Friday, March 29, 2013

"Profess Christ Crucified"

I am the sacristan in my community of 50 or so Jesuits at Marquette University. That means I am busy these days preparing the chapel for the various celebrations. Today I also presided at our community's Good Friday Service.  Since the proclamation of the Passion is long and really speaks for itself, I kept my homily brief and ended it by quoting Pope Francis.

At the beginning of the Second Week of the Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius has us imagine the Three Persons of the Most Holy Trinity looking out over the world and at suffering humanity lost in sin.  How will this beloved creature made in God's own image and likeness, made for union with God, be saved?  St. Ignatius has us imagine the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity and his birth in Bethlehem. The Son chose to humble and empty himself, becoming a man, sharing our life and our death. Throughout the Exercises of the Second Week, we are called to be close to Jesus, to follow him, and to labor with him for the salvation of humanity.

Baptism joins us to Christ and makes us one with him in this work. The evangelical counsels of consecrated persons configure them more closely to Christ poor, chaste, and obedient; to Christ humble, self-emptying, and sacrificing.  The motivation for this is love--the love of the Blessed Trinity which did not abandon humanity in its sin, the love revealed on a cross. We are called on this day in a special way to share the love of God for suffering humanity.

In our Good Friday Service we venerate the cross. But before doing so, we look out on the world from that cross. We see the world with Christ's eyes. We love lost and suffering humanity with Christ's Heart.  We pray for all people, bringing them with us to the cross where Christ died for us all.  A Church council in the year 853, which is quoted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church #606, stated: "There is not, never has been, and never will be a single human being for whom Christ did not suffer." He suffered and died and save all, no one excluded.

Then, after the veneration of the cross, we receive Holy Communion. We are joined with Christ so that we carry in our bodies his death and resurrection. United to Christ, we carry the cross, the sign of God's love for all, the sign of the lengths to which God goes to save us. Not all people know this, nor have all accepted it.  We carry the cross to them when we love them and lay down our lives for them so that they may accept the salvation Christ won for them and be saved.

In the closing words of his homily at the Mass he celebrated with the cardinals who had just elected him, Pope Francis said:

"When we journey without the Cross, when we build without the Cross, when we profess Christ without the Cross, we are not disciples of the Lord, we are worldly: we may be bishops, priests, cardinals, popes, but not disciples of the Lord.

"My wish is that all of us, after these days of grace, will have the courage, yes, the courage, to walk in the presence of the Lord, with the Lord’s Cross; to build the Church on the Lord’s blood which was poured out on the Cross; and to profess the one glory: Christ crucified. And in this way, the Church will go forward.

"My prayer for all of us is that the Holy Spirit, through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, our Mother, will grant us this grace: to walk, to build, to profess Jesus Christ crucified. Amen."

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Lent and Freedom

I celebrated Mass this afternoon at Mercy Academy. Before leaving the office to head over there, I asked Fr. Phil, the Apostleship of Prayer's Director of Youth and Young Adult Ministry, what he had preached about earlier. His thoughts led me to change what I'd planned on saying.

I ended up talking about freedom and how the three young men who had been thrown into the furnace (see Daniel 3) were seen "unfettered," walking about in the fire.  They were alive and free.  But before being thrown into the furnace they were free in the way that is most important. They were free to follow the truth. They were free from the fear of a fiery death, the punishment inflicted upon them for not worshiping a gold statue. The truth--as Jesus said in the gospel (John 8: 31-42)--made them free. It is the truth that there is one God and that this life is not the only life.  Freedom means living in that truth.

The world thinks of freedom in a very different way. It sees freedom as being able to do whatever one wants whenever one wants.  But such worldly freedom can lead to the slavery of sin. It can lead to attachments and addictions that ironically take one's freedom away.  It means embracing a lie about what is truly good for the human person.

Lent is a time to grow in freedom, the freedom to become the persons God created us to be.  When we give something up for Lent we exercise the discipline that helps us to be free of those things that can get in the way of our relationship with God, that hinder our becoming as free as the three young men who were cast into the furnace. 

