Wednesday, August 29, 2007
By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
History always cuts deeper than headlines, a point that clearly applies to recent Vatican moves to dust off the old Latin Mass and to declare Catholicism the one true church. Beneath the upheaval triggered by those decisions lies a profound shift in the church’s geological plates, and perhaps the best way of describing the resulting earthquake is as the triumph of evangelical Catholicism.
Beginning with the election of Pope John Paul II in 1978, Catholicism has become a steadily more evangelical church -- uncompromising and unabashedly itself. Evangelical Catholicism today dominates the church’s leadership class, and it feeds on the energy of a strong grass-roots minority.
Proposing a Catholic counterpart to evangelical Protestantism may seem the ultimate in apples-and-oranges comparison, especially since some evangelicals would view being lumped in with the pope as tantamount to fighting words. Yet in a secularized, pluralistic world in which Christianity is no longer the air people breathe, Protestants and Catholics face the same crucial question: Should the relationship between church and culture be a two-way street, as most liberals say, with the church adjusting teachings and structures in light of the signs of the times? Or is the problem not so much a crisis of structures but a crisis of nerve, as most evangelicals believe, with the antidote being bold proclamation of timeless truths?
Liberal Catholicism enjoyed a heyday from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s, and it’s not about to die off, overeager prophecies in some circles notwithstanding. During the last quarter-century, however, the evangelicals have won most of the fights in terms of official Catholic policy. Whether that’s a rollback on reform or the emergence of a “new, sane modernity,” as Pope Benedict XVI claims, is a matter for debate, but there’s no mistaking which way the winds are blowing.
Released over three days in early July, the Vatican’s twin blows for traditional Catholic identity have produced both consternation and delight. The first document, a motu proprio, meaning an exercise of the pope’s legal authority, allows priests to celebrate the Latin Mass from before the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) without permission of the local bishop, either privately or in public whenever a “stable group” of Catholics asks for it. The second, a brief declaration from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, addresses a phrase from the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) that the church of Christ “subsists in” Catholicism. Many people thought it meant the true church cannot be identified with institutional Catholicism, and it was understood as a gesture of ecumenical openness. Now, however, the Vatican has ruled that “subsists in” means the true church “endures” in Catholicism alone, without denying that “elements” of the church can be found in other Christian bodies.
Viewing such robust assertions of tradition as an evangelical impulse has been around a while, even if few commentators have yet connected the dots in terms of the broad direction of the church. Among those who have spotted the direction are David O’Brien of the College of the Holy Cross, Deacon Keith Fournier in his 1990 book Evangelical Catholics, and William Portier of the University of Dayton. It is also implied in Evangelicals and Catholics Together, a project of former Nixon aide and prominent evangelical Charles Colson and Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, a Catholic convert from Lutheranism.
The evangelical impulse isn’t exactly “conservative,” because there’s little cultural Catholicism these days left to conserve. Instead, it’s a way of pitching classical Catholic faith and practice in the context of pluralism, making it modern and traditional all at once.
David Bebbington, a leading specialist on Protestant evangelicalism, defines that movement in terms of four commitments: the Bible alone as the touchstone of faith, Christ’s death on the cross as atonement for sin, personal acceptance of Jesus as opposed to salvation through externals such as sacraments, and strong missionary energies premised on the idea that salvation comes only from Christ. Clearly, some of these commitments mark areas of disagreement with Catholics rather than convergence.
Yet if these points are restated in terms of their broad underlying concerns, the evangelical agenda Bebbington describes pivots on three major issues: authority, the centrality of key doctrines, and Christian exclusivity. If so, there’s little doubt that Catholicism under John Paul II and Benedict XVI has become ever more boldly evangelical.
Defending church authority was a core concern of the John Paul II years, reflected in struggles to define the limits of theological exploration, to curb the authority of national bishops’ conferences and to assert Rome’s oversight of liturgical practice. That effort shows no sign of letting up under Benedict XVI, who as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger helped define the evangelical thrust of John Paul’s papacy. For example, among the new pope’s early moves was to drop the title “Patriarch of the West” as a way of insisting that papal authority is not just a phenomenon of the Western church but, at least in principle, is universal.
Two other illustrations, drawn from a potentially long list, make the point.
When Brazilian Franciscan Fr. Leonardo Boff was censured in 1985, it was seen as a blow against liberation theology, the controversial movement that took hold in Latin America beginning in the late 1960s and sought to place the church on the side of the poor. Sometimes forgotten is that it wasn’t Boff’s entire oeuvre that got him into trouble, but one 1981 book: Church: Charism and Power. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, led by Ratzinger, objected that the book put too much stress on a “church from below,” undercutting the “church from above,” meaning the hierarchy.
Concern for authority was also behind one of John Paul II’s most controversial documents, Ad Tuendam Fidem, issued in July 1998. It created penalties for dissent from “definitive teachings,” meaning teachings not part of divine revelation but seen as linked to revealed doctrines by logical necessity, and which have been taught consistently by the church over the centuries. At the time, Ratzinger offered several examples: the ban on women priests, the ban on euthanasia, and the immorality of prostitution and fornication.
To be clear, evangelical Catholicism isn’t fundamentalism. Benedict, after all, recently jettisoned limbo -- understood as the eternal resting place of unbaptized babies -- as a theological hypothesis that had outlived its usefulness. Yet just as Protestant evangelicals stay closely tethered to the Bible, evangelical Catholics strongly affirm the magisterium, meaning the church’s teaching authority.
Patrolling doctrinal borders
The day before his election as pope, Ratzinger asserted that the core challenge for the church today is a “dictatorship of relativism” in Western culture. Like their Protestant counterparts, Catholic evangelicals see the frontlines of this battle in terms of defending traditional teachings about the person and the saving significance of Jesus Christ.
A Magna Carta of this conviction came with a September 2000 document from the Vatican’s doctrinal congregation titled Dominus Iesus. It insisted that apart from any parallels to other prophets or religious sages, Jesus is the unique and lone savior of the world. Non-Christians are, objectively speaking, in a “gravely deficient situation.”
Recent Vatican censures all have involved writers on Christology. Three were Jesuits prominent in theological circles: Frs. Jacques Dupuis, a Belgian who spent almost three decades in India; Roger Haight, an American; and Jon Sobrino, a Basque who lives and writes in El Salvador. In each case, the Vatican wanted to limit claims that Christ and the Holy Spirit are active in non-Christian religions, or that the proof of doctrines about Christ is their capacity to build a better world rather than coherence with traditional formula. Concern for traditional Christology was also the motive for Benedict XVI’s first book as pope, Jesus of Nazareth, released in April 2007.
