Corpus Christi 2012

Do this in memory of me.

A good friend lost her husband rather suddenly some years ago to a deadly and rapid form of cancer. I have noticed over all these years how she continues very diligently to preserve his memory. As one might expect, in various places she has photos of their wedding and other special events in their life, the birth of their only child, their vacations, whatever reminds her of the happiness and the gift that their love had been for her over the years.

But I also noticed one day that She continued to wear her engagement and wedding ring, and she does so to this day, 15 years later. She is a religion teacher at one of our Catholic High Schools, and so she knows quite well that she is no longer married and quite free legally and morally to marry again. But I suspect that these must be the most special treasures she has from him, the special signs of his love for her, the reminder of their conjugal union which made them one in the most intimate way possible in this world, and the happiness they shared through their married love and life. She obviously treasures those rings, and knowing her, I think she may well wear those rings till her own death, because they are very physical signs by which, in a certain sense, he continues to accompany her in this world.

The Church also has an enduring treasure from her bridegroom who also died a sudden and awful death, but there is a huge difference in that he did not leave his bride a widow. The Church’s marriage with Jesus is truly forever, in this world and in the next, and it is the only marriage that is absolutely unending There are other reason that this marriage union is quite different and much more wonderful than marriage in the human sense, first of all, because the Church’s bridegroom was not just a man, but God made man. And her bridegroom rose from the dead, and continues to live with her, but not exactly as He did before. He is now in such a condition in his humanity that this world alone can no longer be His home, for our Bridegroom has ascended so high that we cannot be totally with him, or He with us, until we ourselves, the whole Church, has been transformed by the glory and elevated to that higher existence of Heaven, which is his, and our final dwelling place.

Nonetheless, while Jesus has in one very real sense gone beyond this world into eternity, and while we one day hope to follow Him, still, in another very real and wonderful way, he has not left us entirely and He remains with His bride always until the end of time as he promised His Apostles: And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the world. Amen. (Matt. 28:20) His continuing presence and activity on our behalf here in this world is the true mystery that the Bride continues to live here on earth, the mystery of her tremendous lover’s abiding presence, even while he has truly gone ahead to provide for our eternal life with Him in His Father’s Kingdom. His greatest memento and our greatest treasure is not something he left behind, but is in truth Himself, always with us, always abiding in His Church and in each of us, even while He has gone ahead to provide an eternal home where we shall be united with Him forever.

So Jesus is not with us simply as a memory, but He is present with us, and for us, in an even more wonderful way today than before his Paschal Mystery. The treasure the Church, as Bride, possesses from Him, the memorial that is more than a memorial, is of course the Holy Eucharist, and it is this greatest of His gifts, and this mystery of his powerful presence that we the Church, the Bride of Christ, celebrate today in a most special way on Corpus Christi. The Holy Eucharist is not like the wedding ring worn by a widow, for the Church is truly never a widow, and this gift of the Holy Mass and Holy Communion is not a mere thing that reminds us of someone who once was our great lover, who was once present with us on earth as man, who once shared our life, but no longer does. His remembrance is not a thing at all; but a wonderfully new and permanent presence of Himself who has loved us unto death, and beyond death, and Who continues to be with us, and indeed in us, to the end of time, through this Holy Sacrament of His body and Blood.

The Church’s sacrament of Christ’s Body and blood will inevitably seem strange to outsiders, but it should not be so strange to any believing Catholics who are a deep lovers of Christ as their Lord and as their Spouse. And this unique spiritual Marriage with Christ, like human marriage, is not, cannot ever be a purely spiritual thing, but in a most wonderful way involves the union of the whole persons of the spouses, body and soul, spirit and matter. Indeed, we would have a hard time even conceiving of a true marriage that does not involve the bodily presence and as well as the soul or spirit.

Thus Christ has left us a wonderful memorial of his person and His love-unto-death, and beyond death, but just as it is not a purely spiritual presence nor is it purely a memorial, for his bequest to us is the living union between Himself and us, Christ and His Church, most especially every time we celebrate the holy Mass. For that reason the memorial aspect of the Mass, which recalls the past love of Christ for us on the Cross, where he gave his body and blood for our redemption, and where he sealed the marriage bond with us, is meant only to arouse our love for Him, so we can more powerfully receive His very real presence with us here in the Eucharist. And His presence now in the Eucharist is totally real, for in this holy sacrifice and sacrament he becomes flesh and blood for us, to feed us with his glorified humanity so that he can prepare us body and soul to be with Him one day, body and soul, forever, where he now dwells in his full glory forever.

When we celebrate Mass, offer His sacrifice in union with Him and then receive the Lord the in the Eucharist, the very concrete bodily way in which he gives himself to us reminds us most powerfully of the act of sacrificial love by which he redeemed us, by giving up His body and soul, where he loved us unto death so that we might live with Him, in Him forever. Yes, His body and blood present on our altar by His personal consecration, first reminds us of His Cross, and of the bodily sacrifice by which he saved us from eternal death. We believe that His sacrifice is renewed on our altars in a most wonderful and mysterious way, by Him. He makes his Body and blood present under the signs of his death for us, and He himself feeds us, feeds us with Himself through these very same gifts so that we may live forever in Him, as he lives already lives in us. His body and blood testify to this truth, that ours is a truly real and unending marriage, involving a human love caught up in His divine love, a union of the whole of us with the whole of Him. All this, of course, remains utterly mysterious even for us who believe, mysterious as to how all this is accomplished by Him. And yet, the fact that this is taking place here and now in the holy Mass is as certain to a Catholic believer as is the existence of this physical world that we live in and pass through to eternity.

This greatest of gifts was foretold and prepared for in the manna of the desert that carried the Israelites into the Promised Land, for Christ is our true Manna. And it was prefigured also in the sacrifices of the Old Testament6 that were fulfilled and utterly surpassed by the Sacrifice of Christ on the Christ. Christ Himself is the treasure we possess in our Churches, and in our bodies during the Eucharistic liturgy, just as the Law was carried in the Ark which led Israel into the Promised land. His Body and Blood is our spiritual food, making us forever one with Him who has loved us unto death, and continues to love us and is with us until the end of time in this most holy sacrament, and will love us as his own flesh forever in His Father’s Kingdom. Today, then, most appropriately, the Church cries out everywhere in this world, O Sacrament Most Holy, O Sacrament Divine, all praise and all thanksgiving be every moment thine. May that praise be the ring we bear on our persons, the prayer we carry with us, all the days of our life, Amen.

Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity (Sunday) 2012

St. Raymond of Peñafort
Homily by Fr. John De Celles
June 3, 2012

Today, of course, is Trinity Sunday.
It is wonderful day,
celebrating a magnificent mystery of God and of our Catholic Faith.
But is also a day dreaded by a lot of priests.
I say “dreaded” because who can explain the Trinity?
Have you ever tried to?
It’s really next to impossible to adequately explain the Trinity,
to try to explain the very essence of God Himself—his inner most being.
After all who can explain the inner most being of another human being,
much less the inner most being
of the eternal, omnipotent Creator of the universe?
It is difficult to explain, and difficult to understand.

First of all, what does this dogma of the Trinity hold?
We believe there is one God, who is three persons.
They share the same divine nature,
but each is God, whole and entire.
They are really distinct from one another—not simply different modes of being
–you can’t say we call God “Father” when he’s creating the world,
but we call him “the Son” when he’s on the Cross,
and we call him “the Spirit” when he dwells in us.
No: God the Son is a different person than God the Father
who is a different person than God the Holy Spirit
—but they are still one God.
In particular they are seen in relationship to one another:
relating as Father to Son, a son who is eternally begotten from the Father,
and the Spirit of the two that proceeds forth from them both,
some say the personification the love between the Father and Son.
Still, one God, three persons.

So all that’s clear.
No—it’s still difficult to explain and to understand.
And it always has been.
2000 years ago it was hard for the Jews believe.
After all, the central dogma of Old Testament Judaism
that there is only one God.
As we read in today’s first reading:
“Fix in your heart, that the LORD is God…
and that there is no other.”
But they kept hearing Jesus say things like: “the Father and I are one”
–so they called him a blasphemer and tried to kill him,
and eventually succeeded.

And it was hard for many wannabe Christians in the 2nd 3rd and 4th centuries,
heretics like the Gnostics: they couldn’t and didn’t believe it.

And it was hard for the rich Arab merchant who searched for the true God
and apparently found Him in Christianity, but rejected Him
because he could not accept the truth
that God is one, but 3 persons.
And so Muhammad made up his own religion, to suit his unbelief.

It is very difficult to understand, and, so, difficult to believe.
And yet we do believe.
But why?

Very simple: because we believe that Jesus is “the Christ, the one sent by God.”
And Jesus taught us the dogma of the Trinity.
For example, on the one hand,
Jesus himself proclaimed the central dogma of Judaism:
“The LORD our God is one.”
And yet, he called God his “Father,” and says:
“the Father and I are one”
Now, some might say, that Jesus was speaking metaphorically,
but when the Jews accused him of “making himself God”
and tried to stone him,
instead of saying, ‘no no, you misunderstood,’
he said to them:
“I am the Son of God….
know and understand
that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.”

