Sunday, April 30, 2006

Theo-Drama: Play of a Lifetime

(3rd Sunday of Easter-Year B;This homily was given 30 April, 2006, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; read Luke 24:36-48)

A number of years ago I was at a talk given by Catholic author and papal biographer George Weigel, and he was speaking on “The Soul of Pope John Paul II.” He expressed what he considered to be different aspects of the pope’s personal and spiritual life: for instance, he said that the Holy Father had a Polish soul, nurtured in his beloved homeland of Poland; he had priestly soul, formed over his long and fruitful ministry as a priest of Jesus Christ.

At one point he went on to describe how John Paul II also had “a dramatic soul.” Karol Wojtyla (John Paul II), as a young man growing up in Poland, had been an actor. He enjoyed writing and acting in plays, even continuing that activity clandestinely during the German occupation at the outset of World War II.

In saying that Pope John Paul II had a “dramatic soul”, Weigel was simply expressing how that sense of drama never really left him. He understood himself as a part of the greater drama of life, a play which God had written and in which he had been given a significant role to play.

Now this is not an entirely new way of looking at ourselves and our relationship with God. The great Swiss theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar, in one of his works called the Theo-drama, explores what can best be described as the drama of life and the story of salvation. In that drama, he says, God is the Author, Director, and Actor on the world stage, but we are also actors who share that stage with Him.

The point of life, essentially, is to live fully the role that God has given us. Our freedom must work together with God’s freedom in order to follow His divine script. When our lives and our freedom are cooperating with His, we fulfill that authentic role. When they do not—when we abuse our freedom and cease to follow the divine will, when we sin—we lose sight of the true meaning of life and God’s plan for us in it.

In this drama, of course, it is Christ Himself who is the model of what it means to truly live out one’s role in this world. He is the one who always follows the divine script and freely loves both God and those around Him to the fullest possible extent.

The whole concept of the Theo-drama is a fascinating one, but it really only “works,” it only makes sense when we are able to understand that, first of all, there is a story that God has written and is writing; and, second of all, that we have a place in that story. That should sound rather obvious, but unfortunately it is not.

You may have heard the term “post-modernity” before; it’s been used to describe the culture we live in as seen through the art, literature, philosophy, and various components that make up that culture. One of the characteristics of our post-modern world is that we seem to have lost this sense of being a part of the greater story God has written. Think about the latest books, movies or TV shows; they nearly all present a very different picture of humanity than the one we find in the Theo-drama. In “post-modernity,” our lives become just a bunch of little stories that float around on their own. We are not connected to God or to each other.

The disciples in the Gospel we heard this morning, oddly enough, experience a situation very much like that. For three long years they had given their lives to Christ and followed Him. In that time they had seen amazing things: they watched Him preach the Gospel to thousands; they watched Him heal the sick, and raise the dead. And then, tragically, they watched Him suffer and die on the cross.

Now they find themselves gathered together in a locked room, fearful of the Jewish leaders and fearful of their own people. They have become separated from Christ and cut off from their own religious tradition . . . or so they thought.

Suddenly Christ appears to them and reveals the resurrection; they have not been separated from Him at all! And then He goes on to do the one necessary thing that remains: He reconnects them once again to their own faith tradition.

Jesus says to them:
“These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and in the prophets and psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.
—Luke 24:44-45

It’s the second time Christ does this in the same chapter of St. Luke’s Gospel. It was that important to Christ, and that important to the early Church, that He should open their minds and hearts to understand the story of their own salvation.

He would have brought them back to the Book of Exodus, and to the lamb that the people were commanded to sacrifice as a sign of their salvation from slavery and death in Egypt; and Christ would have told the disciples: “I am that Lamb.”

He would have taken them through the great stories of the prophets, who constantly called the people of Israel to return to God, the One who called Himself their faithful and loving husband. And Jesus would have said to the disciples: “I am that faithful husband.”

And He would have opened up the Book of Psalms for them, and let them listen to the voice of King David saying, “The Lord is my Shepherd.” And Christ would have said to them, “I am the Good Shepherd.”

Jesus opened their minds and hearts to the great drama of salvation, the one that they had apparently forgotten or maybe never fully understood. He helped them to see that they were not alone, not isolated and cut off from God’s plan or God’s people. They were a part of a much bigger picture, a much greater drama, written by God Himself.

