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Pope Francis’ Homily at Mass with College of Cardinals & Angelus Address

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Pope Francis presided over Mass in St Peter’s Basilica on Sunday, to offer thanks to God together with the College of Cardinals, one day after bestowing the Red Hat on twenty new prelates from around the world. This is a very important homily which speaks not only to the specific occasion with the Cardinals, but also offers a profound insight into the mission and vocation of Pope Francis and his hopes for the entire Church. The Pope’s homily should be considered a very good prelude to and preparation for the upcoming Synod of Bishops on the family in October 2015. Below, please find the official English translation of the Holy Father’s homily.

“Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean”… Jesus, moved with compassion, stretched out his hand and touched him, and said: “I do choose. Be made clean!” (Mk 1:40-41). The compassion of Jesus! That com-passion which made him draw near to every person in pain! Jesus does not hold back; instead, he gets involved in people’s pain and their need… for the simple reason that he knows and wants to show com-passion, because he has a heart unashamed to have “compassion”.

“Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed in the country; and people came to him from every quarter” (Mk 1:45). This means that Jesus not only healed the leper but also took upon himself the marginalization enjoined by the law of Moses (cf. Lev 13:1-2, 45-46). Jesus is unafraid to risk sharing in the suffering of others; he pays the price of it in full (cf. Is 53:4).

Compassion leads Jesus to concrete action: he reinstates the marginalized! These are the three key concepts that the Church proposes in today’s liturgy of the word: the compassion of Jesus in the face of marginalization and his desire to reinstate.

Marginalization: Moses, in his legislation regarding lepers, says that they are to be kept alone and apart from the community for the duration of their illness. He declares them: “unclean!” (cf. Lev 13:1-2, 45-46).

Imagine how much suffering and shame lepers must have felt: physically, socially, psychologically and spiritually! They are not only victims of disease, but they feel guilty about it, punished for their sins! Theirs is a living death; they are like someone whose father has spit in his face (cf. Num 12:14).

In addition, lepers inspire fear, contempt and loathing, and so they are abandoned by their families, shunned by other persons, cast out by society. Indeed, society rejects them and forces them to live apart from the healthy. It excludes them. So much so that if a healthy person approached a leper, he would be punished severely, and often be treated as a leper himself.

The purpose for this rule was “to safeguard the healthy”, “to protect the righteous”, and, in order to guard them from any risk, to eliminate “the peril” by treating the diseased person harshly. As the high priest Caiaphas decreed: “It is better to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (Jn 11:50).

Reinstatement: Jesus revolutionizes and upsets that fearful, narrow and prejudiced mentality. He does not abolish the law of Moses, but rather brings it to fulfillment (cf. Mt 5:17). He does so by stating, for example, that the law of retaliation is counterproductive, that God is not pleased by a Sabbath observance which demeans or condemns a man. He does so by refusing to condemn the sinful woman, but saves her from the blind zeal of those prepared to stone her ruthlessly in the belief that they were applying the law of Moses. Jesus also revolutionizes consciences in the Sermon on the Mount (cf. Mt 5), opening new horizons for humanity and fully revealing God’s “logic”. The logic of love, based not on fear but on freedom and charity, on healthy zeal and the saving will of God. For “God our Saviour desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:3-4). “I desire mercy and not sacrifice” (Mt 12:7; Hos 6:6).

Jesus, the new Moses, wanted to heal the leper. He wanted to touch him and restore him to the community without being “hemmed in” by prejudice, conformity to the prevailing mindset or worry about becoming infected. Jesus responds immediately to the leper’s plea, without waiting to study the situation and all its possible consequences! For Jesus, what matters above all is reaching out to save those far off, healing the wounds of the sick, restoring everyone to God’s family! And this is scandalous to some people!

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Jesus is not afraid of this kind of scandal! He does not think of the closed-minded who are scandalized even by a work of healing, scandalized before any kind of openness, by any action outside of their mental and spiritual boxes, by any caress or sign of tenderness which does not fit into their usual thinking and their ritual purity. He wanted to reinstate the outcast, to save those outside the camp (cf. Jn 10).

There are two ways of thinking and of having faith: we can fear to lose the saved and we can want to save the lost. Even today it can happen that we stand at the crossroads of these two ways of thinking. The thinking of the doctors of the law, which would remove the danger by casting out the diseased person, and the thinking of God, who in his mercy embraces and accepts by reinstating him and turning evil into good, condemnation into salvation and exclusion into proclamation.

These two ways of thinking are present throughout the Church’s history: casting off and reinstating. Saint Paul, following the Lord’s command to bring the Gospel message to the ends of the earth (cf. Mt 28:19), caused scandal and met powerful resistance and great hostility, especially from those who demanded unconditional obedience to the Mosaic law, even on the part of converted pagans. Saint Peter, too, was bitterly criticized by the community when he entered the house of the pagan centurion Cornelius (cf. Acts 10).

The Church’s way, from the time of the Council of Jerusalem, has always always been the way of Jesus, the way of mercy and reinstatement. This does not mean underestimating the dangers of letting wolves into the fold, but welcoming the repentant prodigal son; healing the wounds of sin with courage and determination; rolling up our sleeves and not standing by and watching passively the suffering of the world. The way of the Church is not to condemn anyone for eternity; to pour out the balm of God’s mercy on all those who ask for it with a sincere heart. The way of the Church is precisely to leave her four walls behind and to go out in search of those who are distant, those on the “outskirts” of life. It is to adopt fully God’s own approach, to follow the Master who said: “Those who are well have no need of the physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call, not the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Lk 5:31-32).

In healing the leper, Jesus does not harm the healthy. Rather, he frees them from fear. He does not endanger them, but gives them a brother. He does not devalue the law but instead values those for whom God gave the law. Indeed, Jesus frees the healthy from the temptation of the “older brother” (cf. Lk 15:11-32), the burden of envy and the grumbling of the labourers who bore “the burden of the day and the heat” (cf. Mt 20:1-16).

In a word: charity cannot be neutral, indifferent, lukewarm or impartial! Charity is infectious, it excites, it risks and it engages! For true charity is always unmerited, unconditional and gratuitous! (cf. 1 Cor 13). Charity is creative in finding the right words to speak to all those considered incurable and hence untouchable. Contact is the true language of communication, the same endearing language which brought healing to the leper. How many healings can we perform if only we learn this language! The leper, once cured, became a messenger of God’s love. The Gospel tells us that “he went out and began to proclaim it freely and to spread the word” (cf. Mk 1:45).

Dear new Cardinals, this is the “logic”, the mind of Jesus, and this is the way of the Church. Not only to welcome and reinstate with evangelical courage all those who knock at our door, but to go out and to seek, fearlessly and without prejudice, those who are distant, freely sharing what we ourselves freely received. “Whoever says: ‘I abide in [Christ]’, ought to walk just as he walked” (1 Jn 2:6). Total openness to serving others is our hallmark, it alone is our title of honour!

