Pope Francis on the Renewal of the Church

The following paragraphs are from Pope Francis’s address to the young people of Korea and Asia. He gives a vision for rediscovering the heart of the Church.

That heart is in love: love of God leading to love of neighbor, and God’s love for us. True love of God causes us to draw close to one another, and close to those who are most in need of God’s love. We cry out, “Lord, help me,” and as we receive his love, we learn to reach out to those who cry out for help.

This doesn’t mean setting aside beautiful liturgy, hard moral teachings, or anything else that marks “conservative” Catholicism. It means finding the heart of those things, which is in love of God and love of neighbor. Love draws us to worship. Love draws us to live the fullness of the moral law. But fancy worship and stern moralism without love simply isn’t Christianity.

Let us attend to the details – but also to what is essential.

pope francisAs young Christians, whether you are workers or students, whether you have already begun a career or have answered the call to marriage, religious life or the priesthood, you are not only a part of the future of the Church; you are also a necessary and beloved part of the Church’s present! You are the Church’s present!

Keep close to one another, draw ever closer to God, and with your bishops and priests spend these years in building a holier, more missionary and humble Church – a holier, more missionary and humble Church! – a Church which loves and worships God by seeking to serve the poor, the lonely, the infirm and the marginalized.

In your Christian lives, you will find many occasions that will tempt you, like the disciples in today’s Gospel, to push away the stranger, the needy, the poor and the broken-hearted. It is these people especially who repeat the cry of the woman of the Gospel: “Lord, help me!”. The Canaanite woman’s plea is the cry of everyone who searches for love, acceptance, and friendship with Christ.

It is the cry of so many people in our anonymous cities, the cry of so many of your own contemporaries, and the cry of all those martyrs who even today suffer persecution and death for the name of Jesus: “Lord, help me!” It is often a cry which rises from our own hearts as well: “Lord, help me!”

Let us respond, not like those who push away people who make demands on us, as if serving the needy gets in the way of our being close to the Lord. No! We are to be like Christ, who responds to every plea for his help with love, mercy and compassion.




17 AUGUST 2014

Liturgy in the Psalms

King David, Westminster Psalter

King David, Westminster Psalter

“I love the house of your dwelling, O Lord

And the place of the tabernacle of your glory.”

As we enter into the symbols of the Psalms, this week let us take a few minutes to discover the “tabernacle” they are discussing, the heart of the prayer world of the Old Testament, and the ultimate symbol of the prayer world of the New.

“Tabernacle,” of course, is the word for “tent.” But it is specifically used for the tent, described beginning in Exodus, that would be the principle place of Israel’s worship.

We now use tabernacle to describe where the Eucharist is kept, but that usage is relatively recent. As late as the sixteenth century, it was more typically called the “sacrarium.” It is interesting, then, to see the Tradition so intentionally in embracing the language of the Old Testament: it is supposed to be an explicit reference to the Psalms.


God dictated the construction and liturgy of the Tabernacle in the second half of Exodus (also Leviticus). When Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem, it was to the same specifications as the previous Tabernacle; all that changed was that it was no longer moveable, and thus no longer built of moveable materials.

Both the Tabernacle and the Temple had the congregation and priests facing west. Ratzinger’s liturgical writings have brought a renewed discussion of ad orientem worship, the Christian practice of facing the rising sun. But the Old Testament worship faced the setting sun.

This is more dramatic considering that the Temple was in the northeastern part of Jerusalem. It would be more practical for people to approach from the West – but it was important to them to have the worshippers face west.

It is dramatic to imagine that experience of orientation: of standing outside, with the sun rising at their back, and then looking into the evening. Worship in the Temple was dramatic. Sometimes to moderns it seems obscure to talk about the relationship between the sun and our worship. But for the Israelites, natural symbols like this were a vivid part of worship.

In this environment how could you not think of the sun as a symbol? How could you not think that Israel’s worship was bound up with the passing away of the world, as you looked into the sunset?


Outside the central building of the Temple, in the courtyard to the east, was a great altar, on which sacrifices were burned. There were three principle forms of sacrifice.

A holocaust, or burnt offering, was entirely consumed in the flame: a sign that God alone is to be worshipped. The animals sacrificed were all animals worshipped by neighboring religions. Here they were offered in the fire, as a sign that God alone is to be worshipped. Imagine the drama!

