The last 24 hours
This time tomorrow the Church and the world will have no Pope. At this Mass tomorrow we will not hear the name “Papa Nostro Benedicto” in the canon. And for this we have come to this chapel to offer Mass for our beloved Pontiff during his last 24 hours as our papa.
We give thanks for his service to the Church: as a young priest in the Archdiocese of Munich-Freising, as a professor of theology at various Catholic universities, as a peritus at the Second Vatican Council, as prefect for the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for 23 years, and of course since 2005 as Vicar of Christ on earth.
A man of hope
Pope Benedict is a man of hope. In his second encyclical, on Hope, he writes that “the distinguishing mark of Christians is the fact that they have a future… the dark door … of the future has been thrown open. … it is not the laws of matter and of evolution that have the final say, but reason, will, love—a Person.” In perhaps his most influential book, Introduction to Christianity, written in 1968 and studied by thousands of seminarians since then, he describes how Hope has overwhelmed death, man’s final despair. A Christian goes to the realm of the dead only to find Someone has been there before him, and is waiting for him. “Christ strode through the gate of our final loneliness; in his passion he went down into the abyss of our abandonment. Where no voice can reach us any longer, there is he.” Benedict does not renounce the papacy in despair, but with great hope in the future.
A man of realism
And yet Joseph Ratzinger is nothing if not a realist. Cardinal Ratzinger offered Mass at the Angelicum while I was a student there. One of my classmates chose not to attend, because he thought Ratzinger was too liberal! But I remember his careful, measured speech, his calm and balanced realism. Cardinal Ratzinger was almost the only Roman prelate not taken in by falsehoods and false expectations within the Church, such as the Legionaries of Christ affair. He perceived, perhaps more than any prelate, the parts of the Church whose scandals have now become public. There is certainly more to come, and Pope Benedict is under no illusion that one Pope can clean out these Augean stables. “After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God,” he said three weeks ago, “I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry. I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering.”
Benedict knows, more than perhaps any man in the Church today, that the “Son of man will be handed over, mocked, scourged, and crucified.” He remembers that Christ’s own apostles, James and even the Beloved Apostle John, were compromised by ambition: “Let us sit, one at your right and one at your left, when you come into your kingdom.” But man of hope that he is, he knows that these two apostles will drink the chalice of sacrifice. They will learn to love as Christ loves. His first and greatest encyclical quotes that very Apostle John, Deus Caritas Est. “It is in contemplating the pierced side of Christ that our definition of love must begin,” he writes.
And so our beloved Pontiff goes into seclusion within 24 hours, to contemplate the pierced side of Christ, his open heart, pouring blood and water over his Bride, the Church, that she may be presented to his Father without spot or stain.
Let us pray for this man, old and worn out, seemingly beaten by his enemies, who renounces the papacy within a few hours. He does so in great hope, as he said upon announcing his resignation. “There are times when the burden of need and our own limitations might tempt us to become discouraged,” he wrote in Deus Caritas est. But then God’s love “frees us from the presumption of thinking that we alone are personally responsible for building a better world.” “And now,” he wrote in his resignation statement, “let us entrust the holy church to the care of our supreme pastor, Our Lord Jesus Christ, and implore his holy Mother Mary, so that she may assist the cardinal fathers with her maternal solicitude, in electing a new supreme pontiff.”
Seeing Beyond the Veil
Jesus climbs Mount Tabor to pray, and while he was praying, He is transfigured before Peter, James, and John. These three glimpse Christ’s true nature in order to be prepared for the scandal of the Crucifixion. “This is my beloved Son,” a voice resounds from within the cloud. This is my Son, blazing forth the radiance of a billion stars.
