The Psalms on Walking

King David, Westminster Psalter

King David, Westminster Psalter

We turn now to the final strophe of Psalm 26.  God has probed our hearts, and found that we long for him and his dwelling place, not for the company of the wicked.  And in the second to last strophe, we have begged him not to leave us among the wicked.  Now comes the conclusion of this Psalm – and insight into all the Psalms:


“But I walk in my innocence;

Redeem me and have mercy on me.

My foot stands on a straight path;

In the congregations I will bless the Lord.”


The turn now is to our “walk”: after all the talk of what is in our hearts, we now set off to go there.


The juxtaposition of the first two lines is interesting – and recapitulates the structure of the whole Psalm.  “I am innocent | redeem me.”  If I am innocent, do I need redemption?

The answer, always the answer in the theology of the grace, is both-and.  Redemption, God’s grace and salvation, does not save us from the need to walk.  God’s grace allows us to walk.  And our walking doesn’t make us need God’s grace any less; it makes us see more deeply our need for his grace, for his redemption, to allow us to walk to our goal.

We must never oppose grace and works.  Grace allows us to work.


Work – the walk – is important, because ultimately we are important.  I just read today yet another confused attempt to sort out whether religion is “about us” or “about God.” This one was talking about liturgy, and said, essentially, it might be nice if we can participate, but liturgy is really “for God,” and it doesn’t matter if we participate.

This is nonsense – or, rather, it is a good insight very badly put.  In the moral realm it would raise more red flags.  It would say something like, God doesn’t need us to be righteous; he is righteous!

That’s true enough.  But God offers us righteousness.  That’s the purpose of morals, and the purpose of liturgy.  God doesn’t need any of it!  Rather he offers it to us.  It is he who allows us to walk: the walk of morality and the walk of liturgy.  It is ultimately “about us”: both liturgy and morality are about us being redeemed.

But it comes from God – only God can allow us to pray and to live a life ordered to God.  And it is ordered to God: liturgy is pointless unless we | pray to God.  And morality is pointless unless we are truly converted | to God.

And so it is important, at the end of all our prayers, to return to the theme of “walking.”  It makes little sense to say “I love your house,” or “leave me not among the wicked,” unless it bears fruit in the transformation of our lives, our “walk.”


Nonetheless, for all the importance of our walking, our Psalm 26, and all the Psalms, and all truly Christian spirituality, hems in these thoughts about walking with lots and lots of God talk.

Walking comes only at the end of the Psalm: only after our hearts are firmly set on our destination.

And Psalm 26 almost comically returns immediately from the one line about walking to lots of lines about God.  First, “redeem me!”  No, walking doesn’t mean I stop thinking about redemption.  It means I think more deeply about what redemption really means.

Then, “my foot stands on a straight path”: a recognition that my very ability to walk, the ground under my feet and the way forward, comes not from my walking but from God’s grace.  He puts me in the place where I can walk.

And finally, “in the congregations I will bless the Lord”: because my walking is ordered to Jerusalem.  I walk to the place of prayer.  That’s what our walk is all about: having our faces turned toward Jerusalem.


Walking is a helpful metaphor for thinking about the moral life.  Compare walking to earlier talk about our hands.  “I have washed my hands in innocence,” we said before.  And the wicked “have blood on their hands.”  But now we “walk in innocence.”

Both metaphors are important.  But walking emphasizes that we are going somewhere.  Indeed, if we think of our “works” purely in terms of our hands, we might think the point is that we make something for God.  Lucky him!

But to the contrary, what we are really making is ourselves.  Or in other words, what we are really “working” at is to move ourselves, to “walk,” to Jerusalem, to be in his presence.

What parts of your Christian “walk” are you tempted to think about without reference to God?  Are there ways you replace spirituality with moralism?

Third Sunday of Advent: “He Has Sent Me”

our lady of millenium

IS 61:1-2a, 10-11; LK 1:46-48, 49-50, 53-54; I THES 5:16-24; JN 1:6-8, 19-28

Each year, the third Sunday of Advent points us again to John the Baptist. In the year of Mark’s Gospel, which we have just begun, we also get a lot of John’s Gospel. This Sunday we get John’s version of “the voice of one crying out in the desert”: John’s take on last week’s theme. It is worth pondering from many perspectives.

The theme is the similarity and difference between John the Baptist and Jesus. We get a snippet from John’s fabulous prologue, then skip ahead to the beginning of the action, right after the prologue.


John’s prologue interrupts itself. He is talking about Jesus: “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not comprehended it.” And he will continue, “The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world.”

