Monday, May 04, 2015

Catholic Priesthood: Deified and Divinizing

St. Athanasius of Alexandria (296-373)

(Monday of the 5th Week of Easter-Year B; This homily was given on 4 May 2015 at the Seminary of Our Lady of Providence in Providence, R.I.; See Acts 14:5-18 and John 14:21-26)

The scene we hear about in the Acts of the Apostles this morning is a terrifying one for St. Paul and St. Barnabas.  It might seem laughable to us, that after healing the crippled man at Lystra the crowds mistook Paul and Barnabas for the gods Zeus and Hermes and wanted to offer sacrifice to them!  The reaction of these Apostles, however, is no laughing matter.  Seized with anxiety, they immediately tore their garments and shouted:

Men, why are you doing this?  We are of the same nature as you, human beings.
—Acts 14:15

It is a fearful and shameful thing for a man to consider himself a god, or allow others to think so.  They spared no effort to make it perfectly clear that they were men, and not gods.  They were Paul and Barnabas, and not Hermes and Zeus!  

Which brings me to a famous expression that I would like to offer this morning; see if you can guess who said it.  The statement, referring to the incarnation, the coming of God as man, is this:

“God became man so that we could become God.”

Now who would dare to say something like that?  Was it Arius?  Pelagius?  Nestorius?  Which one of the great heretics of old said those words? 

In fact, it was none of them.  The person who famously offered that expression is not a heretic at all, but a saint. 

St. Athanasius, whose Feast Day we just celebrated last Saturday, May 2, said that “God made himself a man in order that man might be able to become God.”  It is the Christian doctrine of deification, and Cristoph Cardinal Shönborn explains how that formulation is found in all of the great Church Fathers, in the Middle Ages and right on into the Modern period.  It is only in contemporary times that many theologians have abandoned that doctrine in favor of a mere “humanization.” 

But the truth of Christianity, referred to by the Church Fathers as the “wonderful exchange,” is that God became man so that we could be “deified.”  One of the early Church councils, the Council of Chalcedon, championed that truth by explaining how both the human nature of Christ and His divine nature exist together in perfect harmony, without the loss or confusion of either.   It is not the case that when God took on our human nature in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary that he suddenly overwhelmed it and eradicated it.  No, He took on our human nature and remained both God and man, thus making it possible for us to become like Him!  He became man so that we could be deified.    

This is the very mystery that Christ is referring to this morning in the Gospel of St. John when He says:

Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him.
—John 14:23

It is not merely that the thoughts of God will dwell in us; God’s sentiments alone do not dwell in us; we do not simply have god-like habits that dwell in us.  GOD dwells in us!  In Baptism the Holy Spirit begins to live in us and we are divinized.  The God who so loved the world that He became man, now in the Sacraments of the Church, deifies us.  This, in a preeminent way, is the essential gift that the priest brings to the world.

In his book, From Death to Life: The Christian Journey, Cardinal Shönborn refers to one of the works of St. Gregory of Nazianzus on the ministry of the Sacred Priesthood, and mentions how the “exaltedness of his new task makes the one who is about to become a priest shudder.”  Shönborn goes on to offer the quote from Nazianzus that would later be incorporated into the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s description of the effects of the priesthood.  That quote reads:

We must begin by purifying ourselves before purifying others; we must be instructed to be able to instruct, become light to illuminate, draw close to God to bring him close to others, be sanctified to sanctify, lead by the hand and counsel prudently. I know whose ministers we are, where we find ourselves and to where we strive. I know God's greatness and man's weakness, but also his potential. [Who then is the priest? He is] the defender of truth, who stands with angels, gives glory with archangels, causes sacrifices to rise to the altar on high, shares Christ's priesthood, refashions creation, restores it in God's image, recreates it for the world on high and, even greater, is divinized and divinizes.

—Catechism of the Catholic Church, # 1589

There is something that the Catholic priest is called to do that no other human being on earth is called to do.  There is something that the world needs more than anything else on earth, or in heaven, and that the Catholic priest brings to this earth in a preeminent way.  The world needs God.  Desperately.  Human nature cries out to God for divinization.  The priest, himself divinized and sanctified for the sanctification of the world, brings God into the world by virtue of his sacred priesthood.  The priest brings the body and the blood of Christ into the world, onto the altar and into the bodies and the souls of the faithful.  The priest brings the sacramental absolution, the forgiveness of sins in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, freeing men and women from sin and death and restoring God’s divine life to those who long to receive it.  The priest anoints with oil the sick and the dying, preparing them in that unction to be united to God for all eternity.