I asked the children at Mass today if any of them had given something up for Lent.  One boy said that he had given up "electronics," something that can definitely become a compulsion in our world today.  I asked him if it had been hard and he responded with a resounding "yes."  Then I called on a girl who said that she had given up "whining" for Lent. That got a laugh from many of the other children and especially the adults who were present.  Some of the things we give up for Lent, like electronics, are things that we can go back to when Lent is over, and we do so with perhaps a bit more freedom because we've exercised some discipline.  But other things, like whining, are things that we hopefully won't return to when Lent is over.

Who knows... maybe, in a couple weeks, that boy will find an electronic game in his Easter basket, but I definitely think that girl won't find "whine" there and she may have to exercise some more discipline if she doesn't find what she was hoping for!

Monday, March 18, 2013

"The Caress of the Mercy of Jesus"

The mercy of God is a clear theme in the recent talks and past writings of Pope Francis.  Yesterday's Gospel about the woman caught in adultery (John 8: 1-11) gave me the opportunity to preach about mercy at the closing Mass of my retreat with 60 men at the Jesuit retreat house in St. Louis.  I was able to include some striking comments by Pope Francis on this topic.

In the Gospel we have a typical scene from the life of Jesus: a crowd gathers around Jesus who teaches them.  The Pharisees and scribes--Jesus' enemies--appear, thinking they will be able to trap Jesus by asking him whether they should follow the law of Moses and stone the woman they have caught "in the very act of committing adultery." They, like so many others, use her as an object for their own ends.  If Jesus agrees that she should be stoned, the crowd of sinners who have followed him will reject him.  If Jesus disagrees, he will prove himself "soft on sin." 

Jesus cuts through these two options by proposing that the one present who is without sin should throw the first stone.  "One by one" they leave, "beginning with the elders."  Jesus is the only one there who is without sin.  He is the only one who could stone her, but he doesn't.  He chooses mercy, not condemnation because, as John writes in another place: "God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him" (3: 17).

Speaking about the mercy of God in 2001, Pope Francis said:

"Only someone who has encountered mercy, who has been caressed by the tenderness of mercy, is happy and comfortable with the Lord. ...I dare say that the privileged locus of the encounter is the caress of the mercy of Jesus Christ on my sin.

"In front of this merciful embrace ... we feel a real desire to respond, to change, to correspond; a new morality arises. ... Christian morality is not a titanic effort of the will, the effort of someone who decides to be consistent and succeeds.... No. Christian morality is simply a response.

"It is the heartfelt response to a surprising, unforeseeable, 'unjust' mercy.... The surprising, unforeseeable, 'unjust' mercy, using purely human criteria, of one who knows me, knows my betrayals and loves me just the same, appreciates me, embraces me, calls me again, hopes in me, and expects from me.  This is why the Christian conception of morality is a revolution; it is not a 'never falling down' but an 'always getting up again.'"

In these words Pope Francis follows a theme that was important to both Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI: Christianity is not so much a set of doctrines or an ethical system as it is an encounter. Once we have encountered the Person of Jesus and his love, we are moved to respond. Our response is to follow the way of Jesus, to love and to forgive as we are loved and forgiven.  As the 5th Century Greek bishop Diadochus said, the measure of our love for God depends upon how deeply aware we are of God's love for us. To live a Christian life, to follow Jesus, to forgive as he forgives, depends upon becoming more and more aware of the love and mercy of Jesus Christ. The mercy of God and our mercy are "unjust" in that they do not give people what they deserve, but what they need--the tenderness of mercy which alone can soften the sin-hardened heart. 

Friday, March 15, 2013

The New Pope and St. Francis

People have asked me which of the many saints named "Francis" did our new pope choose as his patron. Besides St. Francis of Assisi there is also the great Jesuit missionary St. Francis Xavier and the gentle founder of the Visitation Order St. Francis de Sales. There are also two other Jesuit saints named "Francis"--St. Francis Borgia, the third general superior of the Jesuits, and St. Francis Jerome, a great preacher in Naples.  It seems pretty clear that Pope Francis had the saint from Assisi in mind when he chose his name, but, I'm sure he'll be happy for all the saintly help he can get.

