24 April 2008

Second Conference

Two: "Penetrating the hearts of all things": Eucharist as Moral Fission

Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Day of Reflection, Kenrick Seminary
St Louis, MO
April 24, 2008

I. Pulled in, sent out

This morning I attempted to draw a parallel between the transformation of the Passover meal into the Eucharist and the individual Christian’s transformation from being a person “about Christ” to being Christ. Pope Benedict sees the latter transformation into terms of Jesus transfiguring the foreshadowing of the Passover (the figura) into the truth of the Eucharist (the veritatem). Our Holy Father goes on to note that this transfiguration occurs through the Cross, bringing the promise of the Passover meal into completion, fulfilling the prophetic history of God’s people, and changing our memory of liberation into our liberation in truth. Picking up his mediation on the Eucharist in Sacramentum caritatis, I want to offer for your reflection this afternoon the following question: having shown us our final end with God in Christ through the Holy Spirit, and having accepted this end with our repeated “amen’s” at prayer, what are the moral implications of celebrating the Eucharist; in other words, now that Mass is over and we have been sent out, what do we do and how? Our Holy Father, in the most striking passage I’ve ever read in a papal document, writes that we are to become graced agents of a cosmic moral transfiguration, “a change meant to set off a process which transforms reality, a process leading ultimately to the transfiguration of the entire world, to the point where God will be all in all”(SC 11). The catalyst and the fuel for this radical change is to be found in the transubstantiation of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ.

II. Renewing history & cosmos

At the precise moment that Jesus identifies himself as the lamb of sacrifice in the Passover meal, “[he] shows the salvific meaning of his death and resurrection, a mystery which renews history and the whole cosmos”(SC 10). It is very important to note here that this is not just the renewal of a single people or a single tribe or race, but the re-creation of the cosmos and the re-vision of our history as prophecy fulfilled. We must be very cautious about giving a stingy interpretation to the revelation Jesus makes here. It is tempting to see this revelation as a metaphor, or as a clever way of warning his friends about his fate. Metaphors and clever warnings cannot serve as the re-presentation of Jesus’ sacrifice, what our Holy Father describes as “a supreme act of love and mankind’s definitive deliverance from evil.” I’ve come across a lot of metaphors in my 22 years of teaching English. Never met one that delivered me from evil! Jesus means precisely what Jesus says here. He is the lamb. The sacrifice. And he is the priest and the altar. He is the giver and the gift. When we receive what he offers—himself—we are transformed into a giver and a gift. So, in our service to others, we are not simply “using our talents” or “exercising our graces.” We are, literally, sacrificing self—making the self holy by surrendering the self to service. Remember: we are not baptized to be “about Jesus” nor are we called to be a Body of those who are “about Christ.” It is our re-created nature now to be Christ per se. For this to happen, Christ had to die on the cross.

Now, by taking such a sharp focus on the saving act of the cross and then expanding our view to include the whole of creation, Pope Benedict is both pulling us in and sending us out, pulling us toward the cross and Christ, and sending us out toward the world with Christ. Between being pulled in and sent out there is a space for growth and development. Our Holy Father says about this space: “By [Christ’s] command to ‘do this in remembrance of me,’ he asks us to respond to his gift and to make it sacramentally present. In these words the Lord expresses…his expectation that the Church, born of sacrifice, will receive this gift, developing under the guidance of the Holy Spirit the liturgical form of the sacrament”(SC 11). And it is the liturgical form of the sacrament of remembrance and thanksgiving that fills the space between being called to the cross and sent out from the cross. In other words, the Mass seduces us in, transforms us in sacrifice and communion, and sends us out to do the same to the world.

III. Offering

Now, we know that it is Christ’s death on the cross and his resurrection from the tomb makes it possible for us to participate in the divine re-creation of the world. But how do we, right here and now, actually participate in this divine work? Sure, we can run out to feed the homeless at the shelter, or protest in front of the abortion clinics, or help sort donations at St Vincent de Paul. These are certainly acts of charity. But even these acts of charity as “acts of charity” participate in a pre-existing habit of willing the good for others. Where do we get that will, that habit of loving?

First, our Holy Father notes that we, as the Church, must receive the gift of Christ’s death and resurrection. This only makes sense. Something given to you only becomes a gift once you have received it as a gift. Sacramentally, we receive this gift in the Mass every time we say “amen.” Second, it is not enough that we remember Christ’s perfect gift of himself for us. The Passover meal was a remembrance. We have been delivered from slavery; so, though we may remember our liberation, who we are is free, looking out and forward. Benedict writes, “The remembrance of his perfect gift consists not in the mere repetition of the Last Supper, but in the Eucharist itself, that is, in the radical newness of Christian worship. In this way, Jesus left us the task of entering into his ‘hour’”(SC 11). We enter into Jesus’ hour through the Eucharist. Quoting his own encyclical, Deus caritatis est, Benedict says, “The Eucharist draws us into Jesus’ act of self-oblation. More than statically receive the incarnate Logos, we enter into the very dynamic of his self-giving”(SC 11).