There are literally thousands of faithful souls who fill our churches every weekend who have never heard this remarkable mystery explained to them.  There are thousands of homilies preached week after week that never come close to this essential and mystical reality that is both miraculous and basic to the life of every Baptized Christian.

In this Easter Season, in particular as men preparing to be ordained to the Sacred Priesthood of Jesus Christ, I would suggest that we spend time each day meditating on this remarkable gift, this “wonderful exchange” that comes to us in the person of Jesus Christ.  The priest is called to be deified, and to be then the instrument of God in bringing souls into this awesome reality, truly becoming the one who deifies those whom he is called to serve as he helps lead them to union with Christ in the Sacraments and in the teachings of our faith.  May we truly embrace this call and become that priest that “shares Christ's priesthood, refashions creation, restores it in God's image, recreates it for the world on high and, even greater, is divinized and divinizes.”

Sunday, February 01, 2015

The God Who Overcomes Evil

Peter Paul Rubens-The Resurrection of Christ

(4th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year B; This homily was given on January 31, 2015 at Holy Spirit Church in Central Falls, R.I., February 1, 2015 at St. Brendan's Church in Riverside, R.I., Holy Spirit Church in Central Falls, R.I. and St. Rocco's Church in Johnston, R.I.; See Mark 1:21-28)

Batman.  Superman.  Spider Man.
Beauty and the Beast.  Cinderella. 
Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

What do all of these stories, all of these films, have in common?  They all represent that perennial struggle between the forces of good and the forces of evil.  Truth be told, the reason why we are so captivated by those stories, the reason why we will watch those movies over and over again, and view sequel after sequel, is because—on some fundamental level—they ring true. 

We certainly experience that great battle between good and evil in the world we live in.  We can see it on the evening news and read about it in the newspaper.  But even internally, deep within the human spirit, we sense the reality of that struggle:

§  We are, in fact, never more anxious, more saddened, more weighed down and discouraged, than when we have been drawn into evil and into the self-destructiveness of sin. 

§  But we also never feel more like ourselves—more peace-filled, joyful and free—than when we allow God to draw us into the things that are good, holy, virtuous and true. 

Isn’t that why you came here today?  Christ draws us into all that is good when He gathers us together here to listen to the word of God and the message of our redemption; God draws us into communion with Christ and with each other here in the Holy Eucharist.  This is the real drama that we identify in the books and the movies that enchant us, because it is the drama of every human life.

We find that drama taking place in a powerful way in the Gospel of St. Mark this weekend.   We are told that Christ entered the synagogue in Capernaum and He began to teach the people.  He was drawing them into the great story of salvation and bringing them more completely into the good that God had designed for them.  But suddenly Jesus is confronted, face-to-face, by evil.  St. Mark relates that there was a man in the synagogue with an unclean spirit, and that this evil spirit began to cry out against Christ, the Destroyer himself accusing God of destruction:

“What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?  Have you come to destroy us?  I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”
—Mark 1:24

It is a disturbing scene, in particular because of where that scene takes place: in the holy place.  We would not be surprised to see Christ confronted by evil in the street, or in some seedy place where vice flourishes; but, of all places, in the synagogue? 

At the same time we should not be surprised at all if we truly understand who Christ is.  Jesus is not simply a good man.  He is the God-man.  He is the eternal Son of God who is the origin of all that is good; Jesus Christ is the embodiment of goodness itself, and evil cannot tolerate to be in the presence of that which is all-good.    While Satan's usual mode of operation is to remain hidden in the background, working deceptively and destructively even in holy places, the presence of Jesus suddenly draws him out.  Rightly does the evil spirit rail against the Christ in that panicked moment, and especially in that sacred space.  The game is up.

But it is also true that Christ cannot tolerate that which is evil.  He is more than up to the task of dealing deliberately and decisively with this unclean spirit.   He calls the demon out directly, and commands:

“Quiet! Come out of him!”
—Mark 1:25

After a brief struggle, and with no small amount of resistance, the unclean spirit departs from that person and the man is finally set free.

It is a dramatic struggle and it reminds us of what we truly believe in our Catholic faith about God and the good.  The Christian faith is very different from many of the Eastern religions that describe the struggle of good versus evil as a battle between two equal forces.  It is not the case that good and evil “balance” each other off in some impersonal, moral equilibrium.  No, what we believe clearly is that God is all-good, as well as all-powerful.  He has power over all of creation, over all spirits, and all things.  He speaks the word of command in the Gospel this weekend, “Quiet!  Come out of him!” and it is accomplished. 

