Wednesday, November 25, 2009

St. Catherine of Alexandria and Sedes Sapientia

St. Catherine of Alexandria by Caravaggio,
from the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, Madrid, Spain

(Wednesdayof the of the Last Week in Ordinary Time-Year B; This homily was given on 25 November, 2009 at the Chapel of The American College of the Immaculate Conception in Louvain, Belgium; See Daniel 5:1-28 and Luke 21:12-19)

This morning the Church celebrates the Feast of St. Catherine of Alexandria. A fourth century virgin and martyr, St. Catherine not only had a great love for Christ and great love for the Church; she was also a brilliant philosopher, a true lover of wisdom. She is the patron saint of philosophers.

There is a remarkable story about St. Catherine who denounced the emperor (Maxentius, or perhaps his father Maximian; hagiographers are not quite sure) for persecuting Christians. Although the emperor could have killed her on the spot, instead he tried to refute her arguments but found himself unable to match her sharp intellect. Therefore he gathered fifty philosophers, intelligent minds from throughout the kingdom, thinking they would be able succeed where he had failed. He was wrong.

When the arguments were all over and the conversation complete, they all converted to the Christian faith! In retaliation the emperor had them burned alive before executing St. Catherine, as well. The words of Christ spoken in this morning’s Gospel can be applied quite directly to St. Catherine of Alexandria:

They will seize and persecute you, they will hand you over to synagogues and to prisons, and they will have you led before kings and governors because of my name. It will lead to you giving testimony.
—Luke 21:12-13

In a real and vital way, we also see Jesus’ words on wisdom taking flesh in the person of St. Catherine:

Remember, you are not to prepare your defense beforehand, for I myself shall give you a wisdom in speaking that all your adversaries will be powerless to resist or refute.
—Luke 21:14-15

St. Catherine was not able to testify and bear witness to Christ or convert her adversaries because she was the brightest girl in the kingdom (although she probably was). She was a powerful and effective witness for Christ because she was open to the wisdom of God which comes from above. She was docile to a divine knowledge which enabled her to speak courageously and clearly in the midst of trial and tribulation.

Is that not what we find in the first reading this morning in the prophet Daniel? He is the man who can read the writing on the wall. He knows how to unlock the secrets hidden in dreams and visions and to understand the difficulties and complexities of his time. But he did not accomplish all those things because he was the most intelligent captive in Babylon (although he probably was). In fact, it is King Belshazzar himself, who does not even believe in the God of Daniel, who tells us why Daniel has such wisdom:

I have heard that the Spirit of God is in you, that you possess brilliant knowledge and extraordinary wisdom.
—Daniel 5:14

Daniel had the Spirit of the living God in him. He was a man docile to the power of the Spirit and, like St. Catherine of Alexandria, he was able to surrender himself to a wisdom which was beyond him. Only when we can do that will we fully realize the potential of what God wants to reveal to, and in, us.

In his encyclical Fides et Ratio, our late Holy Father, John Paul the Great, spoke of the beauty and the dignity of philosophy and of holy wisdom. Philosophy is able to unlock so many of the secrets about humanity; it contributes greatly to the building up of the culture and serves to guide and order magnificently our way of life on earth.

But one of the challenges that philosophy faces is the temptation to separate itself from the ultimate truths revealed to us by God:

The Church considers philosophy an indispensible help for a deeper understanding of faith and for communicating the truth of the Gospel to those who do not yet know it…I wish to reflect upon this special activity of human reason. I judge it necessary to do so because, at the present time in particular, the search for ultimate truth seems often to be neglected.
—Fides et Ratio, #5

When philosophy and human wisdom set aside the ultimate truths revealed to us by faith and by God, then they themselves become impoverished. There is no competition between philosophy and theology, faith and reason. In the beginning of that encyclical, John Paul the Great says that faith and reason are like two wings upon which the human spirit soars to the heights to contemplate the truth. If we set aside the ultimate truths about who God is, who we are in the image of God, what the dignity of every human person is, then we are left with only one wing and as a result we remain earthbound.

At the end of the encyclical we are given a beautiful image that is near and dear to each of us in this chapel this morning: Sedes Sapientia. Our Lady, Seat of Wisdom. John Paul the Great says that is an image which helps us to understand what he is trying to communicate in Fides et Ratio.

The Blessed Virgin Mary was a woman completely docile to the Word that came to her. She did not fully understand it nor could she plumb the depths of all that God was beginning to reveal to her. Nonetheless she surrendered herself to God and, far from being less free and shackled, she became the very icon of freedom, fidelity and fruitfulness. Her “Fiat voluntas tua, Be it done to me according to thy word” (Luke 1:38), is the word surrendered in freedom which brings Christ into the world we live in.

