Tuesday, December 15, 2015



I’ve often thought that old theologians are like old generals who don’t really die but somehow disappear. The expression of course, I think, comes from General MacArthur but I may be wrong, but, if not, I never understood what he meant. I have long been an admirer of the work Avery Dulles accomplished in the realm of theology here in our own country. He was a thoughtful and careful scholar in his many books, articles and other publications over the course of four score and ten years. He certainly was the dean of Catholic theologians here in the United States. The fact that Pope John Paul II named him a Cardinal was a tribute to Avery himself but, as he himself said, a tribute to the necessary but often hidden work of those who do the work of theology in the Church, who see their vocations as theologians as ecclesial vocations.

In this column, my interest in not to write about Dulles’ theological works but to talk about his conversion to the Catholic, faith which took place when he was a student at Harvard University. He thought of himself as an unbeliever, an atheist, when he began to study at Harvard, unlike his father John Foster Dulles, who was a leading lay voice of the Presbyterian Church in the United States. John Foster Dulles, you may remember, was Secretary of State under President Eisenhower. Several others in the Dulles’ family also served as Secretary of State in the United States which takes us back in history. After his conversion, Avery wrote his first book entitled “Testimonial to Grace”. Not every convert comes into the Church the same way. Dulles’ conversion was very much the result of an intellectual experience. I mention it at this time because it centers on several basic experiences in the world of philosophy and theology. The following observations come from America Magazine, March 5, 2001, which I have in my files, an interview that Father James Martin conducted with Father Dulles when he was made a Cardinal. He was asked the question – How did God work to move you from an appreciation of philosophical texts to embracing Catholicism? This is what he said:

“The move toward philosophy was for me the presupposition of religious faith. I don’t know that it always has to go that way, but that is the way it went with me.

The first stage was Aristotle convincing me that the mind was a faculty that penetrated reality, so that when one was thinking correctly one was entering more deeply into reality itself. He helped me see that our ideas are not merely subjective but that they reflect the structure of the world and the universe. The so-called metaphysical realism of Aristotle was a first stage for me, and it gave me a confidence in human reason.

The second stage was Plato, who basically said that there was a transcendent order of what is morally right and wrong and that one has an unconditional obligation to do that which is right, even when it seems to be against one’s self-interest. That set me thinking about where that obligation comes from. It seemed to come from something higher than humanity. We don’t impose it on ourselves. And no other human being can impose it on us or exempt us from it. So there is an absolute order to which we are subject. This seemed to imply an absolute Being—and a personal being to whom we are accountable. And this set me thinking that there is a God who is a law-giver and a judge, who knows everything that we do and who will punish or reward us duly. In this way I found a basis in natural theology.

Then after that I read the Gospels, and it seemed to me that they taught all of this, and more. The revelation given in Jesus Christ was a reaffirmation of all these principles I had learned in Greek philosophy—but the Gospels added the idea that God was loving and merciful and had redeemed us in Christ, offering us an opportunity to get back on board when we had slipped and fallen overboard. That’s a very brief sketch of what I tried to lay out in greater detail in my Testimonial to Grace.”

He was then asked the question – How did you move from those general Christian beliefs to Catholicism more specifically? This is how he replied:

“I studied quite a lot of history in connection with my work in early Renaissance studies, which was my special field. But since I had to do the patristic and medieval background for the Renaissance, I had to read something of the Greek Fathers and a good deal of Augustine and the medieval tradition, especially Bernard, Thomas Aquinas and Dante. And, in particular, for my dissertation I worked on the Renaissance philosopher Pico della Mirandola, who had his roots deep in medieval scholasticism. So I got to know the medieval church quite well and was strongly attracted to it, particularly Thomas Aquinas. Also I studied the Reformation and so learned about the Reformers: I read Luther, Calvin and the decrees of the Council of Trent. I found my sympathies were always on the Catholic side and felt that was where I belonged.

Also, I ran into contemporary Catholicism through the books of writers such as Jacques Maritain and Étienne Gilson, both of whom enjoyed very high prestige at Harvard when I was studying there. My professors had great esteem for them and I myself found them extremely helpful in applying Christian principles to the modern world in many spheres, from aesthetics all the way to politics and international affairs. I found them full of light.

Finally, I was living in Cambridge, Mass., which at that time, and perhaps still today, is a very Catholic city. The Catholic Church had a hold on its people that no Protestant church seemed to have. The people were attending church services in huge numbers and going to confession, communion, Benediction and Holy Week services and things like that. And I was attracted in many ways to the liturgy, too. So it was a combination of all those factors, without much personal contact with any individual Catholics—I didn’t really have any close friends who were practicing Catholics. It was a kind of a solitary journey, and then I later discovered that others were making the same journey, though I did not realize it at the time.”

It’s interesting to think, in light of all the above, about the number of folks walking up and down beside the Charles River, not to mention all sorts of millions in the big cities of the world, who know nothing about the Good News of Christ the Savior. Why are we surprised that people do not understand our faith or are hostile to what we Catholics stand for? What these folks need, so we say, is evangelization – that is, hearing the Good News about Jesus and then comes the task of catechesis as folks learn to understand the Good News. A question – What is our role in all this?



In the liturgical calendar, January 1 has had many titles: it is the Octave Day of Christmas, the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus, and the Feast of the Lord’s Circumcision. Since Vatican II the liturgy has retrieved a venerable title for January 1 which celebrates Our Lady’s divine maternity. Thus the feast day that used to be more Christological is now seemingly a Marian feast under the title of Mary – Mother of God.

In recent decades, beginning with the threats of the Cold War, January 1 has also been observed as World Peace Day. The initiation of World Peace Day was taken by Pope Paul VI and continued every year during the long reign of John Paul II. Pope Benedict XVI continued this important tradition with the 2006 World Day of Peace message, under the title – “In Truth, Peace”. Speaking for himself Pope Benedict wrote as follows: “This, my first message for the World Day of Peace, is meant to follow in the path of my predecessor. With it I wish to reiterate the steadfast resolve of the Holy See to continue serving the cause of peace. The very name Benedict, which I chose on the day of my election to the Chair of Peter, is a sign of my personal commitment to peace. In taking this name, I wanted to evoke St. Benedict, a patron saint of Europe who, through the monastic movement, inspired the civilization of peace. I also wanted to evoke the memory of Pope Benedict XV who condemned World War I as ‘useless slaughter’ and worked diligently for the universal acknowledgement of the lofty demand of peace.” Pope Benedict’s 2007 World Day of Peace message was masterful. It bore the title “The Human Person, the Heart of Peace”. It made luminously clear the truth that we cannot leave the work of peace and justice to political figures only or to the so-called experts. If it is true that the heart of peace is found potentially within the human person, each of us, especially at the Eucharist, must say – “Then peace must begin with me”. As the Holy Father wrote – “A fundamental element of building peace is the recognition of the essential equality of human persons springing from their common transcendental dignity. Peace is based on the rights of all.” The Pope’s 2008 message was entitled – “The Human Family, A Community of Peace”. As is obvious in our individualistic and hedonistic society, which is so hostile to the institution of family and the institution of marriage and the non-transferable role of the family in human society, the role of the family for world peace is essential.

We come now in the past reflection to the Holy Father’s 2009 World Day of Peace message. It is entitled – “Fighting Poverty to Build Peace”. The text reads as follows: “Once again, as the new year begins, I want to extend good wishes for peace to people everywhere. With this Message I would like to propose a reflection on the theme: Fighting Poverty to Build Peace. Back in 1993, my venerable Predecessor Pope John Paul II, in his Message for the World Day of Peace that year, drew attention to the negative repercussions for peace when entire populations live in poverty. Poverty is often a contributory factor or a compounding element in conflicts, including armed ones. In turn, these conflicts fuel further tragic situations of poverty. ‘Our world’, he wrote, ‘shows increasing evidence of another grave threat to peace: many individuals and indeed whole peoples are living today in conditions of extreme poverty. The gap between rich and poor has become more marked, even in the most economically developed nations. This is a problem which the conscience of humanity cannot ignore, since the conditions in which a great number of people are living are an insult to their innate dignity and as a result are a threat to the authentic and harmonious progress of the world community’

In this context, fighting poverty requires attentive consideration of the complex phenomenon of globalization. This is important from a methodological standpoint, because it suggests drawing upon the fruits of economic and sociological research into the many different aspects of poverty. Yet the reference to globalization should also alert us to the spiritual and moral implications of the question, urging us, in our dealings with the poor, to set out from the clear recognition that we all share in a single divine plan: we are called to form one family in which all – individuals, peoples and nations – model their behavior according to the principles of fraternity and responsibility.

