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Resurrection Faith

The following is a letter from friends of mine in Colorado, the McGuiness family, who just lost their son Henri on Tuesday in a car accident.  As the Easter season comes to an end with the celebration of Pentecost on Sunday, I am struck with the fact that Resurrection faith really changes us and makes us live in a new way.  The Resurrection, before it is an official doctrine in our Catechism, is the irruption of hope into an otherwise hopeless world.  In short, the Resurrection is a fact and therefore an experience: “The Lord is risen, and He has appeared to Simon!”  And Simon-Peter shared that experience with the other disciples, not as information, but so that they too could know the Risen Lord.  They shared it with their friends, and somehow, mysteriously, through the centuries, that faith has reached all the way to you and to me.

Dear Friends,

As you may have heard, our second son, Henri Balthasar McGuiness died in a car accident Tuesday morning in Fort Lupton. The cause of death was severe head trauma. From what we can tell, Henri died quickly and we commend Him to the mercy of Christ, Who desires that none be lost. There were three other teens (Zach, Nicky and Noah) involved in the one car crash and we ask you to pray for their swift recovery (physically, emotionally, spiritually). Please pray for their families in a time of great uncertainty.

So many of our friends have reached out already and please know that if we can’t talk to you in person right away, we deeply appreciate your prayers and your being in solidarity with us. We are seeing a new dimension to what companionship in Christ truly means. Those of you familiar with Myers-Briggs may know that Teresa and I both “score” as introverts, so our capacity to receive may seem limited at times. Please do know that you are welcome to visit us as you are able. If it gets to be “too much,” we’ll let you know. We desire that our friends be present with us in this dark hour. You bear the light of Christ, and that helps us in ways you can’t imagine.

[…some of the practical details follow…]

That’s a lot of “data,” but all we ask you to do is pray that the glory of Christ be revealed in these circumstances. That’s what’s important to us.

In communion,

Matt, Teresa, Karen, Joe, Flannery, Enzo

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I am thankful to the McGuiness family for their beautiful witness at this difficult time, a witness to the fact that the Risen Jesus can walk through the “locked doors” of the most difficult situation.  This is the witness by which Resurrection Faith reaches you and me.  In the words of Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium:

It is impossible to persevere in a fervent evangelization unless we are convinced from personal experience that it is not the same thing to have known Jesus as not to have known him, not the same thing to walk with him as to walk blindly, not the same thing to hear his word as not to know it, and not the same thing to contemplate him, to worship him, to find our peace in him, as not to. It is not the same thing to try to build the world with his Gospel as to try to do so by our own lights. We know well that with Jesus life becomes richer and that with him it is easier to find meaning in everything. This is why we evangelize.

May the soul of Henri and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.

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Redemption and Deification

The establishment of The Saint-Serge Orthodox Theological Institute in Paris in 1925 was something of an anomaly in the history of theological education, with far reaching effects on the Orthodox and Catholic Churches, and on the relationship between the two “sides” or “lungs” of Christianity.

Saint-Serge

The founders of the theological school in Paris were Russians who had fled the persecution of Christians in the upheaval after the Communist Revolution of 1917.  Eventually, Paris became a place for these emigrants to gather.  What did they gather to do?  It is amazing that after losing everything, these persecuted Christians set up a theological school.  They were motivated by the desire not to lose the richness of the Russian, Orthodox, Christian tradition.

And this desire also affected the Catholic theologians who began to take notice of these Russians in their midst.  Men such as Jacques Maritain, Yves Congar, Henri de Lubac, and Jean Danielou–giants of Catholic theology–developed friendships with these men from the East, Sergei Bulgakov, Paul Evdokimov, Nicholas Afanasieff, and Vladimir Lossky.  These friendships bore fruit in the Church, especially in the theological vision of Vatican II, a vision shaped by the Catholic theologians named above, who were in turn shaped by the “rediscovery” of the common Fathers of East and West.

The desire to reencounter our brothers from the East has been expressed repeatedly by the popes of the second half of the twentieth century.  Saint John XXIII represented the pope in Bulgaria and Turkey (where there were many more Orthodox than Catholics) as well as France (which saw the theological revival mentioned above).  We think of Paul VI’s historical meeting with the Patriarch of Constantinople in the Holy Land in 1964, which will be commemorated in a few days when Pope Francis goes to the Holy Land.  Lastly, we think of the famous phrase of Saint John Paul II, that the Church must “breathe with both lungs”.

As an example of the enrichment of theology by the encounter with the East, I would like to outline some of the thoughts of Vladimir Lossky in the essay “Redemption and Deification” from his book In the Image and Likeness of God.

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Lossky begins with the famous phrase of the Fathers, “God made Himself man, that man might become God,” a phrase that is familiar to both Eastern and Western Christianity.  He comments, “The descent of the divine person of Christ makes human persons capable of ascent in the Holy Spirit.”  The phrase that “man might become God” is what is called in Christian, especially Eastern Christian, tradition “deification”.  But how does it work?  How does salvation happen to us?

In the West, especially those of us who live in a Protestant context, we tend to think of salvation as “redemption”.  The theology of redemption has taken on an exclusively juridical connotation, “I have been purchased by the Blood of Christ,” which we can hear in almost every Protestant praise and worship song.  Lossky comments that this juridical understanding of salvation, as something bought on our behalf by someone who was capable of paying the price (a divine Person, Christ), must be balanced.

