1st Sunday of Lent 2012

St. Raymond of Peñafort
Homily by Fr. John De Celles
February 26, 2012

So we begin our 40 days of Lent, 40 days preparing for Easter.
But we do so as Jesus did: before Easter he endured Good Friday, and the Cross.
And so in Lent we prepare for Easter by entering into the mystery of the Cross,
uniting our acts of penance and love to Christ and His Cross.

It seems that almost from the very beginning the apostles and their followers
celebrated Easter, and spent time preparing for it, with some form of Lent.
But the length and nature of Lent seems not to have been very uniform
for the first 3 centuries of the Church.
It’s only in the year 325 at the first gathering of the bishops
at the Council of Nicaea
that we see the uniformity of the 40 days penance
become the rule throughout the Church,
and a very important part of Christian life.

But why did the long 40 day season of Lent suddenly become so important?
It seems to me that it relates to the ending of the persecutions:
just 10 years before the Council of Nicaea
the Roman Emperor ended the systematic persecution of the Church,
and soon thereafter made Christianity the official religion of the empire.
Before that, being a Christian required a unique commitment.
When you might die tomorrow for the faith,
the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel rang particularly true:
“Repent, and believe in the gospel.” “The kingdom of God is at hand.”
And the differences between pagan values and Christian values were easy to see.

But when the persecution ended,
it became easier to blur the differences
and to identify less with the strict moral teachings of the Church.
So that it became very important once a year to stop and look at themselves,
to recognize their sins, and answer again the call of Christ:
“Repent, and believe in the gospel.”

We see this same thing happening in our own world today.
In our own country, lulled to sleep by the blessing of religious liberty,
Christians, and Catholics in particular,
have come to identify less and less with Christ and His Church,
with all it’s moral teachings and practices,
and identified more and more with the culture around us.
This wasn’t so bad when that culture was largely shaped by Christianity,
but over the years secularists have more and more
stripped the culture and laws of their Christian values.
So that now even that religious liberty
that has been so critical to the amazing success of the American experiment,
is at risk of being thrown aside,
as a new persecution of the Church begins.

We see this in so many ways,
but most clearly in the President’s attempt
to force us to buy or provide insurance
for contraception, sterilization and abortifacients
—directly against the doctrine of the Church.

So this year, Lent is especially meaningful and poignant,
as the values of the secular world and values of the Church
come into stark relief.
Suddenly the suffering of Christ at the hands of his persecutors,
as public leaders had him bound and led where he did not want to go,
takes on a more personal meaning,
as we sense that the same may lay in store for his body on earth, the Church.
And so, as in the days of the early Church,
this year the words of Christ resonate more profoundly in our hearts:
“Repent, and believe in the gospel.” “The kingdom of God is at hand.”

But other words of today’s gospel text also resonate with particular meaning today.
It tells us
“Jesus out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days,
tempted by Satan. He was among wild beasts…”

In 1968 Pope Paul VI drew a line in the sand, saying “this far, and no farther”
to the secular culture,
as he reasserted the Church’s apostolic and infallible teaching
on sexuality and procreation, and against contraception,
in his prophetic encyclical, “Humanae Vitae.”
Unfortunately, in response, Catholics in America largely
sided with the secular world against the Church.

And since then, this new alignment has only become more pronounced.
So that not for “40 days” but for over 40 years,
American Catholics seem to have gone “out into the desert,”
“tempted by Satan” to join in the decadence of the “wild beasts” around us.
And while the Church itself, under the protection of the angels,
has remained steadfast to the truth of Christ and apostolic teaching,
even so, too many individual members of the Church have not.
And Lord cries out to us: “Repent, and believe in the gospel.”

American Catholics have many sins to repent.
But in the last few weeks one of them has come to the forefront,
as it has become the whip which secularists
have used to scourge Christ’s body, the Church.
I speak of course of the sin of contraception.

Of course, this is no accident,
since in so many ways the acceptance of contraception
has been the root of the rejection of Catholic morality,
especially sexual morality.
Because when we remove procreation as an essential part
of the intrinsic meaning of sex,
we start down a road that ends up stripping sex of all its true meaning.
And if sex has no real meaning, no higher purpose,
then it is reduced to whatever lower purposes we choose,
and we become more like “wild beasts,” and less like human beings.

This is why I think the greatest sins of our 40 years of wandering in the desert
are not simply the sins of misusing sexuality
but rather the sins of failing to teach and defend the truth
about the true meaning of the great gift of sexuality,
beginning with the truth about the evil of contraception.

And while the president’s contraception mandate
is fundamentally an attack on religious liberty,
the irony is we would never be in this situation
if for the last 40 years we had used our religious liberty
to proclaim the truth about contraception.