But John interrupts himself to talk about John the Baptist: “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came to bear witness to the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light.”

Now, this tells us something about John the Baptist – but also about John the Evangelist, and about all of us.

First, it emphasizes the difference. One purpose of John the Baptist is to show what Jesus is not. John is the great prophet. He calls to repentance. He proclaims the sovereignty of God. John is a great moral teacher. And one of his chief purposes is to show that Jesus is more than that.

John came to bear witness to the light – but Jesus is the true light, through whom we become not just enlightened, but, a few verses later in the prologue, “sons of God . . . born of God.” Jesus is more than a prophet, more than a moral teacher. John – and all moral teaching – is merely clearing the way for something vastly greater, “whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie.” (Like liberals, conservatives sometimes reduce Jesus to a moral scold.)


But on the other hand, John the Baptist is like Jesus. He does enlighten, does point the way. He does prepare us for the Lord, “so that all might believe through him.”

Our reading from Isaiah takes us into this likeness and dislikeness. “The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor” – says Isaiah. Yes: the spirit was on Isaiah; the Lord anointed him; God sent Isaiah to bring glad tidings – just as he sent John, too.

But this is also – and preeminently – a description of Jesus. Indeed, in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus begins his public preaching by applying this reading from Isaiah to himself: “And there was brought to him the book of the prophet Isaiah. And when he had opened the book, he found the place where it was written, The Spirit of the Lord is upon me” (Luke 4:17-18).

And the people are amazed: “they wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth. And they said, Is this not Joseph’s son?” (v. 22). They were surprised that Jesus took the mantle of Isaiah. We can be equally surprised that the mantle of Jesus was on Isaiah.


God has sent us, too, “to bring glad tidings to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners, to announce a year of favor from the LORD.” But like John the Baptist, he has called us not to preach ourselves, but Jesus: a year of favor from the Lord.

Like John the Baptist, we prepare for Jesus’s coming by being his heralds, by showing that he is the healer – he is the healer.

“He has clothed me with a robe of salvation” – He! “So will the Lord GOD make justice and praise spring up before all the nations” – the Lord! But if I love him, if I long for him, if I want to prepare the way for him, I am called to love that “justice and praise,” to bring his healing to others.


And so in our reading from First Thessalonians, Paul says, “Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophetic utterances.” The Spirit rests on us, too, sends us as prophets of Jesus.

“May the God of peace make you perfectly holy . . . . The one who calls you is faithful, and he will also accomplish it.” Holiness is his work. But he will do it. He clothes us in his mantle, to prepare us for his coming, and so help prepare the way in this world.

Do we carry the mantle of Jesus? Are we clear that it is his mantle, not ours? Do we point others to Christ?

The Apocalyptic St. Joseph

Guido_Reni_-_Saint_Joseph_and_the_Christ_Child_-_Google_Art_ProjectDuring the Advent season, our family follows a special devotion to St. Joseph, who prepared the way for coming of Christ. We do much of Advent by candlelight – at least dinner and Evening Prayer – to think about the the True Light coming into the darkness. To Evening Prayer we add the Litany of St. Joseph.

But maybe more important than the Litany, we put out our nativity set piece by piece. The first week it is just St. Joseph, wandering in the candle light, looking for a place for Christ. The second week he finds the empty manger. The third week – Gaudete Sunday – Mary appears at his side. And the fourth week, all the animals arrive, eagerly awaiting our joyful hope.

For me at least, the Litany serves primarily to help me ponder the image of St. Joseph, preparing the way.


But I find St. Joseph, wandering alone in the candlelight, also a fine image of the threefold coming. He is preparing for the birth of Christ. But he also seems to stand for the Church of the last age, awaiting the final coming of Christ. And so he helps us enter into the apocalyptic meaning of the everyday: that here and now, we wait for Christ to come.

Every day the Liturgy begins with Psalm 95: “if today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts,” else he will say, “they shall not enter into my rest.” Every day we are looking, listening, for the coming of Christ. Every day we are longing to enter into his rest.

The Greek word “apocalypse,” almost exactly translated by the Latin word “revelation,” does not mean “cataclysm” or “end of the world.” It means “removing” (apo-, re-) “the veil” (kalupsis, velatio). Apocalyptic literature, including especially the apocalypse, or “revelation” to St. John at the end of the Bible, is not primarily about the end of the world. It is about now. It draws away the veils that cover spiritual reality, so that we can see what’s really going on: the great spiritual warfare, between the Lamb and the Beast.

It shows that the real end time is now: not because the world is going to end tomorrow (though it might), but because the ultimate battle is already at work.


