Saturday, April 27, 2013

If You Love One Another

During the Last Supper, Jesus gave his Apostles a very specific instruction: “Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (John 13:34). These words, spoken to his closest companions on the night before he was to offer his life for them, are not just a pious admonition. Instead, they are an indication that Jesus’ sacrifice was itself an act of love (cf. Jn 13:1), and an example of the way they should love one another: “In this way, all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (Jn. 13:35).
Crucifixion by Rembrandt
Reflecting on this love, Father Romano Guardini wrote:
Love proceeded from Him everywhere. We encounter love all about Him. But we want to seek it out in the flaming, radiant center. Love is what He showed toward the delicate blossoming of His Father’s creation, when He speaks of the lilies of the field, and how God has clothed them more magnificently than Solomon in all his glory… Love is what seizes our Lord when He sees the obscure, abandoned masses of people, and takes pity on them “because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” There is something heroic, strong, in this love for people forsaken, in distress… Oh, this tremendous Lover and the might and majesty of His heart taking up arms against the massive world-force of sorrow, magnificently sure of His inexhaustible power to comfort, to strengthen, to bless! Love is indeed all these things. But still we do not see the uniqueness about these several instances that bring us to say: Love is He and He alone.
It is the love which proceeded from Jesus that enables us to love one another and, in giving himself to us completely, Jesus shows us how to love: “Jesus gave himself as a model and source of love, of boundless, universal love that could transform all the negative circumstances and all obstacles into opportunities to progress in love” (Benedict XVI, Homily of May 2, 2010). Regardless of what happens in our world, the violence against innocence, the acts of terror, love is stronger; love will endure. No human life is useless or without value, because each one of us is loved personally and passionately by the One who gave everything for our sakes (cf. Romans 5:8).
Saint Thérèse of Liseux reflected on the place of love in the life of the Church when she wrote, “I understood that the Church had a Heart and that this Heart was aflame with Love. I understood that Love alone stirred the members of the Church to act… I understood that love encompassed all vocations, that Love was everything” (from Manuscript B, 3vo: Êuvres complètes [Paris, 1996], p. 226). The question we must ask ourselves is quite simple: How do I live this love?
Saint Paul reminds us that even if we speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and if we have faith to “move mountains,” but are without love, all these things will mean nothing (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:2). Our love can exclude no one and must be lived out in a commitment to practical and concrete care and concern for every human being. The Gospel isn’t simply an invitation to do good deeds or even to live “the Golden Rule.” Gospel-love demands that we spend ourselves in the service of others.
Blessed John Paul II, anticipating the new millennium, wrote: “In our own time, there are so many needs which demand a compassionate response from Christians. Our world [is] burdened by the contradictions of an economic, cultural, and technological progress which offers immense possibilities to a fortunate few, while leaving millions of others not only on the margins of progress but in living conditions far below the minimum demanded by human dignity. How can it be that even today there are still people dying of hunger? Condemned to illiteracy? Lacking the most basic medical care? Without a roof over their heads?” He continued by noting the prevalence of fear, despair, addiction, marginalization, and discrimination that are rampant, even within affluent societies and groups. He reminded us, “Now is the time for a new ‘creativity’ in charity, not only by ensuring that help is effective but also by ‘getting close’ to those who suffer, so that the hand that helps is seen not as a humiliating handout but as a sharing between brothers and sisters” (Novo Millennio Ineunte, 49-50).
Before it is anything else, Easter is a celebration of love, and it is love alone that makes all things new: “He will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will always be with them as their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, for the old order has passed away” (Revelation 21:3-4). Our task, as followers of Jesus, is to live in imitation of our Teacher: “Jesus came into this world for one purpose. He came to give us the Good News that God loves us, that God is love, that God loves you, and that God loves me. Jesus wants us to love one another as he loves each one of us. Let us love him. How did Jesus love you and me? By giving his life. He gave all that he had, his life, for you and me. He died on the cross because he loves us, and wants us to love one another as he loves each one of us” (Blessed Teresa of Calcutta).

