Sunday, April 29, 2012

What's in a Name?

I'm in St. Charles, Missouri, right outside St. Louis these days for a parish mission at Saints Joachim and Ann parish.  As always, I preached at all the Masses this weekend and invited the parishioners to take advantage of this opportunity where you don't have to go away to make a retreat but where the retreat comes to the parish.  Here's a bit of my homily:

We've all heard the expression, "What's in a name?"  It's a dismissive expression meant to say that names are not important.  What's important is the person.  But in the first reading, part of St. Peter's speech in Acts Chapter 4, we hear about a name that is very important as well as powerful.  It's a name that can heal a crippled man.  It's the only name, according to St. Peter, "under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved."  It's the name "Jesus." 

Several years ago a fifth grader asked me, "What was Jesus' middle name?"  I asked him what was Jesus' last name and he answered, "Christ."  I told him that at the time of Jesus they didn't have last names or middle names the way we do and that "Christ" was actually a title and not a name.  It means "Anointed One." 

At each of our baptisms we were given this title--"Christian"--for at baptism we were anointed with the Sacred Chrism.  We were joined to the Body of Christ and became Christians, Anointed Ones.  In the second reading from the First Letter of John we hear that God has bestowed a great love "on us that we may be called children of God."  But we are God's children not just in name but in reality for St. John continues: "Yet so we are."  This is not only our name but our deepest identity.

Every Fourth Sunday of Easter is known as "Good Shepherd Sunday" because that is what our Gospel is about.  It is also World Day of Prayer of Prayer for Vocations.  The Holy Father writes a special message for this day every year and in his message this year Pope Benedict quoted St. Paul's Letter to the Ephesians 1: 5.  God "chose us, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and without blemish before him in love."  Commenting on this, Pope Benedict wrote: "We are loved by God even 'before' we come into existence! ... every human person is the fruit of God's thought and an act of his love, a love that is boundless, faithful and everlasting."  Think of it: God had you in mind from all eternity.  The thoughts of God are eternal.  It wasn't as though 9 or 10 months before your birth God decided, "I think I'll make so-and-so."  From all eternity God planned to create you.  You give God a pleasure and glory that no other person can give him. 

Then Pope Benedict wrote: "The discovery of this reality is what truly and profoundly changes our lives. ... Dear brothers and sisters, we need to open our lives to this love.  It is to the perfection of the Father's love (cf. Mt 5: 48) that Jesus Christ calls us every day!  The high standard of the Christian life consists in loving 'as' God loves; with a love that is shown in the total, faithful and fruitful gift of self."

God loves totally.  This is the meaning of the story of the Good Shepherd.  Unlike the "hired man" who runs when the wolf comes, the Good Shepherd risks his life for the sheep.  I suspect this teaching would have been shocking to those listening to Jesus.  What human would risk his or her life to protect animals?  It is just as shocking that God would do such a thing for his human creatures.  God became human, suffered, and died.  God sacrificed all to save his human flock.  We must be worth very much for God to do this. 

But we are not just sheep.  Our baptism has raised us up and joined us to Christ, the Good Shepherd.  We are called and empowered now to love as God loves, to make a total gift of ourselves to God and to his human flock for whom he sacrificed all.  At baptism we were anointed to be Good Shepherds with Christ.  We received the Holy Spirit to empower us to love like the Good Shepherd.  The Sacred Chrism with which we were anointed is used on only a few special occasions.  When this church building was first consecrated its walls were anointed with the Sacred Chrism, setting this space aside for a sacred purpose, for worship.  At the same time the altar of this church was anointed with Chrism, setting it aside for a sacred purpose, for worship.When I was ordained my hands were anointed with Sacred Chrism, setting them aside for a sacred purpose, for worship.  And when each of us was baptised and confirmed, we were anointed with Sacred Chrism, setting each one of us aside for a sacred purpose, for worship.  We fulfill this task by gathering as we do today to worship God together.  But we also worship God when we leave Mass.  We are called to worship God with each moment of our day.  Our entire life is meant to be an act of worship, an act of love for God and his flock.  The Morning Offering helps us to begin each day mindful of our holy call to worship God in our daily lives. 

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Holy Communion Prayers

In preparing for my recent Divine Mercy talk, I came upon two prayers of St. Faustina that capture what it means to live a Eucharistic life.  This is the spirituality that we propose in the Apostleship of Prayer--to live the Eucharist in daily life by making an offering of ourselves one day at a time.  What empowers us to do this is our union with Christ and the transformation that follows.  I think these two prayers from St. Faustina's Diary express that mission and desire of ours.