A second kind of sacrifice was the thank offering, or free will offering. These were freely chosen, something given to God as a sign of gratitude. Because this was a celebratory offering, some was kept for a picnic for the worshippers. Other parts were given to the priests, as a sign of worship being offered in union with the temple. The central parts, the fat and the blood, were offered in the fire.

And the third kind of sacrifice was the sin offering. An animal was offered as a sign of a sin committed: a vivid experience of our sin being consumed by worship. Here, some was burned and some was offered to the priests, as a reminder that we are reconciled through our participation in the Temple. But none was taken for the worshippers to eat: we do not celebrate our sin.

Finally, there were special provisions made for the poor, so that those who could not afford to offer precious animals could still bring a sacrifice to the Temple. They offered wheat or pigeons: because pigeons were very easy to come by.


This is a very minimal introduction to Temple worship. Let it simply introduce us to the way of worship of the Old Testament.

It was intensely communal: true worship binds us together into the people of worship. The truest image of the Church is found in the people of Israel coming together to worship in the Temple.

It was intensely symbolic – and human. True worship does not leave our humanity behind, but draws it in. The symbols were meant to make worship more real – just as, in the sacraments, we come to God not through vague disembodied aspirations, but through our physical, human gestures.

The worship of Israel ended with Jesus, in whom it was fulfilled. But it is a reminder of how intensely human, and how intensely God-focused, our worship is meant to be. Let us love God’s holy Tabernacle!

How could your prayer better draw in your humanity?

Twenty-Sixth Sunday: Believe in Repentance

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

EZ 18:25-28; PS 25:4-5, 8-9, 10, 14; PHIL 2:1-11; MT 21:28-32

Our readings this Sunday focus us on the possibility of repentance.

The prophet Ezekiel shows the life-and-death necessity of repentance: “When someone virtuous turns away from virtue to commit iniquity . . . he must die.” There’s a middle part of the sentence that I’ve left out, but don’t miss the conclusion: iniquity, says Ezekiel, leads to death: spiritual death, ultimate death.

Whereas he who “does what is right and just . . . shall surely live, he shall not die.” Ezekiel is making life-and-death claims.

Now, there’s a bigger narrative that surrounds this. The people say, “The LORD’s way is not fair!” The Hebrew word for fair is rooted in the idea of balance: the old translations, both English and Latin, have “equal.” Does God’s giving life and death according to righteousness “balance” with the reality?

God says, through Ezekiel, that the Lord is very fair. He who turns away from life receives death.

The old Greek translation for “fair” here is about being “straight.” We continue straight on. He who aims at destruction ends in destruction. He who aims at life finds life.

What is “fair” is for God to give us what we ask for. We cannot rest on our laurels: we have to head straight in the direction we want to go.


In the reading from Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells of the two sons, one who changed his mind and did what his father asked, one who changed his mind and did not do what his father asked. “Which of the two did the father’s will?” The first.

But the second part of the reading takes us a step further. “When John came to you in the way of righteousness,” Jesus says, “you did not believe him; but tax collectors and prostitutes did.”

The word “repentance” hangs over this whole reading. It is the word Jesus uses for the son who changed his mind and does the right thing. (He does not use it for the son who doesn’t do the right thing.)

And “repentance” is the key word that goes with John the Baptist. After the infancy narrative, Matthew’s Gospel begins, “In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea, and saying, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt 3:1-2). And John gets killed for telling King Herod to repent of his marriage to his brother’s wife.

John’s “way of righteousness” is the call to repent, and turn in the right direction.


But the really interesting word here is that Jesus says they “did not believe him.” Believe? Perhaps he means, “believe that you need to repent.” But then he says that “when you saw” that the sinners had repented, “you did not later change your minds” (it’s a slightly different word, related to repentance) “and believe him.”

The conversion of the prostitutes and tax collectors is evidence that should have made them change their minds and believe John’s message. Evidence of what? This is evidence that conversion is possible.


The key figure is Jesus.

The reading from Philippians, working up to the Christ hymn, begins, “If there is any encouragement in Christ, any solace in love, any participation in the Spirit, any compassion and mercy . . . .”