As uncomfortable as it may be to name it, what Christ performs in the Gospel this weekend is, literally, an exorcism.  He casts out the evil spirit that has possessed this man in the synagogue.  We believe in the reality of exorcism in the Catholic faith.  There is, in fact, a Rite of Exorcism in the Catholic faith, and there are priests who have used it with great effect, as effective as Jesus Christ Himself in the synagogue in Capernaum. 

Of course, exorcism is real but also rare.  Most priests have never performed one.  But there is something that Christ wills to do in our lives on a regular basis, something that is very common and very necessary.  He wills to drive away that which is evil—in whatever forms we find it present in our world and in our lives—and He wills to draw us into that which is good, virtuous and holy.  Are we allowing Him to do that fully and are we cooperating completely in that great plan for our redemption?

Fr. Gabriele Amorth, the chief exorcist of the Diocese of Rome, writes in his book, An Exorcist Tells His Story, that there are two things that God does frequently among the Catholic faithful that can be even more powerful and more effective than an exorcism.  These two things may surprise you.

The first one is Sacramental Absolution.  The Sacrament of Reconciliation.  To make a good, integral confession and to receive absolution from the priest, is something that can be more powerful than driving out a demon from a possessed person.  Why would Fr. Amorth say that?  Because we believe that sin damages our relationship with God and with those around us.  Our Catholic faith teaches us that some of these sins are venial; we participate in gossip, tell little white lies.  These things are wrong and sinful, but they do not necessarily break our relationship with God. 

Mortal sins, however—sins which are serious, grave and even deadly—can and do break our relationship with God and result in the departure from what is called a “state of grace,” the beautiful bond that God has formed with us through our sacred Baptism.  “Sanctifying grace” is the life of God within the soul that allows us to live and love in a supernatural way.  To die in a state of mortal sin, having lost that “sanctifying grace,” is to put one’s soul and eternal salvation in peril.  To come to the end of our lives having committed serious, grave and mortal sins which have never been confessed before God and never truly repented from, is to risk the loss of heaven and the loss of eternal life with God. 

But in one, sincere, heartfelt and contrite moment, when we confess our sins before God in the Sacrament of Reconciliation which He instituted for that very purpose, we receive pardon and peace and the forgiveness of God restores that grace which we long for and desire above all earthly things.  Passing on from this world in a state of sanctifying grace, we are fully prepared to enter into eternal life with God.

The Sacrament of Reconciliation is that powerful, that awesome and life giving.  How tragic that, in this time in which there are so many temptations and occasions to fall away from God and to forget His great invitation to eternal life, there are fewer and fewer Catholics that take advantage of that opportunity to live fully and abundantly in God.

The second thing mentioned by Fr. Amorth that is even more powerful than exorcism is listening to the word of God and its explanation through good preaching (while he does not explicitly state that the Eucharist is preeminent, it is clear from his context that he takes this as a given).  So why preaching, and why the word of God?  Amorth mentions the teaching of St. Paul, who writes in his letter to the Church at Rome:  “Faith comes through what is heard and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ” (Romans 10:17).

It is when we listen to the word of God proclaimed, week after week, and hear that word explained and taught, that we grow in our faith and we are drawn ever more deeply into the mysteries of Jesus Christ.  We hear about Christ, who suffered and died for the forgiveness of our sins; how He rose from the dead and invites us into that supernatural life that has the power to overcome death itself. 

God draws us into that life-giving relationship with Himself and increases our faith and our conviction to live out the Gospel, to pray, to reach out in love to those around us and to reach up in gratitude, worship and praise.  That living and active faith, explains Fr. Amorth, sets up a “force-field” of sorts, like a protective wall around the treasure that is our soul.  When a Catholic man or woman lives out his or her faith to the fullest, Jesus Christ is able to drive out the forces of evil; they are not able to gain ground or take root in the place where God dwells.  There is nothing as powerful as a soul totally possessed by the living God.  As the saying goes: 

“Satan trembles when he sees 
the weakest saint upon his knees.”

How are we allowing Jesus Christ to drive away evil and fill us with all that is good in our lives this week?  How can we cooperate most fully in these opportunities to be sanctified and to be instruments of God’s sanctification in our world today?