And he kept on insisting on this.
Who can forget the last supper,
when he went on and on about his unity with the Father.
Particularly in his rebuke of St. Philip, who asked “show us the father”.
Jesus responds:
“Have I been with you so long,
and still you do not know me…?
He who has seen me has seen the Father;
how can you say, ‘Show us the Father?
Do you not believe that
I am in the Father and the Father in me?”

And not only did Jesus insist that he was one God with his father,
he insisted that the Holy Spirit was one God with them also.
He promised his apostles:
“I shall send to you …the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father.”
but also promises:
“the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name.”
Both the Father and the Son send the Spirit.
And why?
Because while Jesus calls him: “the spirit of the father”
St. Paul calls the Holy Spirit not only
“the Spirit of God” but also “the spirit of Jesus Christ”,
All the while insisting “there is one Spirit.”

We believe, because Jesus said it,
and because the apostles taught it.
and handed down from generation to generation
both in Sacred Scripture and in the Sacred Tradition.
And so the Church has always accepted it
as not simply an interesting bit of trivia,
but as the first tenet of the Christian Faith:
if you do not believe in the Trinity,
you are NOT a Christian.

This has been so important to the Church
that the earliest summaries of the Christian faith,
like the Apostles Creed,
that some attribute to the apostles themselves,
at the first Pentecost,
are centered around the Trinity.
And when the bishops could all come together for the first time
since the death of the apostles,
at the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD,
the most important thing they did was give us
a more elaborate formulation of the Trinitarian Creed:
the Creed we say at every Sunday Mass—the Nicene Creed.

The Trinity is the First Dogma of Christianity,
because the whole Church comes out of,
revolves around and moves toward this mystery.
Heaven is sharing in the communion of life and love of the Trinity.
The whole incarnation, life, death, resurrection of Christ are Trinitarian:
the Father gives his Son, the Son offers himself to the Father.
The Pentecost is Trinitarian:
the Father and Son send the Spirit so they can dwell in us,
and we can be one with them.
The Sacraments are Trinitarian:
in Baptism we enter into the life of
“the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit”
in the Eucharist, by the power of the Holy Spirit
Christ makes us one with him and presents us to His Father.
The Church itself is Trinitarian:
it is one, because the Trinity is one,
and it is the body of Christ, enlivened by the Spirit to praise the Father.
Creation itself is Trinitarian:
God created man in his own image so he could invite us
to live and love in the life and love of the Trinity.

This is what we believe.
Still, all this is difficult to understand.

Does this make us stupid, or naïve or irrational?
No, because it would be stupid, naïve, irrational and the height of arrogance
to think that we could ever really understand everything about God
—especially about his inner most being.

Do you understand how God created the universe?
No; but you believe it, and it is very rational to do so.
Do you understand how God can love each one of us uniquely and totally,
even though you and I are like mere specks of dust in this huge universe?
Do you understand how God could become a man and die on the Cross,
and still be completely God?
Do you understand how God could truly come to us,
body, blood, soul and divinity,
under the appearance of a piece of bread we could eat?
No; you have some inkling of an understanding of these things,
but you don’t understand any of them completely.
But still, you believe them.

Think about it: It would be so much easier for the Church
to proclaim the Gospel without the Trinity
—who would make something so difficult to understand
the central tenet of their religion?
But some things we don’t understand,
we still believe because Jesus has revealed them to us.
These are what we call mysteries of the faith.
And by that we don’t mean just accepting it blindly and without understanding.
But rather, mysteries are truths that are hidden in God,
things too big or magnificent to us to understand,
and which could never begin to know anything about,
unless they are revealed by God.

As Scripture reminds us:
“For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?”
“Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand
…and weighed the mountains in scales? …” like God has.

And if we can’t understand something like creation, or the incarnation,
how can we really hope to ever completely fathom
the dogma of the Trinity.
After all, this dogma is a peek into the very inner most life
of the eternal boundless God.
To believe this dogma is not to be foolish, but to accept a wondrous gift
—to know God in his deepest self,
to know something of the boundless and eternal
intimate love and life that the Three Divine Persons
share so perfectly and completely,
and of an invitation to us to share in that love and life
imperfectly in this world
and perfectly and forever in the next.

As I said at the beginning of this homily,
I dread this Sunday because the Trinity is impossible to explain.
And yet, I also love this Sunday,
because if I can even in some small way help others to understand
the wondrous truth of our Triune God,
the intimacy and awesomeness of his eternal life and love,
what a great thing to preach about.

As we continue with this Holy Mass,
let us turn to the Trinitarian mystery of the Eucharist,
the sacrifice of the Son to His Father
made present by the power of the Holy Spirit.
And by these sacred mysteries
may we now be lifted up
into the wondrous and intimate mystery of
the eternal life and boundless love of the Most Holy Trinity.

Pentecost Sunday 2012

Pentecost, which we celebrate today, has been celebrated for over two thousand years, and it will be celebrated until the end of time and Christ’s return in glory. Pentecost is the fulfillment of Christ’s promises to His Apostles to send the Holy Spirit, the Spirit who would lead the Church into the fullness of truth, and enable them to proclaim that saving Gospel to the ends of the earth.

On the night before he died, Jesus promised to send a new advocate, the Holy Spirit who will teach the Apostles all truth, and will keep them united as one body and will pour forth the new life of Jesus in the Church. So these three things are connected with the Spirit: Life, Truth and unity. After the resurrection, Jesus continues to speak of the Spirit and promises to send the Spirit from the Father. But the Apostles must await this gift from their Master, after His ascension, and they are to begin the evangelization of the world only when this gift has been sent.

Pentecost, then, has to be understood in terms of the mission of Christ, through the Church, to the world, and the gift of the Spirit received at Pentecost is for this purpose, to bring the light and life of Jesus Christ to the world for the salvation of all mankind. This sending of the Spirit is not something purely personal as in other instances where we see the Spirit descend upon individual persons, but something ecclesial, Christ’s gift for the sake of the Church as a whole.

There are times in the scriptures when the Spirit descends upon individuals for their own personal salvation, and others where the Spirit descends upon the individual the sake of others. In the latter category we see the Spirit’s descent upon Mary who conceives the Lord, for the sake of the world. In the Gospels, we see something parallel where the Spirit descends upon the apostles on Easter, but for the purpose of forgiving the sins of others. And there are other similar situations where the Spirit descends upon individual Christians to enable them to perform miracles, or prophesy or speak in tongues. All these gifts are for the sake of others, not for the personal salvation of the person taken hold of by the Spirit.

Then there are cases where the Spirit descends upon individuals precisely for their own salvation. This happens to unbaptized persons, as in the case in Acts 11 where Peter preaches to the family of Cornelius and suddenly the Spirit takes hold of them, and Peter sees this as a sign they are to be baptized. Indeed whenever anyone is baptized, the Holy Spirit descends upon that person and communicates the gift of Sanctifying Grace and other supernatural virtues; and so this descent is for the personal salvation of the one baptized.

But, on the day of Pentecost, the Spirit descended upon the Church as a whole, represented in the persons gathered in that upper room, among whom we can confidently number Mary and the Lord’s brethren as well as the Apostles. Here, the Holy Spirit descends upon the Church to unify it in love, and to strengthen it for the sacred mission in which it will make Christ present in her activity for the salvation of the whole world. This is the day of the Church’s “confirmation,” the day on which the Church collectively receives the gifts of the Spirit to be distributed down through the ages and is strengthened for her mission across the centuries until Christ returns.

Moreover, the purpose of this particular sending of the Spirit becomes immediately clear when the Apostles begin to proclaim the Gospel, and the people gathered there in Jerusalem from all over the Near East begin to hear them each in their own language. This is a clear manifestation of the unifying purpose of this descent of the Spirit on the Church. The Spirit has come to make us one by His gifts, to answer the prayer of Jesus that we may all be made one, just as He is one with the Father and with His Spirit.

The work of the Spirit and the Church, then, is not simply to save individual souls, but to make all the saved one in the Church, to recreate the lost unity of the human race, lost by Original Sin and by our countless personal sins. Jesus prayed that this original human unity be restored and promised us the Spirit who would make it possible. Life without the communion of love is not life worth living. The new life Jesus brings is life worth living because it unites his members in the bond of unity sealed by divine love.

Christ and the Spirit unite us, then, in the one Church, as one body, one mind and heart, the mind and heart of Christ. He makes this unity, this deep communion, possible in many ways through the many gifts of His Spirit. \

He unites us first of all by infusing His Life into our souls through the Gift of the Spirit in the Church’s Sacraments, beginning with Baptism. We now share one common supernatural life with Jesus and with each other.

He then unites us with the gift of truth, for we cannot be truly united where God’s truth does not prevail. And so he promised that the Spirit would teach us all truth, but it would happen through His Bride the Church.

He also unites us in love, the bond of all true unity and communion, and he does this through the gift of His Spirit, who is Love, the same Love that unites the Holy Trinity, makes the Trinity of Persons one.