This morning, here in this Church, Christ reminds us that we too have a role to play in that same drama. We, too, are a part of God’s plan of salvation. Our stories, our lives, are not isolated and disconnected. We belong to a much bigger picture and a much greater plan, and in that plan we must discover who we are and fulfill that role in the world we live in.

Today we ask God to open our minds to understand the scriptures, and our eyes to recognize Him as we gather here to celebrate this Eucharist. Like those first disciples, might we see and touch and hear Christ who speaks to us in the scriptures and gives Himself to us—Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity—in the Eucharist.

And leaving this Church this morning, may we come to understand that the curtain has been raised and the drama of our salvation is not yet finished. Might we be faithful in accomplishing the work that God has given each of us to do, and truly live to the fullest extent that Theo-drama, the role God has prepared for each of us as people of faith and followers of Christ.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Divine Mercy-Breathing in and breathing out

(Divine Mercy Sunday-Year B;This homily was given 23 April, 2006, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; read John 20:19-31)

Just last year, the priests of the Diocese of Providence came together for a “Priest Study Day” at the Crowne Plaza in Warwick. Archbishop Dolan, from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, was our presenter and he began by mentioning a book he had been reading on depression.

The author of that book had reached a point in her life where she felt completely helpless against the paralyzing power of that debilitating disease. The only thing that she felt she was able to do was simply to breathe in and breathe out. That’s it.

And yet, as basic as it may seem, that was the beginning of a brand new start for her life. Returning to that most fundamental element of human existence—breathing in and breathing out—was enough for her to begin that journey out of the darkness of depression and to move ahead towards healing and hope.

The point that Archbishop Dolan went on to make is that we sometimes need to get that basic in our own spiritual lives. When things seem difficult and complex, when we are struggling to find God in our daily lives, sometimes the most helpful thing we can do is to stop and breathe, recognizing the life of grace and the life of God within us.

Now, I know that this sounds a bit like pop-psychology, but actually it’s one of the most fundamental, biblical truths regarding the human person. Think about the Book of Genesis and the creation of Adam. We are told that:

The Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.
—Genesis 2:7

God did not simply give life to us. He breathed life into us. We are made in the image and likeness of God, living beings who have the breath of God living within us. We have the power to be creative as God is creative. We have the power to live freely even as God Himself is free. Life is an amazing gift.

But with that power and with that gift comes tremendous responsibility. There are consequences to the choices and the decisions that we make. Our freedom is one of the things that make us most like God, but we know that it can also be used to turn us further away from Him.

That possibility, that reality, is what we call sin, and all of us have experienced it. In his 1984 document Reconciliation and Penance, Pope John Paul II describes the reality of sin in this way:

Man also knows, through painful experience, that by a conscious and free act of his will he can change course and go in a direction opposed to God’s will, separating himself from God (aversion a Deo), rejecting loving communion with Him, detaching himself from the life principle which God is and consequently choosing death.
—Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, # 17

In other words, that life which God breathes into the nostrils of Adam is something that can be extinguished within us. This is not the fault of God. He is the one who gave us life and breath to begin with. When we detach ourselves “from the life principle that God is,” the fault belongs to us.

The entire history of humanity, from the Garden of Eden to the present day, can be summarized as a series of breathing exercises. Either we have allowed the breath of God to flow through our spiritual lives, through our culture and the world we live in, or we have not. We are constantly in the process of accepting or rejecting the breath of life that God gives us.

The most dramatic example of this is found in the person of Christ Himself. He who came to bring us life and the fullness of God’s mercy is Himself rejected and crucified.

And yet at the very heart of that mystery of the death of Christ on the cross is the mystery of our own salvation. It is for our redemption and the forgiveness of our sins that Christ—with great love and boundless mercy—goes to the cross; He dies for each one of us. And with that event comes the fullest expression of the forgiveness, love and mercy of God.

That is why Christ walks into the place where the disciples are in today’s Gospel—standing before the very people who had used their freedom to turn away from Him just days before—and He announces to them: “Peace be with you.” That is why He shows them His hands and His side, revealing the very wounds that healed them, and each of us, from sin.

