3rd Sunday of Lent 2013

March 3, 2013
Homily by Fr. John De Celles
St. Raymond of Peñafort Catholic Church, Springfield, Va.

The saying goes: “All roads lead to Rome.”
It’s been interesting to see this come to life in the last few weeks,
as the whole world seems to have been drawn to the events
transpiring in Rome, as Pope Benedict retired
and Church began its preparations to elect the new pope.
It reminds me of today’s first reading, as Moses sees the burning bush and says:
“I must go over to look at this remarkable sight,
and see why the bush is not burned.”

In a certain way we welcome this world-wide media attention.
After all, Christ did command us to,
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them…”
What better way to teach all nations and bring them to the Church
than to have them come to Rome via the media,
and to focus on the faith of the Church.
Even if it is initially just out of curiosity, like Moses, to,
“look at this remarkable sight.”
Because like Moses, if they come
they may see much more than they bargained for
—the divine fire of Christ and His Holy Spirit
that does not destroy but enlightens the world.

In the Christian Tradition Moses is seen as a precursor or foreshadowing of Christ.
Moses comes to free the Israelites from Egyptian slavery
and offers the Passover or Paschal sacrifice of the Old Covenant;
Jesus comes to free all mankind from the slavery of sin.
and offers the new Paschal sacrifice of the New Covenant—the Cross.
We can go on and on.
But let’s just add one more: both Moses and Jesus are shepherds:
Christ is the “Good Shepherd,”
and as today’s first reading begins:
“Moses was tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro.”

And just as Moses is prefigurement of Jesus,
St. Peter, and his successors in the papacy—the Popes—
are a “post-figurement,” if you will, of Christ:
they stand in the world today representing him,
unique in authority as leaders of God’s holy people.
So we see Christ make Peter the chief shepherd of His flock,
commanding him: “Feed my lambs…tend my sheep….feed my sheep.”

And yet, Peter is much more than Moses.
In the words of Jesus:
“I tell you, you are Peter [Rock],
and on this rock I will build my church,
and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven,
and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven,
and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

Now, Christ is ultimately and intimately in charge of His Church.
Peter merely tends Christ’s sheep.
So that when a pope dies or resigns,
we still have our True Shepherd and Spiritual Rock,
Christ, who never leaves his sheep untended,
and is, “with [us] always, even until the end of time.”

But even so, it is the will of Christ that there be one shepherd on earth
to lead One Catholic Church on earth in His name.
And so today, the world fixes its gaze on the Vatican waiting for a new pope,
and, as ever, all roads lead to Rome.

That saying, by the way, goes back to the ancient Roman Empire,
expressing the idea that Rome was the center of the world,
which was vividly seen in the vast Roman system of roads,
many built specifically to get to and from Rome.

2000 years ago St. Peter came to Rome,
perhaps on one of these ancient Roads.
Legend tells us that he at least left Rome on one of those roads,
the Via Appia, the Appian Way.

Roughly 33 years after the death of Christ, around the year 66 AD,
a fire broke out in Rome and raged through city.
To deflect the blame from himself the Emperor Nero accused
the strange new religious cult—the “Christians”—of starting the fire
and began to arrest and execute their leaders.
As the legend goes, and I believe the legend,
somehow St. Peter managed to escape from Rome into the countryside. But as he fled down the Appian Way he suddenly looked up and found himself
face to face with the Lord Jesus walking in the other direction
—toward Rome.
Peter froze in his steps and asked,
“Quo vadis, Domine?”—“Where are you going, Lord?”
And Jesus responded:
“Eo Romam iterum crucifigi”—“I am going to Rome to be crucified again.” So Peter turned around and went back to Rome,
where he was crucified by Nero on Vatican Hill.

It’s interesting: today if you leave Rome on the Appian Way,
and continue for about 12 miles past the Church
that marks the spot of Peter’s encounter with Christ,
you come to a little lakeside town named Castel Gandolfo.
This last Thursday to signify his retirement
Pope Benedict left Rome and made this trip down the Appian Way
—albeit in a helicopter—to Castel Gandolfo.

Some say, in doing this he’s running away from his responsibilities as pope
—like St. Peter tried to do.
But the reality is quite different.

8 years ago, when he was 78 year old “Cardinal Ratzinger,
he wanted to retire and leave Rome.
But Jesus wanted him to stay, and made him Pope.
For 8 years he’s suffered on the cross of Peter.
And even now, as he steps down for the good of the church,
he promises not to leave and go home to his beloved Germany,
but to go back up the Appian Way,
returning to Rome to be with the new successor Peter,
living out his life in prayer, sacrifice, and obedience
—only yards away from the site on Vatican Hill where
St. Peter himself was crucified.