As followers of Christ, we go where he goes. If he goes to the cross and the tomb, so do we. If he gives himself in sacrifice for others, so do we. If he empties himself out in an act of selfless oblation, so do we. And when we do these things, these acts of selfless oblation, we are doing more than just “serving others;” we are connecting ourselves to the “dynamic of [Christ’s] self-giving.” We are also participating in setting the stage for the dramatic re-creation of the cosmos. Having accomplished the possibility of our salvation and having brought to consummation the prophetic history of God’s people and having drawn the Body, the Church into his service, Christ prepares us to do the most extraordinary thing: transfigure the entire world!

IV. Transfiguring the world

Our Holy Father’s focus in Sacarmentum caritatis is the Eucharist as the “sacrament of love.” For us, the Eucharist is a sign of Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary, pointing to and making present the once-for-all self-oblation of Jesus on the cross. When we step into the Eucharist as those redeemed by Christ’s sacrifice, we step out of history and into eternity. The Mass is not a re-sacrifice of Christ. Such a thing is wholly unnecessary because the man on those wooden beams is God. And since it is God incarnate who died for us, our flesh, our human nature, is “taken up” into his death and resurrection. Everything he healed, he assumed; which means everything about us is healed! Every injury, every disease, every breach of the covenant since the garden, every sin we have ever committed or will commit is cured, closed-up, made fresh and new. And not only that—yes, there is more!—the whole of creation is brought back into “right relationship” with God’s plan.

The liturgical celebration of Christ’s sacrifice is not just a pageant that forces us to remember. Of course, we remember; but we also re-collect, re-store, re-new that which makes us perfect in Him—His likeness and image that makes us His sons. The work of the Eucharist is to make us God, to bring us into the perfected participation of the divine, to share His life intimately, passionately. Aquinas teaches us that we come to be “deiformed.” He says that “God become man so that man might become God.” Cyril of Alexandria says that we “become Christs,” we live the life of Christ. And as such, we are agents of a creaturely transfiguration. How?

Benedict, in a highly underappreciated passage in SC writes, “The substantial conversion of bread and wine into [Christ’s] body and blood introduces within creation the principle of a radical change, a sort of ‘nuclear fission’…which penetrates to the heart of all being…” As we are pulled into Christ’s self-oblation as members of his Body, we are transformed; then our transformed hearts and minds and bodies, once we are sent out, spreads out to all of creation. Literally, we take Christ to the world in our bodies. The principle of radical change introduced to creation is this: God is love, He is the Will that wills the Good, and we are His transfiguring instruments. However, we are not merely human instruments, merely agents of social change or cultural revolution, we are His Christs sent to offer ourselves in sacrifice for others. There is no half-participation, no means of simply playing along to play along. We change the world or we stay at home.

Benedict uses the phrase “nuclear fission” to describe what happens at the prayer of consecration. At that moment, the divine touches the human most intimately, and we are forever altered. The purpose of this transubstantiation is not merely ritualistic or symbolic or something akin to changing the meaning of the bread and wine for us. All of there are forms of weak participation, pale imitations of a wholly beautiful reality. Think for a moment: if all we are going in the Mass is redirecting our attention to our final goal or shifting the meaning of food and drink in order to build up community with a shared meal, then we have tragically limited the work of the cross and the empty tomb! In the same way, if we believe that what we are doing is simply remembering his sacrifice, recalling again his confession to being the sacrificial Lamb of Passover, then nothing substantial has taken place. We have jogged our memories, soothed our immediate need for comfort, and ignored the most powerful means we have for transfiguring the world.

Note again that Benedict describes the Eucharist as a “process leading ultimately to the transfiguration of the entire world, to the point where God will be all in all”(SC 11). Do we want God to be all in all as a symbol? As a shift in definition? As a re-set goal post? No! That’s not why Christ died. These are not worth the Passion and the blood of the cross. And what’s more, none of these sparks us out into the world like a nuclear fission. From the altar at the prayer of consecration the body and blood of Christ from the cross on Calvary splashes out, flies out to the “heart of being” and readies all of creation to receive its Creator. The sacrament of love—Who Is God Himself—can do nothing less!

V. Now what?

If everything said here is true, then we have only one Path to walk, one Work to complete: we follow Christ doing what he did—preaching the Good News, teaching sound doctrine, admonishing the sinner, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, honoring the poor, and loving, loving, loving. And because the world is ruled for now by a dark spirit, we prepare ourselves for resistance, for enmity, and dissent. But because the world is a gift from Goodness Himself, we do not despair rather we work in joy and hope.

For your reflection: how am I a spark of the nuclear fission that flies from the altar of sacrifice? How do I contribute to the transfiguration of the world? Am I prepared to live in creation where God will be all in all?