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

For the Feast of Saint Mark: The Evangelist's Offerings

The man who is kindly, modest, merciful and just will not keep his good works to himself but will see to it that these admirable fountains send out their streams for the good of others.
~ Saint John Chrysostom

Saint Mark the Evangelist
by Tzanes Emmanuel  in the Benaki Museum, Athens
The Acts of the Apostles and ancient tradition tell us about Saint Mark, who is often identified with John Mark, the companion of Paul and Barnabas. Originally a disciple of Saint Peter (cf. Acts 12:12), Mark became a collaborator of Saint Paul in his mission to the Gentiles, and he seems to have been with Paul during his imprisonment in Rome (cf. Colossians 4:10; 2 Timothy4:11). Eusebius of Caesarea, the famed Church historian, tells us that Mark spent the final years of his life serving as the bishop of Alexandria in Egypt.
Mark is most especially celebrated as the author of the Gospel that bears his name. While he himself was not an eyewitness to the works of Jesus, he is traditionally regarded to have been the “interpreter and mouthpiece” of Saint Peter. We can be sure that Mark did not write his Gospel simply to serve as an historical summary of Jesus’ life and ministry for a Gentile community. Instead, it was given as testimony of the One who is Truth. Mark urged all his fellow Christians to be faithful and united to one another in their commitment to follow Christ. As Saint Irenaeus of Lyons has written, “The Church, which has spread everywhere, even to the ends of the earth, received the faith from the apostles and their disciples… Having one soul and one heart, the Church holds this faith, preaches and teaches it consistently as though by a single voice” (Treatise Against Heresies I. 10).

In the Preface of the Mass for today's Feast, the Church prays, "It is truly right and just our duty and our salvation always and everywhere to give you thanks... For you have built your Church to stand firm on apostolic foundations, to be a lasting sign of your holiness on earth and offer all humanity your heavenly teaching" (Preface II of the Apostles from The Roman Missal). Mark the Evangelist is among those saints who embody the missionary mandate given by Christ to Apostles: "Go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature" (Mark 16: 15).

During a reflection given at the Apstolic Nunciature at Yoaundé during his journey to Cameroon and Angola (2009), His Holiness Benedict XVI reminded Africa's bishops that Saint Mark "bore witness in Africa to the death of the Son of God on the Cross--the final moment of the kenosis--and of his sovereign exalatation, in order that 'every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father' (Philippians 2:11)." The Evangelist offered his life in handing over to others the Good News that he had received from Peter and the Apostles. As a coworker of Paul and Barnabas, he urged new communities of Christians to be so committed to their faith that they would be willing to lay down their lives for the sake of the Gospel (cf. Mark 8:35-38). In a hymn composed for today's Feast, the 9th century bishop Saint Paulinus of Aquileia celebrated Mark's faith and witness when he wrote, "Blessed Mark, the Evangelical teacher, received into his heart a lovely ray of the sparkling sacred light. He became as a lamp reflecting that great light and dispelling the gloom of this world by his brilliant flame."

According to the Second Vatican Council, the Church is "in Christ, is in the nature of sacrament--a sign and sacrament of communion with God and unity among all men and women" (Lumen Gentium, 1). In order to live this mission with integrity, the Church must be what Pope Benedict called "a community of persons reconciled with God and among themselves." For us, as Christians, this reconciliation is rooted in the reality of God's merciful love and can only be expressed in the search for justice and the promotion of the dignity of every person: "The People of God believes that it is led by the Spirit of the Lord, who fills the whole world. Moved by this faith it tries to discern authentic signs of God's presence and purpose in the events, the needs, and the longings which it shares with other people of our time. For faith throws a new light on all things and makes known the full ideal to which God has called each individual, and thus guides the mind towards solutions which are fully human" (Gaudium et Spes, 11).

Like Saint Mark, each of us has been entrusted with the ability and responsibility of proclaiming the Good News in faith and to proclaim it in word and deed, without hesitating to courageously identify and denounce evil and to, as Blessed John Paul II said, "to allow the newness and the power of the gospel to shine out everyday in family and social life, as well as to express patiently and courageously in the contradictions of the present age a hope of the future glory" (Christifideles laici, 14).

A Prayer for the Feast of Saint Mark -
O God, who raised up Saint Mark, your Evangelist,
and endowed him with the grace to preach the Gospel,
grant, we pray,
that we may so profit from his teaching
as to follow faithfully in the footsteps of Christ.
Who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
(from The Roman Missal)

Saturday, April 20, 2013

A Shepherd and a Bear

For several years, a story has circulated about a text said to be inscribed on the tomb of a bishop buried in Westminster Abbey. It is supposed to read:

When I was young and free and my imagination had no limits, I dreamed of changing the world.

As I grew older, and wiser, I discovered the world would not change, so I shortened my sights somewhat and decided to change only my country. But it, too, seemed immovable.