Or, to put it more positively, to show that we stand, today, with St. Joseph, preparing for the coming of Christ. The true battle is not really which side we will choose. The Anti-Christ is only a negation, the rejection of Christ. The true battle is whether we will accept Christ. Whether we will welcome him, make a place for him to come.

The final judgment will be nothing but gazing on the face of the poor Christ, the one who was pierced, the Lamb who was slain, and accepting him or not. And we prepare for that final judgment by the daily judgment: by welcoming or not welcoming his coming today. We welcome that coming in the Eucharist. But we welcome it, also, in the “least of these”: in Matthew 25, Jesus says that when he comes in glory, the “judgment,” our true acceptance of him in his final coming, will be based on a lifetime of accepting or rejecting him in the hungry, thirst, naked, sick, foreign, and imprisoned.

We prepare to welcome him in the final coming by welcoming him in the daily coming. And in Advent we are encouraged to think of those two comings in terms of his first coming: as a poor child, welcomed into the world by the poor man St. Joseph.


So who was St. Joseph? The Litany calls him “obedient and loyal.” The second word gives some depth to the first. He does what he is told by God’s messenger – but not just in blind obedience, but more deeply, in loyalty, faithfulness, love.

He is “lover of poverty.” He who wanders in the candlelight could run away from the call of Jesus. With Jesus, there will be no room for him in the inn. He will be an exile. But the measure of his loyalty, the measure of his love, is his embrace of that poverty: for where Jesus is, there is a treasure this world cannot offer.

And he is “husband of the Mother of God,” protector of Mary and of all virgins, of all that is delicate. He welcomes Christ not by being stern and cold, but by being tender, loving, loyal, by embracing the sweetness of Our Blessed Lady.

Let us have the strength to stand against the apocalyptic spirit of anti-Christ – by joining the tender loyalty of St. Joseph, lover of poverty, model of workers, guardian of all that is delicate and innocent.

What is the call of St. Joseph in your life this Advent?

Aparecida on “Suffering Faces that Pain Us”

brazil-popeToday we delve into the Aparecida document’s teaching on the “preferential option for the poor.”

Aparecida frames the question in terms of “Jesus at the service of life.” There are other ways to phrase it.  We can think about loving the Church, and then focusing on the parts of the Church that we find most difficult to love.  We can think about loving the image of God – the human nature taken up by Christ, designed for fulfillment by his divine nature – and focusing on the faces on which it is hardest for us to see that image: “Jesus in his most distressing disguise,” said Mother Teresa.

But Aparecida poses the question of “Jesus at the service of life.”  The whole third part of the document is “The Life of Jesus Christ for our Peoples.”  Do we believe that Jesus is for all people?  Do we believe that he truly brings life to all?  Do we believe that all can be saved?

Do we believe that Jesus brings the fullness of life?  Do we know that he can heal all ills, no matter how deep, and no matter what kind?  And do we live for that fullness of life, or do we prefer the pseudo-fullness of life without Christ?


In one of the most stirring passages of Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis wrote:

“I want to say, with regret, that the worst discrimination which the poor suffer is the lack of spiritual care. The great majority of the poor have a special openness to the faith; they need God and we must not fail to offer them his friendship, his blessing, his word, the celebration of the sacraments and a journey of growth and maturity in the faith. Our preferential option for the poor must mainly translate into a privileged and preferential religious care.

“No one must say that they cannot be close to the poor because their own lifestyle demands more attention to other areas.”

First: to say our lifestyle demands attention to other areas is to say that we find our happiness not in what Jesus offers, but in what man offers.  The poor are important precisely as those who are too difficult, and those who have little to offer us.  We would rather be with those who are easier, more fun.  But if Jesus is life, we don’t need to be so stingy.  We should fear that stinginess.

HomelessParis_7032101Second: do we see that “discrimination” of the lack of spiritual care?  If we really live for evangelization, let us evangelize those whom no one else cares to evangelize.  And let us not say that the poor are too difficult to evangelize.

The poor are a privileged place of encounter with Christ precisely because avoiding the poor and pursuing privilege, in all its forms, means denying Christ.


Francis goes on to say, “I fear that these words too may give rise to commentary or discussion with no real practical effect.”  This is a struggle.  It seems easy to talk about the poor, hard to do anything.


But Aparecida’s way of framing the question might provide a helpful middle ground. The section is entitled, “suffering faces that pain us”:


  1. Kingdom of God and Promoting Human Dignity
  2. Suffering Faces that Pain Us

i.      Street people in large cities

ii.      Migrants

iii.      Sick people

iv.      Addicts

v.      The imprisoned


Perhaps the language is a little saccharine, bleeding heart.  (Though remember that “bleeding heart” is first of all a description of Jesus.)  But being “pained” is the middle ground between just talking about things and doing things.  On a biological level and all the way up, pain is motivation to move.

