Monday, February 11, 2013

Pope Benedict's New Ministry

I got up early this morning and spent about a half hour on the treadmill getting exercise both physically and spiritually as I prayed the rosary. When I returned to my room to stretch I turned on the television where I heard the "breaking news" and saw photos of Pope Benedict. At first I thought he had died. Then I was shocked to hear that he had resigned.  It is taking some time to digest this news.

In the announcement of his resignation, Pope Benedict told the Cardinals whom he had gathered the following reason for his resignation:

"After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, 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. However, in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me."

As we talked about the resignation in the office this morning and wondered how we could make a smooth transition as we publicize Pope Benedict's monthly prayer intentions, Michael, one of our part-time employees and the coordinator of our volunteers, reminded us of something very important. He said, "Now he'll be the praying Pope." Not that Pope Benedict has not been a Pope who has prayed intensely as he strove to be faithful to his call and ministry, but now prayer and sacrifice will be his primary mission. 

Today is the 21st World Day of the Sick and the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes.  Is it a coincidence that Pope Benedict chose this as the day on which he announced his resignation due to health concerns and his growing weakness? With God there is no coincidence. 

When he resigns Pope Benedict will focus his attention on a different but very important ministry.  Here is what he wrote at the beginning of his Message for this World Day of the Sick:

"This day represents for the sick, for health care workers, for the faithful and for all people of goodwill “a privileged time of prayer, of sharing, of offering one’s sufferings for the good of the Church, and a call for all to recognize in the features of their suffering brothers and sisters the Holy Face of Christ, who, by suffering, dying and rising has brought about the salvation of mankind” (John Paul II, Letter for the Institution of the World Day of the Sick, 13 May 1992, 3). On this occasion I feel especially close to you, dear friends, who in health care centres or at home, are undergoing a time of trial due to illness and suffering. May all of you be sustained by the comforting words of the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council: “You are not alone, separated, abandoned or useless. You have been called by Christ and are his living and transparent image” (Message to the Poor, the Sick and the Suffering)."

In his Message for this day, Pope Benedict also mentioned St. Anna Schaffer whom he canonized last October 21, saying that she "was able to unite in an exemplary way her sufferings to those of Christ."

He said the following in his homily at the time of her canonization:

"Anna Schaeffer, from Mindelstetten, as a young woman wished to enter a missionary order. She came from a poor background so, in order to earn the dowry needed for acceptance into the cloister, she worked as a maid. One day she suffered a terrible accident and received incurable burns on her legs which forced her to be bed-ridden for the rest of her life. So her sick-bed became her cloister cell and her suffering a missionary service. She struggled for a time to accept her fate, but then understood her situation as a loving call from the crucified One to follow him. Strengthened by daily communion, she became an untiring intercessor in prayer and a mirror of God’s love for the many who sought her counsel. May her apostolate of prayer and suffering, of sacrifice and expiation, be a shining example for believers...."

The world doesn't understand this. Some commentators said that the Pope is retiring so he can enjoy a well-deserved rest. No. On rare occasions  Popes have resigned but they don't retire. Pope Benedict will be moving to a new and powerful ministry for the Church and the world. In great humility, he will leave the work that he has faithfully offered to God and will now focus on offering up his prayers and sufferings.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

You are Necessary

I celebrated Mass at 8 AM today, the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, with the Discalced Carmelite Sisters in Flemington, NJ and the small community that gathers on Sunday to pray with them.  Here is my homily:

I want to begin with a question: when did God think of you?  Was it nine months and a day before you were born?  Or ten months before your birth?  In the first reading (Jeremiah 1:4-5, 17-19) we hear God say, "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you...." So God had us in mind before we were conceived and began to develop in our mothers' wombs.  But when did God first think of you?

In a homily he gave shortly after being elected to lead the Church, Pope Benedict XVI said that "each of us is the result of a thought of God."  The thoughts of God are eternal. God had you in mind from all eternity, not just at some moment in time preceding your conception and birth.  The Holy Father went on to say, "Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary." 

Me?! Necessary?! Yes!

We have a tendency to think along the lines of the people of Nazareth whom we see in today's Gospel (Luke 4:21-30). They had an agenda and expectations about what the Messiah would be like. They thought he would be a great religious leader, a great military leader. Jesus, the hometown boy and son of a carpenter, didn't meet those expectations. They saw Him as insignificant.

We too have expectations. We too judge according to worldly standards of greatness.

