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.

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.”

3rd Sunday of Easter 2012

But whoever keeps His Word, truly has the love of God been made perfect in him.
– I John:” 2:5

The scandalous news stories this past week have provided yet another blow to Americans who truly want to be proud of their country. The scandalous conduct of employees of two government agencies that used to be pillars of propriety and honor, especially the Secret Service; the latest gruesome photos once again taken by soldiers as war trophies; and the seemingly endless stories of bad conduct by some teachers of youth, policeman, college professors, lawyers, doctors, clergy and others who belong to professions that have long been honored as being noble models of behavior. All this scandal is certainly an indicator and warning as to just how far our culture has degenerated morally and culturally. What is especially shocking is how these scandalizers in responsible positions also seem so blind to the scandalous nature of their conduct that they rather openly display their repulsive activities, apparently oblivious as to how this might compromise their own character, their families, their professions and in ceratin cases even their country.

But we really should not be surprised when such scandals occur today, given that our society, as a whole, has dramatically degraded its moral character over the past half century. Why would we not expect that the immorality portrayed and promoted in movies, on the internet, even in the popular music world would gradually infect all our institutions, the military, schools, the agencies of government, the business world, even the churches?
This has all happened before to great civilizations, the corruption of even the best once a society at large begins to accept kinds of moral behavior that it previously condemned and spurned, at least in its public life.

The Roman empire gradually died as its moral life was corrupted and its family structures consequently collapsed. The same has happened again and again in history, and it is happening in our day as well. And what is the root of this moral and civilizational decay? It is inevitably the decline of religion, religious practice, which has always been the real pillar of morality in every society. Reason alone will never succeed in establishing the moral order necessary for a society to survive and flourish; and why?

Because man is a fallen, sinful creature, and his reason, and therefore his conscience, is all too easily darkened, corrupted, when it comes to his moral behavior. People will easily rationalize their immoral lives when they lose faith and abandon their religion. And likewise, people will readily point to the widespread moral degeneracy itself in their society to ratify their false consciences – they will say that what I do is ok because “everyone” is doing it, and so it must be ok. Everyone can’t possibly be wrong.

In addition, sinful man has a debilitating tendency to believe that no one can really be expected to live up to the demanding moral code of religions like Catholicism or evangelical Protestantism, and once again this is easily proven to him by the very fact that so few people in a decaying society in fact seem capable of a higher moral life. And in a certain sense, this conviction that man can’t be expected to be highly moral did have a certain force of argument behind it until Jesus Christ and His saving power came into this world.

But all this bad news is infinitely outweighed by the Good News that we are celebrating for almost two months, the resurrection of Jesus. This good news not only provides the answer for this rationalization of sin, but it offers the solid hope, for true believers, that life, any life, every life can be changed no matter how mired in sin.. If Christ has risen from the dead, as we believe, then a divine power has entered our world that can change men’s lives, including their morality; it is the same power that raised Jesus from the dead, the power of the Holy Spirit.

Indeed, we see just how empty all this rationalizing of sinful behavior is today when we look at the Apostles themselves, before and after the resurrection of Jesus. Before the resurrection, the Apostles are seen to be at times petty and jealous, sinful men, even if not gravely sinful, and during the Passion they are cowards, with Peter actually betraying the Master with lies. Then after Easter Sunday and the resurrection appearances and the sending of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, they are transformed into fearless men of truth, who joyfully suffer for the Gospel and finally willingly become martyrs for the Truth and the salvation of souls. A new power had entered the world, and had entered their souls – the power of the Risen Lord and the Holy Spirit.

So the Apostles are witnesses to the power of the resurrection not only in the Gospel they preach, but in their own resurrected lives. And what was the cause of this transformation if not the resurrection of Christ! The divine life that had surged into the dead body of Jesus in the tomb of calvary, and given it a new glorious and immortal life, is the same divine life that took hold of the Apostles and changed them into new men. The newness of their lives bore witness itself to the truth of the Witness they gave that Jesus was raised from the dead.

What all this tells us is fairly simple. Now it is possible for all men to become new men, to change, to adopt a new moral code, to live a wholly new life of goodness and truth, just like the Apostles of Jesus and all who have followed in their footsteps to sanctity. Indeed, if we truly believe in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, then the same power that transformed His humanity, and the life of the Apostles, is available to everyone. And we Christians are called by God to live this new life as a testimony to all our neighbors that Jesus is Risen and a radically new life is possible for all.