So let us not stop with “commentary or discussion” – but let us begin there.  Let the faces of the poor pain us.


Aparecida helps to stimulate us by offering a concrete list.  “The poor” is pretty vague.  But think about migrants – take the time to contemplate their face.  They are people whom poverty has forced to leave their home, to go somewhere they do not know, where they often do not speak the language and may not be welcomed.  We can talk “immigration policy.”  But more importantly, let us spend time being pained by their suffering.

So too with addicts and the imprisoned.  Yes, on one level we can blame them.  But let us also see their suffering, the suffering of a broken life.  The first step towards reaching out – and, really, the heart of reaching out – is to love.  That begins with feeling the profound need of the poor: with letting their suffering faces pain us.

Mercy, misericordia, is a heart (cordis) stirred by other people’s misery.

Can we imagine Jesus bringing healing even to the suffering faces that pain us?  What would it do to our prayer life, and our active life, if we spent some time imaginging that healing?

The Immaculate Conception and the Gospel

mary cushing serpentToday’s feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary – “the Blessed Virgin Mary, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God, and in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, Saviour of the human race, was preserved free from every stain of original sin” – provides an excellent opportunity to review the central points of the Gospel as Catholics understand it.


1. It is possible to be without sin.  Mary never sinned.  Her heart never wavered.

Here’s a corollary that might help us take this doctrine seriously.  Recently, popular piety has focused a lot on Mary’s “yes” at the Annunciation.   Often this turns into drama about God wondering whether she would say no.

But the doctrine of Mary’s sinlessness means – among others things – simply that there was no chance of Mary saying no.  That’s not who she was.  Mary was as likely to say no as – less likely than – say, Pope Benedict is to break into a Lady Gaga song.  That’s just not who she is.

And that’s our destiny: we too are called to be without sin.  Heaven, in fact, is the place where there will no longer be any chance of our saying no: not because we don’t have the chance, or don’t have the freedom, but because that won’t be the kind of people we are.

2. “Without sin” really means “close to Jesus.”  Why Mary?  Well, we believe this doctrine because Scripture tells us she was “full of grace.”  Not because we think it had to be so – God did not need to make Mary full of grace – but because God tells us that in fact he did it.

Nonetheless, why did he do it this way?  To show that sinlessness is not really emptiness of sin, but fullness of grace.  And fullness of grace is really fullness of love: love of Jesus.  God made Mary the preeminent saint because Mary shows us that it’s all about loving Jesus.

3. It is human to be without sin.  Jesus was “like us in all things but sin.”  Often in our self-understanding that means “not like us at all.”  But the importance of his sinlessness is to show that sin is not what makes us human.  In fact, sin makes us less human.

And the reason for Jesus’s coming is precisely to redeem our humanity, to let us be full of grace.  Mary’s sinlessness shows the true face of redeemed humanity.

4. God wants us to be without sin.  He wants us to be full of love, set free from the bondage of sin.  That’s the point.  That’s why Jesus came.  Any idea of Jesus or of the Gospel that isn’t laser-focused on liberation from sin simply misses the whole point.

Mary is central to the Gospel – in a way, Mary is the Gospel – because the whole point is that Jesus actually does something for us, and what he does is to fill us with grace, fill us with love, and thus completely drive out our sin.  To talk about the Gospel without talking about this liberation is not to talk about the Gospel at all.

5. Jesus is the way.  But again, why Mary?  The wonderful long prayer “the breastplate of St. Patrick” says, “Christ be with me, Christ within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me.”  Jesus is above all with Mary (“the Lord is with you”) and within her, both in her heart and in her womb.

But notice too: he is behind her and before her.  “Before her” (or, in front of her) in the sense that grace causes her to gaze on him and love him.  But “behind her” in the sense that it is he who gives her that grace.  It is Christ who causes us to love him, Christ’s grace, the outpouring of Christ’s Spirit, that is the cause of our love: “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Rom 5:5).

6. Jesus is the beginning.   And that grace is the beginning.  God’s grace is given to us at Baptism – but God’s grace draws us to Baptism.  God’s grace is given to us when we profess faith – but God’s grace causes us to profess the faith in the first place.  Grace comes from touching Jesus – but it is grace that leads us to reach out to him in the first place.

We call this “prevenient” grace: the grace that “comes” (veniens) “before” (pre-) our choices.  Mary does not earn the grace of Christ.  She is given it at the first moment of our conception, before she does anything at all.