The first balance comes from the many other images that Scripture uses to describe Christ’s role: the pastoral (Good Shepherd), the military (Christ conqueror), the medicinal (Christ heals our sick nature), the diplomatic (Christ outwits the devil), and above all the physical/biological (the Vine and the branches).

The second balance, a specifically Eastern emphasis, is the role of the Holy Spirit, who not only sets us free from our bondage but renews, transforms, transfigures, “deifies” us.  “We must, above all, recover the true place of the dispensation of the Holy Spirit, distinct but not separable from that of the Incarnate Word.”

Lossky sees that Western theology, when he was writing in the 1940s, had rediscovered the first balance with the image (and reality) of the Church as the Body of Christ.  The Body of Christ is an organic-physical-biological image, along the lines of the Vine and the branches, which helps us understand ourselves in relation to Christ and to one another.  Saint Paul spoke of the Church as the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12 and Romans 12), and the image had a history in theology through the Fathers, the Middle Ages, and finally in the Encyclical of Pope Pius XII (1943) Mystici Corporis Christi.

Are there any dangers in the image of the Body of Christ?  Lossky notes that the image must be balanced if it is not to lead to a loss of our individual, personal identity and destiny.  He says the theology of the Body of Christ should not lead to “a Christian totalitarianism” in which I lose myself; there is a matching spirituality that would seem to abolish our ego-centrism by abolishing our ego.  That is not Christian spirituality.  Or in the language of Lossky, that is a separation of Christ from the Spirit–a huge danger, seeing that the Son and the Spirit cannot be separated in God’s plan of salvation for us.

Pentecost

Here, we arrive at the second balance: the Holy Spirit is the personalizing force in the Body of Christ.  I do not belong to the Body of Christ as a part of a whole, just as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not three parts of “God”.  The Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God.  The natural unity and the personal multiplicity of God go hand in hand.  This is the Mystery of the Holy Trinity.

It is also the Mystery of the human person, made in the Image and Likeness of God.  My individual nature is incorporated into the Body of Christ, a new nature, a “new creation” (2 Cor 5:17).  But this does not mean that my personal uniqueness is abolished.  In fact, the Holy Spirit “hypostatizes” me–that is makes me really who I am in the Body of Christ, gives me my “place”, because the Holy Spirit is the Lord and Giver of Life.  Lossky states:

The Son has become like us in the incarnation; we become like Him by deification, by partaking of the divinity of the Holy Spirit, who communicates the divinity to each human person in a particular way.  The redeeming work of the Son is related to our nature. The deifying work of the Holy Spirit concerns our persons.  But the two are inseparable.

We live in a world of having to choose between one option and another, either this or that.  But the Mystery of the Trinity (and of us who are made in the image of the Trinity) is the Mystery of both/and.  We may be tempted in two directions: either the unity of nature in the Body of Christ (which could suppress our individual personalities) or our personal freedom in the Holy Spirit (which could sever our link to my brother or sister in the Lord).  But what God has united in the Mystery of salvation, we cannot separate.

The image of Pentecost is important here.  We see the same flame that comes down from Heaven, but which rests on the heads of the Apostles (and Our Lady) in individual flames:

They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. (Acts 2: 3-4)

The Person of the Holy Spirit always tends toward unity in the Body of Christ, a unity that does not overpower our individual, free choice to belong and participate in that unity.  The Person of the Son (Christ) does not want to limit our freedom in the Spirit: “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8)

Unity and freedom.  Nature and personality.  This is the Mystery of the Holy Trinity.  It is the Mystery of the God who is Love.  “And the Love of God has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 5:5)  Therefore, it is also the Mystery of the human person in the Church which is  “in Christ like a sacrament or as a sign and instrument both of a very closely knit union with God and of the unity of the whole human race” (Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, 1).

Veni Sancte Spiritus, Come Holy Spirit!

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The Lord is Glorious in His Saints

These past days were truly blessed days to be a “temporary” citizen of Rome.  Two popes were canonized at a Mass celebrated by two popes–what has been termed in much of the Catholic world as “the Mass of four popes”.

Here is a little bit of a chronicle of the fateful day, which actually started the night before, as the center of Rome became a pilgrimage spot and its streets were filled with excitement for the Church’s two new saints: John XXIII and John Paul II.

Trinità dei Monti:

Trinita

The evening began at the top of the Spanish Steps, at the church called Trinità dei Monti, which is actually a monastery of the Monastic Community of Jerusalem.  The church is my spot to go for Vespers, the Evening Prayer of the Church, because of the monks and nuns who sing the psalms there in four-part harmony.  I first came across this community at their home church of Saint-Gervais in Paris.

The church was packed with French-speaking pilgrims and those who just happened to wander into the church at the top of the famous steps.  The community sang Vespers in French, and the congregation joined in their parts, amazingly finding their spot in the harmony.  As I looked around, what struck me was the youth of those who were there to pray: young single people, young couples with children, and the monks and nuns who are mostly young French men and women.

I have always been struck by the beauty of French spirituality, its simplicity and its profundity, with such saints as Therese of Lisieux, Joan of Arc, and John Vianney.  The French are known today as a pretty secular bunch, but the beauty of faith is that it gives those who “tap into” it access to the incredible depth of a culture formed by Christ, the “eldest daughter of the Church”, as France is known.

