Friday, June 28, 2013

An Apostlic Faith: Saints Peter and Paul

We celebrate this day made holy for us by the Apostles' blood. Let us embrace what they believed, their life, their labors, their sufferings, their preaching and their confession of faith.

Saints Peter and Paul
by El Greco
The great Apostles, Peter and Paul, so different in temperament and mission, have been honored with a common feast (June 29) since the first half of the fourth century. Peter, the first among the Apostles, and Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, were martyred in Rome, probably around the year 67, during the persecution of the emperor Nero.
The Collect for the Mass for this Solemnity reminds us that it was first through the preaching of Peter and Paul, and indeed all the Apostles, that the Church first received the Faith. This Apostolic Faith is manifested in our day in the celebration of the Church's sacraments, in the communion of prayer and faith in charity, and in the ministry of the Pope and the other bishops.
Reflecting on the place that Peter and Paul hold within the life of the Church, Blessed John Paul II observed, "If the witness of faith and the arduous struggles which the Apostles Peter and Paul had to undertake for the cause of the Gospel are considered in merely human terms, they ended in defeat. In this too, they faithfully followed Christ's example. Indeed, humanly speaking the mission of Christ, who was condemned to death and crucified, ended in defeat.
However, both the Apostles, with their gaze fixed on the Paschal Mystery, did not doubt that precisely what to the eyes of the world seemed a defeat, was in fact the beginning of the fulfillment of God's plan. It was the victory over the forces of evil won first by Christ and then by His disciples through faith. The entire community of the apostolic faith and gives thanks to Christ for the solid rock on which its life and mission are built" (Homily for June 29, 1997).
Collect for the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul +
Grant, we pray, O Lord our God,
that we may be sustained by the intercession of the blessed Apostles Peter and Paul,
that, as through them you gave your Church the foundations of her heavenly office,
so through them you may help her to eternal salvation.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Who Do You Say That I Am?

The question Jesus poses to his closest followers in this Sunday’s Gospel is one of the most essential in all of Scripture: “Who do you say that I am?” For many of us today, this question has lost some of its power to surprise and intrigue us. After all, wasn’t all that settled centuries ago? 
Icon of Christ, the Divine Bridegroom

If we only want to approach the question of who (or even what) Jesus is from the perspective of orthodox, historical theology, then the answer is yes—ecumenical councils and some of the greatest minds of the Early Church worked to understand and explain Jesus’ relationship to the Father/Creator, his place within in the Trinity, and the interplay of his human and divine natures. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (§423) sums it up in this way:

We believe and confess that Jesus of Nazareth, born a Jew of a daughter of Israel at Bethlehem at the time of King Herod the Great and the emperor Caesar Augustus, a carpenter by trade, who died crucified in Jerusalem under the procurator Pontius Pilate during the reign of the emperor Tiberius, is the eternal Son of God made man. He 'came from God' (John 13:3), 'descended from heaven' (Jn 3:13), and 'came in the flesh' (Jn 4:2). For 'the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father. . . and from his fullness have we all received, grace upon grace (Jn 1:14, 16). 

Beyond this sort of formal inquiry, however, the same question that Jesus posed to Peter and the other Apostles is being asked of each of us: “Who do you say that I am?” At this level, formal doctrines and creedal statements can only form a foundation or starting point for an answer.  

The first generations of Christians came to understand who Jesus was as they wove together their own experiences of Jesus of Nazareth with the hopes and expectations of the people of Israel, embodied in the Law and Prophets. That Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah (which was Peter’s answer, cf. Luke 9:20) is something that Christians today both take for granted (even if we don’t fully understand the significance of the title) and easily dismiss because that Jesus seems too far away to be accessible or approachable. Jesus, however, provides a sort of reorientation when he reveals that he is not going to fulfill the expectations of those who want a messiah who is a source of glory and restored power for Israel. Rather, he tells them that he “must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised.” Jesus is Isaiah’s Suffering Servant (ch. 53) and the one of whom the prophet Zechariah said, “They shall look on him whom they have pierced” (12:10). But, Jesus says more than this: he does not promise glory to his followers—he will, instead, die for the redemption of humanity—and anyone who would follow him would have a share in that redeeming death and renewed life: “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Lk 9:23).

Christianity is not an idea. Instead, it is the shared, lived experience of countless people of faith who have come to recognize the presence of “God among us” in Jesus. Flowing from this is the truth that to claim the name of Christian, is to profess Christ and follow Christ. To seek to live a private sort of faith, without demands, is to be something other than a follower of Jesus—it is to simply be an admirer. As Blessed John Paul II said, “The correct profession of faith must be accompanied by a correct conduct of life… From the start, Jesus never concealed this demanding truth from his disciples” (Homily, June 21, 1998). Death and life are the legacy of all of us who follow Jesus.


