Wednesday, March 11, 2015


(A talk given at Saint John’s the Evangelist Church in Wellesley – March 2, 2015)


Pope Francis, our now not-so-new Pope, continues to mesmerize millions. It’s mind-blowing to think that six million people gathered together with Pope Francis at Manila Bay. As Francis himself would say – They came in great numbers because of the ardent faith of so many in the Philippines. To say the least about our not-so-new Holy Father, because of the “off the top of the head” style of airplane press conferences, I would describe Pope Francis as “predictably unpredictable” or “unpredictably predictable”. Many folks are very happy when the Pope travels from Rome to fields afar, for this will mean that there will be another airplane press conference in the offing, perhaps 30,000 feet over the waters of the Pacific.

Many of us here this evening, I’m sure, would admit that we are among those mesmerized by Jorge Bergoglio. Certainly, those here at the parish who are responsible for adult education planning in their search for a Lenten theme 2015 have made the suggestion that we revisit Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation – “The Joy of the Gospel”. The foci of this revisit are two in particular:

1. Paragraphs 11, 12 and 13, which concern the newness of Christ and the newness of the Gospel;
2. Paragraphs 34 to 39, a reflection on the heart of the Gospel, that is, the very heart of God’s Eternal Word made flesh for human salvation, and available to us in sacramental mystery.


Before moving to the task at hand, I suggest we pause and make a brief detour. At Christmastime I received four books as gifts. One is a treatise on the Eucharist, a book right up my theological alley. I also received two copies – one from Fr. Tom and one from Fr. Bryan, who obviously did not coordinate their gift giving – of Austen Ivereigh’s biography of Francis under the title – “The Great Reformer – Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope”. The fourth book is also a biography of Francis, entitled – “Pope Francis: Life and Revolution”, written by Elisabetta Piqué, an internationally respected newspaper reporter, long-time correspondent in Italy and at the Vatican for La Nacion, Argentina’s main newspaper. Elisabetta has known the Pope for many years. She is the only newspaper reporter to have predicted the election of Jorge Bergoglio. I shall make an altogether too brief reference to what life was like in Argentina, socially and politically, when young Jorge began his priestly ministry as a Jesuit in the 1960s and 1970s. This may help us to understand the adjective “radical” which has been applied to Father Bergoglio.

Argentina, like all the countries of North, South and Central America, lived under colonial rule. We in America dispossessed ourselves of colonialism in the 18th Century and the United States, in spite of such difficulties as the Civil War, has managed to have a stable form of government bringing together Federalism and States’ rights in a productive tension. This was not so in many Latin American countries and for our purposes not so for Argentina. Dictatorships from military coups took over from early attempts at democratic governments until the arrival on the scene of Juan Domingo Peron and his glamorous wife Evita. Peron’s rule at the beginning was most popular and served well the needs of the common people. Originally, Peronism and the Church seemed to work pretty well together. Then things began to deteriorate, resulting in another military coup and the exile of Peron to Spain. The failure of this military government involved the recalling of Peron to Argentina. Politically and socially the country and the Jesuits within the country were deeply divided about the future of Argentina – some wanted Peron, even though the later Peron was not as he first was when he was a young and inspiring leader; some wanted to follow the pattern of Cuban socialism; others supported a form of liberation theology, which consisted in a good measure of Marxist principles as understood in liberal academia circles; others, including a few bishops, wanted to restore the military and a more dictatorial rule for the sake of government stability. Young Father Bergoglio as Rector of the Jesuit Seminary and later as Provincial of the Argentinian Jesuits, though very much aware of, and concerned with, the social and political ideologies which were causing havoc throughout the country, was focused on the work of reform, first the work of seminary training, and then the work of reforming Jesuit life throughout the country. Bergoglio himself seems to be a born reformer but not in the sense of political or social agitation. If he had any particular personal view of social and political reform, it was the work of the Jesuits in Latin America before his time in terms of what has been called “the Jesuit reductions”, the Jesuit missions to the poor in the countries of Paraguay and Uruguay. Pope Francis is not a doctrinal or moral theologian, just as he is not a secular, political reformer, but a spiritual reformer, a pastoral theologian, deeply immersed in Ignatian spiritual theology, in the Ignatian rules for discernment, in the questions asked by Ignatius himself in response to God’s love for us – What have I done for Christ? What am I doing for Christ? What ought I to do for Christ? He is a radical reformer seeking to grasp the roots of the Gospel. The word “radical” comes from the word “radix,” which designates the root of things. Francis’s reform is a spiritual reform – changing peoples’ hearts, whether now at the Roman Curia, or in the work of the Church all over the world. So much for my inadequate detour!
Last Lent we spent some time reflecting on the impact of “The Joy of the Gospel”. It was my privilege to give three talks which centered on “the dream” of Pope Francis. I said at that time: “Joseph, from the pages of the Old Testament, was called by his brothers, who did not like him, “the dreamer”. Joseph from the pages of the New Testament was given providential help by way of his dreams. Martin Luther King had a dream which has profoundly impacted for the good our country’s social fabric. Now, our Holy Father Francis tells us that he too has a dream, and this evening we gather here to find out what the Pope’s dream is all about, and to ask ourselves whether under God’s grace we are willing to appropriate the Pope’s dream and thus come to know the joy of the Gospel.”

Francis calls his dream “a missionary option”. He writes: “I dream of a ‘missionary option’, that is, a mission impulse capable of transforming everything so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her own self-preservation”. He describes this option as an ecclesial renewal that cannot be deferred.”

First we should note a bit of recent history. The exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel” is the papal response to and creative summary of the work that took place at the 13th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops that gathered in Rome in October 2012 to discuss “the New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith”. You may recall that it was Pope Benedict who presided over the 2012 Synod of Bishops. It was Benedict who had proposed the topic “Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith”. To prepare for the Synod Pope Benedict inaugurated the “Year of Faith”. To guide us through the Year of Faith, Pope Benedict issued his Apostolic Letter, “Porta Fidei”, the Door of Faith. It was Benedict who had already issued two excellent encyclicals – one on the virtue of charity and the second on the virtue of hope – and who began a third encyclical on faith which he left to Pope Francis to complete and make his own. Its title is, “Lumen Fidei” – the Light of Faith. Did we ever think we would see the day when two popes, one emeritus, would issue together one encyclical? The two popes are so very different in style and personality, but from my reading quite similar in their thinking.

Ivereigh has an interesting comment as he talks about Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis in tandem – “The syllabus, humility, prayer, dependence on Christ, was the same, but Benedict’s finely-honed crystalline texts, delivered in a quiet voice by a remote figure, were now being spoken and acted upon by a man who jumped out of a choir to make off-the-cuff remarks in physically affectionate encounters. Benedict clarified who is Christ and what it means to live in and through him; Francis recalls Christ our friend and savior. Francis was taking Benedict on the road.”