Here is a clip of their singing from their monastery in Quebec:

Il Gesù:

Gesu

After a brief stop at Sant’Andrea della Valle, where my friends from Communion and Liberation had been asked by the Diocese of Rome to offer hospitality to other French pilgrims, I headed over to the Gesù to meet up with some priests from my house who follow the Neocatechumenal Way.  The folks from “the Way” were all gathering at this Jesuit church, where St Ignatius and St Francis Xavier are buried, to keep an all night vigil before the canonization Mass.

The Neocatechumenal Way, as its name suggests, offers the spiritual richness of the catechumenal process (the process for unbaptized people to become Catholic, aka RCIA) to Catholics who may have drifted away from the Church or never tapped into the grace of the Sacraments of Initiation.  They do this by forming small communities that share life together in an intense formation that often goes on for years.  The “Neo-cats” began in Spain and have spread all over the world.  They are well known for the many families that leave their homes to become missionaries precisely as families, and for the seminaries that have opened on every continent.  I became friends with the Way while I was in Denver, where they have a seminary.

What struck me about this gathering was the great energy and enthusiasm that filled this huge baroque, Jesuit church.  The contemplative experience of the Monastic Community of Jerusalem gave way to a rather raucous and joyous celebration, as many hundreds of young people–mostly Spanish and Italian–“settled in” for their vigil.  The prayer vigil consisted of Vespers, a rosary, adoration, and Confession, accompanied by the powerful, energetic music for which the Way is known.  Here is a link to one of their most famous songs, “Resucitò”:

The Canonization:

At this point, I did something that many of the pilgrims did not get to do on Saturday night before the canonizations: I went home and went to sleep.  The next morning, I set out at 6:30am (now, others spent the whole night at the gates of St Peter’s Square and others got up as early as 2:30am to get there in time–and they now want to kill me!).  By the time I was heading to St. Peter’s to distribute communion–with my special ticket which is why I could leave so late–there were already many others heading from the Square to other parts of the city where they were showing the canonizations on screens.

Here are two photos from the Roman Forum, which is a long street that was completely covered with people watching on five jumbo-trons (called maxischermi in Italian):

Roman Forum

 Roman Forum 2

Now, back to Saint Peter’s Square: the priests who were distributing communion gathered in the Paul VI Audience Hall and then moved from there into the Square already filled with people.  As we walked out, you could feel the energy and excitement of the people.  I knew we were going to be close to the altar, but I did not know how close.  I was just excited to get into the Square and see how many people were there, and of course, the flags!  More than half, for sure, were Polish flags with the names of cities and dioceses from which so many of the pilgrims had come.  Here is a glimpse of the Square from where I was sitting:

Me in St Peter's

And here is the glimpse the other direction (yes we were that close to the Basilica of St Peter!):

Canonization

What can I say about the canonization itself?  It was an incredible moment to hear Cardinal Amato (in charge of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints) ask Pope Francis on behalf of the whole Church to declare these men saints.  Before this, we had chanted together the Litany of Saints, which really brought the reality of the canonization home to me: we were asking that Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II be numbered among these men and women (Peter, Paul, Augustine, Catherine of Siena, Francis, Dominic, Teresa), the “Hall of Fame” of Christianity!

Then came the moment for which I was vested and seated where I was: the consecration and the distribution of the Most Holy Eucharist.  What struck me the most about this moment was the peacefulness and reverence of the crowd, who at moments were so silent that you did not know that there were 500,000 people standing behind you.  The people came forward to receive communion so devoutly, which showed me the reason why they were in St Peter’s Square that day: they had encountered Christ through the witness of St John XXIII and St John Paul II.

This may seem a little thing, but I have distributed Holy Communion many times (thank God!) at St Peter’s, and often I witness the lack of reverence and attention with which the “normal” tourists receive Communion.  I do not mean that as a harsh judgment on those people, but only to point out the difference that I experienced this time around.  For me, this reverence and devotion was a huge testimony to the holiness of our two newest saints: they helped people to love Christ, really to see Christ and encounter Him where He is to be found.

The prayer that has filled my heart in the days since the canonization has been the “Glory Be”; the glory of God is that for which the saints live and that which they show to the Church and to the world.  The Lord is truly glorious in His Saints, who have born such beautiful (and diverse) fruit because they remained in Christ, as branches on the true Vine.

Saints John XXIII and John Paul II, pray for us that we too may remain always in Christ.  “In this is my Father glorified, that you bring forth much fruit and that you be my disciples.” (John 15:8)

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The Risky Popes

The cover of a Catholic magazine recently referred to the two popes to be canonized on Sunday, April 27, as “The Odd Couple”.  Now, the magazine cover did the trick, in that it caught my attention and elicited a reaction.  The reason that these two are seen as an odd couple is that, in the mind of many, Pope John XXIII opened the door of the Second Vatican Council, seen as a liberalizing of the Church, and Pope John Paul II tried to reign in what he saw as the excesses of the Council’s interpretation and its quite vague “spirit”.

My reaction to this fairly common and superficial reading of the history of the Church was to ask myself the question, What do these two different popes have in common?  Why would they be canonized together?

And the word that came to my mind was “risk”.  I will explain how risk played out in each of these popes’ lives, but first we must link the word risk to another word: “freedom”.  What do risk and freedom have to do with each other?  Let us think of the experience of falling in love, of saying to someone for the first time, “I love you!”  What a risk!  It is possible that the other person does not feel the same way about me.  It is possible that the other is not ready to say those words back to me.  It is possible that this “revelation” of what is in me could scare the other person, or be misunderstood, or could lead to a lot of heartache and pain.