In this Eucharist which finds us gathered around the altar of the Lord, let us implore the intercession of Mary, Mother of the Church, who herself experienced marginalization as a result of slander (cf. Jn 8:41) and exile (cf. Mt 2:13-23). May she obtain for us the grace to be God’s faithful servants. May she – our Mother – teach us to be unafraid of tenderly welcoming the outcast; to be unafraid of tenderness and compassion. May she clothe us in patience as we seek to accompany them on their journey, without seeking the benefits of worldly success. May she show us Jesus and help us to walk in his footsteps.

Dear brothers, as we look to Jesus and our Mother Mary, I urge you to serve the Church in such a way that Christians – edified by our witness – will not be tempted to turn to Jesus without turning to the outcast, to become a closed caste with nothing authentically ecclesial about it. I urge you to serve Jesus crucified in every person who is emarginated, for whatever reason; to see the Lord in every excluded person who is hungry, thirsty, naked; to see the Lord present even in those who have lost their faith, or turned away from the practice of their faith; to see the Lord who is imprisoned, sick, unemployed, persecuted; to see the Lord in the leper – whether in body or soul – who encounters discrimination! We will not find the Lord unless we truly accept the marginalized! May we always have before us the image of Saint Francis, who was unafraid to embrace the leper and to accept every kind of outcast. Truly the Gospel of the marginalized is where our credibility is found and revealed!

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Pope Francis at Sunday Angelus: spread goodness, compassion

Pope Francis recited the Angelus on Sunday, with pilgrims and tourists gathered in St.

Peter’s Square. In remarks ahead of the prayer, the Holy Father offered a reflection on the Gospel reading of the day, in which St. Mark the Evangelist speaks of Christ’s battle against all manner of evil, especially in favor of those who are suffering in body and spirit, specifically telling of the Lord’s miraculous healing of a leper.

“The mercy of God overcomes all barriers,” said Pope Francis. “The hand of Jesus touched the leper,” he continued, explaining that Christ does not act from a safe distance, nor does He act by proxy, but is exposed directly to the contagion of our evil. “So,” the Holy Father went on to say, “our own evil becomes the place of contact: He, Jesus, takes our sick humanity from us and we take from Him His healing – His healthy humanity. This happens every time we receive a sacrament with faith: the Lord Jesus ‘touches’ us and gives us His grace. In this case we think especially the Sacrament of Reconciliation, to heal us from the leprosy of sin.”

Pope Francis concluded, saying that, if we would be imitators of Christ as St. Paul exhorts us to be in his 1st Letter to the Corinthians (cf. 1 Cor 11:1) before the poor or the sick, we should not be afraid to look the afflicted person in the eye, and be close to the suffering person with tenderness and compassion. “If evil is contagious,” he said, “so is good: therefore, we must allow good to abound in us, more and more; let us be infected by goodness, and let us spread the good contagion.”

After offering the traditional noontide Marian devotion, the Holy Father offered special greetings to all those, who in various parts of the world are in these days marking the lunar new year. “These festivities offer the happy occasion to rediscover and live intensely that fraternity, which is the precious bond of family life and the foundation of social life,” he said, adding an expression of the hope that this annual return to the roots of the person and of the family might help all peoples marking the lunar new year to build a society in which interpersonal relations are woven with respect, justice and charity.

Taking the Gospel of Life to the Streets…

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Last year on April 11, 2014, Pope Francis addressed the Italian Pro-Life movement with these provocative words:

“We know that human life is sacred and inviolable. Every civil right rests on the recognition of the first and fundamental right, that of life, which is not subordinate to any condition, be it quantitative, economic or, least of all, ideological. “Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills…. Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a ‘throw away’ culture which is now spreading” (Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, n. 53). And in this way life, too, ends up being thrown away. One of the gravest risks our epoch faces, amid the opportunities offered by a market equipped with every technological innovation, is the divorce between economics and morality, the basic ethical norms of human nature are increasingly neglected. It is therefore necessary to express the strongest possible opposition to every direct attack on life, especially against the innocent and defenseless, and the unborn in a mother’s womb is the example of innocence par excellence. Let us remember the words of the Second Vatican Council: “Life must be protected with the utmost care from the moment of conception: abortion and infanticide are abominable crimes” (Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes, n. 51).”

Today we are living in the midst of a culture that denies solidarity and takes the form of a veritable “culture of death”. This culture is actively fostered by powerful cultural, economic and political currents that encourage an idea of society exclusively concerned with efficiency. It is a war of the powerful against the weak. There is no room in the world for anyone who, like the unborn or the dying, is a weak element in the social structure or anyone who appears completely at the mercy of others and radically dependent on them and can only communicate through the silent language of profound sharing of affection. Abortion is the most serious wound inflicted not only on individuals and their families who should provide the sanctuary for life, but inflicted as well on society and its culture, by the very people who ought to be society’s promoters and defenders. Let us never forget Pope Benedict XVI’s words at the opening ceremony of World Youth Day 2008 in Sydney, Australia, on July 17, 2008:

And so we are led to reflect on what place the poor and the elderly, immigrants and the voiceless, have in our societies. How can it be that domestic violence torments so many mothers and children? How can it be that the most wondrous and sacred human space – the womb – has become a place of unutterable violence?

The Roman Catholic Church holds a consistent ethic of life. The Church offers a teaching on the inviolability, the sacredness and dignity of the human person. However, opposition to abortion and euthanasia does not excuse indifference to those who suffer from poverty, violence and injustice. Whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia or willful self-destruction, whatever violates the dignity of the human person such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself, whatever insults human dignity such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children, disgraceful working conditions where people are treated as instruments of gain rather than as free and responsible persons – all of these things and more poison human society.

In economically developed countries, legislation contrary to life is very widespread, and it has already shaped moral attitudes and praxis, contributing to the spread of an anti-birth mentality; frequent attempts are made to export this mentality to other states as if it were a form of cultural progress.

“Openness to life is at the centre of true development,” wrote Pope Benedict in his encyclical “Caritas in Veritate.” When a society moves toward the denial or suppression of life, it ends up no longer finding the necessary motivation and energy to strive for man’s true good. If personal and social sensitivity toward the acceptance of a new life is lost, then other forms of acceptance that are valuable for society also wither away.” The Holy Father sums up the current global economic crisis in a remarkable way with these words: “Human costs always include economic costs, and economic dysfunctions always involve human costs.”

The burning issues of the promotion of human life must be high on the agenda of every human being on every side of the political spectrum. They are not only the concern of the far right of the political spectrum. Many people, blinded by their own zeal and goodness, have ended up defeating the very cause for which we must all defend with every ounce of energy in our flesh and bones.

The market push towards euthanasia

FrancisElderlyIf we look carefully at the great dramas of the last century, we see that as free markets toppled Communism, exaggerated consumerism and materialism infiltrated our societies and cultures. Aging populations, especially in the west, and resulting smaller workforces are now creating a market push towards euthanasia. As St. John Paul II wrote: “a right to die will inevitably give way to the duty to die.”