Pope Francis and St. Francis share a strong devotion to the Cross of Jesus. In his first homily, Pope Francis said the following:

"When we journey without the Cross, when we build without the Cross, when we profess Christ without the Cross, we are not disciples of the Lord, we are worldly: we may be bishops, priests, cardinals, popes, but not disciples of the Lord."

In 1673, months before revealing His Sacred Heart to St. Margaret Mary, Jesus prepared her for the revelations and the sufferings that would follow.  She described it this way:

"On the feast of St. Francis, our Lord let me see in prayer this great saint, clad in a garment of light and unspeakable brilliance. He had been raised above the other saints to an extraordinarily high degree of glory, because his life was so like that of the suffering Redeemer who is the life of our souls and the love of our hearts. His glory was the reward of his great love for the Passion of our Lord, a love which rendered him worthy of the sacred stigmata and made him one of the favorites of Jesus' heart. By a very special favor he had been given power in applying to the faithful the merits of the Precious Blood, a power which made him in a sense a mediator of this treasure. After I had seen all this, the Divine Bridegroom, as a token of his love, gave me St. Francis as my soul's guide. He was to lead me through all the pains and sufferings that awaited me."

May St. Francis now lead Pope Francis through the sufferings that await him as "the Servant of the Servants of God."  May he too draw strength and courage from the Sacred Heart of Jesus. 

Thursday, March 14, 2013

A Jesuit Pope!

I found it difficult falling asleep last night. Part of it was anticipating the fact that I had to get up today and catch a flight for St. Louis where I will begin a retreat with 60 laymen in an hour or so. But I think my restlessness was due primarily to the excitement of the day. Last month I was shocked to learn of Pope Benedict's resignation. Yesterday I was even more shocked to learn that a Jesuit had been elected pope.  I am a Jesuit and I never expected to see one of my brothers become pope. 

A few days ago I blogged about the fact that the papal conclave began on the anniversary of the canonization of the founder of the Jesuits, St. Ignatius, and of his close friend, the great Jesuit missionary, St. Francis Xavier.  Then the conclave ended with the election of a Jesuit!

I'd been hoping that the new pope would choose the name "Joseph," thus becoming the first Pope Joseph in history.  As the foster-father of Jesus and the Patron of the Universal Church, St. Joseph would be the perfect patron for the new pope. However, I can't argue with the choice of "Francis."  As our current General Superior, Fr. Nicolas Adolfo, wrote in his statement today:

"The name of 'Francis' by which we shall now know him evokes for us the Holy Father's evangelical spirit of closeness to the poor, his identification with simple people, and his commitment to the renewal of the Church. From the very first moment in which he appeared before the people of God, he gave visible witness to his simplicity, his humility, his pastoral experience and his spiritual depth."

That's what I saw as well and it led to growing excitement as the shock wore off and the text and email messages and phone calls came pouring in.  I'm also excited that Pope Francis will be officially installed on the feast of St. Joseph.  I may not have gotten the name right, but I did get the day!

Monday, March 11, 2013

March 12 in History

Every month Jesuits are asked to offer Mass for the Church and the Society of Jesus. In most months the day for offering that Mass is up to the individual Jesuit, but in March there is a set date the 12th. It seems providential that the Conclave to elect a successor to Pope Benedict XVI will begin tomorrow when Jesuits around the world are offering this Mass. 

Why March 12? This is the anniversary of the canonization in the year 1622 by Pope Gregory XV of the founder of the Jesuits, St. Ignatius Loyola, and the great Jesuit missionary, St. Francis Xavier.  But there were three others canonized that day as well: St. Teresa of Avila, the leader of the Discalced Carmelite reform; St. Philip Neri, contemporary of St. Ignatius, Apostle of Rome, and founder of the Oratory; and St. Isidore the Farmer, a humble 12th century peasant and married man who is the patron saint of rural life.  Some people are of the opinion that this was one of the greatest canonization days in history.