The document, Porta Fidei – The Door of Faith – initiating the “Year of Faith” – which was to begin on 11 October 2012, the 50th Anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, reads as follows in paragraph 6: “The renewal of the Church is also achieved through the witness offered by the lives of believers: by their very existence in the world, Christians are called to radiate the word of truth that the Lord Jesus has left us. The Council itself, in the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium, said this: While “Christ, ‘holy, innocent and undefiled’ (Heb 7:26) knew nothing of sin (cf. 2 Cor 5:21), but came only to expiate the sins of the people (cf. Heb 2:17)... the Church ... clasping sinners to its bosom, at once holy and always in need of purification, follows constantly the path of penance and renewal. The Church, ‘like a stranger in a foreign land, presses forward amid the persecutions of the world and the consolations of God’, announcing the cross and death of the Lord until he comes (cf. 1 Cor 11:26). But by the power of the risen Lord it is given strength to overcome, in patience and in love, its sorrow and its difficulties, both those that are from within and those that are from without, so that it may reveal in the world, faithfully, although with shadows, the mystery of its Lord until, in the end, it shall be manifested in full light.”

The Year of Faith, from this perspective, was a summons to an authentic and renewed conversion to the Lord, the one Saviour of the world. In the mystery of his death and resurrection, God has revealed in its fullness the Love that saves and calls us to conversion of life through the forgiveness of sins (cf. Acts 5:31). For Saint Paul, this Love ushers us into a new life: “We were buried ... with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:4). Through faith, this new life shapes the whole of human existence according to the radical new reality of the resurrection. To the extent that he freely cooperates, man’s thoughts and affections, mentality and conduct are slowly purified and transformed, on a journey that is never completely finished in this life. “Faith working through love” (Gal 5:6) becomes a new criterion of understanding and action that changes the whole of human existence (cf. Rom 12:2; Col 3:9-10; Eph 4:17-24; 2 Cor 5:17).”

This last passage gives rise to many questions. I will suggest three, so important to Pope Francis and his project.
a) What are we to say about the newness of the Gospel?
b) When Pope Francis speaks about the heart of the Gospel, the heart of Christ, what does he have in mind? How are we to bring to speech what we find at the heart of the Gospel in such a say that our message is intelligent and intelligible, meaningful and relevant, beautiful and attractive, compelling and necessary?
c) To the extent that we cooperate with grace, our cooperation must be free but always under grace, how are our thoughts and affections, our mentality and conduct to be slowly purified and transformed on this journey of ours which St. Paul calls “faith working through love”? (Gal. 5:6)

a) Our first question this evening focuses on the newness of the Good News. I often think of a parishioner – Anna in Newton – to whom I used to bring the Eucharist on a regular basis. She had been bed-ridden for a couple of years. When I would enter her bedroom, she would struggle to sit up a bit and before I could say, “Good Morning, Anna. How are you and the Lord doing”, she would ask with great anticipated gladness, “What’s new?” She had no interest in asking a gossip-question, but I would say to her what Pope Francis is saying to us in “The Joy of the Gospel” – “You know, Anna, Jesus is new, his resurrection is new, his Eucharist is new”, and Anna would respond at once with a resounding “Amen”. Christ Jesus, in giving himself, brings all newness. Yes, God the Father, at work through Christ, his divine Son and in the Holy Spirit, has revealed his true and great love for us and thereby constantly reveals new life for all who follow him, no matter what their age and situation might be. The Book of Revelations tells us that Christ the Lord is the eternal Gospel, the eternal Good News. Is he not the same yesterday, today and forever? He is forever young. His being forever young makes us forever young and joyful. And what is joy? Joy, it has often been said, is the echo of God’s life within us. Thus Francis writes, “Whenever we make the effort to turn to the Gospel and recover its freshness, new avenues arise, new paths open up and we find new meanings for our lives and for our hope for today’s messy, materialist, warring, terrorist world.” Every form of evangelization is always new. The newness is first and foremost God’s work because God is the one who takes the initiative. In this question of newness, the primacy belongs to God; the newness is what the Lord himself mysteriously effects whereby he inspires us, guides us, accompanies us in a thousand ways. The Lord God has first loved us. Should we not, under his grace, love God in return? The joy involved in this sort of love is what sustained Jesus’ first disciples – many of whom received the grace of martyrdom. God has made us his new people. God has given each one of us new birth through water and the Holy Spirit. God gives us through the sacraments a new life that of itself can never end because it is a true share in God’s own life. God has made with us a new covenant, a new testament. God has given us a new law, a new command, a new song, the Easter Alleluia.

To buttress these assertions, we can ask ourselves – Do not the Scriptures tell us all this Good News?
a. Paul says to us in Romans – Do you not know that we who are baptized into Christ Jesus are baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him in baptism unto death so that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life.
b. As a result of our baptism, Paul reminds the Romans (12:2) – Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the newness of your mind that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect.
c. Once again we rely on St. Paul (2 Cor 5:17). He writes to the Corinthians – “Whoever is in Christ is a new creation. The old things have passed away; behold new things have come.”
d. (Eph 4:17-24) – “So I declare and testify in the Lord that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds; darkened in understanding, alienated from the life of God…they have become callous and they have handed themselves over to licentiousness… That is not how you learned Christ, assuming that you have heard of him and were taught in him, as truth is in Jesus, that you should put away the old self of your former way of life… and be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new self, created in God’s way in righteousness and holiness of truth.”
P.S.: We must admit, it seems to me, that this talk about newness is not without some difficulties. There’s no new Church. There’s no new Gospel. It’s rather a question of discovering the newness that exists in the deep roots of the Gospel, a newness that has attracted the saints down through history, a newness that can concern us all when changes come in our habitual ways of thinking and doing things. Changes are difficult also here in Wellesley’s two Catholic parishes. For example, St. John and St. Paul parishes are entering into a collaborative. Fr. Tom is leaving us after his many years of excellent pastoral service here at the parish. A new pastor has been appointed. We all will need good anchoring in our Catholic faith. We will need much good will from the Holy Spirit as we move ahead here in Wellesley. This example is a sort of sign of some of the unrest recently caused by the recent synod in Rome on Marriage and the Family. One writer, Gerard O’Connell, Roman correspondent for America Magazine makes the comment – “Reflecting on these fears and speaking with Cardinals and Bishops at the Synod, I began to understand that perhaps there could be deeper concerns here. The first relates to a possible shift from the prevailing understanding of the place and role of the sacraments in the life of the people of God to a somewhat different pastoral one and the consequences of this. Secondly, there is a perplexity about how to present mercy and inclusion in a way that does not undermine moral doctrine. Thirdly, there is uneasiness about the understanding of primacy, collegiality and synodality and about the way of exercising authority in the Church. At the Synod’s closing, the Pope responded to these fears. According to Mr. O’Connell, Pope Francis said, “God is not afraid of new things; that is why he is continually surprising us, opening our hearts and guiding us in unexpected ways. The Pope has reminded his hearers that he is a man of the Church and the members of the Synod have gathered “with Peter and under Peter” in the spirit of a longstanding Catholic understanding that the Church, in the variety of her charisms, cannot err: it is the beauty of “sensus fidei,” of that supernatural sense of the faith that is bestowed by the Holy Spirit so that together we can all enter into the heart of the Gospel and learn to follow Jesus in our lives and this should never serve as a source of confusion and discord.

b) This brings us to our second question. When Pope Francis speaks about the heart of the Gospel, the heart of Christ, what does he have in mind? How are we to bring to speech what we find at the heart of the Gospel in such a say that our message is intelligent and intelligible, meaningful and relevant, beautiful and attractive, compelling and necessary?

