Sunday, February 28, 2021

Lent: Our Metamorphosis

The Transfiguration, by Raphael (1483-1520)

(Second Sunday of Lent-Year B; This homily was given on February 28, 2021 at the Church of Santo Spirito in Sassia in Rome, Italy; See Romans 8:31-34 and Mark 9:2-10)

There is a short story written in the early part of the 20th century by the Bohemian author, Franz Kafka.  The story, his signature piece, is called Metamorphosis.  If you have never read it, the tale is a bit bizarre.  The main character, Gregor, is a man living with his parents and younger sister.  He wakes up, at the beginning of the story, only to discover that overnight he has turned into an enormous, hideous insect!

What would be the first thing on your mind if that had happened to you?  Remarkably, one of the first things he considers is that now he will likely miss the train and be late for work!  Gregor is the main bread winner for the family, and they all are dependent upon him for their income.  

When he does not come out of his room to begin the day, his family becomes anxious and they knock on his door to make sure he is alright.  For obvious reasons, he finds it difficult to communicate with them.  His mouth and lungs are very different than they had been, and so he cannot speak well.  Once they do finally enter his room and see what he has become, the separation grows even more pronounced.  Far from feeling sorry for his unusual change of state, they are repulsed by him.  

Eventually, Gregor’s boss comes to the house, irritated that he has not shown up for work.  He complains through the door of Gregor’s room that he has not been working up to his potential anyway.  Gregor tries to tell him off, but he is unable to communicate.  This odd story continues until Gregor is finally disregarded by even his own family.  He dies isolated and alone, completely disconnected from everyone and everything around him.  

The story is a metaphor about life, the world according to Franz Kafka.  Obviously, it is a very dark world.  His point is that the mysterious forces of this world—fate, destination or mere chance—will inexorably work against us and we simply become separated and isolated from family and friends, unable to ever really connect with the world around us.  

Sadly, in the world today, there are many people that find themselves in this Kafkaesque reality.  No, not that they have discovered that they are an enormous insect, but that they have become isolated and confused as they struggle through life.  The COVID-19 pandemic has only exaggerated that reality for many people.  Family members are struggling to connect with each other, and individuals are finding themselves more and more separated from the people around them.  Many suffering souls find themselves very much alone.

How very different is the view of the human person that we are given in the Gospel!  What a beautiful and hope-filled vision Jesus shares with us today.  St. Mark relates that, “Jesus took Peter, James and John and led them up a high mountain apart by themselves.  And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no fuller on earth could bleach them” (Mark 9:2-3).  

Jesus was transfigured.  His form appeared to change, to the amazement of His disciples.  The Greek word St. Mark uses to describe that reality is metemorphothe, the same word that Kafka uses for his story.  It does not mean that Jesus became any different than He already was, but that His disciples could now see Him in the divine nature that had previously been hidden from their eyes.  They had caught glimpses of it when He performed miracles, had heard a whisper of it when He preached the Gospel, but now they could see Him in all His glory and they were stupefied.

If we look to St. Paul and his Letter to the Philippians, we can perhaps get a better idea of what these disciples experienced.  St. Paul writes:

Christ Jesus, though he was in the form (Greek, morphe) of God, did not count equality with God  a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of (Greek, morphen) a servant, being born in the likeness of men.

—Philippians 2:6-8

Essentially, the Son of God did not grasp the divinity in such a way that He would consider it unreasonable to become a man.  He, who is always in the form of God, willingly and lovingly took on the form of a servant when He became a man to set us free from sin.  Therefore, says St. Paul, “God has highly exalted Him and bestowed upon him the name which is above every name” (Philippians 2:9).  

This is what the disciples saw on the top of Mount Tabor!  They saw the one who had always been with them, Jesus the Christ, but that divine form that had been hidden from them was now manifest in all its glory.  It was a remarkable and amazing metamorphosis that they would never forget.

One important question that I would like to propose this morning is: Why is Jesus transfigured?

Why does Christ manifest Himself before the disciples in all His glory on the mountain?  Why was He transfigured before them?  Pope St. Leo the Great, in the 5th century, says that there are at least two reasons why Jesus does that.  

The first is to strengthen them for that time when the passion and cross of Christ would arrive.  In order to prepare them for the scandal of he cross, when Christ will undergo the humiliation of being rejected, spat upon, beaten and crucified, Jesus reveals Himself in His glory so that they might stand fast when that terrible moment comes.  Of course, historically, we know that they were barely able to persevere in their faith until the resurrection.  How much more would they have struggled had He not given them a glimpse of what was to follow?

The second reason why Jesus is transfigured before the disciples, says Pope Leo the Great, is to show them where they were called to be: With Jesus in glory!  In other words, this thing ends really, really well!  No matter how difficult the struggles of life may be, we recognize that Christ is calling us to share with Him in eternal glory.  That changes things.