This is the Gospel.  Let us celebrate it with joy today!

Are you ever tempted to ways of thinking about your faith that are inconsistent with Mary’s Immaculate Conception?




Second Sunday in Advent: Repentance and the Realism of the Gospel 

our lady of millenium

IS 40:1-5, 9-11; PS 85:9-10, 11-12, 13-14;  20PT MK 1:1-83:8-14; 

In all three years of the lectionary, the first Sunday of Advent puts us in an eschatological key with its call to “watch, for you know not the hour.”  Only on the fourth and final Sunday do we turn to the Annunciation, and the immediate preparation for Christmas.

But the second and third Sundays give us John the Baptist as the key figure preparing us for Christ.  Week Three will gives us various other aspects of John, but in all three years, week two is the “voice crying out in the wilderness.”


John says, “prepare the way of the Lord.”  But that way is repentance.  This is key to understanding who Jesus is.

John distinguishes between his baptism and Jesus’s: “I have baptized you with water; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”  But alongside that difference is a similarity; indeed, in order to understand what the baptism with the Holy Spirit means, we need to understand the symbolism of John’s baptism, without the Holy Spirit.

The people “were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins.”  John’s baptism did not confer grace; it did not give the Holy Spirit; it did not wash away original sin.  What it did was acknowledge sin.  The people acknowledged they needed a new beginning.  We cannot understand the grace of sacramental baptism until we understand the symbolism of repentance in John’s non-sacramental baptism.

John was “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”  His message – and his baptism – was a call to repentance: metanoia, a change of heart.


This might sound strange, but “forgiveness” is one of my least favorite words in the English Bibles.  The word in Greek (and in Latin) is much more active: it’s not just that God “overlooks” our sins – I think that’s what “forgiveness” means to most English-speakers.  The Greek word is he “sends them away.”

It’s not just that we say, “I’m sorry,” and God says, “oh, it doesn’t matter.”  Rather, we say “God, I don’t want to be that way anymore” – repentance! metanoia! – and God gives us the grace to change.

The true theological meaning of “mercy” is not that God overlooks our sins – he loves us far too much to just “overlook” anything about us.  Mercy means he helps us: helps us to escape from sin.  Grace does not “cover” our sins, it heals us.

Because this is about repentance.  That’s why John is important: John can’t cause God to overlook their sins.  To the contrary, John tells them that their sin – and their repentance – matters.  He calls them to repent.

And this call to repentance, like the cry of conscience, is itself already a divine gift.  “Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way.”  It is God who sends us this prick of conscience, and we thank him for the new beginning.


Our first reading is the passage from Isaiah that John is quoting.  It is lovely – because conversion is lovely – but it is also brutal.

“Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God.”  But what is the comfort?  “Her guilt is expiated.”  What does that mean?  “Indeed, she has received from the hand of the LORD double for all her sins.”

Isaiah is speaking to a Jerusalem destroyed for her sins.  His comfort is that this penance is sufficient.  He is not saying, “oh, don’t worry, sin doesn’t matter.”  He is saying, “thank God, you have finally repented.”

So too, when he says, “Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill shall be made low,” this is beautiful, because conversion is beautiful – but it is a call to repentance, a little scary, if we don’t also see its beauty.  Every valley in your soul, and in the soul of your community: everything that is not right must be set right, before the approach of the King.  Repent!


Our reading from Second Peter explains this all by putting us back into an apocalyptic key.  God is coming!  When?  Not yet: “he is patient with you . . . that all should come to repentance.”  He delays because we are not yet holy.

Again, the reading gets scary: when the Lord comes, “the elements will be dissolved by fire, and the earth and everything done on it will be found out.”  Dies irae!

But the deeper point is not destruction, but rebuilding: “we await new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.”

We await the kingdom of God, and the King of righteousness.  How do we prepare for the coming of Christ?  By embracing that kingdom – by embracing his righteousness.  Repent!

What valleys and mountains impede the coming of Christ into your heart this Advent?

Consecrated Life and Marriage 

450px-Trappist_praying_2007-08-20_dtiIn the years after college, when I was discerning religious life, I went out to dinner one summer afternoon with a good friend, Betsy.  She too had been discerning religious life.  But like me, she was starting to wonder if that was her proper vocation.  She shared with me an insight that I think we should all live from.

She realized that what she was really longing for was not religious life, but heaven.  Later I would find that this is exactly what Vatican II and St. John Paul II say about religious life: it is the eschatological life, a life that lives more directly the desire for heaven.