Catholics have long held to the adage lex ordandi, lex credendi, or “the rule of worship is the rule of faith,” so it’s no surprise that concern for doctrine has also translated into concern for traditional ways of worship. The “liturgy wars” that erupted in the mid-1990s, leading to translations of texts closer to the Latin originals, are an expression of the impulse; so, too, is recent approval for wider use of the pre-Vatican II Mass.
In a pluralistic age, faith has to be preached because most people no longer imbibe it from neighborhoods, schools or even families. John Paul II said he wanted to be the successor of Paul, the evangelist par excellence, as well as Peter, and his 104 foreign trips were proof of the point. Benedict’s willingness to put his views in a mass market book is, in a sense, an equally evangelical act.
An exclusive path
While evangelical Catholics believe in dialogue, they insist it can’t come at the expense of strong Catholic identity. The bottom line is unambiguous assertion that the visible, institutional Catholic church alone possesses the fullness of the church willed by Christ. That’s why Protestant bodies are called “ecclesial communities” rather than churches, and why the Orthodox churches can be “sisters” of local Catholic churches, but not of the universal Catholic church as such.
The Vatican’s declaration on the church in early July is a classic expression of this conviction, and like other elements of the evangelical Catholic outlook, it didn’t just drop from the sky. Nor does it reflect merely the personal musings of the current pope. Rather, it’s the product of a long incubation of evangelical thinking.
In 2005, German Jesuit Fr. Karl Becker, an influential consulter to the doctrinal congregation, published a front-page article in L’Osservatore Romano, the official Vatican newspaper. It argued that the phrase “subsists in” was intended “to reiterate that the church of Christ, with the fullness of the means instituted by Christ, perdures [continues, remains] forever in the Catholic church,” anticipating almost word-for-word the Vatican’s conclusion two years later.
Becker is an intellectual architect of the evangelical Catholic school, and his article drew on a dissertation written under him at Rome’s Gregorian University by a young German scholar named Alexandra von Teuffenbach, one of the first to draw on the diaries of Jesuit Fr. Sebastian Tromp, a theological expert at Vatican II. Tromp helped pioneer the term “subsists in.”
None of this means the Vatican is claiming that only Catholics can be saved. The congregation stated that other Christian bodies can be “instruments of salvation,” and there’s nothing in the document to roll back Vatican II’s teaching that non-Christians can also be saved “in ways known only to God.” Yet evangelical Catholics reject suggestions that all religions are equally valid; ultimately, they insist, salvation comes from Christ, and the church is the primary mediator of this salvation. This belief remains the basic motivation for missionary work.
The evangelical footprint
Thirty years of bishops’ appointments by John Paul II and Benedict XVI have ensured that a broadly evangelical outlook is shared by much of the church’s leadership. In a 2005 interview with NCR, Archbishop Joseph Fiorenza of Galveston-Houston, former president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, said that his generation accented Gaudium et Spes, the Vatican II document that called for Catholicism to embrace the “joys and hopes” of the modern world. Today, Fiorenza said, more bishops are drawn to Dei Verbum, the document on revelation, with emphasis on maintaining Catholic identity.
In the United States, evangelical Catholics may be a minority, but an undeniably dynamic one. Sociologists Rodney Stark and Roger Finke published research in the mid-1990s suggesting that dioceses with a strong emphasis on traditional Catholic identity generate more priests. Comparing 10 dioceses identified by a cross section of experts as either “traditional” or “progressive,” they found that traditional dioceses outperformed progressive ones in terms of ordinations by a factor of about 3 to 1.
Anecdotally, one could cite multiple eruptions of evangelical Catholic energy, from the Communion and Liberation meetings in Rimini, Italy, which annually draw more than 700,000 Catholics committed to challenging secularism, to World Youth Day, an international Catholic youth festival centered on the pope that routinely draws crowds in excess of a million and is one part liturgy and one part rock ’n’ roll. The expansion of evangelical-tinged Catholic media and an ever-growing host of Catholic blogs reflect this trend, as does the proliferation of Catholic schools and colleges marked by evangelical fervor. Former Domino’s pizza magnate Tom Monaghan is building an entire Florida town, Ave Maria, that might be described as the world’s first planned evangelical Catholic community. In a 2004 Communio piece, Portier argued that a disproportionate share of undergraduate and graduate theology students and parish ministers are drawn from the evangelical camp.
Evangelicals may not drive other views out of the church anytime soon, but the impulse is clearly more than a top-down phenomenon radiating out from Rome.
With this one-two punch of grass-roots ferment and official support, the Vatican’s latest expressions of evangelical Catholicism feel less like the dying ripples of a wave that has already crested and more like harbingers of things to come.
John L. Allen Jr. is NCR senior correspondent. His e-mail address is email@example.com.
National Catholic Reporter, August 31, 2007 (http://www.ncronline.org/)
The young priest nodded, and the old priest continued, "And you told me adding a little more beat to the music would bring young people back to church, so I supported you when you brought in that rock 'n roll gospel choir. Now our services are consistently packed to the balcony."
"Thank you, Father," answered the young priest. "I am pleased that you are open to the new ideas of youth."
"All of these ideas have been well and good," said the elderly priest, "But I'm afraid you've gone too far with the drive-thru confessional."
"But, Father," protested the young priest, "my confessions and the donations have nearly doubled since I began that!"
"Yes," replied the elderly priest, "and I appreciate that. But the flashing neon sign, 'Toot 'n Tell or Go to Hell' cannot stay on the church roof."
Tuesday, August 28, 2007
She said, "Hi handsome. My name is Rose. I'm eighty-seven years old. Can I give you a hug?"
I laughed and enthusiastically responded, "Of course you may!" and she gave me a gian squeeze.
"Why are you in college at such a young, innocent age?" I asked.
She jokingly replied, "I'm here to meet a rich husband, get married, and have a couple of kids..."
"No seriously," I asked. I was curious what may have motivated her to be taking on this challenge at her age.
"I always dreamed of having a college education and now I'm getting one!" she told me.
After class we walked to the student union building and shared a chocolate milkshake.
We became instant friends. Every day for the next three months we would leave class together and talk nonstop. I was always mesmerized listening to this "time machine" as she shared her wisdom and experience with me.
Over the course of the year, Rose became a campus icon and she easily made friends wherever she went. She loved to dress up and she reveled in the attention bestowed upon her from the other students. She was living it up.
At the end of the semester we invited Rose to speak at our football banquet. I'll never forget what she taught us. She was introduced and stepped up to the podium. As she began to deliver her prepared speech, she dropped her three by five cards on the floor.
Frustrated and a little embarrassed she leaned into the microphone and simply said, "I'm sorry I'm so jittery. I gave up beer for Lent and this whiskey is killing me ! I'll never get my speech back in order so let me just tell you what I know."
As we laughed she cleared her throat and began, "We do not stop playing because we are old; we grow old because we stop playing.