Thursday, June 20, 2013

Saint Aloysius: A Saint for Seekers

Born in 1568, Aloysius was the son and heir of the powerful Gonzaga family of Castiglione and a prince of the Holy Roman Empire. At an early age he manifested habits of prayer and virtue which formed a strong spiritual foundation for his later life. Sometimes given to excess in his penances, he was nonetheless unrelenting in his desires to please God and see God's will above all things. Feeling called to religious life, he entered into a battle of wills with his father, who refused to allow his son to abdicate his title and the right of succession. However, after years of prayer, sacrifice, and struggle, Aloysius was given the necessary permission by his family to enter the Society of Jesus at Rome. Well-liked by his superiors and confreres, he was an outstanding student and desired to serve in the Society's Asian missions. In the spring of 1591, he contracted the plague after carrying a dying man from the street to a hospital. Aloysius died during the night of June 20-21, after a long and painful illness. He was 23 years old at the time of his death.

Saint Aloysius Gonzaga

Honored as a model of virtue, particularly purity, for the young, he was canonized in 1726. In 1729, and again in 1926, Aloysius was proclaimed patron saint of youth and he is also patron of those suffering with HIV/AIDS and their caregivers. The memorial of Saint Aloysius is celebrated on June 21.

Known for his spirit of prayer, simplicity, and humility, Aloysius recognized that God was calling him to a particular way of life when he was still young. The desire to serve God and the Church as a Jesuit priest was the driving force of his life. Although he is often dismissed in our day largely on account of the overly-sentimental portraits of him, he remains a model for those seeking their place in the Church and the world.

Saint Aloysius recognized that God calls each person into a special relationship, entrusting each of us with a unique vocation. To give ourselves wholeheartedly to this vocation is essential. As he reflected, "The pillars of heaven have fallen; who can promise me that I will persevere? The world is now full of iniquity; who shall appease the wrath of the Almighty? Very many priests and religious think but little of their vocation... Such thoughts ought to rouse our lethargy and renew our resolution to do penance and serve God with constancy and sincerity."

Prayer in honor of Saint Aloysius Gonzaga +
O God, giver of heavenly gifts,
who in Saint Aloysius Gonzaga
joined penitence to a wonderful innocence of life,
grant, through his merits and intercession,
that, though we have failed to follow him in innocence,
we may imitate him in penitence.
Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
(Taken from the Third Edition of the Roman Missal)

This reflection is adapted from my book From Season to Season: A Book of Saintly Wisdom.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Love In Search of Sinners

What was it that prompted the unnamed woman to break social convention and approach Jesus,  doing something as intimate as washing his feet (with her tears and hair, no less), kissing them, and anointing them with expensive ointment? (cf. Luke 7:36-8:3) Had she heard him preaching? Was she one of those who had witnessed his wonders? Saint Luke, who makes those on the fringes of society a special focus of his gospel, doesn’t give the woman a name, although her identity is clear: “a woman in the city, who was a sinner.” For Simon “the Pharisee” and the other guests at that dinner so long ago, who the woman was mattered nothing compared to what she was—a sinner. Her act not only brought on the derision of the dinner guests—“Who is this woman who would dare touch this man?”—but also placed Jesus in the position of having to defend her and his own willingness to receive and forgive her: “If this man were a prophet, he would know who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him.”

Detail from a window
in Chartres Cathedral

Jesus’ response to Simon’s indictment of the woman is important. First, it reminds us that the scope of God’s mercy transcends any sort of restrictions we might place upon our own willingness to forgive. Second, it places before us our tendency to become anxious, nervous, worrying people who are, as Henri Nouwen wrote, “caught in the questions of survival: our own survival, the survival of our church, our country, and our world. Once these fearful survival questions become the guiding questions of our lives, we tend to dismiss words spoken from the house of love as unrealistic, romantic, sentimental, pious, or just useless” (from Jesus:A Gospel). Undoubtedly Simon, Jesus’ host that night, and many others present had heard Jesus preach love and forgiveness. The presence and actions of that woman, in that moment, seem to have undone whatever expansion and openness that might have taken place in the Pharisee’s heart.  

Psalm 32 declares, “Blessed is the one whose fault is taken away, whose sin is covered… to whom the Lord imputes no guilt, in whose spirit is no guile” (vv. 1-2). Even beyond this, Sirach reminds us that “to the penitent [God] provides a way back, he encourages those who are losing hope!” (17:19). These are truths that the woman in this Gospel passage understood, and Jesus doesn’t deny that she is a sinner. However, he doesn’t reduce her to her sin or seek to label her. Because, for love, she acted as she did, she found what she was seeking—a love that would allow her to love even more. 

The labels that we have for others—labels that are based on difference, fear, anxiety, and our own desire for constancy and security—all too often deny the basic goodness and humanity in the one we are making an “other.” And we, as Church people, are often among the first to use labels, particularly for those whose theological/ecclesiological/philosophical/political outlook differs from ours. But, as an ancient Syrian preacher observed, “A sinful woman has proclaimed to us that God’s love has gone forth in search of sinners.” This is the Good News to which we are dedicated: mercy and grace which are God’s prerogative without strings attached. 

