February 17, 2013
Homily by Fr. John De Celles
St. Raymond of Peñafort Catholic Church, Springfield, Va.
This last Monday the world woke up to the stunning news
that Pope Benedict XVI would resign, effective at the end of this month.
The first reaction of most of us seemed to be shock.
Which led to an initial response, even from the media,
that was very human:
one expressing human warmth and affection
toward this great and holy man,
and sadness that he would be leaving us.
But this didn’t last long—at least not for “the world” and it’s media.
As the surprise wore off, so did the positive news coverage,
as the message began change.
The coverage fell into the usual predictable paradigm
of seeing the Church as a merely human institution
And–surprise surprise—it turns out the media’s judgment
is largely that Benedict XVI was a failure as pope,
that under him the Church has become irrelevant
and that in order to make a comeback
his successor has to change the Church
to become more in line with the values of the world.
All this as we begin Lent, the holiest, most unworldly season of the year.
Today’s Gospel is a summation of Lent.
Like Jesus, for 40 days we go out into the desert,
to be purified and prepared to enter into our true mission,
which is to live and proclaim the Gospel of salvation.
In daily life it’s easy to get fixated on the good things of creation, “creatures,”
versus the goodness of the Creator,
and to make them more important, to love them more than God.
Whether its material stuff, like food or drink, or nice homes or money;
or even people that we genuinely care for or simply use for our enjoyment;
or popularity or merely acceptance.
It’s easy to cling to these things.
But in Lent we go into a spiritual desert with Christ
to try to strip away anything that leads us away from God,
any inordinate attachments to things, or to sins.
And so we do penances, in particular making sacrifices,
giving up things just as Jesus gave up everything in desert:
reminding us we are in the desert, trying to focus on the Creator.
And we pray: again, me and the creator.
And this prayer consists both in our private conversations with God,
and with the unified worship of the Church as the Body of Christ.
And so it includes most importantly the sacraments,
especially the sacraments of the Eucharist and penance,
where we encounter Christ most intimately,
both individually and as the Church, and he leads us to his Father.
His grace pouring out on us, strengthening us, and bringing us closer to him.
Me and Jesus.
Us and Jesus, alone in the desert with His Father and Spirit.
To me it seems Benedict’s resignation as we enter Lent is perfect timing.
Because it reminds us that like Christ himself,
the Church cannot go forward with its mission
unless we are constantly purified and renewed,
constantly stripping away the things of the world
and refocus on Christ and his grace.
Then and only then can we go forward to live and proclaim the gospel.
What a perfect atmosphere in which to pick a new pope,
who will lead us forward to live and proclaim the Gospel.
But that is the exact opposite of what we see in the media.
And let me stop here and say, this isn’t merely a critique of the media
—the media is simply all too often the voice of
what Jesus used to call “the world”:
the worldly values that put the creature before the creator.
The media sees the electing of the new pope in strictly worldly terms.
For example, it points to some corruption in the Vatican bureaucracy,
and makes the election about choosing a competent CEO/manager.
Or it points to declining Mass attendance,
or in the number of Catholics who disagree with Catholic moral teaching,
and it says we need a “progressive” pope to make changes
to modernize the church
And it points to the increasing importance of itself—the media—
and says we need a pope who has media-savvy,
and is a crowd-pleaser
and a great communicator, especially with the young.
And of course, they see the antithesis of this in Benedict:
they call him bookish, professorial, aloof, doctrinally rigid,
and managerially in over his head.
But the thing is, as Jesus reminded the first Pope, St. Peter, his job was to be,
“thinking …as God does, [not] as human beings do.”
And once when Peter failed to do that Jesus said to him:
“Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me.”
Anytime we think merely as human beings do
—as sinners caught up in the things of the world—
we become obstacles to Christ and his mission in the world,
taking the side of Satan.
We go into the desert, now, to get away from all that—the world.
But notice what happens to Jesus at the end of the 40 days.
There’s that old Satan, the Devil, there to tempt him.
And notice how he does that.
First, he says: “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.”
Now, Jesus had given up food for 40 days,
perfecting his self-discipline over the desires of the flesh
—even the good and natural desires.
Not because the flesh is bad,
but because all human desires and all good things can be corrupted
if we don’t remember what they’re for, and use them properly.
So, for example, even love can be corrupted: you can love someone,
but selfishness can corrupt that love
and wind up smothering the other person.
Christ goes into the desert, and we go into lent,
to focus on loving not the created good, but the Creator
and then asking letting the Creator tell us what he created this thing for.
And so Jesus answered the devil:
“It is written, One does not live on bread alone,
but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.”
In the midst of the Pope’s resignation and succession,
so many are caught in focusing on the created things, not on the Creator.