As I grew into my twilight years, in one last desperate attempt, I settled for changing only my family, those closest to me, but alas, they would have none of it.

And now, as I lie on my deathbed, I suddenly realized:

If I had only changed myself first, then by example, I would have changed my family

From their inspiration and encouragement, I would then have been able to better my country, and who knows, I may have even changed the world.

For those in ministry, especially for those entrusted with the care of souls, there is a tendency to focus on the fruits of our service—to value results over relationships and to constantly look for what needs to be changed in our communities and the world, rather than first discerning what needs to be happening inside ourselves.
This year, the Fourth Sunday of Easter (“Good Shepherd Sunday”) and the 50th anniversary of the World Day of Prayer for Vocations, falls on April 21, the memorial of the bishop Saint Anselm of CanterburyAs a monk, firmly grounded in the Benedictine tradition, Anselm understood the necessity of humility, discernment, and a docile spirit in living the life of faith; as a teacher and pastor, he lived in imitation of the Good Shepherd who gave his life for the sake of those entrusted to his care (cf. John 10:14-15). Reflecting on these qualities, Pope Saint Pius X wrote, “in [Anselm] there existed a wonderful harmony between qualities which the world falsely judges to be irreconcilable and contradictory: simplicity and greatness, humility and magnanimity, strength and gentleness, knowledge and piety, so that both in the beginning and throughout the whole course of his religious life ‘he was singularly esteemed by all as a model of sanctity and doctrine’” (Communium rerum, 8).

Anselm, who was born of noble parents in Piedmont around the year 1033, became a monk at the Abbey of Bec when he was twenty-seven years-old; he became abbot in 1078/1079 and quickly gained renown for his preaching and reforming spirit. In 1093, he succeeded his former teacher, Blessed Lanfranc, as Archbishop of Canterbury.
Anselm soon found himself at odds with King William II, whose efforts to seize control of the administration of the Church compelled Anselm to leave England. After traveling to Cluny and Rome, he returned to Canterbury, but conflicts with the new king caused led to his exile. Anselm traveled to Rome where he sought the assistance of the pope who defended the archbishop's efforts to protect the rights and freedom of the Church in England. In 1106, Anselm was able to return the England. He died on April 21, 1109. A revered theologian and philosopher, remembered especially for his Proslogion and the Cur Deus homo, along with and a number of other commentaries, prayers, and reflections, Saint Anselm was declared a Doctor of the Church in 1720.
When reflecting on the duties of pastors (and all those who exercise ministries within the Church), the words which Pope Francis offered the cardinals during his first homily after being elected Bishop of Rome are well worth considering: “We can walk ask much as we want, we can build many things, but if we do not profess Jesus Christ, things go wrong… When we journey without the Cross, we are not disciples of the Lord, we are worldly: we may be bishops, priests, cardinal, popes, but not disciples of the Lord.” To journey with the Cross was the vocation of Saint Anselm. It is shared by all the Church’s pastors.

Within the Christian tradition, there are innumerable symbols and metaphors which have been used to convey truths that exceed the limits of ordinary language. The image of the Good Shepherd (taken from this Sunday's Gospel) is certainly a timeless metaphor for the Lord’s abiding concern and protection for those whom he claims as his own. Another symbol for God’s fidelity is the bear (cf. Hosea 13:8-9; Lamentations 3:10-11), an animal revered for his bravery, strength, and fiercely protective spirit. Although the image of the bear has faded from our symbolic imaginations, for centuries it was regarding as an emblem of the resurrection (emerging fully alive after a long-winter’s hibernation). Ancient minds also saw the bear as a symbol of mission, based on the belief that a bear's cubs were born without form and were shaped by being licked by their mother’s after birth. This became a symbol of the pastoral work of the Church, which formed the new Christian through the proclamation of the Word and the discipline of faith.

Successful pastors like Saint Anselm of Canterbury, Blessed John Paul II, Archbishop Oscar Romero, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., understood that their mandate “to pray, to bless, and to preach,” flowed from directly from the witness of the Good Shepherd himself. Having humbly looked inside and confronted their own demons, struggles, temptations, and sins, these shepherds have discovered the meaning of compassion and forgiveness and learned to care for others with the same tenderness, solicitude, and (even) accountability their own wounds require. A good pastor takes to heart the words of the First Letter of Peter, “God’s flock is in your midst; give it a shepherd’s care. Watch over it willingly as God would have you do, not under constraint… Be examples to the flock, not lording it over those assigned to you, so that when the chief Shepherd appears you will win for yourselves an unfading crown of glory” (5:1-4). A good shepherd knows what it means to love with that love that is "stronger than death" (cf. Song of Songs 8:6).