23 April 2008

First Conference

One: "figura transit in veritatem: Jesus' radical novum

Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Day of Recollection, Kenrick Seminary
St. Louis, MO
April 24, 2008

I. from figura to veritatem through the cross

On the cross, as he breathes his last, our Lord says, “…it is finished.” He dies. And it is finished. We should wonder though, what is finished? It is clear from the events that follows his death that what the Lord came to do is not finished. And it should be ever more starkly clear that the work he has given us to do is unfinished. Though we have work left undone, we are not left undone by the work remaining. In fact, what is finished on the cross is precisely that relationship between God and His creatures that makes what we have left to do here not only possible but complete; that is, the work of evangelization, of preaching and teaching the Word is made possible for us because Christ himself has already finished the job. This leaves for us then the work of catching up, of “living through to” what Christ has already accomplished on the Cross and out of the Empty Tomb. If this is true, then can we say that as preachers and teachers of the Word, we ourselves are “figures transforming into truth”? Pope Benedict XVI teaches in his apostolic exhortation, Sacramentum caritatis, that the radical novum of Jesus, initiated by our Blessed Mother’s fiat and finished on the Cross, is the transformation of the figura of the Passover meal into the veritatem of the Eucharist. For your reflection today, let me put it to you that there is a parallel between this transformation and the transformation of the human person from being a figura of Christ among us to being the veritatem of Christ for us—from the mere foreshadowing of who is to come to he who is with us and for us.

Our Holy Father, writes in his apostolic exhortation, “The mission for which Jesus came among us was accomplished [finished] in the Paschal Mystery. On the Cross from which he draws all people to himself, just before ‘giving up the Spirit,’ he utters the words: ‘it is finished.’ In the mystery of Christ's obedience unto death, even death on a Cross, the new and eternal covenant was brought about”(SC 9). In one act of surrender, Christ accomplishes two, apparently contradictory tasks: he ends his public ministry by dying publicly and by dying he makes the continuation of his ministry possible. His “obedience to death” on the Cross is the act that moves his ministry out of history, into the eternal with the Father, and back into history through his Spirit and with the Church. With the divine breath of Pentecost, the apostles and disciples are shaped into the Church, charged with setting the world on fire with the Word, and sent out to free all of creation from the slavery to sin. Our Holy Father writes, “In [Christ’s] crucified flesh, God’s freedom and our human freedom met definitively in an inviolable, eternally valid pact.” We can conclude from this that the transformation of the human person from the figura of Christ to the vertitatem of Christ for others is the transformation of that person in perfect freedom. Each of us then is a project of the Lamb, each of us an object of his mission, a focal point for the “taking away of sins.” And, since we are happy to be called to his supper, we eat and drink and take our fill before moving out, eagerly setting out again, into the world, to not only preach and teach the Word, to tell others about Christ, but to be Christ for others, to practice the fine art of being the Lamb, of being the sacrifice, of being the sacramental sign that points to and makes possible the transfiguration of the world.

II. from ritual commemoration to definitive liberation

With his dying breath on the cross, Christ pronounced, for the ears of history to hear, his signature, his seal on the last covenant between Creator and creature: “It is finished.” As Benedict notes in his exhortation, the covenant meal that foreshadows the Eucharist is the Passover meal. He writes: “This ritual meal, which called for the sacrifice of lambs, was a remembrance of the past, but at the same time a prophetic remembrance of a deliverance yet to come. The people had come to realize that their earlier liberation was not definitive, for their history continued to be marked by slavery and sin” (SC 10). The insufficiency of animal sacrifice to fulfill the prophetic promise of the Passover marks for the people of God an incomplete revelation of their salvation history; that is, though the Passover meal is more than sufficient to mark the past, to celebrate the theophanies of God in Egypt and in the desert, no amount of animal sacrifice could bring them to the “deliverance yet to come.” Merely remembering the past fails to enlighten the present in a way that transforms the future. More is needed; therefore, our Holy Father writes: “The remembrance of their ancient liberation [was] expanded to the invocation and expectation of a yet more profound, radical, universal and definitive salvation”(SC 10).

Embodying this “invocation and expectation,” Christ with his last words on the cross, his spirit commended and released to the Father, introduces a radical gift into the salvation history of God’s people. At the Last Supper, Jesus transforms the Passover meal into the Eucharist. Benedict writes: “In the prayer of praise, the Berakah, [Jesus] does not simply thank the Father for the great events of past history, but also for his own ‘exhalation.’ In instituting the sacrament of the Eucharist, Jesus anticipates and makes present the sacrifice of the Cross and the victory of the resurrection”(SC 10). Sitting at table and eating with his friends, Jesus takes the familiar meal of his people and makes it into something else entirely. He reveals himself to be the sacrificial lamb, the one who will take away the sins of the world. This is the beginning of the promise, just the start of a new and final covenant that will seal the salvific history of all humanity and deliver us whole and secure into the hands of the Father. We will no longer merely remember God’s mighty deeds nor will we wait in anticipation of His mighty deeds. We are now and will always be God’s mighty deeds; we are divine acts set loose to do what Christ did: “…whoever believes in me will do the works that I do AND will do greater ones than these (John 14.12). That this is possible at all is a gift.