Most people who think that euthanasia and assisted suicide should be legal are not thinking the whole issue through. They are thinking about personal autonomy and choice. They think about what it would be like to suddenly become incapacitated and consider such a life as undignified or worthless. Perhaps they consider severely disabled people as having no quality of life. Our dignity and quality of life don’t come from what we can or cannot do. Dignity and quality of life are not matters of efficiency, proficiency and productivity. They come from a deeper place – from who we are and how we relate to each other. True compassion leads to sharing another’s pain, not killing the person whose suffering we cannot bear.

What is wrong with abortion, euthanasia, embryo selection, and embryonic research is not the motives of those who carry them out. So often, those motives are, on the surface, compassionate: to protect a child from being unwanted, to end pain and suffering, to help a child with a life-threatening disease. But in all these cases, the terrible truth is that it is the strong who decide the fate of the weak; human beings therefore become instruments in the hands of other human beings.

Being pro-life is one of the deepest expressions of our baptism: we stand up as sons and daughters of the light, clothed in humility and charity, filled with conviction, speaking the truth to power with firmness, conviction and determination, and never losing joy and hope. Being Pro-Life is not an activity for a political party or a particular side of the spectrum. It is an obligation for everyone: left, right and centre! If we are Pro-Life, we must engage the culture around us, and not curse it. We must see others as Jesus does, and we must love them to life, even those who are opposed to us. Being pro-life in this day and age is truly prophetic, and it will bring about authentic development and enduring peace in our world.

Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB CEO,
Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation

 

(CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Kristallnacht: Night of the Broken Glass

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Kristallnacht: Night of the Broken Glass
Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB

On the night of November 9–10, 1938, the Nazis staged violent pogroms—state sanctioned, anti-Jewish riots—against the Jewish communities of Germany, Austria, and the Sudetenland. These events came to be known as Kristallnacht (commonly translated as “Night of Broken Glass”), a reference to the broken windows of synagogues, Jewish-owned stores, community centers, and homes plundered and destroyed that night. Instigated by the Nazi regime, rioters burned or destroyed 267 synagogues, vandalized or looted 7,500 Jewish businesses, and killed at least 91 Jewish people. They also damaged many Jewish cemeteries, hospitals, schools, and homes as police and fire brigades stood aside.

Kristallnacht was a turning point in Nazi anti-Jewish policy that would culminate in the Holocaust—the systematic, state-sponsored mass murder of the European Jews.

On March 26, 2000, at the conclusion of his historic Jubilee pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Pope John Paul II visited the Western Wall, remnant of the ancient Jerusalem Temple, and placed a prayer in a crevice in the wall as Jews have done for centuries. This act crowned his lifelong commitment to furthering Catholic-Jewish understanding. The Pope’s prayer struck the major themes of his thoughts on Jews and Judaism: that Christians share with Jews reverence and worship of the same God, the common ancestry of Abraham to all who look to the Bible for inspiration, the unjust suffering directed against Jews over the millennia and the need for forgiveness for Christians and others who caused this suffering, the need to resolve to improve one’s future behavior in order to achieve genuine repentance, and, finally, recognition of Jews as the continuing people of God’s ongoing and eternal Covenant. After meditating at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, the Pope placed in the wall a written prayer to God expressing deep sadness for all wrongs done to Jews by Christians. The prayer read:

ben“God of our fathers,
You chose Abraham and his descendants
To bring Your name to the nations;
We are deeply saddened by the behavior of those
Who in the course of history have caused these children of Yours to suffer
And asking Your forgiveness
We wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood
With the people of the Covenant.”

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Throughout his priestly, episcopal and Petrine ministry, Pope John Paul II consistently condemned anti-Semitism as a sin and acknowledged the suffering of Jews throughout the ages and in the Holocaust. He used the Hebrew word ‘Shoah’ to speak about the Holocaust. John Paul II became a true embarkation point for Christians and for Jews. He taught both Christians and Jews not to be afraid of each other, nor to fear our deep, biblical narratives that unite, rather than divide us. Nothing can remove our sense of belonging to, participating in, and being the beneficiaries of God’s saving encounter with Israel and with the broken world, which occurred in the crucifixion of Jesus, who we Christians believe to be son of Israel and Son of God.

The photo below is of the Berlin Synagogue after it had been destroyed on this night. The other photos represent the healing that has taken place between Christians and Jews through the heroic gestures of St. John Paul II and Popes Benedict XVI and Francis.

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Archbishop Prendergast Speaks on Ottawa Tragedy – Perspectives Daily

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Today on Perspectives, the Archbishop of Ottawa, His Grace Archbishop Terrence Prendergast addresses the tragedy in our nation’s capital, Pope Francis speaks to penal association, Pope Emeritus Benedict writes a document and a look at concert coming up in Toronto.

Vatican II: Theme of Canonizations

The Day of the 4 Popes

Salt and Light Founder, Producer, Reflect on Significance of the ‘Day of the Four Popes’

Rome,  (Zenit.org) Ann Schneible

Although the massive crowds which filled the city of Rome for Sunday’s canonization of Saint John XXIII and Saint John Paul II have all but returned home, faithful Catholics continue to reflect on the lives of holiness demonstrated by these two leaders of the Church.

One of the reoccurring themes in the lead up to the event was the Second Vatican Council, notably because of the canonization of Saint John XXIII, who opened the council, although did not live to see its completion. Saint John Paul II, meanwhile, has often been referred to as the interpreter of the council documents. Also noted was the witness given by the two living successors of these newly-declared saints – Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Pope Francis – and their role in continuing the legacy of the council.

“I see a lot of the story of the Council being involved in [Sunday’s] celebration,” said Fr. Thomas Rosica, founder of Canada’s Salt and Light Network, and English language spokesman in the lead up to the canonizations: “[John XXIII], the dreamer who launched the idea; [John Paul II], the great authoritative interpreter and teacher; the theologian who helped us to remember what the council was about in the person of Benedict; and the person of Francis who’s telling us to make sure we keep the flame alive for the right reasons and put it into practice. I see a real continuity with these four people.”

Years after the death of John XXIII, Fr. Rosica said, it fell to “John Paul II, that young firebrand bishop who was present at the council… to really go deep into those documents and to give meaning to them about the lay people, about religious, about bishops”.

Benedict’s role, he added, focused largely on “continuity and discontinuity” during his papacy.

“Benedict helped us to remember the roots of the council, and did some very beautiful theological reflections on the Council, especially his first talk to the Roman Curia in 2005, that famous talk which set the agenda for the pontificate”.

“It’s one thing to dream, it’s another thing to implement, but it’s also another thing to keep the theology alive,” Fr. Rosica added.

“The beauty of Pope Francis is to make sure we’re keeping it alive for the right reasons,” and that the Council is “gift that is still being unpacked, still a work in progress”.

The decision to canonize John XXIII and John Paul II together, moreover, was significant.

“I think the great lesson that Francis was teaching us in putting these canonizations together was a lesson of unity, of unity for the church,” said Salt and Light producer Sebastian Gomes.

