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