And finally Christ unites us by enabling us by His Spirit to share in His saving mission. Think of how united this country was in the Second World War, united in a common mission to save our country and others from tyranny. Likewise, Jesus makes us his instruments to destroy the tyranny of sin and lies and hatred, the tyranny made possible by what Paul refers to as the destructive power of sin, which he enumerates: ” immorality, impurity, lust, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, rivalry, jealousy, outbursts of fury, acts of selfishness, dissensions, factions,occasions of envy…” (Gal. 5:19-21) All of these destroy unity by destroying mutual love.

So, from Pentecost forward, the Church will struggle to unify the world in Christ, first of all, by growing and maintaining her own inner unity compromised by all heresy and dissension. She will help us overcome the evils Paul lists and achieve an ever greater unity. The she will enable us to proclaim this good news to the world and draw many other sinto nthe communion of life and love that is Christ’s Church.

There is only one way back for mankind to that unity which lasted only as long as original innocence lasted, so briefly in Paradise, and that way is through Christ, through His Spirit, and through the Church whom ministers His truth and His grace through her preaching and through her sacraments and family life.

Jesus Christ, then, is not just another prophet, another religious leader but the Redeemer of all Mankind, and His Spirit is at work in this world reuniting mankind by uniting individuals to God in the Body of Christ. Just so, the Church is not just another religious body, but the body of Christ, in which Christ is gathering others into this unity by teaching them the truth and communicating His life to those who believe.

Today the Church once again rejoices as the Lord continues to send His Spirit to make possible her mission, His mission, of the salvation and the reunification of the children of God everywhere. We pray today in a special way for that Gift of His Spirit to be poured out once again in our day so that the truth can be heard today in all the languages of mankind, and salvation may come to all who believe in this great saving truth: Jesus Christ is Lord, Amen.

Ascension 2012

Today’s solemn feast of the Ascension of Jesus brings to its climax the season of Easter, for with Jesus’ ascension, the Easter event takes on a dramatic new meaning and provides a new source of joy for the Christian community in particular, and objectively for the whole human race.

Jesus is not only the first fruits of the new order established by the paschal mystery, the first “new” man risen from the dead to die no more, and thus a sign of hope for all mankind, that death really is not the final word, the final destiny of man. All of this is true, of course, and we as men and women of faith rejoice in our belief that what has happened to Jesus, his victory over death, was accomplished for our sake, to make possible for each and every one of us to share in that same victory one day by rising triumphantly from the dead and living with Jesus forever. If we are Christians in fact and not just in name then we believe all this and stake our lives on this faith, and if we do not do that, then as Paul says we are indeed the most pitiable of persons.

But Christian faith does not stop, cannot stop at this level, at the level of belief that man has conquered death in and through Jesus risen from the dead. Today’s feast of the ascension lifts our minds and hearts far above this beautiful truth of our faith. Indeed it elevates our faith to the very heights of God where the resurrection of Jesus terminates, where he rises or ascends as man into the very heart of the Triune God, to God’s “right hand” which means that Jesus, as man, is now sharing in the fullness of divine life and power as both Son of God and Son of Man. The Feast of the Ascension prevents us from simply focusing on the horizontal dimension of the mystery of the resurrection – what it means for us, for our final destiny. The ascension raises our minds to heaven where we glimpse what God has really accomplished in Jesus, and through Him, for us.

The Ascension confirms for us that our humanity has a destiny in God, that where Jesus has ascended we are to follow, though we share this destiny only in Him and through Him. The humanity of Jesus, which we share as members of the new humanity raised up in baptism, is now seated in full power in God. Jesus, in his humanity, in our humanity since we are all one race in Christ, now enjoys the full glory of His divine person. Before his resurrection and ascension, Jesus’ body was not fully sharing in his divine glory. Otherwise he could not have suffered and died, for us. Now he cannot suffer or die anymore, for his body now shares the full glory of his divine person. That is why we adore him, now in body and soul as the Eternal Son of God.

The angels themselves are forever astounded as they witness this ascension of his humanity far above any angelic creature to the very throne of God. The angels wonder at this and give glory to God. How then can it be that we mortal men are not equally astounded and filled with an everlasting joy to see our humanity raised so high that that we cannot fully comprehend just exactly what has happened here to the Lord.

Oh how man wants to avoid this astounding truth. How can it be that God and man are so united in one person, Jesus the Lord, that God can truly be said to have walked this earth, suffered and died and rose again, and that in this same one person humanity has now ascended to the very throne of God! But that is our faith, and we dare not stop short because we are unable to comprehend its full truth. Nor can we cease to ponder this mystery as we walk this earth and proclaim its good news for man. Nor must we ever deny its significance indirectly by focusing only on what it means to us, for us, that we too will be raised from the dead, that we too will have a share in his Glory and rule with him who alone sits at the Father’s right hand. No, we must focus primarily on what it means for Him, for our brother and our Lord and God to have risen to these heights, and only secondarily on the further truth that he now draws a whole train of faithful men and women behind him into the glory of this mystery.

The first apostles were tempted to stop short and focus only on the earthly implications of his rising in glory: ““Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” Oh how little they understood even after 40 days with the Risen Lord. They were still looking for an earthly Kingdom to come out of this glorious event of the resurrection of the Lord. But soon he would send the Spirit as he promised and they would begin to understand that His kingdom was not of this world, only because it was so much greater than any earthly power; he was going to sit at the very right hand of God, which means the universe was under his dominion and all creation, including the highest angels. When would they understand – when will we?

Jesus simply replies that their concern should be to spread this good news to the ends of the earth till the end of time. And how our hearts should rejoice if only we ourselves realize what this good news really is. Paul prays that Christians may come to understand the true heights Jesus has ascended to, and the heights of the Christian destiny: Speaking of Jesus, Paul says He is “Seated … at His right hand in the heavens, far above every principality, authority, power, and dominion, and every name that is named.”

And as for us, Paul simply prays that we “… may know what is the hope that belongs to his call, what are the riches of glory in his inheritance among the holy ones, and what is the surpassing greatness of his power for us who believe.”

The riches of his glory, which is our inheritance, is beyond our ability to imagine let alone understand – Jesus is drawing us up to heights we cannot even begin to appreciate without faith, and would we choose to limit this hope Paul speaks of to something purely temporal, earthly, human, no matter how elevated on this earth?

When we do begin to realize what this Ascension means for Jesus, and for us, how it changes our whole perspective on the meaning of our life in this
world. When we really believe that Jesus, our brother and our God has truly ascended to the heights beyond which there is nothing higher – the throne of God – then it will astound us that this same Jesus has loved us so much, that he has destined us to ascend with him to heights above the angelic world!

This is indeed the stuff of which the world thinks fairy tales are made. But this is truth and not fairy tale, and you and I really are the lowly who have been loved, are loved, so greatly loved by the very Prince of Light and beauty and Truth, that first he set aside all of His glory for a while and came into our world to die for us, and loved us so much that he has ascended to the Father and draws behind him a whole train of believers who love him in return and want only to be with Him who has loved them unto death. In this sense, belief in the true meaning of the Ascension not only raises our hearts and minds to Heaven where Jesus awaits us, but transforms our existence on earth because we now know how much we are loved by the Son of God.

It is this knowledge of faith that ultimately drives the evangelization mission of the Church in this world – that others may come to know the majestic truth of Christ and his love for them. This is our proclamation to the world today: Jesus Christ is risen and has now ascended to the very throne of God as the God-man; he has gone before us, for us, and he has done so because God so loves us that he wants us to be where He is. That is the ultimate truth about man and his true worth, and this truth comes not from us but from the One who made us so that we might enjoy eternal life in Him. The Church’s mission today and every day is grounded in this truth, to proclaim this truth and to live by it until He returns in glory to take us to Himself, forever.

6th Sunday of Easter 2012

St. Raymond of Peñafort
Homily by Fr. John De Celles
May 13, 2012 (Mother’s Day)

“This is my commandment: love one another as I love you.
No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

In this text Jesus, at the Last Supper, says with words
what He will say with His body in just a few hours,
as He’s nailed to the Cross.
There, His suffering and dying body speaks to us loud and clear, saying:
“I love you, and give myself to you and for you,
completely, totally and without reserve.”

But this not the first time God speaks to us through the human body.
Because right from the beginning He created the human body
to communicate to us the truth about man and about God Himself.

St. John tells us in the 2nd reading today: “God is love.”
Now, this doesn’t mean that God is a warm and fuzzy feeling.
It means that God, in is very nature is all about self-giving.
But in order to give, there needs to be an other person to give to.
And there is: as Christ reveals to us, God is a Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
three persons in one God:
their mutual love and self-gift is so intense, complete and perfect,
that they truly share one life.

But as gift, love doesn’t limit itself: love overflows,
continually seeking to give to others.
And so we see in Scripture that God
created, or gave life to man, just so He could love us,
and give us a share in the one life and love of the Trinity.

In order for us to do that we had to be like Him—we had to be able to love.
And so He created us like Himself, in the image of God, the God who “is love.”
But creating us in His image He also created us with bodies.
And our bodies aren’t just some sort of outer shell we accidentally walk around.
No, our bodies are us!
They are the outward expression of who we are inside,
—they are us communicating ourselves to others.
And since we are created for love
our bodies are also fundamentally created to communicate love.