All these words are rich. Christ is the encourager, the consoler: it’s the same word used for the Holy Spirit, Paraclete, and for what those who mourn receive in the Beatitudes, consolation. He comes to our aid. He helps us.

He nurtures us with his love. He gives us a “participation” – a koinonia, or communio – in his Spirit. He feels compassion for our plight: the word speaks of visceral feelings, in his gut. And he has “mercy”: actually “pity,” for the death-dealing plight of our unrighteousness.

Jesus comes to our aid. This is why we “believe” in repentance. It seems impossible to turn the right way, impossible to become good when we are so wicked. But look at the sinners who have converted, and believe: Jesus comes to our aid, and leads us to the path of life.


The reading from Philippians is long, and endlessly wonderful. We don’t have space to do it justice.

Let us only note the key word, which gets translated “attitude,” “mind,” “thinking.” The Greek seems to have to do with “putting reins on our mind.”

We are to have the same attitude of mind as Jesus. Because he has compassion on our sins, we can have compassion. Because we believe that he can heal, we must live as if he can heal: as if he can heal us, and as if he really can heal those around us.

Are there places in your life – in yourself or in those around you – where you have too little faith in Jesus’s power to give the gift of repentance?

Guardian Angels

guardian_angel_boy_500October 2 is the memorial of the Guardian Angels. I hope I will not offend you, readers, if I say I find this an awkward and potentially over-sentimentalized feast. What exactly is a guardian angel, and what do they mean for us?

A little serious theology of the angels can awaken us to the significance of this feast, but let us begin with some of the manifestations of devotion to the guardian angels.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 18:10).

From this verse the Church concludes, “Beside each believer stands an angel as protector and shepherd leading him to life” (CCC 336, quoting St. Basil the Great).

The funeral liturgy concludes with a hymn for the carrying of the body to the grave (often replaced by something more modern): “May the angels lead you into paradise; may the martyrs receive you when you come, and may they lead you into the holy city Jerusalem. May the chorus of angels receive you, and with the poor man Lazarus, may you have eternal rest.”

That hymn doesn’t refer to your guardian angel in particular, but does emphasize the role the angels play in caring for us – and leading us.

From this also comes devotions like greeting guardian angels: both acknowledging the presence of your angel, and looking over the shoulder, as it were, to the guardian angel of each person you meet. I have to confess that I find such devotions somewhat off-putting.


We also get the children’s prayer:

 Angel of God,

My guardian dear,

To whom God’s love

Commits me here,

Ever this day,

Be at my side,

To light and guard,

Rule and guide.


Personally, I never took this prayer very seriously. It seemed to me a classic sentimentalization both of children and of their angels. It’s not that I didn’t believe in angels, including guardian angels. It’s just that I don’t find it helpful to make everything sugar sweet.

Then I came across the same prayer, in Latin, in the writings of the fourteenth-century theologian and prophet of penance, St. Vincent Ferrer, OP:

 Ángele Dei,

qui custos es mei,

me tibi commissum pietáte supérna,

hodie illúmina, custódi, rege et gubérna.


The sugar-sweet children’s prayer turns out to be a remarkably literal translation of a prayer used by an oldtime preacher who is about as unsweet as can be imagined. Maybe there’s more to this devotion. . . .


The key is in what we discussed last week, the intellectual nature of the angels. Note that in the verse from Matthew we quoted above, it says not only that the little ones have angels, but that “in heaven” – it repeats that word – “their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven.”

So too notice that when the Archangel comes to Mary, he says, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news” (Luke 1:19).

Angels can move matter. My five-year-old once fell down an entire flight of stairs without a bruise or scratch. We all have that kind of guardian angel story.

But that’s not the main thing angels do. They see God – they know God – and they tell us the good news they see. They tell us of his goodness, and where to find it.


guardian angelLook again at that (apparently) sugary guardian angel prayer.

 Be at my side,

To light and guard,

Rule and guide.

They are “at our side” not primarily to protect us when we fall down the stairs, but to “illuminate” us. This is the way they “guard” us: not primarily by physically fending off physical evils, but by spiritually warning us of spiritual evils. They “rule and guide” us by showing us the path we should walk – and by reminding us of the goal we seek. They protect us from more dangerous falls than down the stairs.