This perspective requires an understanding of poverty that is wide-ranging and well articulated. If it were a question of material poverty alone, then the social sciences, which enable us to measure phenomena on the basis of mainly quantitative data, would be sufficient to illustrate its principal characteristics. Yet we know that other, non-material forms of poverty exist which are not the direct and automatic consequence of material deprivation. For example, in advanced wealthy societies, there is evidence of marginalization, as well as affective, moral and spiritual poverty, seen in people whose interior lives are disoriented and who experience various forms of malaise despite their economic prosperity. On the one hand, I have in mind what is known as ‘moral underdevelopment’, and on the other hand the negative consequences of ‘superdevelopment’. Nor can I forget that, in so-called ‘poor’ societies, economic growth is often hampered by cultural impediments which lead to inefficient use of available resources. It remains true, however, that every form of externally imposed poverty has at its root a lack of respect for the transcendent dignity of the human person. When man is not considered within the total context of his vocation, and when the demands of a true ‘human ecology’ are not respected, the cruel forces of poverty are unleashed, as is evident in certain specific areas of the world today.” All these words of Benedict XVI certainly can be most helpful as we learn the lesson he’s teaching us, i.e., in order to build peace, we must fight poverty.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015



The season of Advent is the great good news, the amazing story of the eternal Son of God and his human-divine adventures in human time. Time, of course, is part of God’s creation. God’s necessary being is timeless. St. Augustine eloquently expresses the mystery of Christ and time when he writes – “He who is the great and eternal day came from the great and endless day of eternity into our short day of time.” Advent has a two-fold character: 1) it is a season to prepare for Christmas when Christ’s first entrance into human history is remembered; and 2) as a season when that remembrance directs our minds and hearts to await Christ’s second coming at time’s end. Christ’s first coming belongs to the past. His second coming lies hidden in the future. In the meanwhile, in the interim (and this means our lives here and now), the risen Christ meets us and we him in sacramental mystery.

On the day of his glorious ascension into heaven, the risen Christ made two promises to his fearful, awe-struck disciples: 1) though he was leaving them, he would send them another helper, namely the Holy Spirit who would bring to their minds all that the Lord Jesus had taught them in his earthly sojourn with them; and 2) though he was leaving them in a bodily, tangible, sensible manner, he would never abandon them but would remain with them in a new presence, a real and true presence, a sacramental presence.

How remarkable is the sacramental presence of the risen Christ! It is at the heart of our Sunday worship. At the center of all that we do at the Sunday Liturgy lies the act, the action from the power of the Holy Spirit, of making the Lord Jesus, risen now in glory, really, truly, sacramentally present on the altars of the Catholic world in his life, death and resurrection. As the Second Vatican Council teaches us, to accomplish this great work of liturgy, Christ is always present in his Church, especially in her liturgical celebrations. He is present in the sacrifice of the Mass, not only in the person of his minister, but especially under the Eucharistic species. By his power he is present in the sacraments, so that when a human being baptizes, it is really Christ who baptizes. He is present in his word, since it is he himself who speaks when the Holy Scriptures are read in the Church. He is present when the Church prays and sings, for he promised: “wherever two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in their midst”.

We describe Christ’s three comings in terms of the following words: history, mystery and glory. What about this word “mystery”? When we speak, e.g., about the Agatha Christie mysteries, we think of such events as the discovery of the body of somebody who has been shot but we have no idea who did the shooting. Mystery in terms that the Church uses is very much like the word sacramental. A sacrament is an outward sign – visible, tangible, detectable – of unseen, hidden divine reality. And so we speak of the mystery of Christ. To Pilate Jesus was one of the Jews of the day, but not in favor with the Jews of authority. To us who see him in the light of faith, he is the Word of God who became flesh for our salvation. The sacrifice of the cross and the sacrifice we offer at Sunday Eucharist are really one and the same sacrifice except for the manner of offering. St. Paul speaks about the mystery of God, the mystery of Christ, hidden for ages and generations past but now made manifest to God’s holy ones. To the Ephesians Paul speaks of his ministry to bring to the attention of people all over the world God’s plan hidden from the very beginning. By God’s plan he means, of course, the will of God, the purpose of God, God’s vision of things for our redemption. Throughout the liturgical year we have the opportunity to share in what we call the mysteries of Christ, those actions which St. John’s Gospel calls “signs”, outward, visible actions of Jesus but with deeper and more significant divine meaning for our salvation. In fact, a good name for the new year we call the liturgical year could be “Christ in his mysteries”, God’s plan of salvation as it unfolds at Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, during Lent, Holy Week, Easter and Pentecost. In this way, Christ’s mysteries become our own as he invites us to himself as branches on the vine, as members of his body which is the Church. He lived his mysteries for us and now involves us in his mysteries. The challenge of Advent, in fact the challenge of the entire liturgical year is this: how are we to pray our way through the new liturgical year which is upon us? The answer to this question could be to say with one writer – “the mysteries of the life of Jesus are of great importance for the believer. This is because the believer’s personal relation to the risen Christ makes no sense without the earthly history of the risen Christ. The resurrection makes eternal the earthly life Christ lived, without which the risen Lord would remain anonymous.” In praying through the mysteries of the life of Jesus, our focus is always on the contemporary Christ, that is, our risen Lord. We do not focus on the baby Jesus at Christmas, or the preaching of Jesus in his public life or the suffering Jesus on the cross; rather, we concentrate on the risen Christ who once was the baby Jesus, the preaching Jesus, the suffering Jesus. The Lord is who he is in glory in virtue of the past experience of his earthly life. By focusing on his earthly mysteries and by receiving him in Holy Communion, we grow in his likeness and find our place in the history of salvation being carried on in our day.

Let us begin a new liturgical year as we remember: “It is with Christ that we journey, and we walk with our steps in his footprints: he it is who is our guide and the burning flame which illumines our paths; pioneer of salvation, he it is who draws us towards heaven, towards the Father, and promises success to those who seek in faith. We shall one day be that which he is in glory, if by faithful imitation of his example, we become true Christians, other Christs.”



Pope Innocent VI was bishop of Rome in the mid-decades of the 14th Century. He was a good hymnologist as well. He is the author of the beautiful but very brief eucharistic hymn which for several centuries was sung in the West after the Consecration at Mass. It is known by its Latin title – "Ave Verum Corpus". In the 19th Century it was set to music by the incomparable Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. This hymn celebrates the truth of things, literally the realities we associate with our Catholic faith. The first line celebrates the reality of the mystery of the Incarnation – "Hail true Body born of the Virgin Mary". The second line celebrates the mystery of the cross – "Hail true Body, truly suffered, sacrificed on the cross for mankind”. The third line continues the theme of the Passion – “Hail true Body whose pierced side flowed with water and blood”. The fourth and final line directly reflects the Eucharist – “Let it be for us, in consideration, a foretaste of death”. Jesus whom we call the Christ is no mythical figure. Neither is his heavenly Father who mysteriously identified himself to the prophet Moses in the words "I AM". Neither is his earthly mother who said to Gabriel, "I am the handmaid of the Lord." The Lord Jesus is for real – real in his birth, real in his dying and rising, real in the Eucharist we will receive this very day, foreshadowing God’s gift of eternal life. The "Ave Verum Corpus" celebrates these realities.