Why is the declaration of my love for another person a risk?  Because the other person is free, free to love me back, free not to love me back, free not to live up to the demands to which love commits us.  It is the freedom of love that our two popes risked, when the “put themselves out there” in proposing the Gospel, which is the greatest declaration of love that could ever be given.

John xxiii

The risk of John XXIII: calling the Second Vatican Council.  In the history of the Church, Councils have been called mainly to deal with grave problems that have arisen, points of doctrine that need clarification because they have been attacked.  Think of Arius (Christ is a creature, not God) and the Council of Nicea in 325 (we still say the Creed today).  Think of the Protestant Reformations and the Council of Trent in the middle of the 16th century.

John XXIII called a Council not to deal with any particular issue, not to settle any particular doctrinal question, but rather, “The greatest concern of the ecumenical council is this: that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine should be guarded and taught more efficaciously.” (Speech at the Opening of Vatican II)  John XXIII saw the need to teach the faith, the same Catholic faith as ever, in a new and more convincing manner.  The way to do this, according to John XXIII, was not by changing things all around, but by finding a mode of expression that could be understood in our time.

The substance of the ancient doctrine of the Deposit of Faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another. And it is the latter that must be taken into great consideration with patience if necessary, everything being measured in the forms and proportions of a magisterium which is predominantly pastoral in character.

The difference was to move from a defensive position, taking refuge in “being right”, to a position of proposing the faith so that it could be understood and accepted in a world that was drifting farther and farther away from the Church.  Some say that John XXIII was too optimistic about our ability to propose the faith (without changing it) and about the openness of the world to being affected by this new transmission.  But he set us on a path, and it is precisely the path of risk, of proposing the revelation of the love of God to us in Jesus Christ, of proposing that love to the freedom of a world that may reject, may misunderstand, may persecute…but may accept it!

Illuminated by the light of this council, the Church—we confidently trust—will become greater in spiritual riches and, gaining the strength of new energies therefrom, she will look to the future without fear. In fact, by bringing herself up-to-date where required, and by the wise organization of mutual cooperation, the Church will make men, families and peoples really turn their minds to heavenly things.

I hope the way that John XXIII presents the Council sounds familiar to us, because it is the greatest legacy of Vatican II.  I recommend the Pope’s speech, called “Mother Church Rejoices”, to everyone.  Here is a link: http://conciliaria.com/tag/gaudet-mater-ecclesia/

JP-II-wizerunek blogoslawionego

The risk of John Paul II: World Youth Day.  It seemed like the risk of John XXIII did not “pay off”, that the world had said NO to the invitation that the Second Vatican Council wanted to propose to them.  The hemorrhage of Catholics from the Church continued, and even sped up, in the years after Vatican II.  Many priests and nuns left their vocation, and many people drifted away from the practice of their faith.  Inside the Church, even, many people did not get John XXIII’s distinction between the teachings of the Church (which cannot change) and the way of proposing the faith (which can, and must change, throughout history).  They wanted to change the teachings of the Church, to be more “up to date”.

And then came John Paul II.  Among the many risks that the Polish Pope took and invited the Church to take, I want to focus on the World Youth Days.  I had the privilege of attending two World Youth Days with John Paul II (Rome and Toronto), and have watched with joy how they have continued to take on such an important place in the mission of the Church in our time.

What was the risk?  In a world where young people seem to have no desire for what the Church proposes, where they continue to leave the Church like it was on fire, John Paul II invited them to come to Rome for a celebration of faith.  Who would come?  Would it just prove that the Church had been overly optimistic to believe that the faith could still awaken people?

On Palm Sunday in 1984, 300,000 young people came to Saint Peter’s Square at the invitation of the Pope.  On that occasion, he said to them, “What a fantastic spectacle is presented on this stage by your gathering her today! Who claimed that today’s youth has lost their sense of values?  Is it really true that they cannot be counted on?”  This “counting on” the youth, “betting” on their freedom is the experience of risk, which is the way that love grows, not just for the young, but for any of us.  It was that first experience that launched the World Youth Days.

WYD1

John Paul II would reflect years later, in 2002 at the World Youth Day in Toronto, about the risk he took, and the amazing response of the young to his invitation:

When, back in 1985, I wanted to start the World Youth Days… I imagined a powerful moment in which the young people of the world could meet Christ, who is eternally young, and could learn from him how to be bearers of the Gospel to other young people. This evening, together with you, I praise God and give thanks to him for the gift bestowed on the Church through the World Youth Days. Millions of young people have taken part, and as a result have become better and more committed Christian witnesses.

The vision of John XXIII, about a new way of proposing the Church’s faith, has taken flesh in a remarkable way in the World Youth Days of John Paul II, and in the worldwide “project” and call for a New Evangelization, which is new in ardor, method, and expression, not in content.