“By canonizing them together, it’s a powerful statement about who we are as Catholics, what the church represents. But… it’s the full stamp of approval, not only on John’s holiness, but on the council, and what that meant, and what that represented for the Church.”

Gomes recalled the video message delivered by Cardinal Loris Capovilla: “He made the very powerful statement that the Second Vatican Council was not only a moment for the Church but a moment for the whole world”.

“There are some very deep and important lessons that not only we Catholics have to learn about ourselves and about how we relate to the world, but about the world as a whole and the human family. That was all John’s doing. He didn’t really control the council: his great gift to the council was to kind of step back and let the bishops of the world speak openly and honestly about what they thought. The documents and the history of the council attest to that”.

John XXIII recognized that “we cannot be a Church of condemnation,” Gomes added. “We have to be a Church of mercy, hope, and joy, and outreach, and dialogue. Those tenants of John, and of the Council, are so badly needed today that it’s very important for us not to forget them.”

Hosanna! Let Us Welcome the Lord Who Still Comes to Us Today!

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Palm Sunday, Year A – Sunday, April 13, 2014

In preparation for Easter three years ago, I had the privilege of an early Lenten retreat on the events of Holy Week as I read and pondered Pope Benedict XVI’s latest book: “Jesus of Nazareth – Holy Week – From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection” (Ignatius Press, San Francisco – USA – 2011). This book should be required reading for every bishop, priest, pastoral minister and serious Catholic who would like to meet Jesus of Nazareth and deepen one’s knowledge of the very person of Jesus and the central mysteries of our faith that we celebrate this week. I could think of no better way to prepare for Holy Week and Easter than to read this masterful text. I recommend it to all those who have found these weekly Scripture texts helpful for your personal prayer and preaching of the Word of God.

Each year during Holy Week, we accompany Jesus up to Jerusalem amidst the crowds crying out “Hosanna, Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” A day filled with exceeding praise and jubilation, but looming on the horizon is a wave of hatred, destruction and death. We, too, are caught up with the crowd acclaiming their Messiah and King as he descends the Mount of Olives… coming not with the trappings of a royal motorcade but on a beast of burden. What striking images of royalty, humility and divinity all packed into this paradoxical scene of Jesus’ entering his city! Full of enthusiasm, they welcome him on Palm Sunday as the King of Peace and the Bearer of Hope. Full of hate, five days later, the people demand his death on the cross.

The Gospel Passion narratives recount how the sins of some of the people and their leaders at the time of Jesus conspired to bring about the Passion and death of Christ, and thereby suggest the fundamental truth that we are all to blame. Their sins and our sins bring Christ to the cross, and He bears them willingly. And we must learn from what happened to Jesus and ask ourselves not only about the identity of those who tried, condemned and killed Him long ago, but also what killed Jesus and what vicious circles of violence, brutality, and hatred continue to crucify Him today in His brothers and sisters of the human family.

Matthew’s Passion Narrative

This year we read Matthew’s Passion Narrative (Matthew 26:14-27:66). Matthew follows his Marcan source closely but with omissions (e.g., Mark 14:51-52) and additions (e.g., Matthew 27:3-10, 19). Some of the additions indicate that he utilized traditions that he had received from elsewhere; others are due to his own theological insight (e.g., Matthew 26:28 “…for the forgiveness of sins”; Matthew 27:52). In his editing Matthew also altered Mark in some minor details. But there is no need to suppose that he knew any passion narrative other than Mark’s.

As we listen to Matthew’s account, we are caught up in Jesus’ encounter with destiny made inevitable by the strong commitments of Jesus’ mission from God and the fierce resistance of the power of death. In the first chapter of “Jesus of Nazareth” entitled “The Entrance into Jerusaelm,” Pope Benedict invites us to consider Zechariah 9:9, the text that Matthew and John quote explicitly for an understanding of “Palm Sunday”: “Tell the daughter of Zion, Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Mt 21:5; cf. Zech 9:9; Jn 12:15). Benedict writes: “He [Jesus] is a king who destroys the weapons of war, a king of peace and a king of simplicity, a king of the poor. And finally we saw that he reigns over a kingdom that stretches from sea to sea, embracing the whole world; we were reminded of the new world encompassing kingdom of Jesus that extends from sea to sea in the communities of the breaking of bread in communion with Jesus Christ, as the kingdom of his peace. None of this could be seen at the time… .” (p. 4).

The Meaning of Hosanna

“Hosanna” was originally a pilgrim blessing that priests addressed in the Temple, but when it was joined to the second part of the acclamation “who enters in the name of the Lord” it took on Messianic significance. It had become a designation of the one promised by God. It now became praise of Jesus, a greeting to him as the one who comes in the name of the Lord, the one awaited and proclaimed by all the promises.

We can ask why the word “hosanna” was preserved for us in Hebrew. Why ask didn’t the Gospels translate it into Greek? The full translation of “hosanna” could read: “Help [or save], please, O Son of David. Blessed in the name of the Lord is he who comes. Help [or save], please, O Most High.” The crowd’s welcome of Jesus with cries of “hosanna,” for help, and the waving of palm fronds, thereby invoked the liturgical formulas of Sukkot, which had already been politicized by its use in the festival of independence, the first Hanukkah. The use of this liturgical formula to welcome Jesus was clearly purposeful. Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem was followed by his cleansing of the Temple (Matthew 21:14-16). This was plainly a scenario in emulation of the Maccabean liberation, calculated to stir messianic hopes. When the crowd called “hosanna” and waved palm fronds, they knew full well what they were doing.

In the hosanna acclamation, we find an expression of the complex emotions of the pilgrims accompanying Jesus and of his disciples: joyful praise of God at the moment of the processional entry, hope that the hour of the Messiah had arrived, and at the same time a prayer that the Davidic kingship and hence God’s kingship over Israel would be reestablished (“Jesus of Nazareth” pp. 8-10).

“Hosanna” as an urgent plea to help and save is universally valid. It is perennially appropriate to the human situation. It is a one-word prayer with potential political impact to unsettle oppressors everywhere, now as in ancient days, and should thus be translated and understood.

The prophet from Nazareth

In the beginning when people had heard of the prophet from Nazareth, he did not appear to have any importance for Jerusalem, and the local inhabitants did not know him. The crowd that paid homage to Jesus at the gateway to the city was not the same crowd that later demanded his crucifixion. In this two-stage account of the failure to recognize Jesus— through a combination of indifference and fear— Benedict XVI says that we see something of the city’s tragedy of which Jesus spoke a number of times, most poignantly in his eschatological discourse.

Unique emphases of Matthew’s Passion

For Matthew, the ultimate turning point in Jesus’ history was his death and resurrection. At the very instant of Jesus’ death, a death suffered in fidelity to his mission, new life breaks out: The earth quakes, the rocks are split, the tombs are opened and the saints of old are raised from their tombs to march triumphantly into God’s city. In writing these words, Matthew evokes the great vision of the dry bones in Ezekiel 37. God breathes spirit into the bones, and they rise from the dead to become a new people. Matthew believed that out of the death of Jesus came new life for the world; out of the seeming death of the Jewish Christian mission to Israel, the early community rose to envelop the Mediterranean world and to forge a new people from Jew and gentile. Death-resurrection was not only the pattern for Jesus’ destiny but would also be the pattern for the destiny of the community itself within history.