What is important for us to see in this account of the Transfiguration is that we are not isolated, we are not alone.  We are not unable to connect and communicate with our families, friends and loved ones, despite the global pandemic and whatever other challenges we face.  God is with us, and He will never leave us.  St. Paul says it best in our second reading this morning:

If God is for us, who can be against us?  He who did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all, how will he not also give us everything else along with him?  Who will bring a charge against God’s chosen ones?  It is God who acquits us.  Who will condemn?  Christ Jesus it is who died—or, rather, was raised—who also is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us.

—Romans 8:31-34

Friends in Christ, this is our Journey of Lent.  We are called to come down from the mountain and go back up with Christ.  We enter into the life and death of Christ so that we may also share most fully in His resurrection (see Philippians 3:10-11).  Christ teaches us clearly that it is only through the passion, through embracing the cross, that we arrive at the resurrection and the glory of God.  May we make that journey with Him this Lent, and so be all the more ready to share in Easter joy.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Laws, Rules and the Power of Love

(Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year B; This homily was given on February 14, 2021 at the Church of Santo Spirito in Sassia in Rome, Italy; See Leviticus 13:1-46 and Mark 1:40-45)

All societies and political bodies are governed by laws and rules.  It is a necessary element of a cohesive culture.  Laws safeguard the dignity of persons and assure the proper ordering of societal life.  Not all laws are just.  The law supporting abortion in almost every nation in the world is an unjust law, and we should oppose it with every ounce of our will and collective power.  Nonetheless, we only oppose injustice in a lawful and legitimate way.  It is never acceptable in the Christian moral vision to do evil so that good may come about.

With that said, we need laws.  We are instructed by Sacred Scripture to obey those in authority and to pray for them.  In addition to laws there are rules of life.  We share an unwritten agreement to live by a certain code of conduct in order to maintain civility and relative peace.  For instance, if there is a line we naturally place ourselves at the end of it; we do not cut into the front.  If we are the cause of an offense, we apologize.  You cannot be cited or fined for avoiding or ignoring these rules, but we do well to follow them because they benefit our lives and the lives of others. 

The highest law and the greatest rule, of course, is love.  That great theological virtue is the foundation for every just law and every worthwhile rule, and all laws and rules can be judged by it.  I mention these realities this morning because in the Gospel passage of the healing of the man with leprosy (Mark 1:40-45) there are all kinds of laws and rules being bent and even broken.  Nonetheless, Jesus observes the law of love and upholds it to the letter, bringing healing and new life.  But we can come back to that.

For now it is important to look at the law of love and to try to understand its place in our culture today.  The world we live in would definitely argue that love is the highest law, but frequently it fails to understand the true meaning of love as God has revealed it.  There are thousands of examples, but we can focus on one of them this morning, since it is Valentine’s Day.  Six years ago a very successful book was made into a major motion picture and released on February 14 because that is the great celebration of love.  The name of the book, and the film, was “Fifty Shades of Grey.”

The basic story line of that book centers around a young and powerful millionaire who passionately pursues beautiful women.  He is driven by the desire to conquer as many women as possible.  The heroine of the story is a beautiful young woman who is also, to this point, pure.  As “love” would have it, she greatly desires to give that purity away.

Truth be told, the book and film are not at all about love.  They are about violence, abuse and the objectification of the human person.  How very different is the vision of love that the Christian faith embraces.  St. John Paul the Great explains that vision brilliantly in his book “Love and Responsibility.”  When he was a young parish priest, the man who would become pope conducted interviews with many of the young couples that he was called to serve.  He asked them what made them feel fulfilled and dignified, and helped them articulate the pitfalls that left them broken or hurt.  From that experience, in "Love and Responsibility,” he states his primary thesis, which he calls the personalistic norm, both negatively and positively.  He says:

The person is the kind of good which does not admit of use and cannot be treated as an object of use and as such the means to an end.

The person is the kind of good towards which the only proper and adequate attitude is love.

The law of love is the measure of the person, and anything less than love is not worthy of the great dignity that God has created us for.  St. Augustine put it this way: “Love God, and then do whatever you want.”  In other words, God commands us to love; He teaches us to give ourselves generously in love for those around us.  Jesus Christ will define love as the greatest mark of true friendship: “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).  Love God, follow Christ, and do whatever you want.

Which brings us back to the Gospel this morning.  There are all kinds of laws and rules being stretched and broken in that passage!  Still, Jesus Christ follows the law of love to the letter and brings healing and new life.  In our first reading we learned the Law of Moses regarding people with leprosy:

As long as the sore is on him he hall declare himself unclean, since he is in fact unclean.  He shall dwell apart, making his abode outside the camp.