And then He does one of the most beautiful and strangest things recorded in the Gospels: He breathes on them! St. John describes that scene:

He said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them.
—John 20:21-22

He breathed on them. The same God who breathed into Adam the breath of life now breathes on the disciples and says to them:

“Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”
—John 20:23

God’s passion, His desire and purpose for every one of us, is to receive the breath of life anew, to be immersed in the mercy of Christ and His forgiveness flowing from the cross. But we must be willing to receive that mercy. We must be willing to breathe it in and breathe it out it in everything we say and do, at the very core of our being.

This can and should happen in all of the moments of our daily lives as people of faith. But the pre-eminent place where the mercy of God is received and where we are given the grace and strength to live out that mercy is through the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

Reconciliation is not an extra in the spiritual life. It “is the ordinary way of obtaining forgiveness” (Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, #31) for the sins we have committed. It is the sacrament Christ begins when he breathes on the disciples in St. John’s Gospel, and says to them: Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained (John 20:23).

Pope John Paul II calls that passage from St. John “one of the most awe inspiring innovations in the Gospel” (Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, #29). It is God’ s way of breathing new life into the souls of His people, into the life of the Church, and into the world we live in.

As we celebrate Divine Mercy Sunday this day, the incredible mercy that God is constantly breathing out into His Church, let us take the opportunity to be more attentive to our own breathing:

Have we made ourselves available to the mercy of God by a sincere recognition of our own sins and the need for forgiveness?

Have we, in turn, lived in a way that proclaims and manifests that same mercy which we have received from God?

Breathing in and breathing out: the most basic activities of human life. Just as our bodies cannot live without air, even so, our souls cannot truly live without breathing in and breathing out the mercy of God.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Surprise! It's Easter!

(Easter Sunday-Year B;This homily was given 16 April, 2006, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; read John 20:1-9 and De-Coding Da Vinci by Amy Welborn)

What a surprise it was, just a week and a half ago, when the lost “gospel of Judas” was discovered. Imagine finding out, just at the outset of Holy Week, that everything we believed about the one who betrayed the Son of God was incorrect! Judas, apparently, was no enemy of Jesus, but His closest friend. His handing-over Jesus turns out to be the greatest favor of all. As Jesus tells him in that “gospel”:

“You will sacrifice the man that clothes me.”

In other words, You will set me free, Judas my friend.

Of course, the timing of this “new” gospel is no big surprise if we simply look at the ghosts of Easter past. For the past couple of years we have been “surprised” by all the stories of a supposed marriage between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, hidden through the centuries and now revealed by Dan Brown in The Da Vinci Code.

But my favorite Easter surprise comes from Holy Week of 1996, when reporters from the BBC revealed that they discovered a box that had contained the bones of a certain “Jesus, Son of Joseph,” found in a grave in Palestine. They wanted to know if this would affect the faith of the followers of Christ.

Of course, they failed to mention that they actually found many bone boxes labeled “Jesus, Son of Joseph,” since those two names were among the most popular of Jesus’ time!

So what do these three “discoveries” or surprises have in common (besides trying to spoil Easter for a whole lot of people)? All of them have to do with a very different vision of Christ and the human person than the Christian faith we profess each week. They belong to the tradition and worldview called Gnosticism.

You’ve probably seen that word, Gnosticism, in some of the articles about the “gospel of Judas.” The “gospel of Judas” is a Gnostic gospel. Details about the life of Christ in The Da Vinci Code, according to Dan Brown himself, are based upon the Gnostic gospels, namely the “gospel of Thomas” and the “gospel of Mary.”

The Gnostics—a philosophical-religious group from the 2nd and 3rd centuries—are a hard group to pin down. Their views and beliefs are a bit diverse, but there is a common vision they all seem to hold onto. In her book, De-Coding Da Vinci, Amy Welborn describes some basic themes of the Gnostics:

The source of goodness in life is spiritual, and the material world (our bodies, and the world we see around us) is evil.

We, as humans, are imprisoned within our bodies. We need to be set free (again, think of the “gospel of Judas,” when Jesus says to him: “You will sacrifice the man that clothes me.”).

Salvation comes from having a secret knowledge, but only a select few are worthy to receive it. You better know your stuff if you want to go to heaven as a Gnostic.

It is for good reason that the Church has rejected these Gnostic gospels from the beginning. The problem with the entire Gnostic vision of the human person is the insistence that this world and this life are not really all that important. If the material world and the body are evil, then we should be eager to get rid of them. Better for the body of Jesus to rot there in that grave in Palestine. The only thing that matters to the Gnostic is the life after this one. Nothing in this world matters.