The Church today, as it has in every time and place, stands in need of faithful pastors who manifest both the attentive compassion and love of the Good Shepherd and the ferocious jealousy of the bear protecting the cubs to whom it has given life and form. A true shepherd, like Saint Anselm, is one who works to gather and keep the flock together, to promote justice, peace, and unity. With this in mind, Father Richard Rohr, O.F.M., has written:
Our work and the only work of religion is to create unity wherever you go. If you are not creating unity, you are part of the problem and you are certainly not one of the children of God. You can come to Mass as much as you want and come to communion as often as you can. But you are not in communion. Our job is to live in radical communion and not just to ritualize it on Sunday.
(From Hungry and You Fed Me, edited by Deacon Jim Knipper)
This Fourth Sunday of Easter, we are reminded that each of us, whatever our state of life, is called to promote unity, intimacy, and integrity—what Henri Nouwen called the “three spiritual qualities of the resurrected life”: “We are called to break through the boundaries of nationality, race, sexual orientation, age, and mental capacities and create a unity of love that allows the weakest among us to live well” (from The Road to Daybreak).

A Prayer for Church Leaders
Lord Jesus Christ,
watch over those who are leaders in your Church.
Keep them faithful to their vocation
and to the proclamation of your message.
Teach them to recognize and interpret the signs of the times.
Strengthen them with the gifts of the Spirit
and help them to serve those in their care,
especially the poor and the least.
Give them a vivid sense of your presence in the world
and a knowledge of how to show it to others. Amen. 
(Adapted from The New Saint Joseph People's Prayer Book)

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Living Easter

In his Easter Homily, Archbishop Joseph Harris of the Archdiocese of Port of Spain (Trinidad and Tobago) reflected that the celebration of Easter “puts before us Life or death. We have all experienced moments of hatred and betrayal; we have all experienced jealousy and intrigue, at times at the hands of family members, at times even within the church community. At times we have been the perpetrators, at times we have been at the receiving end. That, my friends, is the old life which could not conquer and does not conquer. It may appear to win but in the long run always loses.” He continued, “My friends, today more than ever, our Church needs the witness of New Life… let us choose LIFE.”

This Easter Life places demands upon us that far outweigh the rigors of Lent. In fact, what we are celebrating during these graced days is so grand that the Church has set aside a week of weeks (50 days) to rejoice and remember. But how do we let Easter in? Unlike Lent, which most of us observe by placing too much emphasis on ourselves and what we believe to be best for our own growth (and maybe even our relationship with God), Easter challenges us to go outside of ourselves by squarely placing before us the gift of salvation that has been offered to us in the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus. And yet, once Easter Sunday has passed, we quickly settle into our old routines. If we, the children of the Resurrection, cannot live this mystery with faith and conviction, does Easter have relevance for our world? The poet Reiner Kunze has captured the doubts of many today about the truth of the Easter proclamation:
The bells rang,
As if they were clanging for joy
over the empty grave

Over that which once
so consoled,

and that has sustained astonishment for 2000 years

However even though the bells
hammered so forcefully against the midnight—
nothing in the darkness changed.

Yes, the bells have rung: Christ is Risen. As people of faith, we have to engage Kunze by asking ourselves if we really do indeed believe that something in the darkness has been changed. Pope Benedict XVI highlighted this question when he observed: “Faith in the Resurrection is concerned with the sickness that afflicts us. It is concerned with the inner wounding of our existence by death and with the hidden God who encounters us in death and there lets himself be recognized. We are on a dead-end street if we think that the Easter proclamation is exclusively about a historical-critical problem of an alleged fact of long ago.” He then asked, “How does one arrive at this present of the past, at this always of the once and for all, at the today of Easter? As a first ground rule we can say: on this path we need witnesses” (from the essay “I Do Indeed Hear the Message…” in Images of Hope: Meditations on Major Feasts). In the today of Easter, we are the witnesses who proclaim to Kunze and to a skeptical world: Everything has changed. Christ is Risen.