I would call your attention to one of the prayers that we find in the Sacramentary at this time of Christmas. We say to God our Father – "Fill our hearts with your love, and as you revealed to us the coming of your Son as man, so lead us through his suffering and death to the glory of his resurrection". Any welcoming of the Lord at Christmas carries with it the acceptance of Christ’s cross.

For a Christmas meditation, I would propose a reflection on what I shall call the law of the cross. What does this mean? In shorthand, it goes something like this – All of human history, everybody’s human history, is a story of progress and decline. Because of sin, decline, disorder, evil become the conquerors. Justice comes along to try to right the wrongs, but the enmities, the rivalries, the hostilities that come from sin continue to conquer. Just look at the front pages of our newspapers. Better still, look in the mirror and try to examine the human heart. Where justice fails, only love can prevail, only love can wipe the slate clean of sin. This is what is meant by the law of the cross. Through Christ’s life, death and resurrection, God wipes the slate clean, for Christ is the true Lamb who takes away the sins of the world. In other words, God has introduced into human history a process of reversal. The consequences of our sins become the very means of our salvation. The prime instance is Jesus. By willingly accepting the consequences of our sins, though sinless himself, he passed through suffering and death; and God’s power at work in Jesus made this the passageway to resurrection and life. S. Paul puts it this way – God showed his love for us in this that while we were yet sinners. Christ died for us. The law of the cross works something like this – Two persons have a quarrel. As long as each party returns evil for evil, the quarrel escalates, the situation worsens, no fresh start is possible. Only a process of reversal will bring peace. Only when one party is willing to love one’s enemies and to pray for one’s persecutors, only then will the decline of evil be checked, only then will redemption be effected, only then will our own human history make progress towards God’s kingdom. (A note of gratitude is needed here to Father Bernard Lonergan who directed me in my theological studies. The Law of the Cross is an important part of Lonergan’s Christology.)

This is what happened in Jesus. This is what he wills to effect in us. This is what Christmas is all about. We cooperate with God’s redeeming power by returning good for evil, thus transforming the evil that surrounds us into the cross through which alone we are saved. This was a scandal to some of the Jews of Jesus’ time. This was all folly to the Greeks. To those who believed, Jew or Greek, this was the power of God and the wisdom of God. The law of the cross is still folly for so many in our day. The philosopher Nietzsche would reject Christian humility and self-giving love as the religion of slaves who are really envious of the rich and the powerful. Karl Marx would reject Christian patience and the doctrine of the cross as ideological invention to facilitate the enriching of the rich and the enslaving of the poor who are thus deceived by Christian teaching and drugged by the empty hope of abundant life beyond the grave.

The feast of Christmas makes an affirmation and asks a question. The affirmation is this – Christ Jesus came into this world to save sinners. In other words, God out of love wipes our slates clean. The question is this – Are we willing to do the same for our brothers and sisters? Only those who understand the law of the cross can truly say – Merry Christmas.



What is a problem? What is a mystery? What does the adjective “secular” mean? What does the adjective “sacral” mean? We all know what problems are. We have wrestled with mathematics, physics in our early school days. We probably have read our share of mysteries where murders have been solved. Not so with a mystery. God is a mystery. When we say that God is a mystery we’re saying that we are incapable of expressing who God really is, although we can make good progress, with thoughtful reflection, in saying what God is not. No matter what we know of God, in the end we must say that God is incomprehensible. The adjective sacral refers to something that pertains to God or the worship of God. The chalice at Mass is sacral. The twelve or so banks here in Wellesley are all quite secular. (If you visit Rome and walk down the Via del Corso you will se a huge building with the sign – Il Banco di Santo Spirito. Don’t be fooled by the name. The Holy Spirit is sacral; the bank of the Holy Spirit is purely secular.)

Obviously a column in a bulletin is not the place for a treatise on Incarnation. The purpose of this column is to make us feel more at home with the translation of the New Roman Missal which deals with the Incarnation in the second part of the Creed. The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of Incarnation as follows: The fact that the Son of God assumed human nature and became man in order to accomplish our salvation in that same human nature. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is both true God and true man, not part God or part man. The Apostolic preaching spoke about Incarnation to Jewish hearers who were the first to hear the New Testament word of God. St. John the Evangelist opens his gospel with the words – “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Incarnation literally means “becoming flesh, taking on our humanity”. As the Catechism expresses it – belief in the true Incarnation of the Son of God is the distinctive sign of Christian faith: “By this you know the spirit of God: every spirit which professes that Jesus Christ comes in the flesh is of God.”

Preaching to the Gentiles was different that preaching to the Jews. The preachers to the Jews could cite the many passages in the Old Testament that spoke about the one who was to come, but the Gentiles had no experience with the Old Testament at all. What we profess about the Lord Jesus at Sunday Mass was the product of several early Ecumenical Councils. The first Ecumenical took place at Nicea, up near the Bosphorus near present day Istanbul. Wrong thinking about Jesus was called Arianism. Yes, the Arians would say, Jesus is rightly called Son of God but obviously, they said, he cannot be God the way God the Father is God. The question was raised at Nicea – “Was there ever a time when the Son of God was not?” What this question really meant from the Arian point of view was that Christ, though superior to us, could not be equal to the Father and thus came under the creative power of God the Father. The Church’s answers to all of this was loud and clear. Jesus in his humanity became like ourselves but never ceased to be his divine self. And as his divine self he was equal to the Father and the Spirit in divinity. That is where the adjective consubstantial comes in. The Council picked up an ordinary word in everyday Greek language to speak about a unique fact in human history, that is, what God the Father is in his divinity that is what the Lord Jesus is as born of the Father before all ages. Hence, dear reader, the two changes in the second section of the Nicene Creed instead of saying – “By the power of the Holy Spirit he was born of the Virgin Mary and became man”, we will be saying in the new translation “by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary.”

Tuesday, November 24, 2015



Just as Candlemas Day means the Mass of the Candles, so Christmas means the Mass of Christ. I would like to comment on the Christmas Liturgies.

As we know, Vatican II, in terms of its liturgical renewal and reform, restored the practice of the Sunday Vigil. This means that the Sunday celebration starts with evening prayer on Saturday evening and runs through evening prayer on Sunday. Thus we have become accustomed to the 4 o’clock or 5 o’clock Vigil Mass on Saturday afternoon. In my view, the Vigil Mass has been a mixed blessing. It is wonderful for us older folks to get out in the afternoon and enjoy daylight both coming to church and going home except for December and January’s dark days. On the other hand, however, it seems that the restoration of the Sunday Vigil has not helped the Church’s efforts to restore Sundays as the Day of God, the Day of Christ, the Day of the Church, our day for prayer and family life and family recreation and the like. Of course, restoring the Easter Vigil, which was the great gift when Pius XII was Pope, was wonderful beyond all words. For centuries the great Easter Vigil, the climax of the Church’s liturgical year, lay only in the Church’s memory and not in its practice. This, of course, does not mean starting the Easter Vigil at 7 o’clock or 8 o’clock in the evening. My dream is to restore to the parish the Easter Vigil that would begin at 10:30 p.m. which would then give us time for all nine scriptural readings which summarize the mystery of salvation from creation to our own day. Then at midnight we would celebrate the Lord’s resurrection at the Eucharist. Restoring the Vigil of Christmas in no way elicits my enthusiasm, certainly not the enthusiasm I showed in the last sentence for the Easter Vigil. (Of course, the Christmas Vigil would be good for us older folks for the same reasons listed above for the Sunday Vigil.) However, the way we celebrate the Christmas Vigil is not particularly helpful for the celebration of Christmas Day. It doesn’t capture, in my view, what the Christmas Liturgy has been designed to capture.