But, again, to love there has to be an other to love
—and so God created us as two, male and female.
Both in His image, and so both equal in dignity,
but also both radically different so they would truly be other to each other:
so that through their differences they could love each other.
And these differences, which go to their very nature, are expressed in their bodies.

Note, their bodily differences are not merely accidents
but rather they physically express the differences
that are in their inner nature, as male versus female.
And these inner differences are also not random,
but rather they complement, or complete, each other.
So that as these complementary inner differences
are expressed in their bodies, their bodies also complete each other
—they literally “fit” together.
And as their bodies “fit” together in the act of love,
the two persons become as if one flesh, one body,
doing together what they cannot do alone
—cooperating as one with God to give life.
No other bodily act requires the body of another
—only the act that imitates the Creator giving life and love to mankind.
So this act, and these complementary aspects of their bodies,
specifically and radically express
their love for and their self-gift to each other, as male and female.

My friends, the body speaks to us and tells us about our very nature.
We don’t need the Bible to tell us this
—the language of the body is a natural language
that’s been understood for all of history by every society.
Every generation has understood what nature and the body
say about the love and union of males and females in marriage,
and that marriage is about giving love and life to each other
and to children.

But nowadays, a lot of folks deny the natural language of the body.
Amazingly, in a time when so many demand
that we pay greater attention to the natural order of the environment,
many of those same people demand
that we ignore the natural order of the human body.

This last week President Obama joined in this unnatural chorus,
as he denied the true meaning of marriage
by supporting the right to so-called same-sex marriage.
Of course, he’s not alone.
He joins scads of politicians, some of whom even claim to be Catholic,
like former Speaker Nancy Pelosi,
who like him, have the gall to blasphemously claim
that Christ is on their side.

Nonsense, all of it.
These people try to twist the language of the body
just as they try to twist the language of Jesus Himself.
The body communicates its meaning loud and clear
when it comes to sex, marriage, and family.
And so does Jesus Himself, telling us in Matthew Chapter 19:
“he who made them from the beginning made them male and female,
and said, ‘For this reason a man shall …be joined to his wife,
and the two shall become one flesh.’”

Some say this is a matter of justice and discrimination.
But justice is rendering what is due to a person,
and discrimination is only wrong when you deny someone
something they have a right to.
Where in nature is a person due or have a right to same-sex marriage?
The language of the body recognizes no such duty or right,
in fact it recognizes the opposite:
they are not complementary, they do not “fit.”

Some say this position is “not loving,”
after all, Jesus told us to “love one another.”
Yes, but Jesus also said, “love one another as I have loved you.”
How many times did Jesus show his love by telling people the hard truth:
like to the woman at the well:
“the man you have now is not your husband;”
or to the Pharisees:
“from the beginning [he] made them male and female.”
It’s never loving to lie to people, when the truth will set them free.

Some say: “it’s not fair not to let them marry if they love each other.”
But there lots of situations where you can’t marry the person you love.
In fact, our Lord talks about this, again from Matthew 19:
“Some are incapable of marriage because they were born so;
some, because they were made so by others;
some, because they have renounced marriage
for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.
Whoever can accept this ought to accept it.”

Not everyone is capable of marriage, for one reason or another.
Maybe they’re born with some severe emotional disability,
or maybe they’re upbringing makes them incapable of loving.
Or maybe they’re born with or raised so that they suffer from same-sex attraction.
Whatever the case, our heart goes out to them,
but as with all infirmities and limitations in life,
we need either to try to overcome them—not ignore them—
or to accept things as they are,
and figure out what it is that God has planned for us to do going forward.
“Whoever can accept this ought to accept it.”

But the news is not all bad this week.
In fact, today the news is fantastic.
Because, today the whole country stops to listen, if ever so briefly,
to the natural language of the body as we celebrate Mother’s Day.

Motherhood.
Short of Christ dying on the Cross,
what better expression do we find of the saying,
“No one has greater love than this,
to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
Where else does the language of the body speak so boldly and yet tenderly:
“I love you.”

Think of it: for 9 months, a mother sacrifices her whole body for her little baby,
from morning sickness in the first months
to contractions and all sorts of discomfort in the last.
Often risking her very life and health,
as her body sacrifices its own well-being
to nourish the life of her hidden child.
And, of course, what pain is comparable to the pangs of child birth?

And then, holding her tiny baby in her arms,
for months she feeds him at her breast,
her tender voice coaxing him to sleep,
all the while her very body chemistry seems to shift into super human gear
allowing her to forgo any normal human sleep pattern for herself.

Of course, it doesn’t stop there.
My mother practically slaved away for 5 kids for almost 30 years,
keeping us fed, clothed, clean and educated.
Staying up with us when we were sick, even when she was sicker than we were.
Spanking our bottoms when we were extra naughty,
and drying our tears when we were extra sad.
Even going to work—outside the home—to help pay the bills.
And on the worst of days, when the whole world seemed against us,
she made everything all right,
with her beautiful smile, or her warmest of hugs.

The language of the body cries out to us in no uncertain terms:
Moms have a God-given and naturally tremendous capacity
for giving love and life.
Today we celebrate this, and we thank them,
even those who have gone ahead of us to judgment.

Even so, some today wish to ignore motherhood or to redefine it.
Some think they know better than Moms what their children
should eat or drink or learn, or how their children should act or think.
Like the school officials in North Carolina
who wouldn’t let a four-year-old little girl eat the lunch
her mother had packed, a turkey sandwich,
because they decided it wasn’t healthy enough.

And then there are those who encourage pregnant mothers
to ignore their maternal instincts and “terminate” their pregnancies.
Or who encourage women to take a pill
to stop their bodies’ natural and healthy openness to motherhood.
Or the ladies in the checkout line who mock the mothers of large families.
Or the politicians who say that stay-at-home-mom’s
never work a day in their lives.

The body speaks, but some will not listen.

Now, you may say, but father, what about women
who don’t or even can’t have babies?
The thing is, all women are by nature mothers,
in the sense that they have this deep natural capacity
to love and nurture life.
And that capacity is a gift that shouldn’t be wasted.
But because it’s a gift from God,
every woman should consider how God wants them to use this gift.
Some He calls to be celibate religious sisters
—freely renouncing physical motherhood for the sake of the kingdom,
in order to become spiritual mothers.
Some are unable physically to conceive;
perhaps God calls them to be adoptive mothers.
Some can’t seem find the right husband;
perhaps God wants them to exercise their motherhood
by in some way caring for those who are alone
or otherwise in need of love.

Like the text I quoted earlier from Matthew,
they should consider their situation and God’s will for them, and
“Whoever can accept this ought to accept it.”
Not with sadness and despair,
but with joy and hope, confident that God would not give them this gift
without some plan for them to use it in some wonderful way.

“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
As we look at the image of the Crucified Christ,
and we remember in His awful physical suffering and death
we hear His body telling us in the most clear and powerful way possible,
“this is how much I love you.”
The body of the Son of God speaks and we joyfully listen.
But the human body He created for all of us
speaks to us every day, and through it He
reminds us who we are,
what is natural and unnatural to us,
what is good and evil.
Let us listen to our nature, let us listen to Christ.
And let us hear Him say:
“I have told you this so that my joy may be in you
and your joy might be complete.”

5th Sunday of Easter 2012

St. Raymond of Peñafort
Homily by Fr. John De Celles
May 6, 2012

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times:
St. John’s writings are some of the most spiritually rich and profound in Scripture.
Unfortunately, St. John is also sometimes a bit confusing,
as he is in today’s 2nd reading and Gospel:
Still, even in confusion, St. John always has an important point to make
—as he does today.

To oversimplify things, let me suggest that there are basically 2 kinds of Christians:
lets’ call the first kind the “Me-first Christian,”
In today’s 2nd reading St. John says:
“God is greater than our hearts and knows everything.
Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us,
we have confidence in God
and receive from him whatever we ask.”
The Me-first Christian hears these words
and sees God as sort of an indulgent grandfather:
ask anything and He gives it,
do anything and he just smiles in approval.
He thinks, “as long as it feels good in my heart, I should do it,
or if it feels bad I should avoid it.”
He thinks, “only God can know everything,
so he understands, and doesn’t care even if I mess up.”

But there’s a problem with this attitude.
St. John’s focus in all of his writing is never on you or me: it’s always on Christ.
So St. John doesn’t write: “do whatever makes you happy”;
he writes: “do what pleases him”–Jesus.
He doesn’t say “do what ever you feel in your heart”;
he writes: “keep his commandments.”
St. John understands that it’s not all about how we feel, or even what we think.
All of that is useless, if it doesn’t begin and end with Jesus.
And so he reminds us that Jesus said:
“I am the vine, you are the branches”
“without me you can do nothing.”
“Remain in me, as I remain in you.”

Think about it.
Personal feelings are important:
sometimes our sensitivity to Christ helps us to discern his will.
And personal intelligence and reason are also essential to the Christian life:
no one should ever act in an unreasonable way.
But feelings and intelligence are meaningless if they aren’t at all times
based on, and moving toward one thing: the truth!