There are only four secrets to staying young, being happy, and achieving success:
1. You have to laugh and find humor every day.
2. You've got to have a dream. When you lose your dreams, you die. We have so many people walking around who are dead and don't even know it!
3. There is a huge difference between growing older and growing up. If you are nineteen years old and lie in bed for one full year and don't do one productive thing, you will turn twenty years old. If I am eighty-seven years old and stay in bed for a year and never do anything I will turn eighty-eight.
4. Anybody can grow older. That doesn't take any talent or ability. The idea is to grow up by always finding opportunity in change. Have no regrets. The elderly usually don't have regrets for what we did, but rather for things we did not do. The only people who fear death are those with regrets."
She concluded her speech by courageously singing "The Rose."
She challenged each of us to study the lyrics and live them out in our daily lives. At the year's end Rose finished the college degree she had begun all those years ago.
One week after graduation Rose died peacefully in her sleep. Over two thousand college students attended her funeral in tribute to the wonderful woman who taught by example that it's never too late to be all you can possibly be.
REMEMBER, GROWING OLDER IS MANDATORY. GROWING UP IS OPTIONAL. We make a Living by what we get, We make a Life by what we give. God promises a safe landing, not a calm passage. If God brings you to it, He will bring you through it.
Saturday, August 25, 2007
I don’t know if you’ve seen the Staples commercial that involves a parent and children shopping for school supplies. The children are walking along like they’re in a funeral march depressed at the concept of heading back to school, while the parent dances through the aisles singing, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year”? This is indeed for many a conflicted time of year – for parents, rejoicing; for the kids, dread – but I think today we can learn something valuable from it in terms of our faith.
Summer is such a wonderful time. This has been a busy summer for us, but filled with so many different and fun events – we’ve had the fun of Summer Spirit, the Steubenville East Youth Conference, our senior retreat, cookouts, baseball games, camp outs, the beach, the lake, vacation time, and so on. Especially at this time of year, we really want the fun and relaxation and adventure of summer to go on forever. It is just so carefree. But, the reality is that we know we must return to the orderliness, the discipline, the work of the school year. There’s just no quick or easy way around it. Despite the fact that many of us perhaps don’t want to go to school, or work, or back to the regular pace of life, we have to. We must return to gain knowledge, to learn how to live and interact in our society, to gain and perfect the skills we need in life. And, no matter how much we convince ourselves that we could find an easy way around it, there simply isn’t one.
Well, there is a similarly conflicted nature in what Jesus is telling his followers in today’s Gospel passage. Someone asks him the question, “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” And Jesus gives an answer that perhaps they didn’t want to hear. He says, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.” This isn’t the answer we were looking for. We probably wanted Jesus to tell us, “Don’t worry, be happy. Do what you want, everyone is saved!” We hope that all we have to say to Jesus is, “I am a good person, isn’t that enough? Does it really matter that I don’t worship the lord as I should? That I don’t follow His commands as I should?” Jesus gives us the tough answer that this simply isn’t enough. Our relationship with God must come first. We must follow God’s commandments and Jesus’ example and that it is indeed a narrow gate that leads to salvation. Perhaps the man in our Gospel isn’t asking the right question, “Will only a few be saved?” Perhaps what he really should have asked was, “Lord, how can I be saved?” Just think back a few years ago before the turn of the year 2000, everyone was in a tizzy about the coming millennium and whether or not it would signal the end of the world. Did anyone ask, “Lord, how can I be saved?” No, they asked, “When will the world come to an end? When is the Armageddon coming? Who will the Anti-Christ be?” If salvation is what you’re after, these are the wrong questions!
Rather than the curiosity of who will be saved, we need to be asking questions of personal importance like, “What do I need to do to be saved? How can I serve God better in my life today, right now? How can I make use of the opportunities God gives me here and now for my eternal salvation?” Are we more worried about getting into a certain school, a particular sport or club, a better job or home than we are about getting into Heaven?
Christ has shown us in Word and in Sacrament everything we need to know for our salvation. Perhaps you’ve heard the acronym for the BIBLE – Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth? The gate is indeed narrow and we have to do the hard work to be ready to walk through it. Just like the impending school year, there’s no easy way around it. The only way we can go through the narrow gate is by turning our whole lives over to God who is our salvation.
This is the key – our openness to God’s leadership. Do we believe that God’s Word is good for us? Do we believe that God’s way is the best way? Do we believe that the Commandments are absolutes in our life that lead to Heaven? Or do we try and find the quick and easy way around it creating a God and a Bible of our own making? One that suits our own whims, will, ways and sins? Without an openness to letting God lead us, surrendering to Him, we are discouraged when we hear of those who were turned away who said, “But, we ate and drank in your company and you taught in our streets.” We might feel the same way, “Lord, we have eaten your body and we drank of your blood and you taught in our Church. Isn’t this enough?”
To this Jesus says: Eating and drinking beside Me is not the same as eating and drinking with Me. You can be near Me and not a part of Me. You can hear Me without ever listening to Me. You can know Me and still not accept Me. You can wink at Me while never loving Me. You see, I am not the one that is locking you out. You are locking yourself out. I’m not closing the door on you. It is you who close the door on Me. The door you are knocking on doesn’t lock from the inside. It is locked from the outside. And the only key that will open it is – YOU. Acknowledge Me, accept Me, love Me and the door – the very Kingdom – will open itself to you.
This is how we pass through the Narrow Gate – by allowing God to change us, to form us, and transform us. Remember, Jesus tells us, “I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be saved.” Jesus says, “You cannot earn your place in heaven. I earned it for you when I spread my arms on that cross. It was my sacrifice for you that opened the Gates of Heaven. I was innocent, you were guilty, and I stood in your place – willingly, lovingly – all for you. And now, you have a choice – one choice – enter through Me. Be changed, be transformed, not into your image of yourself, but into My image. Let My love save you. Come from the east and the west and from the north and the south and recline at table in the kingdom of God.”
My friends, let us ask with every fiber of our being, “Lord, what must I do to be saved?” And may God give us the strength to follow.
May God give you peace.
Wednesday, August 22, 2007
On the road to the priesthood
We have some very exciting news here in our parish, as a young man of our community, Stefan Steiner, is leaving on Sunday, August 26th to begin his period of formation in the hopes of one day becoming a Franciscan priest.
We are incredibly proud to have a young man in our midst hearing God’s call with the courage to respond. And so, I invite you to join with Fr. Mike and me in making a daily prayer for Stefan and for any other young men and women in our parish who may be hearing the call of God in their lives into service in the Church.
Stefan’s departure also presents a perfect opportunity for us all to learn more about what someone goes through in pursuing a religious vocation. So, from time to time as Stefan, God willing, progresses through the process, I will use this space to discuss a bit about the stages on his road to the priesthood.
