give him homage. They offer gifts not to an infant king but to one who was God.

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