How different is the vision we are given as followers of Christ! The real St. Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb this morning to anoint the body of Jesus, and what she finds instead is an empty grave. There is no body! It is the greatest Easter surprise of all: He is risen!

The radical message of the Christian faith is that Christ breaks into our world and takes on human nature entirely. The material world, and our humanity most of all, is something that is good, not evil. God takes it to Himself—soul and body—and He redeems it. He raises it up again.

The true message of the real Gospel is that this world—our bodies, our relationships, our care for the poor, our words and actions, our very lives—these things matter. We are not just spiritual beings waiting to be set free from this world. We are made of soul and body, and God wants us to live fully right here in this world, with our hearts set on the world to come. That truth should change us, and change the way we live our lives.

There is a very moving short story by English author D. H. Lawrence, called “Odour of Chrysanthemums.” It is considered to be a classic of English literature (it's also one of the only D.H. Lawrence stories you can read without having to go to confession afterward!).

The main character is a woman named Lizzie, and she is married to a coal miner who often comes home drunk or sometimes not at all. She despises him in her heart because he has become nothing more to her than a stranger.

As the story begins and her husband doesn’t show up after work, she begins to say to herself: He won’t be home tonight until they carry him in. And sadly she is right. She soon discovers that her husband has died accidentally in the coal mine. They indeed carry him home and she has the difficult job of cleaning him up, wiping all the dust and dirt from his body.

But in the midst of that awful task she discovers something alarming about this man as she clears away the coal and the soot. She begins to see things in him that she had never seen before. And then suddenly she begins to look more deeply at her own life, and she asks herself:

Who am I? What have I been doing? I have been fighting a husband who did not exist. He existed all the time. What wrong have I done? What was it that I have been living with? There lies the reality, this man.

The narrator goes on to say:

Her soul died in her for fear: she knew she had never seen him, he had never seen her, they had met in the dark and had fought in the dark, not knowing whom they met nor whom they fought. And now she saw, and turned silent in seeing. For she had been wrong. She had said he was something he was not.

On this Easter morning, as we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ—soul and body—and reflect upon how He has taken on our humanity in all its weakness and all its brokenness . . . and redeemed it, what is our response as we look around us at the world we live in?

Like Lizzie in that story, we too are called to see something more than brokenness, weakness and sin. We are called to see each other as children of God, redeemed by Christ, and called to share in His resurrection. Might that Gospel and that vision of eternal life truly change the way we live in this world as we wait in hope for the life of the world to come.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Holy Thursday-The Paschal Mystery Made Present

(Holy Thursday-Year B;This homily was given 13 April, 2006, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; read Exodus 12:1-14, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26)

Tonight we begin the sacred Triduum, those holy three days in which we enter more deeply into the very mysteries of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection. These days are always filled with inspiring and powerful moments. As we listen to the readings in these days, we can ask ourselves:

What must it have been like to be with Christ and the twelve Apostles in that upper room for the Last Supper?

To stand beneath the cross with Mary that Good Friday?

To come, with Mary Magdalene, to the tomb of Christ that first Easter morning . . . and find it empty?

In the Triduum we focus on these great events of Jesus’ life, the events of our own redemption. But somehow it is not enough for us to simply recall these events that occurred some 2,000 years ago. We need more than a memory, more than a remembrance of the redemption Christ won for us.

Jesus knew that. And for that reason, on the night before He died, at the Last Supper, Jesus takes the events of His own passion and death, and unites them once and for all to a meal.

It was the Passover meal, the one celebrated by the Jews each year to remember how God saved them from slavery and death in the land of Egypt. Jesus and the Apostles had celebrated that feast, that meal, all their lives. Yet, suddenly Jesus does something that had never been done before. We heard about it in that second reading from St. Paul.

He took the bread that was always used at that meal, and said, “This is my body” which will be given up for you. Then He took the cup and said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.”

The body that Christ will offer to the Father on the altar of the cross, and His blood that will be poured out on Good Friday for the forgiveness of sins, that gift of Christ Himself, is made present at that Last Supper in the form of bread and wine.

Christ then commands the Apostles to continue that sacrifice as He institutes the priesthood. He commands them to “Do this in memory of me.”