Our story begins with Father Abraham, though, in the First Reading from Genesis 15. The Lord God directs Abram’s eyes to the night sky: “Count the stars, if you can.” Let’s turn our attention to the night sky for a moment too. On a clear night here at Thomas Aquinas College, you can see hundreds of stars and a few planets, and perhaps the smoky edges of our own galaxy. If you know where to look, you might see the dull smudge of the Andromeda galaxy, 2.5 million light years distant (that’s 10,000 million trillion miles—the Lord owns a lot of real estate). Astrophysicists estimate the Milky Way contains 300 to 400 billion stars. Andromeda has over one trillion stars, each with dozens, perhaps hundreds, of planets and exoplanets. Both galaxies belong to the Local Group of about 50 galaxies, which belongs to a cluster, which makes up filament patterns of superclusters. We can see, with Father Abraham and a little help from the Hubble telescope, at least 100 billion galaxies in the night sky. Hubble took a picture of the night sky the size of your thumb held at arm’s length and found 10,000 galaxies in that small dark spot. If every star were a grain of sand, the box to contain all the observable stars in the universe would have to be two miles high and two miles wide and stretch from New York to Atlanta.
Why did the Lord God ask Father Abraham to look up into the night sky? To show him how many children he would have? Not really: God wanted Abram to glimpse some inkling of his glory. It is I who made all these stars, and I keep them perfectly tuned every day. I and no other, but it is I who am talking with you now. I love you, and I will send my son to die for you. I make a covenant with you and your children, a covenant of love. Father Abraham could hardly believe it. He was transformed by the realization of God’s providence.
I can’t go further without mentioning St. Paul’s affection for the flock entrusted to him in the second reading. “Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and my crown, in this way stand firm in the Lord.” See how God’s servant Paul radiates God’s tender affection for us too.
Now back to the Transfiguration. After six days, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up a steep mountain. While he was praying, his face blazed like the sun and his clothes shone white as light. He spoke with the glorified figures of Moses and Elijah, the greatest men of the Old Testament, representing the Law and the Prophets. Jesus reveals himself in complete majesty, he who commands the sun, Creator of the stars of night. His brightness manifests a quality of glorified bodies, “who will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matt 13:43). No wonder St. Peter wants to stay on that mountain—he has been granted the beatific vision. It is a transformative experience, meant to strengthen the Apostles’ faith. But faith comes more through hearing than through seeing. And so the Father’s voice commands them to “Listen” to his beloved Son. The Father has said all He need and can say, and all we need to hear, in his Son. But how many are listening?
Some have not seen what we have seen, because they refuse to listen and refuse to believe. They do not see anything beautiful in the Holy Mass or in the Church. They do not see the Father’s providential love in the waters of the sea or the lilies of the field or the stars of the night sky. They do not see the image of God in the human person, and so they destroy people—even babies—without a thought, because they have not listened. The Father’s voice begs us, commands us: Listen! In this Year of Faith, let us make certain that we are listening to God’s beloved Son as He speaks through the Church. Having heard His voice and seen His face, may we manifest the radiant and beautiful face of God to every other person by loving them with Christian affection. May Our Lady, the Star of the New Evangelization, show us how to see Christ in others, and to magnify his glory among them.
We entered into the great and holy season of Lent with the excitement of Ash Wednesday last week. In my last parish, priests would mark the foreheads of more than 6,000 people with ashes, among them many non-Catholics. It seemed an endless line of people, queuing up to be told that they were no more than dust, and to confess their sinfulness. The collect prayer for Ash Wednesday expresses the season with particularly precision:
“Grant, O Lord, that we may begin with holy fasting this campaign of Christian service, so that, as we take up battle against spiritual evils, we may be armed with weapons of self-restraint.”
The Church portrays Lent with images of armed conflict. We enter into a campaign of “service,” of military service; we prepare for battle armed with weapons of self-restraint. The enemy opposing us is the enemy we face every morning in the mirror: our own disordered passions and insecurities. Only self-restraint and discipline, at times harshly administered, can gain victory in these contests.
It is just this kind of desert warfare that Christ enters into on the First Sunday of Lent. The Spirit drives him into the desert, like the great St. Anthony of Egypt, to meet the enemy at close quarters. Christ does not wait for the enemy to engage him; rather, Christ quickly moves into Satan’s own territory to make the first strike. He takes with him only the weapons of self-restraint; He talks to no one, he sleeps on the ground, and most importantly, he refuses food and drink. On the fortieth day the Bible tells us, with typical Semitic understatement, Jesus was “hungry.”