But the Christian bears witness to Christ and His resurrection, and the possibility of genuine renewal of every human heart, precisely, as John says, by keeping God’s commandments as lovingly and obediently as Christ kept His Father’s commandments. For no one can keep the Father’s commandments like Christ, that is, with perfect and loving obedience, unless the love of God, the power of the Holy Spirit, is made perfect in him. For it is only the power of this love, which raised Jesus, that makes any man capable of such loving obedience, and thus makes anyone a powerful witness to the resurrection. If the world does not believe today in the Resurrection of Christ, if men don’t think they can truly change for the better morally and spiritually, perhaps it is because there are so few who bear this witness effectively, in lives of loving obedience to the will of God. This is what the world so desperately needs, the living testimony of faithful Christians. Jesus told us at the end of today’s Gospel, You are witnesses of these things; and John told us in the second reading how we are witnesses, by the holiness and uprightness of our lives made possible by the power of God. If the world is to change, if our society is to be saved, it must be brought to repentance and conversion as Peter preached in the first reading. And this miracle will be accomplished in no little part by our witness to the power of Christ’s resurrection, the power that has changed our lives, and can change all lives. This is our vital contribution to our world; and without it, nothing will really change all that much. Easter faith is the basis of true hope, and hope is the true engine for changing men, and thereby for changing our world.

2nd Sunday of Easter 2012

The Church today concludes the Octave of Easter, eight days of the celebration of Easter Sunday. The Divine Office prayed by the Church over these days repeats the psalms of Morning prayer and Evening prayer of Easter Sunday each day, thus asserting the liturgical unity of this sacred time as one great feast marking the Resurrection of Christ and the overflowing joy that brings to the whole Church. It is the feast of a new life, a whole new existence which has come forth from the tomb in the Risen Christ, a new life that has been given to us through the Risen Lord, and in the Risen Lord.

Today’s liturgy changes the focus of our attention, somewhat, in relation to this mystery, directing us more to the meaning of Christ’s resurrection for His people, for us, who have been baptized into his death and into his resurrection as Paul teaches. It is this new life that should catch our attention now, the life that is spoken about in today’s Gospel right at the end; “that believing you may have life in his name.

What is this Life John speaks of here, or that Paul speaks of in Romans 6:4, where he says, “we too might live and move in a new kind of existence.” This new existence, what is it; and how is it connected with the resurrection of Christ and our own resurrection?

The newness of this existence can be seen already in today’s first reading from Acts where we see the early Christians selling of and giving away their earthly goods and embracing a whole new way of life, based absolutely on their faith in Christ and His resurrection. Their dispossession of their earthly goods is a sign that something utterly new and transcendent has taken hold of them, that they recognize that their whole life has been changed. They now lead a new life already here in this world. For them, Christ has truly risen, and they themselves have been made sharers in that “new kind of existence” Paul speaks about, a new kind of existence that can only be glimpsed in Jesus as to its ultimate reality, but which they share nevertheless, no matter how imperfectly. And they have a firm hope of sharing its fulness one day in their own resurrection, and that allows them to leave everything behind and live a new kind of life here and now, as a living witness to their truth of Christ’s resurrection and the new life in inaugurates.

The Church has preserved this powerful witness to the resurrection in the state of life that we call religious, where men and women imitate that early witness of the Church by leaving all things and living a common life, and dedicating their lives to the Kingdom here on earth. This witness is vital for the Church in every age, precisely because it testifies to the radical newness of the Christian life, and the full truth of the resurrection which brought that life into the world in its fulness in the risen Christ, the source of that life for all of us.

One way to appreciate the newness of the life and resurrection is to compare it with the belief of Moslems or Mormons. Both of these religions natural reality. That is, in both religions the endless life of eternity involves simply a resurrection of the body to a perfect but only purely natural state. The resurrected body according to these religions no longer suffers and dies, and enjoys all the good natural pleasures of this world. In both these religions then the new life is really the old life, but without the negative aspects of suffering and unhappiness and death. One can see how attractive this is to man since we now experience only the natural pleasures of this world.