Most sweet Jesus, set on fire my love for You and transform me into Yourself.  Divinize me that my deeds may be pleasing to You.  May this be accomplished by the power of the Holy Communion which I receive daily.  Oh, how greatly I desire to be wholly transformed into You, O Lord! [#1289]

Jesus, make my heart like unto Yours, or rather transform it into Your own Heart that I may sense the needs of other hearts, especially those who are sad and suffering.  May the rays of mercy rest in my heart. [#514]

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Sacred Heart and Divine Mercy

Last Sunday I led Divine Mercy devotions at Marytown, the National Shrine of St. Maximillian Kolbe, who was a contemporary of St. Faustina. I talked about devotion to the Sacred and Merciful Heart of Jesus.

An optional closing prayer for the Divine Mercy chaplet goes like this: "Eternal God, in whom mercy is endless and the treasury of compassion inexhaustible, look kindly upon us and increase Your mercy in us, that in difficult moments we might not despair nor become despondent, but with great confidence submit ourselves to Your holy will, which is Love and Mercy itself." This comes from #950 of St. Faustina's Diary.

What is this "holy will" of God? Our salvation. St. Paul, in his First Letter to Timothy, declares: "God our savior, who wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth" (2: 4). Our Lord's words to St. Faustina echo this: "Write that the greater the misery of a soul, the greater its right to My mercy; [urge] all souls to trust in the unfathomable abyss of My mercy, because I want to save them all. On the cross, the fountain of My mercy was opened wide by the lance for all souls--no one have I excluded!" (#1182).

God wills all to be saved but he cannot impose that will on anyone. God cannot force his love on anyone. Love must be freely given and received. So when humanity rejected God's will and love, God set out to prove his love by sending his Son to live and suffer and die for us. On the cross his Sacred Heart was pierced and blood and water flowed forth. The image of Divine Mercy with its red and white rays coming from the center of the risen Jesus depict this. Jesus told St. Faustina: "The two rays denote Blood and Water. The pale ray stands for the Water which makes souls righteous. The red ray stands for the Blood which is the life of souls.... These two rays issued forth from the very depths of My tender mercy when My agonized Heart was opened by a lance on the Cross" (#299).

The rays come straight from the Sacred Heart of Jesus. This Heart reveals God's greatest attribute--Mercy. The Sacred Heart of Jesus is the Merciful Heart. It is Divine Mercy.

Are devotion to the Sacred Heart and devotion to Divine Mercy in competition? Has Divine Mercy replaced the Sacred Heart? No. Dr. Robert Stackpole, director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy in Stockbridge, MA, in his book Jesus, Mercy Incarnate, states that the Divine Mercy and the Sacred Heart are "so closely bound up with each other as to be absolutely inseparable." The reason is simple: "Jesus has only one Heart! His Sacred Heart is His Merciful Heart--they are one and the same." These devotions are not in competition. Dr. Stackpole writes: "In short, the differences between these two devotions are best described as differences of emphasis, for both spring from a common source: devotion to the same Heart of Jesus, overflowing with merciful love for us."

Anyone who reads the Diary of St. Faustina will see that Divine Mercy was revealed to her in the context of her devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Devotion to Divine Mercy is a further development of devotion to the Sacred Heart and the Eucharist.

At the Last Supper Jesus told his disciples "I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now" (John 16: 12). Jesus is the fullest revelation of God. There is no new revelation after Jesus. This is the Church's constant teaching. Yet, Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to continue to help the Church grow in its understanding of this revelation of God's love in the Person of Jesus. Moreover, after his ascension to the right hand of the Father, Jesus has also appeared from time to time to teach the Church.

He appeared to Saul and asked him: "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?" (Acts 9: 4). In this question Jesus made it clear to the future St. Paul that he and his Body, the Church, are one. Later, when he wrote his First Letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul would elaborate on this doctrine of the Body of Christ and the union of Christ with the members of the Church (see chapters 11-13).

In the 1200's Jesus appear to St. Juliana during a time when belief in the Blessed Sacrament was disappearing. He asked for a feast in honor of his Body and Blood, Corpus Christi. In the 1600's, at a time when devotion to God's love in the Eucharist had grown cold and many of the faithful were filled with fear rather than love, Jesus appeared to St. Margaret Mary and asked for a feast in honor of his Sacred Heart. He told her: "My divine Heart is so passionately fond of the human race, and of you in particular, that it cannot keep back the pent-up flames of its burning charity any longer. They must burst out through you and reveal my Heart to the world, so as to enrich mankind with my precious treasures. He complained to her: "There it is, that Heart so deeply in love with men, it spared no means of proof--wearing itself out until it was utterly spent! This meets with scant appreciation from most of them; all I get back is ingratitude--witness their irreverence, their sacrileges, their coldness and contempt for me in this Sacrament of Love." The feast and devotion to the Sacred Heart in no way replaced the feast and devotion to the Holy Eucharist.