—Leviticus 13:45-46

Despite such a rigid and essential law for that deadly disease in that precarious period of time, the man with leprosy approaches Jesus and addresses Him directly: “If you wish, you can make me clean.”  He probably should not have done that, but Jesus does nothing but accept and welcome him.  More than that, St. Mark tells us that Jesus was moved with pity, stretched out His hand and touched the man.  That was definitely not in accord with the Mosaic Law!  But because He loved this man and had the power to heal him, Jesus reached out and tenderly brought him new life.

Next he gives him a simple rule, which to us sounds a little strange: “See that you tell no one anything . . .” (Mark 1:44).  Of course, we soon find out the reason for that rule when the man breaks it!  No sooner has he told everyone what happened, then “it was impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly.  He remained outside in deserted places, and people kept coming to him from everywhere” (Mark 1:45).

It is remarkable that Jesus has restored this person to the relationships and social status that leprosy had deprived him of, but at such a cost!  Now He can no longer minister in the same way.  He has taken the place of that leper, Himself now being confined “outside the camp” and in deserted places.  He must have known that would happen, but nonetheless He heals the man willingly and lovingly.  Such is the law of love.  We are called to love because it is the right thing to do, and to reach out to heal even when it costs us.  

I close this morning with a beautiful poem written by St. Teresa of Calcutta:

People are often unreasonable, irrational and self-centered.  Forgive them anyway.   

If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives.  Be kind anyway.

If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies. Be successful anyway.

If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you.  Be honest and sincere anyway.

What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight.  Create anyway.

If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous.   Be happy anyway.

The good you do today will often be forgotten.   Do good anyway.

Give the best you have, and it will never be enough.  Give your best anyway.

In the final analysis, it is between you & God. 

It was never between you & them anyway

We are called to follow the law of love, even when it costs us.  This week, we ask for the grace to love those around us and to bring healing into this world that longs for the touch of Jesus Christ.  Even when it is not always welcome or does not immediately benefit us, we love anyway.  When we do, we imitate Jesus Christ.

Sunday, February 07, 2021

Christus Medicus

(Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year B; This homily was given on February 7, 2021 at the Church of Santo Spirito in Sassia in Rome, Italy; See Job 7:1-7 and Mark 1:29-39)

Is not man’s life on earth a drudgery?  I have been assigned months of misery . . . the night drags on; I am filled with restlessness until the dawn . . . My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle; they come to an end without hope . . . I shall not see happiness again.

—Job 7:1-7

This morning we listen to one of the darkest and most challenging readings of the liturgical year.  That passage from the Book of Job describes a man immersed in human suffering.  His woes and hardships take up over forty chapters and end up leaving us stunned.

The Book of Job is one of the most widely read books in all of literature; not simply for the Jewish people or Christians, but for all people.  All of us can sympathize with this man of affliction because we all carry the difficult burden of human suffering.  

What is remarkable for us to reflect on this morning is that Job bears all that suffering as a man who has not sinned!  He is completely innocent and yet he undergoes a tremendous trial.  How much more difficult is our affliction when we also become entangled in the faults and weaknesses that cause us so much distress?  

The Council of Trent indicates that we were first created in a state of “Original Justice.”  They describe the life of our first parents in terms of harmony.  There was harmony deep within the human person; think about how different that is from our own experience, when  our passions and desires can often become so conflicted.  There was also harmony between the human person and God, and harmony within the human family itself.  Finally, there was harmony between humanity and all created things.  

That great harmony, of course, was broken by original sin.  Suddenly a world of human suffering comes flooding into our lives; perhaps that has never been more acute as it is today.  As we continue to struggle with the global pandemic, addictive behaviors and abuses are exacerbated and the human family is suffering deeply on every continent.  

Thanks be to God that we encounter in the Gospel this morning the One who St. Augustine names Christus Medicus, Christ the Physician or Christ the Healer.  Jesus comes into our world and takes on our human nature and our human suffering, and He brings it to the cross.  He pours out His body and blood on Calvary to bring us salvation.  The Latin word for salvation is salus, and it is the same word used for health and healing.  Christus Medicus comes to bring us the healing and the salvation that we yearn for in a world often adrift in brokenness and suffering.  

We discover that healing in a particular way in St. Mark’s Gospel.  He tells us of Simon’s mother-in-law, who lay sick with a fever.  The disciples alerted Jesus to her illness and “He approached, grasped her hand, and helped her up.  Then the fever left her and she waited on them” (Mark 1:31).  