This is the gift we celebrate each Mass when we celebrate the Eucharist. It is the Passover fulfilled, the very sacrifice of Christ made present in every time and place. We truly believe as Catholics that the events of that first Triduum—Jesus’ sacrifice and death for us on the cross—are made present each time we celebrate the Mass.

Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical letter Ecclesia de Eucharistia, refers to this very mystery when he says:

In this gift Jesus Christ entrusted to his Church the perennial making present of the paschal mystery. With it he brought about a mysterious “oneness in time” between that Triduum and the passage of the centuries.
—Ecclesia de Eucharistia, #5

That first Triduum and those events of our redemption are, in a certain sense, “brought forward,” here tonight, and wherever the Eucharist is celebrated. They are perpetuated throughout all of history, and there is never a time or place where the great sacrifice of Christ and the glory of His resurrection are not present.

There is a man named Walter Ciszek whose cause for canonization is now being put forward. He was a young Jesuit priest from Pennsylvania who wanted nothing else than to bring the Gospel of Christ to the people of Russia. Near the beginning of World War II, he finally got his chance and he slipped behind the Iron Curtain under the guise of a common laborer.

It wasn’t long before the KGB discovered that he was a priest, and he was arrested and tried as a Vatican spy! It was a ridiculous charge and he expected them to discover this soon enough and he would be set free. Instead, the more they interrogated him the more convinced they became that he was sent to Russia to bring back secrets to Rome.

Walter Ciszek spent 23 long years in the Soviet prisons and the labor camps of Siberia. In that time he began to see that his dream of bringing the Gospel to the Russian people was being fulfilled in a very different way than he had imagined. Time and time again he offered the sacrifice of the Mass—at the risk of being executed—making Christ and the paschal mystery of the Triduum present even in the midst of Siberia.

Finally, one cold spring morning, he was told that he would be released from the prison camp in Siberia. He was given a new place to live, though still in many ways a prisoner within communist Russia, and he was therefore forbidden to celebrate the Mass and exercise his ministry as a priest. He did it anyway.

In his book, “He Leadeth Me,” Ciszek describes one night when he celebrated the Easter Vigil in the small hut or bolok that doubled as his “chapel”. Word had gotten out that he was celebrating the Mass and hundreds of people had come from all over to attend.

There were so many that he was unable to move—even to lift his arms. Communion had to be distributed after Mass, at 3 am. It was six hours later, at 9 O’clock in the morning, when he finally finished. Collapsing on his bed that morning, one thought was fixed in his mind: That all this had taken place in communist Russia!

Obviously, an event like that became known almost immediately. He was brought before the KGB the next day and told that he would be relocated. They warned him never to celebrate the Mass again. Yet time and time again he continued to make Christ present in communist Russia through the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Over and over again he would express the same sentiments: that it was worth the risk.

How many times has that same mystery been celebrated, in Russia, in Auschwitz, in a thousand forbidden places and in the midst of countless lives of faithful Christians from the time of Christ until this very day? How many dark and lonely places have been graced with the light of Christ made truly present in this holy sacrament of the altar through the hands of priests consecrated for that very purpose?

Tonight we celebrate that very mystery: the mystery of the Eucharist and the Sacrament of the priesthood whereby the Eucharist is perpetuated in every time and place.

But do the Eucharist and the priesthood mean the same to us as they did to Walter Ciszek and the people of Russia? This Holy Triduum we give thanks to God for the gift of Christ in the Eucharist and the gift of the priesthood that was instituted on that same first Holy Thursday night. May we spend the rest of our lives growing in these mysteries, and coming to recognize Christ’s paschal mystery present to us each time we celebrate the holy sacrifice of the Mass.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Extravagant Love-Passion for His Passion

(Palm Sunday-Year B;This homily was given 9 April, 2006, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; read Mark 14 & 15)

Who are the people we ordinarily associate with the Passion of Christ? Each year we hear about the Apostles, Mary and the women of Jerusalem; we hear about the scribes and the Pharisees, Pilate and the Romans, and a host of other characters.

But in St. Mark’s introduction to the Passion of Christ we are introduced to a person we do not usually think of when we reflect upon the suffering and death of Jesus: the woman with the alabaster jar of precious ointment. St. Mark recalls how she breaks open that jar and pours out its expensive contents in an expression of extravagant—even provocative—love.