Becoming a religious and a priest is something that takes time. In fact, all things being equal, Stefan will most likely be ordained a priest somewhere around the year 2016.
Religious and Priest: The first thing to understand is that Stefan is not only beginning a process to become a priest. He has felt God calling him to do this in the context of religious life. Not all priests do this. Some priests, in fact most, are what we call diocesan priests. They serve their call to the priesthood in the context of a diocese as a parish priest typically. The priests who served here prior to Fr. Mario’s arrival were all diocesan priests.
The difference is that for we who are members of a religious community, there are really two vocations going on. The first is a vocation to the Franciscan Order; to live a life with the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience in the context of our Franciscan fraternity. Not all Franciscans, though, become priests. Some are called to live our religious vocation as brothers engaging in a wide variety of non-ordained ministries. The second call is to the priesthood.
The first two years of Stefan’s formation will be dedicated to his Franciscan religious formation, not necessarily his priestly formation. So, he begins this first year what we call Postulancy. The name comes from the Latin word postulare which means “to request.” A Postulant is not yet a member of the Order, but rather is requesting to become a member. So, this first year is a probationary period where the postulant begins to experience our way of life. Stefan will live in community with a few other friars – you’ll remember Fr. Vit who gave us our beautiful concert in May; and he’ll be with Fr. Rick Martignetti, the friar who is in charge of postulants. He’ll also be with four other men also entering Postulancy this year.
As a Postulant, Stefan will begin to live our Franciscan way of life in common prayer, learning about the life of St. Francis and the life of St. Clare, our founders, and perhaps beginning to learn about the history of the Order and of our Province. He will also most likely engage in a study of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Postulants typically also engage in some sort of ministry to be determined by their director.
It is really a year of being re-formed and molded into the image that God is calling forth. It is a challenging year because during this year you begin to live a way of life that is very different from what you have known before. In fact, those who leave formation usually leave during this first year. So, this is a critical year of praying, learning, living as a friar.
So, please join me in praying for Stefan as he becomes a Postulant, as he makes formal his request to become a Franciscan brother and eventually a priest. God bless you Stefan!
Love, Fr. Tom
Tuesday, August 21, 2007
by Laurence Freeman OSB
Excerpts from Lecture at The School of Prayer
Archdiocese of Melbourne (20th April 2005)
A group of rabbinical students were once arguing about the meaning of a biblical text. They appealed to their teacher who told them to show him the page. “What do you see here?” he asked. “The words we are discussing,” they replied. “These black marks on the page,” the old rabbi said, “contain half the meaning of the passage. The other half is in the white spaces between the words.” This is the margin of silence around any page. It is also the necessary pause between breaths, the stillness between thoughts, the rest between bouts of activity.
For a growing number of people today the Eucharist is a ritual whose significance is and has long been hemorrhaging. Let me share with you what I recently heard during a retreat I was giving in Sydney. A pastoral assistant from a parish in New South Wales told me that the priest there has actually done what Pope John Paul II asked priests to do and what the Guidelines of the new edition of the General Instructions of the Roman Missal reinforce. He has restored liturgical silence to the worship of his parish. I was surprised, not at this per se, but by the degree. They have silences after the readings, five minutes after the homily and fifteen minutes at communion. I asked how the people responded and was told that nobody has walked out and many are expressing their approval. I don’t, however, want to reduce this subject to the number of minutes of silence – and for good reason.
There are many kinds of Eucharistic celebration and the discretion of the celebrant is crucial. But, I think it is significant that an ordinary Sunday parish congregation can be introduced to this degree of silence and enjoy it. It may be as surprising to some as the fact that children respond well to meditation – times of silent prayer without words or images. They do it and they like to do it and they ask for more.
Meister Eckart typically said that ‘there is nothing so much like God as silence.’ Mother Teresa, who insisted on the centrality of two hours of silent prayer for the life of her apostolic sisters, typically said that ‘silence is God speaking to us.’ Each of these sayings illustrates a way of understanding the meaning of silence.
Why is God so like silence? Eckart doesn’t say God likes silence or likes silent worshippers but that God is like silence. St Benedict has two words we translate as silence: quies and silentium. Quies is quiet, physical silence, an absence of noise – not banging doors, not scraping chairs, not coughing or unwrapping sweet papers. It is the quies we expect good parents to train their children in, a physical self-restraint and modesty that respects the presence of other people. Quies makes the world habitable and civil. It is often grossly lacking in urban modern culture where music invades elevators and there is rarely a moment or place where we are not in range of manmade noise. There are now expensive headphones that people wear, not to listen to music but to block out noise. Silentium, however, is not an absence of noise but a state of mind and an attitude of consciousness turned towards others or to God. It is attention. When someone comes to see a priest or counselor to share a problem or grief, the priest knows that what he must above all give is his attention. There may not be a solution to the problem and most of our hopefully helpful words glide off the back of grief as failed platitudes. To listen deeply, to give oneself in the act of attention is in fact not to judge, or fix or condemn but to love. Seen this way there is indeed nothing so much like God as silence because God is love.
Liturgy - like all ways of prayer - is essentially about attention. At the Eucharist we train our attention towards God through the gift of self that Jesus made historically and makes continuously through the Spirit both in our hearts and on the altar. Although our attention may wander, looking at new faces in the congregation or browsing the bulletin, the attention of Jesus directed to us never wavers and does not even condemn or dislike us for our distractedness. Though we are unfaithful, he remains faithful because he cannot betray himself. This, at least to the believer, is the inexpressible mystery of the Eucharist and the ultimately irresistible and sweet attraction of the real presence.
Silence is work, the work of loving attention and its fruit is a heart filled with thanksgiving. This connects Meister Eckart’s idea of silence with Mother Teresa’s. Silence which is like God as nothing else is also God speaking to us. When we pay attention to God we soon realize that God is paying attention to us. Indeed it is God’s attention to us that allows us to pay attention to God. It is God who strikes the first spark of good will in us, according to Cassian who debated with Augustine about free will. But then we have to play our part. As St John says, This is what love really is: not that we have loved God but that he loved us. We love because he loved us first. When we celebrate the Eucharist we are in fact taking the first step to being caught up in the divine life. In the silence of the Eucharist we taste and enter the silence of the Father from whom the Word eternally springs. In Rubliev’s icon of the Trinity the three persons are gathered around the Eucharist.
This is the mystical dimension of the Eucharist that for many Sunday worshippers is the main spiritual food for their week and daily work. Every effort should, therefore, be made to ensure that this rare and precious moment is enjoyed to the fullest degree. The way in which the Eucharist is celebrated is all-important in allowing time and creating the space for its inner mystery to be manifested.