Even so, says our late Holy Father, “when philosophy heeds the summons of the Gospel’s truth its autonomy is in no way impaired. Indeed it is then that philosophy sees all its enquiries rise to their highest expression” (Fides et Ratio, #108).

This is the goal of all philosophical thought and all theology, too: to be lifted up to the heights of all that God’s truth has in store for us here and in the world to come. Yet at times even theologians consider themselves or their own thought to be above the truths that have been revealed to us by God through the Magisterium, the teaching office of the Church. Here, too, does theology become impoverished.

Any theologian who considers himself or herself to be brighter than the teachings of the Church, above the wisdom which comes to us in a particular way through the Church’s Magisterium, is not doing theology; it would be closer akin to folly.

This morning we reflect upon our readings and ask ourselves:

Am I seeking the wisdom which comes from above?

Am I docile to the way that the Holy Spirit is leading me to enter more deeply, through philosophy and theology, into the mysteries of the Christian faith revealed to me by God?

Let us also long for and cry out for that same wisdom which came to the prophet Daniel and St. Catherine of Alexandria. May their merits and prayers, and those of Our Lady, Seat of Wisdom, Sedes Sapientia, help us to soar upon the heights of God’s truth and allow us to testify to it and share it with a world that is constantly seeking and searching for God.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Conquered by Christ

The Ressurection of Christ, by Peter Paul Rubens.
This magnificent Flemish masterpiece is found in
the Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp, Belgium.

(Monday of the of the 33rd Week in Ordinary Time-Year B; This homily was given on 16 November, 2009 at the Chapel of The American College of the Immaculate Conception in Louvain, Belgium; See 1 Maccabees 1:10-63 and Luke 18:35-43)

This morning’s first reading, from the First Book of Maccabees, relates to us a rather tragic series of events. We hear about King Antiochus Epiphanes and his ruthless opposition to the people of Israel. In the days to come we will hear in great detail about the torture and malevolence of his regime. His plan was for nothing less than the utter obliteration of the chosen people of God.

But that is not the tragedy I am referring to this morning. There is another, related tragedy mentioned in our first reading: that before Antiochus ever set out against the people of Israel there was already opposition from within, and a plan for their own demise:

In those days there appeared in Israel men who were breakers of the law, and they seduced many people, saying: “Let us go and make an alliance with the Gentiles all around us; since we separated from them, many evils have come upon us.”
—1 Maccabees 1:11

They saw, in the political climate of their day, an opportunity for advancing their own ends, even though it would come at the expense of the way of life God had called them to. 1 Maccabees relates how “they covered over the mark of their circumcision and abandoned the holy covenant” (1 Maccabees 1:15), taking on the way of life of the Gentiles among whom they lived.

This clever and advantageous way of life was then introduced to King Antiochus, who was more than willing and able to carry it out. The tragedy, of course, is that the people of Israel should have known better. They knew full well they were called by God to be holy. Instead they chose themselves over the way of life God had shown them, and soon the entire nation would suffer.

In our Gospel this morning we find that same internal dynamic, albeit to a much lesser extreme, in the story of the blind man who calls out to Christ for healing.

“Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me!” (Luke 18:38), that man cries out as he hears that Jesus is passing by. “Son of David,” of course, is a Messianic title; this man knew his theology! He knew that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah, the One who would come to save Israel; to open the eyes of the blind and set the prisoners free.

Nonetheless, the blind man cannot see the Messiah. He cannot reach out and touch Him or find his own way to the Christ, so he does the only thing he can: he cries out, over and over again, for help.

Tragically, the very people walking with Christ, the ones right out in front, do not do a single thing to help him. Instead, we are told, they try to stop him. They rebuke him and tell him to be silent. St. Augustine says that these represent our fellow believers in Christ who can sometimes become obstacles in the spiritual life (St. Augustine, Sermon 351). Through their discouragement or perhaps their actions and decisions they block the way for us to reach the source of healing and strength in Christ.

Yet at this point in the Gospel Christ does something that could easily go unnoticed. In response to that blind man calling out for help, Christ initially does…nothing. He does not reach out to him, nor does He move an inch in that blind man’s direction. No, instead, perhaps sensing a deeper crisis of blindness in the people walking with Him, He suddenly turns to them and orders them to bring the blind man to Him. He wants them to reverse the direction they are moving in and to go, spiritually speaking, in the opposite direction.

The great Protestant theologian, Dietrich Bonheoffer, says that on the battle field of life there are no rusty swords. We are either fighting for Jesus Christ—in all of the little and big decisions of our lives—or we are fighting against Him. The way we live and how we choose to treat those around us makes a difference in our spiritual lives and in our relationship with God.

This morning we can ask ourselves, “Which side am I fighting for? Which direction am I moving in?” Because when we look at these readings today and reflect carefully upon them, we should be able to recognize that the greatest enemy and adversary of our spiritual lives is not necessarily the one we find hardest to love or the person we seem to always be “bumping into” every day. Very often the enemy keeping us, and perhaps others, from spiritual growth is us.