Although we may not often consider her to be an important part of Jesus’ Passion and death, Christ Himself declares of her, and her alone:

Wherever the Gospel is proclaimed to the whole world,
what she has done will be told in memory of her.
—Mark 14:9

As we meditate on Christ’s Passion this coming week, we are called to do more than simply tell her story; in a certain sense, we are called to enter into her story; and not her story only, but the story and the very life of Christ Himself.

This is Holy Week, the singular most significant week in the Church’s liturgical year. It is the week that we focus, in a particular way, on the most central mysteries of our salvation:

On Holy Thursday of this week, we gather to celebrate the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. We remember that Christ, on the night before He died, gave over His body and poured out His blood in the Eucharist for the life and sustenance of the Church.

On Good Friday we gather as God’s people to remember and celebrate the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, that glorious death which purchased for us salvation and the forgiveness of our sins.

Finally, at the Easter Vigil, we assemble once again as Church on Holy Saturday evening, our souls and our sanctuary filled with light, and celebrate with great joy the resurrection of Christ.

This is indeed Holy Week, and God calls each of us to enter into it with joyful expectation and hopeful anticipation as the day of Easter draws near. We are called to celebrate not only these solemn feasts, but to truly open our hearts to God in all the areas of our lives: in our homes and families, in our relationships, and in the work place.

Might we break open what is most precious within each one of us this Holy Week, pouring out upon Christ and His Body, the Church, our faith, our devotion, our passion for His Passion. And might our hearts be opened more completely this year to receive the Easter message of Christ’s resurrection with joy.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

The Law of the Gift

(5th Sunday of Lent-Year B;This homily was given 2 & 3 April, 2006, at St. Elizabeth, Bristol, R.I. and 3 April, 2006, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; read John 12:20-33 and Gaudium et Spes, #24)

The Christian life and Christian faith is often experienced and expressed in paradoxes. We see this many times in the Gospel. Jesus says that those who humble themselves will be exalted; those who wish to be greatest must become the servant of all.

Perhaps one of the greatest paradoxes in Scripture is found in St. John’s Gospel, the one we listened to this weekend. Jesus tells us that the path to a fruitful and productive life begins at death!

Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.
—John 12:24

Ultimately, Christ is talking about the mystery of Easter. Each year we prepare ourselves to celebrate that mystery, which marks the journey from life, to death, to life eternal. Christ Himself comes to experience that mystery in its fullness through His passion, death and resurrection.

Yet each one of us is called to live out this mystery every day. Christ tells us that:

“Whoever loves his life (clings to it) loses it” (John 12:25).

“Whoever hates his life in this world (
learns to give it away) will preserve it for eternal life” (John 12:25).

The theological term often used to describe this way of life is the Law of the Gift. Essentially what is means is that we are really and completely fulfilled only when we learn how to give more completely of ourselves (Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes, #24).

It is no coincidence that we reflect on this passage from St. John’s Gospel and meditate on the Law of the Gift this weekend, on the 1-year anniversary of the death of our beloved Pope John Paul II.

Perhaps more completely than anyone in this past century, Pope John Paul II taught and lived the Law of the Gift all throughout his life. As a young man, and then a priest, but most especially as Vicar of Christ and successor to St. Peter, Pope John Paul II exemplified the Law of the Gift and left us all an example of how to build a life following that law.

Many people still remember the year 1978 as the year we elected two Popes. Having returned to the city of Rome for the second conclave in a matter of weeks, many of the cardinals began to question what God might be saying to them regarding the election of the next successor to St. Peter.

For hundreds of years they had elected Italian Popes; might God be moving them in another direction, to think outside the parameters that they were used to working within?

It is said that, after many days of deliberation, the momentum began to sway in the direction of the young Polish Cardinal, Karol Wojtyla [that is John Paul II’s baptismal name]. As they were counting the ballots it suddenly became clear that there were enough votes in his favor, and that he would be the next Pope.

Witnesses say that Wojtyla looked visibly shaken, and that he bent over and placed his face in his hands. One of the Cardinals began to fear that he would not accept the nomination! Think about how different that is from a Presidential election, with the balloons and streamers and everyone shouting for joy.

He understood what God was asking of him. He understood well the Law of the Gift: that God was asking him to give no less than everything.