Prescribed silences cannot be made compulsory and still be expected to work spiritually. As long as the fundamental approach to the Eucharist is conditioned by legalism or excessive control it will seem that Eucharist and silence are incompatible. Silent moments or extended periods of silence will seem impractical, pretentious and artificial; or an imposition on a congregation who are good enough to come in the first place and who should not be subjected to something unfamiliar which lengthens their hour in church. The silences in the Eucharist must rather spring from the experience of the mystical depth being explored by the whole community. But like the whole Eucharist itself, these silences need to be guided by the celebrant in collaboration with the liturgical leadership of the community. Clearly it is in the seminary that the contemplative dimension of prayer needs to be nurtured if future celebrants are to have this feel for liturgical silence.
Priests are often fearful or suspicious of silence on the altar. Fear of silence in the Eucharist generally affects the celebrant more than the congregation. Is it that when he opens his eyes after a long silence he may find the church empty? Is it the fear of losing control? Fear of silence is often a fear of absence, of the void we dread, the growing terror of nothing to think about. Or, is it also perhaps that our theological and liturgical training have not prepared us for the other half, the mystical half of the Eucharist?
Silence restores and recognizes this missing contemplative dimension. Silence refreshes language, restores precision and meaning especially to oft-quoted, familiar texts. Without silence even sacred words can become noise, babble. Silence in the Eucharist does not threaten emptiness or denote absence but exposes presence and invites responsiveness.
The places in the Eucharist where silences are especially useful and enhancing have already been identified. Many celebrants begin with a few moments of silence in the sacristy with the acolytes and lectors before processing in. Whenever the celebrant calls the community to pray, Let us pray demands a moment of silence before the words of the Collect are spoken to collect the unspoken prays of the whole people. The penitential rite then invites people to reflect interiorly so that they can prepare to experience the Eucharist as a healing and forgiving celebration in their imperfect lives. The readings especially call for silent pauses, before the responsorial psalm or the gospel acclamation rush us on. Often where silence is observed during the Liturgy of the Word it will also encourage a brief spoken commentary on a difficult or obscure passage that may otherwise escape the cognitive faculties of the congregation and sometimes the celebrant altogether. Readings must be proclaimed with preparation and devout attention and meditative silence that enable the Word of God to touch people’s minds and hearts. (Mane Nobiscum Domine)
Catholic preachers are generally very self-conscious about the length of homilies, unlike protestant ministers who are often expected to give the people their money’s worth in terms of length and passion of delivery. The more modulated style of most Catholic preaching makes an ensuing period of silent reflection even more appropriate. It treats the congregation with the respect of assuming that they have listened intelligently and would like time to think about it even if they are not allowed to respond yet.
The breaking of the bread, the fraction of the host is a mystical moment of great sacredness and a moment of silence during this is natural. But the most significant and necessary time for silence in the Eucharist is of course after Communion. If the whole Eucharist is the culmen et fons of the church surely this moment is its mystical epicenter. Yet it is generally glossed over without a moment of silence except that occurring between songs or the purification of the vessels. This may be the stage where the celebrant is getting nervous about keeping people too long, the children may be getting restless and another congregation may be gathering outside. Now above all we need to remember that silence is not merely the absence of noise but the spirit of loving attention. I have sat in a prolonged silence after communion at Sunday mass in our monastery parish in suburban London while a chorus of wailing babies, restless toddlers and invisible stagehands were making noise. It did not materially affect the silence. The parents and others appreciated it and many, if not all, of the children became quieter. And when we concluded with the Post-Communion prayer there was a sense of thankfulness and refreshment not relief that we were finished. The celebrant has to hold his nerve at the beginning of such silences and of course to prepare the congregation for them. It is a significant period of silence not a quick pause that is needed. It can be helpful to have a prescribed time and to mark the beginning and the end of it by ringing a gong or chime.
Silence in the Eucharist does not, as some might fear, privatize the liturgy. This often happened in the Tridentine rite. People felt something very mysterious and sacred was happening but it did not personally involve them so they said their prayers while the priest got on with his role. Silence as a liturgical experience, by contrast, draws the community closer together and unifies their attention so that together in mind and heart they can hear the word and share in the mystery. St Ignatius of Antioch said that if we cannot understand the silence of Christ we will not be able to understand his words either. We can only understand his silence by being silent ourselves. In doing so together we experience the mystery of silence building community.
To conclude, I would like to recall a significant phrase of Pope John Paul. Having emphasized the importance of silence in the Eucharist he explains that it is not a self-contained artificial silence. We need to progress from the experience of liturgical silence to the “spirituality of silence” – to life’s contemplative dimension. St Francis once urged his followers to preach the gospel on all occasions and to everyone they met. When absolutely necessary, he added, use words. He meant, I think, not just silence but the silent or implicit witness of one’s life.
The link between the Eucharist and the way we live is crucial to any understanding or experience of its meaning and value. If we celebrate the Eucharist only as an ecclesial obligation or as a folksy get together it will have little influence upon better conforming our lives to the Gospel. Unless we have come together at a deep level in its celebration the closing words “Go in peace” will mean we go in pieces, just as we probably arrived. Silence allows the full meaning of the Eucharist at its deepest, post-verbal levels of sacramental efficacy, to unfold in our lives. This means that we will know that having shared the fruits of the earth symbolically together we can better serve the Kingdom of justice in our lives and work. We all took the same amount of bread and wine. There was enough to go round for everybody – if the sacristan did his job properly. Therefore if our lives are to be Eucharistic should we not work for the just distribution of wealth, the relief of the oppressed and care for the marginalized? The mystical depth of the Eucharist has direct political implications. Were not Thomas a Becket and Oscar Romero assassinated at the silent moment of consecration? Pope John Paul’s last public teaching and blessing from his Vatican window was silent.
So the implications of silence in the Eucharist take us to the heart of our faith and to the cutting edge of contemporary evangelization. It is not just about what happens at Mass times. It is about expressing what is real at the core of our being and in the fabric of our daily life and work. This I think must be why Pope John Paul linked the experience of liturgical silence to the contemplative renewal of the church. In a world increasingly fractured and frazzled by noise and stress, he recognized the necessity for the church to draw on its deepest contemplative traditions and to teach from these ways of contemplative prayer. It is vital to rediscover the value of silence, he said. John Main, who died in 1982, saw this too: the greatest challenge to modern people, he said, is to rediscover the value and meaning of silence. John Main in his writings on the Eucharist also saw that for modern people, recovering the contemplative dimension of prayer is necessary for experiencing the full meaning of the sacraments.
The teaching of contemplative prayer at the parish and diocesan level is a natural and perhaps inevitable corollary to liturgical silence. We have to start somewhere – with silence after communion or with meditation groups in the parish. The church being a living Body with a spiritual life, her pastors don’t have to be too preoccupied with systems analysis. They simply have to pray and encourage people to pray ever more deeply. It may be more daring in our time to apply this to the religious education and spiritual formation of children and young people.