Paul confronts that in our second reading (1 Corinthians 12:31-13:13). He writes that what's important is not prophecy or speaking in all sorts of human or heavenly tongues. What's important is not the miraculous moving of a mountain or being able to "comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge."  What's important is not giving up everything and living a life of poverty like that of St. Francis of Assisi.  What's important is not even undergoing great sufferings for the faith or undergoing martyrdom.  All of these can become the source of pride, that which first separated the devil and the first humans from God.  What matters is love.  We and what we do are nothing without love.

Why?  Because God is love and we're made in the image and likeness of love. We are here on earth for one reason--to learn to love. We exist to love God with all our heart, mind, and strength. Loving God totally, we will love what God loves--our neighbor, those others whom God also had in mind from all eternity.

What matters--what makes us necessary to God and for God's plan--is not doing great things, but the love with which we do everything. This is what Blessed Teresa of Calcutta taught when she said: "It is not how much we do, but how much love we put into what we do." This was the "Little Way" of the Doctor of the Church, St. Therese of Lisieux. This was the way of St. Teresa of Avila who, at the end of The Interior Castle, wrote:

"In sum, my Sisters, what I conclude with is that we shouldn't build castles in the air. The Lord doesn't look so much at the greatness of our works as the love with which they are done. And if we do what we can, His Majesty will enable us each day to do more and more, provided that we do not quickly tire. But during the little while this life lasts--and perhaps it will last a shorter time than each one thinks--let us offer the Lord interiorly and exteriorly the sacrifice we can. His Majesty will join it with that which He offered on the cross to the Father for us. Thus even though our works are small they will have the value our love for Him would have merited had they been great."

This is the way of the Apostleship of Prayer. We offer to God every day with its thoughts, words, and deeds, its prayers, works, joys, and sufferings, in union with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. In that way, every moment can be an act of love. United to the perfect offering of Jesus on the cross and at Mass, every moment becomes significant, eternally significant. And in that way, a necessary part of God's plan for you and the world. You and every act of love are necessary.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

"A Stupendous Gift"

I am blessed to be in the second day of an eight day retreat that I am giving to the Carmelite Sisters of Flemington, New Jersey.  So far I have been reflecting with the Sisters on a beautiful 1999 document, "Verbi Sponsa"--an instruction from the Congregation  for Institutes of Contemplative Life and  for Societies of Apostolic Life.  From beginning to end this document, subtitled "Instruction on the Contemplative Life and on the Enclosure of Nuns, is filled with gratitude for this special vocation.

The first section says that "cloistered nuns" are "a unique grace and precious gift within the mystery of the Church's holiness."  And the conclusion contains this tribute which contains a quote from the Apostolic Exhortation Vita Consacrata: "The intention of this Instruction is to confirm the Church's high esteem for the wholly contemplative life of cloistered nuns, and to reaffirm her concern to safeguard its authentic nature, 'that this world may never be without a ray of divine beauty to lighten the path of human existence'."

Next week, using the writings of St. Teresa of Avila, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and excerpts from Pope Benedict's first volume of Jesus of Nazareth, I will reflect with the Sisters on the Our Father. The Sisters live a cloistered life, apart from the world for which they offer intense prayer. I celebrate Mass and present my conferences through a grill.

I'm especially blessed to be here today, the World Day for Consecrated Life. In 1997 Blessed John Paul II called for this special day on which to remember and pray for all those who are called to the consecrated life like these Sisters and like myself, a Jesuit.  In his Message for the first such World Day, Pope John Paul gave three reasons for instituting this special day.

First, to give praise and thanks to God for the vocation to consecrated life which the Holy Father called a "stupendous gift." He followed these words with a quote from the autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila, the foundress of these Discalced Carmelites: "What would become of the world if there were no religious?"

Secondly, Pope John Paul wrote, "this day is intended to promote a knowledge of and esteem for the consecrated life by the entire People of God."  From such "knowledge" and "esteem" it is hoped that many more young people will hear God calling them to this life.

The third reason for this special day concerns consecrate people themselves. Blessed John Paul II hoped that this celebration would help them "to acquire a more vivid consciousness of their irreplaceable mission in the Church and in the world."  He wanted them each year "to return to the sources of their vocation, to take stock of their own lives, to confirm the commitment of their own consecration." Doing this, the pope was convinced, "they will be able to give witness with joy to the men and women of our time, in diverse situations, that the Lord is the Love who is able to fill the heart of the human person."

What a blessing it is for me to celebrate the "stupendous gift" of a religious vocation at the Carmel of Mary Immaculate and Saint Mary Magdalen in Flemington, NJ! What a blessing it is to give a retreat to these Sisters during the Year of Faith!