All Catholics, but especially priests and bishops, have to repent this sin.
And so, in the Spirit of Christ coming forth from the desert,
we must not remain silent any longer.
And we must vigorously support priests and bishops who tell the truth,
even when it is inconvenient, or painful to hear.

And so my friends, I say to you,
contraception is fundamentally evil,
and destructive to the good of marriage and the family
and degrading to the true meaning of sexuality.

This teaching can be difficult to understand, and to teach,
especially as conditioned as we are in secular mindset.

But think of this:
there is probably no greater grief to a family than the death of a child.
When that happens it just tears your heart apart.
But why?
Because human life is so incredible,
especially when we see it in all its innocence and wonder,
with all its potential wide open, in a child.

But then ask yourself: where does that incredible human life come from?
The truth is it comes from a particular act of human intimacy
that our culture increasingly tries to tell us
is no more meaningful than a handshake.
But if human life is so incredible,
wouldn’t the unique and very human act it comes from
be something pretty incredible too?
If human life shouldn’t be wasted, but respected and cherished as wonderful,
shouldn’t something of that be reflected in its origin?

It’s kind of like at Mass, when the priest says the words of consecration
and suddenly, miraculously, there on the altar
is the body blood soul and divinity of Christ—his very life.
And we see that moment, those actions and words,
as incredibly holy and awesome.

Then why don’t we see something incredible, holy and awesome
in the moment and action that transforms
simple human elements into the body and blood and even the soul
of a baby human life?

This is the thing.
This intimate act is designed by God to be the life-giving act.
And we don’t need the Bible to tell us this, although it does.
Because we see it in nature: we look at the physiology
and that is what the act is all about.

But because it involves the creation, or procreation, of not a mere plant or animal,
but of a human life—that incredible human child,
with all it’s potential and wonder—
we may begin at the physiology,
but we immediately see its meaning goes well beyond that.
The physical nature expresses a moral or spiritual nature—human nature.

Let’s go back to that young child who dies, and the heartbreak that death brings.
That heartbreak comes not simply because the child is dead,
but because the family loved that child in life,
and death separates us from living with the one we love.
You see, at the center of the meaning of human life is love!
Life is meaningless and empty without love,
and love is meaningless and empty without life!
In human beings, life and love,
are inseparable and at the heart of the very nature of mankind.

And so, the act of intimacy that is about so awesomely giving life,
must also be about awesomely giving love.
And because his parents should have
an unwaveringly committed to the life and love of that child,
they should also have a committed partnership
of sharing life and love together—in marriage.

So, that act that gives life to a baby
is intrinsically about giving both life and love
—both to the baby, and between the couple.
Any time that intimacy is expressed
without both a love-giving and a life-giving purpose,
in other words purposefully and intentionally rejecting
either of the two essential meanings of the act itself,
that intimacy and the dignity of the human beings involved
is mocked, degraded and abused.

And that, my friends is what happens in contraception.
It turns this most profound human act into a lie and a farce
—and it is inherently contrary to our human nature,
and so we call it both “inhuman” and “unnatural.”
And it degrades both the man and the woman,
and any child who might be conceived “by accident.”

Which is why in 1968 Pope Paul VI wrote in Humanae Vitae
that these intimate acts belong solely in the context of marriage and
“must remain open to the transmission of life.”

And it’s why he warned us that the wide-spread use of contraception
would quickly lead to
increased “[marital] infidelity…
the general lowering of morality…
[and] the man, …los[ing] respect for the woman
and…considering her as a mere instrument of selfish enjoyment,
and no longer as his respected and beloved companion.”

Look at the explosion of abortion, pornography, divorce, out of wedlock births,
and spousal and child abuse,
as well as the dramatic decline in marriage,
not to mention the widespread acceptance of homosexuality.
All this was made possible by the degradation of contraception.

My friends, this only scratches the surface.
There is much more to say—and to learn.
So go home today and read Humanae Vitae,
and look for opportunities to read or hear more about this teaching
—there are loads of solid books and DVDs and CDs easily available,
some in our library downstairs, but also on the internet.
And I promise to continue to try to give you more opportunities to learn about it..

But whatever we do, we must repent of our sin of silence.
We must reject the temptation of Satan,
and tell even the “wild beasts” of our culture about this beautiful teaching.
And we must support our bishops and priests, and pray for them,
that “driven” by the Holy Spirit and protected by the angels
they may bravely lead the Church in America out of its 40 years in the desert
to join Christ in proclaiming the good news of the Gospel,
especially the beautiful news about sexuality.

We are entering into a new time of persecution of the Church,
when we will see the stark differences between
the culture of the secular world and the life of the Church.
But from the Cross comes the Resurrection, through suffering comes redemption.
May this these 40 days of Lent be a time of true repentance and conversion
for each of us, for all Catholics in America,
and yes, for our beloved Country.

“Repent, and believe in the gospel.”

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