That is the enemy who needs to be conquered, over and over again, each and every day, by Jesus Christ. We must allow ourselves to be conquered by Him and even long for it, because He is the only one who can truly conquer us with pure love, however painful that healing may be.

This morning Christ comes to us in the Eucharist to conquer us with His radical self-gift, His own body and blood which he sacrificed on the cross and now gives to us so that we, too, may become true gifts to the Father and to those around us.

Are we willing to be conquered by Christ?

Are we willing to allow Him to transform us in the furnace of His divine love?

If so then we, too, can be the people to whom Christ speaks in the Gospel this morning, the ones called to bring to the Messiah all who are blind, broken and hurting. May we bring them, and ourselves, before the Son of David so that our eyes may be opened and we may truly be made new in Him.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Saint Charles Borromeo and Counting the Cost

Painting of St. Charles Borromeo by Orazio Borgianni;
an altarpiece for San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane in Rome.

(Wednesday of the of the 31st Week in Ordinary Time-Year B; This homily was given on 4 November, 2009 at the Chapel of The American College of the Immaculate Conception in Louvain, Belgium; See Luke 14:25-33)

Jesus Christ, in our Gospel this morning, talks about the cost of discipleship. By the end of that passage there is one thing that is perfectly clear: the price is a steep one. We must be willing to sacrifice everything:

If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.
—Luke 14:26-27

Nothing should keep us from following Jesus Christ; neither good things nor bad, neither obstacles nor difficulties, neither distractions nor discouragement. We reach out and cling to Christ, allowing Him to move us forward by His infinite grace and mercy.

The Church, in Her providence, has seen fit to give us today the Feast of St. Charles Borromeo as a tremendous example of what it means to count the cost and follow Christ.

St. Charles, at the age of 23, was created a cardinal of the Catholic Church by the newly elected Pope Pius IV, who was his uncle. You might be thinking, “Wow! Good for him,” but it wasn’t. It was a burden and a weight of responsibility which included the administration of the Church in Milan, care and protection of the Low Countries (today Belgium and the Netherlands), as well as Portugal, the religious orders of the Franciscans and the Carmelites, just to name a few.

But perhaps the heaviest burden was his inability to fulfill his deepest desire to serve the people of God in Milan. Instead he was kept in Rome, where his uncle had placed him in charge of the management of the papal court, the household, palaces and a great deal of other tasks. Having dispatched these responsibilities with due diligence and fervor, he was also more than aware of the dangers and temptations that could accompany life in those circumstances.

He confided in friends and leaned on them for support and prayers yet he was ever faithful and undistracted by the trappings of the world and society around him. He was undeterred in his ministry of service regardless of the time or place. St. Charles became one of the chief architects of the final sessions of the Council of Trent and a force for reform in everything he did. He put Jesus Christ first.

And so it was that he was finally able to attend to the Church at Milan and his reception was overwhelmingly positive. The people recognized the love he had for them and they responded in kind, love for love. He was thought well of and esteemed, and that too never became a distraction for St. Charles. He never became lost in the desire to be liked by everyone around him; he remained focused on Jesus Christ putting Christ at the center of his life, and for that reason he was able to effect change and bring about a much needed restoration of the Church in that place. He loved his people, as they say, "just as they were, but too much to leave them that way."

But his efforts and passion for reformation were met with much opposition. Many people loved St. Charles and revered him; many people also hated him. Some of them even tried to kill him. He was shot at twice. One time it was a near miss that struck the cross he was holding instead. The other time he was shot while praying in his own family chapel. The bullet hit him square in the back but miraculously did not enter his body and he was spared.

Not even that kind of opposition was able to distract nor discourage St. Charles from the ministry that God had called him to. He was indefatigable because he was keenly aware of the cost of discipleship and in every situation he placed Jesus Christ first, before those he loved most, before his own gifts and abilities, before all of the offices and responsibilities he possessed, before all the frustrations and difficulties he encountered on a regular basis, and before his very own self.

Brothers and sisters in Christ: what are the obstacles and difficulties, distractions and discouragement that you are experiencing right now? What are those crosses and sufferings which you have carried and labored under up until now? And what do you do with them?

Hopefully you are able to talk to brothers and sisters in Christ about those struggles, and hopefully that conversation takes place in a spirit of charity and not one of grumbling. God wants us to help each other carry the burdens and the crosses of life.

And hopefully you have also talked to God about those very same things. There is nothing wrong with asking God for a different cross, or a lighter one.

But ultimately we are called, when all is said and done, to do what Jesus Christ is asking each of us in the Gospel this morning when it comes to our crosses:

To pick them up,
and follow Him.