The Purity that comes only through Fasting
Satan moves in to test Jesus’ mettle. He dares Jesus to deal with his hunger by turning a heap of stones into savory loaves. Jesus replies with perfect self-restraint. “My food is to do the will of my Father,” as he will say later in the Gospel. He replies not only to Satan, but to our own base hungers for food, drink, and sex. Don’t settle for food that fails to satisfy.
Christ’s fast points to our idolization of food. There is hardly a moment when we are not thinking about our next meal. Where can I get a snack? A cup of sugary coffee? Where is the nearest Starbucks? Quick, let me Google it. There’s got to be an In-N-Out in this town somewhere. But it isn’t only food. Christ’s fast inspires us to break dependence on any and all sensual pleasures. A friend of mine, who has seven children, gave up relations with his wife one Lent. Larissa, their 7 year-old daughter, asked her mother what she was giving up for Lent. Mom replied, after some hesitation, “well, dear, I’m giving up your father.” To which Larissa replied, “Mommy, you’re supposed to give up something you like!”
Only by restraining our appetites for God’s gifts do we discover how we have come to depend on the consolations of God rather than the God of consolations. To be effective, our fasting must be constant and methodical warfare. I may have managed to deny myself desert at lunch, but I will have another firefight at dinner. Meal by meal, we gain ground, breaking our dependence on earthly satisfactions. Fasting trains us to depend on the Will and the Word of God above all. Some saints have subsisted many years only on the Blessed Eucharist, the Word made flesh. With Christ in the desert, they show us that “Man lives not on bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
Fasting terrifies most of us. We can’t imagine life without the consolations food, and drink, spousal intimacy, and all the sensual comforts God provides. Lent is a time for warfare, desert warfare, not so much with the devil as with ourselves. Soldiers must exercise discipline and self-denial to reach their objectives. Let us take heart from Holy Mother Mary, who trained her will from the moment she made her Fiat to the angel Gabriel, to enter this campaign of Christian service joyfully, armed with the weapons of self-restraint.
It’s Ash Wednesday. I sit at my computer with ashes on my head between Masses. I got up this morning a bit earlier than usual to pray before Mass, but thought I’d just rev up my computer to see if there was any further news on the Pope’s resignation. The computer was a little slow (eg, it took an entire 90 seconds to log on) and I looked at my breviary sitting forlornly on the table. I turned the computer off, and picked up the breviary.
Then I realized what I needed to add to my Lenten program: fasting from the internet. How many times a day do I check my email? Ten times? Fifteen times? How many times a day do I check news sites—all good, Catholic ones, mind you—and blogs? Five times? Seven times? I compared time on the internet with time spent on things that really matter, such as calling Mom, spiritual reading, preparing homilies, etc. The “Really Matter” categories came up pretty spotty. Solution? Fast from internet, and spend more time on Things That Really Matter. I think I can do it…. I’ll log on only once a day, to read and answer emails, and taste the news rather than gorge on them. I won’t post this blog until my once-a-day log on, I give you, dear reader, permission to read this blog less often, at least during this most holy season of Lent.
I had the early Mass today. I hadn’t seen any emails, texts, or internet before one of the altar boys told me that Pope Benedict was resigning. “That’s preposterous!” I exclaimed. I remember saying the same thing on September 11, 2001, when one of the altar boys at the early Mass told the Trade Towers had fallen.
Then I went to breakfast, and found out it was true. Both Trade Towers collapsed, but the Church can never collapse. Popes do resign from time to time, although the last one was too long ago for anyone to remember. We are tempted to think it is a bad time for a man like Pope Benedict to resign. An epic struggle for human identity is moving into high gear, and Benedict is the man who defined the stakes decades ago. But February 11, 2013, is a good day for the Pope to announce his resignation for two reasons. First, he announces his resignation for reasons of illness on the World Day of Prayer for the Sick. Thus he stands in line with the world’s elderly infirm, moving aside so that the Lord may use a stronger instrument. Second, he resigns at this critical point in the culture wars, even though a man of lesser gifts may take his office. Thus he proclaims the indefectibility of the Church, and that he, Joseph Ratzinger, is only a humble worker in the Lord’s vineyard, after all. Those of us in the “Joseph Ratzinger Fan Club” are reminded that Christ can run his Church even without Joseph Ratzinger.