When, at Easter, we renew our baptismal commitment, we are rededicating ourselves to living out our faith in a public and dynamic way. Like the catechumens who spent Lent preparing for initiation into the full life of the Church, our individual and communal observances of Lent were a time to explore those places within ourselves where self-preference reigned, our faith was weak, and we lacked conviction. The pealing bells of Easter remind us that the time for quiet reflection is over: now is the time to sing out our Alleluias; the light of the Paschal Candle, which continues to shine brightly in our churches, challenges us take the light of Christ that is burning within each of us out into the dark places of the world, especially to those who cower in the gloom of despair, doubt, neglect, and loneliness. The wonder of Easter is captured in the words of an ancient hymn of the Armenian Church:
Today, the immortal and heavenly Bridegroom rose again for the dead!
To thee the glad tidings, O Church, his spouse on earth!
Bless thy God, O Sion, with a joyous voice.

Today, the ineffable Light of light enlightened thy children.
Be thou enlightened, O Jerusalem!
For Christ, thy Light, has risen.

Today, the darkness of ignorance is dispelled by the triple light:
And the light of knowledge has risen upon thee,
It is Christ rising again from the dead.

 This is the light that has illumined our hearts. It is not that something in the darkness has changed: “The darkness is passing away, and the true light is already shining” (1 John 2:8).

Saint Vincent de Paul rescuing abandoned children
from the streets of Paris.
We are the children of light and of the day (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:5). Living Easter means to live in the light, to pass on the light that is burning within us to those around us. The saints who dedicated their lives to passing on this light boldly proclaim that this isn’t done through preaching and catechesis (although these are important elements of evangelization). Easter is lived in lives of active discipleship in which love is the only thing that matters: “Above all, let your love for one another be intense, because love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without complaining. As each one has received a gift, use it to serve one another as good stewards of God’s varied grace… whoever serves, let it be with the strength that God supplies, so that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen” (1 Peter 4:8-11). A living Easter faith cannot be “lived” in our minds or held in our hearts. It must overflow into the world around us, clothed in the “seamless garment” of the pursuit of justice, care for creation, the promotion of life, and solidarity with the poor, and the quest for peace. This isn’t a political or progressive agenda: it is the truth proclaimed by Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint Vincent de Paul, Saints Damian de Veuster and Marianne Cope, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, and countless men and women through the ages who testify to us that our faith must express itself in concrete signs and acts of love and compassion.

With so much darkness and pain in the world around us (and here I'm thinking especially of the senseless violence in places like Newtown, Connecticut, and, most recently, in Boston), it can be difficult to live the life of Easter. Speaking of this sense, Dorothy Day, another figure widely celebrated for her outreach to the poor, wrote in her book, On Pilgrimage:

Whenever I groan within myself and think how hard it is to keep writing about love in these times of tension and strife, which may at any moment become for us all a time of terror, I think to myself, “What else is the world interested in?” What else do we all want, each one of us, except to love and be loved, in our families, in our work, in all our relationships? God is love. Love casts out fear. Even the most ardent revolutionist, seeking to change the world, to overturn the tables of the money changers, is trying to make a world where it is easier for people to love, to stand in that relationship to each other. We want with all our hearts to love, to be loved… The keenness and intensity of love brings with it suffering, of course, but joy too, because it is a foretaste of heaven.

What better way to live Easter than to live in imitation of the One whose love was so consuming that it led him to give his life for each of us? The only way for a Christian to live in the world is to love, to the very end, to the laying down of our lives.

Light and love are the gifts of Easter. They are our legacy and neither can be kept hidden or hoarded. Easter is our vocation and unless we are willing to go out into the darkness, carrying the light of Christ that is within us, then we have failed in our discipleship: “Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his footsteps” (1 Peter 2:21).

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Far From Finished

In Les Misérables, Victor Hugo wrote, “The eye of the spirit can nowhere find more dazzling brilliance and more shadow than in man; it can fix itself on no other thing which is more formidable, more complicated, more mysterious, and more infinite. There is a spectacle more grand than the sea: it is heaven; there is a spectacle more grand than heaven: it is the inmost recesses of the soul.” The highly symbolic and theologically charged Readings for the Third Sunday of Easter invite us to reflect on how grace works within the inmost recesses of a soul open to the light of the Risen Lord.

Christ and Peter at the Sea of Tiberius
by Raphael, 1515 (Vatican Museums)

Saint Peter, whose faith and love are highlighted in this Sunday’s Readings, had followed Jesus with enthusiasm. His faith was generous and open, but also subject to the limits of human weakness: “he overcame the trial of faith, abandoning himself to Christ. The moment comes, however, when he gives in to fear and falls: he betrays the Master (cf. Mark 14:66-72)… The school of faith is not a triumphal march but a journey marked daily by suffering and love, trials and faithfulness. Peter, who promised absolute fidelity, knew the bitterness and humiliation of denial: the arrogant man learns the costly lesson of humility. Peter, too, must learn that he is weak and in need of forgiveness. Once his attitude changes and he understands the truth of his weak heart of a believing sinner, he weeps in a fit of liberating repentance. After this weeping he is finally ready for his mission” (Benedict XVI, General Audience, May 24, 2006).