Because, truly, we are not saved from our sins by Batman.  It is not Spiderman or Superman who died on the cross to give us the ineffable mercy of God.  It is Jesus Christ alone who overcomes the powers of evil and grants us the supernatural life to be transformed and to live like never before.  May we allow Him to drive away from us all that is evil and become His instruments of goodness and love in a world desperate for heroes and hungry for the things of God.

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Appointed Time

(Monday of the 33rd Week in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given on 17 November 2014 at the Seminary of Our Lady of Providence in Providence, R.I.; See Revelation 1:1-2:5)

There is something that can—and often will—happen to every seminarian in his formation and preparation for priesthood.  It is certainly something that can happen in the life of the Catholic priest.  St. John the Evangelist, in the beginning of the Book of Revelation this morning, indicates that it has happened in the Church of Ephesus and Jesus Christ has commissioned him to address it without delay.

In that prophetic and apocalyptic book written to the early Church, and to us, the Lord commends the Ephesians for their work, and especially their endurance in the face of trials.  They have refused to tolerate “the wicked” and have exposed the imposters claiming to be Apostles (Revelation 2:2).   More than that, however, they have suffered for the Gospel and the name of Jesus Christ.  He commends them for these outstanding marks of discipleship.

But there is something else that Christ points out to the Church in Ephesus, something that He holds against them that is unacceptable and potentially harmful.  He says: You have lost the love you had at first (Revelation 2:4).

They have lost that initial fervor, that fire and passion for Jesus Christ and the Gospel that had elevated the Church in Ephesus to the foremost place in Asia Minor.  These are the people who spread the message of salvation like wildfire across that region.   Their love for God was vivacious.   It was alive.  Contagious. 

Now it is fading away.

It can, and often does, happen that our initial fervor and passion for following Jesus Christ diminishes and gets reduced over time.  We can become so familiar with what is sacred, so acquainted with our regular routine, that we are no longer as driven as we once were to draw close to God in intimacy and share His message of salvation with conviction and joy.

St. John the Evangelist reminds us all this morning that Jesus Christ will not tolerate the loss of our first love.  No amount of work or endurance will substitute for diminished spiritual intimacy.  Christ wants it back.  In fact, He provides the solution and gives us the answer to the problem of lost spiritual fervor in our First Reading. 

The answer is time.

There are two different words in the Greek language for time.  The first is chronos, where we get the concept of chronological time.  The seconds that tick away on a watch or clock; the hours that accumulate throughout the day; the days that march along the calendar throughout the year; these are examples of chronos.  We can and should manage chronos, use it wisely to glorify God and serve Him well. 

But chronos is not the word for “time” that St. John uses in our First Reading this morning.  The word he uses in kairos, and it is different from chronos.  It is translated in our reading this morning as “the appointed time.”  St. Paul calls it “the acceptable time” (2 Corinthians 6:2).  It can be translated as the “opportune moment.”  It is God’s time. 

Kairos, according to St. Paul, is the time of salvation.  St. John this morning gives it as the very reason for this present communication to the Church in Ephesus, that “the appointed time is near” (Revelation 1:3).  We cannot manage or manufacture kairos, but God can.  Moreover, He does not provide those opportune moments in a fleeting way.   No, He is, instead, constantly intervening in time and offering those moments of grace and mercy that can reignite the fire within us and lead us back, even more deeply, into that first love.

He does that preeminently here in the Eucharist, on this altar.  In the Liturgy, when we draw close and worship God and receive His body and blood in the Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist, He draws us back into intimacy with Himself.  When we spend hours before God in prayer, before the tabernacle or exposed here on the altar, we allow God to work in our lives to revive our initial fervor and faith. 

It happens when we become immersed in the Sacred Scriptures, and drink deeply from the Word of God as a life-giving spring.  We long to know and understand the words of God in the Scriptures that have the power to animate our spiritual lives and set out hearts on fire.  We want to know what God is saying: to us personally; to our Church; to those we are called to serve; to those who have neither known Him nor yet loved Him, but who will come to know Him through us.

God’s opportune time comes to us in those moments that we offer forgiveness, maybe even for offenses that no one has asked forgiveness for.  It happens when was seek forgiveness, and strive to be more faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.  The appointed times throughout the day that God calls us to serve and to work for His glory and the building up of His kingdom, these are the moments and the times that God uses to reignite the passion and the fire that drove us to this place and initiated our response to the call of God to begin with.

“You have lost the love you had at first” (Revelation 2:4). 

How are we responding, in our daily lives, to the moments that God constantly provides, reigniting the fire and the flame of His love within us?  For the appointed time is near (Revelation 1:3), and the moment for enkindling that fire within is now.