In other words, how are we to speak our faith to the world? How do we speak from the very heart of the Gospel? How do we do this in such a way that our message is seen as what it truly is – grand and joyous, intelligent and intelligible, relevant to our lives and beautiful? Can we simplify the message, uncomplicate the message without depriving it of its power and its truth? The Church speaks its message in three distinct, interrelated ways – evangelization, the language of which is proclamation; catechetics which gives us the necessary information for the intelligent practice of faith and the work of theology. The Pope’s direct focus in “The Joy of the Gospel” is primarily proclamation and catechetics.

Pope Francis reminds us that pastoral ministry must not be obsessed with a disjointed transmission of a multitude of doctrines. When we adopt a pastoral goal and a mission style, the message must concentrate on essentials – what is most beautiful, most good, most grand, most necessary. Listen to what is said in paragraph 36 of “The Joy of the Gospel”: “All revealed truths derive from the same divine source and are to be believed with the same faith, yet some of them are more important for giving direct expression to the heart of the Gospel. In this basic core, what shines forth is the beauty of the saving love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ who died and rose from the dead. In this sense, the Second Vatican Council explained, ‘in Catholic doctrine there exists an order or a ‘hierarchy’ of truths, since they vary in their relation to the foundation of the Christian faith’. This holds true as much for the dogmas of faith as for the whole corpus of the Church’s teaching, including her moral teaching.” With regard to this hierarchy of truths, one scholar writes – “Christianity is a deeply objective reality. It is first and foremost not a subjective experience; neither is it a simple adherence to a set of moral regulations nor even a sharing in a sacred tradition. None of these answers are false. There is indeed a subjective experience of God that can be had in prayer. There is the Christian Catholic ethics that would be faithfully lived out. There is also a participation in ancient traditions of worship and in adhering to a body of doctrines. But all these are consequences of Christianity rather than its essence as such. Christianity as a living reality does not emerge in us by our own strength nor does it bubble up from the depths of one’s spirit. It cannot be fixed in overly rigid formulae and definitions. It is above all the gift of new indestructible divine life.” As John’s Gospel says – “The thief comes only to steal, slaughter and destroy. I have come that they may have life abundantly.”

John Henry Newman, revered 19th Century scholar and churchman in Great Britain, recently beatified by Pope Benedict XVI, once composed a brief, unsophisticated act of faith which somebody set to music and is found in the Church’s “Liturgy of the Hours”. “Firmly I believe and truly”, Newman writes, “God is Three and God is One”. This is the foundational truth of our Catholic faith, the necessary mystery of our Three-Personed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Newman then writes – “And I next acknowledge duly mankind taken by the Son”. This is the absolutely free mystery of the Incarnation. What is meant by the “free mystery”? God’s Triune existence ever-was and ever-will be and even has to be, but there did not have to be the free mystery of the first Christmas. The fact of the first Christmas stems exclusively from the unfathomable love of God who willed to send us his only divine Son to be our Savior. This then leads Newman into the mystery of the Redemption – “And I trust and hope must fully in that mankind crucified, and I love supremely, solely, the Christ who for my sins has died”. But why does Newman believe these truths? He tells us in stanza three – “And I hold in veneration, for the love of Christ alone, holy Church as his creation and her teachings as his own”.

Contemporary theologians are indeed aware of the need of brief statements of our Catholic faith; however, their efforts have not been that successful. Theology is too complex a discipline. It seeks to speak to people of all cultures and languages all over the globe. Kahl Rahner from Germany, a distinguished theologian and prominent at the Second Vatican Council after completing a heavy German tome had this to say in a postscript to his readers: “After we have spent so many pages, the results for many readers might very well be that the clarity of our topic may have been obscured rather than being clarified in terms of its presentation.” Rahner himself then proceeded to formulate three brief Creedal statements. However, this does not seem to me to be what Pope Francis is looking for. What then is he looking for and where will we find it? Our Holy Father gives great stress to what he calls the experience of an encounter. This is a key word for serious contemporary theology. He tells us that he never tires of quoting his immediate papal predecessor who wrote: “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or of a lofty idea. Rather, it is a most important encounter with an event, with a person, and this gives life to a new horizon and a decisive dimension.” Where will we experience this encounter? There is but one answer – at the Liturgy! At every Sunday Liturgy, at any Liturgy involving the sacraments, the risen Christ encounters us and we encounter him. We meet the risen Christ and he meets us in his mysteries – his birth, his epiphany, his public ministry, his passion and death, his resurrection, his ascension into glory and his sending us from the Father his Holy Spirit. We often say at Mass – “Lord Jesus, you came in history to gather us into the peace of God’s kingdom.” This is how the Lord Jesus encountered four fishermen on the shore of the Sea of Galilee; he encountered them and they encountered him through his words and through his deeds, just as all of us encounter one another in our everyday lives. Ever since the Lord Jesus returned to his heavenly Father in his glorious ascension, all the power resident in his sacred humanity, by the work of the Holy Spirit, passed over into our New Testament Scriptures and in the sacraments of the Church. This is why the Sunday Liturgy is our most important activity here in the parish, because it is in the Liturgy and at the Liturgy that the Church finds its true meaning and is strengthened for its journey. Just as the first disciples encountered Jesus and he them in human history, so we now encounter him and he us, really and truly in what we call sacramental mystery.

So much for our second question – faith seeking understanding and bringing that understanding to speech from the very heart of the Gospel.

c) Our third question has as its focus the ethical or moral dimension of things, as we ask – To the extent that we cooperate with God’s grace – our cooperation while free is always under God’s grace – how are our thoughts and affections, how are our mentality and conduct slowly purified and transformed on this life’s journey which St. Paul in writing to the Galatians calls – faith working through love (Gal. 5:6).

Paragraph 37 in “The Joy of the Gospel” is crucial. Pope Francis writes:
“Saint Thomas Aquinas taught that the Church’s moral teaching has its own “hierarchy”, in the virtues and in the acts which proceed from them. What counts above all else is “faith working through love” (Gal 5:6). Works of love directed to one’s neighbor are the most perfect external manifestation of the interior grace of the Spirit: “The foundation of the New Law is in the grace of the Holy Spirit, who is manifested in the faith which works through love”. Thomas thus explains that, as far as external works are concerned, mercy is the greatest of all the virtues: “In itself mercy is the greatest of the virtues, since all the others revolve around it and, more than this, it makes up for their deficiencies. This is particular to the superior virtue, and as such it is proper to God to have mercy, through which his omnipotence is manifested to the greatest degree.”

The first thing we can notice about paragraph 37 is that St. Paul calls charity the greatest of the virtues, while the Pope quotes from Thomas Aquinas that mercy is the greatest of virtues. There is no opposition here if we understand what mercy is. Mercy, Aquinas tells us, is love or charity in the face of misery. Charity is the greatest of the virtues because charity is God’s New Testament name, and charity is eternal like God. What St. Thomas says is that as far as external works are concerned, mercy is the greatest of all the virtues.

Secondly, Pope Francis notes in connection with St. Thomas’ teachings that the Church’s moral teaching has its own hierarchy. What counts above all else is “faith working through love”; in other words, what counts above all else is that works of love directed to one’s neighbor are the most perfect external manifestation of the interior graces of the Holy Spirit. In this context, we should note what I like to call “the semantic evolution of the great Gospel command – You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the first and greatest command. The second is like it – You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commands. (Mt.) Some folks are surprised that these two commands did not initiate with Jesus, and in the beginning were separated, one from the other. The first part of the command is found in the Old Testament Book of Deuteronomy 6:5. The second part is found in the Old Testament Book of Leviticus 19:18. It was the Lord Jesus who brought the two together in his preaching as though they were two sides of but one coin. How indeed can we love God whom we do not see if we fail to love our neighbor, made in God’s image, whom we do see. By the time St. Paul was writing about the great commandment in his Letter to the Church in Rome, notice what he writes: “Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another, for the one who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.” The commandments – you shall not commit adultery, you shall not kill, you shall not covet, or whatever commandment there may be – are summed up in this saying – You shall love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no evil to the neighbor; hence love is the fulfillment of the law.