The heart of traditional devotion to the guardian angels is not in “be at my side to guard me,” but in “illuminate me.” “God, grant me light; let me see.” We can pray the words of the blind man in the Gospel, “Domine, ut videam”: let me see (Luke 18:41).

But we can acknowledge, too, that God so loves us that he grants us light, grants us even illuminators, with infinitely more powerful eyes than ours, to help us see what we are too weak to notice.

How could you practice devotion to the guardian angels?

Aparecida on Respecting the Process of Formation

brazil-popeLast week we looked at the fundamental elements that must be present in every step of formation: the encounter with Jesus Christ, conversion, discipleship, communion, and mission. But Aparecida then goes on to discuss the steps, listing five “criteria” for good formation:

1. Comprehensive, kerygmatic, and ongoing formation

2. A formation attentive to diverse dimensions

     a. The human and communal dimension

     b. The spiritual dimension

     c. The intellectual dimension

     d. The pastoral and missionary dimension

3. A formation that is respectful of process

4. A formation that makes provision for accompanying the disciples

5. A formation in the spirituality of missionary action

We need to remember these aspects of process if we are to properly form both ourselves and others. Let us think about how we can promote better formation in the Church.


The first criterion, “comprehensive, kerygmatic, and ongoing,” is like “length, breadth, and height”: it ensures that formation is in no way flat.

Once again, Aparecida insists on the kerygma, the “basic Gospel message”: let nothing in formation leave behind the simple proclamation that Jesus saves. There is nothing “comprehensive” or “ongoing” about a formation that leaves behind the heart of the message. We could call this the dimension of “depth.”

But formation also needs to have the other dimensions. “Ongoing” means it needs to continue through time – perhaps the “length” of our life. Not just at the beginning, nor just in the middle, but all the way through.

That makes “comprehensive” like the dimension of “height”: formation needs to attend to all areas of life.


The next criterion considers four key areas: “human and communal, spiritual, intellectual, and pastoral and missionary.”

These criteria come from St. John Paul II’s exhortation on priestly formation, Pastores Dabo Vobis. It’s nice, on the one hand, to consider them in relation to priests. We don’t want priests who are pastoral but can’t think, who are spiritual but lacking in human formation, or vice versa. A good priest must be “good” spiritually, intellectually, pastorally, and humanly.

And so too must the rest of us be. This is Aparecida’s first contribution to Pastores Dabo Vobis’s four “pillars” of priestly formation: priests need formation, yes, but so do the rest of us! And we need our faith to penetrate all aspects of our life: not just one, but all four.


But Aparecida makes another great advance on Pastores Dabo Vobis, with a couple extra words.

Pastores says “human” – Aparecida adds “and communal,” as it to define what human formation means. It doesn’t mean you should learn to play an instrument – or not exactly, anyway. It means you should learn how to be part of a community, how to deal with other people. That’s the heart of “human” formation.

And to “pastoral” Aparecida adds “missionary.” Perhaps we see here best of all what Aparecida (and Pope Francis) mean by the insistence on this word. We all know that “pastoral” can often mean wishy-washy. But that isn’t the real meaning of the word. A truly pastoral priest – or layman – is not someone who leaves people in their ignorance and sins, but someone who is so passionate to share the light of the Gospel that he’s willing to be patient.


The next two sections say that real formation needs to be “respectful of process” and “make provision for accompanying the disciples.”

“Respectful of process” means that formation needs to recognize that it’s dealing with people in need of formation. In intellectual formation (my day job), we have to realize that the people in our class don’t yet know what we have to teach them. We have to be patient, begin at the beginning, build upwards.

We have to be gentle, recognizing that it’s hard to learn what you don’t know. But for the same reason, we have to be persistent: since they don’t yet know what they ought to know, it’s up to us to push them to see new things.

But the same dynamic is true in all areas of formation: formation of ourselves or of others; formal or informal; intellectual, spiritual, missionary-pastoral, and human-communal. In working on our own human formation, for example, we need to be patient with ourselves – and also aware that we have a long way to go, and need to keep moving forward.


And so we need to “make provision for accompanying the disciples.” We need to accompany those in formation both for its own sake – because Christianity is inherently communal – and because formation, by its very nature, is something we need help with.

