Friday, May 29, 2015


When I was growing up before the Second Vatican Council, the Sundays after Pentecost were known as the Third or Fourth or Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost. That gave the feast of Pentecost an importance that I fear has been lost as we return now to Ordinary Time, which really means Ordered or Numbered Time.  The time after Pentecost, both the first one centuries ago and our celebration last Sunday, is the time in which the Church carries on the mission of preaching the Gospel and reconciling.  This two-fold mission was made clear in the readings for Pentecost.

The first reading (Acts 2: 1-11) tells the story of the coming of the Holy Spirit at the first Pentecost Sunday. The power of the Holy Spirit was expressed in two ways--wind and fire.  Jesus compared the Spirit to wind in John 3: 8: "The wind blows where it wills, and you can hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit."  We get the word "respiration" from the word "spirit" and the Hebrew word for "spirit" is "ruah" or "breath."  The Holy Spirit is the Breath of God.

On the first Sunday after Pentecost we celebrate a feast in honor of the Most Holy Trinity. God the Father, the Creator, reveals the divine nature of love by creating. In doing so we see that God is "for us."  The Second Person of the Trinity is "Emmanuel, which means 'God is with us'" (Matthew 1: 23).  The Third Person of the Blessed Trinity, the Holy Spirit, is the breath that shows us God is "within us."  We are temples of the Holy Spirit.  God is as close to us, and as essential, as our breath.

Fire gives light and warmth. It also purifies and unites.  Precious metals like gold are placed in a furnace to melt and be purified of dross or impurities.  The Holy Spirit comes to give the light of truth, to warm and heal hearts, and to purify us so that we may be one.

Sin divides and separates.  Early in history (see Genesis 11: 1-9), human beings rejected God's call to fill the earth. In fear, they clung together and tried to attain the glory and power of God on their own.  To fulfill the plan for human beings to fill the earth, God confused their language and scattered them.  But this scattering and confusion of language led to sinful divisions.  Diversity became the source of conflict rather than richness in unity.  The coming of the Spirit at Pentecost began the process of reconciliation and unity.  The tongues or languages remained diverse but there was an amazing and miraculous understanding.

Before the Spirit came at Pentecost, the Son of God had to suffer, die, rise, and ascend.  Jesus prepared the Church to carry on his work when he met the apostles in the upper room, gave them his peace, sent them as the Father had sent him, and empowered them to carry on his work of reconciliation by breathing on them (John 20: 19-23).  He said: "Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained."  Forgiveness requires two parties--one who extends forgiveness and the other who receives it. God is always ready to forgive, but people may reject that forgiveness. People may not recognize that they have done anything wrong that requires forgiveness and so they do not ask for it nor receive it.  These are the sins that are "retained."

In the Sacrament of Reconciliation Jesus, through the priest, sends the Holy Spirit upon those who ask for mercy. The Spirit comes to purify and heal.  There is no individual sin.  As St. Paul wrote in the second reading (1 Corinthians 12: 3b-7, 12-13), there is one body that consists of many parts.  Each of us is a cell within the Body of Christ.  The health of one cell affects the entire Body, just as one cancer cell affects a person's physical health.  Human beings are made in the image and likeness of God who is a Trinity of Persons.  God is not an amalgam of individuals but a communion of Persons. Made in God's image and likeness we are made for communion.  Theologians have said that the Holy Spirit is the love between the Father and the Son.  The Spirit is the love that brings the Body of Christ together into one.

One of the invocations in the Litany of the Sacred Heart is "Heart of Jesus, burning furnace of charity."  The fire that burns in the Heart of Jesus is the Holy Spirit who purifies, heals, and unites all who come to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  In that Heart and through the power of the Holy Spirit, all human beings can truly be one, one with God and one as God's family.

May the coming month of June, dedicated as it traditionally is to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and the following Post-Pentecost months until Advent, make us one in the Heart of Jesus.

[The icon in this post is from the hand of Brother Christopher, a Carmelite Hermit. His God-inspired work can be found at the website for the Carmelite Hermitage of the Blessed Virgin Mary.]

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Importance of Fatima

Today is the feast of Our Lady of Fatima.  We remember how on May 13, 1917, the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to three shepherd children--Lucia, Francisco, and Jacinta--and gave them an important message for the world. It wasn't a new message but as old as the Gospel where we read in Mark that the first recorded words of Jesus after his baptism and the temptations in the desert were: "This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel" (1: 15).