A living silence after the readings, homily and communion will arouse or, better perhaps, identify the deeper hunger that is at the heart of our church and our world. Learning to pray at the contemplative level will teach us to live better in the spirit, because the way we pray is the way we live and the way we pray is the way we celebrate the Eucharist. This hunger for contemplation, then, is our greatest hope. It is vital to rediscover the value of silence.
Sunday, August 19, 2007
“I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!”
So far, this new century is not off to a great start. In the first seven years of the 21st century, we have witnessed a tremendous amount of violence in our world. In many ways, this century has been defined by terror and war. Hardly a day passes that we do not hear the sad news of violent aggression and brutality unleashed against people somewhere around the world. To make matters worse, perpetrators of these acts of violence often try to justify these atrocities by claiming that they are fighting a holy war in God’s name. Think of these modern-day crusaders: the Taliban and Al Qaeda just to name a few.
In this context we hear Jesus in today’s Gospel, “Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” Today’s readings can seem to be a call or even a justification for holy war. There certainly is no shortage of groups who like to claim that God is on their side in the battle. I, for one, always prefer the sentiment expressed by Abraham Lincoln who said, “My concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God's side, for God is always right.”
The reality is that yes, we are indeed called to war: but not a war against other people; other nations; other ideologies. Jesus calls us, instead, to a war against sin; not a war against people we perceive as evil, but a war against the evil one, the devil. With this in mind, let us hear again the words of Jesus, “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing! ... Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”
Biblical scholars tell us that Jesus is speaking here not about the purpose of His coming – the goal of Jesus incarnation as a man was not to create division – but, rather He is speaking about the inevitable consequence of His coming. Jesus came to reveal the true sons and daughters of God who listen to God’s word, and the children of this world who oppose God’s plans. This divides humanity into two camps: the camp of the godly and the camp of the ungodly. There is perpetual conflict, a state of war, between these two groups, as one group strives to raise the world up to God and the other to pull it down in sin. These two groups do not live in two different parts of the world, they live side by side in the same neighborhoods, they live together under the same roof, and in the same families, and sometimes godliness and ungodliness exist together in the same person.
We are all called today to take up arms in this holy war. But, the holy war we are called to is not a war against people of certain nationalities or cultures, creeds or ideologies, but a war in which we have to fight the sin within ourselves and encourage holiness in the people who are dear to us (father, son, mother, daughter, mother-in-law, daughter-in-law) and then declare an uncompromising war against the sin in our world.
We don’t need to look any further than the Seven Deadly Sins to find our battleground. It is in the pride of our own superiority; the covetousness of materialism; the lust that invades our whole world; the anger, hatred and bitterness we hold towards others; the gluttony we relish as we overindulge in so many things; the envy and jealousy that we feel towards others; and the sloth that leads us to feel that things should merely be handed to us. To these we can add the great evil of our own day – the injustice wrought upon so many in our world because of their economic status, lack of power, ethnic background, and so on.
And this is where the fire comes in. “I have come to set the earth on fire!” Or perhaps a better way of understanding this, “I have come to set your heart on fire with a desire for holiness!” Too often, we tend to think of holiness as unattainable; as something for other people, but not for me. So, the Lord asks each of us today, “Do you want to be on fire for God? With God?” Let the power of God set them embers of holiness on fire within you. Let the Holy Spirit of God ignite an unquenchable flame for goodness, holiness, peace, justice, forgiveness and love in your hearts!
I think of the disciples on the road to Emmaus, who after encountering the Risen Lord, exclaimed, “Were not our hearts burning within us as He spoke to us on the way and opened the Scriptures to us!” This is the kind of fire that the Lord wants to ignite today in you. Let Him light that flame and stoke it into a blazing fire through your prayer, devotion, and works of goodness and holiness in the world.
Let your heart burn for Him! Let that fire spread to those around you – to your family, your friends, your co-workers, everyone you meet. My brothers and sisters, today is our call to arms. A war is at hand – a war for the holiness of our souls. Let us set our souls ablaze for the Lord! Let us vanquish the enemy! Let us burn for the things of God!
“I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!”
May God give you peace.
Saturday, August 18, 2007
Thursday, August 16, 2007
I know in my own faith journey with Francis to Christ, I could not accomplish anything either without the grace of God and the help, support and companionship of my brothers. Fourteen years ago today, I professed my vows as a Franciscan religious for the very first time.
There is a wonderful continuum in our way of life and I was reminded of that yesterday. I had the privilege of being present yesterday at St. Leonard's Church in Boston's North End as three young men, Joseph, Francisco, and Michael received the habit of the Order, officially becoming members of the Franciscan Order and our beloved Province as they begin their year of novitiate - a special year devoted to prayer.
I also brought along to this celebration two young men from my parish - one who will be entering our Postulancy program in just over a week; and another who is seriously discerning a vocation to the Franciscans and the priesthood. As we were at this celebration, where there were more than 40 friars ranging from the youngest to the oldest and those of us in the middle, I couldn't help but be filled with the joy that comes from living a life together as brothers.
There were those who have been living this life for many decades even before I was born and those for whom the life is brand new. And yet, even though we are all very different men, we share in that common love of Jesus, love of Francis and love of fraternity.
And, so today, I treasure those words of St. Francis, "The Lord gave me brothers," and I am grateful that the Lord gave me these brothers too.
Pax et bonum!
Wednesday, August 15, 2007
As Catholics we are often chastised for our devotion to Mary by other religious groups. We truly treasure Marian devotions and doctrines that some non-Catholics do not. So, who do we honor Mary so highly? Well, I think it is because the Catholic Church is trying to tell the full story, to proclaim the full gospel. Without Mary, you cannot tell the whole story of salvation. Today we celebrate this Feast of the Assumption of Mary into Heaven. After what tradition tells us were 72 years of life on earth, Mary was assumed body and soul into heaven. Since Mary was conceived without original sin, so that she might be properly prepared to be the Mother of God, she did not suffer the same fate as the rest of us with Original Sin – she was immediately assumed into heaven body and soul. Mary becomes the first to be raised in Glory – the same thing that we all hope for.
The key to today’s feast is not these theological technicalities, rather the key is where do we place Mary in our spiritual life? What do we think of when we think of the Mother of God? Mary is the best example to us of what it means to be a Christian, of what it means to hear the Word of God and to respond to that word with obedience – no matter the cost. Mary was not only full of grace, but she lived her vocation gracefully. I know in my own life when I envision Mary, it isn’t in the way that our statues and icons and other religious images see her. You know what I mean – the peaceful look on her face, wearing the flowing robes of white and blue, quite literally floating on a cloud. Looking at those images, it is hard to believe this woman ever uttered a word.