This brings us indeed to the heart of the Gospel. When we were discussing what God has given us through the Holy Spirit, we spoke of a new life, a new command, a new law. God gave his Old Testament people many laws – the Ten Commandments, the basic Old Testament moral law still incumbent on all who follow Christ, other bodies of laws regarding Jewish lifestyle, Jewish worship and Jewish dietary matters and the like. In this context we should note that St. John the Evangelist in his magnificent Prologue to his Gospel writes – In the beginning was the Word and the Word was God and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us – that Word is the Lord Jesus, Son of God from all eternity, Son of Mary in human history. From his fullness, John writes, we have all received grace upon grace. While the law was given by Moses, grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.

Listen to what St. Thomas Aquinas has to say about the Law of Christ and Law of Grace. He writes – What is characteristic of the law of the Gospel, called the new law, and wherein all its efficacy is based, is the grace of the Holy Spirit given through faith in Christ. Consequently, the new law is an unwritten law and is chiefly the grace itself of the Holy Spirit given to those who believe in Jesus Christ. What else are the divine laws written by God himself in our hearts but the very presence of the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, Thomas continues, the new law contains certain things which dispose us to receive the grace of the Holy Spirit so we need to be instructed concerning them both by word and writing. Consequently, we should say that the new law, our new covenant, our New Testament, is in the first place a law that is inscribed in our hearts, but that secondarily, it is a written law. What then, we can ask, are these written laws that enable us to receive the grace of the Holy Spirit? They are the law of love, the law of forgiveness, the law of those who do not love us in return, the Beatitudes, Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount and Luke’s Sermon on the Plain, and the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy. We touch here on an important theological theme in the relationship of the law and the law of the Gospel. You and I belong to God’s New Testament people. We are not God’s Old Testament people. As we have already quoted from John’s Gospel – the Law came through Moses; grace and truth have come from Jesus Christ. However, we must not equate Old Testament and New Testament with before Christ and after Christ; otherwise how could we account for the saints of the Old Law and those who have been baptized into Christ but are still struggling with the commands of the Mosaic Law? According to our Christian teaching, the old law is holy, spiritual and good, but it is imperfect when compared with the new law. The old law tells us what to do but does not give us the strength to do it. The new law is the grace of the Holy Spirit, quite sufficient in itself to be effective. The law is preparation for the Gospel as the catechism tells us, a prophecy of thing to come.

Hopefully the three questions which I have raised may prove helpful for your Lenten experience 2015. Our lives in Christ, begin in Baptism, constitute a journey that envisions a goal that involves but also transcends our lives this side of the grave. The season of Lent is like a journey within a journey which we undertake each year, not just because it is a law to be observed, but we journey with the very person, a divine person, who is the risen Christ, who accompanies us always along the way and whom we must encounter and befriend and follow more faithfully. (Benedict XVI) That delightful little book, The Imitation of Christ, exhorts us – “Pick up your cross and follow Jesus. In this way you will go to eternal life. He went before you carrying his cross, and died for you so that you would carry your cross and be willing to die for him. If you die with him, you will also live with him. And if you are his partner in sorrow, you will also be his partner in triumph.” Lent is like a refresher course through which we learn what it means to be truly Christian. Lent is an excellent opportunity to live out more consciously our Eucharistic encounter with the risen Christ, truly with us in sacramental mystery. Lent is a wonderful schooling whereby we learn how to meet Christ in his mysteries, how to live our sharing in the Lord’s paschal mystery – his dying and rising for the salvation of the world. Baptism is the sacrament of the Lord’s Easter mystery, his dying and his rising, and the sacrament of Baptism is the sacrament of our dying and rising with the Lord. The Lord’s saving death and resurrection were real and physical. Our dying and rising were very real but sacramental.

The Church describes the Lord’s Easter mystery as a passage, a transition, a transit from death to life. The Church describes our participation in the Lord’s paschal mystery as a passage, a transition, a transit from darkness to the light and joy of the Gospel, from sin to divine grace, the pledge of eternal happiness and wholeness, a passage from death to life. This suggests the all-important Lenten question – Have I passed, have we passed, from death to life this side of the grave, death to sin and inordinate self-love, life for God and for neighbor? Read the First Letter of St. John for an answer. John tells us that we know that we have passed from death to life if or because we love our brothers and sisters – and, who are my brothers and sisters, but all and anyone for whom the Lord Jesus offered his life on the cross. Pope Francis expresses all this in another way – as we have already seen – He tells us – and this is the key – “What counts above all else is faith working through love. Works of love directed to one’s neighbor are the most perfect external manifestation of the interior grace of the Holy Spirit.”

Wednesday, December 31, 2014


December 28, 2014

1. Our Liturgy today brings center-stage two basic issues – marriage and the family: much discussed in contemporary culture; most essential for the well-being of society; most essential for the well-being of the Church.

2. What is a family? Who invented the family? Who has the authority to define the family? Pope Benedict XVI has noted – The family is the privileged setting where every person learns to give and receive love. The family is an intermediate institution between individuals and society, and nothing can completely take its place. The family is an indispensable foundation for society, a life-long treasure for married couples, a great good for children, and a school which enables all involved to grow to the full measure of their humanity.

3. What is marriage? Who invented marriage? Who has the authority to define the nature of marriage? With strangling brevity, I would like to share with you a few thoughts on Catholic sacramental marriage.

4. Every Christian, it strikes me, every follower of Christ receives a calling, a vocation, in and through the mystery of the Church. At the most basic level, followers of Christ pursue such a calling by participation in and by being authentic witnesses to the universal call of holiness of life. Do we not read in Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians – “Praise be to God, the Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ, who has bestowed on us in Christ every spiritual blessing in the heavens. God chose us in Christ, before the world began, to be holy and blameless in his sight, to be full of love.”? Did we not learn from our earliest days with the Catechism that the reason God made us was to know him, love him and serve him by following the Lord Jesus and by finding our ultimate and perfect happiness with God and his saints. More specifically, according to God’s eternal designs, some persons within the Church have been chosen for a particular state in life, married life, religious life, priestly life, and in and through these states of life they contribute to the building up of God’s kingdom in love. This divine choice for married couples becomes definitive and is made manifest to the world in the Church’s sacramental event of matrimony. The Lord Jesus said to his chosen twelve – “You have not chosen me, I have chosen you.” And so the Lord speaks to couples today. It is precisely through this married love that husband and wife bring each other to holiness. “The sacrament of marriage is the specific source and original means of sanctification for Christian married couples and families. A sacramental marriage is indeed a noble, high, and sacred calling.” (John Paul II)

5. Some writers think of the event of Holy Matrimony as a theo-drama, as God’s drama, in which human participants are moved by hidden forces and unseen energies which Catholic theology reflects on under the rubrics of divine grace and divine Providence. As one writer, Ladislas Orsy, reminds us – There are visible participants and invisible participants involved. St. Augustine calls a sacrament “an outward, visible sign of inward invisible reality, of invisible grace.” We can see what is visible and so we can know. We cannot see what is invisible, and so we can believe. The invisible actors which initiate and carry out this drama are Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The visible actors – best supporting actor and actress, as Hollywood might suggest – are the man and woman in whom God’s plan is about to unfold. Many questions come to mind: We know what folks are saying these days about marriage, but what are God’s thoughts? What is God, who is “Three in One”, saying to couples at this sacramental moment when God is calling them to become “two in one” until death?