On May 13, 1982,  one year after the attempt on his life, St. John Paul II visited Fatima and offered the Blessed Mother the bullet that had struck him and which he was convinced did not kill him because her finger guided it away from doing mortal harm. (I wrote here about this bullet which was affixed to the crown that is placed on the statue of Our Lady on special occasions.)

 Pope John Paul II said:

"These are the first words of the Messiah addressed to humanity. The message of Fatima is, in its basic nucleus, a call to conversion and repentance, as in the Gospel. This call was uttered at the beginning of the twentieth century, and it was addressed particularly to this present century.  ... The call to repentance is a motherly one, and at the same time it is strong and decisive."

The call of  Jesus and Our Lady of Fatima has not lost its urgency.

Pope Francis has a special devotion to Our Lady of Fatima. In his first Angelus Address after being elected pope, he mentioned a statue of Our Lady of Fatima that came to Buenos Aires on pilgrimage shortly after he became a bishop there in 1992. Then, in 2013, two months after his election, Pope Francis asked the Patriarch of Lisbon to consecrate his papacy to Our Lady of Fatima.  Cardinal Policarpo did so on May 13, 2013 with these words: “O Blessed Virgin, we are at your feet to carry out the request clearly expressed by Pope Francis to consecrate to you, O Virgin of Fatima, his ministry as Bishop of Rome and universal pastor.” 

On the anniversary of the last Fatima apparition, October 13, 2013, during the Marian Day of the Year of Faith, Pope Francis entrusted the world to Our Lady of Fatima with these words:

Blessed Virgin Mary of Fatima,
with renewed gratitude for your motherly presence
we join in the voice of all generations that call you blessed.

We celebrate in you the great works of God,
who never tires of lowering himself in mercy over humanity,
afflicted by evil and wounded by sin,
to heal and to save it.

Accept with the benevolence of a Mother
this act of entrustment that we make in faith today,
before this your image, beloved to us.

We are certain that each one of us is precious in your eyes
and that nothing in our hearts has estranged you.

May we allow your sweet gaze
to reach us and the perpetual warmth of your smile.

Guard our life with your embrace: 
bless and strengthen every desire for good;
give new life and nourishment to faith;
sustain and enlighten hope;
awaken and animate charity;
guide us all on the path to holiness.

Teach us your own special love for the little and the poor,
for the excluded and the suffering,
for sinners and the wounded of heart:
gather all people under your protection
and give us all to your beloved Son, our Lord Jesus.

In two years, Pope Francis hopes to go to Fatima for the centenary of the apparitions.  

Clearly Our Lady of Fatima important to Pope Francis.  Her message is as important as ever. Sister Lucia, who lived for almost eighty-eight years after Mary appeared to her, wrote in a book published in 2000 ("Calls" from the Message of Fatima):

"We all desire and long for peaceful days, to be able to live in peace. But this peace will not be achieved until we use the Law of God as the norm and guide of our steps. Now the entire Message of Fatima is a call to pay attention to this divine Law. ...

"God does not wish sinners to perish but rather that they be converted and live. This is the reason why Our Lady urged us so insistently to pray and make sacrifices for the conversion of sinners: Pray, pray very much, and make sacrifices for sinners. Many souls go to hell because there is none to make sacrifices and to pray for them (Fatima, 19th August, 1917). Hence, by our union with Christ and with his Church, we must offer ourselves as victims of expiation and petition for the conversion of our brothers and sisters. Herein lies the essence of our charity: to love those who perhaps do harm to us, contradict or persecute us. Our forgiveness, offered to them in the light of faith, hope and charity, will draw them back into the arms of God."

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Fear of the Lord

The first reading (Acts 9: 26-31) at Mass today (Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year B) begins: "When Saul arrived in Jerusalem he tried to join the disciples, but they were afraid of him, not believing that he was a disciple."  The early Christians were afraid that what they had heard about Saul's conversion was not true, that Saul was a "plant" who was infiltrating the community in order to eventually persecute it.  It took Barnabas, known as the "son of encouragement," to facilitate Saul's entry into the community.

The reading ends with the Church "at peace. It was being built up and walked in the fear of the Lord, and with the consolation of the Holy Spirit it grew in numbers."

We have here two kinds of fear.  The first is fear of danger, pain, suffering, and death.  The second is a gift of the Holy Spirit that gives peace and consolation.  Clearly this second kind of fear is the opposite of the first.

But what is "fear of the Lord?"