We who care about the spiritual life need to think about how we can accompany our neighbors through their lifelong formation.

And so we must form ourselves and others “in the spirituality of missionary action,” always going out, always leading ourselves further by also trying to lead others more deeply into the love of Christ.

How could our community better form its members? In what areas could we personally help the formation process?

St. Vincent Ferrer on Living Poverty

Pope Francis has called for a Church that is “poor, and for the poor.” Somehow that comes across as liberal, when in fact it is profoundly traditional.

The following is an excerpt from St. Vincent Ferrer, the great Dominican missionary of the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. In this chapter, he is discussing love of neighbor – and somehow all of his points come down to an embrace of poverty.

His words are so provocative, I hardly know how to introduce them. In short, he teaches us we should be much more worried than we typically are about how materialism gets in the way of love. Materialism that makes us focus on things rather than people, and materialism that view people in terms of their things – so that we Americans are strangely unwilling to preach the Gospel to anyone but the rich and powerful.

I should add that he lived at a time of horrific poverty: no one who can read these words on the internet can dare to tell St. Vincent that we need to make sure to take care of ourselves.

st-vincent-ferrer-preachingFour dispositions are needed:

1. To consider yourself a stranger on the earth, so that whatever you possess therein may appear to you to belong to others rather than to yourself, that you may feel no more attachment to them than you would to the possessions of a person who lives far from you.

2. To regard a superabundance of things for your own use as hurtful to you as the subtlest poison, and to view it with as much alarm as you would a rocky sea on which it is difficult to escape being shipwrecked.

3. To accustom yourself, in the use of things that are necessary, always to feel the effects of poverty and want, poverty being the mysterious ladder by which we safely ascend to heaven, to be possessed of eternal wealth.

4. To shun the pomp of the rich and powerful ones of the earth, without, however, disdaining them, and to let it be your glory to associate with the poor, your joy to remember them, to see and converse with them, however denuded of everything, neglected, and despised they may be, since, by these very circumstances they are the living expression of Jesus Christ; they are kings, whose society should be to you a special honor and a subject of great joy.

-St. Vincent Ferrer, OP (1350-1419), “On the Dispositions that We Ought to Have in Regard to Our Neighbor,” in Treatise on the Spiritual Life

The Psalms on Jerusalem

King David, Westminster Psalter

King David, Westminster Psalter

“Lord, I love the dwelling place of your house.”

Last week we considered this cry of the Psalms generally, in relation to God’s revealing his name to us. But this week let us examine it specifically, in terms of the place the Psalm has in mind.

In the Psalms, everything leads up to Jerusalem. This might be the most important image the Psalms give us. For though the “Jerusalem which is now,” here below, in the Middle East, “is in bondage with her children, the Jerusalem which is above,” the heavenly city, “is free” (Gal 4:25-26).

The heavenly Jerusalem is, for the Christian, the place of all our desires. “You have come to mount Zion, and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem,” says the Letter to the Hebrews – and then it describes that city: its citizens, its God who dwells in it, and its worship: “and to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus the mediator,” or high priest, “of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling, that speaks better things than that of Abel” (Heb 12:22-24. The new Jerusalem is based on the vision of the old Jerusalem, the Jerusalem of the Psalms.

This is at the culmination of the New Testament, in the final vision, in Revelation: “he carried me away in the spirit to a great and high mountain, and showed me that great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God” (Rev 21:10). The great reward, in the last chapter of the Bible, is “that they may approach the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city” (22:14). The great threat is that “God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city” (22:19).

So we should pray with the Psalmist, “The LORD loves the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob. . . . All my springs are in thee” (Psalm 87:2, 7). All my springs: the living water, the only water of life, flows from that city on high.


Three key points the Psalms teach us about Jerusalem – the earthly Jerusalem, as image of the heavenly – are about worship, community, and election.

First, worship. Jerusalem is the place of the Temple. There seems to be some debate about how the words are used, but Mount Zion seems to refer to the hill – one of five, it seems – within Jerusalem where the Temple stood. (It’s possible it also refers to the greater mountain atop which all of Jerusalem is found.)