Many times in the gospels Jesus heals simply by speaking; sometimes even at a distance, like when he tells the centurion that his servant has been healed, and so it is.  But here Mark is explicit: Jesus grasped her hand.  He touched her physically and she was healed.  He went on to heal people from all over the town, physically and spiritually.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church has a beautiful way of describing what Christ is doing in the Gospel and what He continues to do today.  It says:


“In the sacraments Christ continues to ‘touch’ us in order to heal us”

—CCC, #1504

It is in the Sacrament of the Eucharist that find healing in the body and blood of Christ.  When we go to Confession frequently we experience the salve of reconciliation and are made new; the Sacrament of Reconciliation is one of the two “sacraments of healing.”  When we renew our baptismal covenant through holiness of life we are washed anew in those sacred waters and recommit to a life of integrity and faith.  

How, then, are we called this week to encounter Christus Medicus, the Divine Physician?  Firstly, I would suggest that we encounter the healing touch of Christ when we make ourselves vulnerable before Christ and acknowledge our wounds.  St. Augustine, who gives us this remarkable title of Christus Medicus, in The Confessions, writes:

“Woe is me, Lord have mercy upon me!  Woe is me!  See, I do not hide my wounds: you are the doctor, I am the patient, you are merciful, I am miserable.”

There is a powerful story that Cardinal Dolan, the Archbishop of New York, tells about a group of soldiers who went to visit St. Pio (Padre Pio) after the Second World War.  Unlike many of the people who went to Pietrelcina to see this holy man, these men were not interested in participating in the Mass or asking him to hear their confessions.  They were simply curious, and one of them was a bit obnoxious.  

He saw the saint and immediately called out loud across the church, “Hey, Padre Pio, show me your wounds!” (Padre Pio received the stigmata during his lifetime, the wound marks of Christ in his hands, feet and side).  Padre Pio did not pay any attention to the man, so the soldier continued to shout, “Show me your wounds!”  After a few moments of this, Padre Pio fixed his gaze upon the man, and then began to respond, “You!  Show me your wounds!”  The man was surprised.  Padre Pio continued to demand, “Show me your wounds!”, and he approached the man up close.  As he continued to shout this phrase, the young soldier suddenly broke down and began to sob uncontrollably.  

Later on the man related that during the war be had been in a fierce battle, and had fallen during the fight.  He was not hurt, but he was so scared that he remained on the ground as if he were wounded instead of rising to defend his fellow soldiers.  This incident came back to him now, a wound and moral failure that he had carried with him and no one else knew about.  Seeing his entire countenance change, St. Pio firmly grasped his jacket and said, “You are going to confession now.”  The man was able to confront his wounds and received healing and a new beginning.

We begin by acknowledging our wounds and the need for Christus Medicus.  Where are the places that we have been wounded by sin and by the battles of life, where Christ can now bring healing and a new start?

Secondly, we encounter Christus Medicus when we drink deeply of the healing waters of the sacraments.  We come frequently for confession, seek Christ regularly in the Sacrament of the Eucharist, and are attentive to the ways that God has changed us by the healing touch of Christ in the sacraments we have received.  

Finally, we follow the example of the disciples in the Gospel, by bringing Jesus Christ to all who are suffering and in need.  Simon’s mother-in-law was sick with a fever; she could not go to Christ.  They sought Him out and brought Him to her.  The apostolic ministry of the Church has this image at its core, to go out to the needy and the suffering, and make Jesus Christ known to them.

This week may we truly experience the fullness of that encounter with Christus Medicus, allowing Him to bring that healing into our lives and into our world that we so desperately long for.  He grasped Simon’s mother-in-law by the hand and healed her, and he wants nothing more than to reach out to you and me.  We do well to remember always that “In the sacraments Christ continues to ‘touch’ us in order to heal us”

—CCC, #1504

Sunday, January 31, 2021

Our Purity, Christ's Power

(Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year B; This homily was given on January 31, 2021 at the Church of Santo Spirito in Sassia in Rome, Italy; See 1 Corinthians 7:32-35 and Mark 1:21-28)
In our second reading for this morning, St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, we listen to the Apostle’s foundational teachings on celibacy and virginity for the sake of the Kingdom of God.  He talks about the unmarried man or unmarried woman being "anxious about the things of the Lord" and how to be pleasing to Him, while the married man or woman is also concerned with the anxieties of the world and how to please his or her spouse.  

It can happen, however, that this basic distinction in St. Paul’s teaching can be misunderstood.  Sometimes an interpretation can suggest that there are two different “levels” of chastity here, one for the celibate and another for the married man or woman.  People may consider that a priest or a religious sister or brother, or consecrated virgins, are called to a higher level of purity.  Of course, that is simply not true.  

In His “Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus teaches us in the Beatitudes that ALL are called to purity, and that it is in fact a condition for eternal life and the beatific vision: “Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8).  Purity of heart is something much broader than we imagine, for it has to do with the way we see and love God and those around us.  It is an integral part of how we live and relate to God and others. 