Contemporary Meaning

What does Matthew’s passion say to us today? I am convinced that it offers us distinct biblical lenses through which we look upon this current moment of the history of the Church and the world. We receive our marching orders and pastoral plan for mission, not only from the Church but also from the world in which we live. The tremendous biblical drama found in Matthew’s passion teaches us that what we often consider to be “secular events”, even those that are destructive, damaging and even terrorizing and blinding, move us forward into God’s future for us, and set the stage for God to reveal himself to us.

Greeting the Lord in the Eucharist

I conclude with Benedict’s words on this Palm Sunday Gospel scene:

“The Church greets the Lord in the Holy Eucharist as the one who is coming now, the one who has entered into her midst. At the same time, she greets him as the one who continues to come, the one who leads us toward his coming. As pilgrims, we go up to him; as a pilgrim, he comes to us and takes us up with him in his “ascent” to the Cross and Resurrection, to the definitive Jerusalem that is already growing in the midst of this world in the communion that unites us with his body.” (Jesus of Nazareth p. 11).

[The readings for Palm Sunday are: Isaiah 50.4-7; Philippians 2.6-11; and Matthew 26.14-27.66.]

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.

“I will open your graves and have you rise from them”

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Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year A – Sunday, April 6, 2014

Ezekiel’s dramatic vision and our

The historical background of today’s first reading from Ezekiel 37:12-14 is the great vision of the valley of the dry bones, one of the most spectacular panoramas in the whole of biblical literature. It dates back to the early sixth century B.C. when the hand of God came upon Ezekiel while the Jews were in captivity in Babylon. For about 150 years the political fortunes of the Jewish people had been in decline. The turning point came in 587 B.C. with the final catastrophic defeat and the beginning of the great exile for the Jewish people who were in deep despair, powerless over the situation which befell them. It is against this bleak background that Ezekiel’s dramatic vision unfolds- where the dead withered into whitened skeletons as the birds of prey had long finished destroying their flesh. What an incredible battlefield of unburied corpses! What a stench of death and decay!

The reluctant prophet Ezekiel was commanded by God to prophesy to these bones, to revive them. With the help of a massive earthquake, the bones rushed together with an eerie clamor. Sinews knitted them together, flesh and then skin clothed the corpses. The breath, “ruah”, Spirit of God came from the four extremities of the earth, as the limp bodies came “to life again and stood up on their feet, a great and immense army”. Where we now understand this incident as a pre-figuration of the resurrection of the dead, the Jews of Ezekiel’s time did not believe in such a conception of the afterlife. For them the immense resurrected army represented all the Jewish people, those from the northern kingdom who had previously fled to Assyria; those at home and those in exile in Babylon. They were to be reconstituted as a people in their own land and they would know that the one true God alone had done this.

Through the centuries, Christians have proclaimed this text during the liturgy of Easter night as we welcome new members into the Church. Ezekiel’s powerful words offer a stirring image of the God of Israel’s regenerative, restorative, renewing power for this life and for all eternity. Through the centuries, believers in the God and father of Abraham, Isaac and Jesus have taken heart in Ezekiel’s vision, because we believe it to be our story as well. We believe in the power of God’s forgiveness, the capacity of Christ and the Catholic tradition to revive us and bring us to life even when all around us seems to announce, night, darkness, death, dissolution and despair.

Christian life is a constant challenge

In writing to the community in Rome, St. Paul (8:8-11), we learn that through the cross of Jesus Christ, God broke the power of sin and pronounced sentence on it (3). Christians still retain the flesh, but it is alien to their new being, which is life in the spirit, namely the new self, governed by the Holy Spirit. Under the direction of the Holy Spirit Christians are able to fulfill the divine will that formerly found expression in the law (Romans 8:4). The same Spirit who enlivens Christians for holiness will also resurrect their bodies at the last day (11) Christian life is therefore the experience of a constant challenge to put to death the evil deeds of the body through life of the spirit (13).

Jesus’ gift of life leads to his own death

Today’s pathos-filled Gospel story, the raising of Lazarus, the longest continuous narrative in John’s Gospel (11:1-44) outside of the passion account, is the climax of the signs of Jesus. The story is situated shortly before Jesus is captured, tried and crucified. It is the event that most directly results in his condemnation by those seeking to kill him. Johannine irony is found in the fact that Jesus’ gift of life leads to his own death. Jesus was aware of the illness of his friend Lazarus and yet did not go to work a healing. In fact, he delayed for several days after Lazarus’ death, meanwhile giving his disciples lessons along the way about the light – lessons incomprehensible in the face of grave illness and death but understandable in the light shed by Lazarus’ and Christ’s resurrection.

Jesus declared to Martha: “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, he will live; whoever lives and believes in me, will never die (25).” And he adds: “Do you believe this (26)?” The Lord urges us to respond just as Martha did, “Yes, Lord! We too believe, despite our doubts and our darkness; we believe in you, because you have the words of eternal life; we want to believe in you, who gives us a trustworthy hope of life beyond life, of authentic and full life in your kingdom of light and peace.”

Lord, if only you had been here…

How often have we, like Martha and Mary, blurted out those same words of pain and despair: “Lord, if only you had been here (32), my brother… or sister or mother or father or friend would not have died.” And yet today’s pathos-filled story from John’s Gospel tells us what kind of God we have… a God who “groaned in spirit and was troubled. The Greek word used to describe Jesus’ gut sentiment in v.33 tells us that he became perturbed. It is a startling Greek phrase that literally means: “He snorted in spirit,” perhaps in anger at the presence of evil (death). We witness the Lord weeping at the tomb of his friend Lazarus; a Savior deeply moved at the commotion and grief of so many friends of Martha, Mary and Lazarus. The shortest line in the whole bible is found in this Gospel story: “Jesus wept” (35).

Jesus reveals to us God who is one with us in suffering, grief and death… a God who weeps with us. God doesn’t intervene to prevent the tragedies and sufferings of life. If we had a god who simply swooped down as some “deus ex machina” to prevent human tragedy and sinfulness, then religion and faith would simply be reduced to some form of magic or fate, and we would be helpless pawns on the chessboard of some whimsical god. Where is God in the midst of human tragedies? God is there in the midst of it all, weeping. This is our God who stands in deep, human solidarity with us, and through the glory of the Incarnation, embracing fully our human condition.

Death of the heart and spirit

The story of the raising of Lazarus also speaks to us about another kind of death. We can be dead, even before we die, while we are still in this life. This is not only the death of the soul caused by sin but also rather a death that manifests itself through the absence of energy, hope, a desire to fight and to continue to life. We often refer to this reality as death of the heart or spiritual death. There are many people who are enchained in this kind of death every day because of the sad and tragic circumstances of their lives. Who can possibly reverse this situation and revive us, stir us back to life, free us from the tombs that enchain us? Who can perform the spiritual cardio-pulmonary resuscitation that will reverse such desperate situations?