Rather, the more I come to know Mary in prayer, what I see is a Mom in the ancient middle East, probably working hard all day long taking care of her husband and son, faithfully doing all of the ordinary things that life demanded of her. That is the example that Mary offers – she shows us how to find grace; to find God in the ordinary things of living and that’s where we can draw the biggest strength from Mary.
Yes, Mary had the profound courage to respond “yes” to the angel. But, that was just the first moment. Mary’s job was not done after she said “yes.” We know Mary was born without sin – quite unlike anyone else who ever lived – and you would think that after she finished her mission she’d be done and go back to God. But, she did not. She not only raised her son, she not only followed him during his ministry, she not only endured the piercing of her heart by watching her son be cruelly tortured and killed by the very people he came to save, but after Christ died, Mary went on. Mary became the spiritual mother to all of the disciples of her son. Mary became their strength, their guide. Mary became the one to constantly link Jesus followers back to her Son. Mary was there in the upper room when the Holy Spirit descended upon the followers. Mary continued on to help spread the Gospel, to give witness to a life dedicated to God, to help establish what would become the Church. Tradition holds that Mary made it as far as Ephesus and it was there that she died.
This can say a lot to us today. For those of us who have been walking the Christian journey for some time – do we ever take the attitude that our job, our ministry, is done? Do we sit back on our laurels and think we’re all set? I had my big God-moment and now I can glide the rest of the way? Maybe for those who are younger on the Christian journey, you might look at what Christ places before us and think “I’m not up to the challenge of being a Christian.”
Regardless, look at Mary and see her life – she believed in the potential of God to do anything, anything when the angel came to her, she was grace filled, she was passionate and she kept on going. Mary trusted that God’s plan would unfold in her life. After the birth of Jesus, or perhaps once He reached adulthood, you’d think she was done, but instead God allowed her to live an ordinary life – filled with extraordinary leadership. Another reason why we Catholics are so devoted to Mary is because we recognize that we are not only called to be another Christ in the world – but we are also called to be another Mary. If you don’t look at Mary as an example of what it means for you to be Christian, you are missing the fullness of the Gospel.
Mary came before us and gave us profound example. We are called to do what Mary has done – she trusted God, she listened to God, she responded to God’s call. And don’t forget what God asked Mary to do – she was asked to carry Christ within her and help to make him present to the world. Mary was the first to carry Christ and we celebrate her unique role as Christ-bearer. But, God asks us to do the very same thing. When we receive the Eucharist, we are like Mary. We carry Christ just as physically in our body as Mary did. And why did she carry Christ her in body, so that she could bring Christ physically into the world. And so must we. We receive the Body of Christ into our own bodies that we might become the Body of Christ in our world.
Let us look today at Mary, our mother, our model and let us be conscious at this Eucharist that we do what she did and let us help make her son truly, physically present in our world.
May God give you peace!
Tuesday, August 14, 2007
When it comes to the topic of cremation, it seems most Catholics aren’t clear on what the Church teaches. Even though cremation has been permitted in the Catholic Church since 1963, there are a surprising number of people who think it remains forbidden.
So, how about a little history. Cremation is ancient and appeared in many cultures. Jewish custom was always for the burial of the body. During Old Testament times, only a criminal or crass sinner normally would have had his remains cremated. Through Amos, the Lord pronounced judgment on Moab for several sins. The first He cites is that Moab “burned to lime the bones of the king of Edom.” This indicates that Moab’s cremation of Edom’s king was the result of disrespect for the dead. In Christianity, cremation was formally forbidden by Emperor Charlemagne in 784.
During the past few centuries, some atheists encouraged cremation to rebut the Bible’s teaching of resurrection. This idea has faded in recent years. This is the key – the Church rejected the practice because it seemed to be practiced out of disrespect for the dead or denial of the resurrection. The change in the Church’s stance revolves around that issue and has said, if this is not an issue of disrespect or denial, then cremation can be permitted.
However, it is still important to know a few things, as frequently, people don’t quite get it right on this issue. If someone is choosing cremation how should this be done?
1. Burial is preferred. In 1963, the Catholic Church lifted its prohibition forbidding Catholics to choose cremation. Canon Law states, “The Church earnestly recommends the pious custom of burying the bodies of the dead be observed, it does not however, forbid cremation unless it has been chosen for reasons which are contrary to Christian teaching.” Burial has been the centuries old way of honoring our dead with respect. This is still the preferred way.
2. Funeral with the body. This is one of the common things that people do incorrectly around this. If someone is choosing cremation, it should not happen until after the funeral. The funeral Mass, in all of its language and symbolism, is about honoring the body. “This is the body once washed in baptism, anointed with the oil of salvation, and fed with the bread of life.” The Church's belief in the sacredness of life and the resurrection of the body encourages us to celebrate funeral liturgies with the body present while affirming the value of human life.
3. A worthy vessel. Again, with the theme of honoring the dead, the cremated remains should be kept in a worthy container. Not in a flower jar, canister, or any other profane object.
4. Bury the dead. I know someone who has been walking around with the remains of her mother in a zip lock bag in her purse because “she will let me know where to scatter her ashes.” The Church does not support anything other than burying the dead. Remains should not be kept on the mantle, scattered over the lake or mountains, or divided among loved ones. If you think it would be bizarre to divide a body into parts to share, then you should find the separation or scattering of ashes to be just as bizarre. These are practices that, no matter their initial inspiration, are incredibly disrespectful to the dignity of the human person. Cremated remains should be placed in a worthy vessel and buried in the ground or entombed in a columbarium, such as the one currently being built at our cemetery.
To learn more you can read Christian Burial Guidelines, by the National Catholic Cemetery Conference.
Love, Fr. Tom
Sunday, August 5, 2007
“Though one may be rich, one's life does not consist of possessions.”
If Shakespeare were to hear our Gospel today, he would be likely to say perhaps, “Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore, so do our minutes hasten to their end.” Or, “Time doth transfix the flourish set on youth and delves the parallels in beauty’s brow.” No one was more distressed by the transience of life and the destructiveness of time than Shakespeare. For his character Macbeth, life was a “brief candle – a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage.” For Prospero, “we are such stuff as dreams are made on and our little life is rounded with a sleep.” Or as a more contemporary reference might put it, “Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives.” [Cue the music.]
“Though one may be rich, one's life does not consist of possessions.” Our readings today cause us to reflect upon the question of what makes a life? Or certainly, what makes a successful life? Too often, in our material-obsessed, fame-obsessed culture, it is the accumulation of things that equals success. You’ve probably seen the bumper sticker before, “Whoever dies with the most toys wins.” To this notion God’s Word says, “Vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!” And, “Brothers and sister…seek what is above.”