But what is “truth”?
Some people say there is no one truth, no objective truth:
there’s only subjective truth:
your truth, his truth, my truth—and none of them are the same.
If that’s the case we have a huge problem.
What if someone’s truth is that
God wants them to blow up the Twin Towers in New York
and the Pentagon in Arlington?
My friends, the road of subjective truth is the road of fools,
and leads to anarchy and ruin.

Other people say that there may be objective truth,
but there’s no way we could ever know it, so why even try?
But this is nonsense: they assume that this statement is true:
“no one can know truth.”
But how do they know that statement is true, if “no one can know truth.”

The fact is each of us needs real truth to hang on to.
What would a scientist do if he couldn’t rely on the truth of his rules and principles?
What would you or I do if we couldn’t rely on the truth of a promise, or of a love?
Life would be hopeless, and that road would lead to despair and annihilation.

Everyone searches for truth all their lives,
from the time a baby looks into his mother’s eyes,
until the time he draws his last breath in old age.
From the truth of where the floor is beneath my feet, to the truth of a mother’s love.
Either there is objective truth in the world, or life is nonsense.

And then Jesus comes along and says:
“I am the way, the truth and the life.”
And he tells us that he, the truth, never changes:
he: “is the same yesterday and today and for ever.”

This leads me to the 2nd kind of Christian: the “Jesus-first Christian”.
While the Me-first Christian begins with himself at the center of things,
with his own subjective truth, to which God good-naturedly conforms,
the Jesus-first Christian begins with Jesus a the center of things
as the one and unchanging truth,
and the Christian conforms himself to Christ.

The Jesus-first Christian believes and lives as if
Jesus really is the vine, and we are merely branches.
And He believes that the truth that he longs for flows from Christ into his branches.
So he tries to “remain in” Christ, and hears the words of St. John:
“Those who keep his commandments remain in him.”

But what “commandments” is St. John talking about?
A rich young man once asked that very same question of Jesus himself.
And Jesus admonished him, saying:
“You know the commandments…”
‘You shall not kill, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal,
You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.’”

The Jesus-first Christian doesn’t see love as simply a feeling,
but a choice to accept the truth.
And in each of the 10 commandments he hears
the truth about who God is,
and how we can truly love him
and our neighbor.

Unlike the Me-first Christian,
the Jesus-first Christian doesn’t consider his feelings to be above the truth.
In fact, a lot of the time his feelings run completely contrary to the truth.
Sometimes he even suffers for doing what’s true, for remaining in Christ,
–like St. Paul in today’s 1st reading who we’re told:
“spoke out boldly in the name of the Lord.…with the Hellenists,
but they tried to kill him.”

So the Jesus-first Christian,
when he’s in grade school, kids make fun of him for being obedient to his parents.
When she’s in high school
she’s embarrassed because her friends mock her for “saving herself” for marriage.
When he’s at work he watches as less competent co-workers get promoted over him
because he refuses to cheat or lie or steal,

All this causes the Jesus-first Christian’s heart to ache:
“am I doing the right thing?”
“if this is the truth, why does God let me suffer?
But then he hears the words from St. John today:
“Now this is how we shall know that we belong to the truth
and reassure our hearts before him
in whatever our hearts condemn,
for God is greater than our hearts and knows everything.”

The Me-first Christian hears these words as an excuse to do as he pleases.
But the Jesus-first Christian hears them as “reassurance of his heart”
that he “belongs to the truth”;
that even when our hearts ache or doubt,
God knows everything,
from the truth of right and wrong,
to the glory that his plan with bring from our suffering.

Finally, the Jesus-first Christian begins and ends everything in the truth of Christ.
So his heart isn’t focused on what he wants,
but rather on the truth about what God wants.
So much so that when he hears the words:
“God is greater than our hearts and knows everything.
…have confidence in God
and receive from him whatever we ask.”
he realizes that his heart often wants things contrary to his own good,
but that God, who “knows everything,”
always knows and wants only what’s truly best for him.
And so the Jesus-first Christian prays: “thy will be done”, not “my will be done.”
So that “whatever he asks” for is only what God wants to give in the first place.

St. John’s words are often confusing
Still, whether they’re simple or complex, they are always profoundly true.
Today their complexity and profundity give us an opportunity
to consider what kind of Christian we are.
Which kind are you?
Which kind am I?
Are we Me-first Christians, or Jesus-first Christians?
Unfortunately, the truth is probably that most of us are a little of both,
because we’re all sinners.

But it doesn’t have to be that way: the truth is,
God is the master vine grower—even when a branch has fallen from the vine,
he can lift it up and graft it back on.

Still the truth is also, that if it’s not on the vine, it’s dying.
And in the end, if it’s been pruned away from the vine
“people will gather them and throw them into a fire
and they will be burned.”

Brothers and sisters, it’s so easy to talk about loving Jesus,
and still put ourselves 1st before him in everything.
Today, Jesus Christ, through the writings of St. John,
calls us to be truthful, and remain in Him
in everything we do.
We can choose to wither and fall to the ground to be burned,
or we can choose cling to Christ and bear fruit in his joy and glory.

“Children, let us love not in word or speech
but in deed and truth.”

5th Sunday of Easter 2012

I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing.
– Jn. 15:5

In the second half of the 19th Century, European grape vines were struck by a blight that eventually was discovered to be caused by an insect that destroyed the rootstocks of their vines; French Vineyards especially suffered from this blight which threatened to destroy their wine industry. Pesticides proved to be useless in stemming the blight, but then they found an interesting solution in America where the vine roots had developed immunity to that insect. And so they imported tons of American roots and then grafted French vines on to these roots and saved the vineyards, which bring us to today’s Gospel in a rather interesting way.

How truly rich in meaning is this image chosen by Jesus to help us understand who he is and how we are totally dependent upon Him for life eternal and fruitfulness of that life. We have heard this Gospel many times, and we immediately grasp its central truth, that life comes to us only through Christ who is the vine onto whom we have been grafted by the instrumentality of Baptism. He is the vine and we are his branches.

For weeks now we have been rejoicing in the truth of the resurrection of Jesus, that he has risen from the dead, that He is now alive in the fullest sense, alive in body and soul with the life that is eternal, because it is God’s life. And we have also been meditating on what all this means for us and for the whole world that in a sense is the beneficiary of his death and resurrection. He has died and risen for us; he has died so our sins can be forgiven and we justified; he has risen with new life from the grave to give each of his justified brothers and sisters a share in his eternal life, to give each of us a new life here and now in our very human imperfection, and one day the fullness of that life when he raises us from the dead and seats us with Himself and the whole Church in the glory of His Kingdom.

But how does he do all this for us, already here in this world? The vine and the branches parable teaches us the basic truths about how this takes place in us, and we should meditate on this parable often. There are so many facets to this parable that enlighten our minds and fill our hearts with joy when properly appreciated. He, the Teacher, knew this would delight the faithful.

First of all Jesus is the vine planted by the Father in this world. We are the branches that have been grafted onto Him by workers in the vineyard of the Father, the Apostles of Jesus and their successors. In the great vineyards, the skilled vine tenders are often descendents of generations of skilled workers, and that holds true in the Father’s vineyard as well, their powers, skills and tools (the sacraments) are handed down. They graft each branch onto the one great vine who is Christ, and assure that it gets the care that helps it to take root in the vine and grow and flourish.

But Jesus himself in a sense was grafted onto the root stock of Israel, and he became the plant that produced life and fruit as never before. We know from Science today that when a vine is grafted into a root stock, it is the genetic richness of the vine, called the scion, not the root stock that produces the rich wine in the future production. I am sure this biological discovery pleased the French who were not happy that their great wine depended upon American roots! You know the French.

What that genetic discovery confirms in the parable is that the great fruit produced from the grafting of Jesus onto the root of Israel is from the vine which is Jesus. He is the great vine that has been introduced by the Father into His Vineyard, the source of a wine that Israel could never produce, the richest of wines because it brings eternal life and joy to the heart of men.

But the next grafting involves us, the branched grafted on to the vine of Jesus who was planted in the root of Israel. The Father produced the first grafting, while the Apostles are privileged to graft us onto Christ. But we do not produce the genetic richness of the vine as the vine did to the root plant. All the richness of life and fruitfulness comes to us through the vine. And yet, and this is very important, we do actually produce the fruit whose richness of all produced from the vine and its life flowing through us. Jesus could have said I am the vine and you are the fruit, and that is of course perfectly true, we are the first fruits. But he did not say you are the fruit, the grapes, but the branches that produce the grapes.

This is important for two reasons. First, it make it clear that while Jesus us is the source of all fruitfulness – without me you can do nothing – nonetheless, the fruit is also the produce of the branches; it is our fruit as well as His; his firstly, but ours secondly. We are responsible for the fruit also.

And the second important truth is that not all branches produce the same quantity or quality of grapes. That’s true in the wine vineyards as well. But here again the abundance really depends not on ourselves alone, but on the Father, the Master vine grower Himself who knows just what each branch needs to flourish. Jesus tells us this at the beginning of this Gospel passage: my Father is the vine grower. He takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit, and every one that does he prunes so that it bears more fruit. God trims us, and it is inevitably painful to the branch. Here again science is enlightening; for just the right stress has to be produced in vines to bring out the best wine in greatest abundance. Too much stress, the branch withers; just enough and the branch explodes in fruitfulness. The truth is that nothing truly great is produced in this fallen world without passing the stress test.