This is the comprehensive sense that St. John Chrysostom uses to interpret the Gospel we listened to this morning.  Jesus enters the synagogue in Capernaum and begins to teach.  Suddenly He is confronted by a man with an “unclean spirit.”  Chrysostom asks the question of why the devil is impure or unclean.  Certainly it is not some defect of his sexuality because he does not have one; he does not have a body.  Chrysostom reasons that the evil one is unclean because of his impiety and because he withdraws from God; he recognizes the holiness of Jesus Christ, but he is not moved to charity.

For the person who is pure of heart, the holiness of Christ inspires love and devotion; they are moved to charity.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in describing purity of heart, indicates that it “refers to those who have attuned their intellects and wills to the demands of God’s holiness, chiefly in three areas: charity; chastity or sexual rectitude; love of truth and orthodoxy of faith” (CCC, #2518).  The pure of heart definitely strive to integrate their sexuality and to live the virtue of chastity, but they recognize that it involves much more than that.  By attuning their will and intellect to the holiness of Christ they are also moved to become more charitable and to love the truth revealed by God.

How does purity of heart become rooted deeply within our souls and how do we grow in this essential virtue that leads us ultimately to the eternal vision of God?  There is a powerful example for us in the Gospel we heard this morning.  Jesus enters the synagogue in Capernaum and teaches the people.  St. Mark relates, “The people were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes” (Mark 1:22).  When they listened to the truth revealed by God they were moved to astonishment; they loved the truth that Christ was offering to them.  

The second thing that Jesus does that purifies the heart is to address the unclean spirit directly and perform an exorcism:

Jesus rebuked him and said, “Quiet!  Come out of him!”  The unclean spirit convulsed him and with a loud cry came out of him.

—Mark 1:25-26

Jesus Christ has the power to drive away the unclean spirit and bring the soul deeper into purity of heart.  He created us for this purity, and greatly desires to give it to us when we seek Him out for it and attune our intellects and wills to Him.

The late Fr. Gabriel Amorth was the chief exorcist of Rome for many years.  He would say that there are two things that frustrate the work of the evil one more than exorcism.  They are sacramental absolution and preaching of the word of God (he takes the Eucharist as a given).  

With sacramental absolution, a person who is perhaps in the grip of sin and has lost the state of grace is suddenly healed and receives the forgiveness of God.  By a humble acknowledgement of that need for forgiveness and a heartfelt confession of sin, sacramental absolution is given in the Sacrament of Reconciliation and the soul is restored to the state of grace.  It is an amazing and wonderful work of the power of Christ to drive away evil and draw the person towards purity of heart.

The second thing Amorth mentions is a bit curious: the preaching of the word of God.  For the most part, the reviews of people in the pews show that our preaching is rather unsatisfactory and boring.  Why should the devil be any more impressed?  But Amorth is referring to the faithful preaching of the truth of the Gospel, something every priest is called to do.  When that powerful message of salvation through faith in Christ and the Christian life is preached with all the passion it deserves, souls are changed.  Amorth says it sets up a force-field of faith, an environment in which the virtues of the Christian life can grow and bear fruit.  Evil has no place in that environment, and so the soul grows ever closer to God and in purity of heart.

Where is Jesus Christ calling us to experience His power more completely in our lives this week, as He drives away evil and restores us to the fullness of the Christian life?  We seek the grace today to be attuned to the holiness of God in our intellect and will, and to be set on fire to embrace charity, chastity and love for the truth that God reveals.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Change and the Kingdom

 St. John Henry Newman (1801-1890)

(Third Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year B; This homily was given on January 24, 2021 at the Church of Santo Spirito in Sassia in Rome, Italy; See Jonah 3:1-10 and Mark 1:14-20) 

How well do you handle change?  Change can be exciting and a very positive experience.  Sometimes, though, change can come unexpectedly and we might receive it as a real trial.  If you could change one thing about your life right now, what would it be?

St. John Henry Newman, in An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, writes:

“In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”

The context here is important.  Newman is writing about the development of an idea.  We have a concept about what we understand to be the truth, but that idea has to be worked out and discerned.  There may be many misconceptions that need to be cleared away as we deepen our understanding.  Perhaps through a difficult struggle and many trials we begin to understand what God has revealed to us from the start. This is the sense of change that Newman is writing about.  

But that same quote could also be used to describe Newman’s own life: “Here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”  We can come back to that in a moment.

I mention Newman and change this morning because in the Gospel Jesus Christ is challenging the people in Galilee—and you and me—to change.  It is the very beginning of His public ministry, and He addresses the crowds:

This is the time of fulfillment.  The kingdom of God is at hand.  Repent, and believe in the Gospel.

—Mark 1:15

The Greek word in the Gospel for “repentance” is metanoia, and it literally means to change one’s mind or conception about the way things are.  It is commonly understood as a call to renounce sin and embrace the moral life.  It certainly involves that, but metanoia means much more.  If there is sin in our lives, we need to repent and surrender ourselves to God, but Christ is ultimately calling us to see the world around us differently.  He is challenging us to see God, to see the people in our lives and even to see ourselves in a whole new light.

