What Path?

In 2005 Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger was chief celebrant and homilist at the Mass prior to the start of the conclave to elect the predecessor of Pope St. John Paul the Great.  In his homily Cardinal Ratzinger spoke words that rang throughout the media: ‘We are building a dictatorship of relativism[1] . His homily was as profound as it was challenging; one priest, a so-called ‘catholic expert’ for a major Washington DC newspaper wrote ‘I think this homily shows he realizes he’s not going to be elected.[2]

As a sound-byte goes, the Cardinal’s comment was good; but what made this sound-byte profound and challenging was the whole sentence that it came from.  ‘We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.[3]

Solely of one’s own ego and desires[4] His message is as relevant today as in 2005, maybe more so; both in its universal dimension and, most importantly, in its personal dimension. It is essential that we habitually pause for a moment and interiorize his observation and reflect on how our faith-life measures up to his statement; because how we live our faith affects how the universal church acts and thus how she influences the world.

Our faith, our response to God’s revelation, is one of acceptance of Jesus, the way, the truth, and the life (cf. John 14:16).  As Catholics we accept that it is only through our Lord:

  • that we can find our way home;
  • that we understand there are absolute truths and they are imperative;
  • and, that we can gain eternal life with God Himself.

We accept this and we submit to living a life in pursuit and adherence to these realities; we submit to a loving obedience to He who can give these – indeed are these. At least that is what we should be doing; but, because of the effects of original sin, this is never easy to live out – we get in our own way.

Brothers and sisters, during this Lenten season let’s ask ourselves if we are actively trying to live the life that brings us to these truths; or are we allowing our own ego and desires to color our faith life?  Or, in the words of Pope Francis: ‘Am I on the path of life or on the path of lies?[5] One path builds a stronger church and thus a healthier world – the other path leads to a cacophony of disappointments and emptiness.

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[1] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger 4/18/2005 Homily Misso pro eligendo Romano Pontifice.
[2] Fr. Richard McBrien The Washington Post 4/19/05
[3] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger 4/18/2005 Homily Misso pro eligendo Romano Pontifice.
[4] ibid
[5] Pope Francis Homily 2/25/2016

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Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow.

In the Letter to the Hebrews the author writes: ‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever.[1] Yesterday, while watching the funeral Mass for Justice Antonin Scalia the Celebrant/Homilist (who happens to be his son) spoke these words. I was struck with just how profitable this line is for our Lenten journey. What the rest of Fr. Scalia’s homily was about I have no idea – these words took me into reflection.

As faithful we know that Christ is eternal and never changing. But sometimes it might slip our minds that our life in Christ is eternal – we too have ‘been’ yesterday, ‘are’ today, and ‘will be’ tomorrow. But whereas Christ is never changing; we should be changing.  The big question within each of us is whether we are comfortable that how we were yesterday, and are right now, is the way we want to be tomorrow.

Brothers and sisters, our journey from the age of reason to our death is one of correction and growth. Correction for the failings that we succumb to and sometimes wallow in. Corrections that allow us to both: grow in our relationship with He who created us and continually loves us; and grow in our relationship with those that He loves as much as us – each other.

Lent, more than other seasons, is a time of increased inward correction and intense conversion. The time to put behind us that person of yesterday and become the person that God created us to be for eternity. It is a season of action, our action. Whereas Christmas is primarily about God’s action in coming to us; the Sacred Triduum is primarily about His action in redeeming us, and Easter is primarily about His action in destroying death and opening the gates of heaven for us; Lent primarily is about our action in accepting these actions that God did for us and making them a reality in our lives.

Holy Mother Church urges us that our Lenten actions should follow the millennia honored path of penance, prayer, and almsgiving.  However, as we journey through Lent let’s not get caught up in the Lenten exercises of penance, prayer, and almsgiving if that is all we think this season is about; that these are the goals of Lent – because they are not.  Our actions of penance, prayer, almsgiving are the tools we use today to reach the goal of moving past who we were yesterday and embracing who we should be tomorrow. Our actions should be enwrapped in the desire of coming closer to who our Heavenly Father created us to be – ‘made in His own image.’[2]

On Ash Wednesday Holy Mother Church uses two proclamations; neither of which is ‘Make sure you do penance, prayer and give to others’. They are: ‘Repent, and believe in the Gospel.[3] and ‘Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.[4] They are proclamations that help us understand who we are now. During this Lent, let’s strive to make sure our actions aren’t our goal, but that they move our hearts and minds in the correct direction.

Let’s make sure that today we are moving from our yesterday to God’s tomorrow.