How loving is the vine Master and the vine. How this rich parable enlightens the source of eternal life and the role of the Cross in our lives. The next time you are suffering anything, meditate on this parable, and trust that great stress, when allowed by God, can be a source of life and rich fruit. If we just allow the Vine Master to do his work, this stress will pass and produce much fruit for us and for the world around us. He knows what we are made of, each of us individually he knows, and He will never allows any of us to be stressed beyond the power of his grace to heal us and to produce an abundant fruit, thirty, sixty and a hundred fold. Jesus promised this, and his promises never fail.

4th Sunday of Easter 2012

St. Raymond of Peñafort
Homily by Fr. John De Celles
April 29, 2012

One of the most cherished images that Scripture gives of Jesus
is the image of the Good Shepherd.
The Shepherd who not only goes out seeking and bringing home the lost sheep,
but who, as Jesus says in today’s Gospel,
“lays down his life for his sheep.”

Of course, when Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd”
he’s reminding us that he’s fulfilling God’s promise
in the Old Testament book of the prophet Ezekiel, that
“I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep.”
God the Son himself has come as the perfectly Good Shepherd
to care for his people.

But of course, in the Old Testament God also promises,
through the prophet Jeremiah:
“And I will give you shepherds [plural] after my own heart.”
So before Christ ascended bodily into heaven
he left his sheep with shepherds to continue his work,
men close to his heart,
men he had trained and gave special grace—His apostles.
In particular he gave the role of chief shepherd to St. Peter,
as after the Resurrection he gave him the trifold command:
“feed my lambs” “tend my sheep” “feed my sheep.”

And so we find Peter in today’s first reading taking up that command.
And remembering the words of the prophet Jeremiah:
” I will give you shepherds after my own heart,
who will feed you with knowledge and understanding.”
Peter begins to feed Christ’s sheep
with the knowledge and understanding
of Christ’s salvific death and resurrection.

Of course, this is just the beginning of Peter’s 30 years
of shepherding Christ’s sheep.
But before he and the other apostles died, they also left new shepherds behind.
And so the promise of the one Divine Good Shepherd lives on in the Church
in every generation since then
in the office of pope, bishop and priest.

Unfortunately, as Jesus warns us in today’s Gospel,
some of those shepherds have acted like
“A hired man, who is not a shepherd…
because he works for pay and has no concern for the sheep.”
History is full of examples of this.
We look back, to the very beginning, to Judas,
who cared more for 30 pieces of silver than for the flock.
Or to the 15th century, to men like Pope Alexander VI,
a notoriously immoral man who made his two illegitimate sons Cardinals.

Sadly, though, we don’t have to look back centuries to find bad shepherds
—in the last decade we have been all too aware
that some priests today have behaved
like wolves in shepherds clothing, preying on the lambs,
and some bishops who have been more willing to
lay down the lives of their sheep,
than to lay down their lives for their sheep.

But there’s also another kind of false shepherd we see today
who’s devastation we don’t read about in the press.
Because the primary role of the shepherds of the Church is spiritual:
the shepherd feeds his flock “with knowledge and understanding”
of the truth of Jesus Christ.
And he tends them by protecting them from lies and false teaching.
This is what Christ did, and what Peter did,
and what so many good and holy popes, bishops and priests,
including our present Holy Father, Pope Benedict,
have done for all these 20 centuries.

And yet there have always been pastors in the Church who have failed to do this.
From the infamous heretical bishops and priests of the early Church
like Nestorius and Arius,
to the false-“reforming” bishops and priests like
Thomas Cranmer and Martin Luther in the 16th century.

And today, sadly, it continues.
You know this as well as I do.
You read the papers and you travel across the country
and you can’t help but hear priests preach or write
defending such things sins
as pre-marital sex, contraception and so-called gay marriage,
or denying dogmas like the Resurrection,
the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
or even the divinity of Christ.
Sad but true.

But there’s also another, even more subtle way that shepherds fail the flock.
When we talk about the “teaching of the Church,”
what we’re normally talking about is dogma or doctrine
—things that are definitively taught by the Church
as certainly and always true.
—doctrine that, as Catholics, we cannot deny.
These are not imposed on us,
but are gifts given to us, by Christ, the Good Shepherd.

On the other hand,
not every situation in life is directly addressed by the magisterium
—or the teaching authority of the Church.
Everyday you and I make decisions
on what the right thing to do is in a particular situation.
For instance, there is no dogma that tells me:
“This is how thou shall always respond
when someone gets angry at you about a homily.”
Instead, I apply the doctrine that is clear
—things we know to be true about charity and humility,
as well as justice and fraternal correction.
And we don’t reinvent or ignore or manipulate that truth,
but once we learn it we have to apply it
as best and as honestly as we can to the particular facts at hand.

This is part of what we call “the conscience.”
And in applying our consciences we make what we call “prudential judgments”
—given the truth of Christ, taught by His Church,
we then judge what would be prudent,
or best in this situation.

Now, here’s where the problem with some shepherds come in.
Sometimes shepherds teach things that are their own prudential judgments,
the conclusion of their own consciences,
as if they were, in fact,
the doctrine of the Church.

For example: the Church clearly teaches
that direct abortion is always gravely sinful.
But on the other hand, the Church also teaches that
defending ourselves from an unjust aggressor, even killing him,
is not a sin at all.
And this right to self defense also extends to war,
and, partially, to capital punishment.
So the Church teaches that while abortion is always wrong,
some wars and even some executions
are just and necessary–depending on the facts in the case.

So, as Cardinal Ratzinger wrote
less than a year before he became Pope Benedict:
“…There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion
even among Catholics
about waging war and applying the death penalty,
but not however with regard to abortion….”

The fact is that most decisions in life—large and small—
are the matter of individual consciences
—not consciences independent of the truth or doctrine,
but conscience formed and bound by the unchanging truth
taught by Christ’s Church.

Now, sometimes bishops and priests feel obliged
to offer their judgments to their flock
—and sometimes they should.
For example, how many times have I recommended you give generously
to this particular second collection or that
—many of you appreciate my opinion, but many of you ignore it.
Fine—both ways.
Sometimes even in homilies I’ll give you an opinion,
as a Father shares his personal insight with his children.
But whenever I do that, I have to be very careful to make clear,
and you have to be very careful to discern,
the difference between my opinion and advice,
and the Church’s truth and doctrine.
[On my part, I try to use words like “I think, or “it seems to me”
when I’m giving my personal judgment.]

Unfortunately, sometimes the shepherds of the Church—myself included—
either out of zeal to be helpful,
or out of self-centered self-importance,
are tempted go beyond teaching doctrine
and beyond giving simple advice
and try to override consciences,
by presenting their personal judgments as if they are doctrine.

We’ve seen this on issues like the death penalty and war,
when bishops and priests act as if you are bound
by their personal judgments.
And in the last few months we’ve seen it on several other important issues.
For example, consider the political debate over the budget,
especially providing safety nets for the poor,
and reform of entitlement programs:
some bishops and priests give the impression
that in order to be a good Catholic
you have to take a particular side in these complicated debates,
and that Catholic doctrine is absolutely on that one side.

But it is not.
Of course, the “social teaching” of the Church
does tell us that society should provide for the poor and needy,
and that governments have a role to play in that.
But it also teaches the principle called “subsidiarity”
—a principle, a doctrine,
that the popes of the 20th century repeatedly called
“unshaken and unchangeable.”
Under that principle,
Bd. Pope John XXIII taught, in his famous encyclical Mater et Magister,
and quoting Pope Pius XI:
“it is …a grave evil …
for a larger and higher association to arrogate to itself
functions which can be performed efficiently
by smaller and lower societies.”1
1 “Just as it is wrong to withdraw from the individual and commit to a community what private enterprise and industry can accomplish, so too it is …a grave evil for a larger and higher association to arrogate to itself functions which can be performed efficiently by smaller and lower societies.”

[In other words,
if the family can handle a certain responsibility,
the government should stay out;
if the local government can handle a certain responsibility,
the federal government should stay out.]
And as Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his 2005 encyclical “Deus Caritas Est”: “The State which would provide everything,
absorbing everything into itself,
would ultimately become a mere bureaucracy…

Things like food and health care are fundamental rights,
but no one can say that the Church teaches
that this specific way of providing food or health care to the needy
is better than that way,
or that the federal government has to take the lead
instead of the state government,
or this much regulation is necessary
or that much free enterprise is too much.

All the moral principles and doctrines have got to be weighed and applied
to the facts as we individually understand them,
and then we Catholic Americans can and must
make our own free prudential judgment:
what does the Good Shepherd demand in this situation?

Let me be clear, my point is not specifically about
war or the death penalty, or the budget,
or health care or entitlement reform.
And, by the way, if you listened carefully
you’ll notice I haven’t given you my opinion on any of these issues.
What this is about is confusing Church doctrine with personal judgment,
and vice versa.
Because if we aren’t careful it will lead, as it always does, to all sorts of problems.