6. What does God have to say about marriage? God has much to say about marriage? God has much to say from the Book of Genesis to the last book of the New Testament, the Book of Revelation. But fear not – I will only make a brief reference to Genesis and a brief reference to one statement of St. Paul. The reading from Genesis underscores two truths. First, that men and women are created equal as persons. “Together, in their maleness and femaleness, they convey the full image of God.” A second significant truth stresses that God’s divine plan involves maleness and femaleness so that they can live for each other in the totality of their lives and truly be gifts to each other. St. Paul speaks to us in his Letter to the Colossians as he tells married couples to offer their bodies as a living sacrifice holy and pleasing to God. Obvious to the reader of St. Paul, as he mentions various aspects of married love – kindness, humility, gentleness, patience – the priority goes to the virtue of love. In recent times no one has spoken so compellingly of love as has Pope Benedict XVI. He writes – “God’s love for us is fundamental for our lives and it raises important questions about who God is, and who we are, and what marriage is all about. Whenever we talk about love we are hampered by a problem of language – a vast semantic range makes love the most frequently used and most frequently misused of words.” Amidst this multiplicity of meanings, one meaning in particular stands out – the love of a man and a woman joined in marriage, where body and soul are inseparately joined and human beings glimpse an apparently irresistible promise of happiness. To love, then, means to give; to love means to will the good of the beloved; the highest form of human love is friendship and the highest form of human friendship is the married love of husband and wife.

7. In our present cultural context, it is good to remind ourselves that God himself has established marriage as an intimate partnership of life and love. This partnership is rooted in a covenant entered into freely by a man and woman, a covenant of irrevocable personal consent. The God-given benefits and purposes of this covenant have a decisive bearing on the continuation of the human race, on the personal development and eternal destiny of the spouses and on the dignity, peace and prosperity of the family itself and, therefore, on human society as a whole. Accordingly, couples join their minds and hearts and affection as they say “I do” to three significant marital realities – unity, fruitfulness, faithfulness. Their “I do” to unity tells the world that their union seeks its roots in the natural complementarity that exists between a man and a woman and that is nourished by their personal willingness to share their entire life project – what they have and who they are. Their “I do” to fruitfulness means that the service of life is entrusted to them. A married couple share in God’s creative love and become God’s co-workers in the world. Their “I do” to faithfulness echo the words of Jesus – “Let no one separate what God has joined”. This means that in a selfish, individualistic, secular, warring, terrorist world, their “I do” to fruitfulness is a sign of hope that calls out to all the world that self-giving love really works, that sexuality and love and marriage and the family really belong together, and that their marriage is the beginning of a new community, a partnership under the Holy Spirit which can tell all who witness their love and fidelity that the deep divisions that currently prevail in our world and sadly will always prevail because of sin, can in principle and by God’s grace be healed.

8. The Lord Jesus gives to all who intend to follow him in marriage this command – “Love one another as I have loved you”. Spouses, married in Christ, by the grace of the Holy Spirit must take this command to its heights. It is not just a question of living with or for each other; it truly involves a willingness to die for each other. Does not the Master tell us – “There is no greater love than this – to lay down one’s life for one’s friend”. The prevailing philosophy down through history tells us that every living being, every human being, strives for its own fulfillment, its own preservation. But this is not what the Gospel teaches us. The Gospel overturns this common teaching and teaches us that the way to happiness, the way to wholeness, is by way of self-abandonment and not by way of self-preservation. The Lord Jesus says to us in John’s Gospel – “Unless the grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat. But if it dies, it’ll produce much fruit.” Jesus himself is the first instance of this truth. Spouses must follow his lead. Two roads lie open to you to couples married in Christ. One leads to self-preservation; the other to self-abandonment. Another name for self-abandonment is sacrifice. Does not the Gospel tell us that the wise folks build on solid rock? That rock for married couples is sacrificial love. Sacrifice is always irksome and difficult; only love can make it possible; perfect love can make it a joy.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

33rd SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (A) November 16, 2014

1. Three basic questions figure prominently in the lives of thinking persons. First, there is the knowledge question. In this vast and complex world of ours, with competing philosophies and world views, what can I come to know as truth? Then there is the ethics question. In this vast and complex world of ours, which offers me all sorts of exciting goals and seemingly attractive ways to follow, what is the good that I have been made for? What is the good I ought to seek? Finally, there is what we might call the hope question. In this vast and complex world of ours, where hard things happen in the mischances of life, wherein many wonder if human existence has any ultimate meaning, what can I hope for – in whom can I place my trust? In a certain sense the hope question takes priority. If there is no hope, if life merely runs aimlessly from womb to tomb, why should I seek the truth in knowledge, why should I choose what is truly good and thus live an ethical existence?

2. I would like to focus our attention on our second reading this evening – St. Paul’s Letter to the Thessalonians. Paul is most solicitous in prayer for his friends in Thessalonica, and he prays that “God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ may enlighten the eyes of their hearts that they may know what is the hope that belongs to their call, their vocation in Christ”.

3. The Thessalonians had some questions to ask Paul concerning death and life after death. Paul had taught them that Christ had died, that Christ is risen and that Christ will come again. Perhaps the Thessalonians were of the mind that Christ’s Second Coming was imminent. They were worried therefore about some of their loved ones who had died, and the Lord had not yet returned. “What’s going to happen to our loved ones,” they asked? Paul in his Letter patiently repeats the message of the Gospel which he first proclaimed to them when he lived among them. That’s why he can say to the Thessalonians and to us here in light of the Gospel – “You, my brothers and sisters, are not in darkness for that day of the Lord to overtake you like a thief in the night. For all of you are children of the light and children of the day. We are not of the night or of darkness.” As one commentator has said – Paul’s Letter to the Thessalonians could very well be summarized in a few brief words: “holiness and hope in the pagan world of the ancient Roman Empire”.

4. Obviously, the problems that the Thessalonians had are not our problems today. Our problems today center around the teachings of the faith which many seem to ignore in our secular, commercial, warring and terrorist world. If Paul were writing to us today in the world of our time, his message to us would be the same: “holiness and hope in the world of this time”.

5. November is an excellent time to reflect on the question of death. It’s that time of the year when our thoughts focus very much on our loved ones who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith. As we all know, for men and women everywhere, the fact of death is a profound puzzle in the face of which the riddle of human existence grows most acute. We all, of course, experience pain and the advancing deterioration of the mind and body and all the endeavors of technology cannot calm the anxieties to which death gives rise within the human spirit. Some in our society reject the thought of life after death. Some in our society are seeking the medicine of immortality and are convinced that medical science will discover such a remedy. Where will we find the truth of things? The exciting good news of our Catholic faith tells us – there is a cure for death, that the medicine of immortality has been found. The Eucharist we celebrate this very afternoon, the very presence of the risen Christ in our midst, is God’s pledge of eternal life. For us who follow the risen Christ, death’s enigma is resolved in Christ. Death means dying with Christ to whom we often say – “Dying you destroyed our death; rising you restored our life; Lord Jesus, come in glory”. And this Lord who is with us this very evening in word and in sacrament, and who indeed will come again is the very Lord who said to his first disciples – “I am the resurrection and the light, whoever believes in my, even if he dies, shall live and whoever lives and believes in me will never die”. When the Lord first spoke these words at the death of his friend, Lazarus, he said to Martha – Do you believe this? He asks us this very same question. Do we believe what the Lord has said to us? Do we have firm hope in what he has promised us?