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[1] Heb 13:8 (RSV)
[2] Gen 1:27 (RSV)
[3] Roman Missal: Ash Wednesday
[4] ibid

Withdrawal Symptoms

Three days into this Lenten journey and, I must admit, that I have already felt a certain uneasiness come over me. A feeling of being sort of lost; of anxiety about my Lenten choices; a low-grade hopelessness at my ability to follow through with my Lenten exercises. It feels almost as if I have withdrawal symptoms from my normal life. And that is exactly what these feelings are, withdrawal symptoms.  I am being hit with the realization that I am trying to change my ‘comfortable’ faith life to an honest faith life, one that has a deeper relationship with God.

Every year I know going into Lent that it would entail struggles – but what I expect and what I encounter is never the same. Though not pleasant; these struggles are necessary.  Our Lenten exercises are a cleansing, a purgation of the barriers that keep us from being in a true relationship with God; it is our participation in what St. Paul wrote to the  Galatians ‘I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me[1]

My brothers and sisters, this angst, which we can feel during Lent, about our choices and our ability to fulfill them is part of the cleansing.  It is necessary; if we don’t have these moments of doubt and despair than it probably is a good sign that our Lenten exercises aren’t at the level needed to help us. These exercises and our feelings are, in a small way, our participation with Christ with what He went through in the Garden of Gethsemane – ‘the disciple is not above the master[2]. Again, these Lenten exercises that we have started should be hard exercises; aside from our own reluctance to remove these obstacles; we can be sure that the evil one is pressing us hard to not succeed.  The words of St. John the Baptist though inspirational are tough to follow:  ‘He must increase, but I must decrease.[3] These are not words of pleasure but of tough work and constant struggle.

Friends, let’s not give in to our weaknesses when we start to feel the angst of withdrawal from our comfortable lives.  Let’s place in front us the goal, God.  Let’s drop to our knees when these feelings flow over us and ask our Lord for the healing salve that the Holy Spirit can give us; so that when the wave passes we are still on the path of purgation and healing that leads to eternal joy.

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[1] Galatians 2:20
[2] St. Josemaría Escrivá – The Way #699
[3] John 3:30 (RSV)

Every Time

Bishop Javier Echevarría, in his February letter, writes about the blessings that God gives us with His mercy, especially during Lent, this great season of interior conversion and returning to the Lord’s embrace:

The invitation to a deep change is especially timely in the Year of Mercy, a special time of grace for all mankind. What trust and security it gives us to know that “God is always ready to give us his grace, and especially in these times; the grace for a new conversion, for rising higher on the supernatural plane: a greater self-giving, an advance in perfection, becoming more on fire.”[1][2]

In three short days we begin our Lenten journey. This time of Lent, if we use it wisely, is a time of challenges.

  • We are challenged to look within us in an ever deeper and more honest way. This can be threatening. We can be put off by the fear of seeing something that we have tried very hard to keep hidden, even from ourselves.
  • We are challenged by trying to give up something, at least for this Lenten season, to offer it to our Lord in love and thanksgiving for what He means to us. This can be very uncomforting and trying.
  • We are challenged by inadequacy, of the thought that we can never live up to what our Lord did for us. Our thoughts can veer towards whether our Lenten practices, even if done well, are enough to bring us closer to the love that God offers us?

But let’s go back to Bishop Echevarriá’s message; God is a God of mercy and because of that we can meet these challenges with the knowledge that He is embracing us in our struggles and He is helping us with them. He desires us to overcome these challenges and His desire is stronger than any doubt we have about our abilities. ‘Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again; for forgiveness has risen from the grave.[3] St. John Chrysostom wrote.

Brothers and sisters, let’s take the lessons of this Year of Mercy and use them to enter our Lenten journey with the will to dive deeper within ourselves, look more intensely at our heart and mind, and come to a clearer understanding of who we are – beloved of Christ. Lets always remember that God is there to pick us up every time.

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[1] St. Josemaría Escrivá, Notes from a meditation – 3/2/1952
[2] Bishop Javier Echevarría, Opus Dei Prelate– February 2016 Letter
[3] St. John Chrysostom – Easter sermon (circa 400 AD)

Prayer and Choice

Today, Jesus enters into Jerusalem a Hero, at least to those who are following Him. Of course not everyone is happy to see Him: the Sanhedrin is not happy; the Romans are nervous; of the citizens of Jerusalem, many of them are not pleased.  But His followers, those who profess Him as their Messiah are exuberant.  These followers choose to be with Him. They see in Him a winner, one who gives them the hopes they are desiring. But, in a few short days that exuberation will dissolve; they will flee from being followers; they will walk away from their choice and melt back into the people of Judah.