For certain afflictions, there exists no human remedy. Words of encouragement often fail to effect any change. Many times people in these situations are not able to do anything, not even pray. They are like Lazarus in the tomb. They need others to do something for them. Jesus once spoke these words to his disciples: “Heal the sick, raise the dead” (Matthew 10:8). Among the corporal works of mercy: feeding the hungry; giving drink to the thirsty; clothing the naked; sheltering the homeless; visiting the sick; visiting prisoners, the last one is burying the dead. Today’s Gospel tells us that in addition to this corporal work of mercy, we must also “raise the dead.”

Only the One who has entered death’s realm and engaged death itself in battle can give life to those who have died. John recounts the raising of Lazarus as a sign that transforms the tragedy into hope. Lazarus’ illness and death are the occasion for the manifestation of God’s glory. As Christians we do not expect to escape death; but we approach it with faith in the resurrection.

Implications of faith in the resurrection

Referring to the Lazarus story in his 2011 Lenten Message, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote:

“On the fifth Sunday, when the resurrection of Lazarus is proclaimed, we are faced with the ultimate mystery of our existence: “I am the resurrection and the life… Do you believe this?” (25-26). For the Christian community, it is the moment to place with sincerity – together with Martha – all of our hopes in Jesus of Nazareth: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who was to come into this world” (27).

Communion with Christ in this life prepares us to overcome the barrier of death, so that we may live eternally with him. Faith in the resurrection of the dead and hope in eternal life open our eyes to the ultimate meaning of our existence: God created men and women for resurrection and life, and this truth gives an authentic and definitive meaning to human history, to the personal and social lives of men and women, to culture, politics and the economy. Without the light of faith, the entire universe finishes shut within a tomb devoid of any future, any hope.”

Living Lent this week

1. View the video “Lord, If Only You Had Been Here”.

2. Immediately before his own death and resurrection Jesus proclaims the words that form the very heart of today’s Gospel story: “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25). The fourth century Bishop Gregory of Nazianzus (328-389) spoke about the miracle in Bethany that prefigured Jesus’ own death and resurrection. Meditate on these moving words of St. Gregory.

“He prays, but he hears prayer. He weeps, but he puts an end to tears.
He asks where Lazarus was laid, for he was a human being;
and he raises Lazarus, for He is God.
As a sheep he is led to the slaughter 
but he is the Shepherd of Israel and now of the whole world.
He is bruised and wounded,
but he heals every disease and every infirmity.
He is lifted up and nailed to the tree,
but by the tree of life he restores us…
He lays down his life,
but he has the power to take it again;
and the veil is rent, for the mysterious doors of heaven are opened;
the rocks are cleft, the dead rise.
He dies, but he gives life, and his death destroys death.
He is buried, but he rises again.”

3. Look around you and discover one or two people who are in the throes of death, especially the death of the heart and spirit, people who have lost the will and desire to live because of what has befallen them. Reach out to them, and with your words, revive their spirit, quicken their souls, unbind them and set them free. 

[The readings for the Fifth Sunday of Lent are: Ezekiel 37.12-14; Romans 8.8-11; and John 11.1-45.]

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.

It took 40 days…

Ash Wednesday – March 5, 2014

The readings for Ash Wednesday are: Joel 2:12-18; 2 Corinthians 5:20–6:2; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18

On Ash Wednesday the Church begins her great Lenten journey with Jesus on the road to Jerusalem. For centuries, Lent has been a very intense spiritual journey and experience for the followers of Jesus Christ.  Why are there 40 days in Lent? It took 40 days for sinful-ness to drown in the flood before a new creation could inherit the earth. It took 40 years for the generation of slaves to die before the freeborn could enter the Promised Land. For 40 days Moses, Elijah and Jesus fasted and prayed to prepare themselves for a life’s work.

Lent invites us to turn from our own selves, from our sin, to come together in community. Self-denial is the way we express our repentance. Self-denial is threefold, advises Matthew’s Gospel.

We pray: “Go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret.”  We fast: “so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father.”  We give alms: “Beware of practising your piety before people in order to be seen by them … so that your alms may be done in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
[Read more…]

“Be holy, for I, the LORD, your God, am holy”

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The Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A – February 23, 2014

The three Scripture readings today issue three calls to us– to be holy as the Lord our God is holy; to not deceive ourselves with the wisdom of this age; and to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Let us begin our reflections this week by considering the words of the Leviticus reading (19:1-2, 17-18.) God is the Holy One and the Creator of human life, and the human being is blessed and obliged by God’s utter holiness. Therefore every human life is holy, sacrosanct and inviolable. According to Leviticus 19:2 God’s holiness constitutes an essential imperative for the moral behavior: “You shall be holy for I am Holy, the Lord your God!” This loaded statement describes best the vocation of every man and woman, and the entire mission of the Church throughout history: a call to holiness.

You shall be holy…

Holiness is a truth that pervades the whole of the Old Covenant: God is holy and calls all to holiness. The Mosaic Law exhorted: “You shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy”. Holiness is in God, and only from God can it pass to the crown of God’s creation: human beings. We are made in the image and likeness of God, and God’s holiness, his ‘total otherness’ is imprinted on each one of us. Human beings become vehicles and instruments of God’s holiness for the world. This holiness is the fire of God’s Word that must be alive and burning within our hearts. It is this fire, this dynamism, that will burn away the evil within us and around us and cause holiness to burst forth, healing and transforming the society and culture surrounding us. Evil is only eradicated by holiness, not by harshness. Holiness introduces into society a seed that heals and transforms.

Holiness is a way of life that involves commitment and activity. It is not a passive endeavor but rather a continuous choice to deepen one’s relationship with God and to then 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. This fundamental orientation towards God even envelops and sustains our relationship with other human beings. Sustained by a life of virtue and fortified by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, God draws us ever closer to Himself and to that day when we shall see Him face to face in Heaven and achieve full union with Him. Here and now, we can find holiness in our personal experience of putting forth our best efforts in the work place, patiently raising our children, and building good relationships at home, at school and at work. If we make all of these things a part of our loving response to God, we are on the path of holiness.

Revolution of holiness

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The words of Leviticus in today’s first reading [19:2] come alive in the saints and blesseds of our Catholic tradition. These countless men and women throughout our tradition are the true “revolutionaries of holiness” as Pope Emeritus Benedict said so beautifully during the World Youth Day 2005 in Cologne, Germany:

“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… . The saints, as we said, 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.”

Pastoral Planning

In his Apostolic Letter “Novo Millennio Ineunte” at the close of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, Pope John Paul II invited all “to place pastoral planning under the heading of holiness,” to express “the conviction that, since Baptism is a true entry into the holiness of God through incorporation into Christ and the indwelling of his Spirit, it would be a contradiction to settle for a life of mediocrity, marked by a minimalist ethic and a shallow religiosity… The time has come to re-propose wholeheartedly to everyone this high standard of ordinary Christian living: the whole life of the Christian community and of Christian families must lead in this direction [#31].”