It is essential to all other vocations that we be inspired by this witness.  We should all, on some level, be drawn to religious life, because it shows us our true heavenly vocation.


If I understand Canon Law, there are two kinds of consecrated life, “religious institutes” and “secular institutes.”  The distinction is that religious “pronounce public vows . . . and live a life in common” (CIC – i.e., Canon Law – 607§2) whereas secular consecrated “live in the world” (CIC 710).  Maybe more important, religious life “manifests (CIC 607§1) and gives “public witness” (ibid. §3).

To put it simply, religious are the kind of consecrated people who wear habits.  They make their consecration visible.

This is important to the Church: it serves the rest of us at least as much as it serves the religious themselves.  Most of us are not called to “look Christian” in such a visible way.  But we should all carry with us the sense that we are separated from the world; we are not the same as our non-Christian brothers and sisters; by our Baptism itself we are set apart for Christ.

The religious habit reminds us all of our consecration.  We need that.


All consecrated – religious and secular, visible and less visible – are defined by the three “evangelical counsels,” poverty, chastity, and obedience.  They are called evangelical because they are recommended in the Gospel and because they help to reveal the true meaning of the Gospel.

They are called counsels because they are not necessary – not commandments – but are just one way of living the Christian life.  Nonetheless, Christ counsels them, recommends them, because, in another sense, we are all called to embrace the true spirit of these counsels.  We all need the witness of consecrated life.


The counsel of Poverty reminds us that life is not lived for earthly goods.  No thing can make me happy – and the loss of no thing can separate me from my true happiness, who is God.

Canon Law almost seems to wink when it says religious should live poverty “both of things and of spirit.”  That is, the consecrated person can’t just say he is “spiritually” poor – consecrated life is about living out that spiritual poverty by actually giving up material possessions.

There is freedom here.  We are all called to discover that freedom.  We don’t need all the stuff!  And we do need the witness of those who freely give it up.

We with careers and families need more stuff than consecrated people do.  But we should look to them with some jealousy.  How good it would be to be more poor!


The counsel of chastity reminds us that God alone is our true Bridegroom.  There is some irony in calling the vow “chastity” – the virtue of chastity is not a counsel, it is a commandment, something we all must live.  Consecrated people go further, into celibacy.

But again, they have something to teach us.  Marriage itself depends, says John Paul II, on a kind of virginal soul.  “You are a fountain sealed, my sister, my bride,” says the Bridegroom in the Song of Songs.

To truly love another person – especially those we love most deeply, in our family – we must recognize they have depths which we cannot plumb.  They are made, finally, for God, not for us.  We love them most deeply when, like two members of a religious order, we kneel side by side in adoration of Christ.

We who are married are not called to virginity.  But we are called to this virginal spirit.


Finally, the counsel of obedience acknowledges that life isn’t about doing it my way.  How we need the witness of that freedom: the freedom to love, to embrace Christ, and not to be so worried about winning every argument.

We who are not under obedience don’t have that freedom.  We actually do have to make many more decisions for ourselves.  But let us long for the freedom of giving in, wherever we responsibly can.


We who are married need the witness of religious life, to call us to live our life in more radical love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Are there consecrated people in your life?  How do they call you deeper into sanctity?

Aparecida, Reclaiming “Social Justice” 

brazil-popeWe are in Part Three of the Aparecida Document: “The Life of Jesus Christ for Our Peoples.”  Having discovered Christ as life for ourselves, we turn to bring that life to the world we live in.

This is about evangelization: if we really believe that Christ is Life, we must share that Life with others.  But it is also about ourselves.  Ultimately, the question is whether we let Christ be life-giving to us.

In Chapter 7, we saw “the Mission of the Disciples in the Service of Full Life.”  Christ who is life does not just affect one part of life, but all of life.  He makes everything better: family, community, culture, the intellectual life, our appreciation of nature.


In chapter 8, we apply this teaching to the infamous words “social justice”:

1.Kingdom of God and Promoting Human Dignity

a. Kingdom of God, Social Justice, and Christian Charity

b.  Human Dignity

c. Preferential Option for the Poor and Excluded

d.  A Renewed Pastoral Ministry for Integral Human Promotion

e.  Globalization of Solidarity and International Justice

f.  Suffering Faces that Pain Us

“Social justice” has gotten a bad name among many Catholics.  It is vaguely associated with liberalism: both an unrestrained welfare state and wimpiness on the “social issues”: marriage, abortion, etc.  But look at that second part first: those who do not defend marriage don’t really care about social justice.  If you care about marriage, you believe in true social justice!  Don’t dismiss this phrase too quickly!