Like Peter before him, Benedict, Pope Emeritus, has asked the Lord:
“Quo Vadis Domine?” “Where are you going Lord.”
And he has followed where the Lord has led him.

And now the Church must do the same thing, asking,
“Where are You going Lord?”
“Where will You take us now?”
“Who will you send to replace the brave and bold St. Peter,
and the brilliant and humble Benedict,
to hold the keys to the kingdom,
to bind and loose in your Holy Name?”

Even now the Lord knows the name of that man, but he alone knows.

I mentioned earlier that in a certain way we welcome
the world-wide media’s attention to the conclave.
But on the other hand, not so much.
Because most of them come not in search of Christ, but of a story.
And in doing so they grasp on to rumors and allegations of scandals
in the Vatican and the Church.
Some of these may be typical media frenzy,
some may be standard anti-Catholic bias,
and some may even be an effort to influence the election.

But unfortunately, some of them may be will founded, even true.

Should this cause us concern?
Yes, inasmuch as we want every bishop and priest to be holy men.
But on a more circumspect basis,
we should neither be surprised nor overly concerned.
After all, one of the first twelve apostles actually sold Jesus to His enemies
and then hung himself.
You can’t get more scandalous or sinful than that.

But the Resurrection still happened and the Church continued without him.
And when it comes to the papal election,
ultimately we trust that Jesus will pick the next pope,
and the Holy Spirit will guide the cardinals to that man.

But at the same time, history tells us that in centuries past some very sinful men
have been elected to the papacy.
First to mind comes Pope Alexander VI, Rodrigo Borgia,
who famously made 2 of his illegitimate sons cardinals.
And then maybe Pope Leo X, Giovanni de Medici,
who is quoted as telling his brother:
“Since God has given us the Papacy, let us enjoy it.”

God alone knows exactly how these and other sinful men ever got elected pope.
But history would seem to indicate it was because other men
caught up in their own sins and weaknesses,
and led astray by temptation and distraction,
rejected the guidance of the Holy Spirit in choosing these popes.
For example, in some elections
the threats of kings or riots of mobs or bribes of princes
had more sway than the Spirit.
In short, in some elections not enough of the electors asked: Quo vadis Domine?

Now some of us may be discouraged by all this past,
and by the rumors currently floating around in the media—true or not.
Some may be afraid that the cardinals who are not holy and pious men
may elect a bad pope.

Like I said, it’s happened before.
But you know, it’s been hundreds of years since that happened.
Because beginning with the Council of Trent in the 16th century to Benedict,
the Popes have developed a system of carefully crafted rules,
refined over centuries,
to assure that the cardinals suffer the least temptations and distractions.

Some laugh at all these rules, and call them “medieval.”
Actually, they very specifically post-medieval—and they work:
for the last 400 years only good and devout men have been elected pope.
Not perfect men, but men who tried their best to serve God and the Church.

But it’s not just a bunch of rules that make this happen.
During Lent we make a bunch of extra rules for ourselves—penances—
to help us overcome the sins in our lives and control our temptations.
But in the end, all these penances can do is prepare us to receive and respond
to Christ’s grace and the movement of the Holy Spirit.
Like the gardener in today’s gospel, who approaches the fruitless tree and
“cultivate[s] the ground around it and fertilize[s] it.”
preparing it to be able to bear fruit.

For almost 2000 years the Church has been filled with sinful people
—both in the hierarchy and in the pews.
In spite of all that, over all those years the Catholic Church
has constantly proclaimed the truth of Jesus Christ
handed down from the Apostles through apostolic succession,
and in particular the Petrine succession.
This “miracle of the Church” is a radical witness
to the presence of the Holy Spirit and the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise:
“the gates of hell will not prevail against it.”

But to be part of that miracle, and to make it fruitful in their lives,
the people at any given point in history must do everything they can
to prepare themselves for that grace.
And so one of the most important rules for the conclave,
that is made all the more clear in this season of Lent,
is that the cardinals do penance and pray;
not treating the conclave like some secular election,
but removing sin and temptation from their lives
and preparing their hearts to cooperate with the Holy Spirit, and asking “Quo vadis Domine?”
“Where are you going Lord,
and who have you chosen as Peter to lead us there?”

And as we see them do this, and pray it’s truly from their hearts,
we remember that it’s Lent for us too,
and that there are no fewer sinners in the pews or the pulpits
than there are in the college of cardinals.
And just as we fear how their sins may corrupt effect the life of the Church,
we realize the same applies to us.
And so we renew our penances, and look at Christ crucified and ask:
“Quo vadis Domine?”