Christmas Day is one of those rare feasts which offers three distinct liturgies. Advent is the time we watch and pray as we hope for the final coming of the divine Messiah who first came on Christmas Day and comes to his Catholic people all over the world in sacramental mystery. Our urgent prayer that the Lord come and not delay is visible at midnight Mass for the minute the day begins we are ready to celebrate his coming. Then there is the Mass at Dawn; then there is the Mass During the Day. Obviously the Church does not insist that we attend three Masses, but those who used to do so in earlier centuries experienced a wonderful sense of the integrity of the Christmas celebration.

I would like to highlight aspects of our Christmas Liturgies. At the Vigil, the entrance antiphon will say to us – “Today you will know that the Lord is coming to save us, and in the morning you will see his glory.” In our opening prayer we will say to God our Father – “Every year we rejoice as we look forward to the feast of our salvation. May we welcome Christ as our Redeemer, and meet him with confidence when he comes to be our judge.” We will then listen to readings from Isaiah, the Acts of the Apostles and the Gospel of Matthew. At Midnight, Psalm 2 says to us – “The Lord said to me: You are my Son; this day have I begotten you.” These words are addressed to our incarnate Lord. Their scriptural use is often seen as a resurrection theme. In our opening prayer we will say to God our Father – “You make this holy night radiant with the splendor of Jesus Christ our light. We welcome him as Lord, the true light of the world.” Then we read from Isaiah, St. Paul and St. Luke. The second reading – Paul to Titus – is printed below. The Mass at Dawn, begins with this antiphon: “A light will shine on us this day, the Lord is born for us: he shall be called Wonderful God, Prince of Peace, Father of the world to come; and his kingship will never end.” Then we say to God in prayer: “We are filled with the new light by the coming of your Word among us. May the light of faith shine in our words and actions.” Then we hear from Isaiah, St. Paul and St. Luke. The second reading is printed below. Then comes the Mass During the Day. The entrance antiphon says to us: “A child is born for us, a son is given to us; dominion is laid on his shoulder, and he shall be called Wonderful-Counselor.” In our opening prayer we will say to God our Father: “We praise you for creating man, and still more for restoring him in Christ. Your Son shared our weakness: may we share his glory.”

From the Letter of St. Paul to Titus:

“The grace of God has appeared, saving all and training us to reject godless ways and worldly desires and to live temperately, justly, and devoutly in this age as we await the blessed hope, the appearance of the glory of our great God and savior Jesus Christ; who gave himself for us to deliver us from all lawlessness and to cleanse for himself a people as his own, eager to do what is good.”

A second reading from Paul to Titus:

“When the kindness and generous love of God our savior appeared, not because of any righteous deeds we had done but because of his mercy, he saved us through the bath of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he richly poured out on us through Jesus Christ our savior, so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life.”



Firmly I believe and truly
God is three and God is one;
And I next acknowledge duly
Manhood taken by the Son.

And I trust and hope most fully
In that manhood crucified;
And I love supremely, solely
Christ who for my sins has died.

And I hold in veneration,
For the love of him alone,
Holy Church as his creation
And her teachings as his own.

Praise and thanks be ever given
With and through the angel host,
To the God of earth and heaven,
Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

The author of the above Creed is Cardinal John Henry Newman. He was a revered 19th Century scholar and churchman. We think of his early years as his Anglican years, and we think of his later years as his Catholic years. His influence on scholarship was profound in his own day. Though he died some sixty years before the Second Vatican Council, his influence on the scholars of the Council was most significant. Perhaps it can be helpful for us in this column to reflect on Newman’s Creed so that we can appreciate the great mysteries we celebrate throughout the liturgical year. Newman first points to the foundational mystery on which all the truths of faith rest, that is, the mystery of our Three-Personed God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Theologians like to call this mystery “a necessary mystery” because we say of God – He always was; he always will be; he must exist. The next mystery is the mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God. We can call this mystery “a free mystery”, that is, it depends upon the freedom of God, because we can say of the first Christmas – it did not have to take place. Then Newman moves on to the mystery of Redemption and all the wonderful things God has done for us and continues to do for us through his Son and the Holy Spirit. Stanza three is important for us to read and to hear. Newman tells us the reason why he accepts as true the mysteries of faith. It is because faith is a gift that first comes to us from the Church in the Sacrament of Baptism. This is why Newman writes – “And I hold in veneration for the love of Christ alone, Holy Church as God’s creation and her teachings as his own.” We have the great truths of Trinity, Incarnation and Redemption. At the Advent-Christmas Liturgies, it is the Incarnation that stands center-stage.

The English word “incarnation” means “becoming flesh”, “taking on our humanity”. And so we read in John’s Gospel – “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God, and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Christ Jesus, the very Son of God from all eternity, equal in divinity to the Father and Holy Spirit, at a particular moment in human history took on our humanity without ceasing to be his divine self and became like us in all things except sin. As we reflect on this mystery of faith and seek to grow in understanding, we praise God for his love and goodness as we ask the question – Why the Incarnation? Why did God the Son take on our humanity and enter truly into our human history? The Advent-Christmas Liturgies answer this question in different ways. They speak to us about a wondrous exchange between God and ourselves. For example, listen to the following antiphon – “What wondrous exchange: our Creator, taking on body and soul, in his kindness has been born from the Virgin Mary, and coming forth as Man, He has made us sharers in his divinity.” You and I, of course, do not cease to be our human selves, but now we share in God’s life through the grace and virtues of faith, hope and love.

We can learn a lot from some of the titles we give to the Lord Jesus. We call Him Savior, for we would be lost were it not for him. Who else can take away our two great enemies which are sin and death? We call him Redeemer, but why give him that title if he cannot free us from sin and death? So, if we do not grasp the truth that we are lost apart from Christ, that we never can become what God expects us to become apart from Christ, we will never appreciate Christmas.

Once again a new liturgical season has begun. Once again we are privileged to reflect on the Lord Jesus in his mysteries, in all that he has done and in all that he continues to do for us and for our salvation. We say of the Lord Jesus – Blessed be Jesus Christ, true God and true Man. As such, he is our mediator. In fact, he is our perfect mediator. As perfectly divine, he is on God’s side of things. As perfectly human, he is on our side. As our mediator, he makes us one with the Father. As the Father’s mediator, he makes the Father one with us. As we reflect on Christ as our mediator, we think of him as truly man, truly the God-Man, and truly God. Augustine’s words can be of great help to us – “He who is God was made man, in taking that which he was not but without losing that which he was. Thus God became Man! Herein you have what is needful to your weakness. And herein you have also what is needful to your holiness of life. May Christ raise you by his ‘Being’ as man; may Christ guide you by his ‘Being’ as the God-Man; may Christ bring you to his ‘Being’ as God!”

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Phenomenon of Unbelief


There is no sense in being overly dramatic, but can we not say that there is a gigantic struggle going on all over our world between the forces of humanism and the forces of barbarism? (Definitions of humanism and barbarism could be helpful but they are not needed at this time. Most readers of the column will understand the meanings conveyed by these words.) The question is this – Which will prevail, humanism or barbarism? If humanism triumphs over barbarism, then the second question becomes – What kind of humanism will prevail – secular humanism or Christian humanism? Are people going to say with Jean-Paul Sartre, with regard to us humans: “Man is only man when man is unbelieving man.”? Or are people going to say with theologian Karl Barth – “Man is only man when the God-man is his brother.”? After all, our Catholic faith is the experience of divinity through humanity. As John the Evangelist tells us – The eternal word became flesh and dwelt among us to share his divine life with all of us. The question between the two humanisms mentioned above is this – Which humanism is true humanism? Listen to the way Pope John Paul II begins his encyclical letter Faith and Reason: “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth, in a word, to know Himself, so that by knowing and loving God, men and women also will come to the fullness of truth about themselves.” If we reflect for a moment on what this quotation from Pope John Paul tells us, should we not ask – How can there be a true humanism without God? This teaching was expressed in an excellent way at the Second Vatican Council in paragraph 22 of the Constitution of the Church in the Modern World. We read – “The fact is that only in the mystery of the Incarnate Word is light shed on the mystery of man. Adam, the first man, prefigured the man to come, Christ the Lord. Christ, who is the new Adam, by revealing the mystery of the Father and his love also fully reveals man to man himself and makes his exalted vocation known to him. In other words, if it were possible to ask God the question – What does it mean to be truly and integrally human?, God the Father would point to Jesus and say – “Here is my Beloved Son in whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.”