III. from gift to giving

What exactly is Christ’s gift to us? Quickly, we might say “salvation” or “God’s love” or “forgiveness.” We could say that he donates himself as our connection between memory and What Is To Come. He forms the bridge between God and Man. Christ, as fully divine and fully human, unites Creator and creature in a relationship that binds for eternity. All true. But all of these are the result of his gift, happy products of his donation and our reception of his donation. What is donated?

Remembering again by looking back to God’s rescue of the Jews from Egyptian slavery, we can see a “figure” of what is to come for us all—Jew and Gentile alike. We can anticipate our delivery from the slavery to sin. We do this as a Church who embodies in her liturgy that very rescue: the liturgical year compresses our salvation history into a series of public works that mark in time the progress of our trek from chains to freedom. Even more profound, the Church takes this liturgical year and concentrates this series of public works into one work of praise and thanksgiving: the Eucharist. While we look a little closer at the liturgy, let’s not lose sight of the fundamental question: what is it that Christ donates on the cross?

We can say that the Church’s liturgy (especially the Eucharist) is more than an opportunity to teach Christian morality, more than a moment of spiritual refreshment, and more than exhortation to be socially just. Our public work as the Church is the Christian life concentrated, highly focused, and distilled into a moment of intense clarity, an instant where God meets the human need for transformation. In our liturgies, as the Body of Christ, we perform acts of sacrifice, acts of sanctification by assenting to, surrendering to the salvific history that Christ embodies; in other words, the Church’s liturgy (again, most especially the Eucharist) is that moment and that place where the human person meets his/her final end: the transfiguration of the merely human into the perfectly human through Christ.

We are not simply reorienting the Christian moral life toward “being good” behaviorally. Nor are we simply restoring a broken down but salvageable spiritual life. If we take seriously the prayer of the Church’s liturgy, we cannot help but come away from its celebration stunned by what we have experienced and overwhelmed by what we have committed ourselves to: the satisfaction of an ecstatic desire for Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, a desire to be Truth, Goodness and Beauty in the world and for the world. Benedict writes: “The institution of the Eucharist demonstrates how Jesus’ death, for all its violence and absurdity, become in him a supreme act of love and mankind’s definitive deliverance from evil”(SC 10). Yes, we are delivered from evil and death to goodness and life, but even more: Jesus’ supreme act of love, his kenosis on the Cross, makes us Christ.

Traditionally called “theosis” or “divinization,” our being made into Christ is the graced process whereby the believer is transformed into He Who Is Believed. The imperfect creature who loves imperfectly is perfected by the perfect Creator who is Love. And there is only one way to accomplish this act of divine mercy: the giver of all good gifts must make of Himself a good gift and give Himself freely to us. Christ’s death on the Cross is a sacrifice, made present in the Eucharist, carried forward into the world by those who receive him as gift in communion; but that sacrifice on the cross is an act of vanity unless it is God who dies there, God who is donated, given up.

IV. Now what?

I said earlier that there is a parallel between Jesus’ transformation of the Passover meal into the Eucharist and the transformation of the human person from the figura of Christ among us to the veritatem of Christ for us. Just as Christ’s death on the cross is foreshadowed in the Passover meal, so his death is presented again in the Eucharistic sacrifice. The moment that binds the two, that moves his death for us from figure to truth, from foreshadow to fact is completed on the cross, Jesus breathes his last, “It is finished.” It is now possible for us to become Christ; it is possible for us—each of us—to move from being a figure of Christ, an outline of Christ, to being Christ in truth. And though we may think that this is an occasion of joy—and it is—it is most fundamentally a somber occasion as we take in all that this move means for us. Having been “fleshed out” as Christ for others in the sacrifice of the Mass, we are now flesh and blood and bone for the world; our hearts and minds and spirits sacrificed—literally, made holy in surrender—by our repeated “amens” and our bold communion. With every “amen,” and most especially in the eating of his Body and the drinking of his Blood, you become a little less your own, a little more His, and every bit ours. Remember: the celebration of the Mass is not about strength for moral fortitude or righteous energy for social justice or even a chance to be truly pious. The Mass brings into the presence of the divine so that we might see our end, taste what is coming for us, and clearly see that the road from here to there is paved with the works Christ has left undone for us for finish. The Mass is not about the Church. It is the Church. The Mass is not about Christ. It is Christ. The Mass is not about our salvation. It is our salvation. We are not waiting on the coming of the Lord. He is here. We are not remembering our liberation. We are free. We are not gambling on a future in heaven. We have something far better than the odds: we have hope, the guarantee that our Father keeps His promises.