Brothers and sisters, we too have professed Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior; we have chosen to be followers and we are exuberant.  We have, with special intensity, walked with Christ during this Lenten season and hopefully we have reached Holy Week stronger disciples.  Unlike almost 2,000 years ago where His followers fled on Holy Thursday I am confident that our intensity in our devotion to Christ will grow throughout the Triduum.  Our test will come after Easter. Will the fruits of our Lenten exercise remain with us once Easter is celebrated? Will our desire for a renewed closeness with Christ continue? Will we continue to choose Christ as our example and model for living our lives?

These are very important questions to ask ourselves. They are not questions brought about by fear of failure in as much as they are questions of love. God, who is Love, has given us freewill to choose Him or not; and Satan knows this all too well.  As members of God’s family, out of our love for them, we need to concern ourselves with our ability to live up to our familial responsibilities and to defend ourselves from the attacks of our powerful enemy. We should ask ourselves every day, if not more frequently, about our choice.  To not do so is putting ourselves in danger of drifting away from Jesus Christ; in effect turning our backs from our loving family.

This is made all the more imperative because the demands that society seemingly forces upon us makes living within our family very difficult. At times we can spend the extra effort and time to push society and Satan away, and Lent is a very good season to do this, but to do so continually is a very hard undertaking. How can we hope to live in the family of God when these pressures from Satan and society implant within us doubts about our capabilities?

A few years ago I spent five days at a Cistercian Monastery near Dubuque Iowa. At one point I was talking with the retreat house master about their life in the order.  During the conversation he said that He and His brothers choose with their feet every day; they could just up and leave whenever they felt like it. But he said – the intimacy of prayer was a great strength, beyond imagination.

As we transition from our Lenten journey and enter the great events of the Sacred Triduum and onward I urge us all to dive deeply into our prayer life and allow God to open our hearts to His wisdom and most importantly His Love. Let’s follow the words of that wise Cistercian brother and take advantage of prayer – this great strength that is beyond imagination.  It is the surest way to keep our choice of Christ ever first in our hearts like we are in His.

 

Clearly

Brothers and sisters, we have made it to the threshold of the great events of our salvation. We have followed Christ throughout His and our Lenten journey. This is very important; Christ was the first to experience a Lenten Journey. Remember back to the first week of Lent when we heard proclaimed Christ being driven into the desert where He fasted and prayed and dealt with the devil. But His Lenten journey didn’t end as He left the desert; it continued until Calvary. His life among us was a Lenten journey and everything that Holy Mother Church teaches us about participating in Lent is the fruit of what Christ did first.

  • His Lenten journey was one of continual prayer, fasting and alms-giving in the form of miracles. Ours has, or should have had, the same emphasis: prayer, fasting and almsgiving.
  • Christ’s movement was towards Jerusalem and His great act of love – His Pasch. Our movement is to embrace His Pasch and help others do the same.
  • Christ’s Lent was done in humble obedience to His Father. Our Lent should be exactly the same.
  • Christ’s Lenten journey was a great witness to His Father and so should be ours.

The difference between our journey and Christ’s is that He was one with His Father and our Lenten journey helps us to grow closer to our heavenly Father – to discern better His will and to strengthen our ability to live the life that He desires. In short, we have been trying to see God clearer.

Each week during this season we have journeyed with Christ as He moves decisively towards Jerusalem. We have been witness to His revelation of His Father’s plan and His part in it.  Hopefully, we have embraced His words and, step by step, come to understand them as they relate to each of us.

And so we come to today, this 5th Sunday of Lent, where we are turning the corner towards Holy Week (next week is Palm Sunday when Christ arrives in Jerusalem). At this point in His journey He has a large following traveling with Him and He can feel the expectations of this throng – which includes us.

Today’s Gospel places us in this journey and it gives us what seems to be an odd exchange. It starts with a simple request: ‘Some Greeks who had come to worship at the Passover Feast came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and asked him, “Sir, we would like to see Jesus.”[1] But Christ’s answer seems strange, disconnected: ‘“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.[2]

Though His answer seems strange it cuts right to the heart of who He is, and our deepest needs.  The Greeks want to see the man Jesus, they are in awe of this Galilean because of the spectacle that He has been for the past three years or so. Jesus Christ knows this – he has been dealing with groupies since His baptism.  He knows that they are missing, what the French would say is His ‘raison d’être’ His reason for existing – but hopefully they won’t much longer.  In less than two weeks He is going to offer Himself for them; He is going to suffer and die for them; He will pay their ransom. He will be the grain of wheat and fall to the ground by being placed into a tomb, and by doing so He will produce the fruit of salvation.