Then in the 1930's, during what many have called the most merciless century in human history, Jesus appeared to St. Faustina, revealed his Heart to her in the context of Eucharistic adoration, and called for a feast and devotion to his Divine Mercy. In words that echo those spoken to St. Margaret Mary, he said: "The flames of mercy are burning Me. I desire to pour them out upon human souls. Oh, what pain they cause Me when they do not want to accept them!" (#1074). And he complained: "Oh, how painful it is to Me that souls so seldom unite themselves to Me in Holy Communion. I wait for souls, and they are indifferent toward Me. I love them tenderly and sincerely, and they distrust Me. I want to lavish My graces on them, and they do not want to accept them" (#1447). The feast and devotion to Divine Mercy in no way replaced the feasts and devotion to the Holy Eucharist and the Sacred Heart.

Think for a moment: what is the greatest obstacle to holiness? Our natural response is to think of our temptations and sins. But Jesus told St. Faustina it was something else: "My child, know that the greatest obstacles to holiness are discouragement and an exaggerated anxiety. These will deprive you of the ability to practice virtue. All temptations united together ought not disturb your interior peace, not even momentarily. Sensitiveness and discouragement are the fruits of self-love. You should not become discouraged, but strive to make My love reign in place of your self-love. Have confidence, My child. Do not lose heart in coming for pardon, for I am always ready to forgive you" (#1488).

Dis-cour-agement. The center of that word comes from the Latin word "cor" or "heart." When we become discouraged we lose heart. To have courage we need only turn to the Heart of Jesus. He gives his Heart to us in the Eucharist where he is present Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity, including his Heart. This is the new heart that God promised through the prophet Ezekiel (see chapters 11 and 36). God replaces our sin-hardened hearts with the Heart of his Son when we receive him in Holy Communion.

This Heart transforms our hearts so that we can be merciful as Jesus is merciful. We let go of resentments and past hurts. We pray, with merciful hearts, for the conversion of all who have hurt us and for all sinners. We pray that God's will may be done: that every soul may accept the knowledge of the truth of God's love and be saved. This is the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples and us, the Our Father. We pray to forgive as we have been forgiven by Divine Mercy. We pray that God's will--"which is Love and Mercy itself"--may be done on earth as it is done in heaven. Amen.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Mass: Heaven on Earth

This weekend I'll be in northern Illinois at the annual national meeting of the Institute on Religious Life. On Saturday morning I'll be giving a talk and leading a panel of four consecrated persons on the topic of "Living the Eucharist: Uniting Our Lives with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass." This talk will follow one by Dr. Scott Hahn on "The Lamb's Supper: The Mass as Heaven on Earth." Later, in the afternoon, Dr. Hahn will be giving a workshop to young people on "How to Get the Most Out of the Mass."

Young people (ages 13 to 25) can participate free of charge in these talks and activities, including lunch. The conference is held at the University of St. Mary of the Lake on Route 176 in Mundelein, Illinois. Space is limited and pre-registration is required at the IRL's web site or by calling 847-573-8975. The day begins at 9 AM and concludes with Mass at 4 PM.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Matter Matters

I was sharing some thoughts about Easter and Christ's resurrection with a brother Jesuit yesterday and he said "Matter matters." It's true. The resurrection of Jesus and the promise of our own resurrection shows how much the material world matters to God.

Death is the separation of the soul from the body. The spiritual element of the human person, the soul, is what gives life to the material element, the body. However, would it not have been enough for Jesus, after his death, to return to the state he had before the incarnation, before he took flesh in his mother's womb and was born? Why didn't Jesus return to the pure spiritual state he had from all eternity? Part of the answer to that question must be that God loves matter.

It wasn't enough for God to create pure spiritual beings with which he could share his love. It wasn't enough for God to create the angelic spirits. God created a whole material world on which to lavish his love. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, humanity "occupies a unique place in creation" because it "unites the spiritual and material worlds" (#355). We are both spiritual like the angels and material like the rest of the created world. We are spirit and matter. This "unique" creation is meant to continue into eternity. We were not created to die and then exist forever as an immortal soul or spirit while our material bodies decayed and disappeared.