When, on the shore of the Sea of Tiberius, Peter encountered the Risen Lord, he received the mission that set him apart from the other Apostles, and he learned an important lesson in love. Saint John recounts the event (proclaimed in this Sunday’s Gospel) using a specific play on words. When Jesus first asks Peter, “Do you love me,” he uses the Greek phrase agapas-me, meaning “do you love me totally and unconditionally” (Jn. 21:15). Prior to his denial of Jesus, Peter would most certainly have responded agapo-se! Now that he has experienced his own fragility, he responds, “Lord, you know that I love you,” using filio-se (“I love you with a human love”). Once again, Jesus asks the fisherman, “Simon, do you love me with this total love that I want?” Peter again responds, “Kyrie, filo-se,” “Lord, I love you as I am able.” The third time, however, Jesus simply asks, “Fileis-me?” This time, it is not Peter who alters the verb, it is Jesus. The Lord who places himself at Peter’s level rather than asking more than Peter is able to give. This gives Peter hope because he understands that his love, however imperfect, is enough for Jesus.

Peter was called by Jesus to serve in a new way in order to feed his sheep. Jesus knew that the gifts that Peter would need to fulfill his task lay dormant in Peter but that Peter would also be able to become the man the Lord was calling him to be. After this exchange, Peter received his commission: “Feed my sheep.
Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger,
you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted;
but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands,
and someone else will dress you
and lead you where you do not want to go.”
He said this signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God.
And when he had said this, he said to him, “Follow me.” (John 21:18-19).

Peter wasted no time in fulfilling his mission when, in Jerusalem, he zealously refused to stop preaching in Jesus’ name (cf. Acts 5:27-41). The conviction of Peter and the other Apostles (celebrated especially the Acts of the Apostles) reminds us that our faith and commitment to the Gospel place demands upon us and can involve sacrifice and suffering. For Peter, this ultimately meant martyrdom in Rome. For Christians throughout the ages, up to our own time, faith continues to call for a witness to those values and truths that transcend the trials and struggles of our day-to-day existence and the shallow ideals of the world around us.

Working for peace, justice, the promotion of human life, and the spread of Good News are tasks entrusted to every Christian. As Blessed John Paul II observed, “The mission of Christ the Redeemer, which is entrusted to the Church, is still very far from completion… an overall view of the human race shows that this mission is still only beginning and that we must commit ourselves wholeheartedly to its service. It is the Spirit who impels us to proclaim the great works of God: ‘For if I preach the Gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel!’ (1 Corinthians 9: 16)” (Redemptoris Missio, 1). To be Christian means working to build up God’s Kingdom, recognizing and promoting God’s action in the world, “working for liberation from evil in all its forms. In a word, the kingdom of God is the manifestation and realization of God’s plan of salvation in all its fullness” (RM, 15).


Thursday, April 11, 2013

Living For the Future

George Gervase was born in Sussex, England, in 1569. After serving as a soldier in Flanders and with the Spanish army, he entered the English College at Douai, France, to study for the priesthood. Ordained a secular priest at Cambrai in 1603, he was sent to serve as a missionary to England’s persecuted Catholic communities the following year.

Banished from England after two years of ministry, he made a pilgrimage to Rome, where he decided to become a religious. George entered the newly established Benedictine Priory of Saint Gregory at Douai and, following his novitiate, he returned to England. He was arrested after only two months of ministry and imprisoned in the Gatehouse at Westminster and tried at the “Old Bailey.”  Blessed George freely admitted he was a priest, for which reason he was condemned to death. It is likely that he solemnly professed as a Benedictine monk shortly before being hanged, drawn, and quartered at Tyburn on April 11, 1608. Blessed George Gervase was beatified in 1929 and he is commemorated in the Roman Martyrology on April 11, the anniversary of his death.