At the Sea of Galilee he comes upon Simon and Andrew, James and John, who are fishing.  He calls them to leave that way of life behind and follow Him.  There is nothing wrong or sinful about fishing!  Our Lord is calling them to see everything differently and to act in a different way than they anticipated.  He is inviting them to embark on a journey that will change their lives—and the world we live in—forever.

Which brings us back to St. John Henry Newman.  When he was an Anglican priest in his early thirties, Newman came here to Italy with several friends.  They were touring the Mediterranean and seeking to deepen their intellectual understanding of the Christian faith.  At that time, though, Newman was struck by a devastating illness that almost took his life.  His recovery was a slow one, and he suffered greatly.  As he made the difficult arrangements of getting back home, he became convinced that God had spared him and was calling him to some significant undertaking.  

On the journey back to England Newman wrote what would become one of his best known and beloved poems, The Pillar of Cloud:

Lead, Kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom, 

Lead Thou me on!

The night is dark, and I am far from home, 

Lead Thou me on!

Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see

The distant scene,—one step enough for me

Homesick and vulnerable, he was nonetheless wide open to whatever changes God was introducing into his life.  Within one week of landing on the shores of England, Newman and several colleagues formed what came to be known as the Oxford Movement.  It began for him as a theological pursuit to reacquire the doctrines and traditions within Anglicanism that had been seemingly lost down through the centuries.  Over time, however, Newman began to understand something different.  He sensed that God was calling him not to reform the Anglican Church but to leave it; Newman became convinced that God was calling him to convert to the Roman Catholic Church.  

This significant change in his life came at a cost.  Many of his friends within Anglicanism felt betrayed.  Some who had previously revered him and held him in great esteem no longer associated with him.  At the same time, there was a deeply embedded tension between the Church of England and the Catholic Church.  Many bishops and cardinals of the Catholic Church held Newman in suspicion and questioned the authenticity of his conversion.  Others were intimidated by his sharp intellect and did not always welcome him as a Catholic.  It was a painful transition for him, but Newman endured through many different challenges and changes.  In 1879 he was created a cardinal of the Church by Pope Leo XIII.  He died in Birmingham, England on August 11, 1890.  His essays, books and sermons continue to provide insight and inspiration to the Christian faithful.  Newman was beatified in 2010 by Pope Benedict XVI and canonized on October 13, 2019 by Pope Francis.

How well do we respond to the call of God through life’s many changes?  Are we also able to align our hearts with the vision that God has for our lives, especially when we experience those inevitable challenges and trials?

In conclusion, we can reflect for a moment on our first reading from the Book of the Prophet Jonah.  In that reading we hear one of the most remarkable accounts of change and repentance in all of Sacred Scripture.  After listening to the preaching of Jonah, the people of Nineveh completely changed the way they were living.  They humbled themselves before God and openly acknowledged their offense.  Next we hear of God’s response:

When God saw by their actions how they turned from their evil way, he repented of the evil that he had threatened to do them; he did not carry it out.

—Jonah 3:10

God repented?!  What a strange and surprising revelation!  Of course, Jonah is using anthropomorphic language to describe the mysterious workings of God.  There is no need for God to repent, nor does God ever change.  The essence of that passage is that God, who never initially desired evil for the people of Nineveh, nonetheless was determined to see justice done.  What He wanted was to bless them, to love them and grant them His favor, but their own evil actions had placed an obstacle before that.  When they repent, He is able to accomplish what He really desired all along, to give them His blessing and favor.  

Where do we place obstacles in the path of God’s plan for our lives?  God calls us this weekend to repent, to see ourselves, our lives and the world around us with new eyes, a new vision.  He calls us to recognize how very much we are loved by Him and how much He desires to bless us.  We ask for the grace to be transformed, to be changed by the grace of God and, like St. John Henry Newman, to see God’s plan accomplished in a beautiful way.  Today we open our hearts to whatever vision God has for us, because “In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”

Sunday, December 27, 2020

The Holy Family

(Solemnity of the Holy Family—Year B; This homily was given on December 27, 2020 at St. Paul’s Church in Cranston, R.I.; See Colossians 3:12-21 and Luke 2:22-40)

The Solemnity of the Holy Family offers us a great opportunity to reflect upon the Church’s beautiful teachings regarding marriage and family. In his “Theology of the Body,” St. John Paul II refers to marriage as the “primordial sacrament.”  What does that mean?  

Basically, all the Sacraments are instituted by Christ to bring us back into relationship with God and each other.  In the Sacrament of Baptism, we are cleansed of original sin and receive the gift of sanctifying grace; in the Sacrmant of Reconciliation that gift is restored if we have lost it though mortal sin; in the Eucharist we are given a sharing in the very body and blood of Christ and possess the promise of life eternal.  

