St. John Paul II on “Celebrating the Gospel of Life”

pope-john-paul-IIBecause we have been sent into the world as a “people for life”, our proclamation must also become a genuine celebration of the Gospel of life. This celebration, with the evocative power of its gestures, symbols and rites, should become a precious and significant setting in which the beauty and grandeur of this Gospel is handed on.

For this to happen, we need first of all to foster, in ourselves and in others, a contemplative outlook. Such an outlook arises from faith in the God of life, who has created every individual as a “wonder” (cf. Ps 139:14). It is the outlook of those who see life in its deeper meaning, who grasp its utter gratuitousness, its beauty and its invitation to freedom and responsibility.

It is the outlook of those who do not presume to take possession of reality but instead accept it as a gift, discovering in all things the reflection of the Creator and seeing in every person his living image (cf. Gen 1:27; Ps 8:5). This outlook does not give in to discouragement when confronted by those who are sick, suffering, outcast or at death’s door. Instead, in all these situations it feels challenged to find meaning, and precisely in these circumstances it is open to perceiving in the face of every person a call to encounter, dialogue and solidarity.

It is time for all of us to adopt this outlook, and with deep religious awe to rediscover the ability to revere and honour every person, as Paul VI invited us to do in one of his first Christmas messages.(108) Inspired by this contemplative outlook, the new people of the redeemed cannot but respond with songs of joy, praise and thanksgiving for the priceless gift of life, for the mystery of every individual’s call to share through Christ in the life of grace and in an existence of unending communion with God our Creator and Father.

. . .

We are called to express wonder and gratitude for the gift of life and to welcome, savour and share the Gospel of life not only in our personal and community prayer, but above all in the celebrations of the liturgical year. Particularly important in this regard are the Sacraments, the efficacious signs of the presence and saving action of the Lord Jesus in Christian life. The Sacraments make us sharers in divine life, and provide the spiritual strength necessary to experience life, suffering and death in their fullest meaning.

Thanks to a genuine rediscovery and a better appreciation of the significance of these rites, our liturgical celebrations, especially celebrations of the Sacraments, will be ever more capable of expressing the full truth about birth, life, suffering and death, and will help us to live these moments as a participation in the Paschal Mystery of the Crucified and Risen Christ.

In celebrating the Gospel of life we also need to appreciate and make good use of the wealth of gestures and symbols present in the traditions and customs of different cultures and peoples. There are special times and ways in which the peoples of different nations and cultures express joy for a newborn life, respect for and protection of individual human lives, care for the suffering or needy, closeness to the elderly and the dying, participation in the sorrow of those who mourn, and hope and desire for immortality.

. . .

Part of this daily heroism is also the silent but effective and eloquent witness of all those “brave mothers who devote themselves to their own family without reserve, who suffer in giving birth to their children and who are ready to make any effort, to face any sacrifice, in order to pass on to them the best of themselves”.

In living out their mission “these heroic women do not always find support in the world around them. On the contrary, the cultural models frequently promoted and broadcast by the media do not encourage motherhood. In the name of progress and modernity the values of fidelity, chastity, sacrifice, to which a host of Christian wives and mothers have borne and continue to bear outstanding witness, are presented as obsolete …

“We thank you, heroic mothers, for your invincible love! We thank you for your intrepid trust in God and in his love. We thank you for the sacrifice of your life … In the Paschal Mystery, Christ restores to you the gift you gave him. Indeed, he has the power to give you back the life you gave him as an offering” (homily for St. Gianna Beretta Molla).

-St. John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae

Sunday of St. John Lateran: Life “In” the Church

lateranEZ 47:1-2, 8-9, 12; PS 46:2-3, 5-6, 8-9; 1 COR 3:9c-11. 16-17; JN 2:13-22

This Sunday Ordinary Time is again superseded, this time by one of the Church’s most surprising feasts: the Dedication of St. John Lateran. What is this feast, and why is it more important than our Ordinary-Time journey through the Gospel? In fact, it is a feast that takes us deep into our own identity as members of the Church.

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The Lateran was in ancient times the palace of a great Roman family, the Laterani. By the time of Constantine (early fourth century) it was in the hands of the Emperor; Constantine gave it to the Popes, who lived there for a thousand years, up until Avignon (the fourteenth century). There, for example, were the great Ecumenical Councils of the medieval Church – just as more recently they have been at the Vatican, where the Popes now reside.