“One’s life does not consist of possessions.” Possessions, of course, are necessary for life. But possessions can assume such an importance in our lives that they become obsessions. When we are so concerned about the things that we can have, so much so that we no longer hear the urgent call of God, then we have got our priorities all mixed up.
Such is the man in today’s Gospel who asks Jesus to come and make his brother give him his share of the family inheritance. Jesus is not against him having more wealth, nor is he against justice being done between him and his brother. Jesus is rather disappointed because He has been sharing with him the very words of life, preaching the Gospel of salvation, and after listening to all His preaching, the first concern of this man still remains his share of the inheritance. The words of life fell upon deaf ears. The man probably could not remember one word of what Jesus said.
I heard someone say once, “Some people get up in the morning and their first thought is ‘What can I get today?’ and others get up in the morning and their first thought is, ‘What can I give today?’” The second question is the only one that will ever make you happy.
Jesus, fearing there could be more people in the crowd like this man, turns and says to them, “Take care to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one's life does not consist of possessions.” To illustrate his point Jesus tells the Parable of the Rich Fool. When we hear this parable we might ask, “What wrong did this man do?” Think about it. The man did his honest work on his farmland. The land gave a bumper harvest. The man decided do build a larger storage for the crop so that he could live the rest of his life on Easy Street. Only he did not know that the rest of his life was less than 24 hours. Jesus uses him to make the point that putting material before God is a wasted effort; one that will do you no good in eternity. The man’s greed lies not in what he did; but rather in what he failed to do. Instead of using his wealth for the good of others – what can I give today – he used it only to better himself.
There is a quote that says, greed is “the belief that there is no life after death. We grab what we can, while we can, however we can and then hold on to it as hard as we can.” This is the rich man. Instead of placing God first, he gave priority to the false god of materialism. When we are focused on the true God, we look at what we have in life and ask the other question, “What can I give today?”
Today’s Gospel invites us to believe in the God of Jesus Christ who alone can give eternal life and not in the god of this world who gives us the false promise of immortality through accumulation of possessions. “Thus will it be for all who store up treasure for themselves but are not rich in what matters to God.” God calls us to use whatever we have to further His kingdom. God calls us to realize that the most valuable possession in the world is faith in His Son; and we should desire to be rich in what matters to God.
The life to come is not made secure by what we own, but rather by what we are – in our dealings with others, and in the sight of God. Let us all pray today to become rich in the sight of God – rich in the Words, the Will and the Way of Our Lord Jesus Christ. What will you give today?
May God give you peace.
Thursday, August 2, 2007
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
The Gospel, which we have just heard on this day of festivities for the whole Church, repeats the greeting of the angel to Mary to each one of us, “do not be afraid, you have won God’s favour”. It is a word which gives us courage and instils trust in us. The Lord, today as always during the history of salvation, manifests Himself as He who is close to His children, as He who is with His people in order to share their fate. Our God is not a distant god, a god who descends from his heaven on high to fill humanity with terror and to chastise it, but a God who, in the course of time, has revealed Himself as He who is at the side of men and women (cf. Ex 3, 14). This closeness of God, His love for our life, is manifested in a very practical way through His wonderful works, creation being the first among them, which speaks continuously of the Creator, but also through His Word, through which He guided and taught the people of Israel until He formed them into the chosen people, a people chosen from among peoples, to be with Him. But this closeness reached its perfection in Jesus, in Him God Himself took on our nature, walked our paths, lived our small and great joys, experienced our frailty and our suffering. In Jesus we passed from being servants to being definitive friends of God: “I shall not call you servants any more, because a servant does not know his master’s business, I call you friends, because I have made known to you everything I have learnt from my Father” (Jn 15, 15). Yes, we are friends of God, no longer servants, or, as St. Paul said in the second reading, if “before we came of age we were as good as slaves to the elemental principles of this world”, now, thanks to Jesus Christ, we have found a Father in God and we have become His children. We are no longer servants, then, but friends, no longer slaves, but children.
Let us allow joy to fill our hearts today, therefore, because we also, like Mary, have won God’s favour, because we also have been asked not to fear Him. Indeed, as one is not afraid of a friend or of one’s father, so also we must not fear God.
This is the Good News today, the Gospel has been announced to us. The God in whom we believe is, as St. Clare loved to call Him, the Father of mercies, He who leans over us with a heart overflowing with love for us, over our poverty, over our wounds, those which are seen and those which are unseen, in order to offer us healing and salvation. He does it only for love, He wants nothing in return, He does it because He loves us as a father. We have simply to open our heart and accept this gift, to receive His mercy, His grace, His forgiveness. It is God Himself, as we heard in the first reading, who invites us: “Approach me, you who desire me, and take your fill of my fruits, for memories of me are sweeter than honey, inheriting me is sweeter than the honeycomb”.
But whoever has tasted the sweetness of this Word of salvation, whoever has allowed himself to be touched by the mercy of God, cannot stay the same as before. His very life is transformed and converted into an announcement of mercy, as happened to St. Francis who, in his Testament recalls: “When I was in sin it seemed too bitter for me to see lepers. And the Lord Himself led me among them and I showed mercy to them. And when I left them, what had seemed bitter to me was turned into sweetness of soul and body”.
Whoever has allowed himself to be touched by the love of God lives on and gives witness to it throughout his life, making his life into a great act of love, as Benedict XVI reminded us during his visit to Assisi: “What was, my dear brothers and sisters, the life of the converted Francis if it wasn’t a great act of love? His enflamed prayers, rich in contemplation and praise, his gentle embrace of the divine child in Greccio, his contemplation of the passion at La Verna, his ‘living according to the pattern of the Holy Gospel’ (Test 14), his choice of poverty and his seeking Christ in the faces of the poor”. Everything in Francis speaks to us of God, because God had become, for him, the meaning of life, that meaning which seems to be lost or never found today. We know that mankind can never give meaning to life on its own, but can only be donated it, and that in Christ it has been offered to it once and for all.
The feast today is an invitation to all to return to Christ, to drink as the fountain of living water in order to enjoy once again the embrace of the Father of mercies, to rediscover a life which is rich in significance, even if it is made up of the little and banal things of every day. But the feast today is, at the same time, an invitation to allow yourselves to be lead by Jesus among the “lepers” of our times in order to show mercy to them, to embrace those looked upon with suspicion and disdain and, perhaps, live and work beside us, in order to accept and forgive as we, in our turn, were accepted and forgiven.
While we, with all Franciscans, prepare ourselves to celebrate the VIII Centenary of the approval of the form of life of St. Francis by the Church, we also wish, just as the saint of Assisi did, to have ourselves reached by the Gospel of forgiveness and love; we wish to be reached by Jesus Christ in order for Him to transform our life into a song of mercy, to sing, with Mary, “the Almighty has done great things for me. Holy is His name, and His mercy reaches from age to age for those who fear Him”.