For example: it will inevitably lead to some people
—even some good and well-meaning Catholics—
treating all doctrine as mere opinion,
or treating some mere opinions as if they were doctrinally certain.
In the end this will both
undermine the Church’s credibility
–when bishops and priests express
conflicting opinions as if they were doctrine,
who’s right?
and it will reinforce the credibility of those
who dissent from church doctrine
–the bishops disagree, so why can’t I.

Not only that, but sometimes the bishops judgments
are wrong—even nonsensical.
How does that add to the credibility of doctrine,
if people are confused between doctrine and opinion?

And last, but not least,
how many times have good Catholics
come to me burdened with heavy feelings of guilt
just because they disagree with the mere opinion of some priest?
How many times have sheep wondered away from the flock
in confusion and distress
because some false shepherd tried to impose his opinion
as if it were dogma.

There is no clearer image of the love of Jesus for each of us
than the image of Christ the Good Shepherd.
And there is no greater sign of the Good Shepherd’s love for His Church today,
and in every generation,
than the good and faithful shepherds
Christ continues to send to tend and feed his sheep.
Today, let us thank the Good Shepherd for giving us good Pope Benedict
and all the bishops and priests who faithfully help him
in his pastoral ministry.
And let us pray for them, and for all the pastors of the Church,
that they may keep their eyes and hearts fixed on Christ,
and lay down their own lives
–lay aside their sins,
their dissenting theologies
and their personal opinions—
and be lifted up in the grace of the Risen Christ,
to feed and tend His sheep with the love and truth
of the one Good Shepherd.

4th Sunday of Easter 2012

The image of the Good Shepherd is certainly one of the most beautiful and attractive descriptions of Jesus Christ. Christ Himself chose this self-portrait as an expression of his providential care and His concern for His Church, which is clearly to be identified as the flock of the Good Shepherd. This image of the Shepherd, then, which we hear much about in today’s Gospel directs our attention both to the Good Shepherd himself, Jesus, and to his flock, which is the Church saved by the Good Shepherd’s sacrifice of His own life.

But if the Church consists of the flock whom Jesus has redeemed by his sacrifice, we might well ask whether this Church, this flock of Jesus, must consist of all mankind, for our faith definitely teaches that Jesus died for the whole of mankind. Well, the answer to that question is a qualified yes, that the Church does in one sense embrace the whole of the human family, and yet in another equally true sense, at any given time the Church comprises only a relatively small flock in the midst of mankind. Both of these understandings of the Church are true, if properly understood, and both senses were clearly taught in the Second Vatican Council.

We see this two-fold teaching carefully presented in the great constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, or, the Light of the Nations, a title which belongs directly to Christ, and by derivation to His Mystical Body, the Church. In Lumen Gentium, then, we find both of these descriptions of Church, as being in one way The first meaning of the Church, the universal one, can be seen in section 13 of Lumen Gentium where it says, “All men are called to belong to the new People of God.” So Jesus clearly died for everyone. He laid down his life so that everyone might attain salvation by becoming part of His flock, which is the Church. In this sense, we are speaking about the Church as conceived in the heart of Christ, His intention to make the Church universal, the universal fruit of his loving self-sacrifice on the Cross which embraced all of humanity.

Then we also see the second, more limited definition of the “the Church” in section 9 of Lumen Gentium: “Hence the messianic people, although it does not actually include all men, and at times may appear as a small flock, is, however, a most sure seed of unity, hope and salvation for the whole human race.” Here the Church is seen not simply in its universal desire to include the whole human race, but the Church is now described as it actually exists here and now, as the flock which is actually gathered together from all nations and already shares the Communion in the Spirit of Jesus through their common faith, hope and charity.

However, the Church understood in this more limited sense, as the small flock already gathered in direct communion with Christ the Good Shepherd, as his flock here and now, is itself always and necessarily ordered toward sharing the messianic mission of Christ which is directed outwards to the whole human family. Thus, the Church in this world is never a closed society, but, as the first fruits of the saving in the world to come will the Church be a closed society, embracing only those who, in some way or other, often known only to God, have sought for Christ, even if they have not yet found him. So while the visible flock may be small, there are many who belong mysteriously, in an invisible manner, to Christ even though they are not yet members of his flock.

So Jesus includes both of these understandings of his Church in today’s Gospel. He speaks about his flock as already existing. They know him as He knows them. That means they love Him as He loves them and are his obedient servants, just as He is the obedient servant of the Father. They are his flock, in the full sense of the term: they belong to him, because He has died for them, and they in turn have died to themselves for Him in Baptism and this life. Thus they have become his possession.

Jesus has special care for these sheep, for Jesus is no hireling. The hireling is one who has no ownership of the flock, as Jesus explains; they are not his, and so the hireling does not care about them, and flees in time of danger. Jesus, on the contrary, knows each of his sheep personally, He calls each by name, and thus they recognize his voice. They recognize in Jesus and his teaching, the truth they are committed in their hearts to live in this world. When they hear his voice, they hear the truth, and they follow him wherever he may lead them.

But then Jesus also speaks about the Church in the universal sense, the Him? Surely the answer has to be that they, like the sheep already in the flock, are also in search of truth, a task to which they have committed their lives. Jesus says, “I have other sheep who do not belong to this fold. I must lead them too, and they shall hear my voice. There shall be one flock, then, one shepherd.” Even though these strangers do not yet know Him as the Truth, as we do, nonetheless they are searching sincerely for truth. These sheep have not yet heard the voice of Jesus, and thus do not yet know Him; but Jesus knows them, and He already knows them as his sheep simply because He knows them in their search for truth and their deep commitment to live according to the truth, even though they have not yet heard the voice of Him who is Truth itself. They are his sheep, though not yet part of his flock, and one day, perhaps in this world, perhaps in the next, they will belong to his fold, for there is only one fold, and one Shepherd.

The world we live in does not easily accept the fact that there is only one Savior and one Truth, Jesus Christ, and that there is only one fold, one Church which is the new people of God, the sign and instrument of salvation, and the gathering place of all the elect. But St. Peter proclaims this truth in today’s first reading: “There is no salvation in anyone else, for there is no other name in the whole world given to men be which we are to be saved.” (Acts 4:12) Jesus likewise teaches the this same truth in the Gospel when he says there will be one Shepherd and one flock.

Vatican Council proclaimed the necessity of this Church in #14 of Lumen Gentium: where it says that “the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation: the one Christ is mediator and the way of salvation; He is present to us in his body which is the Church.” And in # 8, the Council identified Christ’s Church: ” This Church, constituted and organized as a society in the present world, subsists in the Catholic Church which is governed by the Successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him.”

Thus, the Church simply cannot consist of many bodies, because the Church is one body with Christ, his mystical body and His Bride, his other half, and since salvation comes through Christ alone, it also comes through his one body, alone. There is one flock because there is one Shepherd, and that one flock is really His, is “possessed” by by the Good Shepherd, as we possess our own body. Nonetheless, it’s also true that Christ has many sheep who do not yet belong to this one fold visibly, with visible ties, but they are related to Him and to His Body in many different ways, and one day in this world, or in Eternity they will fully belong to his fold.

As His Bride and Body, her mission always remains that of Christ Himself, to find his scattered sheep, sheep who exist in all times and places, and to proclaim His Gospel to them, so they can hear his voice, and become members of his fold. This mission not only brings men to Christ as Savior and Truth, but the same mission brings a hope of peace and unity to a very divided world. The sheep who do not find Christ yet in this world may belong to the final Kingdom, but every one of these sheep who find Christ and become members of his flock in this world also makes the world a little more unified, a little less violent and divided, and every little bit counts when it comes to peace on earth. Imagine what might happen in our world if the Church was successful in bringing a lot more sheep into the one flock, united in love and peace and loving the rest of the world as Christ does.

May the Good Shepherd be with his flock today and every day as she reaches out in a world that is powerfully resisting His truth. He has laid down his life for His sheep; we in turn must enable his sheep to hear his voice, and come to the Good Shepherd. The success of her mission is not just a matter of bringing the Gospel to souls for their personal salvation. Some may enter the kingdom only in Eternity, but those who enter in this world not only find personal salvation, but they also bring a great blessing on this world, a greater hope of peace and the unity of love that only Christ can make possible.

3rd Sunday of Easter 2012

St. Raymond of Peñafort
Homily by Fr. John De Celles
April 22, 2012

For the second week in a row we read today the account
of Jesus’ appearing to his apostles in the upper room on Easter Sunday
–last week we read St. John’s account,
and this week we read St. Luke’s.
As you would expect, the two accounts tell pretty much the same story,
each adding their own details and perspective.
But one thing that stands out in both accounts is their identical account
of the first words the Risen Christ said to his apostles:
“Peace be with you.”
Jesus told them just 3 days before, at the Last Supper:
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you;
not as the world gives do I give to you.
Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.”

Sounds a lot like what he says to those same apostles in today’s Gospel:
“Peace be with you…Why are you troubled?
And why do questions arise in your hearts?”

The “peace of Christ” is not like the peace the world thinks of
—it’s not just about nonviolence or a quiet atmosphere.
The peace of Christ is an internal peace—peace of the heart.
So that even when there’s all sorts of violence and disturbance around you
–like the apostles locked in the upper room,
afraid the Sanhedrin or the Romans would come
and arrest them and crucify them—
even then, you can have true and inner peace,
like the apostles go from being terrified to, as it says,
being “incredulous for joy.”