Earlier that week, before the conclave, in a sermon he was asked to preach at a Mass for the recently deceased John Paul I, he reflected on this incredible responsibility, and the depth of the love which God demands of every Pope. He had said:

The succession of Peter, the summons to the office of the papacy, always contains within it a call to the highest love, to a very special love. And always, when Christ says to a man, “Come, follow me,” He asks him what He asked of Simon: “Do you love me more than do the others?” Then the heart of man must tremble . . . Christ’s command, “Come, follow me,” has a double meaning. It is a summons to service, and a summons to die.

And so, the Cardinal in charge approached Karol Wojtyla’s desk that afternoon, while the others waited silently and watched. He asked him if he was willing to take up this office to which God was calling him, and Wojtyla replied immediately, without hesitation: “I accept.” The grain of wheat had fallen, and the fruit was about to begin.

John Paul II’s entire papacy modeled this dying to self, with which he began his journey as the successor of St. Peter. Time and time again he would have to surrender himself to the will of God and lose himself in order to gain Christ.

I’m sure most people are familiar with the fact that John Paul II was the first Pope in history to have been shot. It was one of the darkest days in the last century, when—in 1981—an assassin attempted to kill the Pope right in St. Peter’s Square.

The day was May 13, the same day that the Blessed Virgin Mary had once appeared to three young children in Fatima. When asked how it was possible that the bullet which entered his body had missed every major organ, the Holy Father said: “One hand fired [the gun], but another guided the bullet.”

And then the Pope went on to do something that sent shockwaves throughout the world. He forgave the man who had tried to kill him. In an address taped from his hospital bed and broadcast from St. Peter’s Square that very Sunday, the Holy Father said:

I pray for that brother of ours who shot me, and whom I have sincerely pardoned. United with Christ, Priest and Victim, I offer my sufferings for the Church and for the world. To you, Mary, I repeat: Totus tuus ego sum.

That last part of the Pope’s message, his motto as Pope, is a Latin phrase which sums up John Paul II’s total consecration to Jesus, through Mary: Totus Tuus, I am totally yours.

It is to Mary that John Paul II attributed that miraculous intervention. The bullet that went through his body that afternoon was later taken from the floor of the Pope-mobile, and placed—by John Paul II himself—in the crown of the statue of Our Lady of Fatima, in Portugal. It remains there today.

But what a curious message he was sending that Sunday: “United with Christ, Priest and Victim, I offer my sufferings for the Church and for the world.”

What does that mean? What does it mean for someone to offer their sufferings up for the Church? For the world? What it means is that we saw the fruit of John Paul II’s papacy; always we saw the fruit. But behind it all was that grain of wheat falling to the ground.

Falling, like his face in his hands at the conclave when he was elected Pope. Falling, like his body on the floor of the Pope-mobile, offered up to Jesus, through Mary. Falling, like his voice towards the end of his life, shaking with age and the dramatic effects of Parkinson’s disease, but speaking nonetheless the eternal words of God.

John Paul II was a man who lived out the Law of the Gift, and we in the Church and people throughout the world are continuing to see the fruits of it:

Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.
—John 12:24

But it is not only the Pope who is called to live out the Law of the Gift. All of us are called to realize that eternal truth, that “man can fully discover his true self only in a sincere giving of himself” (Gaudium et Spes, #24).

I was 23-years old when I first felt God calling me to the priesthood. I remember my response at that time, how I had decided in my heart: God, I am willing to do anything that You want, to be anything You want me to be . . . anything but that!

It took me 5 years before I was able to prayerfully discern and grow in my life and faith, until I could see that this vocation that God was calling me to was the very thing that I also wanted all along. I realize now that being called to the priesthood, and responding to that call, is the greatest thing that has ever happened in my life. It’s the Law of the Gift, the reality that we are never really fulfilled in this life until we learn first to give more completely of ourselves to God and those around us.

As we continue to remember Pope John Paul II and seek to follow his example in our daily lives, how is God calling each of us to live out the Law of the Gift more completely in our own vocation, in our relationships with each other and with Him?

Like Pope John Paul II, let us learn to spend our lives loving God and those around us more completely than ever before, because our lives are not truly lived until we learn how to give them away.

If you are in the area, please join us for:

The Spiritual Legacy of Pope John Paul II
St. Elizabeth's Parish Mission

Bristol, R.I.
April 3-6, 7:00 PM