Marriage is different in this one respect: it is the only reality that already existed, in a sense, before the fall, before orginal sin.  Adam and Eve already shared in an intimate relationship with God and with each other before the fall.  While the gifts of the Eucharist and Reconcliation seek to bring us back into that intimacy, it was already present in the couple before they ever experienced sin.  In that sense it is the “primordial sacrament” (obviously there is a significant difference when Christ elevates that relationship in the Sacrament of Matrimony).

With the coming of Christ at Christmas, in the gift of the Incarnation, the human family is likewise changed and elevated.  We are invited in Jesus to share in the life of the Trinity and become sons and daughters of God; we are called to be united as brothers and sisters in Christ, extending the intimacy of family life to the entire Body of Christ, the Church.

The readings for this weekend show us the Holy Family: Jesus, the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Joseph.  They reveal to us the grace-filled ideal of the family and what the opening prayer for our Mass declares as the “virtues of family life.”  

The first thing we learn from the Holy Family is the odedience of love.  Five separate times in that brief Gospel passage from St. Luke we hear the same phrase that motivated the Blessed Mother and St. Joseph: “the Law of the Lord.”  It was clearly outlined in the teaching of their faith that they must “redeem” their newborn child and make an offering for Mary’s purification.  What is important for us to reflect on this weekend is that they would not have merely gone through that practice in order to “check the box” and get it over with.  No, they went to the Temple with great love and fidelity; they followed the Law of the Lord joyfully and willingly, because they loved the God who gave it to them.  

The Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Joseph teach us the fruitfulness of the obedience of love.  How could they have known that God made a promise to Simeon?  The Lord had promised him that he would not die before he saw the Messiah, the anointed one.  God made his promise dependent upon the free and loving choice of Mary and Joseph to follow the Law of the Lord.  Because they were faithful and followed the Law, Simeon received the promised child in his arms and gave thanks.  Where will our obedience of love bear fruit in the promises God has made to the people that we relate to each day?

The second truth we discover from that encounter with the Holy Family this morning is the tenacity of hope. We are living in a time of the global pandemic where there is a tremendous crisis of hope in the world.  People are fearful of the future and all of the many unresolved questions regarding health, the economy and family life in general.  Simeon’s encounter with the Holy Family teaches us that hope is real and the promises of God ring true.  

Hope is a theological virtue deeply rooted in the memory.  When we hope in the presence and assistance of God in our daily struggles, we are not merely crossing our fingers and practicing wishful thinking.  Our hope that things will work out is based upon all that we remember about God’s faithfulness in the past.  He has always been faithful, always true.  God has always loved us, consistently forgiven us, constantly welcomed and cared for us.  That same God is with us here and now, and He waits for us in the days ahead.  We are never alone, never abandoned, never without hope.  Simeon knew that; he was a man who studied the promises of God, and knew the history of Israel.  Even though he was a man very advanced in years, he did not doubt that God’s promise to him would be fulfilled.  Neither should we.

Finally, that Gospel passage teaches us about the power of silence.  Specifically, we look to St. Joseph’s strong and loving custodity of the child Jesus and the Blessed Virgin Mary.  In all of Sacred Scripture St. Joseph never speaks, yet his actions speak louder than words and his faithful care of Jesus and Mary reverberates from the pages of the Gospel.  How desperately we need to emulate this silence and its power to attune the soul to the harmonic plan of God. St. Joseph listened to God’s message for him, and he acted on what he heard.  If we want to know God’s plan for our lives and what He is saying to the world around us, then we have to be silent and listen.  We have to be men and women of prayer.  That is what will allow us to bear fruit in our vocation and find fulfillment in life.

If we look to our readings this weeekend, we can reflect on the passage of St. Paul’s Letter to the Colossians:

Wives, be subordinate to your husbands as is proper in the Lord.  Husbands, love your wives.

—Colossians 3:18-19

That reading always raises some eyebrows when it is read in the Liturgy, and there is much misunderstanding regarding its meaning.  The Church has always taught the equality of the spouses in Christian marriage.  It is not the case that the woman is submissive to the husband and he is free to do as he pleases.  No, there is a mutual submission; the husband must also submit himself to his wife and love her as Christ loves the Church (which is unto death!).  The word “submission” can be literally understood as “under the mission of.”  Clearly St. Joseph places himself under the mission of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  What is that mission?   It is to bring the Messiah into the world and to present Him to us all as the Savior.  St. Joseph, in his powerful silence and care, places everything under that mission as he protects the child when Herod seeks to destroy Him.  He will devout his life to the care of Jesus and Mary, ensuring that the mission of God is accomplished.