But the resurrection of Christ was something quite other than a mere resuscitation to a perfect, natural existence. We get hints of this in certain things that Christ says, such as the fact that there will be no marriage in the world to come: At the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage but are like the angels in heaven. [Matt. 22:30] It is not insignificant that in both the other two religions, an eternal marriage, be it polygamous or monogamous, is at the very core of their eternal happiness. For surely marriage is indeed a great good in this world, and can be a great source of happiness and pleasure. However, Jesus clearly teaches that there will be no marriage, and this revelation is a significant indication that the heavenly life and beatitude in the world to come must be of a wholly other order, not simply a perfection of natural goods and pleasures, but something much greater, which these earthly goods can only anticipate and point to here on earth.

an absolutely transcendent, supernatural, life consisting of the most intimate union with God, a union which will extend even to the flesh. This new life is now ours by Baptism, but only imperfectly, but we believe that this new life will be ours perfectly one day in the resurrection of the just, This new, risen life has its roots deep within the mystery of the Incarnation. First God became man, and this event is wondrously the “humanization” of God in Christ. But likewise in Christ, man also became God, and along with the Fathers of the Church, we can call this the “divinization” of man. This mystery is hidden in Christ till his resurrection, and then in the resurrection it is fully revealed in Him. Even the Lord, prior to the resurrection, did not have the full experience of this divinization of his flesh, for he had to be able to suffer in the flesh, and die in the flesh so that we might one day receive our share in His life in our souls and one day in our flesh.

What we Christians believe is that in baptism Christians begin to share in this ineffable mystery, that is, Christians begin to live a wholly new life, even if not yet fully, by the gradual divinization of our humanity. The baptized person becomes a child of God, not metaphorically, but truly, by truly sharing in the very risen life of Jesus, the life which is God’s. This new life is not simply a simple coming closer in friendship with God, but a wholly new mode of existence in which God now dwells in the soul, through the communication of Eucharist.

Nonetheless, like Christ, before His resurrection, we do not yet share the beatitude this life bestows, the overflowing happiness that finally flows from the possession of the divine life. That will happen only when we see God, dwelling in our souls; which vision will fill our souls with a happiness and an ecstacy that we can barely begin to imagine here in this world. And this beatitude will be completely experienced, like Christ, only in the resurrection our flesh, when His glory will raise our mortal bodies, glorify them, and communicate to our flesh this same beatitude, happiness, ecstacy, which belongs to Christ and Mary, and which surpasses all our ability to comprehend.

Thus, the resurrection we look forward to is not a simple continuation of our earthly life in some future earthly paradise of delights. The resurrection means nothing less than our whole being, body included, being divinized, making us all God’s children in the fullest possible sense, sharing the one Son’s glory and beatitude forever.

It was this Easter faith that motivated the early Christians to quite literally abandon everything on this earth and begin to live a common life which is truly new. It was not a rejection of the goods of this earth, in the way that some natural religions abandon them, as if they were evil in some sense. No, these early Christians were simply overcome by the joy of their new faith, by the glory they beheld in the Risen Lord, by their faith that this was their destiny also, and they simply began to live in the wake of its light, longing to possess only that glory, and thus detaching themselves from everything else. They were simply doing what Paul speaks so plainly of in his letter the Colossians:

If then you were raised with Christ, seek what is above, where Christ is seated at
the right hand of God. Think of what is above, not of what is on earth. For you
have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ your life
appears, then you too will appear with him in glory.
– Col 3 1-4

This passage expresses the new trajectory of the Christian life, Life in Christ, here in the shadows of faith, and there with Him one day in the full light of glory. The life issuing from the resurrection of Jesus is something that so far surpasses anything we directly experience in this world, anything purely natural, that we it dazzles our weak minds. And yet even our minimal understanding of faith is enough to make us yearn so much for that life’s full perfection that we also are ready to abandon everything for its sake. The example of the first Christians, the example of the consecrated religious who today truly live their common life in an abandonment to Divine Providence reminds us all of the power of this faith of ours, and the glory of the life that faith alone even begins to comprehend.

Easter 2012

What has been, that will be; what has been done, that will be done. Nothing is new under the sun. Even the thing of which we say, “See, this is new!” has already existed in the ages that preceded us.