In the rule of life he composed for his monks, Saint Benedict described the monastery as a "school of the Lord's service" where his monks would live out their commitment to Christ by fulfilling three vows: Obedience (a spirit of attentive listening to the abbot, the community, and the Church), Conversatio (a commitment to monastic customs and growing in virtues), and the uniquely Benedictine vow of Stability. Stabilitas, the vow of “place,” is not necessarily about geography or buildings. To be committed to Stability means to commit oneself to both a community and a way of life. However, as Dom David Knowles observed in The Benedictines, “exceptional circumstances, in the past or present, have caused the highest authorities of the Church to call upon such priests as existed anywhere to aid in spreading or maintaining religion in certain districts.”  This was the work to which Blessed George Gervase, monk-missionary in Reformation-era England, was called and it is in this mission that we discover another facet of our commitment to Stability—working to provide for future generations.

Whether our Stability manifests itself in buildings of brick and mortar, in fidelity to the monastic tradition, or, as in the case of Blessed George, working for the survival of the Faith itself, our ultimate end must be the greater glory of God and service to the Church. Stability is not about finding comfort and convenience for contemplation. We create communities and build-up the Church because we believe that what we do here and now impacts and shapes the faith and freedom of those who will come after us.

A Prayer in honor of Blessed George Gervase +
Almighty and merciful God,
Who brought your Martyr blessed George Gervase
to overcome the torments of his passion,
grant that we, who celebrate the day of his triumph,
may remain invincible under your protection
against the snares of the enemy.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
Who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Love Breaking Through: The Annunciation

Let us rejoice! Mary hears the word of the angel, and replies in her own wonderful words: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).

The Annunciation
by Blessed John of Fiesole (Fra Angelico), 1440

The story of the Annunciation is a simple one: There is God’s choice, the intervention of the Holy Spirit, Mary’s faith-inspired acceptance, and the conception of God’s Son by a teenage girl. (cf. Adrian Nocent, O.S.B., The Liturgical Year: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany). In the Annunciation, however, Mary did not understand everything that was happening to her. She had to accept God’s mysterious ways. But she trusted. “The Annunciation exemplifies the dynamics of Mary’s faith… She is conscious that what is growing within her womb is somehow divine. She does not doubt this interior illumination that has been granted to her; she asks only how it will come about. She accepts unseen realities, and believes, because nothing is impossible for God” (Leonardo Boff in The Maternal Face of God: The Feminine and Its Religious Expressions). On this great feast, the Solemnity of the Incarnation, the mystery of the Word of God taking on a human nature in the womb of a teenage girl, we begin looking towards the Solemnity of Christmas, still nearly nine months away.

Mary’s humble acceptance speaks to us of the willingness to accept the will of God, in whatever way it is manifested, that each of us must have if Christ is to be born in us. Mary makes her commitment without knowing much about what it will entail or where it will lead. In reflecting on this, Kathleen Norris has written: “I treasure the story because it forces me to ask: When the mystery of God’s love breaks through into my consciousness, do I run from it? Do I ask of it what it cannot answer? Shrugging, do I retreat into facile clichés, the popular but false wisdom of what “we all know”? Or am I virgin enough to respond from my deepest truest self, and say something new, a “yes” that will change me forever?” (“The Annunciation” from Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith).
Note: The Solemnity of the Annunciation is usually celebrated on March 25, nine months before Christmas Day. It was transferred this year because of the dates of Holy Week and the Octave of Easter.
This reflection was taken from my book, From Season to Season: A Book of Saintly Wisdom.

Because You Have Seen Me

Following Jesus’ death and burial, the Apostles were left adrift—the One who had been their focus and point of reference through years of travel and trials was gone: “God, it seemed had become silent, he no longer spoke to them, and his help to understand the unfolding of history was no longer forthcoming… they no longer had the ability to see things from the perspective of the future; they could see no escape from the catastrophic situation in which all their illusions had come tumbling down” (Cardinal Carlo Martini, OurLady of Holy Saturday). The disappointment and disillusionment of Good Friday had not yet been transformed  by the light of Easter. Should it be any wonder that Thomas, who had been absent at the time of Jesus’ first appearance to the Apostles, would still be beleaguered by Holy Saturday sadness? Can we really fault him for wanting to verify in a personal, concrete way the fantastic tale of resurrection being told by Mary Magdalene and the others?

With these same themes in mind, Pope Francis recently reflected, “Doesn’t the same thing also happen to us when something completely new occurs in our everyday life? We stop short, we don’t understand, we don’t know what to do. Newness often makes us fearful, including the newness which God brings us, the newness which God asks of us” (Homily for the Easter Vigil, 2013).