Pope Francis has designated 2021 as the Year of St Joseph.  He has written an Apostolic Letter on St. Joseph in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of St. Joseph being named Patron of the Universal Church.  This year we seek to imitate this silent love that is always attentive to God and places itself under the mission that God desires to see fulfilled in the world around us.

Jesus Christ has come to transform the human family, beginning with each and every one of us.  Where can we discover the obedience of love, the tenacity of hope and the power of silence in our daily lives?  May our encounter with the Holy Family continue to lead us more deeply in the “virtues of family life” in these days of celebrating the Lord’s birth.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Rejoice Always!

Venerable Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan

(Gaudete Sunday-Third Sunday of Advent-Year B; This homily was given on December 13, 2020 at the Church of Santo Spirito in Sassia in Rome, Italy; See
 Isaiah 61:1-11, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 and John 1:6-28) 

They say that timing is everything.  Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan was a young bishop in Vietnam when, in 1975, he was appointed Archbishop of Saigon.  It would give him the opportunity to reach thousands of souls for Christ, to shepherd the Lord’s flock in a way he could have never imagined.  But timing is everything.  Six days after his appointment, Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese army.  Because of his ardent faith and his family connections to the former regime, the bishop was arrested and imprisoned for 13 years.  Nine of those years were spent in solitary confinement.

In the first days of his captivity he could hear the ringing of the bells of the cathedral in the city of Nha Trang, where he had previously been bishop.  The prison was that close.  Far from becoming bitter about that ironic reality, he would later say, “The Father never abandoned me.”  His deep faith endured through those initial days of trial and he kept his focus on God.

From the outset there were five guards assigned to Van Thuan; they would take shifts, two at a time, watching over him.  At first the leaders determined to change the groups completely every two weeks, fearing the guards would become “contaminated by this dangerous bishop.   Van Thuan said to himself, “You have the love of Christ in your heart; love them as Jesus loved you.”  The affect on the guards was so powerful that many of them began to consider him a friend and not a prisoner.  The leaders then told the guards, “We’ve decided not to switch you anymore; otherwise this bishop will contaminate all of the police.”  

In 1998, Van Thuan was finally released from prison. Three years later, realizing how contagious the bishop’s faith was, the government “invited” him to leave the country and never come back!  He came to Rome and in 1994 St. John Paul II appointed him Prefect for the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.  He was later created a Cardinal.  In 2017 Pope Francis named him venerable, the first step on the way to becoming a canonized saint.  Whether prisoner or prelate, Venerable Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan was always a man totally filled with joy; it literally overflowed into the lives of those around him.

Today we celebrate Gaudete Sunday.  That word, Gaudete, is Latin for joy.  The entrance antiphon for this Third Sunday of Advent is taken from St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice.  Indeed the Lord is near” (Philippians 4:4-5).  We rejoice because the celebration of the birth of Christ is nearly upon us, and He is the source of our joy.

In the Second Reading this morning, St. Paul repeats his sentiments from the entrance antiphon when he says, “Rejoice always” (1 Thessalonians 5:16).  We do well to remember that this is the same man that was imprisoned many times for his faith in Christ.  St. Paul was beaten, scourged, stoned, rejected and scorned by many of his contemporaries.  What he reminds us of, along with Cardinal Van Thuan, is that our joy is not founded on feelings or circumstances but on a person: God, the Holy Spirit.

The 16th Century “Apostle of Rome,” St. Philip Neri would often say that joy is the infallible sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit.  If you find true joy in a person then you will also be able to recognize the presence of God.  Joy, however, is not the same thing as happiness.  The world we live in uses those terms interchangeably, but they are different.  One can be really unhappy about the circumstances of life (like Cardinal Van Thuan or St. Paul would have been when they were deprived of their freedom and treated so shamefully) but at the same time possess the abiding joy of the Holy Spirit.

The Prophet Isaiah announces the Messiah this morning in our First Reading, and how the Spirit of God will bring joy to those in distress.  He writes:

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor, to heal the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners, to announce a year of favor from the Lord and a day of vindication by our God.  I rejoice heartily in the Lord, in my God is the joy of my soul.

Isaiah 61:1-2, 10

This Gaudete Sunday, as we draw ever closer to the birth of Christ, we can ask ourselves: “Where will we find joy this Christmas.”  Because it might be found in the circumstances of our lives; it is possible that we will discover that joy in the sentiments of this season, which open us up through beautiful memories and kindness in the present moment.  But there is no guarantee of that reality for all of us.  

There is, however, a promise from God that He will come to us, when we love Him and keep His commandments; that He will make His home in us when we open our hearts to Christ (see John 14:23).  This is the promise of the Holy Spirit, who lived in St. Paul and in Cardinal Van Thuan, and who lives in us through the power of Baptism and the overwhelming grace of God.  Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit.  We pray this weekend for the Holy Spirit to find a home in our hearts, so that we also might spread that joy to all we encounter this Christmas.