At the present time, secular humanism triumphs all over Europe. Next Sunday we celebrate the feast day of Christ the King. That feast day was instituted in 1925 in order to counteract individual and social apostasy from God brought about by the secular spirit which relegates Christ’s Gospel to the private sphere. The secular spirit means for all practical purposes that God is dead. It is the “disincarnation of the spiritual!” In 1965 The Second Vatican Council spoke about the massive unbelief of our age when it reminded us that the “root reason for human dignity lies in man’s call to communion with God. From the very circumstance of his origin, man is already invited to converse with God. Still many of our contemporaries have never recognized this intimate and vital link with God or have explicitly rejected it.”

I remember reading a while back a review of a book – “The Education of An American Catholic”. This volume details the account of how one American Catholic lost his faith first given him in holy baptism. The author wrote – “It is the loss of any belief in the supernatural which is the central problem for the Post-Vatican II Church”. His own rejection of the supernatural came from the study of philosophy in the modern period – especially the skepticism of the language-philosophies. It was the author’s perception that the average Catholic of today gives not a thought to the supernatural. To this end he quotes a theologian – “How many Catholic Christians still have deep in their hearts the Christian fear of death and the last judgment? How many are capable of feeling desperately worried when some Catholic relative or dear friend dies without benefit of the sacraments?”

Prior to Our Priorities


Gregory Collins writes – “Christianity is a deeply objective thing. It is not first and foremost a subjective personal experience, neither is it simple adherence to a set of moral regulations nor even a sharing in a sacred tradition. There is indeed a subjective experience of God that can be had in sharing in a sacred tradition. There is indeed a subjective experience of God that can be had in prayer. There is a Christian ethic that has to be lived. There is also participation in ancient traditions of worship and adherence to bodies of doctrine. But they are the consequences of Christianity rather than its essence.” (From: Meeting Christ in his Mysteries.) Does not this author suggest that there is something prior to our priorities?

Our Holy Father, Benedict XVI, had this to say – “It often happens that Christians are more concerned for the social, cultural and political consequences of their commitment, continuing to think of the faith as a self-evident presupposition for life in society.” (Porta Fidei) It would seem that the Holy Father is reminding us that there is something at the heart of our faith that we take for granted as we explore other priorities with regard to our social and political lives. The Pope goes on to say – “Ever since the start of my ministry as successor of St. Peter, I have spoken of the need to rediscover the journey of faith, so as to shed ever-clearer light on the joy and renewed enthusiasm of our encounter with Christ. The Church as a whole and all her pastors, like Christ, must set out to lead God’s people out of the desert toward the place of light, toward friendship with the Son of God, towards the one who give us life and life in abundance. It often happens that Christians are more concerned for the social, cultural and political consequences of their faith commitment, continuing to think of the faith as a self-evident presupposition to life in society. In reality, not only can this presupposition be taken for granted but it is often openly and massively denied.” I would ask the reader – What do you think the Pope is getting at with these words? I think he’s trying to help us make a distinction between the centrality of faith and what is consequent to that centrality. If we concentrate only on what is consequent to our faith, although that is always necessary, we will not be able to answer the questions – What or who is a Christian?

A while back a Benedictine Abbot was ordained as a Bishop after 37 years of life in the monastery. At his ordination the new Bishop was reminded he had to articulate soon his pastoral priorities. He said at his ordination that he would like to touch on something prior to any priorities. He had been asking himself what he had learned in his 37 years in the monastery. He said that there are many answers, lighthearted or other, but there was one answer that he thought to be true and he described it in these words. “It’s simply a realization, a glimmer of realization, a small beginning of a realization, of Christ the Lord.” He said that in a word he was merely talking about the discovery of Easter, of Christ’s Passover from death to life, his Resurrection. What the new Bishop was saying to his parishioners was that before all important priorities were reflected on and discussed there is something that is prior to these priorities. The Bishop then added – “What a monastery gives to monks and nuns is exactly what the Church gives to all her people. And what is that? It is what the women found when they found the empty tomb that Sunday morning in Jerusalem. It is what Peter and Paul and John found. It’s what the remarkable galaxy of people who wrote the New Testament were stammering to express. It is what the liturgy in its simple power and beauty keeps alive in the world. It’s not a what, it’s a who. It is the person of Christ, Jesus of Nazareth, and the power of his Resurrection. The whole of Christianity, its faith, its worship, its ministry, its mission springs from that Sunday morning, that empty tomb. It springs from the Resurrection of Christ, his victory over sin and death. What can the Church do – for us who belong to her and those who live around us? What can the Church give? What can the Church bring? There is only one answer, namely, Easter – The person of Christ, Jesus of Nazareth and the power of his Cross and Resurrection.” These words are good for us to read and listen to as we soon begin a new liturgical year – 2015-2016. We soon set ourselves out on a journey that will lead us through the Lord’s Advent, through his public life and ministry, through his cross to the resurrection. If we live this liturgical year in this way, we will then be able to set down in print our new ministerial priorities.

These few comments from Bishop Hugh Gilbert can be very helpful to us in our Sunday worship. What we do every Sunday morning is truly the summit of our Catholic faith. It’s not the only thing we do because the work of education and evangelization and the work of RCIA are so necessary in leading up to the summit and then so many important things must be accomplished leading down from the summit. There is the living out of our lives of faith, hope and love. There are the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. There are the Beatitudes to be lived. There are the social teachings of the Church for a world calling out for justice and peace. The Christian is the person who has many priorities. However, this little column is suggesting that our priorities will not be effective if we have not discovered in the liturgy what is prior to our priorities.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Homily for the 24th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B

September 13, 2015

1. Sometime ago, and I love to recall it, a theological colleague wrote a magazine article to which he gave a mile-long title. It reads: “The Incredible Christian Capacity for Missing the Christian Point”. What in the world did the author mean by this title? Take St. Peter in the Gospel this evening. Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests and the Scribes, and to be killed and on the third day to be raised. What did Peter do upon hearing what Jesus had to say? He took Jesus aside and began to chastise him, saying: “God forbid, Master! No such thing will ever happen to you.” No matter what good intentions Peter might have had, nevertheless, he missed the whole point of Jesus’ remark. He just did not realize that the cross (and of course the resurrection), first for Jesus and then for ourselves, is always at the very center of our Catholic faith. No wonder Jesus had to turn to Peter and say to him – “Get behind me!” – he even calls him Satan – “You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” St. Mark records this event immediately following Peter’s marvelous profession of faith! But we must not be too harsh in our judgement on Peter; he was just the first of many down through the centuries, including ourselves of course, who often prove quite adept at missing the Christian point.

2. From our earliest days we have lived under the sign of the cross. On the day of our baptism, the priest said to us – calling us by name – “The Christian community welcomes you with great joy. In its name, I claim you for Christ our Savior by the sign of his cross.” When we first began to study the Catechism, when we first began to understand Good Friday and Easter Sunday, we learned to pray – “We worship you, O Lord; we venerate your cross; we praise your resurrection; through your cross, you have brought joy to the world”.