The people of Israel prayed in their towns, of course, in their houses and synagogues and everywhere else. But the Temple was the place of sacrifice, the place of true worship. To love Jerusalem is to love the Temple, to love true worship. In all our prayers here below we long to go up to that perfect place of prayer, God’s chosen place to meet with us.

Already we have an image of this in our churches, and the Mass, and even the Liturgy of the Hours. We long to join in the perfect worship, the song of the Angels, the song of the Body of Christ.


Second, community. All Israel comes together in that city. “How good and pleasant it is for brothers to dwell in unity” (Ps 133:1). Of course it is good to have unity and love in our homes, and with our neighbors.

But the true unity is the unity of the whole Church. It is this unity that we long for. Our longing for Jerusalem, for the whole Church gathered around the throne of God, is what motivates our work for unity in our home, in our neighborhoods, and in our parishes. Think globally, act locally: love of Jerusalem motivates love of neighbor.


Third: election. The people of Israel celebrate being part of God’s chosen people. To be part of that people is precisely not to think that you are the special one. It is sheer gift, God who has given you membership in his people, not us who have claimed it for ourselves.

He has shown us where he dwells. He has come to dwell in our midst: given us a holy city. Let our hearts be always there. Let love of that city motivate our every action and every word:

“If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand be cut off.

If I do not remember you, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth;

If I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy” (Ps 137:5-6).

Are there ways you find the heavenly city unappealing? How could you better set your heart on Jerusalem?

Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time: There is Enough

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

IS 55:6-9; PS 145: 2-3, 8-9, 17-18; PHIL 1:20c-24, 27a; MT 20:1-16a

A theological education does not replace Scripture. It just gives you tools to read Scripture better: it warns you of possible pitfalls, and sometimes suggests important themes you might not have noted.

This all comes in handy with this Sunday’s readings. My Thomistic education taught me to beware of any over-emphasis on the will. It also helped me appreciate the real meaning of “the common good.”


Our Gospel this Sunday is the parable of the workers in the vineyard. “These last ones worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who bore the day’s burden and the heat.” “Take what is yours and go. What if I wish to give this last one the same as you? Or am I not free to do as I wish with my own money.”

So the landowner is “free” to do what he wants with his money. (Actually, the Greek is just “his own stuff”; this isn’t specifically about money.) We could take the lesson to be that God arbitrarily spreads his wealth. We could gloss this over with mercy, and say that God freely welcomes others, but we could still end up focusing on God’s radical freedom.

But we should go a step deeper, and see that the freedom in question is God’s freedom to be generous. The landowner has enough that he doesn’t need to be stingy: he can pay people a full day’s wage even if they haven’t earned it, because he has the wealth.

That is the heart of God’s mercy: his super-abundance. He can afford to be generous.


The other two readings give us two applications of this lesson.

Isaiah says, “Let the scoundrel forsake his way . . . let him turn to the LORD for mercy; to our God, who is generous in forgiving.”

At the heart of that mercy is God’s generosity, and his superabundance. God does not need to keep accounts with us. He does not need to get us back for our sins, because we can never hurt him. He is self-sufficient. He has enough.

That doesn’t mean everyone goes to heaven. We do not have enough! We need the wealth that he shares with us. We need his mercy, which does not only spare punishment, but shares his riches, and transforms us. We need to receive from him – and so the scoundrel must forsake his way. But when he does, the Lord always has enough grace to save him.

That’s why “my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways.” We live in the realm of scarcity, where if I give you half my apple, there’s that much less apple for me. That’s not how it is with God. He gives us himself, and remains infinitely rich.


But where Isaiah talks about the sinner turning to God, our reading from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians talks about how the righteous turns to God. “To me life is Christ, and death is gain.” “I long to depart this life and be with Christ, for that is far better. Yet that I remain in the flesh is more necessary for your benefit.”

Paul is not afraid of suffering. He is not afraid of death, because if he loses everything – and death is the loss of absolutely everything – but has Christ, he has lost nothing. Because Christ is infinite riches, infinite happiness. Paul has nothing to fear from death.

But neither has he anything to fear from life. He can give himself entirely to others. His willingness to die puts a nice spin on this: life is not something he clings to for his own sake, but something he gladly pours out for others.