6. We who follow Christ are men and women of hope by definition, that is, by the Gospel fact that God has graced us in Baptism with the virtue of hope. This does not mean that hoping is unique to Christians. What is unique is the way we hope and why we hope. Hoping is not wishing; hoping is not the equivalent of an optimistic outlook. The virtue of hope responds to the aspiration of happiness which God our Creator has placed in every human heart. Hope keeps us from discouragement when we think of our ultimate goal in the light of our present weakness. Hope sustains us when we seem to be abandoned. Hope is the gift and power that comes from God when we set our hearts on the Kingdom of Heaven and on the goal of everlasting life. Do you recall the Act of Hope, which perhaps some of us memorized when we first encountered the Catechism – “O my God, relying on your infinite goodness and promises, I hope to obtain pardon for my sins, the help of your grace and the gift of everlasting life through the merits of Jesus Christ, my Lord and Redeemer.” This is why the great Italian poet Dante placed over the gates of hell – “Abandon hope all you who enter here”. Hope rests on the promises God made to us in Christ and in our hoping we rely not on personal strength but on the power of the Holy Spirit. That is why we too must pray – “May the Father of our Lord Jesus enlighten the eyes of our heart so that we may know what is the hope that belongs to our call to holiness of life.”

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Homily on Dedication of St. John Lateran

November 9, 2014

1. It is my guess that today’s feast day, supplanting the 32nd Sunday this year, needs some sort of explanation. November 9 marks the anniversary of the dedication of the cathedral church of Rome by Pope Sylvester in the year 324. This ancient, seemingly ageless, structure is honored as the cathedral church of our Holy Father under his title as “Bishop of Rome”. “It is the mother and head of all the churches” throughout the Catholic world. Today’s feast is understood as a sign of devotion to and of unity with the Chair of Peter – which, as St. Ignatius of Antioch writes, “presides over the whole assembly of charity”.

2. Surely, a first visit to Rome would involve the four major basilicas, all of which date from the 4th Century. The most familiar is the Basilica of St. Peter, built into the side of the Vatican Hill, over the tomb of the Prince of the Apostles. Then there is the Basilica of St. Paul, built outside the City of Rome on the Ostian Way near Tre Fontane, where St. Paul suffered martyrdom. On the Esquiline Hill is the Church of St. Mary, called St. Mary Major because it is the first in honor of all the St. Mary churches throughout the world. Then, of course, there is the most significant of the four, the Church of the Most Holy Savior, which we recall today. When it was rededicated after it had been severely damaged, it was placed under the heavenly protection of St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist. Its original site was on some property of the Laterani family, hence its popular title – St. John Lateran.

3. Three actual church buildings should be of great significance for all of us who worship here Sunday after Sunday. As we gather at our St. John the Evangelist Church here in Wellesley Hills, we say to God our Father in prayer – “We thank you now for this house of prayer in which you bless your family as we come to you on pilgrimage. Here you reveal your presence by sacramental signs and make us one with you through the unseen bond of grace.” But St. John the Evangelist Church is not some isolated reality. We are united with our bishop and with all who make up our diocese. Hence we venerate and esteem our bishop’s cathedral – the Cathedral of the Holy Cross. But the church in Boston is in communion with the Bishop of Rome who presides over the Church Catholic throughout the world. Hence our reverence for the Pope’s Cathedral – St. John Lateran.

4. Today’s feast reminds us that God’s Church, though we think of buildings, is much more than buildings. You and I as Christ’s members make up the true and living Church of God. We, too, constitute a House of God. Just think of what was done when St. John the Evangelist Parish was built over 140 years ago. It is not unlike what was done when you and I, as followers of the Lord Jesus, first encountered Christ the Lord. When we first came to believe, as St. Augustine reminds us, we were like timber and stone taken from woods and mountains. Through Baptism, catechetical instruction and the sacraments, we were shaped, leveled and smoothed as by the hands of carpenters and craftsmen. But, as Augustine reminds us, Christians do not make a house of God until they are one in charity. The timber and stone must fit together in an orderly plan; they must be joined in perfect harmony; they must give each other the support of love – or no one would enter the building. When one sees the stones and beams of a building holding together in a secure way, one enters the building with an easy mind; one is not afraid of it falling down in ruin.
5. In our first reading, the Prophet Ezekiel envisions the waters flowing from the temple, God’s dwelling place, and bringing forth life and growth and salvation. In our Gospel reading, Jesus speaks about the temple of his own body, although his hearers thought he was speaking about the Jewish temple. Jesus is the living sanctuary of which the temple in Jerusalem was the sign and the figure. In our second reading, St. Paul speaks to the Corinthian disciples and to us too – “We are God’s temple, the Spirit of God dwelling within us. The temple of God is holy and we are that temple.”

6. I was reading the other day about a new cathedral in the diocese of Oakland, California. It is entitled – the Cathedral of Christ the Light. This cathedral, and every parish church no matter how humble, is meant to be a place of encounter between God and his people. This happens in Jesus Christ and particularly in the great sacraments in which we are incorporated into the Body of Christ – Baptism and Eucharist. There are four ways that we encounter Christ when we enter into any church building: Christ is present in the gathered assembly of his people; Christ is present in the Holy Scriptures; Christ is present in the person of the minister; and, most especially, Christ is present in the Eucharistic species that are consecrated during the Eucharistic celebration. The altar, of course, is at the heart of our worship. It is a table of joy where friends of Christ may hasten to cast upon our living Lord their burdens and cares, so as to take up their journey restored. It is a place of communion and peace, so that those who share the Body and Blood of Christ may be filled with his Spirit and grow together in love. It is a source of unity and friendship where God’s people may gather as one to share God’s great gift of mutual love. Joined together with Christ in Baptism and Eucharist we are now called by God to bring the light of Christ into all the communities in which we dwell – the family, the workplace, the neighborhood, the town or the city. Our townsfolk and we ourselves are always going in and out of various building – the drugstore, the hardware store, the supermarket, the public library. Not many of our townsfolk join us going in and out of St. John’s Church, yet this is where we find the source of our great happiness – the very presence of the Lord Jesus who is our way, our truth and our life. How can we share this happiness with others?

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Homily for All Souls Day

November 2, 2014

1. Yesterday, we kept festival in honor of All Saints. We joined with the angels in joyful praise to the Son of God. Our Preface Prayer gave us an excellent summation of our celebration. It told us in words addressed to God the Father – "Around your throne, the saints, our brothers and sisters, sing your praise forever. Their glory fills us with joy, and their communion with us in your Church gives us inspiration and strength, as we hasten on our pilgrimage of faith, eager to meet them." The Feast of All Saints underscores two fundamental truths:
(a) Our basic vocation, our very reason for existence, is holiness of life; and
(b) We are a pilgrim people. We have here in Wellesley Hills no lasting home. Our
destiny in history is God and his gift of eternal life.