3. How often we ourselves miss the Christian point. There’s always the temptation to think that we are the ones who have to work out our salvation on our own. We think that in our efforts to gain heaven, we are like basketball players in the game itself, while the Lord Jesus, our model and our coach, stands on the sidelines urging us on. This is not the picture. This really would mean that Jesus never really had to die for us. The truth is – it is the Lord Jesus, through his cross and resurrection which he shares with us, who accomplishes the essential work of getting us to heaven. In every human person’s striving for holiness, the main actor is always the Lord Jesus. (Let me suggest, dear reader, a little test as to how we understand our Catholic-Christian lives. Think of the theater marquee which announces what movies are playing inside the theater. Our lives with the Lord are better dramas and more important dramas than any that we will see in a movie. How should the marquee read? – “My Life with God”, starring me. Also playing God. Or more properly, should it read? – “God’s Life with Me”, starring God. Also playing – me. I come in sometime during the second act carrying a tray.) In our Gospel reading today, after speaking with Peter, Jesus speaks to all his disciples and of course to us here and now in these words: “Whoever wishes to come after me, must deny himself, take us his cross and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life, will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake, will find it.” The best way to understand these words is to think of them in connection with our baptism. St. Paul asks us – “Are you not aware that we who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into his death?” In other words, baptism is the sacrament of the Lord’s dying and rising, and therefore the sacrament of our dying and rising in the Lord. Baptism sets the pattern for the Christian life. It is a two-fold pattern that reflects the dying and rising of Christ the Lord. What does this mean? It means that in baptism we die with Christ, that is, we die to sin and to what is not of God. But in baptism we live the new life the Lord has won for us on the cross – the life of grace, the life of our divine adoption, the life proper to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit – it is a life of love of God and neighbor in what we call eternal life. Most people who do not know the Lord Jesus may describe their existence in this way: first we live and then at some moment we die, and such a death means nothingness for there is no other life. But we who follow Jesus say to ourselves and to the whole world if the world wants to listen: first we die in Baptism and then we live and the life we begin to live is everlasting life, first in faith, ultimately in glory. This might help us understand Jesus’ words about dying to ourselves which is difficult and therefore a cross for us. It means, of course, saying “no” to sin and selfishness in order to say “yes” to love of God and love of neighbor. When St. Ignatius of Loyola was seeking the first members of what he would call the Society of Jesus, he had his eyes on the brilliant and affluent Francis Xavier, and he would repeat to Francis the words – “What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit one’s life?”

4. We must not complicate our Christian faith. As Pope Benedict XVI reminded us – “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea but the encounter with an event, with a person”, that is with the very person of the risen Christ. It’s good for us to realize that our Catholic faith is best understood in two phrases – the love of God and the cross of Jesus – but here too we don’t want to miss the Christian point. We have often heard the expression “the cost of discipleship”, a good expression but subject to misunderstanding. My friend, whom I quoted at the opening of this homily. reverses the expression “the cost of discipleship” and calls it “the discipleship of cost”. It’s not a question of becoming the Lord’s disciple and then perhaps but not necessarily to endure suffering and pain. It’s not discipleship that might generate suffering and death; rather it’s suffering and death that generate discipleship. It’s not as though discipleship is first and then there might come suffering and death, but what the Lord seems to be calling for is this – as we embark upon discipleship, we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death. The cross is not a terrible end to a God-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. Is not the Lord saying to us when he calls us – Come and die with him. But the good news is that if we share in his dying, we will also share in his rising.

5. It is important that we do not miss the Christian point in today’s Gospel. The Lord says – “Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; whoever loses his life for my sake will save it”. This is the paradox of the Gospel. This is also the law of life. Self-seeking which is inauthentic life leads to death. Self-giving which is true life is the secret for eternal life. Listen to what the Lord Jesus says to his followers and to us in the Gospel of John: “Unless the grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat. But if it dies, it produces much fruit.”

Homily for the 23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B

September 6, 2015

To grasp the meaning of the homily it would be good to check the readings for the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time which are as follows:

First Reading: Isaiah 35: 4-7a Psalm 146:7, 8-9, 9-10
Second Reading: James 2: 1-5 Gospel: Mark 7: 31-37

1. The name Jesus in Hebrew means “God saves”. This is the name given to the Lord by the Angel Gabriel at the time of the Annunciation. It expresses both his identity and his mission. The word Christ in Hebrew, so often used in the Old Testament Scriptures, means the Messiah, the long-expected One, the anointed One. It is translated into Greek as Christos. Christ became the name proper to Jesus because he is the anointed One, the long-expected Messiah, who came among us to carry out the divine mission for which he had been anointed by his heavenly Father. Thus we refer to Our Lord and Savior as Jesus Christ.

2. With this in mind, what is our first reading all about? The Prophet Isaiah is addressing God’s Old Testament people in the dark days of the Babylonian Captivity. Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, had conquered ancient Israel, destroyed Jerusalem and taken many captives into exile. The prophet is speaking to these many captives whose hearts were so frightened. He says to them: “Be strong, fear not! Your God will come with vindication. He will come to save you.” And then he adds – “The eyes of the blind will be opened, the ears of the deaf will be cleared, the tongue of the mute will sing.” These are what are called the “messianic signs”, signs whereby God‘s Old Testament people could know with certainty that Jesus is their saving Lord, and he is at hand to bring them freedom. Listen for a moment to these words from the 11th Chapter of Matthew’s Gospel – “The imprisoned John the Baptist had heard of the works of Jesus, so John sent his disciples to Jesus with this question – ‘Are you the one who is to come or should we look for another?’” Jesus could have responded in a variety of ways but what did he say? “Go and tell John what you hear and see – the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poor have the Good News preached to them.” These words were as clear as a bell to John’s disciples. Yes, they said to themselves, this Jesus is the Christ, the anointed One, so long expected. How did they come to this conclusion? They saw with their own eyes the signs promised by the Prophet Isaiah.

3. So much for our first reading! Our Gospel reading today is a wonderful example from our everlasting God through the words and deeds of the Son. How fortunate is the deaf man! Jesus brings him the gift of hearing by touching his ears and saying “Be opened!” Do the messianic signs end with Jesus or are they still operating with ourselves? As we ask this question, it is important to recall the great truth of our faith that all the power, all the divine strength resident in the humanity of Jesus, thanks to his Ascension and the sending of the Holy Spirit, have truly passed over into the sacraments of the Church. Think back at your own Baptism. The celebrant made mention of the significance of your baptismal garment with which you were clothed in Christ. Then he gave you a candle, a symbol of the light which is Christ and then said to you while touching your mouth and ears – “The Lord Jesus made the deaf to hear and the dumb to speak; may he soon touch your ears to hear his words and your mouth to proclaim his faith, to the praise and glory of God the Father. Amen.”

4. “Opening one’s ears and proclaiming one’s faith!” This is primarily the work of the Holy Spirit, but not apart from our freedom. St. Augustine reminds us – “God made us without our cooperation, but God will not save us without our cooperation.” This suggests a great challenge to all of us in the Church, but in a special way it is a challenge to the lay members in the Church. The bishops and priests through the Sacrament of Holy Orders have specific, divine-given tasks in the Church. But there is another priesthood in the Church from the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation. This is the priesthood of all the faithful. Think back once again to when you received the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation. The celebrant of the sacraments called each one of us by name and said to us – “God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has freed you from sin, has given you a new birth by water and the Holy Spirit and welcomed you into his holy people. He now anoints you with the chrism of salvation. As Christ was anointed Priest, Prophet and King, so may you participate in his ministry and live always as a member of his body, sharing everlasting life.” What is this prayer saying to us? Christ is the anointed One. Christ is Priest, Teacher and Guide-Ruler, Priest, Prophet and King; he shares his three-fold office with us the Church, his body, and he continues down through history through the Church to be Priest, Prophet and King. We too have become anointed ones; we too have become other Christs; we too share in his three-fold office – priest, prophet and king. This means then that when we pray, when we celebrate Sunday Eucharist, when we live the sacrificial demands of the Gospel, we share in the work of Christ the Priest. When we teach our children the Catechism, when we continually inform ourselves about the adult consequences of our faith, when we represent and speak up for our faith in the public square, we advance the work of Christ the Teacher, Christ the Prophet. But what does it mean to advance the work of Christ the King? We advance the work of Christ the King when we bring the truth of the Gospel to society and culture through family life, through the arts and technology, through education and economics, through labor and management, through medicine and politics. This primarily is the work of lay members of the Church, which is to order the temporal things of the world according to the Gospel. The Second Vatican Council puts it this way: “The laity, by their very calling, seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God.” Lay members of the Church live in the world, that is, in all the secular professions and occupations. They live in the ordinary circumstances of family and social life from which the web of their existence is woven. They are called there by God to work for the sanctification of the world from within. In this way, they can make Christ known to others, especially by their lives of faith, hope and love. The social expressions of faith, hope and love are not optional extras for anyone who follows Christ.