Moreover, this peace comes directly from Christ,
and we receive it only by being with Christ.
We see this in today’s Gospel as Jesus seeks to reassure his apostles
that he is really there with them, really alive:
by showing them his wounded hands, and eating with them.
And so that with him, there is no reason to fear or to have a troubled heart,
but only to be at peace.

Even so, at the very end of the last supper, he prays to his father:
“that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you,
may they also be in us…
So we see that the fullness of the peace of Christ
comes not from merely being with him, but from being ONE with him,
being united to him.
So he continues praying at the last supper:
“…that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me…”

This oneness, or unity, or communion, is exactly what we find
in the sacrament Jesus instituted at the last supper,
and that we come here to celebrate today:
the Eucharist;
a sacrament that we call “Holy Communion”
at that point when Christ literally enters in to us
as we receive his Body: “I in them”…. and us in him.
So in a very important sense, the Eucharist,
or rather the Communion with Christ
that the Eucharist brings about and strengthens,
is the source of true peace.

And the Church reminds us of this at every Mass.
Right before we receive Communion, the priest prays to Christ,
recalling his words from the last supper,
“Lord Jesus Christ, who said to your Apostles,
Peace I leave you, my peace I give you…
And then speaking of the Church he says:
“graciously grant her peace and unity ….”
And then he turns to the people and says:
“Peace be with you.”
And then he usually invites you to give each other a “sign of peace.”

Unfortunately, what’s happened over the years is
we’ve lost sight of what’s really happening here:
we forget “not as the world gives [peace] do I give [peace].”
So many times the sign of peace becomes entirely about worldly peace.
But It’s not about us, and good feelings of friendship,
and certainly not about saying “hello”
or “good to see you” to your neighbor,
It’s supposed to be about the Risen Christ present on the altar in the Eucharist
saying “MY Peace be with you, because I’m here”
and about the spiritual fruit of the truest peace
that comes not just from being in his presence
but being truly united with him in Holy Communion.

Now, it is true, that by receiving and being in Communion in Christ,
we come into or deepen our communion with each other:
as Jesus prays at the last supper: ““that they may all be one.”
But to understand the unity he’s talking about,
and the “they” he’s praying for,
we have to go back to the context.
He begins by first praying for the unity of his 12 apostles:
And then, continuing to pray for the 12 apostles, he asks his Father:
“…Sanctify them in the truth…
As you have sent me into the world,
so I have sent them into the world.
And then he prays:
“I ask not only on behalf of these [the 12 apostles],
but also on behalf of those who will believe in me
through their word, that they may all be one.”

So you see, he’s praying for the unity,
first of the apostles,
and then of all those who come to believe in the truth they teach.
So unity with Christ and the fullness of true peace it brings,
also requires unity, or communion, with the apostles
and believing what they teach.

And not just with his first 12, but also with their successors in authority,
as they pass along the authentic true apostolic teaching.
As the Acts of the Apostles tells when the apostle Judas died,
St. Peter proclaimed, “’Let another take his office’…
and, Acts continues:
“and the lot fell on Matthias;
and he was enrolled with the eleven apostles.”
—the first of many successors of the apostles
—2000 years of Popes and bishops.

So ask yourself, when you turn to your neighbor and shake his hand
and say “peace be with you”
are you meaning to pray that he receive the everlasting peace
that flows from
the Sacramental Communion with Christ in the Eucharist
and faith in everything the apostles and their successors
teach to be certainly true?
Or do you just mean, “hey, great to see you”?

And when you come up to receive Holy Communion
do you first examine your conscience
to see if you really are in communion with the apostolic teaching
of the Pope and bishops?
And if you’re not, do realize there can be no true peace for you
in the lie you commit by receiving Holy Communion
when you are not in communion?

Unfortunately, today there are many challenges to our communion
with Christ and his apostles.
And I don’t mean those brought by our separated Protestant brethren,
but rather the challenges that arise from within the visible boundaries
of the Catholic Church herself.
I could go on all day listing and discussing these challenges,
but let’s just focus on three that have been in the forefront in recent days.

Chief among the challenges is outright public dissent from papal teachings
—doctrines defined by the popes as absolutely certain.
The recent controversy over the president’s attack
on the Religious Liberty of the Church
has brought the issue of contraception to the forefront,
and the fact that most Catholics reject
the Church’s ancient and infallibly taught teaching on contraception.
The same could be said about the Church’s teaching on
sex, marriage and homosexuality.
And something like 70% of Catholics deny the church’s teaching
on the Eucharist as being truly the real Body and Blood of Jesus.
Some Catholics even deny the bodily Resurrection.

This last week, the Vatican, at the direction of Pope Benedict,
called attention to one group that has been a bastion of such dissent
for decades now,
as he called for a reform of the group called
the “Leadership Conference of Women Religious,”
an umbrella group composed of the leaders of most of
the orders of religious sisters and nuns in the United States.
The press has made it sound like there was a witch hunt
by a bunch of women-hating priests in Rome.
The reality is that this group of leaders has been a source
of widespread dissent against Church doctrine for decades.
Now, we need to be careful here,
because there are many good and faithful sisters
in the orders that these sisters lead
—but where leaders lead, many are sure to follow.
And when you consider that many of these leader-sisters
are in charge of the Catholic education of our children,
you can see the huge damage they have done.
And you wonder why so many Catholics don’t believe
in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist?
Or reject the infallible teaching on the grave immorality of
contraception, or pre-marital sex or homosexual acts?

A second challenge to Church unity is not so much in dissent,
but simple confusion regarding
the teaching of the apostles and their successors.
What I mean by this is that often times well-meaning priests and even bishops
will take a real teaching, an official doctrine of the Church,
and apply it to certain situations
and act as if their private opinion
is the same and as binding as actual doctrine.
An example of this came up this last week,
when a small committee of American bishops
came out with a statement critical of the budget
proposed by the House of Representatives,
saying it “fails to meet” the “moral criteria.” of the Bishops.
The problem is, that the moral criteria the bishops are referring to
is not actual binding doctrine,
but rather just their prudential judgment, really their opinion,
of what the moral doctrine would require.
It’s as if they say, Christ and His Church teach, as clear doctrine,
that we must feed the hungry—that’s true.
But the question comes up:
who are the hungry, and how do you define hunger?
and who must feed them
—the national government, the state government, the church,
charitable groups?
And do we feed them by buying them food,
or by making it possible for them to earn the money
to buy their own food?
And on and on.
The Church has no defined doctrine to answer these specific questions
—we must make prudential judgments, informed by doctrine,
but in the end we can disagree on how to proceed specifically.

But when well-intentioned and orthodox laity, priests and bishops
seem to present their prudential judgments, their opinions,
as if they are apostolic doctrine,
they muddy the waters when it comes to actual doctrine.
People begin to think,
well if I can disagree with the bishops on how to feed the poor,
I can disagree with them on using contraception or limiting religious liberty.
So much for unity.

Finally, a third challenge to Church unity today
is the scandal created by the sins of Catholics
—especially priests and bishops.
I could point to many examples of sins by both laity and priests.
But today my mind turns particularly to the sins of priests who have committed
despicable crimes of abuse of minors.
Of course, most horrible is the damage this abuse does to these children
—how do you fix that?
I wholeheartedly embrace the teaching of Christ that
“it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung round his neck
and he were thrown into the sea.”

And on top of that, we have the terrible secondary effect of these sins
as they undermining confidence in all priests,
and the moral authority of the Church in general.

On the other hand,
almost as bad is the crime of false accusation of innocent priests:
where do they go to get their reputations back,
and how do you fix the damage done to
confidence in priests and the Church itself?

We have been all too vividly reminded of this this last week
as the pastor of Holy Spirit parish was placed on administrative leave
because of an allegation of sexual misconduct with a minor.
We need to be careful to mind the Lord’s teaching not to pass rash judgment,
and so pray for both the priest and the alleged victim,
and that God’s justice will be done.
But whether or not the allegation is true or false,
can anyone deny that damage has already been done to the Church,
specifically to its peace and unity?
But friends, we cannot permit other people’s sins
to effect the peace and communion the Lord Jesus wants to give us,
any more than the 11 apostles allowed the sins of Judas
to keep them from rejoicing in the presence and peace
of the Risen Christ on Easter evening.

In the end, true peace comes only from unity with Christ.
But there can be no unity with Christ
without unity with the true teaching of the apostles and their successors.
As we enter more deeply into the mystery of the Eucharist at this Mass,
as we pray for the peace and unity that only
the sacrament of Communion with Christ and His Church can bring,
let us pray for those who threatened that unity,
whether through ignorance, or willful dissent,
or by confusing doctrine and prudential judgment,
or by scandalous behavior.
And as we approach the Lord in Holy Communion,
let us examine ourselves,
praying for forgiveness for any way we may have offended
the peace and unity of the Church.
So that we may approach our Eucharistic Lord
not with troubled hearts filled with fear
but with peaceful hearts filled with Easter Joy.

“Peace be with you.”