This is the Jesus these Greeks truly desire in their heart; not the miracle worker; not the charismatic anti-establishment hero. It is the Jesus we desire to see as well; the Jesus that loves us more than anyone, even ourselves. But both the Greeks and we have to come to that awareness; and to be able to do that we have move past our self-centeredness; we have to open ourselves to God.

Our entire Lenten exercise has been to come closer to Jesus, to clear the lens of our heart so that we can see Him clearer, understand Him better.  Like the Greeks we can easily fall into the trap of seeing the Jesus we want to see. We need to allow the real Jesus to penetrate our hearts – and Lent is the time we set aside to do this with special intensity.

Brothers and sisters, in less than two weeks Christ will give each of us a chance to easily see Him. He is going to climb high on the cross to give us that view. Are we ready to understand what we will see? Has our Lenten exercise cleaned our heart’s lens so that we see Him as He truly is?  It is not too late to make sure our view is clear.  It is not too late to move further away from our self-centeredness. We just need to start and all that takes is for us to turn to God and from the depths of our heart humbly cry out ‘Father, I have sinned against you[3] and ask for forgiveness.

Why not start now?  In a few short minutes Calvary will be here before us.  We will watch as Christ offers Himself for each us on this altar – we will participate in Calvary. I urge each of us, when Father Holds up the Body and then Blood of Christ and the bells ring – in the silence of our hearts lets cry to God ‘Father, I have sinned against you[4] All of us need to say these words; some of us hold within mortal sins which require the Sacrament of Reconciliation (ask our priests, they will help). While all of us hold within us shortcomings such as venial sins and doubts.  These words are important for everyone; they are the key to our Lenten journey – without this disposition our view remains clouded.

Let’s do this – all of us – so that, with the help of the Holy Spirit, when Holy Week comes we are not the among those in the Gospel who only heard thunder, nor even the ones who thought they heard angels – but people who clearly hear and see our Lord and savior Jesus Christ.

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[1] Jn 12:20-21
[2] Jn 12:23-24
[3] Lk 15:18
[4] ibid

Holy Remorse

Lent is reaching its half-way point – this Thursday we are there.  This season is where Holy Mother Church, and that includes us, looks with a particular intensity within to reach a conversion of heart.  Where each of us, in our own way, turns back towards God and rushes towards Him as the prodigal son does in the parable. And as the prodigal son did in the parable we too must start this return with same remorseful admission ‘Father, I have sinned against you[1]  If we complete our journey this Lenten season without these words then we are run the real risk of failing in our efforts.

St. John Paul the Great wrote in 1980:‘If it is true that sin in a certain sense shuts man off from God, it is likewise true remorse for sins opens up all the greatness and majesty of God, his fatherhood above all, to man’s conscience.  Man remains shut to God so long as the words ‘Father, I have sinned against you,’ are absent from his lips, above all while they are absent from his conscience, from his ‘heart’’[2]

In this writing he talks about the power of these words ‘Father, I have sinned against you’ and how when spoken from our heart we can ‘truly enter the Mystery and Resurrection of Christ, so as to obtain the fruits of Redemption and Grace from them[3]

This is a most important realization for each of us at this half-way point; it is not by our actions, nor by our words, that we fully reap the gifts of Lent – it is by our heart.  We were told this back on Ash Wednesday: ‘“Yet even now,” says the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.”[4]

Ultimately, our hope is that by our Lenten practices we can enter into the love of God more fully; that we can invigorate and strengthen our relationship with Love Himself; but our fear is that God will not reciprocate – it is a needless fear.  Joel tells us to rend our hearts and not our garments; he also tells us ‘Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and repents of evil.[5]  God will never reject our heartfelt contrition, He is always there waiting for us. Christ tells us as much in today’s gospel ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.[6]; which He proves this with His life.

Brothers and sisters as we now turn towards Holy Week let’s be guided by the light shining from the resurrection, the light of true love; and hunger for it, desire it above all else.  Let’s strip away the self-built barricades of our sinful and prideful ego and shout from the depths of our hearts ‘Father, I have sinned against you’ and rend our hearts in remorse for failing to return God’s love for us; so that when we come to those days where we walk with the Lord in His passion we can obtain the fruits of Redemption and Grace that St. John Paul the Great wrote about.

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[1] Lk 15:18
[2] St. John Paul the Great 3/16/80 taken from: Prayers and Devotions 365 Daily Meditations p124
[3] ibid
[4] Jl 2:12-13a
[5] Jl 2:13b
[6] Jn 3:16-17