5. Recent Popes have been expressing the challenge at hand. We have been hearing a lot about the “new evangelization”. That’s what our homily is all about. Accordingly, the new evangelization needs adults who are mature in their faith, who have encountered Jesus in the Christ, who has become the fundamental reference point of their faith, who know the Lord because they love the Lord and they love the Lord because they have known the Lord, people capable of solid and creditable reasons for their Gospel lifestyles. Religious illiteracy is useless today when it is being confronted by men and women who are experts in all the arts and sciences that exist today, but who know nothing about the Gospel. All of this is not a small challenge for pastors and parishioners to work on throughout the days ahead. (Benedict XVI)

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Letter to the Ephesians III (17th Sunday in Ordinary Time B)

Note that this is the third in a series of three homilies focused on the Letter to the Ephesians.


1. Two Sundays ago, last Sunday, today and for the next three weekends, the second reading at the Liturgy is taken from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians. Such liturgical prominence underscores the Letter’s significance.

2. The Letter begins: Blessed be God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing. God has chosen us in Christ before the world began for holiness of life. This truth tells us – I suggest – that you and I are marked in the course of our lives this side of the grave for a variety of vocational callings – marriage, religious life, medicine, law, priesthood, business and finance, technology and skilled labor. However, over and above these callings and transcending them all, we all share the overriding, all-important vocation which is the call to holiness of life. This is what the Letter to the Ephesians is all about.

3. As I have already stated, because God wills to communicate with us here on earth, he has no choice but to speak our language. Thus we can say – God’s word, in human words, expressed in literary form in the Sacred Scriptures, has a two-fold context: first, a particular writer, under the grace of the Holy Spirit, writes for a particular group of disciples at a particular time in the later decades of the first century Church. That very teaching, always under the grace of the Holy Spirit, is now addressed, especially in and through the Liturgy, to us who follow Christ here and now as we gather in prayer here in Wellesley Hills. What the author of the Letter to the Ephesians once wrote to the Ephesians is now addressed to you and me, under the Holy Spirit, at this very Liturgy. And what has Paul written? He tells us – “We are what God has made us to be, created in Christ Jesus for good works which God prepared for us beforehand to be our way of life.” Thus, the Ephesians yesterday and we ourselves today are admonished to walk always worthy of the crucified Christ.

4. Our excerpt today from the Letter to the Ephesians stresses the unity of the Church, a unity which is a gift from the Holy Spirit and a challenge for all of us who are members of Christ’s body which is the Church. Ephesians is that great letter in which Paul sets forth God’s plan, God’s strategy for the salvation of the world. Paul writes in Chapter 3 – You have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace which was given to me for your benefit to make known the mystery, the plan, which God had from the beginning of the world, to bring into unity both Jew and Gentile, announcing to the world that the Gentiles are co-heirs with the Jews, members of the same body, co-partners in the promises of Christ. In the opening lines of the Letter, Paul tells us that by reason of his self-giving love, God has destined us for adoption to himself through Our Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul borrows the expression of “adoption” from the legal system of ancient Rome. The Emperor Caesar Augustus had no heirs. He and his wife adopted an abandoned boy who succeeded his father with all the rights and privileges of sonship, even succeeding his father as emperor. This is what God does for us through Christ and the sacraments of the church. Making us, by the grace of divine adoption, daughters and sons of God, we truly become by grace what the Lord Jesus is by nature and that divine grace brings in its train the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity which unite us with God; and the moral or human virtues of prudence, justice, courage and temperance which are the virtues which make us human. The new law of Christ is summed up in charity and so Ephesians tells us – Be imitators of God, as his beloved children; follow the way of love, as Christ loved us and handed himself over for us.

5. It is important that we understand that the Christian life is not equivalent to the ethical life. It surpasses the ethical life but includes it. Morals and ethics are indeed important. However, the Christian life, by the grace of divine adoption, means our sharing in the life proper to our Three-Personed God, a life brought into human history through Christ the Lord and made available to all who believe by the sacraments of the Church. The ethics philosophers like to study are of great importance for all who possess human nature. However, they do not constitute Christian existence, Christian living. Christian existence is always under grace, and so we must speak of Gospel ethics. Faith, hope and charity are new virtues, new powers which come to us from the Holy Spirit. Aristotelian human or moral virtues are raised to the level of the Gospel by the Holy Spirit but are true virtues for us only when informed by Gospel charity.

6. How can we best describe this new life of our Catholic Christian life, our life in the Spirit? Two expressions come to mind which summarize the Christian life, namely, the love of God and the cross of Jesus. God the Father so loved us that he sent his only Son as our Savior. This Son of his so loved the Father and ourselves that he shows us the way to the Father, the safest way, the truest way, the surest way which we call the way of the cross. As we live this life it might be good to keep in mind some words of St. Cyprian, bishop and martyr in the early Church:

“It is with Christ that we journey, and we walk with our steps in his footprints: he it is who is our guide and the burning flame which illumines our paths: pioneer of salvation, he it is who draws us towards heaven, towards the Father, and promises success to those who seek in faith. We shall one day be that which he is in glory, if by faithful imitation of his example, we become true Christians, other Christs.”

P.S.: I have a summer suggestion for those reading this blog. Summer is a good time to catch up on some reading such as detective stories. My favorite mystery writer, perhaps a bit out of date, is Agatha Christie. Reading Agatha will get us caught up in her mysteries. Why not then read the Letter to the Ephesians. That will get us caught up in God’s mysteries.

Letter to the Ephesians II (16th Sunday in Ordinary Time B)

Note that this is the second in a series of three homilies focused on the Letter to the Ephesians.


1. A certain gentleman – Peter Maurin by name – a saintly sort of man, colleague and mentor of Dorothy Day in the apostolate called “The Catholic Worker Movement”, once made the following observation – “Some philosophers say: ‘Man is naturally good.’ Some titans of business say, and they should know: ‘Man is naturally bad; you can do nothing with human nature.’” If it is true, as businessmen say, that you can do nothing with human nature, then we need fewer priests and more policemen. But if God the Father sent his only begotten Son to redeem mankind, as St. Paul tells us in our second reading, then we need more priests and fewer policemen. Surely if we examine the world in and through newspaper headlines these days – wars, threats of nuclear confrontation, ecological and environmental issues, terrorism, gigantic economic disparities ready to erupt in all sorts of conflicts, then it seems quite obvious that we need fewer priests and more policemen. However, if our vision is more akin to the vision that St. Paul makes manifest in his remarkable Letter to the Ephesians, it would seem more than obvious that we need more priests and fewer policemen.

2. Last week, this week and next week our second readings are taken from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians. We can say of Ephesians – it is Paul’s great letter on the Church, in fact on the unity of the Church for without that unity the Church is gigantically weakened. Unlike his other letters which focused on the concerns of a particular church, for example, at Philippi or Thessalonica or Corinth – Ephesians focuses on the then known worldwide Church whose head is the risen Christ and whose purpose is to be God’s instrument for making God’s plan of salvation known to the whole universe in time and in place. Paul’s vision is anchored in God’s saving love in Christ Jesus – made real and effective in the world by the power of the Holy Spirit. There are many ways, of course, of reflecting on the Church. The Church is institutional and necessarily so in light of the Incarnation. But the Church is much more than just institutional. Foolish persons are heard to say: “I am quite spiritual, but I don’t go for institutional religion.” All one can say to such foolishness is this – “No institution, ultimately no Church, no spirituality, no Good News. The Church can also be described as herald of the Good News to all the world or the great sacrament, that is, the outward sign of the invisible Christ who in his days of history became the sacrament of his invisible heavenly Father. In his Letter to the Ephesians, Paul stresses the Church as the body of Christ.