For your reflection: what do you need to do to move from being a figura of Christ to being Christ in veritatem? In other words, what do you need to do to move from being ABOUT Christ to BEING Christ?

Question for Mass: what are you doing when you say “amen”? Rather than routinely mumble “amen” on cue, listen very carefully to what it is that you are saying “amen” to. Why? Because you are committing yourself—heart and soul—to that prayer.

Is your joy complete?

5th Week of Easter (R)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Kenrick Seminary Chapel

Jesus says to his disciples: “As the Father loves me, so I also love you. Remain in my love. . .I have told you this so that my joy might be in you and your joy might be complete.” This is the latest claim by Jesus about his mission among us. Before this he has claimed to be a sword come to sown division. He has claimed to be the Lamb of God come to be our sacrifice. He has claimed to be the Son of God come to make us children of the Father. He has claimed to be the fulfillment of the Law—Love Himself. And he has claimed: “When you see me, you see the Father also.” Now, with his disciples, he claims to an infusion of joy, that joy so perfect that once infused completes the joy we share as creatures of a mighty God. Let me ask you: is your joy complete?

Peter, standing before the Apostles and priests of the Church, answering those who would burden the Gentiles with the Law, proclaims, “…God, who knows the heart, bore witness by granting [the Gentiles] the Holy Spirit just as he did us.” Fellow Gentiles, we have been granted the Holy Spirit! Now, as spirit-filled men of God, we share unceasingly in the love that the Father has for the Son, the same love that the Father and the Son share with the Spirit. And in His love, we are His sons, heirs to His kingdom. We are made priests, prophets, and kings of a New Covenant, followers behind Christ on the Way.

Peter, chosen by God to bring the Good News to the Gentiles, goes on to argue that, “[God] made no distinction between [the Jews] and [the Gentiles], for by faith he purified [the Gentiles’] hearts.” With our purified hearts, we have enthusiastically received the Holy Spirit, and we now live passionate lives steeped in the boundless love of Love Himself. Living in Love—preaching and teaching the gospel, offering sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving, doing the works that Christ himself did—we rejoice! Or, do we? Let me ask you: is your joy complete?

You can say yes. You can say no. And your answer would be true. If you answer yes, then praise God for His gift and ready yourself to be thrown into the world as a sheep among wolves. If you answer no, then praise God for His gift and ready yourself to be thrown into the world as a sheep among wolves. Ready or not, you will be thrown out, booted out as a living sign that our Father keeps His promises. Your joy—completed or not—must be contagious, infectious, downright unstoppable! Why? Because there is too much at stake for you to waffle, even for a moment, in the work you have to do. The temptation for you is to think that you are not ready. That your joy is imperfect; that your joy is immature, weak before a world firmly held in the power of darkness. And even if this is true, so what? Poison the darkness with the joy you have!

The genuis of the Church is that you—alone, just you—do not have to do the work of Christ by yourself. WE do this work. We, all of us with you, get booted into the dark. And we, all of us with you, call upon the Spirit we have been given to shine out the bright light of Christ. If my joy is incomplete, then I look to you for a donation, a gift of your joy. And if your joy is incomplete, then we both—together—look to the Body for what we need. You see, our gifts do not divide us as a Church. We are not divided by the graces we have received. What divides us is the failure to receive these gifts as gifts and to use them in the single purpose, the unique spirit that they are given. Yes, my gifts, used for the work of Christ, perfect me. And you yours. But our imperfect use of these gifts finds its perfection in the love of God for us. I do not “have a role in the Church.” Nor do you. I do not “function in the Church.” Nor do you. My role, my function, your role, your function are all merely mechanical, merely utilitarian. They are not who we are in the Church. It is when we look to the Body for her love, for her servant spirit and when we are fundamentally motivated by that love and spirit that our jobs are transfigured from “church work” to the Work of God.

Is your joy complete? Yes? Praise God! No? Praise God! Do His will and your imperfection will be made perfect. In his address to this country’s young people and seminarians, our Holy Father says, “At times…we are tempted to close in on ourselves, to doubt the strength of Christ’s radiance, to limit the horizon of hope. Take courage!. . .Authentic Christian discipleship is marked by a sense of wonder. We stand before the God we know and love as a friend, the vastness of his creation, and the beauty of our Christian faith.” Surely, brothers, standing in awe before an empty cross and tomb, our joy is complete!

Pic credit: Roi James

22 April 2008

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Dominican Liturgy

Fr. Augustine Thompson, OP of the University of Virginia has done the Order and the Catholic world a huge service!

Over the last year or so Fr. Thompson has been posting on NLM a series of essays on the Dominican liturgy. Now, he has put these essays and a whole slew of other great info on a single blogsite for our education, inspiration, and delight.

Check it out: Dominican Liturgy.

And, please, all bloggers: link to the site and give it a mention (especially Jeff Miller, Mark Shea, Amy Welborn, Gerald Augustinus!) Come on, help a poor friar out!