Now, 390 years later, as a new pope is about to be elected, it seems fitting that we ask the intercession of these five saints for the Cardinals who are gathering in the Sistene Chapel.

St. Isidore, pray for them.
St. Philip Neri, pray for them.
St. Teresa of Avila, pray for them.
St. Francis Xavier, pray for them.
St. Ignatius Loyola, pray for them.
All you holy men, women, and children, pray for them.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Can Sincere Contrition be Imperfect?

When I'm around Milwaukee on the First Friday of each month, I'm often invited to speak at the All-Night Vigil which moves around the archdiocese to different parishes. The theme for last night's vigil was the Sacrament of Reconciliation and I spoke about "Sincere Contrition and Resolve." 

When I was growing up I was taught that there are five elements to a good confession: 1)examination of conscience; 2) confession of sins; 3) sincere contrition; 4) resolve or firm purpose of amendment; 5) performing the given penance.

What does "sincere contrition" mean?  We sometimes speak about "perfect" and "imperfect" contrition. Perfect contrition means that we are sorry for our sins and go to confession because we know that our sins have disturbed our relationship with God and have actually hurt God. We tend to think of God being so infinitely transcendent that He cannot be touched much less hurt by us. Yet, when you love, you hurt for the one you love when that one is hurt.  You share the hurt of the beloved. We are beloved to God, so much so that God became one of us, lived our life, shared our suffering and even death, and then rose--all to save us from our sins which hurt us and which risk ultimate alienation from God and others.  Perfect contrition involves being sorry for our sins because we realize how much we are loved by God and how God does not deserve to be ignored and rejected.

Imperfect contrition is when we are sorry for our sins but our focus is not on God but ourselves. We are sorry because of how miserable our sins have left us or because we are afraid of where our sins could lead--to that ultimate rejection of God, God's plan, our goal of heaven.

Can imperfect contrition be sincere? Yes. The prodigal son is a good example of this.  In the parable that Jesus told [which can be found in Luke 15 and which is today's Gospel], it's clear to us that the loving father did not deserve to be treated the way his younger son treated him, asking for the inheritance that should come to him at the time of his father's death.  Later, when the son has lost everything and is starving, what motivates him to return to his father?  We wouldn't call this "perfect  contrition." He's motivated by his hunger pains.  Pain tells us that something is wrong and in this case the son "woke up" to the reality that life away from his loving father is horrible.  And so he returns and is joyfully received by his father who runs to meet him as soon as he catches sight of him on the road back.  Why does the father run to him and receive him back? Because he does not care about himself but his son. This is true love. Where the son's decision to return is motivated by the self-interest of getting out of his painful situation, the father's decision to embrace him is motivated by pure love. Imperfect contrition meets perfect love and is overwhelmed by it.  We can imagine the son, not even able to finish his prepared speech before his father tells the servants to prepare for a party, coming to even greater sorrow and a more perfect contrition as he experiences such love.

But what about "sincere contrition?"  This is related not so much to what motivates the contrition as the resolve one makes.  Sincere contrition and resolve go together.  Sincere contrition does not say "I'm sorry" while at the same time making plans to sin again.

We know we are weak and will have to battle the same temptations and probably confess the same sins again. Does that mean our contrition is not sincere? No. The devil would have us think that because we find ourselves falling into the same habits of sin our contrition or sorrow is not sincere. As long as we confess our sins asking for God's help to avoid our sinful habits in the future we are being sincere. We know we are weak and that's why we ask for God's grace to avoid our sins. 

It's good to strive for perfect contrition but God accepts us as we are, just as the father accepted the wayward son motivated by hunger rather than sorrow.  Seeing the joy he brought to his father must have softened the sin-hardened heart of the son. It must have made it easier for him to be faithful and, if he should slip in the future, have more perfect contrition. So it is with us as well. Our contrition may not be perfect, but when we see the joy we bring God by giving Him the opportunity to forgive our sins and heal us in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, it can be more and more motivated by love rather than by self-interest.