But the Greeks of the 1st Century thought differently. For them matter was evil and the spirit was good. The body was of no consequence and when it died the soul was finally freed to live a good existence unburdened by matter. This is why when St. Paul entered into dialogue with the people of Athens (see Acts 17: 22-34) and told them that the man Jesus had been raised from the dead, many of them "began to scoff." The thought of a body being raised from the dead was ridiculous to them and they laughed.

The resurrection of Christ reveals how important the body is to God. It was not in God's plan for his Son to return to a purely spiritual state but to rise body and soul from the dead. Then Jesus ascended body and soul to the heavenly realm. A living and material body now sits at the right hand of the Father in heaven to show us our own future. Christ has blazed a trail for us. Where he has gone body and soul we will follow, if we follow the path he has given us for our life on earth.

Christ is risen! We will rise too! Alleluia!

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Holy Thursday

On Palm Sunday the homilist at our community Mass said that the people who greeted Jesus as he rode into Jerusalem considered him to be a political messiah who would free them from Roman oppression. We, on the other hand, know him to be "a crucified Messiah" and "a Savior who does not prevent our suffering and death, but who saves us through suffering and death." He said that "we stand for a Messiah who shows us not how to live off the investments of others but how to invest our very selves in the lives of others." Following this Messiah means "a life not held on to, but a life freely given away."

Today and tomorrow, in a special way, we remember how the Messiah freely gave his life away at the Last Supper and on the Cross. He gave his life so that we might have life. He gives us life as he enters into a Holy Communion with us in the Eucharist. This transforms us so that we in turn will give our lives for others.

John's Gospel does not have the story of the Institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. Instead we have the scene of Jesus washing the feet of the apostles at the Last Supper. The Eucharist is not mentioned. Why is that? And why didn't foot washing become a sacrament the way the Eucharist did?

I think the answer can be found in some writings of our recent Popes. In his Apostolic Letter announcing the Year of the Eucharist ("Mane Nobiscum Domine"), Blessed John Paul II asked if the celebration of that special year could not be "an occasion for diocesan and parish communities to commit themselves in a particular way to responding with fraternal solicitude to one of the many forms of poverty in our world?" He went on to say: "We cannot delude ourselves: by our mutual love and, in particular, by our concern for those in need we will be recognized as true followers of Christ. This will be the criterion by which the authenticity of our Eucharistic celebrations is judged" (#28). In other words, our celebration of the Mass should make a real difference in the way we live. Our celebrations won't be "authentic" or true if they do not transform us, if they do not lead us to live in service of others.

In his Apostolic Exhortation "Sacramentum Caritatis," Pope Benedict, quoting the Bishops at the 2005 Synod which brought to a conclusion the Year of the Eucharist, wrote that "the Christian faithful need a fuller understanding of the relationship between the Eucharist and their daily lives. Eucharistic spirituality is not just participation in Mass and devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. It embraces the whole of life" (#77).

When we put the Gospel of John with its account of the washing of feet together with the other three Gospels and St. Paul, we see that John is giving us an essential Eucharistic element. The Eucharist is not just something that is celebrated. It has to be lived and the foot washing ceremony in John shows us in a concrete way how the Eucharist is lived--by humble service of one another. This is a service that, following the example of Jesus, can even lead to laying down our lives for others.

In the opening talk to a diocesan conference in Rome on June 15, 2010, Pope Benedict again emphasized the point that unless the breaking of bread in the Eucharist leads to washing the feet of others and even being broken for others, it is a lie. He said: "The Eucharist celebrated obliges us, and at the same time enables us, to become in our turn, bread broken for our brothers and sisters, meeting their needs and giving ourselves. For this reason a Eucharistic celebration that does not lead to meeting people where they live, work and suffer, in order to bring them God's love, does not express the truth it contains. In order to be faithful to the mystery that is celebrated on the altars we must, as the Apostle Paul exhorts us, offer our bodies, ourselves, as a spiritual sacrifice please to God (cf. Rom 12: 1) in those circumstances that ask us to make our 'I' die and that constitute our daily 'altar'."

It could be said that the washing of feet really is a sacrament. It's the sacrament of daily life in which we join the offering of ourselves to the perfect offering of Jesus. The celebration of the Eucharist is not over when Mass ends and the congregation leaves the church. We go forth to live the Eucharist in our daily lives, to be bread for one another, to live in a way that shows our celebration has truly been "authentic."