There too, naturally, was and remains the Cathedral of the Pope, bishop of Rome. St. Peter’s is, for obvious reasons, his preferred Church for ceremony, but the Lateran is his actual seat, or cathedral. The Cathedral has burned and been rebuilt (896 and 1360), and its name changed from The Savior to St. John’s, after the Benedictine monastery next door.

But it remains, as it says on the wall, Omnium urbis et orbis ecclesiarum mater, et caput: “Of all the churches, of the city and of the world, the mother and the head.” To Catholics I need not explain why the Pope’s church is the most important Church. The deeper question is why a church building is of such importance anyway.

Years ago a Protestant friend had his little girl sing to my wife and I, “I am the Church, you are the Church, we are the Church.” True enough. The Church is the people. So who cares about the buildings?

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lateran altarOddly enough, Jesus himself cared about buildings. In our reading from John’s Gospel, Jesus cleanses the temple. He says of this building, “stop making my Father’s house a marketplace,” and John quotes the Psalm, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

The reading quickly shifts keys. Asked for a sign, Jesus says, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up . . . . But he was speaking about the temple of his Body.” Jesus himself is the true temple, the true “house” for which zeal should consume us, the true dwelling place of God. The Church is not principally a building, but his body.

So why did he care about what they were doing in “the temple area”?

***

And then, too, we are his body. Our reading from First Corinthians says to the people, who are the Church, “You are God’s building. . . . You are the temple of God . . . . The Spirit of God dwells in you.” He even presses the metaphor, “like a wise master builder I laid a foundation.”

Jesus is the Church. We are the Church. So who cares about the building?

***

The key is in the first reading, from Ezekiel. Ezekiel tells us of a vision. This is not reality – but it reveals reality.

He sees “the temple,” with “water flowing out from beneath the threshold of the temple” and from “the altar.” “This water flows into the eastern district down upon the Arabah” – into dry lands – “and empties into the sea, the salt waters, which it makes fresh. Wherever the river flows, every sort of living creature that can multiply shall live. . . . for they shall be watered by the flow from the sanctuary.”

The temple is, first, a vision of Jesus himself, source of living waters, source of life. Life flows out from the temple – just as we receive life from the sacraments that dwell there.

And then, too, it is a vision of us, the Church. “Along both banks of the river, fruit trees of every kind shall grow; their leaves shall not fade, nor their fruit fail . . . for they shall be watered by the flow from the sanctuary. Their fruit shall serve for food, and their leaves for medicine.” Those who receive the life-giving waters from the altar themselves become full of life, and life giving.

***

So yes, the Church is Jesus, his Body and all its members. “I am the Church, you are the Church, we are the Church.”

But this is a mystery worth dwelling on. We celebrate the buildings – and, today, the “mother and head” of all such buildings – because they remind us that life flows from the altar (from Christ), and that his life is poured into all those gathered around the altar (I, and you, and we).

Ezekiel’s vision trains us to see the building as a powerful vision of this reality.

How could we more consciously reverence the altar and the life that flows to the people from it?

Dies Irae: on the Final Judgment

Carracci-PurgatoryDuring this month of November, at the dying of the year, we will dedicate our Thursdays to an examination of the hymn Dies irae, “Day of wrath.” It is one of the great “sequences” of the Middle Ages: long, non-Biblical poems (this one has nineteen three-line stanzas) inserted before the Gospel for various feast days.

The Church has gradually scaled back this art form, moving in the direction of the Biblical austerity of the earlier tradition. Dies irae, decidedly medieval and downright scary, is now optional for All Souls, but used to be used in most liturgies for the the dead. (Interesting to note, however, that even in the nineteenth century, decidedly conservative about liturgical things, use of the Dies irae was for a time pulled back.)

But since we here love things medieval, let us see what we can learn!

***

The poem is long and richly interwoven. Although we plan installments on four topics, it is important to keep them interrelated; each loses its meaning without the others. So at the beginning, our outline for these four weeks of November:

1. Day of Judgment

2. Jesus the Judge

3. Our response to the mystery of death and judgment

4. Throwing ourselves on Jesus

***

The poem begins dramatically:

“Day of wrath! That day

Will dissolve time in ashes.”

We can see why modern people shy away from this poem. Should we think about God in terms of wrath?

Perhaps we should (though, again, in connection with other things). The line comes from the prophet Zephaniah:

“The great day of the LORD is near, near and hastening fast; the sound of the day of the LORD is bitter; the mighty man cries aloud there. A day of wrath is that day, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness, a day of trumpet blast and battle cry against the fortified cities and against the lofty battlements. I will bring distress on mankind” (Zep 1:14-17). Oh that day!