Too often, like Simon, we waste so many wonderful opportunities by expending our energy trying to protect something we rightly love (our selves, our families, our church, our homeland) from those we believe are a threat to our comfort and security. But, Simon’s great fault was the he forgot that he, too, was in need of forgiveness and that it is Jesus who forgives sins. Where Simon’s perspective failed him, we are given an opportunity to live in humility: yes, the woman was a sinner, but so are we all. Just as God knew her for who she was—by name and as His wondrous creation—God sees us in the same way and offers us the same mercy, grace, and love. 

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Corpus Christi: "You Feed Them!"

In 1928, Myles Connolly published a small novel entitled Mr. Blue. A compliment to G.K. Chesterton’s life of Saint Francis of Assisi and as a sort of anti-Gatsby (Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby had been published three years before), Mr. Blue tells the story of a young man—Blue himself—who decides to live out the Christian Faith in a serious, transforming way. Like J. Gatsby, Blue lives a life of extremes, we might even say of excess, but it is a far cry from the extravagance of the 1920s. Blue’s love affair with St. Francis’ “Lady Poverty” leads him to live in a packing crate atop a skyscraper, in mansions, in a Boston lodging house and, finally, the ward of a public hospital. He works odd jobs and survives on “backdoor begging.” He prays and he shares his faith with everyone he meets.

Mr. Blue has much to say to us about how faith in Christ can shape a life, transforming a person’s very existence into an act of Eucharist—an act of Thanksgiving—that by its very nature draws others into communion.

Window by Marc Chagall in the
Chapelle du Saint-Sacrament
in Moissac, France

In the novel, Blue tells the story about the kingdom of the Antichrist: the days of the “the ecstatic, passionate, beauty-loving, liberty-seeking people had, as was early predicted, come to a close. The sluggish frigid races had survived.” In the climax of Blue’s tale of a new world in which even laughter and curiosity had been forbidden by law, a priest, the last Christian, climbs the highest tower in a city of metal and, using hosts made from wheat he has grown himself, offers the last Mass, fulfilling his promise to “bring God back to the earth.” As the government’s forces prepare to destroy the priest high atop the tower using planes and bombs, the priest began to repeat the words of Christ as the Last Super (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:23-26):
One plane is now low over the roof of the tower, so low that the crew can make out the figure of the cross on the priest’s chasuble. A bomb is made ready…
And now the priest comes to the words that shall bring Christ to earth again. His head almost touches the altar: Hoc est enim corpus meum…
The bomb did not drop. No. No. There was a burst of light beside which day itself is dusk. Then a trumpet peal, a single trumpet peal that shook the universe. The sun blew up like a bubble. The stars and planets vanished like sparks. The earth burst asunder… And through this unspeakably luminous new day, through the vault of the sky ribbed with lightning came Christ as he had come after the Resurrection

The image of a loan priest standing atop a tower in a burned-out world from which even the most basic expressions of joy, fraternity, and human freedom had been banned is a powerful one. But, its power lay not in the revolutionary act of the priest but in the way we are reminded of the expansive power of the Eucharist.
The Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of the Lord (Corpus Christi) is a day set aside  to reflect in a special way on the gift of the Eucharist. But, to use this celebration only as a time to focus our own individual engagement and devotion with the Christ who is present—body, blood, soul, and divinity—in the Eucharistic elements is to limit the scope of this Solemnity and the dynamic of the Eucharist itself. The mystery of Transubstantiation is, as Fr. James T. O’Connor notes, “not one wherein the Lord descends from heavenly glory to "enter" under the appearances of bread and wine. Rather it is one in which he, not coming down, lifts the creaturely realities to himself, drawing them up to where he is now with the Father. He draws them to himself in such a fashion that he subjugates them and so transforms their own being that it becomes identical with his… By drawing the reality of all the elements scattered throughout the world unto and into himself, Jesus maintains his own bodily unity. The elements are changed into him, not he into them” (from The Hidden Manna: A Theology of the Eucharist).

In the same way, in our sharing in the Eucharist, an act of communion, we are brought into the life of Christ and the Church and we are brought out of ourselves. We are raised up into the expansiveness of the Eucharist in a way that transcends any personal acts of devotion—we are given a share in the life of God which is by nature expansive and always oriented to others. We are reminded of this when, in the account of Jesus feeding the multitude with only a few fish and loaves, he gives the command: “You feed them! 

And so, we do. We take the gift we have been given, the life we have been brought into by our act of communion, and we share that with others. This happens in the Church through the actions of the priest in the Mass and in our work to provide for the spiritual and physical needs of those who hunger for their “daily bread”—in what whatever way.