We may be tempted to think that Pope Benedict should see his duties through to the end, like Pope John Paul II. That would be a facile judgment. We cannot presume to know why and how Benedict made his decision. We can only trust that John Paul made the right decision to remain in the papacy, and that Benedict has made the right decision to resign the papacy. Let us simply devote ourselves to prayer as the cardinals gather for the conclave next month.Click here for the full text of the Pope's declaration.
Jesus Climbs into Your Pickup
In today’s Sunday Gospel, the last before Ash Wednesday, Jesus commands Simon Peter to go deeper. Notice that Simon wasn’t paying any attention to Jesus at first. Picture the scene as if it were you, Joe University Student: imagine that you’re unloading boxes from your pickup at the Engineering Building on campus. You’re vaguely aware of a street preacher addressing a crowd of students nearby. Then the preacher walks over and gets into the passenger side of your truck. “Please take me downtown,” he says. You get in without question and begin driving. He looks at you and says, “The superficial mediocrity of American college life is not enough for you. Go deeper.”
Jesus is preaching to a crowd on the lakeshore. Simon, a professional fisherman, was not paying any attention, apparently—he was busy making a living, cleaning his nets after a frustrating and useless night’s work. Jesus steps into Simon’s boat, without asking permission, and asks to be taken a distance from the shore. He preaches from the boat, while Simon, who is weary from a hard night’s work, waits patiently. But he too listens. Then Jesus commands Simon in those perennial words: Duc in altum. “Put out into deep water, and lower your nets for a catch.” It was one of John Paul II’s favorite lines. He quotes these words of Christ at the beginning of his apostolic letter guiding us into the Third Millennium, Novo millennio inuente. Duc in altum.
Simon, Simon Bar-Jonah: you have worked hard, but you have caught nothing, because you have not gone deep. You live your faith superficially; you keep your life in the shallows. You’ll catch nothing there. Let me show you how to go deep, teach you the virtue of holy daring, of trustful surrender to providence.
Simon replies: “Master, we have worked hard all night and have caught nothing. But at your command, I will lower the nets.” Simon’s acquiescence to Christ’s command defines the rest of St. Peter’s life, and the life of the Church. He makes the decision to trust Him whom he grasps intuitively to be Lord and Messiah. “Master,” he addresses him, “at your command I will lower the nets.” And having once trusted Jesus, Peter is flooded by a superabundance of life—a great number of fish flapping and slapping and breaking through the nets, and the other boats rushing over to assist their partners.
Peter sinks before Jesus: “leave me Lord, for I am a sinful man.” He realizes with terror that the thrice-holy Lord and King of Isaiah’s vision (in our first reading) sits before him. Like Isaiah, Peter cries out “Woe is me: I am a man of unclean lips living among a people of unclean lips!” But even as he cries out, Simon hopes that Jesus will touch a burning ember to his lips, will raise him up from the bottom of his boat and make an Apostle of him. And so Jesus utters his third command: “Do not be afraid (another of John Paul II’s favorite lines): from now on you will be catching men.” Simon and his partners left immediately everything and followed him.
Building a Civilization of Love
I like to think that Thomas Aquinas College is the last best hope for western civilization. The lights are going out in the west (my seminary moral theology teacher would often say that “the 21st Century belongs to the Pacific”). The curtain is falling on 18 centuries of Christian-inspired philosophy, scientific method, jurisprudence and economics, art, literature, and music. Our culture is regressing to a superficial humanism, an attempt at enlightened paganism, which will bear only dissatisfaction and violence.
Jesus needs fishers of men to build the Kingdom of God. He climbs into our boat and directs us to go deep into the Christian culture which is our patrimony. Our work now is that of students, fully assimilating the philosophy and theology offered so freely here at our College. But there will come a time to give back what we have received, to engage deeply the society in which we live. If all we do is keep the faith to ourselves, we have failed Jesus Christ. We must cast out the great net of a deeply imbued Christian culture, and then we will certainly catch souls for God. John Paul II calls this the New Evangelization, and Benedict XVI calls it a Year of Faith.