Fr. Philip, OP

St Louis

I will be off tomorrow to the great city of St Louis, MO! Will be back sometime Saturday.

I have been invited to give a Day of Reflection to the seminarians of Kenrick Seminary.

The talks and the homily from this trip will be posted as soon as they are done. . .and I will also podcast the presentations.

Fr. Philip, OP

21 April 2008

Coverage of BXVI

Excellent coverage of the M.S.M's anti-Catholic bigotry over at NewsBusters.

One of the most common tactics of the Catholic-haters is to set these ridiculous "mile markers" for Church progress (women's ordination, allowing birth control, etc.) and then blasting the Church as "medieval" when the Holy Father fails to deliver on their pre-packaged lefty agenda.

What's vastly amusing, of course, is that most of the people fabricating these agenda items aren't Catholic, or are "former Catholics," i.e. Catholics who are angry at the Church for calling their favorite sin a Sin. That there are Wolves in Sheep Clothing out there (McBrien, Chittister, ad nau) only adds to the structural stability of the media illusion that Catholics are a bunch of Leftist Zealots barely restrained in their social engineering fervor by paper-thin documents from the Vatican.

Frankly, our Holy Father is extraordinarily impressive: brilliant thinker, excellent writer, a fine gentleman and statesman, and (to quote my students) an "Awesome Pope, dude!"

On the other hand, the media folks strike me as pinched, mean-spirited, ideologically driven, wholly untrustworthy, mostly uneducated despite their Ivy League degrees, and just plain hateful at times.

Never knew you...

St Anselm: Eph 3.14-19 and Matt 7.21-29
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Priory

Here you are. At the end of a long life. You have spent your adult life in the Church. You sang in the choir. Served on the parish council. Worked every year at the capital fundraising fair. Once a week at confession, daily Mass. Never missed an Ash Wednesday and said your rosary even before the first cup of coffee. You were absolutely faithful in your marriage, raised the kids in the Church, sent them to good Catholic grade schools and then to U.D. You volunteered for every mission trip that came around. Now, here you are, just about ready to die. No one who knew you would think that you were anything but the best Catholic, the most sincere Christian, and that once you has passed on you would take the express elevator straight to the throne of God. And this is very likely exactly what will happen. But we have one caution from Jesus, just a small warning: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the Kingdom of heaven…Many will say to me on that day…’Lord, did we not do might deeds in your name? [Go to the homeless shelter, protest the abortion clinic, give money to Catholic Charities, attend every First Saturday Mass, pray novenas to St Jude, visit the grieving, gave lots of money to the Dominicans!] Did we not do might deeds in your name? Then I will declare to them solemnly, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers.’”

You have to thinking at this point: “He never knew me!? Who’s he calling an evildoer!?” What is Jesus doing here? At the very least, he is teasing out for us the delicate balance we must achieve between the fervor of our faith in him AND the quality and amount of work we do for others in his name. Faith and no works is dead. All works but done without faith is also dead. Jesus puts it to us this way: “…only the one who does the will of my Father [will enter the Kingdom of heaven].” So, cry “Lord, Lord” and pray without ceasing all you want; break your back doing social justice works for the poor and oppressed all you want. But if you pray outside the will of the Father or you do good works outside the will of the Father, then Jesus will say to you on the last day, “I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers.”

Yes, this seems harsh. Even slightly cruel. But if we understand what Jesus means by “doing the will of the Father,” the blow is somewhat softened. Turning to Paul in his letter to the Ephesians, we learn a bit more about how to come to know Christ so that Christ might know you on the last day. Paul prays for the Ephesian church, “I kneel before the Father…that he may grant you…that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.” First, faith is granted to us, given to us. Our ability to trust God is a gift. Think of it as a seed you must nurture with prayer and good works. Paul continues to pray, “…that he may grant that you, rooted and grounded in love, may have the strength to comprehend…to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge…” Love surpasses knowledge, faith precedes understanding; willing the Good, doing the Good trumps merely knowing about the Good. And we love, according to Paul’s prayer, “so that [we] may be filled with all the fullness of God.”

On the last day, when looks into your face, will he see a long, honorable tradition of good works? Will he see a fervent prayer life, a life faithful to the sacraments and scripture. Or, will he look into your face and see there reflected his own face: a life strengthened by the Spirit, rooted and grounded in love, a life of breadth, length, height and depth, measured on all sides by the immeasurable fullness of God who dwells within you? Will our God Who Is Love on the last day see the face of Christ in you, a single will to will one thing? Love. If so, you will NOT enter heaven on the last day. Why not? Because you have been there all along.

20 April 2008

. . .the MONEY paragraphs. . .