Paul can afford to be generous, because Christ is generous with him. If God is our sufficiency, we never need to be stingy. If my kids are needy (as they often are!) and I am left to myself, I need me time, I need to focus on my own happiness sometimes, I need to take care of myself – if I have not Christ. But if I have Christ, if I possess infinite riches, if I know the happiness that is God alone, then I don’t need to be stingy, any more than God needs to be stingy.

This comes out also in the parable of the workers in the vineyard. “When the first came, they thought that they would receive more” – they wanted to hoard! But the Master gives us our daily wage, and our daily bread. That’s all we need – if we know that he will be there for us tomorrow, and the day after, and forever, to be our sufficiency.

Are there places in your life where you don’t think God is sufficient to care for you?

What is an Angel?

archangelsWith the feast of the Archangels (Michael, Raphael, and Gabriel) on September 29, and the Guardian Angels on October 2, September is a good time to think about angels. What are they? What do they have to do with us? This week we will learn about angels generally. Next week we will learn more about Guardian Angels.

The angels seem a pretty uninspiring meditation. The tradition says they are “immaterial intellects,” disembodied minds. It’s hard to say which word is less exciting. Immateriality seems doubly alienating: they have nothing to do with us, but somehow they make us feel bad about our bodies. And intellects sounds like something intellectuals talk about to alienate normal people.

On the other hand, the artistic world gives us some grossly bodily pictures. The tradition started painting them with wings to show that they are not bound to place – but since we are, and since you can’t really picture something that is nowhere, the wings have become part of a terribly sentimental image. On the “liberal” side are those for whom angel just means fluttery and nice. On the “conservative” side are some really goofy modern novels, with angels that look and act like pro wrestlers.



Well, first, some traditional doctrine. According to, for example, Thomas Aquinas, Angels are disembodied intellects. They know and love. They are capable of forming matter, turning it even into a human body, and so they can take shape and appear as men, or as anything else. But disembodied means they are not constrained to any particular time and place.

There are good angels and bad angels. Being disembodied means not living in the progression of time, but in a kind of eternal now. That is freedom, not a constraint; because they are not bound to one particular time, they can act in every instant of history. But one consequence of their kind of eternal now is that the choice they make for or against God does not change at some later date.

The bad angels are identified with Lucifer, or Satan. Lucifer is a Latin word that simply means “light bearer.” It reminds us of the original goodness and “brightness” of all the angels. “Satan” is a Hebrew word that means “adversary” or “accuser.” It points us to his opposition to God, and to all who stand with God. Lucifer’s motto is “I will not serve!” (non serviam!) The bad angels are so great, they want to be their own gods.

The good angels are identified with Michael, a Hebrew name that is a rhetorical question: “Who is like God?!” To those who want to be their own gods, Michael says, “ah, but God is so much greater!” The old-fashioned image of a baby head with wings is weird – but it comes from a tradition that paints with symbols, instead of sentimental images. The baby is like Michael, who lets God be God, and does not grasp after power. The wings remind us of the angels’ freedom from the constraints of time and place.


The angels can teach us some things, by comparison. They can teach us humility. The wings are meant to remind us that we are constrained in a way that not all God’s creatures are. They remind us of our limits, and that there are others who are infinitely more intelligent than we are.

They also remind us to embrace our materiality: we are not angels! Our way of sanctity and happiness can only be through the little here and now where we live.

And they can remind us, too, of God’s greatness. God is not an angel, not just an especially smart immaterial creature. The angels can speak to us, and enlighten us – but God made us, and he made them. Angels are awesome, but need a creator; God needs no creator. Angels cannot create, and do not cause us to exist; God does. It is worth pondering sometimes whether we realize just what an awesome being God is.


Finally, not only can we learn from the angels by looking at them; they can actively teach us. The old cartoon image of a good angel on one shoulder and a bad one on the other is not far from the truth.

Although angels can work in the material world, that is not the main thing they do. They see more than we do, and they can show things to us. Good angels remind us of the greatness of God, and can show us where he is acting now: just as Gabriel (whose name means “God is mighty”) taught Mary her vocation, and Raphael (whose name means “God heals”) showed Tobias where to find God’s healing.

And, of course, as C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters shows us, the bad angels can plant bad ideas in our minds, to lead us away from the one God. We should be aware of where these ideas come from.