The risk of Christ: the Cross.  The content of the Christian proclamation is “Christ, and Him crucified,” as Saint Paul says.  To take a risk out of love is nothing more than to embrace the Cross of Christ.  Christ “handed Himself over to us” without any guarantee of what our response would be.  This love of God has been subject to so much derision, misunderstanding, and rejection throughout history and in our own day.  But it has also been accepted, and has born fruit in our hearts in beautiful ways!  God thought the risk worth it, because “there will be more joy in Heaven over one person who repents than over 99 who (think they) have no need of repentance.” (Luke 15:7)

The content of Christianity, the love of God incarnate, also indicates to us a method: risk, freedom, love.  Of course, these realities look different at different times in history.  Pope Francis canonizes two men who show us what the “risk of love” looks like in our time.  These men are saints, not so that we can admire them as museum pieces, but so that we too may risk in love for the good of the world.

Saints John XXIII and John Paul II, pray for us.

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The Triduum

These reflections are appearing in these days on the Life Teen website: http://lifeteen.com/triduum/

I thought I would re-post them here in their original form.  You can read them one at a time or all at once.  Enjoy!

Introduction:  The Triduum refers to the three days in which the Church remembers the events that are at the center of our Catholic Faith.  The Church remembers in a particular way, in a way that what she remembers is not just something in the past, but something that changes us today.  This particular way of remembering is called the liturgy: the public prayer of the Church, a prayer that transforms the people that enter into it.  The three days include actions that are not part of the “normal” Masses that we go to every Sunday, and these special parts of the Mass help us understand the central events of our Faith.

Holy Thursday—the washing of feet

TOPSHOTS This handout picture released b

In the world of Jesus’ day, there were no cement sidewalks or paved roads, and most people wore sandals.  We could imagine, walking on these ancient dirt roads, how dirty our feet would get.  And so, the fact that I would need to wash my feet when I came inside was a normal part of life.  But who would wash my feet?  In those days, it would have been a servant or a slave of the house, someone of a lower class than the owner of the house or his guests.

The washing of someone’s feet was a sign of welcome, of hospitality: you can feel at home here.  The fact, then, that Jesus is the one to kneel down and wash the feet of his disciples demonstrates to us the lengths to which Christ wants to go to make us feel welcome in his Father’s house.  “For your sake Christ became poor although he was rich, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” (2 Corinthians 8:9)  “Christ emptied himself, taking the form of a slave,” (Philippians 2:7) in order to wash us clean and to make us members of his family.  Christ becomes the slave, the servant, who cleans our feet as we enter his house.

When were we first washed? When did we become members of God’s family and enter God’s house?  It was on the day of our Baptism, when our parents and our godparents brought us into the Church and we became children of God.  But what if our feet get dirty again?  What if the roads of this life have led me astray and away from the Father’s house?  There is a way for us to come back into our Father’s house if we have need of being washed again (and again and again): the Sacrament of Reconciliation, Confession.

There comes a time in life when it seems like we have outgrown the house where we grew up, and our main desire (especially on the weekends) is “to go out”, to leave my house.  “Where are you going?” mom asks.  “Out,” we respond.  This desire is completely natural and good, if we understand it correctly.  We are looking for a home, our true home.  We look for it in our friends, in human love, in material things (legal and illegal), in esteem, in “followers”.  The best question we can ask ourselves in all of this “going out” is, “What truly satisfies my heart?”  And when we mess up along the way, there is the “washing” of Confession, that welcomes us back again and again.

The most beautiful thing in life is when the desire to go out and find our true home, that place where we belong, meets the desire of Jesus to bring us into his Father’s house.  When we read the account of the washing of the feet in John’s Gospel (Chapter 13) and when the priest actually repeats this action by washing the feet of some of the people at the Mass, we are being invited to “come home”.  Let us say Yes to that invitation!

 

Good Friday—the veneration of the Cross

andrea montegna calvary

“When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.” (John 12:32)  In the liturgy of Good Friday, everyone who comes to church has the chance to come forward and kiss the Cross.  We do this action not as an empty ritual, like robots, that may happen to be a little bit harder for those of us who are germ-freaks.  No!  We approach the Cross with the awareness that Jesus is drawing us there, and that in our life it is His love that always comes first.

There are two places in the Bible that talk about this love that “comes before”.  Jesus says, “It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you.” (John 15:16)  Later, Saint John tells us, “In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins.” (1 John 4:10)  Pope Francis has talked often about the love that comes before, about the God who waits for us even when we are not thinking about him at all.  God is active, pursuing our good and “laboring for our love” as Saint Ignatius of Loyola said.

But, Father, this active God who is loving us and working for us all the time sure hides himself rather well!  What about all the evil in the world?  What about all those who have lost their loved ones or the good people who suffer without ever doing anything wrong?  Isn’t it cruel to talk about this God who works on our behalf when there are so many that feel abandoned by him?

Beautiful questions!  The answer of God to these questions that we must ask—and we should never feel bad for asking them—is not given in words but in actions.  Precisely, in the action of the Cross.  Our God is not a God who experiences our suffering only as a spectator.  God sends his Son Jesus into the dark forest of our suffering and death in order to meet us there.  God loses his Son so as not to lose us.  Which means?  No one ever suffers or dies alone—Christ is always right there next to us.

On Good Friday, the Gospel story of Christ’s suffering and death is read, and we hear again all the gory details of this active love of God.  When after the Gospel we come forward to kiss the Cross, we do so with grateful hearts, trusting that God “goes before” us in every aspect of our life: the joys and the sorrows, in life and in death.  And let us also pray that we can be convinced, together with Saint Paul, that “nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:39)

 

Holy Saturday—together with Mary

our-lady-of-sorrows

Silence.  This is the word that sums up what Holy Saturday is all about.  Christ has been crucified and now he lays in the tomb.  The disciples have all been scattered, and will only slowly make their way back to the upper room, where they had the last supper.  Saint John and Mother Mary have gone home, as we heard that from the time of Christ’s crucifixion, the disciples John took Mary to live with him.