3. Paul opens his Letter – “Our God and Father of the Lord Jesus has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing. He has chosen us, before the world began, for holiness of life.” What are these blessings with which God has enriched us? – The call to holiness, the forgiveness of sins, the grace of our divine adoption, our sharing in God’s life through faith, hope and love, the pledge of eternal life through the sacraments, especially the Eucharist. In our Gospel today, Jesus goes about his ministry of healing by means of his many wonderful signs. Of course, the Lord Jesus knows they need much more than miracles and healings. These are what drew people to Jesus so he could tell them the Good News of all the wonderful gifts he brings to people from God the Father through the Holy Spirit, these wonderful blessings God has destined for all peoples – Jews and Gentiles alike. Notice what Ephesians says – “God sent his Son to preach peace to those who are far off and to those who are near.” By the expression – those who are near – Paul means the Jews, the first to hear the word of God; by the expression – those who are far off – Paul means the Gentiles, the non-Jews of his day, the Ephesians and many of us here in this church today. The great secret, the great mystery proclaimed in the Letter to the Ephesians is that Christ came to reconcile Jews and Gentiles, thus breaking down the dividing walls that have kept all peoples from unity with God and from unity with one another. The Good News is – God has made in Christ one new person, that is, the Christian community, a new corporate body, the very body of the risen Christ, thus destroying and displacing all divisions and barriers. It was given to Paul to make known the secret of God’s new plan in Christ; a plan never revealed before, that the Gentiles are co-heirs with the Jews, members of the same body, co-partners in the promises of Christ through the Gospel.

4. The unity of the Church is both a gift and a task: gift means that it is the Holy Spirit who makes the Church one, who is the principle of Communion in the Church; as task, Paul offers us this challenge – that we live in a manner worthy of the call we have all received, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another through love, striving to preserve the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace: one body and one Spirit, called with one hope, with one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all , who is over all and through all and in all.

5. There are great riches in the Letter to the Ephesians. I began these few comments, you may recall, by mentioning some remarks from Peter Maurin – Do we need more priests or more policemen? If we follow the vision of St. Paul as seen in the Letter to the Ephesians, we obviously will need more priests, whether we mean the ordained priesthood or the priesthood of all the faithful through the Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation. We need more and more people, caught up in the vision of the Letter to the Ephesians who will live the vision and inspire others to search for the vision. My summer suggestion is this: Why not read the Letter to the Ephesians? Summertime is a good time to read Agatha Christie and her mysteries. Why not read the Letter to the Ephesians. That will get us caught up in God’s mysteries.

Letter to the Ephesians I (15th Sunday in Ordinary Time B)

Note: In the “B” Cycle of the readings, the Letter to the Ephesians figures prominently in our Sunday Liturgies. This is a wonderful Letter and tells us so much about what the Christian life is all about. In posts on the web, the following three homilies which I have given recently are on the Letter to the Ephesians.


1. Because God wants to communicate with us he has no choice but to speak our language. Thus we can say, God’s word, in human words, expressed in literary form in the sacred scriptures, has a two-fold context: first, a particular writer, under the grace of the Holy Spirit, speaks to a particular group of disciples at a particular time in the later decades of the first century Church. That very teaching, always under the grace of the Holy Spirit, is now addressed, especially in and through the liturgy, to us who follow Christ here and now, gathered in prayer in Wellesley Hills. What the author of the Letter to the Ephesians once said to the Ephesians is now addressed to you and me here and now at this very liturgy. Thus we read – We are what God has made us to be, created in Christ Jesus for good works which God prepared for us beforehand to be our way of life. In other words, the Ephesians yesterday and we ourselves this very day are admonished to walk always worthy of the crucified Christ.

2. Paul writes to the Ephesians – God chose us in Christ before the world began. One wonders what impact these words had when they were first heard in ancient Ephesus. What sort of people were the Ephesians? They were not like the sophisticated Athenians among whom Paul was least successful in his evangelizing efforts. The Ephesians were probably very much like the Corinthians to whom Paul once wrote – “Consider your own calling, brothers and sisters. Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many very powerful, not many of noble birth, rather God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and the weak of the world to shame the strong, and the lonely and despised of the world, those who in the world’s eyes seem to count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who think they are something so that no human being might boast before God.”

3. For what purpose did God choose the Ephesians, and why us today? He called them and us to be holy and blameless in his sight, to be full of love. They were predestined to share through grace in God’s own life and thus to praise the glorious favor God has bestowed on us all in Christ Jesus. He chose them and us to live in the world, to bring the Gospel to the world by living the Gospel in the world so that the Lord’s words can be fulfilled – “He who sees you sees me, and whoever sees me sees the Father who sent me.”

4. Why in the world would God call the Ephesians and ourselves? They were Gentiles much given over to idolatry. Like ourselves they were sinners. The Letter to the Ephesians tells us that God, who is rich in mercy, because of the great love he had for the Ephesians and for us, even when we all were dead in our transgressions, God brought us to life in and with Christ. By grace we have been saved through faith. And this does not come from the Ephesians or ourselves; it is the gift of God. All this doesn’t come from what the Ephesians or we ourselves have done, so no one may boast. We are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works God has prepared in advance, that we should live in them.

5. It is in the Letter to the Ephesians that Paul makes known God’s eternal plan for the salvation of all peoples everywhere. Paul reminds the Ephesians that they were at one time without Christ and alienated from the community of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise. They were without hope and without God in the world. But now, through the apostolic preaching which has brought them into the life of Christ, they who once were far off have become near by the blood of Christ. This is all very true about ourselves. The Letter to the Ephesians announces the revelation of God’s plan for human salvation, a plan revealed and made clear to Paul himself in his apostolic office, a plan of course revealed to all of Christ’s first apostles, that the Gentiles are co-heirs, members of the same body and co-partners in the promise of Christ Jesus through the Gospel. As Paul himself phrases it – “Of this divine plan I became a minister by the gift of God’s grace. To me, the very least of all the holy ones, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the inscrutable riches of Christ and bring to light for all to hear the good news that salvation is for all peoples everywhere – Jews and Gentiles.”

6. Many of us who were born into Catholic families could very well reflect on the mysterious ways of God’s providence. God calls us as God called the Ephesians to be his New Testament people, members of Christ, members of the Church, temples of the Holy Spirit, bearers of God’s word to the world. Adult converts understand these obligations very well – they are so grateful for the gift of faith, they treasure their new and great love for the Church, they cherish their liberating faith that gives them a new vision of the world and a new approach to their brothers and sisters in the human family, a new way of existing as God’s leaven in human society.

7. Receiving the gift of God’s truth has little to do with being comfortable with the Church’s teachings. It strikes me that many today, both inside and outside the Church, judge the Gospel and the teachings of the Church in terms of their comfortability with such teachings. If we are comfortable across the board with the Church’s teachings, then either we should be canonized right away or something must be wrong. We are sinners. Therefore, we will always find ourselves uncomfortable with aspects of our faith. In fact, my own definition of heresy goes like this – Heresy results from one’s fruitless efforts to make oneself comfortable with the Gospel. After all, some aspects of the Church’s teachings are not easy to understand, and, as we all know from experience, the Church’s moral teachings are often difficult to practice, even with the help of God’s grace. As we reflect on Paul’s words to the Ephesians – “God chose us in Christ Jesus”, we can profitably allow the Opening Prayer of today’s Liturgy to inspire us: “O God, who shows the light of your truth to those who go astray, so that they may return to the right path, give all who for the faith they profess are accounted Christian the grace to reject whatever is contrary to the name of Christ and to strive after all that does it honor.”

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.”