Some people say: “the new pope has needs to change the teaching on xyz.”
But all they’re really saying is “focus on the creatures and what they say.”
But what the Church must do and say is,
“focus on the Creator, and what God says.”
In his second temptation the devil showed Jesus,
“all the kingdoms of the world in a single instant,”
and “said to him,
“I shall give to you all this power and glory;
All this will be yours, if you worship me.”
Sometimes if you listen carefully, it seems like the world has its own religion,
that some call “secularism.”
Here again, the object of worship is the created thing, not the creator.
The feelings of the creature, and the enjoyment of created things
—this is what so many, including ourselves a lot of the time,
are devoted to.
And if you don’t think the devil is a working behind the scenes to promote this,
just look at the Gospels.
Notice how the devil tries to tempt Jesus:
he’s trying to appeal to what he sees in all other men
—this disordered love for created things.
He’s not inventing it, but he’s an expert at manipulating and confusing.
And in doing that, the devil places his word, not God’s word,
as the way of ordering our approach to creatures.
And so we wind up serving him—a creature!
But of course, Jesus isn’t like other men
—he sees things clearly and hears the Word of his Father distinctly.
And so he says in reply,
“It is written: You shall worship the Lord, your God,
and him alone shall you serve.”
Nowadays, everyone’s’ trying to tell us what we should think,
and telling us their own version of good and evil.
You hear people say, well everyone does it,
or the polls show that people think this is good or bad.
You know what?
Whether it’s in our own life or in the life of the Church,
whether it’s in personal moral decisions
or the election of new pope,
do we serve polls? do we serve creatures?
Or do we worship and serve the Lord, our God?
For his third temptation Satan led Jesus to the top of the temple,
“and said to him,
“If you are the Son of God,
throw yourself down from here, for it is written:
He will command his angels …to guard you…”
Here he appeals to ultimate disordered corruption of the love of creatures
–where the creature loves himself above all things.
Again, thinking Jesus is just an ordinary man,
Satan appeals to his pride:
“you’re so wonderful, do what you want
and God will obediently come to your aid.”
Many of us think the same thing every day:
“God loves me so much, even though he says xyz is a sin,
he won’t hold it against me.”
So, the creator becomes the servant, God worships man.
And so “Jesus said to him …, You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.”
If you listen carefully to what some are saying
about Pope Benedict and his successor, you hear this same thing
“The next pope needs change its teaching on
marriage, or whatever.”
As if the Pope can just change whatever he wants,
even when it goes directly against the teaching of Christ.
As if God will say, oh, okay, you know best…
I’m just the all-knowing, all-loving, all-power Creator of the universe,
and you are, after all, the Pope.
It just doesn’t work that way—he is God, and the pope is his servant,
not the other way around.
In Lent we go out into the desert with Christ to be purified by penance and grace,
to love God above all things.
This Lent the cardinal-electors in Rome must do the same thing,
and we must join them in solidarity.
God, Christ, comes first.
Me and Jesus, the Church and God.
And in his mercy, God has provided us with a magnificent example to follow: Pope Benedict himself.
It’s clear from the words of his resignation and everything he’s’ said since
that he made this decision not to serve himself, but God alone.
To him, nothing’s been more important than God.
Not food, as the devil tried to tempt Christ.
Not personal comfort, not a powerful job.
To him, it’s all about worshipping God, not the things God created.
Like Jesus’ response to the devil’s offer to worship him,
Benedict reminds us that we don’t worship the man who is pope,
we revere the office he holds, but worship God alone.
In stepping down, he reminds us that the pope is just a man,
and has authority only to the extent Christ gives it to him.
And to him, it’s not about pride or self-importance.
As he steps off the throne,
the murmurs of the media and his enemies grow louder and louder
—he was an ineffective pope, a bad manager,
a disappointment after John Paul II.
But he smiles, waves goodbye, and serenely entrusts the judgment of his papacy
not to the world or its media,
and not even so much to history,
but fundamentally to the judgment of God alone.
What a great gift the lord Jesus gives us in the office of Pope,
to shepherd his flock, to be rock of strength for 2000 years.
And what a great gift Jesus gave us in Benedict,
a brilliant, brave and clear-sighted shepherd,
but above all a humble, holy servant of God.
Would that we might imitate Benedict this Lent,
as he goes off to a life of prayer and reflection
—off to his own desert of sorts.
Him and Christ in the desert.
Let us pray that we and the whole Church may imitate him as he imitates Christ,
not clinging to the creatures of the world or seeking to serve them first,
but clinging to Christ,
and seeking serve our Creator,
Father Son and Holy Spirit,
First, last and always.