The Church is also silent on this day.  There is not special liturgy for Holy Saturday like there was for Holy Thursday and Good Friday.  The Mass that the Church celebrates on Saturday evening will already be the first celebration of Easter, the Easter Vigil.  The voice of the Church—if we think of the liturgy as the prayer that all of us can enter—has very little to say on this day.

But the silence is not an empty silence; it is not the silence of nothing or of boredom.  It is a silence that is full of memories.  We can think of Mother Mary on this day remembering all the promises that God had made to the prophets and to the people of the Old Testament.  We can think of her remembering and maybe sharing with Saint John all the amazing things that happened while Jesus was with them: his miracles, his calling of the disciples, his preaching.  It is not an empty silence, but a silence filled with hope, with a question:  How will God act now that everything seems to have ended with the death of Christ?

My friends, we enter into this silence and this “memory” of Our Lady every time that we pray the rosary.  The rosary is that prayer in which we remember with Mary the events of the life of Christ: the Joyful Mysteries of the beginning of his life; the Luminous Mysteries of his public ministry; the Sorrowful Mysteries of his death; and of course, the hope of the Glorious Mysteries of the Resurrection.

To take time for silence is not just a way to “escape” from the busyness of everyday life.  It is a way to “make room” for God to speak, and to remember the amazing things that God has said to us and about our life.  On this Holy Saturday, let’s take some time to put down the phone, to turn off the computer, and to remember with Our Lady all that God has done and has promised to do.

 

Easter Sunday—renewal of our Baptismal Promises

Resurrection

“He is not here, for he has been raised just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay remains.”  (Matthew 28:6)  Easter begins with an amazing fact: the tomb of Jesus is empty.  When they had laid him there and rolled a stone in front of the tomb, the disciples and the women expected him to stay there.  But he didn’t!  He is risen as he promised!

Of course, the fact of an empty tomb is only the first step.  Christ will appear many times to his disciples and friends in these days, and we will hear about these encounters on all the Sundays of the Easter Season.  Jesus appears in strange ways: walking through locked doors, hiding himself at first, then revealing that it is really him.  And not just his soul or his ghost—he even eats breakfast with them to show that his body too has won the victory.

Jesus has won the victory!  That is the good news, the Gospel of Easter.  But it is not just good news for Jesus; it is good news for us as well.  The victory of Jesus is not just for Jesus; Jesus wants to give it also to us.  The announcement that he has risen was not just for the first disciples, but also for us today.  How did this victory of Jesus become our victory?

Baptism.  In the sacrament of Baptism, you and I were “touched” by the victory of Jesus, the victory of God the Father who raised Jesus from the dead.  “He delivered us from the power of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son.” (Colossians 1:13) Christ made us children of God and members of his household.

On Easter Sunday, we have the opportunity to renew our baptismal promises, the promises that our parents and godparents made on our behalf when (most of us) were baptized as children.  We will be asked three questions: “Do you believe in God the Father? in God the Son?  in God the Holy Spirit?” and we will respond “I do!”  The priest will then come around and sprinkle us with Holy Water, again as the reminder of our Baptism.

Easter means the Christ remains.  That he is not just someone from the past whose message remains, but that he is personally involved in each of our lives and in our life together in the Church.  So when we respond to those questions, let us respond to Christ who is present, inviting us to share in his victory.  Do you want to live with me forever?  I do!

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Let Us Also Go To Die With Him

“Father, we wanted to make little necklaces with grandma’s ashes in them and wear them to the funeral.  Is that OK?”

Um, where do I even begin?  Where do people get these ideas?  How do I as a priest, as a believer, use this funeral as an opportunity to present the true beauty of the Catholic Faith?

Funerals are strange times, and the grieving process brings out a much different side of people.  Sometimes a funeral is not the time or the place to correct false notions of God, of the dead, of Heaven, of grandma…  Here are some common phrases, used by good people–even faithful Catholics or Christians–that totally miss the point of Christian faith: “Heaven gained another angel today.”; “Dad is in a better place now.”; “Let us celebrate the life of this person.”

Now, it is generally not very helpful, and especially not while someone is grieving, to point out how they are wrong.  At least, not very helpful before pointing out what a truer, richer, and more beautiful approach to these questions would be–to paint them a true picture of the hope that Christian faith gives us.

And that is exactly what the Gospel for the Fifth Sunday of Lent gives us: the raising of Lazarus.  John’s Gospel is full of what can rightly be called paintings, with words, of the truth and beauty of who Christ is and who Christ wants to be in our life.

Palma_VecchioXXThe_Raising_of_Lazarus

The first thing for us to note in this painting is the complete freedom that Jesus has in front of death.  He treats it as if it belongs to him.  At the request of his friends Martha and Mary that Jesus come and heal His friend, Jesus responds by waiting two days, therefore letting Lazarus die.  A cruel joke!  Who is this man who treats death in this way?

The answer comes soon after, when Martha meets Jesus on the road:

Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.  But even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.”
Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise.”
Martha said to him, “I know he will rise, in the resurrection on the last day.”
Jesus told her, “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.  Do you believe this?”