And perhaps in all this,
by the holy decision of the cardinals, and by our holy lives,
when all roads lead the world to Rome
—both in the sense of Vatican City
and our individual Roman Catholic lives—
those who come to “look at this remarkable sight,” of this burning bush
may discover the light of Christ and the fire of his love,
in the living, breathing Body of Christ on earth, His Church.
And then with his Church, be drawn to Him, and perhaps, perhaps, ask:
“Quo vadis Domine,”
and follow him to Rome, to the Roman Catholic Church.

As we continue in this Holy Mass, and the season of Lent,
and in this holy time when all roads are leading the world to Rome,
let us pray for all those who come to see this remarkable sight.
And let pray for the cardinal-electors, that they may be free of sin,
and commend them to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
And let pray for our next pope, whose name is already known, but to God alone.
And let us pray that all Catholics,
from 7 year old first-communicants to 77 year old Cardinal-electors,
will continually ask the question,
“Where are you going Lord?” “Quo vadis Domine?”
And united with Peter, follow Jesus wherever he leads.

2nd Sunday of Lent 2013

February 24, 2013
Homily by Fr. John De Celles
St. Raymond of Peñafort Catholic Church, Springfield, Va.

In today’s Gospel, as Jesus is Transfigured before Peter James and John,
and stands in the middle of Moses and Elijah,
Peter says something that is at once out of place,
and at the same time very profound.
Overwhelmed by the knowledge that he in the presence of the Christ,
revealed in his heavenly glory,
Peter wants to set up tents so they can stay there
—he never wants to leave.
And in awe he says: ““Master, it is good that we are here.”

During this season of Lent we have to ask ourselves:
do we say the same thing today?
First, do you say this as you come before our Lord in the Eucharist,
but more than that, do you say this as you live your day to day life
as members of the Catholic Church.
Do you believe that in this Church you are in His presence,
with Peter, and James and John, and Moses and Elijah,
and believe “it is good that I am here” in the Catholic Church?

Unfortunately, I think many people today would disagree with that
—even many self-proclaimed “practicing Catholics”.
Because it’s hard to be a Catholic
—to be in union with Jesus and Peter,
with the old testament prophets and the new testament apostles.

But it’s always been hard to be a Catholic.
After all, the Church has lots of very difficult teachings.
But the thing is, most of those difficult teachings
come directly from Jesus himself.

Of course, Jesus says a lot of wonderfully uplifting things,
but think of all the hard sayings of Jesus in scripture.
Let’s take a moment to consider just a few.

Regarding the moral life, he says:
–“love your enemies, bless those who persecute you”
–“love your neighbor as yourself.”
–“if you do not forgive men their trespasses,
neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
–”unless you …become like children,
you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
–“If you would enter [eternal] life, keep 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…”
–”everyone who is angry with his brother…and whoever says, ‘You fool!’
shall be liable to the hell of fire.”
–”whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery.”
–“everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has …committed adultery
…in his heart.…”
–“Depart from me…into the eternal fire prepared for the devil
…for I was hungry and you gave me no food…
sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ …
as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’”

Consider what he says about the sacrifices we have to make:
–“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth…
but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven…’.
–“I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
….He who loves father or mother …[or] son or daughter
more than me is not worthy of me;”
–“they will lay their hands on you and persecute you,
…and you will be brought before kings and governors
for my name’s sake.”
–“pick up you cross, and follow me.”

Consider what he says about the sacraments:
–“unless a man be born of water and the Spirit,
he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”
–“ Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved,
but whoever does not believe will be condemned.”
–“unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood,
you have no life in you”
–“this is my body…this is my blood
–“He said…to [the apostles]: If you forgive the sins of any,
they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

And consider what he says about St. Peter the Church:
–“Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! … I tell you, you are Peter [Rock],
and on this rock I will build my church,
and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven,
and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven,
and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
–“Jesus said to Simon Peter,
…‘Feed my lambs.’ ….’Tend my sheep.’ …’Feed my sheep.’”

And then of course perhaps the ultimate hard saying:
–“be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

All these are hard sayings, but they’re the sayings of Jesus Christ.
And they’re not impossible sayings to live by,
especially when we remember that
with the grace of Christ, “all things are possible with God.”.
In fact, while they may be bring some hardship for a while,
they are really what it takes to be truly human,
so we can never be truly happy without them.

So what do you say?
Do you agree with Peter, “it is good that we are here”?
And again, I mean here with Jesus and Peter in the Catholic Church,
living every day committed to embracing these hard sayings.

Some might like to be somewhere else.
And wouldn’t be the first.
In today’s 2nd reading this is exactly what St. Paul is talking about
in his letter to the Philippians.
He tells faithful in Philippi,
“b[e] imitators of me…and observe those who thus conduct themselves
according to the model you have in us.”
And then he talks about those who have effectively left the Church
by not living the way St. Paul taught them:
“For many, as I …now tell you even in tears,
conduct themselves as enemies of the cross of Christ.”