Nor does social justice mean an unrestrained welfare state.  In Centesimus Annus, St. John Paul II argued we might often oppose welfare systems precisely because we do care about social justice: because we do not think they “promote human dignity,” or the kingdom of God.

Listen when Pope Francis talks about the “right to work”.  Work is part of human dignity.  A welfare system that lets people sit on the couch all day watching television is a system that does not care about human dignity.

Let’s take back the words “social justice.”  Christians are supposed to “hunger and thirst for justice,” and they are supposed to be engaged in politics and in non-political social action.  “Social justice” doesn’t mean you have to vote for Hillary Clinton.


Chapter 8 poses the question in terms of the “Kingdom of God.”  What does God want for our social life?  What does it mean to pray “thy kingdom come”?  Ultimately, only God can bring about the true heavenly kingdom.  But if we are people who long for that kingdom, we must also be people who work for that kingdom, who choose for that kingdom, every day.

The first section of this chapter puts together “Kingdom of God, Social Justice, and Christian Charity.”  There are those terrifying words, “social justice” – but in a theological context.  Those who love as Christians love are moved to act, socially.  “Social” means politics, yes: we cannot separate our faith – or our love of neighbor – from our politics.  But it also means non-political action, in all the other ways we treat our neighbors.

What does true social justice want?  First, to “promote human dignity.”  To treat people like people.  Again, that doesn’t mean blind support for welfare, which sometimes treats people like mouths to feed, without dignity.  But it also doesn’t mean we can shrug our shoulders at the disadvantaged.  We are called to be creative: to look for ways, both in policy and outside of politics, to restore the human dignity of all people.

Aparecida goes on to speak of “integral human promotion.”  This is a phrase that comes from Paul VI’s great encyclical Populorum Progressio – a favorite encyclical of Benedict XVI’s, on which he based his Caritas in Veritate.  “Integral human development” means we promote all aspects of the person: we don’t just give them food stamps, we also worry about their soul, and their relationships, and their education, etc.  It means we feed the hungry, but also promote marriage, and education reform, and evangelization.  That’s real Catholic social justice.


We do this here at home, and also, in this globalized world, internationally.  In our politics, our economic choices, our travel, our education, and our prayers, we should work to discover the dignity of all people.  That doesn’t necessarily mean new rules: the main point is not that there’s now a ban on chocolate.  The main point is just that we should think about other people, including people far away.

Finally, we should think especially about “the poor and excluded” – because it is they who most need our aid, they whose dignity is least respected, and they whom we are most inclined to forget.  Next week we will consider in greater depth the “suffering faces that pain us,” and call us to mercy.

How does your faith impact your politics?  Your view of society?

John Paul II on the Importance of Consecrated Life

Last Sunday we began the liturgical year 2015. Pope Francis has declared this a “Year of Consecrated Life,” a year to think about the importance of religious life. We will explore that importance throughout this year.

Today let us begin with a quotation from St. John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio. John Paul is often called the “pope of the family.” No one has done so much to declare the dignity of the married vocation as John Paul. But that should not make us forget that, as John Paul himself says, “the Church, throughout her history, has always defended the superiority of this charism [of consecrated life] to that of marriage, by reason of the wholly singular link which it has with the Kingdom of God.”

Religious life reminds us that what marriage symbolizes is the marriage of the soul, and the Church, with Christ. It reminds us that marriage is at the service of holiness – that marriage is not a replacement for radical consecration, but a place where it is called out. We who are married need the witness of religious life to call us deeper into the true meaning of our vocation.

Let us pray for and encourage vocations to consecrated life. And let us keep ourselves close to them, that we may always be inspired by their necessary witness.

pope-john-paul-IIVirginity or celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom of God not only does not contradict the dignity of marriage but presupposes it and confirms it. Marriage and virginity or celibacy are two ways of expressing and living the one mystery of the covenant of God with His people. When marriage is not esteemed, neither can consecrated virginity or celibacy exist; when human sexuality is not regarded as a great value given by the Creator, the renunciation of it for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven loses its meaning. . . .

In virginity or celibacy, the human being is awaiting, also in a bodily way, the eschatological marriage of Christ with the Church, giving himself or herself completely to the Church in the hope that Christ may give Himself to the Church in the full truth of eternal life. The celibate person thus anticipates in his or her flesh the new world of the future resurrection.

By virtue of this witness, virginity or celibacy keeps alive in the Church a consciousness of the mystery of marriage and defends it from any reduction and impoverishment.