So, the first thing we need to know in front of death is that it belongs to Jesus, that He is Lord even of death.  “I am the resurrection and the life” is not only good news for Jesus but good news for us.  We have seen in the previous weeks of Lent that Jesus is the water that is capable of quenching our thirst (John 4) and that Jesus is the light that overcomes all of our darkness/blindness (John 9).  On the Fifth Sunday of Lent, we see that Jesus is the Life that overcomes even death.

The phrases about heaven getting another angel, or about dad being in a better place, or about a “celebration of life” put the focus completely in the wrong place: on the person who has passed away, who is dead.  The Gospel is so realistic that it makes us uncomfortable: “By now there will surely be a stench! Lazarus has been in the tomb for four days.”  In ourselves, we do not have eternal life, and nothing in us is “capable” of reaching Heaven.

Our only hope of reaching Heaven is to believe in Christ, which is more than just an intellectual activity.  It means to hand our lives over to Him.  And this handing ourselves over to Him is possible because He has handed Himself over to us, first, in Baptism and then through the life of faith, hope and love that transforms us…into Christ (read the blog post on divinization: “That we may rejoice to behold Your glory”).

Heaven is a Christological reality, and so our best bet for going to Heaven is to belong to Christ (we’ll save the question of whether it is possible to belong to Christ without being a Christian for another day…).

So what do we do with our grief?  What comforting phrases do we use at funerals and when people are grieving?

One of the most comforting phrases in Scripture is also the shortest sentence: “And Jesus wept.”  While we were using euphemisms to avoid looking at the reality and the injustice and the “it doesn’t belong to us” nature of death, Jesus was weeping.  And His weeping was the most obvious sign of His love: “Look how He loved Lazarus.”  Jesus gives us the grace to look at our grief, at our pain, at death, in the face, with all of its reality, but not without hope.  Even though death remains a mystery, it is a mystery where Jesus is to be found.

Brooklyn_Museum_-_Jesus_Wept_(Jésus_pleura)_-_James_Tissot

 

The center of the picture we are painting of Christian death will always be Christ.  The greatest blessing that is ours in this world is to belong to Christ, to be a Christian.  What do we call those who belong to Christ?  We call them saints.  Attenzione: Not angels!  Saints!  Heaven does not gain another angel when a human being dies in Christ.  Angels are creatures, and human beings are creatures.  God did not become an angel, but a human being, and the angels exist to serve God and us.  “Christian recognize your dignity!” as St. Leo the Great said.

One last element of our painting is the question, “What can we do now to prepare for a good death, to die with Christ?”  There is a tradition of “praying for a happy death”, which is not just a pious thought.  Let us listen to the words of Thomas the Apostle–that’s right, doubting Thomas–when Christ decides to go back to Jerusalem, where Lazarus died and also where the Jews want to kill Jesus:  “Let us also go to die with him.”

ThomasBelieving

We prepare for a good death by dying with Christ everyday.  That sounds nice, but how does it translate into deeds?  I will finish with a few examples:

Sometimes it feels like a little “death” to humble ourselves and ask forgiveness from someone that we have hurt.  It is a “letting go”, especially when we do not know the outcome.  Or, on the other side, to forgive someone even when they do not realize that they have hurt us, when they are not even sorry, can feel like “giving up” our “rights” to be angry or to hold a grudge.  This is a little death.  When we let go and “die”, we realize how God provides, how we find peace, light, happiness, life, through what seemed like death.

Sometimes is feels like a little “death” to do the right thing when everyone is going in the opposite directions.  How will I live without the whole web of relationships, habits, and attitudes that–even though it is a lie–are “normal life” for most of the world?  It can feel like “death” to make a judgment that this path is not the path of life.  The open question about life “after” an addiction or a pattern of sin is a chance to see how God answers, how He provides, how He is faithful to His promise to give us life in what seems like death.

Sometimes it feels like death to go out of ourselves in charity to someone else.  How will they respond?  Am I getting in “over my head”?  Will I be able to keep up this charitable work once I get started?  Mother Teresa once said, “If I did not pick up that first man dying on the street, I would never have picked up the thousands that came after him.”  Getting over that first hump was a little “death” for Mother Teresa, but what amazing life followed from that death!

Mother Teresa

The prayer for a happy death translates into throwing ourselves into all those little “deaths” to which God invites us in our concrete life.  “Practice death” would probably make for a confusing bumper sticker, but it is a healthy path for us Christians, who understand death in a new way.  Because of Christ, who is the Resurrection and the Life, we cannot think about death except as the place where Christ is, where He has promised to be.

And this gives us the grace to say every day, and at the end of our days, with Thomas, “Let us also go to die with Him.”

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The Beautiful Day

This February 22, 2014 we celebrate the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter, not as a piece of furniture but as an authority that Christ willed to be exercised in His Church for the good of us all, “to strengthen your brethren” (Luke 22:32).  This year, Pope Francis will also confer the “red hat” on the new cardinals in the consistory celebrated on the Feast of the Chair.

But there is another event that draws my attention this February 22, not in opposition to the above-mentioned events, but as another reason to be grateful: the ninth anniversary of the death of the Servant of God, Luigi Giussani.  On this day in 2013, Cardinal Angela Scola of Milan announced the opening of the cause of canonization for this great priest and educator.

