Friday, July 18, 2014

Mercy and Sacrifice

There is a story that the disciples of Jesus were criticized by the Pharisees for breaking the sabbath when they picked heads of grain and ate them as they walked through a field (see Matthew 12: 1-8, Mark 2: 23-28, Luke 6: 1-5). Jesus defends them by pointing to similar situations in Israel’s history. He also declares that as “Son of Man”—a title that appears in the book of the prophet Daniel (2: 13-14) and that indicates divine kingship—he is Lord of the sabbath. 

In Mark’s version of this story, Jesus declares that the “sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath.” The sabbath was instituted by God for the sake of justice: so that the human person could give God the worship that is God’s due. It was instituted by God for the sake of human dignity: so that human beings could have the rest and leisure they require and which imitates God whom Genesis said rested on the seventh day after all the work of creation (2: 3).

Matthew has Jesus quoting a verse from the prophet Hosea: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice (Hosea 6: 6). What is translated here as “mercy” is also the word “love.”  God wants love and mercy and not the empty sacrificial rituals that Hosea inveighed against.  This is the “sacrifice” that God does not want. However, there is another “sacrifice” that is essential to love and mercy.  It is the sacrifice of self, the denial of self-interest, the rejection of retaliation.

The greatest sign of mercy and love is the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. He died not for the righteous but for sinners (Romans 5: 8). He died begging pardon for those who tortured and killed him and even made excuses for them (Luke 23: 34).

July 19 is the anniversary of Fr. Lawrence Jenco’s death in 1996. Fr. Jenco was a Servite priest who was the regional director of Catholic Relief Services in Lebanon in 1985. He was kidnapped and spent the next 564 days in captivity as a hostage. He was blindfolded most of the time and transported from place to place in a secret compartment under trucks where he was almost asphyxiated by the noxious diesel fumes. He was beaten. After his release he wrote a book—“Bound to Forgive”—and he began the first chapter with these words of Jesus as recorded by Luke: “But I say to those who listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (6: 27-28). This holy priest forgave his captors and tormenters and even asked their forgiveness for the times that he himself had harbored hatred and thoughts of revenge in his heart. (I wrote about this in another blog entry here.)

What gave Fr. Jenco the ability to forgive in this way? The Eucharist. He heard the Word of God and allowed it to enter his heart to transform it from a heart hardened by a righteous anger that had become bitter hatred to a heart of mercy and love. He received the Word of God-Made-Flesh in Holy Communion and allowed the Eucharistic Heart of Jesus to transform his heart. 

Past, current, and, no doubt, future events reveal a world desperately in need of conversion, of mercy and love. That will require sacrifice, a sacrificial mercy that begins here, with my heart and yours. Heart of Jesus, make our hearts like yours!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Venerable Nano Nagle

I have been giving a retreat this week to Nano Nagle’s Sisters in Aberdeen, South Dakota. They are known as the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  But who was Nano?

Honora Nagle was born in County Cork, Ireland in 1718 and was soon called by the affectionate name “Nano.” This was time of persecution for Catholics in Ireland. They were forbidden to teach, open up schools, or travel elsewhere for an education. Some of the Nagle family were merchants who had connections on the continent and Nano was able to travel to Paris to attend school. In 1746, after her father’s death, she returned to Ireland and, in violation of the laws, began teaching. She set up her first school in 1754 and very soon started seven more. She was never arrested and in 1775, with other women who joined her in the work, she founded the Society of Charitable Instruction of the Sacred Heart of Jesus which in time became the Sisters of the Presentation. She received the habit on June 29, 1776 and took the name Mother Mary of St. John of God after the 16th Century Portuguese saint who had dedicated his life to the service of the poor and the sick. She died in 1784 and her cause for canonization was approved by Pope Francis in 2013. Today the Presentation Sisters teach and care for the sick in 23 countries around the world.

I’ve resonated with a number of Nano’s sayings. One—“Not words, but deeds”—reminds  me of something that St. Ignatius Loyola wrote in his “Spiritual Exercises,” that love shows itself best in deeds. Love is not so much a feeling or even the words that express a feeling. Love is action.

Her zeal for souls is seen in this quote: “If I could be of any service in saving souls in any part of the world, I would willingly do all in my power.”

Like so many saints from St. Paul through St. Margaret Mary to the present, Nano knew that any good she accomplished was not her doing but God’s.  She wrote: “The Almighty makes use of the weakest means to bring about his work.” We see her great trust in these words: “By degrees, with the assistance of God, we may do a great deal,” and “God is all-sufficient.”

In the Positio or testimonies gathered after her death we read: “Absorbed in wordless prayer, she carried in her heart those in need of compassion.” Her devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus made her heart go out to all those who were suffering. She carried them in her heart, prayed for them, and offered her life to help them. 

Thursday, July 10, 2014

"My Heart Is Overwhelmed"

The book of the prophet Hosea is one of my favorite books in the Hebrew Scriptures. I don’t recall ever reading it before I entered the Jesuits at the young age of nineteen and so it made quite an impression on me when our novice master quoted from it as he spoke to us about the overwhelming love of God.

Chapter 11 of Hosea is particularly striking. Speaking through the prophet, God says: “I fostered them like one who raises an infant to his cheeks.” Like a good parent, God is moved by the pain that a child’s rebellion causes both the child and the family. While God is angry with sin and its consequences, there is also deep compassion for the child who will ever be God’s child.  God says: “My heart is overwhelmed, my pity is stirred.”

In 1981 at a Sacred Heart Conference in Toulouse, France, Cardinal Ratzinger spoke about this line. 
That talk can be found in the book “Behold The Pierced One.” According to the future Pope Benedict, the word “overwhelmed” actually means something much stronger.  He writes:

“God’s Heart turns around—here the Bible uses the same words as in the depiction of God’s judgment on the sinful cities of Sodom and Gomorrha (Gen 19: 25); the word expresses a total collapse: not one stone remains upon another. The same word is applied to the havoc wrought by love in God’s Heart in favor of his people.”

Then, speaking about how the New Testament is the fulfillment of this prophetic word, he writes:

“Here we see the upheaval in the Heart of God as God’s own genuine Passion. It consists in God himself, in the person of his Son, suffering Israel’s rejection. … God takes the destiny of love destroyed upon himself…. According to Hosea 11, the Passion of Jesus is the drama of the divine Heart.  … The pierced Heart of the crucified Son is the literal fulfillment of the prophecy of the Heart of God. … We can only discern the full magnitude of the biblical message of the Heart of God, the Heart of the divine Redeemer, in this continuity and harmony of Old and New Testament.”

We often use the expressions, “my heart is broken” or “my heart breaks for you.”  While that captures more of the sense of what is translated as “overwhelmed,” it too is not as strong as the original meaning of the word that is used to describe what Cardinal Ratzinger calls “the havoc wrought by love in God’s Heart in favor of his people.”

Who would not be moved to want to bring consolation to this Heart that is broken by and for humanity?  This is the ultimate meaning of devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.