Are we aware of the influence of bad angels? Could we practice greater devotion to the good ones?

Aparecida on Fundamentals of Formation

brazil-popeWe are reading through Aparecida’s presentation of “The Formative Itinerary of Missionary Disciples.” The chapter has four steps: it begins with the “Trinitarian Spirituality of Encounter with Jesus Christ,” then examines the “Process of Formation,” next more closely examines “Initiation” and what follows after, and finally considers the “Places of Formation.”

The second chapter, on Process, has two parts. The second is perhaps what we are more inclined to think about, and what seems to be the focus of many formation programs: the “diverse dimensions” of formation (human, spiritual, intellectual, and pastoral), care for “accompanying the disciples,” and an emphasis on turning the formed into formators, through a “spirituality of missionary action.”

But first Aparecida again points us to fundamentals: “fundamental aspects of the process.”

     6. The Formative Itinerary of Missionary Disciples

          b. The Process of Formation of Missionary Disciples

               i. Aspects of the process

                    1. The encounter with Jesus Christ

                    2. Conversion

                    3. Discipleship

                   4. Communion

                   5. Mission

In a sense, the document is repeating what it says in the previous section (and we examined last week): that all our “processes” have to be focused on Jesus. Let us not get ahead of ourselves, more worried about process than about the real goals of the process!


These five “fundamental aspects,” Aparecida underlines, “appear differently at each step of the journey.” That is to say, they are not five steps; we do not “move on” from encountering Jesus, then get to conversion, then discipleship, communion, and mission. Instead, every step of our journey must re-engage these five fundamental aspects. These, together, are the measure by which we gauge whether each new step is a step forward, or off the path.

Then too, these five aspects are “closely intertwined and draw nourishment from one another.” Without a sense of mission, our encounter with Christ is sterile; there is no conversion without communion, no true discipleship that isn’t about conversion, etc.


Again Aparecida underlines the “encounter with Jesus Christ.” “Without the kerygma,” that is, the basic Gospel message, the basic proclamation that Jesus is Savior, “the other aspects of this process are condemned to sterility, with hearts not truly converted to the Lord.”

Everything we do must constantly return to Jesus Christ.


But so too, everything must focus on real conversion, a real change of heart. Formation is not just about learning new things, and not about just any kind of personal change, but about the kind of change we call conversion.

Aparecida helps us measure our focus on conversion by pointing us back to the constant remembrance of Baptism and Confession.

Baptism is, fundamentally, an act of repentance, of rejecting our old ways, dying to the world’s standards, and embracing the new life of Christ. John the Baptist’s Baptism did not have the power of Christ’s, but it reminds us what that power was about. John told them to repent!

We have to keep alive that sense that our life is rooted in Baptism, rooted in repentance, and conversion. The fundamental instrument of that repentance is Confession. Any part of formation that does not fundamentally lead us back, and deeper, into Confession, is a kind of formation that has missed the mark.


All true formation must also always be about “discipleship,” which Aparecida defines as “constantly maturing.” Disciple means “student”. True formation means maintaining that attitude; life-long formation means never ceasing to be a student of the Lord Jesus.

Aparecida says our discipleship must be a constant maturing in knowledge, love, and following Christ. Any formation that doesn’t lead us to know, love, and follow the Master always more and better is not real formation.


The fourth fundamental aspect of true formation is “communion.” Just as true formation leads us deeper into the encounter with Christ, it also leads us deeper into the Church. That includes the teachings of the Church, as part of discipleship, but communion points us deeper. Communion means we learn always love our neighbor more and better; always to find ourselves more in relationship with other Christians.

We begin to see better how these five elements are “closely intertwined and draw nourishment from one another.” True conversion draws us to better love, deeper communion with the Church, both local and around the world. Deeper communion, deeper love, points us right back to conversion, as we want to love better. True discipleship points us towards both. And a true encounter with Christ both leads us to conversion, discipleship, and communion, and is then fed by those things. The deeper we love, the more truly we will encounter him.

And so too, will we be sent forth in mission, to draw others to encounter, conversion, discipleship, and communion.

 Are we moving forward in all these ways? When we think about evangelization, do we tend to overlook any of them?