***

But what do we fear on that day? The first aim of the Dies irae is to shift our perspective on death:

“Death will be silenced, nature too,

When the creature rises again

To respond to the judge.”

Death itself seems the day of wrath, the ultimate punishment, the most terrifying fear of mortal man. At a funeral, at All Souls day, we stand terrified, at the loss of our loved ones, and at our own future loss.

But, says our faith, that terror is misplaced. Death does not have the final word. God will raise the dead. He has made us to last forever.

The final word, the final fear, is not that death will crush us, but, to the contrary, that we live forever. The deeper fear should be not that life will end, but that life will not end: are we prepared for eternity?

We can put it two ways. First, can I live with myself for eternity? Second, what will it be like to stand eternally before God? Those are the real questions, the things we should fear more than death.

***

The poem gradually turns the day of wrath inside out. From the beginning, “Dies irae, dies illa,” it leads finally to the second-to-last verse, “Lacrimosa dies illa”: that tearful day.

The movement is from outside to inside. “Day of wrath” speaks of the one we fear: death, or God, inflicting punishment on us. But “day of tears” speaks of our own response: our mourning before death, and even more, our mourning before eternity.

That second-to-last verse says:

“That tearful day

When from the ashes will rise again

The guilty man (homo reus) to be judged.”

Finally we look not to God’s wrath, but to the horrible sadness, not of eternal punishment, but even deeper, of eternal guilt. To live forever, with a heart full of hatred.

***

That verse picks up an earlier line:

“I groan within myself, as a guilty man (reus).”

It is a reference to Romans 8:22-23 – creation groans (it is the same word in Latin) and we ourselves groan. But why? Because we discover, as we think of eternity, our wickedness, and we long to be better.

“What trembling there will be

When the judge will come

To shake out all the details.”

To think of my life – my real life, in all its gritty details. Stricte discussurus, strict judgment, at first sounds like God is an unpleasant judge. The deeper unpleasantness, however, is not the judgment, but the very details of my life, a life so little given to things worthy of eternity.

We call upon Jesus – this is our theme for next week – to save us from our sin.

What are some details of your life this week that you would have lived differently if you imagined you would have to live with yourself forever?

Thomas Aquinas on the Greatness of the Apostles

I stumbled on this interesting passage in which Thomas Aquinas, commenting on Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, bursts out in praise of the greatness of the Apostles. I knew the tradition had greater devotion than we often do to the Apostles, but I enjoyed reading a sober mind express that devotion.

We each have vocations, and God gives us grace for our vocations. But think of the vocation of the Apostles: to found the Church, to set out when there was no one to help them, to begin the traditions, both of liturgy and of doctrine, on which the Church infallibly stands.

Next time you see a statue of an apostle, imagine what riches of grace God gave them. Love the Church, which is one, holy, catholic and apostolic, and receive her as a gift from Christ. And imagine the power of grace, that could build such a Church, with such depth of wisdom, to stand through the ages as a beacon of hope.

 St Thomas AquinasFirst Paul says: by the riches of his grace, all the faithful, you the same as we, have redemption and the remission of sins through the blood of Christ – but that grace superabounds in us, that is, it is more abundant in the apostles than in others.

We see then the gall, not to mention the error, of those who presume to compare the other saints to the apostles in terms of grace and glory. For it is clear from these words that the apostles have greater grace than any other saints, after Christ and the Virgin Mother.

One might say that the other saints can attain the same merit as the apostles, and thus can receive the same greatness of grace. To this we say that it is true, if by “grace” you mean “merit” – but that is not grace, as Paul says in Romans 11:6.

And thus, as God preordains some saints for higher honors, so he pours into them a more abundant grace – just as he gave a truly singular grace to Christ the man, whom he assumed into the unity of his person. And the glorious virgin Mary, whom he chose as mother, he filled both body and soul with grace.

And so to the apostles: as he called them to unique majesty, he bestowed on them the privilege of a unique grace, which Paul mentions in Romans: we ourselves are given the first fruits of the Spirit (8:23). It is therefore insolent to compare any saint to the apostles.