The Church is the “home of holiness” and holiness is our most accurate image, our authentic calling card, and our greatest gift to the world. It describes best who and what we are and strive to be.

True wisdom

In today’s second reading (I Corinthians 3:16-23) St. Paul, in continuing his reproach of the Corinthians for their contentions (1-4), reminds the community that the churches of Christ ought to be kept pure, and humble (16,17). To have a high opinion of our own wisdom, is but to flatter ourselves; and self-flattery is the next step to self-deceit. People are deceived who deem themselves to be temples of the Holy Spirit yet are unconcerned about personal holiness, or the peace and purity of the church.

If the Corinthians were genuinely wise (3:18-20), their perceptions would be reversed, and they would see everything in the world and all those with whom they exist in the church in their true relations with one another. Paul assigns all the persons involved in the theological universe a position on a scale: God, Christ, church members, church leaders. Read from top to bottom, the scale expresses ownership; read from bottom to top, the obligation to serve. This picture should be complemented by similar statements such as those in 1 Cor 8:6 and 1 Cor 15:20-28. Christians are holy by profession, and should be pure and clean, both in heart and conversation.

“Love your neighbor…”

As we reflect on today’s Gospel passage (Matthew 25:38-48), Jesus in no way teaches us to be passive in the face of physical danger. Jesus teaches that violence can breed violence. And if non-resistance will shame our opponent into peace, then such is the better course.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil…” (Mt 5:38-39). With metaphorical language Jesus teaches us to turn the other cheek, to hand over not only the tunic but also the cloak, not to respond with violence to the vexations of others, and above all, “Give to the one who asks of you, and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow” (5:42). This is a radical exclusion of the law of retaliation in the personal life of Jesus’ disciples whatever be the right of society to defend its members from evildoers and to punish those guilty of violating the rights of citizens and of the state itself.

Jesus teaches the ultimate step in the process of bringing to perfection, that in which all the others find their dynamic center: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust…” (5:43-45). In opposition to the common interpretation of the old law which identified the neighbor with the Israelite, and indeed with the pious Israelite, Jesus set out the authentic interpretation of God’s commandment. He added to it the religious dimension of reference to the clement and merciful heavenly Father who does good to all and is therefore the supreme exemplar of universal love.

Jesus concluded, “Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (5:48). He asked of his followers the perfection of love. Love is the synthesis of the new law he brought. This love will enable us to overcome in our relations with others the classical opposition of friend-enemy. It will tend from within hearts to transform into corresponding forms of social, political and even institutionalized solidarity.

The fruit of non-violence is love

There are lots of mean-spirited people who have never broken the law, but can they truly be models for Christians? There is always the risk of being taken advantage of when we are generous and unselfish. If we open ourselves to love, we may very well get hurt. If we share our material goods, we may very well be used. In no instance are we obligated to get hurt or used; it just happens sometimes. The only way to be fully protected is to be suspicious, stingy, cynical and selfish. But this is certainly inconsistent with love. The fruit of non-violence is love. This love blossoms everywhere when people meet each other, and everywhere it divulges its divine origins. This love overcomes all opposition. It brings together strangers, overcoming distance. It fills emptiness. It heals the sick. It raises the dead to life.

Let us try to break those patterns within us individually and communally that lead to violence, destruction and unlove. If violence seems a reasonable option for us, then let us invent a different kind of logic. If violence is a machine, dealing mechanically with people whom we don’t like, let us pray for the courage to throw a monkey wrench into it. And if violence is a chain of which we are part, let us be the first link that’s broken.

The “dark” passages of the Bible

Continuing our reflection on Verbum Domini in light of today’s Gospel, let us consider #42 of the Post Synodal Exhortation that reflected on the theme “The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church.”

“In discussing the relationship between the Old and the New Testaments, the Synod also considered those passages in the Bible which, due to the violence and immorality they occasionally contain, prove obscure and difficult. Here it must be remembered first and foremost that biblical revelation is deeply rooted in history. God’s plan is manifested progressively and it is accomplished slowly, in successive stages and despite human resistance. God chose a people and patiently worked to guide and educate them. Revelation is suited to the cultural and moral level of distant times and thus describes facts and customs, such as cheating and trickery, and acts of violence and massacre, without explicitly denouncing the immorality of such things. This can be explained by the historical context, yet it can cause the modern reader to be taken aback, especially if he or she fails to take account of the many “dark” deeds carried out down the centuries, and also in our own day. In the Old Testament, the preaching of the prophets vigorously challenged every kind of injustice and violence, whether collective or individual, and thus became God’s way of training his people in preparation for the Gospel. So it would be a mistake to neglect those passages of Scripture that strike us as problematic. Rather, we should be aware that the correct interpretation of these passages requires a degree of expertise, acquired through a training that interprets the texts in their historical-literary context and within the Christian perspective which has as its ultimate hermeneutical key “the Gospel and the new commandment of Jesus Christ brought about in the paschal mystery.” I encourage scholars and pastors to help all the faithful to approach these passages through an interpretation which enables their meaning to emerge in the light of the mystery of Christ.”

[The readings for the Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time are: Leviticus 19.1-2, 17-18; 1 Corinthians 3.16-23; and Matthew 5.38-48.]

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.

Vergelt’s Gott, Heiliger Vater!

BXVI Farewell

Remembering Pope Benedict’s resignation one year later

Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB

The momentous occasion of Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation one year ago on February 11, 2013, stands as an important moment in the life of the Catholic Church and in the life of the world. To his brother Cardinals gathered in consistory that February morning last year, he startled them, the Church and the entire world with these moving words:

“After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry. I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering. However, in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me. For this reason, and well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of Saint Peter, entrusted to me by the Cardinals on 19 April 2005, in such a way, that as from 28 February 2013, at 20:00 hours, the See of Rome, the See of Saint Peter, will be vacant and a Conclave to elect the new Supreme Pontiff will have to be convoked by those whose competence it is.

Dear Brothers, I thank you most sincerely for all the love and work with which you have supported me in my ministry and I ask pardon for all my defects. And now, let us entrust the Holy Church to the care of Our Supreme Pastor, Our Lord Jesus Christ, and implore his holy Mother Mary, so that she may assist the Cardinal Fathers with her maternal solicitude, in electing a new Supreme Pontiff. With regard to myself, I wish to also devotedly serve the Holy Church of God in the future through a life dedicated to prayer.”

Pope Benedict XVI submitted his resignation freely, in accordance with the Church’s Code of Canon Law. It was an unprecedented decision in modern history and offers the church and the world a profound teaching moment. It is perfectly in line with one of the greatest teachers of the faith that the church has ever known. By his bold and courageous decision, Benedict told us that we must be painfully honest with the human condition, that we cannot be enchained by history. A man who had been the champion of tradition and labeled “conservative” left us with one of the most progressive gestures made by any pope. This man known for brilliant writing, exquisite kindness, charity, gentleness, humility and clarity of teaching, offered us the epitome of a courageous and humble decision that will forever mark the papacy and the life of the Church.