Although Thomas did not believe in the resurrection of the Lord, he remained faithful to the call he had received from Jesus—the call to be one of the community of the Apostles. Thomas’ faith would not initially allow him to believe that the others had seen the Lord, but he did not lose faith in their fraternity and it was in and through that community that the Lord appeared to him and strengthened his faith. In The Genesee Diary, Henri Nouwen reflected that, “Dydimus, the name of Thomas, means ‘twin,’ as the Gospel says, and that the fathers had commented that all of us are ‘two people,’ a doubting one and a believing one. We need the support and love of our brothers and sisters to prevent our doubting person from becoming dominant and destroying our capacity for belief.” The Church, on this Second Sunday of Easter, is inviting us reflect not so much on “Doubting Thomas” as on the living and dynamic faith of the community of which Thomas was a part.

Saint Thomas
by El Greco, 1610-1614
Thomas’ faith, like that of the early Christian community, was rooted in the experience of the Church itself. It was the life of the worshiping community, gathered together for prayer, “the breaking of the bread,” and in fellowship, that gave expression to and sustained their faith (cf. Acts 2:42-47). Thomas and the other Apostles were in a position to have a tangible, physical experience of the Risen One. Their experience of the Incarnation and Resurrection proved to them that something new was happening for and to humanity—“the world we are tempted to see as closed, with God absent or indifferent, has been shocked open by God’s love for us” (John W. Martens). Those who witnessed those Easter events entrusted these experiences and memories to later generations of believers, so that we might also believe.

All of this means that the Church, which is built upon the witness of Peter, Thomas, and the other Apostles and disciples of the Lord, is the place where we experience the Resurrection in our time and place. Unlike our spiritual ancestors, we cannot have a physical experience of Jesus. We do, however, have the legacy of meeting the Lord in Word and Sacrament: “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20). As Scripture scholar Robert Kysar has observed, “The community of believers is the place of God’s revelation, the divine presence… The believers are invited by the Fourth Evangelist (i.e. John) to look at their present experience in the community for the revelation of God. Eternity touches history in the community of Christian believers, the Evangelist boldly proclaims. So, for them, eternity is now” (from John: The Maverick Gospel). The witness of the Apostles has spread from the sealed Upper Room, across the ages, to the four corners of the earth.

The Church, the living witness of the truth that Jesus is living and active in our world, today, bears a special burden to proclaim Gospel with integrity and love. Each one of us, as an essential member of Christ’s Body, has a part to play in that mission. We have inherited the legacy of the Apostles to go out and proclaim what we have come to believe. The words addressed to John in the Second Reading of the Second Sunday of Easter are addressed to us:

“Do not be afraid.
I am the first and the last, the one who lives.
Once I was dead, but now I am alive forever and ever.
I hold the keys to death and the netherworld.
Write down, therefore, what you have seen,
and what is happening, and what will happen afterwards”
(Revelation 1:17-19).

Although faith is a gift, believing is not automatic or easy—the doubt of Thomas is far easier for us to relate to than the sublime prayer and contemplation of the great pray-ers of the Church (especially mystics like Blessed Lydwina, Saint Mary Magdalene d’Pazzi, Saint Rafael Arnáiz Barón, and many others). Suffering, evil, injustice, discrimination, crimes against the innocent and vulnerable, sickness, and enduring hunger put our faith to the test. And yet, Thomas’ faith allows us to discover something much more profound and true than suffering and death: “the face of God who, in Christ, has taken upon himself the wounds of injured humanity. Thomas has received from the Lord, and has in turn transmitted to the Church, the gift of faith put to the test by the passion and death of Jesus and confirmed by meeting him risen. His faith was almost dead but was born again thanks to his touching the wounds of Christ, those wounds that the Risen One did not hide but showed, and continues to point out to us in the trials and sufferings of every human being” (Benedict XVI, Urbi et Orbi Message, 2007). This is the mystery of the love we celebrate on the Second Sunday of Easter, the Feast of Divine Mercy.
Christ in the Breadline
by Fritz Eichenberg (1950)

At the conclusion of Saint John’s account of Thomas’ encounter with the Risen Lord, Jesus proclaims, “Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed” (20:19). Blessed are we when we accept what has been handed down to us in the authentic traditions and teachings of the Church. Blessed are we when are willing to welcome Jesus who is embodied in the texts that speak of him. Blessed are we when we accept Jesus who is embodied in the sacraments. Blessed are we who recognize Jesus embodied in the lives of the saints. Blessed are we when we reach out to Jesus who is embodied in the little ones of the earth.