2. Today, we will celebrate the Feast of All Souls. We remember our loved ones who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith. We say in prayer to God – "You are the glory of believers and the life of the just. Your Son redeemed us by his dying and rising. Since our sisters and brothers believed in Christ’s resurrection, let them now share in the joys and blessings of the life to come." The Feast of All Souls underscores two fundamental truths:
(a) Each one of us must say – "At some particular moment I shall die; at any
particular moment I could die"; and
(b) Though we cannot choose the circumstances of our death, we can and
will choose the sort of death we will die.

3. Theologians ask the question – “How do we think of a human life in relationship to the eternal God? Although our life is but a moment or a sigh in God’s perspective, our life of 50 or 100 years becomes complete and whole only in our death. It is at the time of death that we can face God knowing at last who we are. But this is a topic about which many of us do not even wish to think. We may even try to deny it when we encounter death in others or when it is approaching for ourselves.” (Commonweal, September 12, 2008).

4. For men and women everywhere, the fact of death is a profound puzzle; in the face of the riddle of human history, it grows most acute. Sometimes death comes after a prolonged illness and we ask – Why death is so slow in coming? At other times, death comes so suddenly and we ask – Why death for this person at this time under these circumstances? We all, of course, experience pain and the advancing deterioration of the body, and all the endeavors of technology cannot calm the anxiety to which death gives rise to the human spirit. Even the prolongation of biological life would be unable to satisfy the desire for higher life, for that life that lasts which we instinctively recognize as part and parcel of the human condition. For the Christian, death’s enigma is resolved in Christ. Death means dying with Christ to whom we often say at the Eucharist – “Dying you destroyed our death; rising you restored our life; Lord Jesus come in glory!” And this Lord of ours, who is with us now in word and in sacrament and who indeed will come again, is the very Lord who assured his first followers – “I am the resurrection and the life, the one who believes in me, even if he or she dies, shall live; and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die”.

5. I have already said that we cannot choose the circumstances of our death, but we will choose the sort of death we will die. What does this mean? From one point-of-view, common to men and women everywhere, death lies outside our freedom. An elderly person dies after years of a debilitating illness; a young person at the dawn of adulthood is cut down by a tragic accident; a thirty-three year old man is nailed to a cross and dies by crucifixion between two thieves. In all of these instances we speak of death as necessity, death as natural phenomenon. However, this is only a fraction of the story. Death is also and most importantly a mystery of Christ and therefore an act of our freedom and so we begin to understand death as freedom, death as liberty. When we focus on the death of the Lord Jesus, we notice first what the Lord Jesus said about his own death. Even though evil men were going to nail him to the cross, he told his disciples – “The Father loves me for this that I lay down my life to take it up again. No one takes it from me. I lay it down freely. I have the power to lay it down and I have the power to take it up again.” The Lord Jesus, conqueror of death, is telling us who follow him that death does lie within our human freedom. Did Jesus die the death he chose to die in terms of his being nailed to a cross? The answer is “No”. In terms of his lifelong obedience to the Father, even unto death, the answer is “Yes”. And so it is with ourselves. We will not choose the events of our last days on earth, but in the course of our lives as Christians, we make significant choices to live in and for the Lord. At Baptism we were plunged into the mystery of the Lord’s death. Every Eucharist we proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes again. In our struggle to live for God and to die to sin, in our grace-inspired efforts to do the truth in love, we choose both life and death in the Lord. Because we see our calling as the grace to live and die in the Lord, the event we call our biological death is raised to the level of a divine mystery. The Christian’s task is to understand this mystery and to perform it well in the light of everyday life. To die well means to live well. To live well means to love well, to follow the Lord’s command of love, to follow the Lord’s command of forgiveness, to put the Gospel to work in our personal lives, in our family lives, in our social lives, in our economic lives, in our political lives. In the end, our choices, our behaviors, and the actions of others towards us can make all the difference – whoever we are or whatever we do. It might help us to note that every human being all over the globe at this particular time in human history is in one of two spiritual situations. As St. Paul reminds us in his Letter to the Romans: A person is either “in the Spirit” or in the flesh. These two expressions have definitive meanings. “In the Spirit” means we are friends with God under the grace of the Holy Spirit; or we are alienated from God under the regime of sin. Think of the two realities called grace and glory: grace this side of the grave, and glory beyond the grave. What then is grace: Grace is glory in exile. What is glory? Glory is grace gone home.

6. What then on this feast day of All Souls are we to say about death? Perhaps we could recite to ourselves the opening lines of one of the poems of John Donne, the English writer from several centuries ago. John Donne composed his poem in medieval English. He entitled it “Death Be Not Proud”. And so we read:

• Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
• Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
• For those whom thou think’st thou doest overthrow,
• Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)


1. We can call the 22nd Chapter of Matthew’s Gospel the chapter of the three questions. The Pharisees were plotting how they might trap Jesus in his speech. So they asked him – Teacher, give us your opinion. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not? Last Sunday we reflected on this question and on the Lord’s response. The second question came from the Sadducees who did not believe in the resurrection of the dead. They offered Jesus a hypothetical case about a wife and her seven husbands – and they asked – though not believing in the resurrection – Whose wife will she be at the resurrection? The Pharisees tried again in the question asked in our Gospel reading today – Which commandment in the law is the greatest? Although the Lord was asked about one commandment, he replied by giving two. These two commandments were not original with Jesus. Rather, Jesus quotes from Chapter 6 of the Book of Deuteronomy – You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength; and from Chapter 19 of the Book of Leviticus – You shall love your neighbor as yourself. What was original with Jesus was his putting these two commandments together as the two sides of one coin. It is interesting to note how St. Paul expresses the commandment of love in his Letter to the Romans. He writes: “Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments – You shall not commit adultery; you shall not kill; you shall not steal; you shall not covet, and whatever other commandment there may be – are summed up in this saying: You shall love your neighbor as yourself; love does no evil to the neighbor; hence love is the fulfillment of the law.”

2. No one in recent times has spoken so compellingly of love as our present Holy Father Emeritus in his first encyclical letter, entitled “God is Love”. This title is taken from the I Letter of John: “God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God and God abides in him”. These words express with remarkable clarity the heart of Christian faith: The Christian image of God and the resulting image of mankind and its destiny. As I John expresses it – “We have come to know and to believe in the love God has for us”.

3. What is the meaning of this little word "love"? We Americans tend to assume that love is found only in our feelings – a love relationship, for example, is good when it feels right, so we say. What happens to a feel-right love when the needs of two individuals come into conflict? Given the way the Lord God has created us, we have both the passion of love and the virtue of love. Our passions are our friends although they can lead us astray. If we did not have passions, we would all be as attractive as telephone poles. The passion of love is good when it promotes the virtue of love. It is the virtue of love that enables us to love God and our neighbor even when our feelings and emotions are moving in the opposite direction. God has made us body and soul so it is not the spirit alone nor the body alone, but it is the person, the human being, the unified creature composed of body and soul, who loves. Only when both dimensions are truly united does the exercise of love attain its full stature.