It’s hard to be a Catholic.
In the early days, the 1st through 3rd centuries this made for a very small church.
Consider that even after 3 centuries,
in the year 313, only about 10% of the Roman Empire was Christian.
First of all you had the persecution and martyrdom
that Jesus not only warned about but, in a sense,
promised those who would follow him.
But the main reason was simply that it was so demanding
—all those hard sayings.

In the 4th century it got a little easier to be a Christian:
the Roman persecution stopped
and Emperor Constantine made Christianity
the official religion of the Empire.
For centuries after that Western culture was sort of built up around the Church,
shaped more and more by Christian principles,
so that the secular and religious world walked the same fundamental path.
And that cultural support helped make it somewhat easier
to stay inside the Church, and to follow Christ’s teaching.

Today, though, things are changing, or perhaps, have changed,
especially the Western Society of Europe and North and South America,
which is rooted in 16 centuries of Christian culture.
More and more the western world follows the way of the fallen away Christians
that St. Paul talks about today:
“Their God is their stomach; their glory is in their “shame.”
Their minds are occupied with earthly things.”

But that is not the way of Jesus and his Church.
As St. Paul says: “But our citizenship is in heaven,
We are called to live in the world, but not be of the world.
To enjoy God’s good gifts
as they were meant to be enjoyed in a good way,
which Jesus knows better than we do.

Even so, many Catholics today seem to want to follow the way of the world.
We see this in a dramatic way with the resignation, or retirement,
of Pope Benedict XVI.
As we face the upcoming election his successor
we hear a lot of talk about changing the Church.
For example, in yesterday’s Post a headline read:
“Will the Catholic Church become its own relic?”
The article proceeded to repeat a lot of pathetic lies
about the Church’s teaching,
in effect saying bishops and popes made up all the really difficult stuff.
But what about all those hard sayings of Jesus?
The article, like so many others recently,
goes on to say, in effect, it’s too hard to be a Catholic today,
so the Church needs to change it’s hard teachings
apparently including some that come directly from Scripture, all in order to keep up with the changing world.
But this is the same error that happened with the Philippians,
as St. Paul wrote:
“many…conduct themselves as enemies of the cross of Christ…
Their minds are occupied with earthly things.
But our citizenship is in heaven.”

What’s happening is that while we say the Church officially has 1.2 billion members,
many of those do not agree with Peter when he says:
“Master, it is good that we are here.”
We were a small church in the beginning, and grew only when the secular world
allowed itself to formed by the hard sayings of Christ.
But now as Western society and culture divorces itself from those teachings,
the Church seems, once again, to becoming a very much smaller church.
At least if we measure it not by those who merely claim to be Catholic,
but by those who actually embrace and try to follow
the hard sayings of Jesus
—including the one about Peter and the keys,
and his power to loose and bind.

For the last 8 years we’ve been blessed to have a successor of Peter
who thoroughly embraced that saying of St. Peter—Pope Benedict XVI.
And for 24 years before that we were blessed to have him,
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger,
serve as Pope John Paul II’s chief defender of the doctrine of the Church.
Always teaching with kindness and gentleness, but never wavering in the truth. Always holding to his belief, in word and deed,
that it is good that we are here,
in the Catholic Church founded by Christ on the Rock of Peter.

But Benedict has also always recognized
that many do not agree with Peter’s saying,
so that the Church is really much smaller than it seems.
As far back as 1969 he wrote:
“The church will become small and will have to start afresh…”
But, this is no reason to lose hope, or think that Christ or His Church is a failure.
As Ratzinger continued:
“But when the trial of this sifting is past,
a great power will flow
from a more spiritualized and simplified Church.
Men … will discover the little flock of believers…
as a hope that is meant for them,
an answer for which they have always been searching in secret.”

Jesus Christ founded his Church
to gather all mankind in every century to himself.
And he entrusted to His Church his teaching about the truth,
and he gave the Church Peter and his successors, the Popes,
to protect that teaching and pass it on to every generation.
This week as Pope Benedict steps down from Chair of Peter,
we thank the good Lord for the gifts of
His teaching, the Church, the office of Pope,
and this particular pope, Benedict.
And as we continue the Lenten season
we ask ourselves, do we believe in the hard sayings of Christ,
and see them not as a stumbling block,
but as the bricks that pave of the road to happiness and to heaven?
Do we cling to the things of the world,
or to the words of the one who came down from heaven
to transform the world?
Do we want to change the teaching of Christ and His Church,
or do we join in proclaiming that teaching, by our words and actions,
to a world who is always searching for it.
Do we want to remain, now and forever,
as true and faithful members of that Catholic Church?
standing united with Peter, and his successors, and saying:
“Master, it is good that we are here.”