Thus spoke Qoheleth of Jerusalem about three centuries before Christ. This great Jewish teacher of popular wisdom had examined the world of man over a long lifetime, and had come to the conclusion that all in this world is ultimately vanity; he insisted that the true meaning of life is always hidden from man. Merit, he concluded, does not yield happiness for it is often obtained by suffering. Even riches and pleasures do not bring lasting happiness, for they do not save one from the grave. The good often suffer more than the evil in this world. Indeed, life is ultimately monotonous, enjoyment is fleeting and vain; and darkness and death quickly follow. Life, then, is an enigma beyond human ability to solve. But there was one thing Qoheleth was absolutely certain of, there is nothing new under the sun.

Qoheleth was not an atheist, but he could find no hope for life in this world, no ultimate meaning for human life here and now; he was content to await the answer from God in the world to come. This world could not supply the answer to the riddles of human existence.

So, for Qoheleth, the answer could only come beyond this life, in the future world. There at last he, we, would learn the meaning of human life. But Qoheleth was wrong. He did not live to see that, indeed, there was to be something new, utterly new and astonishing, under the Sun, something that had never taken place before. And what is this one truly new and unique thing that has occurred in human history, and that gives the rest of history its meaning, and already here in time sheds wonderful light on the riddle of human existence? It is, dear brothers and sisters, the sacred event we celebrate this day, the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Think about this event. Never before had death been defeated like this; never before had man triumphed over the grave. This is the utterly new thing that has occurred under the sun, the unique event that changes all of human history and tells the final truth about the life of man.

Man had always carried in his heart a profound rebellion against death, a deep sense that this was not meant to be, that human life somehow was not meant to be subject to suffering and decay and finally death. Christianity and Judaism are religions that, by divine inspiration, protest against death, and our Scriptures in the end are a ringing affirmation of the truth that death is not man’s natural destiny. Death poses a challenge to the meaning of life, and faith is man’s attempt to understand the meaning of a creature’s existence who longs for unending life and happiness, but who is struck down inevitably by suffering and death. Man is the creature who not only dies but the creature who alone knows all his life that death awaits him, and knows that death is the ultimate contradiction of his whole way of thinking about life and living. It is death that renders all things vanity in this world, death that makes life seem to lack any ultimate meaning.

Now, Qoheleth did not live to see this new thing that gives meaning to human existence and even to human suffering and death. But there were in fact other new “prophets” privileged to witness to this new thing under the sun. They could not see his divine person, even after His resurrection, but they could and did touch his risen body, and probe the wounds of death which remained as witnesses to the fact that this was the very body that had died on the Cross, pouring out its life-blood through those very wounds, until only water came forth. Here was something truly, radically, new under the sun, and its happening would ultimately make all things new, including the sun.

Blessed Qoheleth looked forward to something new in the next world. But this is something that happened in this world. Moreover, after the resurrection of Jesus, we also will hear his words : “Behold I make all things new!” (Rev. 21:5) Yes, by the power of his death and resurrection, Jesus has in fact begun the final transformation of God’s creation. He does not abandon this world, or the human body, but by the power of His saving death and resurrection, he will ultimately make everything new. It began there, in the tomb, with his own body; but it continues today through the sacraments, and we see this especially in the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist.

By Baptism, we are made new creatures, by being inserted sacramentally into the events of Christ’s death and resurrection. By our sacramental participation in his death, we die to sin, Original Sin and all personal sins if they exist; by sacramentally sharing in His resurrection, we rise to become new creatures, God’s own children by adoption. We do not put off our bodies, but put on Christ, and we truly become new creations in Him.

And so too with the Eucharist, we see this divine transformation of earthly elements as anticipating the end time when all things will be made new. Bread and wine are transformed, and become the very body and blood of Christ, which in turn becomes our food for Eternal life. All this happens already here, in this world, and this newness of creation will be completed in this world, when Christ returns in glory. Christianity is not a rejection of the body or of the world as if they were in themselves unimportant, or even evil. The Resurrection is the deepest affirmation of the goodness of all creation and its permanent value, and while it will be transformed, it will be these same bodies and this same world that will remain forever, and forever will be something new under the Sun.