Pope Francis spoke about it in his weekly General Audience of June 11, 2014. He said:

It does not mean being afraid of God: we know well that God is Father, that he loves us and wants our salvation, and he always forgives, always; thus, there is no reason to be scared of him! Fear of the Lord, instead, is the gift of the Holy Spirit through whom we are reminded of how small we are before God and of his love and that our good lies in humble, respectful and trusting self-abandonment into his hands. This is fear of the Lord: abandonment in the goodness of our Father who loves us so much.

When the Holy Spirit comes to dwell in our hearts, he infuses us with consolation and peace, and he leads us to the awareness of how small we are, with that attitude — strongly recommended by Jesus in the Gospel — of one who places his every care and expectation in God and feels enfolded and sustained by his warmth and protection, just as a child with his father! This is what the Holy Spirit does in our hearts: he makes us feel like children in the arms of our father. In this sense, then, we correctly comprehend how fear of the Lord in us takes on the form of docility, gratitude and praise, by filling our hearts with hope. Indeed, we frequently fail to grasp the plan of God, and we realize that we are not capable of assuring ourselves of happiness and eternal life. It is precisely in experiencing our own limitations and our poverty, however, that the Holy Spirit comforts us and lets us perceive that the only important thing is to allow ourselves to be led by Jesus into the Father’s arms.

This is why we need this gift of the Holy Spirit so much. Fear of the Lord allows us to be aware that everything comes from grace and that our true strength lies solely in following the Lord Jesus and in allowing the Father to bestow upon us his goodness and his mercy. To open the heart, so that the goodness and mercy of God may come to us. This is what the Holy Spirit does through the gift of fear of the Lord: he opens hearts. The heart opens so that forgiveness, mercy, goodness and the caress of the Father may come to us, for as children we are infinitely loved.

When we are pervaded by fear of the Lord, then we are led to follow the Lord with humility, docility and obedience. This, however, is not an attitude of resignation, passivity or regret, but one of the wonder and joy of being a child who knows he is served and loved by the Father. Fear of the Lord, therefore, does not make of us Christians who are shy and submissive, but stirs in us courage and strength! It is a gift that makes of us Christians who are convinced, enthusiastic, who aren’t submissive to the Lord out of fear but because we are moved and conquered by his love! To be conquered by the love of God! This is a beautiful thing. To allow ourselves to be conquered by this love of a father, who loves us so, loves us with all his heart.

Pope Francis then went on to say "the holy fear of God sends us a warning: be careful!"  We ought not to fear God but we should have a healthy fear of ourselves and what we are capable of doing that breaks our relationship with God and our brothers and sisters.

We need not fear God who does not send anyone to hell.  Hell--alienation from God and the Communion of Saints--is not something God chooses but something we choose for ourselves. We, not God, do the sending.  The "Catechism of the Catholic Church" states clearly: "This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called 'hell'" (#1033).  We are the ones who do the excluding and sending.

St. John Paul II explained this in one of his General Audiences (July 28, 1999):

God is the infinitely good and merciful Father. But man, called to respond to him freely,  can unfortunately choose to reject his love and forgiveness once and for all, thus separating himself for ever from joyful communion with him. It is precisely this tragic situation that Christian doctrine explains when it speaks of eternal damnation or hell.  It is not a punishment imposed externally by God but a development of premises already set by people in this life. The very dimension of unhappiness which this obscure condition brings can in a certain way be sensed in the light of some of the terrible experiences we have suffered which, as is commonly said, make life “hell”.

“Eternal damnation”, therefore, is not attributed to God's initiative because in his merciful love he can only desire the salvation of the beings he created. In  reality, it is the creature who closes himself to his love. 

The choices we make are life and death choices.  

In the Gospel (John 15: 1-8) Jesus makes this clear with the image of the vine and the branches.  Through Baptism we are joined to the Vine that is Jesus Christ.  We have life as long as we are united to the Vine.  But we are free to cut ourselves off from the Vine.  We do that through mortal sin.  God never cuts us off but because God loves us and does not force us to remain in him, we have the freedom to cut ourselves off. Doing so, we choose death--separation from God and from the other branches, our brothers and sisters.  

But there is hope.  We can be grafted back on the Vine through the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  And our union with the Vine is strengthened with every Holy Communion by which the life force of Jesus' Precious Blood flows through us and keeps us closely united to him.  

Therefore, choose life!  Or, as St. John puts it in the second reading (1 John 3: 18-24): "Let us love not in word or speech but in deed and truth."