Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Spiritual Legacy of Pope John Paul II

(1st Sunday of Lent-Year A; This homily was given on 9 & 10 February, 2008 at St. Mary's Church, Cranston, R.I.; See Genesis 2:7-3:7)

St. Mary's Parish Mission:

Monday through Wednesday, February 11-13

Mass begins at 7:00pm each evening

If you had to pick one person in your life that has had the greatest influence on you, who would it be? Is there someone you emulate, whose example you try to follow in your own life? Maybe a teacher, a parent, or some famous person you admire and respect?

For me that question is an easy one: Our late Holy Father, Pope John Paul II. I have said many times that one of the greatest opportunities of my life was being able to study for the priesthood in the City of Rome. In that time I was able to meet Pope John Paul II twice, to attend some two dozen Masses that he celebrated, sometimes even serving as one of his deacons.

I began reading his works well before I ever entered the seminary, and he has truly had a profound impact and influence on me personally, and on my priesthood. And so, when the pastor asked me about a month ago to give our parish mission this year, the theme that naturally came to mind was: The Spiritual Legacy of Pope John Paul II. This coming Monday through Wednesday we will gather here at St. Mary’s to look more closely at this great legacy of truth and beauty that our late Holy Father has given us.

One of the major themes of the life and writings of Pope John Paul II is something that has come to be called the Law of the Gift. Evident in the core gospel message and taken directly from the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, John Paul II quotes it often as follows: Man only truly discovers himself through a sincere gift of himself.

In other words, I only truly know who I am, and why God created me, when I am able to give myself, in love, to God and those around me. Do you want to know why God made you? Why He put you here? Do you want to know how to be happy and joyful in this world? Those questions can only be answered fully, John Paul II would say, through a life lived "outside" of oneself. Man only truly discovers himself through a sincere gift of himself.

If we look closely on our first reading this weekend, from the Book of Genesis, we find the exact opposite in the Original Sin of Adam and Eve. They are not giving anything, to anyone. In fact, what they are doing is taking, in complete disobedience to the commandment of God. God had told them they could eat from any of the trees they wanted…except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Yet that is exactly what they do anyway.

In that Original Sin, we find a pattern for every sin, a picture of our own sins against God and those around us. It consists, ultimately, in taking, selfishly doing what we want and not what God wants for us. St. Augustine says that when we sin we are living curvatus in se, curved in on ourselves. When that happens we are often the ones that suffer the most. Sin makes us miserable; when we act selfishly and fail to love God and those around us, we are the ones that become diminished, less and less the men and women we were always created to be.

In St. Paul’s New Testament Letter to the Romans, the Apostle shares his own inner struggle with sin (see Romans 7:15-25). He describes how he recognizes a law at work within himself: The very thing he would want to do, he says, he does not do. But then he recognizes that there are things he should avoid and not do…but he goes right ahead and does them anyway! With great exasperation, he cries out in that letter:

Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?
—Romans 7:24

Who will save him from this awful struggle? And then he triumphantly answers his own question:

Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
—Romans 7:25

The solution to the problem of Original Sin is not found in me, or you, or St. Paul. The cure for selfishness and a life lived curvatus in se is not found in that latest self-help book or on the Oprah Winfrey Show! The solution to the great struggle with sin and our incapacity to give ourselves truly to God and those around us is found in the person of Jesus Christ! I would recommend that He does that in three ways.

Firstly, God takes on a body. God becomes man and takes on our human nature. He weds His own divine life to our humanity, forming an unbreakable bond with the human race. It is in that body, then, that He teaches us how to love, how to live, and how to give. Jesus Christ loves and forgives even His enemies, and shows us what it means to give ourselves to God and neighbor. He gives His body over to be crucified in total obedience and love to His Father’s will, and for the forgiveness of our sins.

Secondly, just so that we would not miss or forget that great self-offering—as if we could ever forget something like that—He makes it a sacrament. He takes bread and wine, and says, “This is my body, which will be given up for you.” And he tells them, “This is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant. It will be shed for you and for all so that sins may be forgiven.”

Yes, this total offering and gift of Himself on the cross, this gift of His body for the forgiveness of sins, is now given to His bride, the Church, in the Sacrament of the Eucharist. We become united to Him, to His body and blood, His soul and divinity; that marriage between divinity and humanity is fulfilled in us!

And finally, after God takes on a body, after He gives us His body, and is living in us, and we in Him, He sends us out to proclaim the gospel and give ourselves like we never could before. Now that God lives in us, we have the ability to fulfill the Law of the Gift and truly live like Christ in this world.

I mention those three things specifically because those are the themes that I will be speaking on for the three days of our mission.

On Monday night, we will look at John Paul II’s teachings on the “Theology of the Body,” how God becomes man and shows us, in His body, the full gift of love when He unites Himself to and marries our humanity. We will see how He has left an undeniable stamp of this desire for unity in the hearts, souls, minds and bodies of every single one of us.

On Tuesday we will look at our late Holy Father’s teachings on the Eucharist. The last Encyclical Letter John Paul II wrote was on the Eucharist. In October, 2004, he introduced the Year of the Eucharist, and he died in the middle of it. One of his last gifts to the Church is found in his teachings on the Eucharist. We’ll look at that on Tuesday.

Finally, on Wednesday night we will look at Pope John Paul II’s “plan” for the third millennium, how we are all called to go out and live the Christian message and bring the Good News of Christ to those around us.

Please consider joining us this Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday night, at 7:00pm each evening, for the Parish Mission. Each night of the mission will be in the context of the Mass, as we draw ever closer to Christ, our Bridegroom, and listen to The Spiritual Legacy of Pope John Paul II.

How is God challenging you and me to draw closer to Christ this Lent, and to live the Law of the Gift, giving ourselves more freely and completely to God and those around us?