4. When we first begin to love, we go out to get. Our Holy Father calls this “possessive” love, ascending love. C. S. Lewis calls it “need” love. More importantly there is gift love which centers not on the lover but on the beloved. The challenge for one who loves is make progress by the grace of the Spirit from need love to gift love. St. Ignatius of Loyola incorporates this notion into his Spiritual Exercises. In the course of the second week of the Exercises, the retreatant comes to understand how good God is for him or for her. This is a form of self-seeking love, but it is a good self-seeking love. Other kinds of self-seeking love can lead us astray. It is only in the third and fourth weeks of the Exercises that the retreatant comes to realize that God is good – period, that God is all good in himself and deserving of all my love.

5. St. Bernard has a wonderful description of love. He writes – “Love is sufficient of itself; love gives pleasure by itself and because of itself. Love is its own merit, its own reward. Love looks for no cause outside itself, no effect beyond itself. Love’s profit lies in its practice. I love because I love. I love that I may love.”

6. The Gospel question, of course, in all of this love talk is this – And who is my neighbor? Pope Benedict suggests quite simply in response – “Anyone who needs me and whom I can help is my neighbor”. And this question and answer should lead us to the 25th Chapter of Matthew’s Gospel and to the great parable of the Last Judgment in which love becomes the criteria for the definitive decision about a human life’s worth or lack thereof. Jesus identifies himself with those in need, those who are hungry or thirsty, those who are strangers and those in prison. As you did it to one of the least of these, my brethren, you did it to me. In this way, love of God and love of neighbor become one. In the least of the brethren we find Jesus himself and in Jesus we find God.

7. The command to love God and neighbor find concrete expression in the Sacrament of Marriage – described by Pope John Paul II as “a noble, high and sacred calling”. God has intended that the Sacrament of Marriage be a living sign of Christ’s love for his Church, for all his members, and for the entire world. It is precisely in their married love that husband and wife bring each other to holiness of life. A sacramental marriage isn’t an accident; it is not something “by chance”. God chose this particular man and this particular woman to be a sacrament sign – showing forth to all who can see the living presence of God for the wider world.

8. Sometimes, I conclude my wedding homilies by suggesting a meditation on the Sacred Heart of Jesus as the symbol of God’s great love for the world, a symbol of Christ’s love for his heavenly Father and for each one of his members as he gave himself in sacrifice for the world’s salvation. Prevailing philosophies down through history often tell us that every living being strives for its own preservation and fulfillment, but this is not what the Gospel teaches. The Gospel teaches, through the imagery of the Sacred Heart, that the way to happiness and holiness is not so much by self-preservation but by self-abandonment. Christ’s heart saves us indeed, but it saves us by giving itself away in love. This is what makes love truly sacrificial. This is what the saints have discovered to their great joy. This is what marriage is supposed to proclaim. Sacrifice, as we know, is always difficult and irksome; only love can make it easy, and perfect love can make it a joy.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014


October 19, 2014

1. In the Gospels we often find Jesus in conflict with both religious and secular authorities. However, never does he challenge legitimate authority but only the ways individuals may exercise that authority. In fact, the Lord Jesus instructs his followers to fulfill lawful civic duties. Caesar is not always the enemy. Our first and third readings today provide the springboard for our reflections. They concern difficult political realities in scriptural times and they speak a similar message to us as well.

2. Notice what the Prophet Isaiah has written: "Thus says the Lord to his anointed, Cyrus… I have called you by your name, giving you a title though you know me not." Who is this Cyrus and why does he receive the title – the anointed one – an expression the Old Testament used with reference to Israel’s kings. But Cyrus was not a king of Israel. Like Alexander the Great and Caesar Augustus in later times, Cyrus in the fifth century before Christ was the most powerful ruler in the then known world. He was king of the Persians, who had conquered the Babylonians, who were the ones who had conquered Israel, destroyed Jerusalem and led the Jews into the dark days of the Babylonian captivity. Cyrus was an enlightened despot. He liberated the Jews, permitted them to return to their land and helped them to rebuild Jerusalem and its temple. This was a new political experience for the Israelites. They found themselves under a pagan ruler who was chosen and in fact praised by God, whom God made – though Cyrus did not know the Lord – God’s own agent for the advancement of God’s own purposes and the rebuilding of God’s people, Israel. (Parenthetically, it is interesting to note that Persia is really Iran in our warring, terrorist world today.)

3. Our Gospel presents another sort of political issue. Out of malice, the Pharisees sought to trap Jesus in his speech, hoping he might say something hostile about the hated Romans who ruled Palestine at that time. The story of the coins with the inscription of Caesar is familiar to us all. The Lord instructs his hearers that both God and Caesar are to be respected. The same sort of question is asked of us today. As Catholics in the United States take on an evermore-prominent role in the economic, educational and political mainstreams of our country, we who are Catholic find ourselves discussing the relationship of our Church to the American society in which we live. The Lord gives us a sacred principle. With his help we must work out the specifics.

4. We should note that over two millennia the Church has lived under every conceivable political structure – the Roman Empire of the Caesars, the Barbarian rulers of the unchristianized West, the Holy Roman Empire, benevolent and hostile kings and queens, the developing democracies of the 18th and 19th Centuries, the Fascism, Nazism and Communism of the last century. What about our own country and its democratic government which is becoming evermore secular and consumerist? If the Lord Jesus were to look at our coins or paper money today, He would see not Caesar but the images of various presidents and He would read the Latin inscription "E pluribus unum" – one country from many different states – at first thirteen, and now fifty. Our culture is a pluralistic culture made up of many nationalities, languages, philosophies and religions of all kinds and – probably for the majority – no religion whatsoever. In such pluralism, we find a civic posture which leaves matters of religious beliefs and philosophical convictions outside the pale of official public concerns. Originally – unlike the wooden-headed axiom about the so-called wall of separation between church and state – this does not mean that religious beliefs and philosophical convictions were of no importance and should have no influence on corporate or individual behavior. Rather, it meant that government is limited and religion and philosophy and political theory and editorial opinion all lie outside government jurisdiction. This traditional understanding is threatened in our day by the reduction of natural law values, by political correctness and by the popular embracing of many aspects of what has been termed "a culture of death".

5. The question remains – What is the relationship between faith and culture, better perhaps we should say – church and state, that is, how are we to do justice to God and to Caesar? The Catholic Church is not a sect. Catholics by very definition cannot refrain from societal participation. This mission belongs primarily to laymen and women. By their very calling they are to seek God’s kingdom by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering temporal affairs in accord with God’s teaching. They live in the ordinary circumstances of family and social life from which the very web of their existence is woven. Forty years ago this very month, the Second Vatican Council said to lay persons in the Church – "This Council exhorts Christians, as citizens of two cities, to strive to discharge their earthly duties conscientiously and in response to the Gospel spirit. They are mistaken who, knowing that we have here no abiding city but seek one which is to come, think that they may therefore shirk their earthly responsibilities. For they are forgetting that by the faith itself they are more obliged than ever to measure up to these duties, each according to his proper vocation. Nor, on the contrary, are they any less wide of the mark who think that religion consists in acts of worship alone and in the discharge of certain moral obligations, and who imagine they can plunge themselves into earthly affairs in such a way as to imply that these are altogether divorced from the religious life. This split between the faith which many profess and their daily lives deserves to be counted among the more serious errors of our age."

6. What does this challenge involve? We cannot be true believers if we are unwilling to translate our beliefs into social practice. We cannot be good citizens of our two cities if we are unwilling to have our voices heard in the public square. We must be ready to answer with courage both the challenge of the Church and the demands of Caesar. In a word, we must do justice to God and to Caesar.