There were many amazing moments in our Holy Father's address to Catholic educators. The following two are most definitely the MONEY paragraphs:

More and more people - parents in particular - recognize the need for excellence in the human formation of their children. As Mater et Magistra, the Church shares their concern. When nothing beyond the individual is recognized as definitive, the ultimate criterion of judgment becomes the self and the satisfaction of the individual's immediate wishes. The objectivity and perspective, which can only come through a recognition of the essential transcendent dimension of the human person, can be lost. Within such a relativistic horizon the goals of education are inevitably curtailed. Slowly, a lowering of standards occurs. We observe today a timidity in the face of the category of the good and an aimless pursuit of novelty parading as the realization of freedom [BAM!]. We witness an assumption that every experience is of equal worth and a reluctance to admit imperfection and mistakes. And particularly disturbing, is the reduction of the precious and delicate area of education in sexuality to management of 'risk', bereft of any reference to the beauty of conjugal love [OUCH!!!].

[. . .]

In regard to faculty members at Catholic colleges universities, I wish to reaffirm the great value of academic freedom. In virtue of this freedom you are called to search for the truth wherever careful analysis of evidence leads you. Yet it is also the case that any appeal to the principle of academic freedom in order to justify positions that contradict the faith and the teaching of the Church would obstruct or even betray the university's identity and mission [as we used to say in the early 90's: "Whoop, there it is!"]; a mission at the heart of the Church's munus docendi and not somehow autonomous or independent of it.

Authentic freedom = Jesus Christ (Revised)

5th Sunday of Easter: Acts 6.1-7; 1 Peter 2.4-9; John 14.1-12
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Paul
and Church of the Incarnation

[NB. If you listen to the podcast of this homily you might notice something a little odd...just maybe...I was pretty much blown away by the Holy Father's homilies during his visit. At several points in this homily I had to restrain myself from "Going Baptist" and spending a hour or so preaching from B16's homily texts! Several times I got a little choked up and had to collect myself. We have been blessed by a truly amazing Pope!]

Jesus says to us, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” Can we hear this gentle admonition without thinking, “Easy for you to say!”? Ten minutes on the internet or fifteen listening to the news and my heart is convinced that the earth is shaking in its last throes before splitting pole to pole and sending us all—man, beast, plant, and rock—into a fiery fall toward the sun! We read that the housing market is crashing the economy. Food prices are racing to the highest in decades. Iran is jockeying for a place among the exclusive nuclear weapons club. China is polluting its environment at twice the speed of light. These are macro problems. On the micro-level we have an “artist” at Yale inseminating herself with donated sperm, getting pregnant, and then inducing miscarriages, all filmed and displayed as an art project. Another “artist” in Costa Rica has chained a stray dog to a museum wall and is letting it starve to death. (Apparently, there is an art to both murder and dog catching!) But even as we recoil from these examples of rotting cultural decadence, we can hear Jesus saying to us, “Do not let your hearts be troubled!” And why not? “You have faith in God; have faith also in me.” Faith is the good habit of trusting God, we know this. But do we know where we are going and do we know how to get there? Touching our anxious hearts, Jesus says, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Therefore, Jesus himself is the means to our end (the way); he is the Wisdom of that means (the truth); and he is our end (the life).

Indeed, Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. He is our mission, our ministry, and our goal. He is our work, our standard, and our wage. As the only gate through which we might come to the Father, he is our unique path, our singular goodness, and our beautiful conclusion. Lest we believe that the road is broad, smoothly paved, and easily traveled, listen again to this difficult fact: Jesus says, “Where I am going you know the way.” We do? Then why do we so often feel lost? Why do we so often feel like we have been thrown into a mess? The view from the window can be bleak, heartbreaking: recession, unemployment, war; the consistent defeat of life by a culture of death: torture, rampant disease, inconvenient lives ended by judicial decree, sometimes in the name of mercy, sometimes for the bottom-line, sometimes for the sake of art or state sponsored vengeance. Do we know the way that Jesus is going? We do if we know him.

In his letter, Peter calls on his brothers and sisters: “Come to him, a living stone, rejected by human beings but chosen and precious in the sight of God…” A living stone. Jesus the Christ lives in his Church, the Body. We know this because we live. He lives in us just as the Father lives in him and he in the Father. And living here does not mean that we merely process food, water, and oxygen; nor does it mean that we move about, working, playing, sleeping; nor does “living” mean that we are waiting for death. To live in Christ is to grow in his truth; to progress in his ministry to bring the Good News to all creation; to live in Christ is to nurture the seeds of goodness and broadcast them to every corner, every field, every garden, every heart we meet.

Peter says that Jesus is a “living stone,” a “cornerstone...a rock that will make [those who reject him] fall…” We build with stones. Build up and out. Solid and strong. We also defend ourselves with stone; we build against enemies, “wall-off” when assaulted. Stones mark a site for us to gather, to eat together, to drink together. Stones anchor, lend strength, provide protection, weigh the rolling ship. In the storm of cultural chaos, Jesus is the keystone to a beautiful Church—arches, alcoves, windows and doors. Our trust in the Father then is built-up, over time, with practice, through His goodness and truth, with one another for the other, and in His name!