Benedict’s resignation provides a rare but profound example of humility in action. True leaders put their cause before their power and self-interest. Far from a failure or weakness, his resignation was the most shining moment of Benedict’s papacy, and what will turn out to be a historically brilliant move. He has set a new course for the church.

The Great Teacher

Benedict was pigeonholed from the beginning as the “conservative” pope. For eight years on the chair of Peter, Pope Benedict turned to Scripture far more than doctrine, making connections between the early Christians and people of our time struggling to live their faith. He tackled contemporary social and political issues by emphasizing a few main principles: that human rights rest on human dignity, that people come before profits, that the right to life is an ancient measure of humanity and not just a Catholic teaching, and that efforts to exclude God from civil affairs are corroding modern society. For Benedict, Christianity is an encounter with beauty, the possibility of a more authentic, more exciting life. His mantra was about friendship with Jesus and with God.

Benedict set the stage for the age of the New Evangelization by focusing in on three basics. His first three encyclicals examined the three cardinal virtues: Faith, Hope and Love. His first three books focused on the center of the Catholic Faith: Jesus Christ. This great teaching pope lectured every Wednesday on issues like the catechesis, the Fathers of the Church, the Saints, the Doctors of the Church, the Psalms and prayer. In October 2013, he held a synod on the New Evangelization and in his opening speech declared “The Church exists to evangelize!” Pope Benedict brilliantly emphasized the need for intense theological life, constant prayer and quiet contemplation which would naturally give way to good moral living, a commitment to others, and a life of charity and justice. 

Early in his Pontificate, Benedict XVI told a group of priests in northern Italy, while he was vacationing, “The pope is not an oracle; he is infallible on the rarest of occasions, as we know.” Acknowledging that the Church was moving through some painful moments, he admitted, “I do not think that there is any system for making a rapid change. We must go on, we must go through this tunnel, this underpass, patiently, in the certainty that Christ is the answer…but we should also deepen this certainty and the joy of knowing it and thus truly be ministers of the future of the world, of the future of every person.” So many moments of his papacy seem to have been lived out in a dark tunnel where light was very distant.

As I look back over nearly eight years of his Petrine Ministry, I am grateful for the special moments I spent in his presence. I had known Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and later Pope Benedict XVI for many years. I was with him in Rome, Germany, Australia, the United States and Spain on his unforgettable papal pastoral visits. I served as the English language media attaché at two Synods of Bishops where we had the privilege of being with Benedict for days on end in the Synod Hall in Rome.

When I was with the Pope in Cologne for his first World Youth Day in August 2005, he exclaimed to the throngs of young Christians and the curious mixed in: “The Church can be criticized, because it contains both grain and weeds, but it is actually consoling to realize that there are weeds in the Church. In this way, despite all our defects, we can still hope to be counted among the disciples of Jesus, who came to call sinners.”

If any pope dealt with the weeds among the wheat during his pontificate, it was Benedict XVI. He called sin and evil by their right names, and invited people to become friends with Jesus Christ. He faced head-on scandals and was unafraid to speak about them; he admitted errors made under his watch; he reached out to schismatics and experienced rejection of his efforts for unity; he extended peace branches to the great religions of the world unafraid to name the things that divide us and also the great hopes that unite us. He walked among kings and princes but never lost the common touch. As one who was not expected to travel due to old age, he surprised all of us with a daunting schedule of world travel during his papacy. Aware of the “filth” in the Church in so many areas, it was then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger who pushed for new rules to weed out abuser priests in the Pope John Paul II years and who wrote those rules into law as pope. Benedict, too, was the first pope to meet with victims of sex abuse, the first pope to apologize for the crisis in his own name, and the first pope to dedicate an entire document to the abuse crisis in his 2010 letter to the Catholics of Ireland.

It was Benedict who established the new financial watchdog agency, who opened the Vatican for the first time to outside secular inspection through the Moneyval process (the Council of Europe’s anti-money-laundering agency), and who began to tackle the problems of the financial mismanagement and lack of transparency at the Vatican.

During these days of retrospection and commemoration of the first anniversary of Benedict’s resignation, many feel that in order to highlight the positive aspects of the “Franciscan” era, we must describe in negative terms the pontificate of Pope Benedict. That is not only absurd, but it is also indicates blindness, deafness and ignorance to what this great man accomplished. Comparisons between Francis and his predecessor are inevitable, and it’s no secret that Pope Francis is more appealing to the crowds… the huge masses that continue to throng the Vatican to catch glimpse of the first Pope from the New World. There is a shift in tone under Francis in what could be described as a “moderate” or “pastoral” direction and a real concern for those on the peripheries of society and the Church.

Let us not forget that many of the reforms now underway under Pope Francis’ leadership actually began on Benedict’s watch, especially in two chronic sources of scandal for the church: money and sex abuse. I am convinced that if today we are basking in the Pope Francis’ light, we must forever be grateful to Joseph Ratzinger, Benedict XVI who has made Francis possible for the Church and the world. We owe Benedict immense gratitude.

The Farewell

Having had the privilege of serving as one of the “spokespersons” for the Vatican during the momentous papal transition last year, I experienced everything up close, and emotions were very high at various moments.

One of the most touching moments of that Roman experience took place on February 28, the last day of Benedict’s pontificate. His carefully orchestrated departure from the Apostolic Palace and the Vatican captured the heart and mind of the world. The touching farewell from his co-workers on that crisp, Italian afternoon, the brief helicopter flight to Castel Gandolfo, his final words as Pope, reminding us that he would become “a pilgrim” in this final stage of his life, moved the world. There were no dry eyes in Rome that evening. I was sad to witness this incredible leave-taking. I grieved because I knew deep down inside that this great Church leader, teacher, a real “doctor” of the faith had been very poorly served by some of his closest collaborators during his papacy.

Joseph, our brother

In the Old Testament, we find the moving story of Joseph, who, after generations of family turmoil, disunity and even hate, united his family in forgiveness and love. In emotional scenes that could easily be part of a great opera, Joseph questions his brothers, who do not recognize him, about their beloved father, still grieving over the supposed death of his missing son. When he confronts them and sees that they have undergone a change of heart, he embraces them and utters the immortal words, “I am Joseph, your brother” (Genesis 45:4).

Blessed John Paul II taught us the profound lesson of suffering and death with dignity. Joseph Ratzinger taught us the meaning of sweet surrender- of not clinging to power and the throne, of prestige, tradition and privilege for their own sakes. Pope Benedict taught us what it means to serve the Lord with gladness, humility and joy. He was for us, Joseph, our brother – the one that many refused to accept in the beginning, but in the end, recognized and embraced as a beloved brother. 

During my German language studies in Pope Benedict’s Bavarian homeland, I learned the wonderful expression “Vergelt’s Gott!” It is much more than a mere “Danke” or “thanks” but really means, “May God repay you or reward you!” As I look back over those momentous days one year ago, I say,“Vergelt’s Gott, Heiliger Vater!” The Church and the world will never be the same because of what you have done for us!