Today Christians everywhere proclaim their faith and their joy that Jesus Christ is truly risen and alive and in our midst. This is no belief based upon some message from outer space, or from the inner space of man’s religious imagination. It is based upon the witness of men and women who were once as hopeless of overcoming death in this world as anyone in the world. The women were going to the tomb to dress the body, not a living body but a dead one. Mary Magdalene even wept after she saw the empty tomb; she wondered only where someone had taken the body. The Apostles were in hiding, not waiting for Jesus to rise but more likely waiting for the coast to clear so they could escape, or at least for a message from God as to “what now?”. Like Qoheleth, they too now expected nothing new under the sun. Jesus had to prove to them that he was not a ghost, and their hesitancy to believe is ironically the great support of our own faith. They came to believe in His Divinity, because they touched His risen humanity. 2000 years later we believe in both because of their word and the gift of faith. Easter makes all things new; May God increase your Christian faith on this Easter Day so you too every day can know the joy of those first witnesses to the first thing new under the Sun, since the moment of creation itself.

Palm Sunday 2012

With the reading of the Passion, we have begun the celebration of the holiest week of the year for Christians, which will culminate this coming weekend with the celebration of the Mass of the Last Supper on Holy Thursday, the Sacred Liturgy of Good Friday and the renewal of our Baptismal promises during the Masses of Easter Sunday. These three liturgical celebrations, Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday commemorate the most important events in human history, not only in our Christian religion, but in human history. Christian faith holds absolutely that by His personal self-sacrifice on Good Friday, Jesus Christ has redeemed the entire human race by His action, and has all mankind the possibility of personal salvation. We also profess it to be absolutely certain that by His resurrection on Easter Sunday, it has been made possible for all mankind to be raised from the dead incorruptible, and share in the heavenly glory that belongs to God’s only-begotten Son. Christ Our Lord. Finally we also profess that at the last Supper Jesus personally instituted His Eucharistic Sacrifice, the Holy Mass, as the perpetual worship of His Church, perpetually renewing in an unbloody manner His own sacrificial death on Calvary, and perpetually nourishing the members of His Church with the food which brings Eternal Life, His own body and blood. Jesus body and blood is offered for our sins, and His Body and Blood have been raised in glory to be the source of Eternal Life for those who receive them with living faith in their power.

Faith, then is the key to whether or not these sacred events will benefit any of us. Today’s celebration reminds us how shallow and empty can be even the loudest outward professions of faith. How quickly the crowd’s outward, empty gestures of belief turn into just the opposite manifestations of unbelief in Jesus and His saving mission. The crowds lining the road into Jerusalem shouted loud Hosannas and laid palms and cloaks on the path before Jesus, publicly professing their belief that He was the long-awaited messiah; but just a few days later many in these crowds would be shouting “crucify him!” and then mocking him even as he anguished on the Cross, as a blasphemer, a liar and criminal. This is not just mere fickleness of the people, but a shocking revelation that when they greeted him on Palm Sunday, their own professions of faith were just words, not true professions of faith. He had come to die for them, but whether or not this would benefit them in the end would depend on a much deeper “faith” than their mere external shouts on palm Sunday.

The renewal of our Baptismal promises on Easter Sunday reveal what is necessary for Jesus’ death and resurrection to bring us Eternal Life. We must believe in Christ and in the power of these sacred events to save us. But such belief is more than outward show, profession of faith on the lips. Faith in these events means following the path of Jesus, following Him right to Calvary, to the Cross on which he died, and on which our sinful life must be put to death. His death, perpetuated in the holy sacrifice of the Mass, is no longer a spectator event like Palm Sunday, or for most at Calvary, but His death is something we must share in, through the Mass, and through a constant effort to put to death the sins which nailed God’s Son the Cross. If we refuse to die to self, to put to death the sins for which he died, then we do not have a living faith, that is, a faith inwardly transformed by our love for Christ. If we would rise with Him, says St. Paul, then we must also die with him. If we would have the joyful blessing of Easter Sunday, Eternal Life, then we must have the bitter fruit of Good Friday also.

It is so easy for any of us to get caught up in this world this holy week and forget about Eternity. Holy Week is the most powerful reminder of what our life in this world is really all about, why we are Christians, what we hope for as Christians, and how we must act as Christians if our hope is to be realized. We never know which Holy Week will be the final reminder and gift from God for us. This Holy Week may we all approach the liturgies as if they were the last in our lives on earth. Then, it will deepen our faith, deepen our hope and our charity, and draw us nearer this year to our final reward in Heaven. God Bless you.