The grace of God superabounded in the apostles in all wisdom. For the apostles were put forward as pastors of the Chuch. As Jeremiah says: I will give you pastors according to my own heart, and they will pasture you with knowledge and doctrine (3:15)

Now pastors require two things, namely that they be sublime in the knowledge of divine things, and industrious in religious deeds. For those beneath them must be instructed in the faith, and for this is necessary wisdom, which is knowledge of divine things, and so he says [in Ephesians], in all wisdom. I will give you a mouth and wisdom, against which your adversaries cannot speak or resist (Luke 21:15).

Also, they must govern those beneath them in exterior things, and this requires prudence. For they govern the temporalities of the Church, and thus he says prudence. Therefore be prudent (Matt 10:16). Thus we see the advantages given to the apostles with regard to the excellence of wisdom.

Next he speaks of their advantage with regard to the excellence of revelation, that the mystery was made known to us, as if he says, “our wisdom is not that we would know the natures of things, and the movement of the stars, etc., but Christ alone.” For I judge myself not to know anything among you, except Christ Jesus (1 Cor 2:2). Thus he says, the mystery, that is, the sacred secret, namely the mystery of the incarnation, which was hidden from the beginning.

-Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Ephesians

The Psalms on the Poor

King David, Westminster Psalter

King David, Westminster Psalter

“Do not abandon my soul with sinners

And my life with men of blood.”

Our Psalm 26 leads us now to consider the violence of men against men – and so it encourages us to consider what Pope Francis says about a Church that is “poor and for the poor.”

The poor appear quite frequently in the Psalms: “the expectation of the poor shall not perish for ever” (9:18); “The wicked in his pride doth persecute the poor” (10:2); “he lies in wait to catch the poor: he catches the poor, when he draws him into his net. He crouches, and humbles himself, that the poor may fall by his strong ones” (10:9-10); “For the oppression of the poor, for the sighing of the needy, now will I arise, says the LORD” (12:5); “This poor man cried, and the LORD heard him, and saved him out of all his troubles” (34:6); etc.

The image of the poor man here is not primarily about money. It is about power. The poor is defined, not as lacking things, but as being vulnerable. This, indeed, is the deeper wound of poverty: not the frustration of materialism, but fear of oppression.

And this is the image put forth in our Psalm 26. “Don’t not abandon . . . my life with men of blood.” The imagery is of violence, of people who can hurt us, and want to hurt us. And we are vulnerable.

***

In considering this image, let us first consider the “men of blood.” Is it not true that people like to hurt one another? We can think of those who hurt us. When we are weak – when we are incompetent (as sometimes we are), when we are on the outside, when we are hurting, even when we are gentle and vulnerable with other people – how often does someone stick a knife in our belly? How often do people throw our sins and other failings in our face, rub our noses in them?

But so too, how often are we men of blood? In order to see this in its fullness, we need insight into the weakness of others. For me, I shudder to say, it stands out with my children. They are tired, they are hungry . . . and am I merciful? Sometimes. But sometimes we are not gentle at all; sometimes we are eager to tell the weak how weak they are, and how in the wrong.

It is hard to see that even the adults who oppress us are often lashing out from their own weakness. How do we respond? We can see, I hope, that we should be gentle with the tired child. But do we see it with the emotionally scarred coworker or relative? When they say something that hurts – but that, honestly, cannot truly injure us – do we see their weakness, or do we attack, eager to find a way to hit them back?

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The Psalms call us to know our own poverty – our own vulnerability and weakness – and cry out to God for help. Scripture never tells us to be strong. It tells us that he is strong, and he will save us. “Do not abandon me with men of blood!” is the cry, not of someone too strong to be hurt, but of someone who know his own weakness, and his need of a Savior.

The Memorare (a prayer written by medievals immersed in the Psalms) teaches us to entrust ourselves to Mary, to trust that she will bring God to our aid. It appeals to our “piety” – unfortunately, the standard English translation says “gracious,” but the root idea is that Mary cares for her family, for her little ones. So too the Our Father teaches us to beg God to protect us: from evil, even from the temptation to evil.

These are prayers of those who know their weakness, know the danger of falling in with men of blood, who turn us into men of blood.

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But the Psalms call us, too, to be Good Samaritans. The Psalms give us a unique space to discover our weakness before God. But the more time we spend realizing that we are not strong enough to stand without God, the more we appreciate that this is true of others, too.

As God has had mercy on our weakness, has reached out to help us when we are helpless, let us reach out to others, even – especially – when they try to hurt us.

Where are you tempted to be a man of blood, violent to the weak? Who acts like a man of blood towards you? Can you see their weakness? Is there any way you can bind up their wounds, or at least not inflict any more?