What will you do with your TAC education? How will you deepen your life and lower your nets for a catch? What and who will you catch for Jesus Christ? Do not be afraid of failure, for it is Christ himself who commands us. He stays within our boats as we cast the nets. With Our Lady, we dedicate ourselves to working alongside the Lord, building a civilization of love.
You may have heard that on January 31, Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles informed his predecessor, Cardinal Roger Mahony, that he will no longer have any administrative or public duties in the archdiocese. He did this after reading the files of abuse cases in the archdiocese under Cardinal Mahony’s watch. You may have also heard that Cardinal Mahony defended himself the following day in a public letter to Archbishop Gomez. The Cardinal wrote that sending abusers for counseling and then reinstating them was standard practice in schools and other youth organizations at the time.
Why is virtually no one accepting his defense? The reason is plain: when a priest commits sexual sin against a child, he has irrevocably violated his vocation; he has permanently lost the trust of the Church. This is the Catholic understanding of the priesthood, regardless of any “standard practices” in any culture.
Cardinal Mahony seems to have misunderstood the nature and identity of the Catholic priesthood. He seems to have managed the Church more as a civic organization than the Bride of Christ. And this is why even the Los Angeles Times finds his behavior indefensible. Everyone, even the Church’s enemies, expect the Catholic Church to act like the Catholic Church.
It is as plain as plain can be: if a priest preys on a child, he forfeits his role as spiritual father. No bishop need deliberate over a course of action—he simply needs to follow canon law and revoke the priest’s faculties. A significant number of bishops failed to oversee the Church in accord with her own nature. Rather, they managed the Church as one would manage a business, with lawyers and public relations agents. There is no excuse for this.
I for one, as a priest, long to be treated as a priest. I hope to be disciplined as a priest, not as an employee. I wish for my bishop to expect a clean heart of me, not merely a clean legal record. Priests need their bishops to expect them to be men of prayer, sacrifice, and sanctity. It seems that the priests of Los Angeles were called not so much to holiness as to professionalism, and this is why we find this story so disappointing. It would help all of us if Cardinal Mahony could see past events from this perspective.
We are in the pre-Lenten time of the year. Already the altar and priest are clad in purple; already we forgo the alleluia. Ash Wednesday is only ten days away. Please make your Lenten resolutions now, write them down, and prepare to enter Lent running. We must run toward Easter, toward Heaven, with all we have.
An Angel of Satan to beat me
St. Paul had reason to boast, and he had reason to complain. He labored, and he suffered for the Gospel to an extraordinary degree: scourged five times, beaten with rods three times, stoned once, shipwrecked three times, clinging to a piece of wood in the open sea for a day and a night. No man has ever equaled St. Paul in spreading the Gospel. His greatest experience was mystical—an out-of-body experience of the third heaven, hearing “verba arcana,” unutterable words. Because of the “abundance of revelations,” that he might not extol himself, a “thorn in the flesh” was given him. He describes it also as an “angel of Satan to beat me.” It wasn’t just a passing toothache, but a chronic and painful debilitation. Perhaps it was a weakness in his feet or knees, particularly difficult for one who spent his life walking around the Mediterranean region. Maybe it was persistent sexual thoughts. Or perhaps his bad eyes. Or maybe a persistent interpersonal weakness—he was disposed to lose his temper. Maybe it was a tumor, or psoriasis, or insomnia, or alcoholism, or migraines.
“Three times” Paul asked God to heal him—that means, in Biblical language, he asked God over and over for relief. But the Lord did not heal him. And so what did the great St. Paul do? He stopped complaining. He embraced his weaknesses, for the love of Christ. He said: “God’s grace is enough for me.”
Bad anthropology and greedy pharmaceutical companies have teamed up to promote the fantasy of human life without pain. With enough technology or psychology, we are told, we can eliminate any kind of suffering. But St. Paul tells us, from personal experience, that God’s grace, not medication or psychotherapy, makes suffering bearable, even joyful. Yes, we have to try to reduce pain in our lives within reasonable means. We should take Advil, or undergo surgery, or see a counselor, when we need to. But if we find ourselves obsessed with avoiding pain, when we can’t bear any suffering, then we miss life’s deepest joys. Many beautiful things come only through suffering, self-denial, and humble submission to what we cannot control.