A few weeks ago, I ran into an article online, from Crisis magazine, about Luigi Giussani entitled “Recalling Luigi Giussani’s Passion for Christ”.  Here is a link to that great piece by Regis Martin: http://www.crisismagazine.com/2014/in-search-of-the-beautiful-day-luigi-giussanis-achievement

Luigi-Giussani-24

In the article, Martin makes reference to the “beautiful day” which is a word Giussani used to describe his first encounter with Christ as a present event and reality.  This encounter with Christ present would spark a passion for Christ that was contagious, that changed his life and

Also the lives of countless young people for whom he would harness all that he had to offer in order to bring Christ to their world.  To enable them to experience the beautiful day that had first enraptured him.  Passion for Christ having become the transformative experience of his life, he was determined to infuse the lives of others, especially the young, with that same passion.

As I read Martin’s article, I so wanted him to describe the content of that “beautiful day”.  What happened? What led up to it?  What was different about that day?  I so wanted Martin to let those who may not know Father Giussani’s story the shape of that encounter, because it truly is beautiful and paradigmatic of what we mean when we say that Christianity is an event.

Okay, I’ll tell you…

First, we have to meet Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837) the great Italian poet.  On a trip to Recanati, Leopardi’s hometown, I had the chance to learn about his life and especially his influence on Luigi Giussani.  Leopardi is known as a pessimistic poet, as one who awakens our desire only to tell us that it is unrealizable.  This pessimism was true for Leopardi’s life, but not for all those who read and love him.

Leopardi produces the contrary effect to that which he proposes.  He doesn’t believe in progress, and he makes you desire it; he doesn’t believe in freedom, and he makes you love it.  He calls love, glory, and virtue an illusion, but awakens in you an inexhaustible desire for those things.  He was a skeptic, and he makes you a believer.  –Francesco de Sanctis

So, what led him to this pessimism?  The modern concept of reason and science taught him and teaches us that man is just a part of nature, that his coming and going in this world are only the result of natural processes.  This mechanical view of the universe “should” teach us that the fly who dies after a few days and the human being who passes away are part of the same natural processes.  Yet, man is the only creature who is aware of this “system” and its limits.  He is cursed because two worlds fight within him: the desire for the infinite and the reality of death and the conquest of natural forces.

His reason reaches out for the infinite, and yet cannot attain it.  Leopardi expresses this beautifully in his poem “Infinity”:

This solitary hill has always been dear to me
And this hedge, which prevents me from seeing most of
The endless horizon.
But when I sit and gaze, I imagine, in my thoughts
Endless spaces beyond the hedge,
An all encompassing silence and a deeply profound quiet,
To the point that my heart is almost overwhelmed.

IMG_0949“Hill of Infinity” in Recanati, Le Marche, Italy

Leopardi’s heart would also be overwhelmed by the death of his childhood love.  The scientific education that would have him see in this death only another natural process, no more and no less, could not calm the desire of his heart, and the grief at the loss of a love that was the most real thing he had known.

The poetry of Leopardi would feed the soul of a young seminarian over 100 years later, when Luigi Giussani first found this lifetime friend.  Between the ages of 12 and 13, Giussani memorized all the poetry of this skeptical, Enlightenment thinker.  The poems awakened in him that same desire for the Infinite, which had haunted Leopardi but would be the bassi for Giussani’s “beautiful day”.

When he was 15 year old (1937), Giussani was listening to his seminary teacher Father Gaetano Corti explain the first chapter of St. John’s Gospel.  He had heard these words thousands of time, seeing that in those days, the first chapter of John was read at the end of every Mass.  Corti began to comment on the passage: “The Word was made flesh.”  “Beauty became flesh, Goodness became flesh, Justice became flesh, Love, Life, Truth became flesh, Being became flesh…one among us.”

Giussani thought immediately of his friend Leopardi, that the answer to Leopardi’s angst had already happened 1800 years before Leopardi was born.  All the things that Leopardi had striven after became flesh and dwelt among us.  What then was the difference between Leopardi and Giussani?  Quite simply, Giussani had a witness in his life who was able to point out the Presence of the answer to the question that had grown so great in his heart.  Giussani encountered the answer to his humanity, a humanity that was awakened by his friend Leopardi.

The fact that the Word became flesh is not just something from the past, though; it teaches us the “method” of God from the moment of the Incarnation.  As Giussani would say, “L’istante, da allora, non fu più banalità per me.”  The easiest way to translate the phrase would be to say that from the time of his “beautiful day”, the moments of everyday life would always carry something more, would always be the “vehicle” of the Presence of Christ.

The beautiful day, then, led to so many more beautiful days in the life of Father Giussani.  He gave his life to the Church, whose greatest task, like that of John the Baptist, is to point out the Presence of the Word-made-flesh in our midst.  Giussani understood that this could not happen, that Christ could not be experience as the answer, unless the question of our humanity arises, even in its painful longing for what seems “beyond” us.  Leopardi’s problem was not that he desired to much, but that he did not have the encounter with the answer to what was stirred up in his heart.

IMG_0942

Which leads to one last point: Leopardi lived right across the street from a church.  The building that is just barely in the picture on the left was the house where Leopardi grew up.  If only…if only he had encountered someone in that church who could have pointed out to him the only one, Jesus Christ, who could answer all of those beautiful questions and desires that arose in his heart.  If only he had experienced the “beautiful day” that Father Giussani experienced as a teenager.

Let us feel that “if only” directed also to us: that we too can know and love and witness to the Infinite that became flesh and dwells among us.

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