Virginity or celibacy, by liberating the human heart in a unique way, “so as to make it burn with greater love for God and all humanity,” bears witness that the Kingdom of God and His justice is that pearl of great price which is preferred to every other value no matter how great, and hence must be sought as the only definitive value. It is for this reason that the Church, throughout her history, has always defended the superiority of this charism to that of marriage, by reason of the wholly singular link which it has with the Kingdom of God. . . .

Christian couples therefore have the right to expect from celibate persons a good example and a witness of fidelity to their vocation until death. Just as fidelity at times becomes difficult for married people and requires sacrifice, mortification and self-denial, the same can happen to celibate persons, and their fidelity, even in the trials that may occur, should strengthen the fidelity of married couples.

-St. John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio, “On the Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World”

First Sunday in Advent: Jesus Prepares Us to Meet Him

our lady of millenium

IS 63:16b-17, 19b; 64:2-7; PS 80:2-3, 15-16, 18-19; 1 COR 1:3-9; MK 13:33-37

Our Gospel for the First Sunday of Advent sets the theme for the season:  “It is like a man traveling abroad.  Watch, therefore; you do not know when the Lord of the house is coming.”

Perhaps you are familiar with St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s famous sermon on “the three advents.”  There was the first coming of Christ, in Bethlehem.  There will be the final coming of Christ, on the last day.  And there is his daily coming, today.

Advent calls us to think of all three: to prepare to celebrate his first coming at Christmas by also thinking of his final coming, and by living each day in preparation for his coming.


The Gospel reading, from Mark (we now begin Mark’s year in the Lectionary), gives three fine details.

First, it says, “He leaves home and places his servants in charge, each with his own work,” but then focuses in on a particular work, “and orders the gatekeeper to be on the watch.”  We are told especially to identify with the gatekeeper: “Watch, therefore.”

But both in the parable and in our lives, the gatekeeper’s job bleeds into all jobs.  He watches for the coming of the Lord – but so too must everyone else, each in their own work.

In the same way, we are not only called to be gatekeepers.  In this life we are called to do much more than sit and wait.  We are “each with his own work.”  Rather, in our work, in all the particularities of the life Christ has given us, we are to be preparing for his coming.  Not by setting aside our lives, but by living them fully.


A second angle on the same thing: Christ is “the Lord of the house.”  Our lives belong to him.  Our houses (which we must therefore make fair as we are able), our children (whom we must raise for him), our jobs (which we must do as if working in his household), and everything else.

The coming of the Lord doesn’t mean this life doesn’t matter.  If he is “the Lord of the house,” the we must live our vocations more deeply, preparing for him.


And a third angle: “you do not know when.”  We could say there are two kinds of apocalpyticisms, a doctrinaire one and a moral one.  “Doctrinaire apocalypticism” thinks the point is what we do know.  We have secret knowledge.  We know there will be a last day.  (Notice that Christ himself is not that important to doctrinaire apocalypticism.)  And sometimes people – more often Protestants, but sometimes Catholics too – get really excited about predicting when.

But when he says, “you do know when,” he teaches a kind of “moral apocalypticism.”  Oh, it’s true, we believe he will indeed come, to judge the living and the dead.  But the point of this teaching is not that we know, the point is how we live.  We are called to live like we don’t know when, so that we are prepared every day for the Lord of the household to come.


Sunday’s first two readings teach, above all, that we need Jesus himself to prepare us for his coming.  His coming at Bethlehem – and his giving of the sacraments – works in us to prepare for his coming today, and on the last day.

The Psalm response speaks a key doctrine of grace: “Lord, make us turn to you.”  That fabulous little line contains both sides of grace.  On the one hand, grace is God’s work in us.  He makes us turn.  We can almost blame him for not turning us.  We can’t do it on our own.

But we do do it.  “Make us turn.”  God’s grace doesn’t work outside of us, it works in us.  It causes us to turn.  Jesus, cause me to love you; cause me to choose you; cause me to seek you and prepare for you.


So Isaiah speaks those unspeakable words, found throughout the Bible: “Why do you let us wander . . . and harden our hearts?”  We so desperately need God’s grace that we almost blame God for our failing.  Without him we can do nothing (John 15:5).

And he goes on at length about our hopelessness without God.  “Yet, O Lord, you are the father; we are the clay and you are the potter.”  “You wrought awesome deeds we could not hope for.”


But once Christ has come, Paul says, in the opening to First Corinthians, “in him you were enriched in every way . . . not lacking in any spiritual gift.”

And he puts this precisely in our Advent context: “as you wait for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ.  He will keep you firm to the end.”

We live always in preparation for his coming – and in thanksgiving that he himself works in us to prepare us.

What does the Lord of the household want you to be preparing?