Strength in weakness
Suffering purifies our damning illusions of self-reliance. We learn to trust God, in our flesh, when we suffer. With St. Paul, we say “I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships and constraints, for the sake of Christ. For when I am weak, then am I strong.” It is hard to suffer, to be hemmed in by life, to sustain insult peacefully, to smile on even the worst days. But we can rejoice in our sufferings, if we know that … God’s grace is enough. Lent is the time to embrace unavoidable sufferings, and to load on even extra sacrifices, for the love of God. We cannot love Him very much if we do not suffer for him. We cannot contain our own pride unless we discipline our bodies. “Gladly will I boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may dwell within me.”
Our Lady, of course, is the most beautiful example of human weakness. She was a nobody and owned nothing, at the mercy of the men who drove the political machinery around her. She gave herself up to God, heedless of the shame, and found herself in Him. She found that He can be trusted. Let us pray to Holy Mary to help us sacrifice everything for the surpassing joy of knowing God, our Savior.
I was a parish priest for 20 years, and now I am a college chaplain. What’s the difference? In the parish I prepared people for divorce, and in the College I prepare them for marriage.
In the parish, people generally don’t come to the priest until they have a problem, and most of those problems are marriage problems. Some couples come with strong faith in God and solid hope for their marriages. Most, however, come for the last rites. Usually they’ve been living a “married singles” lifestyle for years before I see them. I would ask: “Do you pray the rosary together?” No, father, we don’t know how.
“Do you attend Mass on Sundays?” No, father, we haven’t gone to Mass for years.
“Are you contracepting?” Not anymore—we don’t sleep in the same bed.
“Have you seen a counselor?” No, father, it’s too late for that.
I felt like asking them sternly why they disregarded the Church’s precepts, and why they ignored her wisdom, and why they didn’t come to a priest sooner. But all I could do is comfort them as their marriage broke apart, and as they entered into the dreary and painful desert of the divorced. They could still be saints, if they faced the ongoing trauma of custody battles, financial crises, and darksome loneliness by turning to God in prayer. Many do become saints precisely through the tragedies of divorce, in the way that widows and widowers turn to God. Nevertheless, “preparing people for divorce” greatly pains and discourages the parish priest.
In the College, on the other hand, most of the people I serve are under 21. They are too young to drink, but not too young to prepare for lifelong marriage. Courtship at the two dozen or so serious Catholic colleges in the United States is a major occupation, and rightly so. Not only does College afford them intellectual, social, and spiritual formation—it affords an unprecedented pool of faithful and marriageable Catholics. Interestingly, a significant percentage of students at these colleges have been called to the consecrated state. But living with authentically beautiful men and women anneals their call to virginity for the sake of the kingdom. For the rest, those called to the married state, a lifetime of happy marriage awaits them. They have only to follow the rules. They prepare for marriage by learning to pray alone and together, by sharpening their minds and their bodies for the contests ahead, and by assimilating the patrimonies of art and science. No one expects perfect happiness in their marriages, and they know grave marriage problems are always possible. But the smiles and lightness of foot among these couples lift us all up.
In the parish, a priest can come to resent marriage preparation. Precious few engaged couples take their faith as seriously as they must to avoid divorce. As we witness their vows, we wonder how many will file for divorce within the decade. In the college, however, I have rediscovered the joy of marriage preparation. These young couples—witnesses to purity and joy—have restored my confidence in marriage. If we have despaired of the very nature of marriage (as is evident in the ludicrous push for homosexual “marriage”), we need look no further than these young people to be reassured. Resources:
For those in courtship, I recommend Steve Woods’ The ABC’s of Choosing a Good Husband or The ABC's of Choosing a Good Wife
, as well as a CD set by Steve Woods called Catholic Courtship - A Challenge to Teens & Twenties
. If you are engaged, there is Kimberly Hahn’s Life-Giving Love: Embracing God's Beautiful Design for Marriage.
If you are having difficulties in your marriage, I recommend Michael McManus’ Marriage Savers: Helping Your Friends and Family Avoid Divorce