Our Holy Father, Benedict XVI, in his address to this country’s young people and seminarians, says, “[an] area of darkness that which affects the mind often goes unnoticed, and for this reason is particularly sinister. The manipulation of truth distorts our perception of reality, and tarnishes our imagination and aspirations. . .The fundamental importance of freedom must be rigorously safeguardedYet freedom is a delicate value. It can be misunderstood or misused so as to lead not to the happiness which we all expect it to yield, but to a dark arena of manipulation in which our understanding of self and the world becomes confused, or even distorted by those who have an ulterior agenda.” For those who walk the Way, our freedom may not serve a lie. Our Holy Father goes on to ask a question that cuts to the heart of our culture of death: “Have you noticed how often the call for freedom is made without ever referring to the truth of the human person?” Fire up your internet connection, turn on the TV, open a newspaper. . .and notice! The “freedom” to sex without consequence trumps the truth of our human end as co-creators with God. The “freedom” to kill an unborn child trumps the truth of that child’s divine origin and its humanity. The “freedom” to profit from another’s labor without regard to the dignity of the person trumps the truth of our human need to work in order to live. We cannot have sex without creating; kill our children without destroying our future; nor exploit those who need to work without poisoning our economy; we cannot do these things and at the same time excuse ourselves by shamelessly mumbling the word “freedom.”

To be free is to walk the path of truth. Just this morning, in New York City, at a Mass in Yankee Stadium, our Holy Father preached, “True freedom blossoms when we turn away from the burden of sin, which clouds our perceptions and weakens our resolve, and find the source of our ultimate happiness in him who is infinite love, infinite freedom, infinite life. [Quoting Dante’s Paradiso,] ‘In his will is our peace.’ Real freedom, then, is God’s gracious gift, the fruit of conversion to his truth, the truth which makes us free. And this freedom in truth brings in its wake a new and liberating way of seeing reality. When we put on 'the mind of Christ' new horizons open before us!"

Let’s ask the question of the despairing postmodern heart; this is Pilate’s question to Jesus: what is truth? Benedict teaches us: “Dear friends, [he says] truth is not an imposition. Nor is it simply a set of rules. It is a discovery of the One who never fails us; the One whom we can always trust. In seeking truth we come to live by belief because ultimately truth is a person: Jesus Christ.” What does this mean? It means that we cannot start our search for truth in formulae, argument, texts, experience, or work. We must start with Jesus Christ. How? Jesus himself says to his disciples: “The Father who dwells in me is doing his works…whomever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these…” To be truly free then is to do what Jesus did and to do it as his Body, the Church. Benedict elaborates, “…authentic freedom is not an opting out. It is an opting in; nothing less than letting go of self and allowing oneself to be drawn into Christ’s very being for others.” Do we draw ourselves into the very being of Christ and do his work for others when we abort our children; abuse the gift of our sexuality; torture our enemies; execute our criminals—the guilty and the innocent; allow greed for profit to destroy our means of living; do we grow in holiness by refusing in our pride to listen to Christ’s church; by exercising our “rights” against the truth of the faith, creating dissent and scandal? No. We spread lies and multiply despair. Benedict says to the Catholic educators of this country: “Truth means more than knowledge: knowing the truth leads us to discover the good.”

Jesus must be the “living stone” of our lives together. We are lost, living a lie, and without a purpose if we refuse to place this living stone at the foundation of the structures we hope to build as a holy people. Peter writes, “…let yourselves be built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” What our God wants for sacrifice on His altar is the believer’s contrite heart, and from this pile of repentant stones, hearts turned from falsehood to truth, from selfishness to love, with these pure gifts, He will build His kingdom.

*NB. I am not suggesting here that this list of sins against human dignity are all morally equivalent. Obviously, abortion is its own genus of depravity.

+ + + + +

from Pope Benedict XVI’s homily at Yankee Stadium (4/20/08):

"My dear young friends, like the seven men, "filled with the Spirit and wisdom" whom the Apostles charged with care for the young Church, may you step forward and take up the responsibility which your faith in Christ sets before you! May you find the courage to proclaim Christ, "the same, yesterday, and today and for ever" and the unchanging truths which have their foundation in him. These are the truths that set us free! They are the truths which alone can guarantee respect for the inalienable dignity and rights of each man, woman and child in our world – including the most defenseless of all human beings, the unborn child in the mother’s womb. In a world where, as Pope John Paul II, speaking in this very place, reminded us, Lazarus continues to stand at our door, let your faith and love bear rich fruit in outreach to the poor, the needy and those without a voice. Young men and women of America, I urge you: open your hearts to the Lord’s call to follow him in the priesthood and the religious life. Can there be any greater mark of love than this: to follow in the footsteps of Christ, who was willing to lay down his life for his friends?"

--read to the students just before the final blessing/dismissal